Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943)
He was one of the most quoted men of his generation. Woolcott dismissed Los Angeles area as “Seven suburbs in search of a city” — a quip often attributed to his friend Dorothy Parker: Of Harold Ross the editor of The New Yorker, “He looks like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.”
Woollcott was renowned for his savage tongue. He dismissed a notable wit and pianist: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix.” He greeted friends: “Hello, Repulsive.” He submitted the shortest theatrical review in history: in his review of the Broadway show Wham!, he simply wrote “Ouch.” When a waiter asked him to repeat his order, he demanded “Muffin filled with pus.”
His judgments were frequently eccentric. Rating emotions over balanced judgment, he figuratively tossed hat in air over favored plays and performers. Catherine Cornell the actress for instance always received favorable notices. He was wrong about Proust (Dorothy Parker once said: “I remember hearing Woollcott say reading Proust is like lying in someone else’s dirty bath water. ) Wolcott Gibbs , who often edited Woollcott’s work at The New Yorker, was quoted by James Thurber in his book 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. …I guess he was one of the most dreadful writers who ever existed.
He tried his hand at acting and was spoofed by George S.Kaufman and Moss Hart (1904-1961) in their play, ‘The Man who came to Dinner’ and also starred as Sheridan Whiteside (1940)
Alexander Woolcott once asked Moss Hart to drive him to Newark to fulfill a lecture date.
‘I’ll do it.’ The playwright agreed,’ if you will let me sit on audience. I was once an assistant in a bookshop in Newark and I’d like to show them I am a big shot now.
Alexander delivered his lecture without making the slightest reference to Hart who fidgeted in his chair behind the rostrum, then said he in conclusion, ‘Tonight I’ll dispense with my usual question period. I am sure you all want to know the same thing: ‘Who is this foolish looking young man here on the platform.’
With that he retired leaving Hart to get out of that hall as best as he could.’ (ack: Bennet Cerf)
Alexnder Woolcott went to France during WWI as a sergeant in a medical corps unit and then moved a dismal camp near Le Mans. The men lived in leaky tents with mud and puddles of rain under their rickety camp beds. Woolcott luckily was moved the Paris office of the US army newspaper. ‘Stars ad Stripes.’ Sgt.Woolcott spent rest of the war in luxurious living, dining nightly at the Ritz entertaining friends. When the armistice came he sailed for home on a troop transport where he met a comrade from the old medical camp at Le Mans.
‘You made an awful mistake leaving our unit when you did.’the soldier said.
‘Why?’ Woolcott asked.
‘The week after you left,’ the soldier said, ‘they put wooden floors in our tents.’
Alexander Woolcott carried drama criticisms to the masses and appeared regularly in NBC radio shows and his wild enthusiasm made theatre as exciting as baseball to great many Americans of his generation.
Admirers at the Algonquin Round Table dubbed him as ‘the smartest of the Alecs.’
Posts Tagged ‘George S. Kaufman’
Posted in personalities, tagged Algonquin Round Table set, anecdotes, critic, Dorothy Parker, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, NBC radio star, Sheridan Whiteside, The Man who came to Dinner on February 22, 2011| Leave a Comment »
Alexander Woolcott (1887-1943)
Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
A woman who can come up with bon mots like ‘Brevity was the soul of lingerie,’ or’ Men seldom make pass at girls who wear glasses,’ must have had lively company and will not settle for a house in the suburbs changing diapers or fetching shoes for her ‘man in gray flannel suit.’ Dorothy Parker born of a Jewish father and a Scottish mother was a member of the Algonquin Round Table set. She could hold her own with literary heavyweights like George S. Kaufman, Alexander Woolcott, Ring Lardner, Ogden Nash and the like. She definitely settled down but married thrice, twice to the same man. She wrote copies for Vogue at $10 a week and also reported Spanish civil war, wrote short stories and Hollywood film scripts. She lived to the last, an exception to the general role of a woman as species, ‘short on logic and long on window-shopping’. Before her death she bequeathed most of her estate to Martin Luther King.
Dorothy Parker once bumped into a lady in the doorway of ’21’. She stepped back and motioned for for Dorothy to exit first, saying, “Age before beauty.” Pat came her retort, ”Pearls before swine”as she went out.
Once at the Round Table, Alexander Woolcott called Franklin P. Adam, “You goddamn Christ Killer”. As he had intended the company laughed. Dorothy Parker who was half Jew and who had tried to hide the fact, said nothing. Kaufman taking note of her silence, and in mock fury said, “I’ve heard enough slur on my race. I am now leaving this table, this dining room, and this hotel.” A pause. Looking at Mrs. Parker he added, “and I trust that Mrs. Parker will walk out with me, half- way.”
In fifty years as a newspaper man and a playwright Kaufman was exposed to, and had scrutinized every form of fakery. Once a con man approached him with a promise that a quick investment in a gold mine would bring him untold wealth.
“You don’t even have to dig the gold,” he was told, “it’s just lying around”. “Hold on,” Kaufman demanded,” do you mean I’d have to stoop over and pick it up?”
At an early Hollywood dinner party an English author was shredding the reputation of a Broadway actress, capping it with, “She’s her own worst enemy”.
To which Kaufman quietly added: “Not while you’re alive.”
An early acquaintance once ran into the gloomy Dean of Broadway who was brought over by M.G.M. Congratulating George on the good work he’d done on the Marx Brothers picture, she asked if he remembered her brother, Stewart Stewart in New York. George remembered him, whereupon she confessed that their family name had been Muckenfus, but they had changed it.
“You mean your brother’s name, “George demanded, ”was Muckenfus, Muckenfus?”
Once while he was being driven about Hollywood by a chauffeur a policeman stopped the car for going through a redlight. Kaufman sat impatiently, reading a newspaper, while the officer wrote out the summons. When his ensuing harangue proved too much, Kaufman leant forward too much, Kaufman leaned forward, showing the front page to the police man. It listed the statistics on unsolved crimes in Los Angeles. Then he addressed the cop, “Two weeks ago, all my clothes were stolen from my hotel room. I called the police and they said they’d be in touch. That was two weeks ago, and now,” Kaufman continued pointing to the summons, “they’re finally gotten in touch with me!”
The Hollywood moghul Adolf Zukor once offered thirty thousand for the movie rights to a Kaufman play. Kaufman shot back a telegram offering Zukor forty thousand for Paramount Pictures.
During a gin rummy session his friend Charles Lederer was humming a tune of Sir. Arthur Sullivan’s with words of his own making, ‘O he nodded his head and never said no, and now he’s head of the studio’. Impressed Kaufman made a deal with Lederer who did not see any merit in his impromptu lyrics. ”You’ve just given me a brilliant idea for a show! I’m going to call it ‘Hollywood Pinafore’.
‘Hollywood Pinafore’ turned out to be a flop. Sometimes later he ran into Lederer again Kaufman clamped his hand over Lederer’s mouth, and said: “For God’s sake don’t sing anything!”