Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Decline of Leering

Prohibition has effected many changes, but one of its most far-reaching has been to abolish the Leer. We have still most of the stimuli to leering, but the present endurance-test method of drinking allows little leisure for stepping outside to leer at passing ladies now and then. Also, it tends to make earnest young men out of our men-about-town, for drinking must be taken seriously today. And no one can leer in a solemn mood.

The most important reason for the decline of the leer is not the lack of liquor, however. It is the absence of the proper setting. Travelling salesmen, the country over, have reported that men no longer leer. The reason is that the corner saloon is gone. They have tried leering from the doorways of tearooms, but the gesture fails because it is never recognized. They have tried hotel lobbies and bus stops. Everywhere it is the same story. The old-fashioned leer is gone.

Virginius Whimple, rake salesman, 43, states that he would guarantee a genuine leer if he could only harden himself into betraying the location of a bar or a dispensing chemist. His intense loyalty to these institutions has thus far prevented his making the attempt. For my part, I am afraid that even Mr. Whimple would fail to produce a real leer, for unless an effect is produced on the ladies the leer is nothing. And how can the ladies realize that a man is leering unless it is perfectly obvious that he is leaning against the entrance to a bar? If they DO know that it is a bar, they are not--well, we need not go into that.

Men have tried to comfort themselves for their inability to leer nowadays by reminding themselves that the leer is only "a sidelong glance." It need not, technically, be a wicked glance that frightens the ladies and makes them look again. It need not be a gesture indicative of Experience and zest for adventure. It NEED not be, to satisfy the dictionary definition. But we all know that the dictionary definition is inadequate, and we must face the truth: the leer as we used to know it is gone--irrevocably.
So says Josie Turner in the July 30, 1927 edition of The New Yorker. Regarding the mention of a "dispensing chemist"...during prohibition, drug stores were notorious for stockpiling government-sanctioned "medicinal" liquor, and selling it to thirsty folks at a huge profit.

Assuming that Josie had written some real whiz-bang books in her day, I started hunting around...and discovered an obscure gem.

It turns out that her real name was Phyllis Crawford, and as Phyllis she wrote a number of children's books. But the "Josie Turner" pseudonym was the outlet for her more risque work, and it's as Josie that she published her one great book: "Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose."

The original Elsie Dinsmore books were written in the mid- to late 1800s by Martha Finley. They were sickly-sweet stories aimed at young girls, thinly disguised as lessons on how proper, God-fearing ladies should act.

You can still buy the original run of Elsie Dinsmore books, and they appear to have regained some of their relevance to a certain "barefoot and pregnant" demographic, but in the 1920s they were ripe for parody.

So Josie Turner took the bait and wrote a dead-accurate parody of Elsie, which was serialized in The New Yorker. I've been skipping the Elsie stories (understanding them depends on knowing who Elsie Dinsmore was -- which I didn't -- so on the surface her parodies look like the tiresome "burlesques" of high society that clutter up the rest of the magazine), but now I'm reading them, and they're hilarious.

Sadly "Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose" is LONG out of print, but used copies pop up now and then so I'm on a determined hunt.

* Information about Phyllis Crawford is scarce, so this blog post is based on a fair amount of "connecting the dots." Any mistakes are purely my own.


Anonymous said...

This rhapsody on the male gaze made me look again at the article "King Leer," which is not only about Groucho but written by him, to tell his fans that he was taking his radio show to television. In it, he calls himself "the leer" ("that's me, Groucho"), but doesn't amplify on it, and it doesn't really make sense in the context it's used.

At any rate, what I found interesting in Josie's prose was her calling a druggist a "chemist." I wondered if this was another example of Americans' inflation of job titles (undertaker => mortician) to a name less negatively connotive (chemicals are a more neutral term than drugs), so I decided to consult the funniest work of language study ever written: H. L. Mencken's "The American Language."

As I knew, "chemist" was British, "druggist" American. But the first use of "drug-store" dates to Louisville in 1819, and Mencken claims (in 1936) that the British are adopting the term "druggist," and not the other way around.

Two conclusions, one of which I should have realized: 1) "Drugs" became a negatively charged word only after the U.S. government criminalized narcotics such as cannabis, cocaine, et al. 2) Therefore, Josie's use of "chemist" was most probably a snobbish use of the British term--at least, that's what I deduce.

And Phyllis Crawford alias Josie Turner on the loose sounds like a real hoot. Keep us informed!


Adam Thornton said...

All those copies of "Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose" are flirting with me on, but after paying airfare and conference fees for Minneapolis I'm a bit queasy about using my credit card! Soon. Right now I'm reading "Catch-22," which is a big enough project on its own (but more on recent projects in the next blog entry).

Regarding "chemist" vs. "druggist," in Ontario at least they're referred to as "drug stores" or "pharmacies" (and the person who works in them is a pharmacist). One of the largest chains is "Shopper's Drug Mart."

But I do remember at a certain age -- 13 or so -- when the kids at school started making lame jokes about buying "drugs" (narcotics) at the drug store, in the way that kids gleefully exploit newly-discovered unsavoury word connections. Even when it's not actually funny.

In grade 6, I was apparently the first child to point out that our science teacher "Miss Fallis" had a rude name. A trip to the dictionary proved it. It was a very hard year for Miss Fallis after that.

Anonymous said...

Good night! I'll keep an eye out for Elsie Dinsmore at the stores here in town. We might just find a copy!

Adam Thornton said...

Please do!

And if you want a bunch of cheap Doctor Who videotapes, go to that used bookstore beside The World's Biggest Bookstore.

You know you want to...