Media and mise-en-scène

13 Mar 2020

Historians at LMU are tracing the origins of modern high society. Their findings show that the basic principles that underlie Facebook’s business model and influencer-based marketing go back to the early years of the 20th century

Nitrocellulose is chemically unstable and a risky basis for a research project. When historians Professor Margit Szöllösi-Janze and PD Nicolai Hannig wanted to view a boxful of films originating from the 1920s that had been donated for research purposes, they were warned that rolls of film made of nitrocellulose could explode at any time. However, a visit to Munich’s Film Museum allayed their misgivings, and it soon became clear that “this was a spectacular find,” says Hannig.

The material consisted of home movies featuring scenes from the glamorous everyday lives of the well-to-do American couple Margaret and Lawrence Thaw (New York), their honeymoon in 1924 and their far-flung travels. For the two historians, the footage not only shed light on the origins of ‘high society’ and amateur cinematography, but also led them to a scandalous trial case that featured a mixture of sex and crime and had made headlines in the early years of the century.

“The fact that this material survived is a sensation in itself,” says Hannig. The box was discovered in the attic of a villa on the shores of the Ammersee when the present owner acquired the property a few years ago. He had once attended a course taught by Hannig, and donated the films for research purposes. It turned out the Thaws’ son had lived for a time in the house after the Second World War.

By the late 1930s Lawrence and Margaret had become so famous for their documentaries that, on their last trip to the Middle East and India (1939-1940), they also made promotional films for large firms. Credit: Global ImageWorks /

Peggy and Larry, as they were known to their friends, didn’t make these movies just for fun. They served to record their personal lives and demonstrate their membership of high society. “The Thaw family gives us invaluable insights into the emergence of high society,” says Margit Szöllösi-Janze. “High society is a phenomenon that is of course associated with wealth – money is always an essential part of it – but above all, it is a matter of ‘seeing and being seen’, of being in the limelight. Membership is not primarily a question of class, of top and bottom, but of being noticed, being in rather than out. To break into high society, one must be able to attract – and retain – the attention of the media. Visibility is what really counts. That‘s what demonstrates one’s status as a member of high society to others.”

Shopping, parties, the best hotels

The Thaws were among the first to employ movie cameras as a means to this end. Indeed, they integrated them into their everyday lives. “This was a privilege available to only a very select circle of people at the time. The equipment was expensive and awkward to use. If you wished to take such a camera everywhere, as the Thaws did, then you needed people who could carry operate it,” Hannig points out. The newly discovered cache of films shows Margaret shopping, enjoying afternoon tea in the best hotels, attending sporting events. The couple did a lot to define what it entailed to be a member of high society – how one had to behave, where one had to be seen.” Conversely, they imitated patterns of behavior which they took to be indispensable for recognition as a representative of this exclusive circle. But the criteria were in constant flux. No one was ever able to pin down the essence of high society.

“The male gaze is a prominent element in these films. Peggy plays the role of the biddable little lady. But at the same time she is the center of attention. She sets standards in modes of consumption and self-representation. It is she who exerts influence over others. She draws attention and in doing so she also directs flows of capital, ” says Szöllösi-Janze. Peggy became one of the ‘it girls’ of the Twenties and Thirties, and it’s not going too far to see her as an early incarnation of the influencers of our own day. “We now live in a society whose historical roots are very shallow and whose capacity for reflection is extremely limited. We are fixated on the present and believe that what is new and happening now is all there is. But the term ‘influencer’ actually fits Peggy Thaw very well.” She worked hard to ensure that the attention of the media remained focused on her. “Nowadays, we associate the marketing of attention by mass media with the rise of the Internet and social media. But the Thaws demonstrate that its origins go back to the end of the 19th century. With the passage of time, the journeys they undertook became ever more spectacular and exotic, taking in Africa and India. They also became more professional and enlisted partners, such as the National Geographic Society, in to finance these projects.

According to Nicolai Hannig, the couple’s career reveals that the principles on which contemporary platforms like Instagram and Facebook operate are not at all new. These platforms enable users to present themselves as they wish to be seen. But what one needs to do to be noticed was first worked out decades ago. In the 1920s, intimate glimpses of one’s private life were already part of the strategy. Some of the newly discovered films, for instance, show Peggy waking up in the morning. Scenes like this confirm that, for the Thaws, the camera was a virtually constant presence. “In fact, it functioned very much like a smartphone,” says Hannig. The scenes shot in the bedroom or the bathroom also underline the extent to which the boundary between private and public life had already shifted. By the end of the 19th century, the society pages had become an essential component of newspapers and periodicals. The emergence of the yellow press then gave rise to an insatiable market for both home stories and scandals. “The media were the crucial factor in the formation of high society. This was what made ‘seeing and being seen’ possible in the first place.”

Crime of the Century

Another member of the Thaw family illustrates the extent to which the mass media had penetrated all sectors of society over a century ago. On June 25th 1906, millionaire Harry K. Thaw, Larry’s uncle, shot and killed a prominent architect in a packed Broadway theater. The victim was alleged to have raped Thaw’s wife, the model Evelyn Nesbitt, many years previously. The yellow press jumped on the story, which later inspired a number of films, songs and plays. “We tend to think that media conglomerates are a recent phenomenon, but the media were intertwined even then,” says Margit Szöllösi-Janze.

The couple’s efforts to influence how the press handled the story also sound strikingly familiar to us today. “Evelyn Nesbitt began her theatrical career in revues, and went on to become one of the most important and best-paid actresses on the Broadway stage. We can follow her repeated but vain attempts to control the representation and interpretation of the affair in the media,” says Szöllösi-Janze. “But Harry too was controlled by the media.” In the wake of the murder, Harry Thaw seemed likely to face execution. “However, the scandal took place at a time when American legal norms and attitudes to psychiatry were undergoing rapid changes, thanks in part to the media and the Thaw case itself. Harry’s mother, a typical representative of the upper class, was determined to save her son, successfully arguing for his acquittal on the grounds of diminished responsibility.” In 1908 Harry was committed to a psychiatric institution and remained there for several years. He died in 1947.

At around the same time, his younger relatives Margaret and Larry Thaw forfeited their status as members of high society. No longer young, they were unable to fulfill the criteria for membership, which they themselves had done so much to define. “Social prominence is a fluid concept, its contours are forever shifting and its mores are merciless to its members,” says Hannig. Indeed, the term ‘high society’ itself first came to prominence when the film of the same name appeared in the 1950s. By this time the expression was outdated and had been replaced by designations like ‘jetset’ or ‘haute volée’. The phenomenon is still with us, of course, defined by the basic distinction between who’s in and who’s out, and the ever changing criteria of ‘style’ that determine whether one belongs or not.

The discovery and acquisition of forgotten home movies in an attic not only gave Szöllösi-Janze and Hannig a unique opportunity to illuminate the lives of the Thaw family. It also allowed them to study the role of mass media in the shaping of North American society in the first half of the 20th century, and yielded new insights into the interactions between innovations in media and social change. Meanwhile, other elements of the Thaw family‘s archive have come to light. Emanuel Steinbacher, a member of the project team, located Harry Thaw’s papers, which were thought to have been lost, in a New York cellar.Nicola Holzapfel

The research project “ The Thaws: High Society, the Media and the Family in the USA in the First Half of the 20th Century ” is funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. As part of the project, Dr. des. Juliane Hornung (now at Cologne University) based her doctoral dissertation on her research into the lives and expeditions of Margaret und Lawrence Thaw, and Emanuel Steinbacher is now working on the Harry K. Thaw case.

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