Very Recent History: The Scandal Sheet Proto-Blog Empire of Stephen G. Clow
by Jane Hu
On May 6, 1924, the New York Times announced: “’BREVITIES’ OWNERS INDICTED FOR FRAUD.” Broadway Brevities and Society Gossip, published between 1916–1924, belonged to Stephen G. Clow, a native Canadian who traveled down south to become proprietor of one of the shadiest gossip magazines of New York City. The trial of Clow and his partners lasted until January 30, 1925 and was deemed as the “greatest show on earth” by the New York Sunday News. The result: Clow was fined $6000 and sentenced to six years in federal prison in Atlanta.
William Straw, who is currently completing his book on Clow and Broadway Brevities, defines Clow’s professional trajectory as “one of virtually uninterrupted decline, as he moved from a position on the edge of New York’s literary and social worlds down into the more tawdry realms of the gossip tabloid and horse racing tip sheet.” Undeniably, there is something classically romantic about the thought of a young and naive Clow who arrived to explore New York, only to fall in with the wrong crowd.
Born in 1873 on Prince Edward Island, Clow’s name first appears in the New York City Directory in its 1903–1904 edition, as the owner of the Broadway Publishing Company. During these early years, Clow’s name periodically came up in the letter pages of the New York Times and its Book Review. One 1908 letter reveals Clow’s fervent defense of his small town “autophobe” sensibilities against the “utterly coarse, brutal, and disgusting characteristics” of automobiles, which he considered a “menace to human as well as brute life.”
If nothing else, these were probably the tamest years of Clow’s love affair with New York City.
In 1916, Broadway Brevities and Social Gossip-the magazine that would inexorably alter and define Clow’s life-was launched. Brevities wrote about “society gossip” and was partial to theater and entertainment news. Its main targets were those who prospered from the postwar economic boom such as newly rich entrepreneurs, producers of fad products (like facial regeneration creams), and Midwesterners who had recently relocated to Manhattan. Indeed, Brevities was aptly named, as it covered stories of short-lived fashions, fame, and wealth.
The format of Brevities is surprisingly reminiscent of today’s blog culture: it included paragraph-length rumors about prominent New Yorkers, short lists of questions or hints at scandal and longer pieces “devoted,” as Straw describes, “to the detailed destruction of reputation.” Straw goes on to remark that “much of Broadway Brevities’ distinctiveness lies in the way it interwove the narrative forms of urban expose with the gossip magazine’s charting of social rituals and places of sociability.”
During this period, Brevities was not the only source of gossip in the United States. Many small society publications served similar functions and, as even more insular versions of Brevities, pertained only to the subcommunities who read them.Â Most came under the same fate as Clow’s magazine: magazines like the Tattler and American Sketch and Town Topics were terminated by the New York Attorney General in 1932.
One of Brevities’ more unseasonable publications was its series of articles titled, “A Night in Fairyland,” which attempted to expose the gay and lesbian nightlife of Manhattan. These pieces are a grotesque performance of homophobic sensationalism that applied “on-the-ground” anthropological investigations of the homosexual habitat. In one article, a sexologist “investigate[s] the conditions among followers of the divine Sappho in the metropolis of the New World.” Unfortunately, he was…
unable to meet Lesbians at close range . . . Because of these circumstances, no competent study of New York’s slightly masculine women has yet been published. However, we are informed, one is now being prepared by an eminent authority in the field. He assures us that there really is a place. In fact many places.
After his release from prison, Clow returned again to writing scandal and gossip. In 1930, he initiated New Broadway Brevities which, later, he renamed Brevities: America’s First National Tabloid Weekly (a title which in itself was a glaring lie since Brevities never circulated outside of New York). Unlike Clow’s previous presses, these publications severely lacked both a coherent editorial voice and a clearly identifiable readership. Although defamation of specific individuals still occurred, the new Brevities concentrated on more general depravities and played around with the vulgar rhetoric of not-so-subtle double entendres. Rather than point fingers, Brevities set out to shock anyone and everyone. Clow’s paper lavished in wild stereotypes and parodies-two tropes that, for him, were never mutually exclusive.
More and more, Clow steered away from current events (which lost their relevancy too quickly) and employed gags, offensive poems, cartoons, press “bloopers” and tall tales. Straw notes that such genres were especially popular during this period because they “were â€˜detachable’ and could circulate within less legitimate corners of the magazine industry.”
Also in 1930, while striving to stimulate Canada’s publishing industry, the government enforced hefty tariffs on US periodicals. The detachability of Clow’s earlier pieces came in handy, as he recycled old stories into his new Canadian presses. The eighth issue of Toronto’s Broadway Brevities, published on 1937, included recollections about Greenwich Village in the early 1920s! It also provided profiles of New York gossip columnists. Once involved in a turbid relationship with New York, it seemed Clow was having a rough time in letting go. Pages titled “Gossip of Canada” and “More Dominion News” failed to even mention Canada and seemed to have been taken out of other magazines.
Needless to say, Clow was soon back on trial-this time in Toronto during the January of 1938. Although he was not sentenced to prison, Clow left Canada directly after his court hearing and returned to New York. That March, Manhattan columnist Louis Sobol received a letter from Clow, begging for money.
Alone and destitute, Clow died of cancer in Bellevue Hospital three years later and his body went unclaimed until officials transferred it to the morgue.
In his early letters to the Times during his first decade in New York City, he melodramatically lamented over the demise of “real” poetry. In these pieces, Clow turns his nose up at those who care only for the “latest novel” and expresses sorrow for anyone who could no longer appreciate Shakespeare or Milton. If he was searching for poetic justice, perhaps he found it.
Jane Hu is the Awl’s summer Very Recent History reporter.
‘Brevities’ and ‘Tattler’ covers courtesy of William Straw.