“There it is, the Houston Gargoyle, looking calmly and a bit cynically on the doings of the town, unemotional of feature as a poker player with a pat hand, but oh, such goings on behind the mask! … Of those ancient Gargoyles which have so long gazed down from the roofs of Paris upon the queer antics of generations of human beings, no two were alike—just so we hope no two numbers of this Gargoyle will be alike.”
So declared editor Allen V. Peden in the January 10, 1928 issue of the Houston Gargoyle, officially christening his weekly Jazz Age journal, our town’s first true city magazine.
Wait—the Jazz Age was here? Wasn’t Prohibition-era Houston a woebegone wasteland bereft of flappers and bathtub gin? Wasn’t all of the South “a gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate” with only the feeblest expressions of high art, as that effete smart-ass H.L. Mencken put it in his 1920 essay “Sahara of the Bozart”? Clearly, he hadn’t read the Gargoyle, which for four brief years opened a witty window onto a world that few Houstonians were aware of then, and almost none know about now.
The Gargoyle also offered voyeuristic glimpses into Houston’s underbelly: a trip to a prison farm, a sojourn among Houston’s morphine and cocaine addicts, a peek into a Ship Channel-area ghetto called Marijuana Flats, home of perpetually stoned “muggle-heads.”
The son of a steel, banking, shipping, and oil magnate, Peden had attended Princeton at a time when evidence of Ivy Texans was scant indeed. Returning to the Bayou City, he brought Eastern sophistication and not a little New Yorker envy back with him. Just as Harold Ross’s mag was not for “the old lady in Dubuque,” neither was the Gargoyle for your cousin in Tyler.
From his offices on West Clay, Peden regularly stumped for wet politicians and an end to censorship of Houston’s stages. The Gargoyle also offered voyeuristic glimpses into Houston’s underbelly: a trip to a prison farm, a sojourn among Houston’s morphine and cocaine addicts, a peek into a Ship Channel-area ghetto called Marijuana Flats, home of perpetually stoned “muggle-heads.” (Full issues of the Gargoyle are part of the Houston Public Library’s digital archives collection, at digital.houstonlibrary.org.)
The magazine also displayed a casual racism typical of the time: Mexicans, then exotic newcomers, were forever slicing each other up with steel blades, while African Americans, often referred to using the N-word, spoke only in dialect and apparently did little else besides steal chickens. On the plus side, the Gargoyle was invariably anti-Klan and bravely ran a two-part dissection of the Camp Logan riots at a time when the rest of the city was trying to bury that incident in Houston’s yawning chasm of a memory hole—the same one that has since devoured the Gargoyle.
It’s astounding to see how little has changed in 85 years. The Harris County Jail was already overcrowded then, too many of its inmates mentally ill. Houston’s sprawl was regularly decried. And how about this tidbit of column filler: “We shall be grateful of a solution for the traffic problem. It has worried us considerably.”
Then again, almost every issue of the Gargoyle closed with a full-page ad for a new subdivision out in the sticks. “You need not be rich,” read one. “Prices for River Oaks homes and homesites are still surprisingly reasonable.”
Well, we didn’t say nothing had changed.