Thursday, May 14, 2009

Long, Long Ago

Yesterday we wandered into stories of losing things through theft. I told Laurie about a time when I was in my late teens and my car was broken into in front of my parent's house. They stole a few things, including a coat in the pocket of which was a copy of The Portable Woollcott which was an anthology of the writings of Alexander Woollcott put out by Viking Press in the late 1940s. Out of the whole experience that was the most heart breaking for me. Besides the fact that I loved that book and that I had lent that particular copy once to the first girl I ever had a concrete crush on, there was also the knowledge that the person who stole the items, simply by virtue of their actions, I knew would have no use whatsoever for that wonderful little volume. I imagined through grinding teeth the small book being discarded within a one mile radius of my home and never seeing it again. About a decade later I found another copy of it in a used book store and cried.
When I was in junior high I discovered the works of Alexander Woollcott through Harpo Marx's autobiography. Woollcott's works can be a little dated, can be a bit too purple for some people's taste, but I found and still find him to be excruciatingly beautiful. I cannot stress enough that I cannot recommend him highly enough. He passes his eyes for you to borrow for a short time and you find that instead of vitreous humor they contain wonder.
He was a very well known war correspondent for Stars and Stripes in WWI. He came back to become a theater critic of great importance for the NY Times, the New Yorker when it started, and finally for CBS the radio station. He become even more important after the Schubert brothers (no relation to Franz or my dog) banned him from their theater for writing unfavorable reviews of some of their shows (because he cared deeply about the art and would not permit bad productions on his watch) and found themselves on the business end of a massive boycott. When they ended the ban on Woollcott, Woollcott received a standing ovation when he entered the theater and sat as a member of the audience! How often does that happen?
His fame increased with a radio show called The Town Crier. I have a few rickety old cassette tapes of those radio shows. They are delightful. The show was pretty much Woollcott talking about things that he felt like talking about, things he felt compelled to share with the world. He bought an island in Vermont where he would summer, inviting the world's best and brightest to join him. It is possible that Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney would not have reached the level of fame they reached without Woollcott (although those are just cubes on the tip of the iceberg of the luminaries with whom he shared intimate friendship.) It is also possible that we would not have come to the aid of England against Hitler's Blitz had Woollcott's voice not been broadcasting from London at the time. He was a rabid anti-fascist and a rabid supporter of Churchill and Roosevelt. He died of a heart attack while on the air in a radio panel discussion of Hitler in which he said "Germany was the cause of Hitler as much as Chicago is responsible for the Tribune." At one point in the show he stopped talking mid-sentence and scribbled on a chit of paper "I am sick." Noel Coward remarked at the funeral that a more healthy Woollcott would have written "I am ill." On the way down to the ambulance Woollcott pulled his hat over his eyes. Friends later remembered a favorite story of Woollcott's about a boxing match around the turn of the century where there were almost riots because the man who was supposedly K.O.ed pulled his bowler hat over his eyes to shield from the sun. The match was rigged.
By the time I finished high school I owned what I assume is probably the largest collection of Woollcott's writing in a private collection on the west coast. Again, not a lot of people read him anymore and his works are not in print although they were once in such an abundance of print that you can find him in most used bookstores. And having been in such wide print as well as losing popularity in the past half century since his death, his books tend to be cheap.
Last night I pulled out The Portable Woollcott and read to Laurie his review of Mourning Becomes Electra which, even if you don't know the play (I vaguely remember reading it in college), the review is a study of human nature, the modern world, the arts, and social dynamics. Along with that it is a hilarious review filled with bits like "I must add that I saw the play when it was being listlessly performed for the hundred and fifteenth time before an audience so bronchial that the infuriated players doubtless felt the only real sin the Mannons ever committed was in building that pillared mansion of theirs on the edge of a frog pond."
Of course, the whole book is not old play reviews although those alone are worth the price. It also has accounts of murders, war correspondence, travelogues (he travelled to at least two space-time nations we cannot: Stalinist Russia and pre-Mao China), remembrances, character sketches, history and acres of nostalgia.
At the end of it Laurie said "It's clear that you've read a lot of Woollcott." I assume because we both can read like we grind a few pages of the OED into our breakfast smoothies every morning.
If I were to point people toward an author, it would be Alexander Woollcott. Today he is rarely mentioned outside of people who have never read him parroting (or occasionally misparroting) a few of his bon mots. Doubtless your Tweet Homepage has brought to your eyes "All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening." Or possibly "I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it." Or, if the person is feeling the motivational itch "There is no such thing in anyone's life as an unimportant day." I am here to tell you that Woollcott is far too rich of a feast to relegate into morsels. To reapply here what Woollcott says of over performed plays "but after all such folly is only one aspect of the witless jig we have all been dancing on the red-hot stove lid of American life." Please do go find and read some Alexander Woollcott.


  1. Enjoyed your post. I've never read Woollcott but if I see him somewhere I am now curious enough to pick him up and read. I can redeem my illiterate reputation somewhat by saying I have read much C.S.Lewis, some Jonathan Edwards and a lot of R.C. Sproul along with a smattering of other wise and good men. I do struggle to follow Lewis' logic and have always blamed that on his use of English English rather than the shortcomings of my own mind. heh-heh

  2. Ah, I absolutely adore all three of them. I just taught a class on Edwards last Sunday. Sproul is one of my favorite living preachers. I get his podcast.
    Thanks for following. It's good to meet you.