September Morn

Harry Reichenbach is best known for the publicity stunts he used to bring crowds into early B-movies:

  • Setting apes and lions loose in big name hotels to get the Tarzan movies mentioned in the press.
  • Hiring a woman to fall into a “trance” after viewing one spooky film, then making sure there was enough rampant speculation about whether movies could hypnotize people that everyone wanted to try it out.
  • Having actors pose as a Turkish rescue party coming to the U.S. to return a young woman who had eloped with an American soldier to her scheduled royal wedding. Allegedly hush-hush, details of this mission were leaked to the eager media, whose scoops turned into big publicity for the upcoming film The Virgin of Stamboul.

But he describes what was perhaps his most poetic hack in the book Phantom Fame:

I applied for work at a small art shop that had printed a lithograph of a nude girl standing in a quiet pool. The picture sold at ten cents apiece but nobody would buy it. I could earn my month’s rent if I had an idea for disposing of the two thousand copies in stock. It occurred to me to introduce the immodest young maiden to Anthony Comstock, head of the Anti-Vice Society and arch-angel of virtue. At first he refused to jump at the opportunity to be shocked. I telephoned him several times, protesting against a large display of the picture which I myself had installed in the window of the art shop. Then I arranged for other people to protest and at last I visited him personally. “This picture is an outrage!” I cried. “It’s undermining the morals of our city’s youth!”

When we arrived in front of the store window, a group of youngsters I had hired especially for this performance at fifty cents apiece, stood pointing at the picture, uttering expressions of unholy glee and making grimaces too sophisticated for their years. Comstock swallowed the scene and almost choked. “Remove that picture!” he fumed, and when the shopkeeper refused, the Anti-Vice Society appealed to the courts. This brought the picture into the newspapers and into fame. Overnight, the lithograph that had been rejected as a brewer’s calendar, became a vital national issue. Songs were written about it, actors wisecracked about it, reformers denounced it, and seven million men and women bought copies of it at a dollar apiece, framed it and hung it on the walls of their homes. The name of the picture was “September Morn.” There was no more immorality or suggestiveness to it than sister’s photograph as a baby in the family album.

The painting, by Paul Chabas, went from being “rejected as a brewer’s calendar,” to being, for a time, a celebrated icon on par with the Mona Lisa. Curtis MacDougal, in Hoaxes, writes that there “were ‘September Morn’ dolls, statues, calendars and umbrella and cane heads; sailors had the modest, shivering damsel tattooed on their hairy chests and amateur artists drew their versions on bathroom floors,” to which another commentator adds: “postcards, candy boxes, cigar bands, cigarette flannels, pennants, [and] suspenders.”

MacDougal ends by saying that “the most controversial nude of modern times went on public exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art” in Manhattan where it can be seen to this day.

September Morn
September Morn in the Cartoons
September Morn bottle opener

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On This Day in SniggleryMay 22, 1703: Daniel Defoe is arrested for publishing his satirical pamphlet “The Shortest Way With The Dissenters.” (See Modest Proposals for more info)