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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 656

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This is the grave of Alexander Woollcott.

Born in 1887 in Colts Neck, New Jersey, Woollcott grew up in somewhat unusual circumstances. He lived in an 85 room house but his family was not wealthy. For some reason, his grandparents ended up with the North American Phalanx, the mid-19th century Fourierist commune that went belly up like the rest of the Second Great Awakening communes did. This house was their common building. His father was an unstable drifter, though at times a good businessman, and the family was often reasonably poor. But they were always into culture and this rubbed off on the young man. He was sent to Philadelphia to attend high school. He did well and was encouraged in his nascent love of literature. Even though he had no money, he managed to go to Hamilton College, where he graduated in 1909.

A very talented writer and journalist already, the New York Times hired him as a reporter immediately after he graduated. He made a big splash quickly. He happened to be in the steel town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania on assignment when a Black man was lynched there. His reporting on that was powerful and got him national attention. He became a key member of the art scene in New York pretty soon after that. He became the paper’s leading drama reporter in 1914, using both his literary and social skills. He volunteered in World War I and was among the reporters who started Stars and Stripes to cover the war for the troops. That group became some of the core of the postwar literary elite, including New Yorker founder Harold Ross, Cyrus Baldridge, and Franklin Adams. After returning from France, Woollcott went back to the Times for a few years. Then he was at the New York Herald from 1922-23 and The World from 1923-28. He then went to The New Yorker as their drama writer.

Woollcott could brutalize a play. He also loved plenty of drama in his own life. When one theater group banned him from their plays, he sued them, claiming it was a violation of his civil rights. However, the court found that civil rights law did not apply to being a tough reviewer. He was a member of the Algonquin Round Table and very close to other leading lights of the era such as Dorothy Parker and Neysa McMein. He also started writing books, including a bio of Irving Berlin and a book about dogs.

In 1934, he wrote While Rome Burns, a book of his writings that included a lot of his theatre work but also some travel writings to trips to Japan and the Soviet Union. Thornton Wilder convinced him that such a collection would be worthwhile. By this time, he also had a popular radio show that he had begun in 1929, where he reviewed books. While it seems amazing that a book review show would be popular, indeed it was a mainstay. In 1933, he was picked up by CBS for a new literary radio show and it ran until 1938 with sponsorship from companies such as Cream of Wheat. He was a huge promoter of himself, always, and it made While Rome Burns a bestseller. He also was a big promoter of The Marx Brothers and Harpo named one of his adopted sons after Woollcott and another after Woollcott’s brother. He also openly called for good relations with the Soviets on the show, organized a Soviet tour for Harpo Marx, and became good friends with Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov. Yet he was also fairly openly critical of parts of the Soviet Union, leading the communist papers to attack him as well.

Part of the reason he and Parker were so close is that they were both pretty quick with the quip and both pretty mean. He would routinely greet people, including his friends, by saying, “Hello, Repulsive.” He called Los Angeles, “Seven suburbs in search of a city,” which OK that’s pretty accurate then and now. Parker wrote, “I remember hearing Woollcott say reading Proust is like lying in someone else’s dirty bath water.” Edna Ferber said, “That New Jersey Nero who thinks his pinafore is a toga.” He responded, “I don’t see why anyone should call a dog a bitch when there’s Edna Ferber around.” He lived with Harold Ross and wife for awhile but they finally kicked him out. There was a lot of talk about him being gay, and perhaps he was, certainly there was a lot of rumors about his effeminate manner. In any case, he was impotent after a bout with the mumps.

Woollcott was also fairly insecure. He really wanted to be the equal of the artists he was friends with. But he just wasn’t. He wrote a couple of Broadway plays himself. Kaufman and Hart wrote The Man Who Came to Dinner for him and he played himself in it after it left Broadway. He was in a bunch of films in small roles. Moreover, the character Waldo Lydecker in Laura was inspired by him, not a likable character. Woollcott also claimed the drink the Brandy Alexander was named for him. Not sure I’d want that claim. There were a couple of Looney Tunes cartoons that used him as a character too. He realized that he wasn’t the intellectual equal of his friends and it really bothered him. Lots of people did realize that he was a big ego with fancy writing who said almost nothing that was really important. His New Yorker editor, Woolcott Gibbs, said,

“Shouts and Murmurs” was about the strangest copy I ever edited. You could take every other sentence out without changing the sense a particle. 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.”

Yikes.

While on air in 1943, doing a panel on what the heck had led Germany down its fascist path, he had a heart attack and died a few hours later. He was only 56 years of age, but was not in good shape, having been diagnosed with a bad heart in 1941. He was working on another anthology of his work that came out shortly after, Long, Long Ago.

Alexander Woollcott is buried in Hamilton College Cemetery, Clinton, New York.

This grave visit was supported by LGM reader donations. Many thanks!!! If you would like this series to visit other members of the Algonquin Round Table, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Franklin Adams is in Hartsdale, New York and Heywood Broun is in Hawthorne, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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