Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday September 13, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 211: Generating Depression-Era Fun

The parlor of a 1930s University of Iowa faculty group calling itself The Times Club serves as a backdrop 
for a collage of (from left) members Paul Engle and Grant Wood, guest Thomas Hart Benton and member 
Frank Mott posing in good club form. The room was above Smith’s Café downtown.

By Bob Hibbs


Small “fun and games” social clubs rarely attract media attention or celebrity attendance as one in Iowa City did during the 1930s. In fact it was formed by local celebrity faculty members at the University of Iowa.

Members included journalism titan Frank Luther Mott, painter Grant Wood, writer and later New York book publisher Tom Yoseloff, photographer Fred Kent, columnist Dorothy Pownall and poet Paul Engle. 

It dubbed itself The Times Club, with an auxiliary called The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Speakers, which founding-member Mott once wrote “gave us a grand hayride while they lasted.” Facilities size limited membership to 16, although guests were invited to events.

Widespread notoriety in news articles, journals and even books finally prompted new UI president Eugene Gilmore to issue a cease and desist order to the club, which probably had nearly run its course anyway.

Founding members felt “we would all profit by a kind of friendly communion with some of the leading American writers of our time if we could get them to come to Iowa City, not as orators or lecturers, but as our guests for conversations, a spot of counsel and advice, and a little after-luncheon talk.”

It started as the Saturday Luncheon Club, but quickly evolved as they found it relatively easy and cheap to gain visits from those they most wanted.  Among them were Sherwood Anderson, Joseph Wood Krutch, e.e. cummings, John V.A. Weaver, Leonard Clint, Thomas Hart Benton, MacKinlay Kantor, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. “We were never able to get Henry Mencken,” Mott lamented.

Black guests including blues composer W.C. Handy and poets James Weldon Johnson, Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes faced local discrimination; Mott wrote: “Hotels made some difficulty about these visitors, and we took them into our own homes.”

Club headquarters became the floor above Smith’s Café at 11 S. Dubuque St. owned and operated by Esther and Roland Smith, who became widely known for extensive philanthropy at the death of Mrs. Smith a half-dozen years ago. The building now houses Mickey’s Irish Pub.

Mott wrote 40 years ago: “Roland Smith – the ‘Smitty’ of our favorite eating rendezvous and the friend of all of us – came forward with the solution. One of his speculations in Texas oil wells had recently come through with a gusher, and he was feeling even more generous than usual.” That same well enriched several other Iowa City investors as well.

“He offered us, rent free, with all facilities furnished, and for as long as we wanted it, the full floor above his café. We would have carte blanche to do with it whatever we chose. And, so the S.P.C.S. had a home, accessible, unencumbered with debt, ready for our devices,” Mott writes.

One of their “devices” was a picture taking stunt using false beards and mustaches for a red-plush album for their lavishly decorated Victorian Room, the parlor in front of their dining room. Those pictures, taken by member Fred Kent, have survived to enthrall posterity.

The club’s chief function devolved into after-lecture parties for visiting dignitaries. It eventually caused friction with University Lecture Committee members who were never invited since the intent was a small group.

The lecture committee finally got its way. “Wheels turned within wheels,” Mott writes, “as they will in the operation of a great university, and eventually I was called into a summit conference with the president and chairman of the lecture committee.

“I compromised by agreeing to a moratorium for the Times Club to last a year. My friends tell me I gave in too easily, and probably, I did. The Times Club was never revived. A few years later Grand Wood died (in 1942), Clyde Hart (sociology) joined the U of Chicago faculty, and I was called to Missouri.”

So ended a colorful Depression-era saga of one local club.

Next Saturday: The 1930s Writers Workshop temporary.


Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 


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