Hoover as portrayed in Vanity Fair & New Yorker


The New Yorker published a positive and thorough review of Hoover today with an illustration by the wonderful Bendik Kaltenborn. It's a great caricature of President #31. Perfectly captures the jawline, the eyes, the intensity, and the aloofness of Hoover. Some nice details, including the prince-of-wales shirt collars, the cigar, and the boots. He did always stand with his hand in his pocket, impatiently jingling coins. I might quibble that the background, the dust-storms and the buried car date from somewhat later in the Great Depression than Hoover's term (1929-1933) but the mood is correct and certainly by the end of his administration things were looking bleak.

The illustration put me in mind of a few of old Vanity Fair and New Yorker covers that very accurately captured Hoover's experience of the Great Depression. One, by Miguel Covarrubias, for my money the best magazine illustrator of all time, appeared in October, 1931 just after Britain had gone off the gold standard and all hopes of an early end to the depression (there had been many) were abandoned. Hoover, close to exploding under the pressure of the times, was still viewed rather affectionately by the American people who hand him a bouquet of flowers from the margins.

Peter Arno drew the New Yorker's cover after Franklin Roosevelt, victorious over Hoover in the election of 1932, was inaugurated in March, 1933. Arno's Hoover is mediocre, although it does accurately reflect 31's attitude towards 32. I like Arno's mask-like FDR quite a lot. The fascinating detail about this cartoon is the three prominent police officers in the background. There had been an attempt on Roosevelt's life a couple of weeks earlier and the security details for the inauguration parade were indeed prominent.

Finally, we have another Covarrubius cover for Vanity Fair, this time portraying FDR. It is another cheerful, impenetrable, mask-like rendering of Roosevelt, with one historically important detail. The beer. Going into the election of 1932, FDR's Democrats had promised to repeal Prohibition. Hoover, overseeing a Republican party divided on the issue, attempted a weak compromise that satisfied no one. We have all been taught by the history books to think that the depression was the decisive issue in 1932. A reasonably scientific poll I uncovered in the Hoover archives indicates that prohibition was the more consequential issue. The survey showed that the vast majority of Republicans intending to abandon their party and vote Democrat were doing so primarily because they wanted beer and not because they were displeased with Hoover's handling of the depression. It wasn't until I found this poll that I understood Covarrubias' use of a big frothy mug in his illustration. He didn't have access to the poll (it was privately commissioned and never left Hoover's files) but like any great illustrator he understood the mood of the times.