One Summer: America, 1927

American airmen, when they got to the front, mostly flew in borrowed, patched-up planes provided by the Allies, leaving them in the position of being sent into the most dangerous form of combat in modern times with next to no training in generally second-rate surplus planes against vastly more experienced enemies.

Balchen happened to be at the wheel.” This was breathtakingly disingenuous. In fact, Balchen had been flying for hours and very probably saved all their lives with his skillful landing. The

By 1927, the average state was spending eight times more on enforcing fish and game laws than it spent on Prohibition.

Eventually he made it to Buckingham Palace, where the king famously startled Lindbergh by asking him how he had peed during the flight. Lindbergh explained, a touch awkwardly, that he had brought along a pail for the purpose.

Even with the benefit of steroids most modern players still couldn't hit as many home runs as Babe Ruth hit on hotdogs.

Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”*

FOR WARREN G. HARDING, the summer of 1927 was not a good one, which was perhaps a little surprising since he had been dead for nearly four years by then.


From almost nothing, France in four years built up an aircraft industry that employed nearly 200,000 people and produced some 70,000 planes. Britain built 55,000 planes, Germany 48,000, and Italy 20,000 – quite an advance bearing in mind that only a few years earlier the entire world aviation industry consisted of two brothers in a bicycle shop in Ohio.

He agreed with Laughlin that sterilization was necessary in society “to prevent our being swamped with incompetence.” Then he gave his solution: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes.

He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated, and at least close to functionally illiterate. His beliefs were powerful but consistently dubious, and made him seem, in the words of The New Yorker, “mildly unbalanced.” He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J. P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics, or Jews. Especially he didn’t like Jews. Once he hired a Hebraic scholar to translate the Talmud in a manner designed to make Jewish people appear shifty and avaricious.

H. L. Mencken called it “the one authentic rectum of civilization,” but for most people Hollywood was a place of magic.

H. L. Mencken called it “the one authentic rectum of civilization,” but for most people Hollywood was a place of magic. In 1927, the iconic sign on the hillside above the city actually said HOLLYWOODLAND. It had been erected in 1923 to advertise a real estate development and had nothing to do with motion pictures. The letters, each over forty feet high, were in those days also traced out with electric lights. (The LAND was removed in 1949.)

Iowa, to be on the safe side, outlawed conversations in any language other than English in schools, at church, or even over the telephone. When people protested that they would have to give up church services in their own languages, Governor William L. Harding responded: “There is no use in anyone wasting his time praying in other languages than English. God is listening only to the English tongue.

It was a lot more fun to get famous than to be famous.

Not even much survives as memory. Many of the most notable names of the summer—Richard Byrd, Sacco and Vanzetti, Gene Tunney, even Charles Lindbergh—are rarely encountered now, and most of the others are never heard at all. So it is perhaps worth pausing for a moment to remember just some of the things that happened that summer: Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs. The Federal Reserve made the mistake that precipitated the stock market crash. Al Capone enjoyed his last summer of eminence. The Jazz Singer was filmed. Television was created. Radio came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were executed. President Coolidge chose not to run. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Mississippi flooded as it never had before. A madman in Michigan blew up a school and killed forty-four people in the worst slaughter of children in American history. Henry Ford stopped making the Model T and promised to stop insulting Jews. And a kid from Minnesota flew across an ocean and captivated the planet in a way it had never been captivated before. Whatever else it was, it was one hell of a summer.

Now this little gal isn’t much of a singer,” she would say. “She learned singing by a correspondence course, and she missed a coupla lessons, but she’s the nicest little gal in the whole show, so I want ya to give her a big hand.

One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road. Ford reasoned that this convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit. The arrangement also gave the driver a better view down the road, and made it easier for passing drivers to stop and have a conversation out facing windows. Ford was no great thinker, but he did understand human nature. Such, in any case, was the popularity of Ford’s seating plan for the Model T that it soon became the standard adopted by all cars.

Others did not fare so well. A German man in St. Louis who was believed to have spoken ill of his adopted country was set upon by a mob, dragged through the streets tied up in an American flag, and hanged. A jury subsequently found the mob leaders not guilty on the grounds that it had been a “patriotic murder.

Prohibition may be the greatest gift any government ever gave its citizens. A barrel of beer cost $4 to make and sold for $55. A case of spiritous liquor cost $20 to produce and earned $90--and all this without taxes.

Robert G. Elliott was not a murderous person by nature, but he proved, no doubt to his own surprise, to be rather good at killing people.

The 1920s was a great time for reading altogether—very possibly the peak decade for reading in American life.

The 1920s was a great time for reading altogether—very possibly the peak decade for reading in American life. Soon it would be overtaken by the passive distractions of radio, but for the moment reading remained most people’s principal method for filling idle time.

The 1920s was a great time for reading altogether—very possibly the peak decade for reading in American life. Soon it would be overtaken by the passive distractions of radio, but for the moment reading remained most people’s principal method for filling idle time. Each year, American publishers produced 110 million books, more than 10,000 separate titles, double the number of ten years before. For those who felt daunted by such a welter of literary possibility, a helpful new phenomenon, the book club, had just made its debut. The Book-of-the-Month Club was founded in 1926 and was followed the next year by the Literary Guild.


The movie was an enormous hit in 1927. With Wings, it confirmed Bow as Hollywood’s leading female star. She received forty thousand letters a week—more than the population of a fair-sized town. In the summer of 1927, her career seemed set to go on indefinitely. In fact, it was nearly at an end. Winsome and enchanting as she was to behold, her Brooklyn accent was the vocal equivalent of nails on a blackboard, and in the new world of talking pictures that would never do.

The romance of travel wasn't always terribly evident to those who were actually experiencing it.

unstable plane for a day and a half through storm and cloud and darkness while intricately balancing the flow of fuel through five tanks governed by fourteen valves, and navigating his way across a void without landmarks. When he needed to check his position or log a note, he would have to spread his work out on his lap and hold the stick between his knees; if it was nighttime he would have to grip a small flashlight between his teeth.

While working at a sawmill, he slipped and fell against the whirring blade, which tore through his upper body at the shoulder, creating a hole so large that his internal organs were exposed—one witness claimed he could see the poor man’s beating heart—and leaving his arm attached by just a few strands of glistening sinew. The millworkers bound the injuries as best they could and carried Lindbergh home, where he lay in silent agony for three days awaiting the arrival of a doctor from St. Cloud, forty miles away. When the doctor at last reached him, he took off the arm and sewed up the gaping cavity. It was said that Lindbergh made almost no sound. Remarkably, August Lindbergh recovered and lived another thirty years. Stoicism became the Lindbergh family’s most cultivated trait.