Behind the camera: © Bettmann/CORBIS
Where: New York City
Photo Summary: Bankrupt investor Walter Thornton tries to sell his luxury roadster for $100 cash on the streets of New York City following the 1929 stock market crash
Picture Taken: October 30, 1929
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 was the biggest market crash in American history. Billions of dollars were lost in a day that would become known as Black Tuesday. The crash lead to almost two decades of worldwide depressed economic activity, known today as the Great Depression. America and the world wouldn’t emerge from the effects of the crash until World War II.
One of the most famous photos of this day is of investor Walter Thornton trying to sell his Chrysler Imperial “75” Roadster for $100. According to the postcard shown on this page, a 1928 Chrysler Imperial “75” Roadster could be purchased for $1555 ($21,400 in 2014). The Thornton picture shows the desperation of men who had lost everything on the stock market. Walter Thornton was so desperate for cash that he had no problem selling his year old car for $100 (US$ 1,400 in 2014) even though he was taking a huge loss.
The real despair felt around this time led to a number of myths surrounding Black Tuesday like the myth of finical investors jumping from the windows like lemmings upon learning that they were worthless but as Cecil Adams from the Straight Dope points out:
economist John Kenneth Galbraith … in his book The Great Crash, 1929, first published in 1955. Studying U.S. death statistics, Galbraith found that while the U.S. suicide rate increased steadily between 1925 and 1932, during October and November of 1929 [The time frame of the crash] the number of suicides was disappointingly low.
Copy Right Info
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I believe this photo to have been a publicity stunt. Why ask for only $100 when he probably could’ve easily gotten $500? I’ve seen very high resolution versions of this photo (same angle but with and without a crowd) which suggests that a photographer with a large format camera was employed, definitely not what news photogs used back then. Once again, why? And who paid for it? My research shows that Walter Thornton owned a modeling agency of the same name and was the self proclaimed inventor of the WWII pin-up girl posters. In other words a promoter of high magnitude.
I humbly refute the make and model of the car. That “postcard” is wrong and appears to actually be from “House Beautiful” magazine
The 1928/29 Chrysler (or Imperial) have an entirely different shape radiator and hood louvers than the car being offerred for sale. I’m convinced that this is actually a 1928/29 Plymouth which was the least expensive of the Chrysler brands. From top to bottom they were:
Chrysler Imperial, DeSoto, Dodge and finally Plymouth.
Somewhat interestingly, Plymouth was an offshoot of the Maxwell car…yes, the same brand which that penny pinching, perpetually 39 year old Jack Benny drove!
Although I’m a self admitted drooling car nut and a bit of an historian I don’t claim to be an expert and gladly welcome any input/corrections.
You are wrong! The car is a 1929 Chrysler model 75. I should know–I own one.
Any more info on this guy? Walter Thornton ? Or on more personal stories from the crash?
There is a comment above that brings up a good point about Walter Thornton creating this image as a hoax
My sister and I are two of the seven children of the man in the “$100 WILL BUY THIS CAR” photo, Walter Thornton (1903-1990). After a multi-decade deep dive of research into the “true story” of this photo, we’ve uncovered solid confirmation that the presumed narrative of this photo is false.
At the presumptive time of the photo, late October of 1929, Walter Thornton was not a “bankrupt investor.” He was one of New York’s most popular male models, under contract with the John Robert Powers Agency). He was a 26-year-old model, living in a walk-up, studio apartment in Greenwich Village, whose face can be found in countless advertisements during his modeling career, which spanned the years 1926-1930–both before and after the Great Crash. He was not a stock market investor. He posed for nearly every great illustrator of the early 20th century, including J.C. Leyendecker, Alfred Cheney Johnston, Howard Chandler Christy, James Montgomery Flagg, and many others.
In early 1930, he broke away from The Powers Agency and founded his own agency. The Walter Thornton Model Agency became one of the first tenants of The Chrysler Building, just months after the building’s official opening in May of 1930. It can be accurately stated that The Thornton Agency was actually the very first, full-service modeling agency in American history.
He then went on to “invent” the concept of The Pin-Up Girl of WWII and discovered numerous models he groomed for Hollywood stardom, including Lauren Bacall, Susan Hayward and Grace Kelly. He was considered a world-renowned expert in all-things beauty, known as “The Merchant of Venus,” a moniker bestowed upon him by Walter Winchell. His ingenuity and success were extolled by no less than Dale Carnegie, in 1940, in his internationally syndicated newspaper column. Mr. Carnegie does not mention Walter Thornton surviving such a financial calamity–and if anyone would have written about overcoming disasters, it would have been Dale Carnegie.
We’ve watched over the past few decades as this image of our father has been coopted by “The Internet” (and beyond), forever framing our father, in perpetuity, as one of the most famous “failures” in American history. Interestingly, the earliest known usage of this image was in the 1970’s. As per the Library of Congress, there is no known usage prior to that, and it surely was not a well-known image in its day. Imagine our frustration, as two of his daughters, seeing our father inaccurately portrayed as a “failure”—when, in fact, he was one of the great, self-starting business entrepreneurs of the 20th century.
In short, the photo does not portray an accurate image its subject. The man in the photo was a model; not a Wall Street investor.
Thank you. I have provided links to your reply on several internet sites that refer to your father as a failed investor. It is gratifying to be able to share your first hand knowledge that this was a dramatization of the stock market crash. You have good reasons to be proud of your successful father.
We really appreciate this as we know one day a movie will be made about his life because it was interesting, dramatic and crossed paths with other famous people who had movies made about them like Starr Faithfull (murdered model and socialite) and Walter Winchell (famous gossip commentator) to name a few.
Wow! That car photo has always made me suspect there was something bogus about it. Especially the sign on the car. I’d always assumed it was some kind of “publicity stunt.” I’m so glad you stepped forward with this new information. When you closely study the two car images, it’s almost like, “Why didn’t I notice how fake these look?” Wonder if the sign was actually added later? Anyway, thanks for “correcting history.”
We are trying to figure out when the sign was added and why. We love to solve that mystery:-)
Its important that you have set the record straight. The true story is fascinating – but, do you know who owned the car and what use the photo was intended for at the time? I’ve grown up with the photo, but long thought there was more to it. Someone please edit the Wikipedia entry on the photo Walter Thorton. A more detailed biography of him could make a wonderful book.
We are, in fact, writing a book about our father and how his image has been coopted by history to represent a false narrative about him. The “Bankrupt Investor” photos, in fact, tell the OPPOSITE story of our father’s rise to success and fame as “The Merchant of Venus.” We thank you for considering the presumed narrative might be a spurious one.
I look forward to the book – the real story it can tell is more interesting than the mythology about the image. Your father’s life story will hold wide interest!