Alexander Woollcott

Alexander Woollcott

[wool-kuht]
Woollcott, Alexander, 1887-1943, American author and critic, b. Phalanx, N.J., grad. Hamilton College, 1909. Woollcott's flamboyant personality combined sharpness of wit with sentimentality. He was one of the best-known journalists of his time and exerted great influence on popular literary and theatrical tastes. From 1914 to 1922 he was drama critic for the New York Times and later, from 1925 to 1928, for the New York World. He also had a weekly radio show, the "Town Crier" (1929-42). His gossipy essays were collected in While Rome Burns (1934), Long Long Ago (1943), and others. Woollcott was the model for Sheridan Whiteside, the central character in The Man Who Came to Dinner, a play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; he portrayed Whiteside in a road company production of the play.

See his letters (1944); biography by E. P. Hoyt (rev. ed. 1973).

Alexander Humphreys Woollcott (January 19, 1887January 23, 1943) was an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine, and a member of the Algonquin Round Table.

He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and for the far less likable character Waldo Lydecker in the classic film Laura. He claimed to be the inspiration for Rex Stout's brilliant detective Nero Wolfe, but Stout, although he was friendly to Woollcott, said there was nothing to this idea.

Woollcott's review of the Marx Brothers' Broadway debut, I'll Say She Is, helped highlight the renaissance of the group's career and started a life-long friendship with Harpo Marx. Harpo's two adopted sons, William (Bill) Woollcott Marx and Alexander Marx, are named after Woollcott.

Biography

Nicknamed Aleck, Woollcott was born near Red Bank, New Jersey and graduated from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. In his early twenties he contracted the mumps, which apparently left him mostly, if not completely, impotent. He never married or had children, although he had a large number of female friends, most notable of whom were Dorothy Parker and Neysa McMein, to whom he actually proposed the day after she had just wed her new husband, Jack Baragwanath.

Woollcott was born in an 85-room house, a vast ramshackle building that had once been a commune. It was called The North American Phalanx, and was in Phalanx, New Jersey. There were many social experiments in the mid-1800s, some more successful than others. When The Phalanx fell apart after a fire there in 1854, it was taken over by the Bucklin family, Woollcott's maternal grandparents. There, amid his extended family, Woollcott spent large portions of his childhood. His father was a ne'er-do-well Cockney who drifted through various jobs, sometimes spending long periods away from his wife and children. Poverty was always close at hand.

The Bucklins and Woollcotts were avid readers, giving young Aleck a lifelong love of literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens. Through a family friend, Dr. Alexander Humphreys (after whom he was named), Woollcott made his way through college, graduating from Hamilton College, in upstate New York, in 1909. There, despite a rather poor reputation (his nickname was "Putrid") he founded a drama group, edited the student literary magazine, and was accepted by a fraternity.

He was one of the most prolific drama critics at The New York Times and was an owlish character whose caustic wit either joyously attracted or vehemently repelled the artistic communities of 1920s Manhattan. He was banned for a time from reviewing certain Broadway theater shows. As a result he sued the Shubert theater organization for violation of the New York Civil Rights Act, but lost in the state's highest court in 1916 on the grounds that only discrimination on the basis of race, creed or color was unlawful. From 1929 to 1934 Woollcott wrote a column called "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker. He was frequently criticized for his ornate, florid style of writing and, in contrast to his contemporaries James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, he is little read today, although his book, While Rome Burns, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1934, was in 1954 named by critic Vincent Starrett as one of the 52 "Best Loved Books of the Twentieth Century".

Radio

Billed as The Early Bookworm, Woollcott was first heard on CBS radio in October 1929, reviewing books in various timeslots until 1933. His CBS show The Town Crier, which began July 21, 1933, opened with the ringing of a bell and the cry, "Hear ye, hear ye!", followed by Woollcott's literary observations punctuated with acidic anecdotes. Sponsored by Cream of Wheat (1934-35) and Grainger Tobacco (1937-38), it continued until January 6, 1938. He had no reservations about using this forum to promote his own books, and the continual mentions of his While Rome Burns (1934) made it a bestseller.

He was one of the most-quoted men of his generation. Among Woollcott's classics is his description of the Los Angeles area as "Seven suburbs in search of a city" — a quip often attributed to his friend Dorothy Parker. Describing The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, he said: "He looks like a dishonest Abe Lincoln."

Woollcott, who claimed the Brandy Alexander was a concoction named after him, was known for his savage wit. He once said about another contemporary wit and piano player: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix." He also was known to greet friends with, "Hello, Repulsive." Famously, he published the shortest theatrical review in history by submitting to his editor simply: "Ouch."

His judgments were frequently eccentric. Dorothy Parker once said: "I remember hearing Woollcott say reading Proust is like lying in someone else's dirty bath water. And then he'd go into ecstasy about something called, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, and I knew I had enough of the Round Table."

Wolcott Gibbs, who often edited Woollcott's work at The New Yorker, was quoted in James Thurber's The Years with Ross on Woollcott's writing:

"Shouts and Murmurs" was about the strangest copy I ever edited. You could take every other sentence out without changing the sense a particle. The whole department, in fact, often had no more substance than a "Talk [of the Town]" anecdote. I guess he was one of the most dreadful writers who ever existed.

After being kicked out of the apartment he shared with The New Yorker founders Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant, Woollcott moved first into the Hotel des Artistes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then to an apartment at the far end of East 52nd Street. The members of the Algonquin Round Table had a debate as to what to call his new home. Franklin P. Adams suggested that he name it after the Indian word "Ocowoica", meaning "The-Little-Apartment-On-The-East-River-That-It-Is-Difficult-To-Find-A-Taxicab-Near". But Dorothy Parker came up with the definitive name: Wit's End.

Woollcott yearned to be as creative as the people with whom he surrounded himself. Among many other endeavors, he tried his hand at acting and co-wrote two Broadway shows with playwright George S. Kaufman, while appearing in two others. He also starred as Sheridan Whiteside, for whom he was the inspiration, in the traveling production of The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1940. He also appeared in several cameos in films in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Politically, Woollcott called for normalization of U.S.-Soviet relations. He was a friend of reporter Walter Duranty, even though he described him as a "man from mars". and Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, and traveled to the USSR in the 1930s, as well as sending his friend Harpo Marx to Moscow on a comedy tour in 1934. Yet he was attacked viciously in the left-wing press after his visit to the Soviet Union for his less than laudatory depiction of the "worker's paradise." Towards the end of Woollcott's life he semi-retired to Neshobe Island in Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, which he had purchased.

On January 23, 1943, Woollcott appeared on his last radio broadcast, as a participant in a panel discussion on the CBS Radio program The People's Platform. Marking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the subject was "Is Germany Incurable", and featured Woollcott and Rex Stout and Marcia Davenport. Ten minutes into the broadcast, Woollcott commented that he was feeling ill, but continued his remarks. "It's a fallacy to think that Hitler was the cause of the world's present woes," he said. Woollcott continued, adding "Germany was the cause of Hitler. He said nothing further. The radio audience was unaware that Woollcott had suffered a heart attack. He died at New York's Roosevelt Hospital a few hours later, aged 56.

He was buried in Clinton, New York, at his alma mater, Hamilton College, but not without some confusion. By mistake, his ashes were sent to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. When the error was corrected and the ashes were forwarded to Hamilton College, they arrived with 67¢ postage due.

Broadway

  • Wine of Choice [Play, Comedy] Starring: Alexander Woollcott as Binkie Niebuhr (February 21, 1938 - March 1938)
  • Gift of Gab (1934) Alexander Woollcott, cameo in Universal Pictures feature
  • The Dark Tower [Play, Melodrama] Written by Alexander Woollcott & George S. Kaufman (November 25, 1933 - January 1934)
  • Brief Moment [Play, Comedy] Alexander Woollcott as Harold Sigrift (November 9, 1931 - February 1932)
  • The Channel Road [Play, Comedy] Written by Alexander Woollcott & George S. Kaufman (October 17, 1929 - December 1929)

Films

Quotes

  • "All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening."
  • "I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it."
  • "Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn't spend half our time wishing."
  • "Germany was the cause of Hitler as much as Chicago is responsible for the Chicago Tribune."
  • "There is no such thing in anyone's life as an unimportant day."
  • "His huff arrived and he departed in it."
  • "A hick town is one where there is no place to go where you shouldn't go."
  • "The English have an extraordinary ability for flying into a great calm."
  • "At 83, George Bernard Shaw's mind was perhaps not quite as good as it used to be, but it was still better than anyone else's."
  • "I have no need of your God-damned sympathy. I only wish to be entertained by some of your grosser reminiscences."
  • "It comes from the likes of you!... Take what you can get! Grab the chances as they come along! Act in hallways! Sing in doorways! Dance in cellars!"

Books

  • Mrs Fiske: Her views on Actors, Acting and the Problems of Production (1917) - Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) was one of the foremost actresses of her day. Woollcott's first book is a study of her thoughts on the acting profession.
  • The Command is Forward (1919) - A collection of his reportage and essays from The Stars and Stripes.
  • Shouts and Murmurs (1922) - Theatre articles. His column in The New Yorker was named after this book. The New Yorker revived the title as a catch-all for humorous pieces in the 1990s.
  • Mr. Dickens Goes to the Play (1922) - A few chapters by Woollcott on Charles Dickens's love of the theatre and a great many reprinted selections from Dickens's writings.
  • Enchanted Aisles (1924) - More theatre articles.
  • The Story of Irving Berlin (1925) - The rags-to-riches story of the great composer.
  • Going to Pieces (1928) - More stories of Woollcott's friends in and out of the theatre.
  • Two Gentlemen and a Lady (1928) - A short book about dogs.
  • While Rome Burns (1934) - It was Thornton Wilder who convinced Woollcott that his work was important enough to deserve reissue in book form. While Rome Burns was a surprise bestseller and further cemented Woollcott's reputation nationally. It is light reading but includes much that is amusing or quaint and one very fine piece, "Hands Across the Sea," about justice during the war.
  • The Woollcott Reader (1935) - An anthology of works by other writers that Woollcott felt deserved the public's attention. The pieces run several gamuts, from treacly biography to acid modernism.
  • Woollcott's Second Reader (1937) - More of the same.
  • Long, Long Ago (1943) - Issued just after his death, this follows in the steps of While Rome Burns but is not as good. The decline in his prose, as other interests drew on his time, is evident. Still, there are some amusing pieces, and it became another bestseller.
  • As You Were (1943) - An anthology of other people's works, compiled by Woollcott for issue to servicemen in the Second World War. It is dedicated to Frode Jensen, a young Danish man whom Woollcott befriended and who was the closest to a son as Woollcott ever had.
  • The Letters of Alexander Woollcott (1944) - A collection of his voluminous correspondence compiled by two of his dearest friends, Beatrice Kaufman and Joe Hennessey.
  • The Portable Woollcott (1946) - An anthology of the best of Woollcott's writings.

See also

References

External links

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