1939 Fifty Years Ago

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March 3: With correspondents from several Boston newspapers on hand, Lothrop Withington, Jr., a Harvard College undergraduate, won a ten-dollar bet by swallowing a live goldfish in the college union. Withington was merely duplicating for his friends a feat he had seen on a Honolulu beach years before, but the publicity that came out of Boston inspired a mania for goldfish swallowing that emptied aquariums in college towns all across the United States.

As the novelty waned, students tried to swallow more and more goldfish at a sitting, but when one young epicure was suspended from his classes at Kutztown State Teachers College in Reading, Pennsylvania, for swallowing a record forty-three goldfish, the stakes seemed to have gone too high. The craze burned itself out in about a month, by which time pioneering students were eating magazines at Lafayette College and 78-rpm records at the University of Chicago.

March 15: German troops invaded Czechoslovakia one day after Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain had excluded that country from the British-French guarantee against aggression. The attack finished a job Britain and France had begun six months earlier, when they allowed Hitler to annex the Czech Sudetenland. Two days after the invasion President Roosevelt argued that the U.S. Neutrality Act would put America “on the side of Hitler” unless it was revised. The next week he recalled the U.S. ambassador to Germany in protest against Hitler’s aggression.

Labeled “box-office poison” in Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn opened on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story on March 28. Hepburn had bought out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures in 1937 rather than appear in B movies, and after failing to land the role she really wanted, that of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind , she decided to return to the theater in a play that Philip Barry had written specially for her. The Philadelphia Story ran for 417 performances at the Shubert Theater and was especially profitable for Hepburn, who owned 25 percent of the play. “I made more money doing The Philadelphia Story as a play than in my whole time in Hollywood,” she would remember. Hepburn’s performance in the 1940 film adaptation of the play returned her to the first rank of Hollywood stars.