Alexander Woollcott

Alexander Woollcott

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Alexander Humphreys Woollcott was born in Colts Neck Township, New Jersey, on 19th January, 1887. His father, Walter Woollcott, was a successful businessman and had an income of $5,700 but Woollcott later recalled that his memories of childhood are "slightly overcast by clouds of financial anxiety".

According to his biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946), Woollcott enjoyed a good relationship with his mother: "But for his father he conceived and maintained a dogged distaste. When the head of the family passed around the breakfast table, bestowing the morning kiss upon his offspring, Aleck would slyly thrust an upright fork above his ear in the fond hope of puncturing the paternal jowl. The dislike was not reciprocated. Walter Woollcott was carelessly interested in and amused by his youngest. He would recite classical passages to him and, while the boy was still very young, so thoroughly imbued him with the principles and strategy of cribbage and the game remained a source of permanent profit to Aleck."

One of his cousins claims that as a child he said he wanted to be a girl: "In his early teens he loved to dress up and pass himself off as a girl. Someone gave him a wig of beautiful brown hair, and he coaxed various bits of apparel from his sister, Julie, and her friends." At the age of fourteen he attended a New Year's party dressed as a girl and he began signing letters "Alecia".

Woollcott was unhappy at Central High School in Philadelphia. At an academic centenary he told the audience: "It is a tradition of the old alumnus, tottering back to the scene of his schooldays, to speak with great affection of the school. I must be an exception here tonight. During the four years that I attended Central High School I had a lousy time... I was something of an Ishmaelite among the students." However, he did have some inspirational teachers including Ernest Lacey, who wrote plays in verse and Franklin Spencer Edmonds, an imaginative and inspirational teacher of economics. Len Shippey, the author of Luckiest Man Alive (1959), claims that teacher Sophie Rosenberger "inspired him to literary effort" and with whom he "kept in touch all her life."

At the age of eighteen he entered Hamilton College in Clinton. One of the students, Merwyn Nellis, recalled: "Aleck, at the time, had a high-pitched voice, a slightly effeminate manner and an unusual - even eccentric - personality and appearance. He was far enough from the norm so that the first impression on a lot of healthy and immature boys was that he was a freak." Another student, Lloyd Paul Stryker, pointed out that he was unlike other young men at college in other ways as well: "We could not understand a freshman who had pondered, read, and thought so much."

Woollcott was an outstanding student and became editor of the Hamilton Literary Monthly . He also had stories published in various magazines. Albert A. Getman, another student at the college, claims that by his senior year he was "easily the most remarkable and accomplished person on the campus". He also added that he was also "the most unpopular" student at Hamilton. One of the reasons for this was his cruel wit. One student commented that "he could squash with a compliment as well as with a smashing blow." Samuel Hopkins Adams has argued: "He thought of himself as a Socialist, without any real comprehension of what it meant. To the end his political and economic thinking, coloured by emotion and prejudice, was, notwithstanding his sincerity, superficial and unclear."

After graduating he applied to Carr Van Anda, the managing director of the New York Times, for a job. One of his first assignments was to investigate the killing of a policeman, Edgar Rice, in Coatesville, Pennsylvania. While he was in the town Zachariah Walker, a "feeble-minded negro" was arrested. "Five hundred steel workers stormed the hospital where the negro lay with a police bullet in his body, took him out, and roasted him to death over a slow fire while two thousand onlookers cheered." According to Walter Davenport, who was working for the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Woollcott went to see the mayor of the town: "Mr. Shallcross, I represent The New York Times, which must insist that you take immediate measures to fetch the perpetrators of this wholly unnecessary outrage to book or justice or whatever your quaint custom may be here in Coatesville". When Woollcott's article of the lynching was published in the newspaper, Richard Harding Davis, telephoned the editor and commented: "They don't do newspaper writing any better than that."

During this time he met the young writer, Walter Duranty. They spent a lot of time together and later Woollcott commented about Duranty: "No other man... could make a purposeless hour at the sidewalk cafe so memorably delightful." They visited nightclubs and theatres together and it was Woollcott who first gave Duranty the idea that he should take up journalism. Another friend during this period was Cornelius Vanderbilt III, who described him as "a plump, good-natured cuss, rather showy and gaudy, who liked to hang around late and talk."

Soon after joining the newspaper he was diagnosed as suffering from mumps. According to the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946): "In great pain he dosed himself with Julie's morphine for a fortnight, when the swelling began to subside. But the damage was done. Thereafter he was, if not totally neutralized, permanently depleted of sexual capacity. Another sequel was the unhealthy fat of semi-eunuchism." However, this did not stop him falling in love with Jane Grant, a young reporter at the New York Times.

In 1914 Woollcott became the drama critic of the New York Times. He had strong opinions on how the job should be done. "There is a popular notion that a dramatic criticism, to be worthy of the name, must be an article of at least 1,000 words, mostly polysyllables and all devoted - perfectly devoted - to the grave discussion of some play as written and performed... The tradition of prolixity and the dullness in all such writing is as old as Aristotle and as lasting as William Archer." His daily column was an instant success. One journalist argued: "Woollcott set forth reflectively his opinions of plays and players against a background of broad dramatic knowledge, spicing the seriousness of his treatment with lively anecdotal matter. No one else had done the same thing as well."

In the winter of 1914 Woollcott joined Walter Duranty, who was now also working for the New York Times and Wythe Williams in Paris. During this period Duranty described Woollcott as "an exhilarating companion of my youth". They together covered the trial of Henriette Caillaux, who had murdered Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro, who she had accused of slandering her husband, Joseph Caillaux, the Minister of Finance.

When President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and entered the First World War, Woollcott offered his services to the US Army. His biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, has pointed out: "Only his physique stood between him and military glory. He was fat, flabby, and myopic. But beneath that inauspicious exterior burned a crusading flame. Some way or another he could be of service: some way or another he was bound to get in. No combat unit would look at him twice."

Eventually he was accepted by the medical service. He was sent to Saint-Nazaire and worked at Base Hospital No. 8. Sally J. Taylor has pointed out: "Pudgy and artistically inclined, the New York Times drama critic didn't seem cut out for the vicissitudes of soldiering, but immediately after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, there he was, lining up to share in all of the rights and privileges extended to a private in the U.S. Army. He hoped, he explained somewhat shamefacedly to his friends, that basic training would run some of the fat off him, and it must have done so because he good-humoredly made it through the ordeal and thus across the Atlantic, making light of any inconvenience or embarrassment he had suffered.... Not surprisingly, he was immensely popular, not only with the string of celebrities who found their way into the orderly room at the hospital but also with his patients and fellow workers. Somehow, he always managed to have a bottle of something drinkable on hand for anything that could be construed as an appropriate occasion."

The author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946): "He (Alexander Woollcott) was the least military figure in the A.E.F. His uniform, soiled, sagging, and corrugated with unexpected bulges, looked as if it had just emerged from the delousing plant. His carriage was grotesque. He had the air of submitting to drill in a spirit of tolerance rather than from any recognition of authority or respect for discipline. He hated M.P.s and resented shoulder-strap superiority. To be sure, he possessed certain compensating virtues, but they were not of the obviously soldierly kind. He had courage, hardihood, endurance, self-reliance, enterprise, a burning enthusiasm for the service, and an unflagging willingness to do more than his share. Useful as these qualities may be in the field, they do not commend themselves to brass-hattery as do a straight back and a snappy salute. Sergeant Woollcott would hardly have won a commission had the war lasted twenty years."

After being promoted to the rank of sergeant he was assigned to the recently established Stars and Stripes, a weekly newspaper by enlisted men for enlisted men. Harold Ross was appointed editor. Aware of his great journalistic talent, Ross sent him to report on the men in the front-line trenches. It was claimed he "made his way fearlessly in and around the front, gathering material for the kinds of things the fighting men wanted to read: stories about rotten cooks, nosey dogs, leaky boots, and other common nuisances of life at the front." Albian A. Wallgren, provided a cartoon of Woollcott the accompany his articles. The figure of a "chubby soldier in uniform and a raincoat, his gas mask worn correctly across his chest, and a small musette bag at his side, tin hat placed correctly, straight across his head, puttees rolled beautifully, prancing with that almost effeminate rolling gait of Aleck's."

One of his colleagues claimed he showed great bravery in reporting life on the Western Front. "The road ahead of us was being shelled and the chauffeur could see this plainly and to our intense alarm. Woollcott said nothing about it, however, and neither did the chauffeur or I, figuring (as we realized on subsequent comparing of emotions) that we'd be damned if we said anything about stopping until he did. we got into Thiacourt all right, and got out of it all right. We walked out because, after we got in, an officer sent our car back, it being conspicuous and things being too hot. He asked why the hell we'd taken a chance on driving into the place and Aleck explained that he hadn't seen any shelling." As a friend pointed out, Woollcott had chosen not to see the shelling: "Aleck may have had imperfect vision, but his hearing was unimpaired... and an approaching and exploding shell makes quite a noticeable commotion."

Heywood Broun, in one of his articles, quotes William Slavens McNutt, who also reported on the First World War with Woollcott. "All hell had broken loose in a valley just below us and I was taking cover in a ditch as Aleck and Arthur Ruhl (Collier's Weekly war correspondent) ambled briskly past me on their way into action. Aleck had a frying pan strapped around his waist, and an old grey shawl across his shoulders. Whenever it was necessary to duck from a burst of shellfire, Aleck would place the shawl carefully in the middle of the road and sit on it."

Woollcott arranged for Jane Grant to become a singer with the YMCA Entertainment Corps in France. Samuel Hopkins Adams points out: "Presently he was talking marriage. It was mostly in a tone of banter, but at times he became earnest and seemed to be trying to persuade himself as well as the girl that they might make a go of it, for a time, anyway - and how about taking a chance? Not being certain how far he meant it, and, in any case, not being interested, she laughed it off. Some of his friends thought that she treated the whole affair in a spirit of levity and that Aleck was cruelly hurt." Jane later married Harold Ross.

On his return to New York City Woollcott published a couple of articles based on his experiences on the Western Front. These two articles were added to a selection of his articles from Stars and Stripes and published as The Command Is Forward: Tales of the A.E.F. Battlefields (1919). The book received very little attention from the critics. He told one friend that he returned to the New York Times in "a sort of fog of the soul."

Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley all worked at Vanity Fair during the First World War. They began taking lunch together in the dining room at the Algonquin Hotel. Sherwood was six feet eight inches tall and Benchley was around six feet tall, Parker, who was five feet four inches, once commented that when she, Sherwood and Benchley walked down the street together, they looked like "a walking pipe organ." John Keats, the author of You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1971) has argued that Woollcott "resembled a plump owl... who was a droll, often preposterous, often sentimental, often waspish, and always flamboyantly self-dramatic."

According to Harriet Hyman Alonso , the author of Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War (2007): "John Peter Toohey, a theater publicist, and Murdock Pemberton, a press agent, decided to throw a mock "welcome home from the war" celebration for the egotistical, sharp-tongued columnist Alexander Woollcott. The idea was really for theater journalists to roast Woollcott in revenge for his continual self-promotion and his refusal to boost the careers of potential rising stars on Broadway. On the designated day, the Algonquin dining room was festooned with banners. On each table was a program which misspelled Woollcott's name and poked fun at the fact that he and fellow writers Franklin Pierce Adams (F.P.A.) and Harold Ross had sat out the war in Paris as staff members of the army's weekly newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, which Bob had read in the trenches. But it is difficult to embarrass someone who thinks well of himself, and Woollcott beamed at all the attention he received. The guests enjoyed themselves so much that John Toohey suggested they meet again, and so the custom was born that a group of regulars would lunch together every day at the Algonquin Hotel."

Murdock Pemberton later recalled that he owner of the hotel, Frank Case, did what he could to encourage this gathering: "From then on we met there nearly every day, sitting in the south-west corner of the room. If more than four or six came, tables could be slid along to take care of the newcomers. we sat in that corner for a good many months... Frank Case, always astute, moved us over to a round table in the middle of the room and supplied free hors d'oeuvre... The table grew mainly because we then had common interests. We were all of the theatre or allied trades." Case admitted that he moved them to a central spot at a round table in the Rose Room, so others could watch them enjoy each other's company.

The people who attended these lunches included Woollcott, Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Harold Ross, Donald Ogden Stewart, Edna Ferber, Ruth Hale, Franklin Pierce Adams, Jane Grant, Neysa McMein, Alice Duer Miller, Charles MacArthur, Marc Connelly, George S. Kaufman, Beatrice Kaufman , Frank Crowninshield, Ben Hecht, John Peter Toohey, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Ina Claire. This group eventually became known as the Algonquin Round Table.

Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946), has argued: "The Algonquin profited mightily by the literary atmosphere, and Frank Case evinced his gratitude by fitting out a workroom where Broun could hammer out his copy and Benchley could change into the dinner coat which he ceremonially wore to all openings. Woollcott and Franklin Pierce Adams enjoyed transient rights to these quarters. Later Case set aside a poker room for the whole membership." The poker players included Woollcott, Herbert Bayard Swope, Harpo Marx, Jerome Kern and Prince Antoine Bibesco. On one occasion, Woollcott lost four thousand dollars in an evening, and protested: "My doctor says it's bad for my nerves to lose so much." It was also claimed that Harpo Marx "won thirty thousand dollars between dinner and dawn".

Edna Ferber wrote about her membership of the group in her book, A Peculiar Treasure (1939): "The contention was that this gifted group engaged in a log-rolling; that they gave one another good notices, praise-filled reviews and the like. I can't imagine how any belief so erroneous ever was born. Far from boosting one another they actually were merciless if they disapproved. I never have encountered a more hard-bitten crew. But if they liked what you had done they did say so, publicly and wholeheartedly. Their standards were high, their vocabulary fluent, fresh, astringent and very, very tough. Theirs was a tonic influence, one on the other, and all on the world of American letters. The people they could not and would not stand were the bores, hypocrites, sentimentalists, and the socially pretentious. They were ruthless towards charlatans, towards the pompous and the mentally and artistically dishonest. Casual, incisive, they had a terrible integrity about their work and a boundless ambition."

Woollcott published a couple of articles based on his experiences on the Western Front. He told one friend that he returned to the New York Times in "a sort of fog of the soul."

In 1922 Woollcott published Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights: "It might be pointed out that the review of a play as it appears in the morning newspapers is addressed not to the actors nor to the playwrights, but to the potential playgoer, that the dramatic critic's function is somewhat akin to that of the attendant at some Florentine court whose uneasy business was to taste each dish before it was fed to anyone that mattered. He is an ink stained wretch, invited to each new play and expected, in the little hour that is left him after the fall of the curtain, to transmit something of that play's flavour, to write, with whatever of fond tribute, sharp invective, or amiable badinage will best express it, a description of the play as performed, in terms of the impression it made upon himself."

Woollcott remained a member of the Algonquin Round Table. They played games while they were at the hotel. One of the most popular was "I can give you a sentence". This involved each member taking a multi syllabic word and turning it into a pun within ten seconds. Dorothy Parker was the best at this game. For "horticulture" she came up with, "You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her thin." Another contribution was "The penis is mightier than the sword." They also played other guessing games such as "Murder" and "Twenty Questions". Woollcott called Parker "a combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth."

Woollcott was strongly attracted to the artist Neysa McMein. However, one of his friends suggested he "just wants somebody to talk to in bed." Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946) disagreed with this view and argued that Woollcott was very serious about her: "Neysa McMein was a reigning toast of the Algonquin Sophisticates and the object of unrequited passion to several... Woollcott, now cured of his disappointment over Jane Grant, had joined the court of Miss McMein's devotees, where the others never saw any occasion to be jealous of him."

Brian Gallagher, the author of Anything Goes: The Jazz Age of Neysa McMein and her Extravagant Circle of Friends (1987), has written in some detail about his relationship with McMein: "Alec constituted Neysa's longest and most constant 'extramarital' relationship... However, because of his stunted sexuality, there was often an unconsummated quality about Alec's quasi-sexual relationships, never more so than in the case of Neysa, who was the most overtly sensuous of all the women to whom he was close. Throughout their relationship the two often played at a coy sexual game based on, or at least allowed by, Alec's near eunuchhood.... Often Neysa was Alec's companion for opening nights. The tall, beautiful Neysa, usually dressed oddly or eccentrically, and the obese, plain Alec, in his dandified cloak and hat, made for a queer-looking couple. It is very doubtful that on such occasions Alec solicited Neysa's theatrical opinions - or that he even gave her sufficient chance to voice them, for Alec's great forte was monologue, not repartee, and Neysa was, apart from his large radio audience, among the most admiring and indulgent of his listeners. From time to time, but less frequently than with some other of his good and true friends, Alec would become overbearing and there would have to be, at Neysa's insistence, a trial separation of some weeks or months."

Jack Baragwanath , the husband of Neysa McMein, later recalled in his autobiography, A Good Time was Had (1962): that he never liked Woollcott: " Among all of Neysa's friends there was only one man I disliked: Alexander Woollcott. Unfortunately, he was one of Neysa's closest and oldest attachments and seemed to regard her as his personal property. I knew, too, that she was deeply fond of him, which made my problem much harder, for I imagined the consequences of the sort of open row which Alec often seemed bent on promoting. When he and I were alone he was disarmingly pleasant, but in a group he would sometimes go out of his way to make me feel small. I was no match for him at the kind of thrust and parry that was his forte, but after a while I found that if I could make him mad, he would drop his rapier and furiously attack with a heavy mace of anger, with which he would sometimes clumsily knock himself over the head. Then I would have him.... Close as Neysa and Alec were, and as much as he loved her, his uncontrollable tongue would get the better of him and he would say something so cruel and spiteful to her that she would refuse to see him for as long as six months at a time. And there were little incidents, not infrequent ones, when he would obviously try to hurt her."

Woollcott considered Alice Duer Miller to be along with Dorothy Parker to be the cleverest of the women who were members of the Algonquin Round Table. According to Samuel Hopkins Adams, the author of Alexander Woollcott: His Life and His World (1946), "Miller's character and mentality he considered far above her product as a novelist, while not belitting the agreeable quality of her fiction." Alice pointed out in a discussion on quarrels with Woollcott on the radio that they held very different opinions on the subject: "You advocating them as a means of clearing up inherent disagreements between friends, I disapproving of them on the ground that nothing worth quarrelling about could ever really be forgiven." Alice once said, when clearly thinking of Woollcott: "If it's very painful for you to criticize your friends - you're safe in doing it. But if you take the slightest pleasure in it, that's the time to hold your tongue."

Some members of the Algonquin Round Table began to complain about the nastiness of some of the humour as it gained the reputation for being the "Vicious Circle". Donald Ogden Stewart commented: "It wasn't much fun to go there, with everybody on stage. Everybody was waiting his chance to say the bright remark so that it would be in Franklin Pierce Adams' column the next day... it wasn't friendly... Woollcott, for instance, did some awfully nice things for me. There was a terrible sentimental streak in Alec, but at the same time, there was a streak of hate that was malicious."

John Keats, the author of You Might as Well Live: Life and Times of Dorothy Parker (1975) has argued that Woollcott was mainly responsible for this change in atmosphere: "Over the years, good humour had given way to banter, and now banter had given way to insult. If any one person could be considered instrumental in having brought this change about, that would have been Alexander Woollcott, whose sense of humour was undependable. On one occasion it led him to advise a young lady that her brains were made of popcorn soaked in urine... Woollcott was a perplexing man, given to many kindnesses and generosities, but at the same time he seemed to feel a need to find the minutest chinks in his friends' armour, wherein to insert a poisoned needle."

In 1925 Woollcott purchased most of Neshobe Island in Lake Bososeen. Other shareholders included Neysa McMein, Jack Baragwanath, Alice Duer Miller, Beatrice Kaufman, Marc Connelly, Raoul Fleischmann, Howard Dietz and Janet Flanner. Most weekends he invited friends to the island to play games. Vincent Sheean was a regular visitor to the island. He claimed that Dorothy Parker did not enjoy her time there: "She couldn't stand Alec and his goddamned games. We both drank, which Alec couldn't stand. We sat in a corner and drank whisky... Alec was simply furious. We were in disgrace. We were anathema. we ween't paying any attention to his witticisms and his goddamned games."

Joseph Hennessey, who ran the island for the visitors, later commented: "He ran the island like a benevolent monarchy, and he summoned both club members and other friends to appear at all seasons of the year; he turned the island into a crowded vacation ground where reservations must be made weeks in advance; the routine of life was completely remade to suit his wishes." Regular visitors included Dorothy Thompson, Rebecca West, Charles MacArthur, David Ogilvy, Harpo Marx, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh and Ruth Gordon.

Woollcott decided to join the New Yorker in 1929. Carr Van Anda, the managing director of the New York Times, was disappointed by this decision: "In spite of the brusqueness and other peculiarities of conduct developed with his rise in the world which amused or annoyed his friends, according to mood, he was by nature really a sensitive, sometimes almost a shrinking soul. What began as a defence mechanism led to the invention of the almost wholly artificial character, Alexander Woollcott, persistently enacted before the world until it became a profitable investment.... It is a matter of extreme regret to me, as an old friend, that his sacrifice of brilliant gifts and varied acquirements to the dramatization of himself as a personality has left him with a far less secure literary fame than he might well have achieved."

At the same time Woollcott purchased with Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant a large house on West Forty-Seventh Street. They were joined by Hawley Truax, Kate Oglebay and William Powell. She later wrote: "It was a mad, amusing ménage, made up of Aleck, Hawley Truax, Ross and myself as owners and at first there were two others, Kate Oglebay and William Powell, as tenants and participants on the top floor. It soon became the hangout for all the literary and musical crowd and I well remember that on one Sunday evening I had twenty-eight unexpected guests for supper... We all had separate apartments, sharing only the dining-room and kitchen."

Ely Jacques Kahn, the author of The World of Swope (1965) has pointed out that Woollcott played croquet with Herbert Bayard Swope and his friends, Neysa McMein, Alice Duer Miller, Alexander Woollcott, Beatrice Kaufman, Charles MacArthur, Averell Harriman, Harpo Marx and Howard Dietz, on his garden lawn: "The croquet he played was a far cry from the juvenile garden variety, or back-lawn variety. In Swope's view, his kind of croquet combined, as he once put it, the thrills of tennis, the problems of golf, and the finesse of bridge. He added that the game attracted him because it was both vicious and benign." According to Kahn it was McMein who first suggested: "Let's play without any bounds at all." This enabled Swope to say: "It makes you want to cheat and kill... The game gives release to all the evil in you." Woollcott believed that McMein was the best player but Miller "brings to the game a certain low cunning."

Harpo Marx wrote in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks! (1974): "Nothing... ever gave Woollcott a greater joy of pride and fulfillment than a good shot at croquet. When Aleck sent an opponent's ball crashing down through the maples... he would swing his mallet around his head like David's slingshot... When Aleck pulled off an exceptionally tricky shot - hovering over his mallet like a blimp at its mooring mast, while he aimed with profound concentration, then hitting his ball so it sidled through a wicket from a seemingly impossible angle or thumped an opponent after curving with the terrain in a great, sweeping arc - he was in his own special heaven."

Woollcott and Edna Ferber had a long-running dispute. Woollcott's biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, claims that it started as "the inevitable bickerings which are bound to occur between two highly sensitized temperaments." In a review of her play, Minnick , Woolcott said that it "loosed vials of vitriol out of all proportion to the gentle little play's importance." Feber replied that she found the review "just that degree of malignant poisoning that I always find so stimulating in the works of Mr. Woollcott".

The playwright, Howard Teichmann, claims the main problem was the opening night of The Dark Tower in 1933. "Woollcott, who knew how capricious opening-night audiences could be, decided not to have the usual crowd. Instead, he selected 250 of his personal friends to fill the better part of the orchestra floor at the Morosco Theatre. Two pairs of seats went to his old pal Edna Ferber. Escorted that night by the millionaire diplomat Stanton Griffis, Miss Ferber had as guests the Hollywood motion-picture star Gary Cooper and his wife. At curtain time Miss Ferber and party had not arrived at the theater, and the house lights went down on four choice but empty seats... Aleck waddled into the lobby only to find Ferber and her party standing there while Gary Cooper gave autographs to movie fans."

The actress Margalo Gillmore later recalled that after the play had finished they all met in her dressing room. "Woollcott, Ferber, Stanton Griffis, poor Beatrice Kaufman. Woollcott glared and glared and his eyes through those thick glasses he wore seemed as big as the ends of the old telephone receivers. Ice dripped everywhere." Teichmann added that Woollcott "who felt the greatest gift he could bestow was his own presence, gave his ultimatum" that he would "never go on the Griffis yacht again".

A few weeks later, Edna Ferber, still upset by Woollcott's behaviour that night, referred to Woollcott as "That New Jersey Nero who thinks his pinafore is a toga." When he heard about the comment, Woollcott responded with the comment: "I don't see why anyone should call a dog a bitch when there's Edna Ferber around." Howard Teichmann claims that "they never spoke after that".

Woollcott was taken ill in December 1941. His doctor told him he was suffering from a coronary thrombosis. Woollcott wrote to his friend, George Backer: "You have to face the fact that the position of a man of fifty-five, unmarried and with no stake in the future in the shape of children, is not an enviable or successful one." His good friend, Heywood Broun had just died and he admitted that he had reached the period "when death comes breaking into the circle of our friends."

Woollcott's friend, Neysa McMein, was also in poor health. While walking in her sleep, she had fallen downstairs and broken her back. When he heard the news he felt "as if someone were kneeling on my heart". McMein, who was recovering from a back and spine operation, invited Woollcott to share a mutual convalescence at her home in Manhattan. The author of Smart Aleck, The Wit, World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (1976) has pointed out: "Neysa McMein's ability to attract visitors was a lifelong habit. Aleck's presence in her apartment compounded matters to the point where men and women were streaming in and out from early one morning until early the next... It proved to be too much for both of them" and Woollcott returned home.

In July 1942, Alice Duer Miller wrote a letter to Woollcott telling him that she was dying. He wrote to her mutual friend, Marie Belloc Lowndes: "It will be no surprise to you that she took the bad news in her stride, and accepted it with philosophic serenity, revealing in her letters and her talks only a kind of rueful amusement at her own predicament. Of course, she made everything as easy as possible for those around her, and drifted off at last looking so pretty and benign." Alice's death caused Woollcott great pain.

Alexander Woollcott died on 23rd January, 1943.

He (Alexander Woolcott) was the least military figure in the A.E.F. Sergeant Woollcott would hardly have won a commission had the war lasted twenty years.

By now, Alexander Woollcott had joined them in his brief spring sojourn that would stretch into the beginning of summer 1914. The previous autumn, Woollcott had been offered the Paris office of the New York Times, which, for reasons undisclosed, he declined. By the winter of 1914, he would have returned home to New York to take up the position of drama critic at the newspaper." But now, he relaxed with his "old pal of the Paris office," Walter Duranty.

Woollcott was known for his easy living, conspicuous consumption, and inclination to gamble. A story made the rounds that purported to show the character of the bon-vivant. Once, Woollcott "cleaned out Walter Duranty at bezique in the days when the famous correspondent was an impecunious reporter in Paris." When Duranty asked for a two-franc loan for cab fare home in the early hours of the morning, Woollcott, it was said, "became the steely-eyed gamester. "I won that money fairly, Duranty ... and I keep it as I won it." Despite the incident, Woollcott remained a firm friend of Duranty's, always describing him as "an exhilarating companion of my youth."

After Woollcott reluctantly returned to the States, in the few weeks just before the start of the First World War, Duranty and Williams continued with their friendship, the former avoiding mention of his pal Crowley, who perhaps by this time was turning into something of a liability for the upwardly mobile Duranty.

One of the first ones back in was a man who seemed an unlikely candidate - Duranty's old pal Alexander Woollcott, or Aleck, as he preferred to be called by his friends. Pudgy and artistically inclined, the New York Times drama critic didn't seem cut out for the vicissitudes of soldiering, but immediately after the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, there he was, lining up to share in all of the rights and privileges extended to a private in the U.S. He hoped, he explained somewhat shamefacedly to his friends, that basic training would run some of the fat off him, and it must have done so because he good-humoredly made it through the ordeal and thus across the Atlantic, making light of any inconvenience or embarrassment he had suffered. What he had intended was to join the fighting men at the front, but he ended up on the "bedpan brigade" at a hospital in Savenay. Somehow, he always managed to have a bottle of something drinkable on hand for anything that could be construed as an appropriate occasion. Duranty turned up there regularly.

And of course, when Woollcott wasn't on duty, he traveled to Paris, where he managed, despite the hardships imposed by the war, to live characteristically high. "His special haunts were the Cafe Napolitain, where he stood drinks to all comers and held forth oracularly to all listeners in alternate French and English, and the Cornille ... in the Latin Quarter. ..."There, he initiated "a convivial poker game" that continued intermittently throughout the war. At Christmas in 1917, Woollcott, Duranty, and Wythe Williams managed to get together for "a real reunion" at the Parisian flat of Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune and his wife Ruth, who lured them all with the promise that they would "collapse from overeating" if they contrived to get there.

The place where Parker, Benchley, and Bob lunched together each workday thereafter was the dining room at the Algonquin Hotel. Located close to their office, the hotel had been founded in 1902 as a temperance establishment called the Puritan, but in 1919 its manager, Frank Case, renamed it the Algonquin in honor of the Native Americans who had originally lived in the area. Unfortunately for Case, the name change did not alter the hotel's temperance history, for in that same year the nation adopted the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, making the production, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Initially, the three writers dined alone on hors d'oeuvres or scrambled eggs and coffee, the only items they could afford on their meager Vanity Fair salaries. Soon after, however, an event took place at the Algonquin Hotel which changed all their lives, especially Bob's. John Peter Toohey, a theater publicist, and Murdock Pemberton, a press agent, decided to throw a mock "welcome home from the war" celebration for the egotistical, sharp-tongued columnist Alexander Woollcott. But it is difficult to embarrass someone who thinks well of himself, and Woollcott beamed at all the attention he received.

The guests enjoyed themselves so much that John Toohey suggested they meet again, and so the custom was born that a group of regulars would lunch together every day at the Algonquin Hotel. In addition to Bob, Benchley, Parker, Woollcott, F.P.A, and Ross, others who joined as the weeks passed included the journalist Heywood Broun, the play-writing team of Marc Connelly and George S. Kaufman, the playwright Howard Dietz, and authors Edna Ferber and Alice Duer Miller. Once in a while the writer Ring Lardner or Bob's songwriter hero Irving Berlin would drop by. Aspiring actresses Helen Hayes, Peggy Wood, Tallulah Bankhead, and Ruth Gordon sat in from time to time, as did innumerable young showgirls and chorus boys hoping to latch onto either a rising star or one already in the magic circle of fame on Broadway or in Hollywood. Mary Brandon was one such young woman whose rising star became Bob Sherwood. For Frank Case, the opportunity to cultivate a group of journalists, writers, and actors who might bring more customers to the hotel was a godsend, and he decided to make them a feature of his establishment. After several months of catering to them at a long side table, he moved the group to a central spot at a round table in the Rose Room, where tourists and other diners could stare and pretend to be sharing in the making of cultural history along with the Algonquin Round Table.

It might be pointed out that the review of a play as it appears in the morning newspapers is addressed not to the actors nor to the playwrights, but to the potential playgoer, that the dramatic critic's function is somewhat akin to that of the attendant at some Florentine court whose uneasy business was to taste each dish before it was fed to anyone that mattered. He is an ink stained wretch, invited to each new play and expected, in the little hour that is left him after the fall of the curtain, to transmit something of that play's flavour, to write, with whatever of fond tribute, sharp invective, or amiable badinage will best express it, a description of the play as performed, in terms of the impression it made upon himself.

Over at the piano Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Samuels may be trying to find out what four hands can do in the syncopation of a composition never thus desecrated before. Irving Berlin is encouraging them. Squatted uncomfortably around an ottoman, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly and Dorothy Parker will be playing cold hands to see who will buy the dinner that evening. At the bookshelf Robert C. Benchley and Edna Ferber are amusing themselves vastly by thoughtfully autographing her set of Mark Twain for her. In the corner, some jet-bedecked dowager from a statelier milieu is taking it all in, immensely diverted. Chaplin, Alice Duer Miller or Wild Bill Donovan, Father Duffy or Mary Pickford - any or all of them may be there... If you loiter in Neysa McMein's studio, the world will drift in and out. Standing at the easel itself, oblivious of all the ructions, incredibly serene and intent on her work, is the artist herself. She is beautiful, grave and slightly soiled.

Alec constituted Neysa's longest and most constant "extramarital" relationship. As Alec himself put it, they always managed to "get under each other's skins" in a way that kept them together, more or less, for a quarter century. Woollcott's first biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, insists that Alec was "never cured" of Neysa, that he continued to love her in his own erratic fashion until his death. (One could say much the same about his relationships with Ruth Gordon, Bea Kaufman, and perhaps even Alice Miller.) However, because of his stunted sexuality, there was often an unconsummated quality about Alec's quasi-sexual relationships, never more so than in the case of Neysa, who was the most overtly sensuous of all the women to whom he was close. Throughout their relationship the two often played at a coy sexual game based on, or at least allowed by, Alec's near eunuchhood. When both were nearing fifty, Neysa would still be writing to him that "I will fly to your arms" and signing the letter "Miss Pink."
Often Neysa was Alec's companion for opening nights. It is very doubtful that on such occasions Alec solicited Neysa's theatrical opinions-or that he even gave her sufficient chance to voice them, for Alec's great forte was monologue, not repartee, and Neysa was, apart from his large radio audience, among the most admiring and indulgent of his listeners.
From time to time, but less frequently than with some other of his good and true friends, Alec would become overbearing and there would have to be, at Neysa's insistence, a trial separation of some weeks or months. One of these, a six-month split, came in an argument over Sacco and Vanzetti. Alec was absolutely, high-handedly sure of their complete innocence and would brook none of the hesitations or doubts raised by the more politically cautious Neysa. Another separation came during the last months of his life, over a painful piece of selfish indulgence on Alec's part, and left these two oddly matched friends estranged at the time of his death.

Among all of Neysa's friends there was only one man I disliked: Alexander Woollcott. Then I would have him.
Once, after one of these melees I said to Neysa when we were alone, "You know, one of these days I may have to really go to town on our friend Alec and give him a good kick in the pants." She just looked at me quietly and said, "Perhaps some day you had better do just that."

Close as Neysa and Alec were, and as much as he loved her, his uncontrollable tongue would get the better of him and he would say something so cruel and spiteful to her that she would refuse to see him for as long as six months at a time. And there were little incidents, not infrequent ones, when he would obviously try to hurt her.

Nothing... he would swing his mallet around his head like David's slingshot and whoop, "Buckety-buckety! Buckety-buckety! Buck-ket-ty-buckket-ty-in-to-the-lake!"

When Aleck pulled off an exceptionally tricky shot - hovering over his mallet like a blimp at its mooring mast, while he aimed with profound concentration, then hitting his ball so it sidled through a wicket from a seemingly impossible angle or thumped an opponent after curving with the terrain in a great, sweeping arc - he was in his own special heaven.

In autumn of 1932 Duranty's friend Aleck Woollcott made a much publicized trip to Europe, with plans for a months's stay in Moscow. After Woollcott had arrived in Berlin, Duranty cabled the well-known dramatist "that he had laid in a supply of whiskey and other rarities for the occasion of Aleck's visit."

Once in Moscow, Woollcott was escorted around the city by Duranty who was delighted to act as his guide. Not surprisingly, Woollcott showed most interest in the Russian theater, "to the detriment of what he should have seen of the Communist experiment. In this stark setting, Woollcott's sense of humor seemed at times vastly inappropriate, especially when he drew attention to the "embarrassing experience that all Russians, young and old, whom I pass on the street not only stare but halt in their tracks as though astounded and then grin from ear to ear." He was in fact referring to the "very disconcerting experiences of a fat man in the Soviet Union ."

Woollcott's only political statement about his experience in the Soviet Union was that "except for a few such men from Mars as Walter Duranty, all visitors might be roughly divided into two classes: those who come here hoping to see the communist scheme succeed and those who come here hoping to see it fail."

The jovial fat man made jokes about what he thought must be the major industry in the Soviet Union - "printing pictures of Stalin" - and he attended various social functions.

The opening nights on Broadway, some plays rise to the occasion, others fall. The Dark Tower, the Woollcott-Kaufman collaboration, belongs to the latter category. Woollcott, who knew how capricious opening-night audiences could be, decided not to have the usual crowd. At curtain time Miss Ferber and party had not arrived at the theater, and the house lights went down on four choice but empty seats.

Woollcott barely had time to become enraged. Shortly after the curtain went up, the leading man, Basil Sydney, was about to make his entrance. The cue had been thrown by the proper actor and Mr. Sydney did indeed attempt to get onto the stage. His means of entrance was a door and that door suddenly stuck.

Mr. Sydney tried valiantly to open it, but the door would not budge. Without Mr. Sydney on the set, the rest of the cast simply stood around, stammered, coughed, and attempted to ad-lib. The audience, sensing something was amiss, grew restless. George Kaufman was seen running into the night.

Not as nimble of foot as Kaufman, Aleck waddled into the lobby only to find Ferber and her party standing there while Gary Cooper gave autographs to movie fans.

"Into your seats! Into your seats!" he hissed. Then, when they looked at him, he roared, "One of my autographs is worth ten of his!"

There are many explanations of the feud between Aleck and Edna Ferber. None has the ring of truth. The truth is, no playwright can ever forgive anyone for arriving late for his opening night. Nothing else mattered, not even the fact that Stanton Griffis gave a dinner party that ran a bit long, that Edna Ferber, given her choice, would never in her life have been late for a play, that Gary Cooper felt professionally bound to sign his name on the small books or pieces of paper thrust before him. Aleck herded and shooed the Ferber party into the theater and sent them toward their seats just as a stagehand managed to free the door for Basil Sydney's entrance. This brought unexpected and unwanted laughter and applause from the audience. Mr. Cooper, thinking the applause was for him, modestly nodded his head from side to side as he sat down.

Woollcott was apoplectic.

A piece of Neysa's hip had to be grafted to her spine, and she was forced to spend several very painful weeks in a cast at St. Luke's Hospital. When she returned home, her recovery continued to be slow, painful, and tedious, although made cheerier by a regular stream of visitors. Woollcott, who was feeling none too well himself (he was in the process of contracting pneumonia), was very much upset about Neysa's accident and wrote to Lily Bonner in terms that clearly show him as the devoted friend he could be when he let his sympathies rather than his self-concern dominate a relationship: "I don't know why it is that I should hear calmly of vast multitudes in agony in Russia and the Far East and then feel this highly localized disaster of Neysa's as if it were a blow on my head. Or rather, I have felt ever since as if someone were kneeling on my heart." In the same letter, Alec reported another, even more dire physical disaster concerning one of their intimates: "Alice Miller, who appeared to be in the pink... discovered something amiss inside her. It proved to be a malignant growth which involved deep and drastic surgery."

After getting out of the upstate hospital where he was being treated for pneumonia, Alec came down to New York to set up a "joint convalescence" with Neysa in "that damned duplex of hers." For a few days this partnership of the ailing worked well, but then Neysa and Alec's irredeemably social bent got the better of them, and they overdid their bedside entertaining. Alice Miller reported how the two "saw 18 people in one day. Then the doctor said no visitors, [Alec] had a slight gallstone attack, and was removed to the Island." Feeling low herself, Alice went on to identify herself with Neysa's evident, if less threatening, suffering. Rather suddenly, these three friends had to face the fact that they were quite ill and quite exhausted-and that they now lacked the easy healing grace of youth.

Alec, contrary as ever, insisted that his recuperation on Neshobe demanded the presence of friends, and he summoned many of them to join him. By early summer, as he wrote to Noel Coward, Neshobe resembled a"convalescent camp," with many of its aging guests nursing various minor illnesses and ailments. Neysa continued on in New York.

© John Simkin, April 2013

Talk:Alexander Woollcott

Surely Woollcott's role in the Marx Brother's making movies has been slightly overstated. Woollcott reviewed I'll Say She is in 1924 - the Marx Brother's didn't make their first movie - The Cocoanuts - until 1929. His review certainly helped relaunch the teams career, and he often claimed credit for "discovering" them afterwards. I'll rework that little section. -Harlsbottom 03:42, 20 July 2006 (UTC)

I removed The Great Radio Hoax of 1935 link from the article since the article doesn't say anything about Woolcott's role in the hoax. It may be worth adding to the article. However, someone has systematically been spamming links about a "walking tour" throughout Algonquin-related articles and I've been cleaning those up along with other excess links. 03:15, 6 December 2006 (UTC)

Please don't remove so many links. -Will Beback · † · 23:16, 7 December 2006 (UTC)

I removed the below sentence. I have not come across this info, and there is no reference cited. And they can't spell Shubert either.

As a result he sued the Schubert theater organization for violation of the New York Civil Rights Act, but lost in the state's highest court in 1916 on the ground that only discrimination on the basis of race, creed, or color was unlawful.

Anyone agree? --K72ndst 03:06, 29 January 2007 (UTC)

I agree with the reomvel of this unsourced information. —The preceding unsigned comment was added by Will Beback (talk • contribs) 04:11, 29 January 2007 (UTC).

Wow, a project of depth, thought and lasting impact! Most cool, I'm in! Chris 06:09, 8 September 2007 (UTC)

To the great nephew or great niece of Woollcott's who posted on 27 Aug 2009: please contact me. I lead walking tours at the Algonquin Hotel. Thanks! -- K72ndst (talk) 23:30, 1 September 2009 (UTC)

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It is only *your* opinion that it is too long or whatever. I had nothing at all to do with putting it in, but I think it's fine just as it is. A.W. was a noted character and wit whom I've read about for 60 years now in various sources. Most of them *describe* A.W. and *mention* his tenchant wit, but do *not* give many examples of it. So what's wrong with having a number of them here? In the article about Ted Williams the baseball player, for instance, there are many examples (numbers) illustrating his hitting skills. Why shouldn't it be the same here? Hayford Peirce (talk) 18:10, 28 June 2020 (UTC)

Because this isn't the place for a compilation of quotes that's what Wikiquote is for. Nikkimaria (talk) 23:25, 28 June 2020 (UTC) Okay, you win. No wonder Larry Sanger left WP to start a better one. Too bad it didn't work out, however. Hayford Peirce (talk) 01:22, 29 June 2020 (UTC)

Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx: A Love Story

Our latest Longreads Member Pick is “Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx: A Love Story,” by Ned Stuckey-French, originally published in 1999 in culturefront, the former magazine for the New York Council for the Humanities. It’s a story that takes a closer look at the dynamics of a friendship, and the roles we play in each other’s lives.

Alexander Woollcott fell in love with Harpo Marx the first time he saw him. It was the evening of May 19, 1924, and the Marx Brothers were making their Broadway debut in the slyly titled musical comedy I’ll Say She Is. Woollcott was there, reluctantly, to review it for the Sun. Another show, a much-hyped drama featuring a French music-­hall star, had been scheduled to open the same night, but when it was postponed at the last minute, the first­line critics decided to take the night off. Except for Woollcott. His career was in the doldrums, and hoping against hope for a scoop, he dragged himself over to see what he assumed were “some damned acrobats.”

Groucho opened the show with the kind of Dadaesque wordplay that would soon make him famous. In the first routine he was asked by a straight man if he’d ever been on the stage before, to which he replied, “I played a part in Ben Hur once.” “What part?” “A girl. She played the part of Ben, and I played her.” The tone was set. It was an evening of chaos, double entendres, and gender confusion, especially during the show’s centerpiece—a takeoff on the Napoleon and Josephine story in which Napoleon (Groucho) is forced back to Paris again and again to thwart the not­-unwelcome advances Josephine receives from his three ministers, Gaston (Harpo), François (Chico), and Alphonse (Zeppo). Everyone ends up groping everyone else. Woollcott loved it all, but was especially transported by Harpo, as the title of his review the next day testifies: “Harpo Marx and Some Brothers ­ Hilarious Antics Spread Good Cheer at the Casino.” We should be grateful, he said, for these four “talented cutups,” but especially for the “silent brother, that sly, unexpected, magnificent comic among the Marxes.”

The review was more than a rave, it was a mash note, for Woollcott was gay and suddenly smitten. Like a nervous stage­door Johnny, he called Harpo the next day and wrangled an invitation backstage, using his review and a word from their mutual friend Charles MacArthur as calling cards. Their meeting was rocky at first. Harpo thought Woollcott had slighted his brothers and called the review the “lousiest” he’d ever read, but he liked the way Woollcott laughed and decided to accept an invitation to a poker game at the Algonquin. When Woollcott finally rose to leave, he offered his hand, but Harpo pulled an old vaudeville gag that would become one of his signature moves: he offered his leg instead. As Harpo recalled it in his 1961 autobiography Harpo Speaks!, “He pushed my knee away in disgust. ‘See here, Marx,’ he said, with the full hoity­toity treatment. ‘Kindly confine your baboonery to the stage. Off it, you are a most unfunny fellow.’ I liked him more and more.”

Here already was the tug­-of­-war, the teasing and the battle of wits that would characterize their relationship for the next two decades. From that first night until his death in 1943, Woollcott focused most of his considerable desire on Harpo. Groucho, in an interview he gave Richard Anobile late in life, summed it up with a balance of indelicacy and humanity that was characteristic. Woollcott was, he said, “a fag” who “was in love with Harpo in a nice way.” Harpo’s own characterization of their friendship (again in Harpo Speaks!) was less forthcoming, but also tender: “I could never figure Aleck out completely, nor he me. He was too complicated and I was too simple. Our friendship was a life­long game of ‘Who Am I?’ It was frustrating, exasperating, and sometimes downright silly, but it was a good, rewarding game…. He was a true friend.” Harpo was not, however, so simple, and the game they played was as much “Do You Want Me?” as “Who Am I?”

Though he miscast the difference, Harpo was correct in claiming there was one. The two men formed an odd couple in the constellation of oddballs that was the Algonquin Round Table. Woollcott was pudgy, fastidious, and bookish, a dandy with a sentimental, Victorian heart and an acidic, modern wit. James Thurber called him “Old Vitriol and Violets.” Harpo, on the other hand, was Harpo, a real-­life version of his goofy, Pan-­like, horn-­honking self. He was all libido, always “on,” seemingly up for anything. Their relationship prompted much conjecture. Harpo’s sister-­in-­law, Betty, said later, “A lot of rumors went around that weren’t true.” She’s probably right that the rumors weren’t true, though that doesn’t mean Woollcott’s love was unrequited. The affection the two men shared was real, if not physical. They were the “Odd Couple,” Felix and Oscar, locked in a long flirtation. Woollcott scolded, Harpo teased.

For years they vacationed together and exchanged notes on the anniversary of their meeting. The vacations even continued after 1936, when, at the age of 42, Harpo married Susan Fleming, a Hollywood starlet. Woollcott wrote letters on behalf of the newlyweds as they tried to adopt a child, and when they finally brought their son home, they named him William Woollcott Marx and made “Uncle Acky” his godfather. In 1941, when Billy was three, the four of them summered together in Massachusetts where Harpo and Woollcott performed in a local production of “Yellow Jacket,” a “Chinese ritual drama.” It was an old favorite of Woollcott’s Harpo said it was so boring it ought to be called “Straight Jacket.”

Woollcott is remembered almost exclusively as “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” His friends George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart patterned their play’s central character, Sheridan Whiteside, an annoying New York critic and radio celebrity, after him, and he played the part in two early road productions. Forgotten now is the fact that Woollcott was one of America’s most popular writers during the 1920s and 1930s. He published screenplays, biographies, and collections of essays, wrote numerous profiles and the “Shouts and Murmurs” page for The New Yorker, contributed obituaries of his friends to an “In Memoriam” column in The Atlantic Monthly, and hosted a popular CBS radio show, “The Town Crier.” If he is remembered more today as a personality than as a writer, it is because his great talent, as John Mason Brown put it in his introduction to The Portable Woollcott, was to play “Johnson to his own Boswell.” “Nothing Woollcott did or thought escaped notice,” said E.B. White in a letter to Woollcott biographer Wayne Chatterton. “He saw to that.” The self that Woollcott created and promoted was more than a late­-night movie cliché. It was the quintessential version of a certain modern gay style, a style that fends off sadness with wit and uses double entendres to hint at the double life. It is the mix of sentiment and bitterness, of nostalgia and high camp, that one finds in the lyrics of Cole Porter and Noel Coward and the performances of Monty Wooley and Clifton Webb. Violets and Vitriol.

When Hollywood took this manner of bitchy elegance beyond vitriol to violence, Woollcott was still the precedent. In Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir classic, Laura, Webb portrayed Waldo Lydeker, who was, like Woollcott, an arrogant, fastidious, column­writing gourmet, radio celebrity and aficionado of true crime who lunched at the Algonquin. He was also a murderer, and his most famous line was “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

Woollcott was no murderer, but he did have a temper. During their last summer together, Harpo got bored during “Yellow Jacket,” ad­-libbed a bit and stole the show. Afterwards, Woollcott blew up at him, and Harpo stormed out. This reaction was new, and Woollcott was terrified, admitting later to a friend, “I couldn’t wait to get to him.” When he did, he knocked at the door and called, “Uncle Acky’s here! Bearing gifts for Master William and Mistress Susan and apologies for Little Harpo!” Inside, Woollcott fussed over Susan and Billy, but couldn’t choke out the apology. Over a game of cribbage, he tried instead to “straighten out” Harpo’s “misunderstanding.” Harpo stared silently at his cards. Woollcott “got madder and madder,” finally banging so hard on the table the cards and cribbage board flew off onto the floor. “Goddamn it!” he said, “If you don’t like me, Harpo, there’s no reason why anyone on earth should like me! You’ve seen the best side I have.” Harpo calmly began picking up the cards. Woollcott, recalled Harpo, let out “a noise like a collapsing balloon,” bent over, and picked up the cribbage board. They both began laughing. Such was the teeter-­totter of their love. They were Uncle Acky and Little Harpo. “He felt it was his responsibility to keep me out of mischief,” said Harpo. “He was like a stern old bachelor uncle, although he was actually only six years my senior.”

Uncle Acky had his hands full. Keeping Harpo out of trouble was a full­-time job, especially during the summer of 1928, when he and Harpo rented a villa on the French Riviera with their friends Alice Duer Miller, Beatrice Kaufman, and Ruth Gordon. Harpo set the tone when he had a tuxedo made of green pool­ table felt for the high-­society soirées. When Woollcott alone was invited to one affair at the Eden Roc, he lorded it over the others, so Harpo and Gordon decided to crash it and surprise their friend. They sneaked in through the kitchen and got a table next to Woollcott’s. When the waiter arrived with the main course—a whole poached salmon—Harpo grabbed the platter and tossed it over the patio railing into the Mediterranean. “Don’t think I care for the fish,” he said. “What’s on the Blue Plate tonight?” Everyone but Woollcott laughed he pretended not to know who the rude clown was.

Part of the problem that summer was Woollcott’s melancholy. His sister Julie had just died and he was feeling his own mortality. He’d quit his job as a drama critic and begun free­lancing full­-time in hopes that he could produce something lasting. The trip to France was part of his plan. He wanted to make a splash there with the international literary set. Instead, it was Harpo who made the splash. One day, Woollcott took him to meet Somerset Maugham at Maugham’s villa, lecturing him all the way about good behavior. When they arrived, Harpo was surprised to find Maugham younger-­looking and less swishy and stuffy than he’d expected. He greeted them, Harpo recalled, looking “lean and brown” in “only shorts and sandals,” and “sizzl[ing] with energy and good cheer.” Maugham insisted on a tour of the house. Upstairs, he showed them the master bedroom, positioned so he could dive from its window straight into his pool. While Woollcott and Maugham were turned away discussing a painting, Harpo stripped down and made the dive. Woollcott acted appalled, assuming that Maugham also would be aghast, but the Englishman quickly shed his shorts and sandals, and followed Harpo through the window.

Another afternoon, Woollcott invited Mr. and Mrs. George Bernard Shaw for lunch. He fussed over arrangements all morning (“jittery as a girl on her first date,” said Harpo) and then had himself chauffeured into town to meet the Shaws, who were arriving by train. Harpo said “to hell with the whole affair” and went for a nude swim. As he dozed in the sun, the Shaws pulled up. They had missed Woollcott in town and hired their own driver out to the villa. Harpo just managed to get a towel around himself as the guests came up the walk, Shaw yelling “Where the devil’s Woollcott? Who the devil are you?” As Harpo introduced himself, Shaw reached down and yanked the towel away, laughed, and nonchalantly introduced himself. By the time Woollcott arrived, sweating and anxious, Harpo and the Shaws were fast friends. The three of them spent the next month palling around Antibes—much to Woollcott’s apparent chagrin. “Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw!” he sniffed. “Corned beef and roses!”

Harpo knew it was an act, noting that Woollcott “loved playing the game of Strange Bedfellows.” Harpo didn’t mind that game, but he “didn’t exactly care for the type of dog Aleck put on, on the Riviera” and his escapades that summer were designed to bring Woollcott back down to earth. His plan seemed to work. According to Harpo (in Harpo Speaks!), Woollcott admitted that “every man as pretentious as old Alexander” needs such friends “to remind him of what really makes the world go round, and that everything else is just pretending.”

Not everyone was as convinced as they were that their Bachelor Uncle and Naughty Nephew routine was really so healthy. Oscar Levant said that Woollcott was Harpo’s “father-­transference figure” according to Dorothy Parker, a Jungian psychoanalyst told Woollcott that if he really wanted to deal with his “uncomfortable personality,” he needed to face head­-on the fact that he was in love with Harpo. Woollcott’s five biographers have also medicalized his homosexuality, or (with Woollcott’s help) denied it. Woollcott blamed his effeminacy on a bad case of the mumps at the age of twenty-­two, explaining that the “beastly complication” left him “a pretty trivial, rootless person, a fellow of motley and diffused affections, permanently adrift.” Mumps might have left him sterile, but not impotent in any case, his sexual confusion began much earlier. During his teens, he regularly cross­-dressed, signed his letters “Alicia,” and was nicknamed “Cream Puff.” In college, at Hamilton, Cream Puff became “Putt” (short for “Putrid”), the jocks beat him up regularly, and he contemplated suicide. He got through it all by reading Krafft­-Ebing, Havelock Ellis, and Oscar Wilde on “inversion,” and decided to accept himself.

In his breakthrough 1994 book, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-­1940, George Chauncey explains that “the hetero-­homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture, is a stunningly recent creation” that emerged only in the 1930s and did not become entrenched until the 1940s and 1950s. In pre­-World War I New York in particular, says Chauncey, only the “fairy” who adopted effeminate gender characteristics in order to attract other men was considered a “homosexual.” His partners (or “trade”), who were often married, working-­class immigrants, were not considered homosexual because they did not take on feminine gender roles. Alexander Woollcott and Harpo Marx both came of age in the pre-­war New York that Chauncey describes, and, if their relationship was not a consummated homosexual pairing, it seems nonetheless to have partaken of the dynamics of fairy and trade—Uncle Acky, uptown, effeminate, neurotic, and verbal, and Little Harpo, downtown, masculine, cocky, and mute.

It was easier, of course, to be trade than to be a fairy. Trade were just pretending, or passing through a phase, or so innocent they didn’t really know what they were doing. The Marx Brothers did know what they were doing, however, and having Harpo seem like he didn’t know was part of the act. In his 1976 book The Groucho Phile: An Illustrated Life, Groucho noted that their circuitous plots were held together by one “common thread…our famous public personalities. We were characters, in both senses of the word,” and Harpo’s character was “sweet, innocent, disarming. ‘Puck in a fright wig, Till Eulenspiegel on the burlesque circuit.’” Like Pan, Harpo was both sexually innocent and sexually indiscriminate, a creature who had never emerged from the stage of polymorphous perversity. In Duck Soup, for instance, he is linked with a man, a woman, and a horse. In the lemonade vendor scene, he continually bumps his competition (a burly gent in a derby hat played by Edgar Kennedy) from behind, honking a horn and squirting him with a seltzer bottle. Finally, in frustration, the big fellow grabs the seltzer bottle and squirts it into Harpo’s pants. Harpo’s wide-­eyed glee signals that this turnabout is actually quite fun. Later in the film, Harpo plays Paul Revere. During his ride, he spots a lady undressing in her bedroom and heads inside to make her acquaintance. Soon they are in bed, but just as quickly, her husband arrives (once again, Edgar Kennedy). Harpo hides in the bathroom, though the audience doesn’t know exactly where. Kennedy enters the bathroom, settles into an already drawn tub, and sits on a completely submerged Harpo, who rises from the deep like an astonished porpoise. Harpo makes his escape and finally stumbles home, where he’s greeted from the window by a beautiful blonde. Again, he heads inside where the camera cuts to a slow tracking shot. At the foot of the bed are a pair of high heels, then Harpo’s boots, and finally, a set of horseshoes. Then the camera rises to reveal Harpo sleeping in a double bed with his horse, while the blonde snoozes in a single bed in the corner.

Parker Tyler, in his 1972 book Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, argues that classic American films contain two essential versions of the “professional sissy”—the infantile clown and the elegant bachelor—and that among the clowns, or “sissy boys,” Harpo’s innocence was extreme and unique. Normally (which is to say, within the heterosexual situations the studios allowed), the clowns didn’t do the chasing, they got chased and because they were chased by women, they didn’t like it. When a woman came on to a childish goofball like Jerry Lewis or Danny Kaye, he got the heebie­jeebies. Harpo, on the other hand, was able to chase blondes in his movies because, says Tyler, “he was, self­-evidently, the greatest idiot of the lot.” Or, to put it another way, his case of arrested development was especially severe. Harpo “had no proper conception of genital sexuality,” says Tyler, but “that was the whole point of his infantile satyrism: it is necessarily and eternally pseudo—just like his muteness, which nobody ‘believes’ but everybody accepts as aesthetically proper.” In The Groucho Phile, Groucho put it more succinctly: “The dames he chased were in no danger. He didn’t know what to do with them once he caught them.” “In real life,” Groucho added, “he did.”

This contradiction between Harpo’s on­-stage innocence and real­-life competence may have been one reason Woollcott found him attractive. Harpo could have it both ways. He was so sure of himself sexually he could act as if he didn’t know which end was up or who was who, both in his films and in real life. He could, for example, strip down in front of two gay men at Maugham’s villa. That was an advantage of being trade—you could go either way and still be a man. The attentions of a “real man” like Harpo must have been comforting to someone as uncomfortable with his homosexuality as Woollcott was.

Woollcott’s “condition” (as he referred to it) left him confused, unsatisfied, and often lonely, and he sought compensation in many ways. Woollcott, said Harpo in Harpo Speaks!, “loved the pure existence part of living, the yapping, scraping, laughing, eating, romping, exploring­the­world part of it ­ but never, sad to say, the intimate, sexual part of it,” and so “felt compelled to live three times harder than anybody else ever had the right or the capacity to live.” Hard work and the high life were not enough, however. Woollcott believed that life had to include marriage and parenthood, and he proposed marriage to five different women. They each laughed him off. He seemed to know they would, for his proposals were always couched in irony. To one of the five, the painter Neysa McMein, he suggested that the story of their life together might best be titled Under Separate Cover.

He usually treated parenthood with the same mock seriousness. “Nineteen times a godfather, never a father,” he complained, and prior to a hernia operation in 1923, he said he was being admitted for “chronic childbirth.” His friends went along with the joke. They sent him a card that pictured a nurse holding up a little replica of Woollcott, complete with mustache and spectacles, while the genuine article looked on from bed a caption proclaimed “It’s a boy!” Away from the Algonquin gang’s cynicism he searched more earnestly for parenthood, especially in his relationship with Frode Jensen, a Danish boy estranged from his own family, whom Woollcott put through medical school and considered adopting.

In some sense he did adopt Harpo, taking over for Minnie Marx, Harpo’s mother, after that opening night in New York. Minnie, the daughter of a magician, was the consummate stage mother. The Marxes never “went on stage,” wrote Woollcott in his obituary for Minnie, “they were pushed on.” But once she had pushed them as far as Broadway, she decided they were “a finished job and therefore no longer interesting,” or at least that was the conclusion Woollcott came to while sitting next to her at a dinner party shortly after the premiere of I’ll Say She Is, during which she didn’t mention her sons once, though “the newspapers were humming with the triumph of the Marxes.” (Woollcott neglects to mention that he was doing much of the humming.) For him, the Marxes were not a finished job radio, movies, and national exposure lay ahead, and he had the know-­how and connections to take them there, especially Harpo, who, he always said, should do a single.

Woollcott also took responsibility for educating Harpo, who was notoriously illiterate. In an on­going game of “Murder” at Woollcott’s Vermont island retreat, Harpo sneaked into a little­-used back bathroom and wrote “YOU ARE DED” on the first sheet of toilet paper. Hours later, someone sighted Alice Miller through the keyhole. Once “murdered,” she was unable to unlock the bathroom and come out. Everyone thought it the perfect crime—except Woollcott, who claimed a breech of the rules. The Murderer must confront his Victim in person, and besides “dead” was misspelled. As Harpo recalled it, “Little Acky had a terrible tantrum and went to bed without his supper.” Harpo’s illiteracy (and ingenuity) had turned the tables on his tutor, making Uncle Acky act like a baby.

Harpo might have been illiterate, working class, Jewish, and decidedly ungenteel, but he was charming, and no one knew that more than Woollcott, who was painfully aware that his own wit and erudition often turned into bitchiness and snobbery. Woollcott envied Harpo’s illiteracy, or at least the lack of inhibition that seemed to come with it. In a profile of Harpo (along with Irving Berlin and Norman Bel Geddes, two other Woollcott friends and grade school drop­outs) titled, “I Might Just as Well Have Played Hooky,” Woollcott admitted that he was possessed of that particularly “Puritan inheritance, the touching faith in the sheer magic of going to school.” Harpo, on the other hand, had only five years of schooling, all in “one grade, due, he felt complacently at the time, to his infatuated teacher’s reluctance to part with him.” This story—told by Harpo and latched upon by Woollcott—hints at the pedophiliac undertones of their relationship.

Those undertones are less subdued in some of Woollcott’s other profiles of Harpo. In a 1928 New Yorker piece entitled “Portrait of a Man With Red Hair,” he repeats the story about the teacher’s reluctance to part with Harpo. He then tells how cute Harpo was when he wet his pants the first time he appeared on stage, describes Harpo’s addiction to cribbage (“[Harpo] hopes he will never be too old to peg”), and quotes Freud collaborator William Bolitho on Harpo as a “rosy­-haired boy with the odd, beautiful face of a changeling,” who is really “a goblin, a racial superstition,” “a suppressed wish-­complex,” and a “little, lustful, adroit spirit.”

One way to distance yourself from the implications of what you are saying is to hide behind double­entendre and quotations from respected European authorities another is to act as if you are above it all. Woollcott was a master at both. He knew, wrote his friend Thornton Wilder in an assessment of Woollcott’s letters for the Harvard Library Bulletin, how to “project himself as the arbiter of homely virtues.” He planned his friends’ weddings, decorated their apartments, and regularly recommended sentimental family fare such as Good­bye, Mr. Chips or Disney’s Dumbo to his radio audience. Parker Tyler points out that the exaggerated moral reserve of the male old maid functioned as protection in a world where heterosexuality is hegemonic. Aware of society’s suspicions about confirmed bachelors, the Woollcottian character (Webb as Lydeker, Wooley as Whiteside, or Woollcott as himself) drained his performance of as much true romanticism and identifiable innuendo as possible. He was, says Tyler, “disinfected of eroticism,” “stylishly unsexy,” a “postgraduate in the school of love” (as opposed to Harpo’s class clown, who acts as if he doesn’t even know he’s in school).

But even when adopting this careful genteel pose, Woollcott couldn’t resist the inside joke. One of his signature moves on his radio show involved talking about a guest before naming him, so that his audience had to guess who he was talking about (just as later the blindfolded panel on What’s My Line? would have to guess the identity of the mystery guest). In an essay entitled “My Friend Harpo,” he performs a variation of this routine. Not until halfway through the essay does a reader learn that the Harpo of the title is not Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers, but Woollcott’s poodle. By this point, Woollcott has already told us that Harpo “carries his approval of me to the mad length of thinking I have a kind of beauty.” It is a madness that Woollcott can believe because “many a times and oft I have read as much in the melting glance of his topaz eyes when he has been sitting with his head on my knee, the while I stroked his tousled foretop and tweaked his roguish ears.” “There is even some evidence,” adds Woollcott, “that he thinks I smell delightful.” The jig not yet up, what must the first­-time reader have thought as Woollcott described the intimacy of Harpo’s gaze? Harpo’s head on his knee? The foreplay of the stroked and tousled foretop? The tweaking of the roguish ears? And what evidence could possibly indicate that Harpo delighted in Woollcott’s smell?

Woollcott’s most famous close friend was Eleanor Roosevelt. He met her through her husband, for whom he campaigned and raised funds. On several occasions he was her guest at the White House, one time for two weeks when he was touring in The Man Who Came to Dinner. Part of what seems to have brought them together was their understanding of lost or unrequited love. After 1918, when Eleanor found out about Franklin’s affair with Lucy Mercer, their marriage had been incomplete. She was fond of quoting Woollcott’s quip that “humanity has yet achieved…abiding love only on paper.” And it was on paper that Woollcott was generally forced to express his love for Harpo.

For the nearly nineteen years they knew each other the two men wrote each other regularly, and their letters reveal even more clearly than Woollcott’s riddling essays or raving reviews the tenderness and tension that characterized their relationship. Yet they often couldn’t stop joking, even in the letters, for it was how they expressed their affection. On May 19, 1934, Woollcott wrote:

It was ten years ago today this evening that, thanks to an accidental tour to the Casino, I first laid eyes upon you. No other accident I have ever been involved in has contributed so much to my enjoyment of the world…. I love you dearly, and think the chances are that I will continue to do so until one of us dies. After you, Alphonse.

He may have been after Alphonse he may have been waiting for Alphonse he may have known it was all a vaudeville routine in which no one ever gets through the door.

The letters also reveal Harpo’s illiteracy to be as much a conceit as the stern uncle and naughty nephew routine they continuously acted out. In 1940, Woollcott suffered his first heart attack, and a worried Harpo wrote to cheer him up and to remind him who they were and where they stood. The letter opens “Dear Alec, I love you!” and closes “Alec, I hate your guts!” In between, Harpo promises to fly up to Vermont where Woollcott is recuperating. He will sneak up “through the bushes…just [to] watch your face.” But then, he recalls “I did that two or three years ago” and did it “naked,” only to be one-­upped by Uncle Aleck, who was playing croquet: “You tilted your head about three­quarters of an inch, gave me as cold a Gentile squint as ever I have seen and said [to Alice Miller], Alice, it’s your shot.’” It was a generous act to retell this anecdote and give Aleck the last word, but perhaps even more generous was Harpo’s revelation elsewhere in the letter that “every morning while practicing the harp until Bach moves my bowels, I read: ‘It behooves your correspondent to report at once that that harleqinade [sic] has some of the most comical moments vouchsafed to the first nighters in a month of Mondays…. It is a splendacious and reasonably tuneful excuse for going to see the silent brother, that shy, unexpected, magnificent comic amongst the Marxes.'”

“Your correspondent” was Woollcott and the purple passage is from his original 1924 review of I’ll Say She Is. Woollcott’s own word was “sly,” but now Harpo corrects him, reminding his friend that, although this loving review has been very important to Harpo, Woollcott should not have characterized him publicly as “sly.” The emendation seems minor, but it re­establishes Harpo’s innocence and allows the two of them to resume their roles.

They would play their parts together for another three years, until January 1943, when Woollcott, while broadcasting from New York, grew agitated defending Roosevelt’s war policy against the isolationist position, stopped in mid­ sentence, wrote “I AM SICK” on a sheet of paper, and collapsed. He died a few hours later. Harpo and Susan adopted a second son that fall and named him Alexander.

The Man Who Came to Dinner at the White House

To Alexander Woollcott, the White House was the “best theatrical boarding house in Washington.” To his hostess, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Woollcott was “a perfect guest,” one she welcomed “with open arms.” To White House Chief Usher, Howell G. Crim, however, the former drama critic, popular lecturer and radio personality, sometime actor, and Algonquin Round Table habitué was “impossible.” The White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt, considered Woollcott’s exacting demands equal to those of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who, like Woollcott, was known for his late hours and round-the-clock requirements. 1

Apart from his rigorous standards, Woollcott was also renowned for his insults. No one was safe from his barbs. Introduced to a former playwright, for example, Woollcott greeted him with, “I remember you. You were the perpetrator of an awful play I once had to review.” Asked by good friends to submit a letter of recommendation to their young daughter’s exclusive private school, Woollcott wrote, “I implore you to accept this unfortunate child and remove her from her shocking environment.” When a potential host, hearing that Woollcott planned to visit, replied reluctantly, “That’ll be nice,” Woollcott said crisply, “I’ll be the judge of that.” 2

At his island retreat in Vermont where his guests included some of the foremost names in the American theatrical and literary worlds, Woollcott “decided what games were going to be played and when everybody would eat . . . and when you would go swimming and so on,” said his friend Paul Bonner. His guests, “all fell in with his plans. Nobody said, ‘no, no, we’re not going to do that now.’” If his guests’ behavior fell below Woollcott’s strict standards, he took action. One female guest who persisted in drinking too much was summarily dismissed from the island. A male guest was banned after he missed his host’s customary croquet game. 3

Woollcott could be equally brusque in public. Once when his friends Broadway actress Helen Hayes and her playwright husband Charlie MacArthur arrived late to a dinner he had arranged at his favorite New York restaurant, Woollcott looked at them and said, “You are not to sit at this table. You can sit over there, if you wish. But you are not to sit at this table. We have started our dinner.” Hayes and MacArthur accepted his rebuke and “went over like children chastised and sat at a table to the side.” 4

If Woollcott was a tyrant in his own milieu, he could be positively despotic in someone else’s home. One woman who hosted him during one of his lecture tours recalled that he fired her cook and changed her home phone number so he could make uninterrupted long distance calls. When he could not attend the wedding of another hostess’s daughter, he simply changed the date to suit his schedule. 5

Alexander Woollcott, drama critic, actor, and frequent White House guest, is shown here on stage in The Man Who Came to Dinner, 1939.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations

Mrs. Roosevelt knew about Woollcott’s high-handed ways (years later she described him as one of the White House’s most “peculiar” guests), yet she invited him to the White House several times. 6 Clearly, she enjoyed his company. She may also have recognized that they had much in common. Both were conveners—people who brought other people together. Both were enthusiastic promoters of causes and individuals. Both were avid theatergoers. Both were accomplished lecturers and radio performers with large national followings. Both hated to be alone. Most important, both were high-energy people who thrived on hard work.

Physically they could not have looked more dissimilar. While Mrs. Roosevelt was tall and lanky, Woollcott was short and fat. With his large head, dense horn-rimmed glasses, little beak-shaped nose, twitching mustache, and flowing chins, Woollcott resembled a large ruffled owl, or as his friend, Harpo Marx, once said, “something that had gotten loose from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.” His voice was “very high and very light” and he had “a kind of pompousness in his walk,” recalled Janet Fox Goldsmith, an actress who worked with Woollcott “he was kind of a little king.” 7

Woollcott‘s “kingdom” consisted of his friends to whom he was both generous and loyal. There was a caveat to his friendship, however. “Everyone . . . he cared about had to have some degree of success or had to have some quality in his opinion that was admirable . . . worthy of talking about,” said his physician and protégé Dr. Frode jensen. A confirmed name-dropper, Woollcott regarded Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt as two of his more illustrious friends in a gallery that by 1937 included such luminaries as Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Ring Lardner, George S. Kaufman, Moss Hart, Noel Coward, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, and Talullah Bankhead. 8

Woollcott first came to the White House in January 1937 when he attended one of the Roosevelts’ Sunday scrambled eggs suppers. At the time he was touring in a play called Wine of Choice and already a national figure, he was well known for his lecture tours and his CBS radio program on which he discussed books, the theater, crime stories, his famous friends, and his pet causes. Among those causes had been FDR’s 1936 reelection. 9 Three months later, he spoke at a White House dinner honoring his friend Broadway actress, Katharine Cornell, who received the Chi Omega National Achievement award for her work in the theater (Eleanor Roosevelt was a member of the group’s nominating committee). Later that year, he served on a committee of “book connoisseurs” who recommended a list of five hundred books for the White House library. 10

In July 1939, Woollcott stayed with the Roosevelts at Hyde Park. In her syndicated column, “My Day,” Eleanor Roosevelt confessed that she felt “a little nervous for fear that Mr. Woollcott would not enjoy eating his meals out of doors.” The Roosevelts loved to picnic, and happily she found that “he prefers that to being indoors.” She also hit upon one of Woollcott’s most endearing traits as a guest or host. He was “a delightful story teller” whose “fund of tales” was “endless and always . . . interesting.” 11

Of the two Roosevelts, Woollcott was closer to the First Lady. Although he shared with the president a delight in detective stories and the novels of Charles Dickens, their relationship was not warm. Their mutual coolness may have stemmed from the fact that both were accustomed to dominating any room they entered. “When he was in Mr. Roosevelt’s company, Aleck behaved rather like a small child,” wrote his biographer Howard Teichmann. “Either he maintained a pouting silence or he spoke too eagerly, too pleasingly, and too loudly.” 12 Around Mrs. Roosevelt, however, Woollcott assumed the attitude of an attentive cavalier. He offered to run errands for her, advised her on what books and films to read and see, and on one occasion reviewed radio scripts for her. He often signed his letters to her, “Yours to command.” 13 For her part, Mrs. Roosevelt not only enjoyed Woollcott’s company but also publicized his work in “My Day.” For example, in December 1937 when her cousins, Alice Roosevelt Longworth and Theodore Roosevelt Jr., published an anthology of poetry, she noted that Woollcott had originated the project by asking his radio listeners to send them “anything they had read and clipped out and put into a drawer to read again.” In February 1940, she recommended “three stories about dogs” Woollcott had written: “Everyone who likes dogs will enjoy these stories.” 14

Of the two Roosevelts, Woollcott was closer to the First Lady. Although he shared with the president a delight in detective stories and the novels of Charles Dickens, their relationship was not warm.

In the spring of 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt and Woollcott met in San Francisco. She was there to give a lecture, while he was touring in a production of the hit play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. Woollcott invited her to have coffee with him in his sumptuous suite at the Fairmont Hotel, an event she described as “one of my most pleasant San Francisco experiences.” She reciprocated by inviting him to stay at the White House during the play’s Washington run. Her invitation turned out to be a case of life imitating art. 15

In 1938, Woollcott, then touring a play that he considered badly written, had asked his friend Broadway playwright, Moss Hart, and Hart’s partner, George S. Kaufman, to write a play for him. Kaufman and Hart, who had experienced Woollcott’s dictatorial ways firsthand, took his manners and his mannerisms as their starting point. Then they asked themselves, what if their friend had become ill while staying at someone’s house and had had to stay on indefinitely? 16

The result was The Man Who Came to Dinner, which opened on Broadway in the fall of 1939. The play’s plot revolves around the character of Sheridan Whiteside, a popular lecturer, who finds himself trapped in the home of a prominent Mesalia, Ohio couple after falling and fracturing his hip on their doorstep. He returns the hospitality of his reluctant host and hostess by turning their lives upside down. Although he is wheelchair bound, he commandeers the first floor of the house as well as the domestic staff and then proceeds to run up huge bills telephoning or cabling his famous friends all over the world. Some of those friends, including thinly disguised versions of Harpo Marx and Noel Coward, actually turn up in Mesalia, where they add to the fun and mayhem. He also encourages the children of the family to follow their dreams while trying to thwart a budding romance between his secretary and the local newspaper editor. 17

Although Woollcott loved the play, he ultimately decided not to star in the Broadway production in case it flopped. He hid his anxiety behind his customary bravado. “It struck me that it would be alienating and even offensive for me to come forward and say in effect, ‘See how rude and eccentric I can afford to be,’” he wrote his British friend, Lady Sibyl Colefax. “Besides I had a sneaking notion that the play would be a success, in which case I might have to stay in New York for two years. . . . However, I thought the play very funny and told George Kaufman that once the joke had been sprung I would not at all mind heading a second company.” 18

The play was a huge hit, and Woollcott’s wish came true. He headlined a West Coast touring production of The Man Who Came to Dinner that opened in Santa Barbara, California, on February 9, 1940 and moved up the coast to San Francisco. Shortly after Woollcott had coffee with Eleanor Roosevelt, however, he suffered a massive heart attack and had to cancel the tour. 19 She wrote him that she was “very much distressed to read in the newspapers” that he was ill and “had to give up the play. I do hope you will get rest and take care of yourself.” 20 While recuperating at his Vermont retreat that fall, Woollcott wrote Mrs. Roosevelt inviting her to visit—a recurring topic in their subsequent correspondence. She declined the invitation, but she did not forget Woollcott. By November, he was well enough to endorse FDR’s third term bid on a radio broadcast he paid for himself, and by December, he was back at the White House. 21

In his usual high-handed manner, Woollcott had asked to bring his secretary with him as he was “in arrears” with his work. Eleanor Roosevelt complied with this request, writing Woollcott, “I hope you will bring your secy & make yourself at home.” She then directed that he be put “in large N.E. room [S.E.?]—secy in small room.” 22 Ever the curmudgeon, Woollcott found his accommodations less than desirable, mostly because of the presence of other White House guests. Writing to George Kaufman, he said, “This place isn’t what it used to be. My room is a vast, comfortable place where the Emancipation Proclamation was signed and where later the king of England [George VI] was lodged.” But, he reported, since the journalist Martha Gellhorn—(who had only a month before married author Ernest Hemingway)—was leaving and his bête noire, the novelist-playwright Edna Ferber was moving in, “I will be back at the Gotham [Hotel] tomorrow evening.” 23

No hint of Woollcott’s distress permeated Eleanor Roosevelt’s “My Day” column. Instead, she told readers about the way Woollcott “gathered” her and her other guests to listen to a poignant radio broadcast between Emlyn Williams, author of the play The Corn Is Green, then enduring the Blitz in England, and the New York cast of the play, which included his wife, the actress Molly Shan. In the same column, she also slyly alluded to The Man Who Came to Dinner when she compared Woollcott to his alter ego Sheridan Whiteside and hinted at his future visit. “Though I know he fancies himself in that particular role,” she wrote, “as his hostess, I will have to say that in real life he is far from . . . the character which is depicted on the stage. We have enjoyed every minute of his visit and the latchstring hangs out for the future.” 24

Woollcott’s subsequent arrival with the company of The Man Who Came to Dinner in February 1941 was a major event. “A Prodigious Fellow Arrives Tomorrow Night,” said the headline of the February 23 Washington Post over a story detailing Woollcott’s multiple careers. Eleanor Roosevelt also plugged his arrival in “My Day,” noting that he and his secretary were “settled in their rooms, prepared to meet all the rigors of daily acting.” Wise to his ways and perhaps fearing that the stress of playing Sheridan Whiteside every night would affect his behavior at the White House, she acknowledged that “if one incurred his displeasure, the imp in ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ might conceivably come forth even in my most welcome guest.” At least initially, however, Woollcott was on his best behavior, bringing films made in Florida and Vermont for Mrs. Roosevelt and her other guests to view. 25

That said, Woollcott wasted no time in making himself thoroughly at home. Writing George Kaufman’s wife, Beatrice, on February 25, he suggested that, “any of your party could pay a morning call on me in our quarters here [he was ensconced in the Rose Bedroom] on Saturday or Sunday or both.” He cautioned her, however, that “if you have any notion of visiting the tenants of this house . . . you should write Mrs. Roosevelt announcing that you are coming to town, reporting where you will be lodged and asking if there is any time when you can pay your respects.” 26

That night the Roosevelts went to see Woollcott at the National Theatre, a rare outing for FDR, who seldom went to the theater. Eleanor Roosevelt told readers of “My Day” that the occasion “was one of the few times I have ever seen the National Theatre packed, no empty seats were to be seen.” Of Woollcott’s performance, she said, “His appearance adds greatly to the flavor of the scenes.” 27 She also noted that some of the play’s lines had been changed. For example, when Sheridan Whiteside urges June, the daughter of his upper-middle-class hosts, to marry a labor organizer who is organizing her father’s factory, and June says, “You—You mean that, Mr. Whiteside?” Whiteside/Woollcott replied, “No, marry Hamilton Fish” (the isolationist Republican congressman Hamilton Fish Jr., who represented the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park congressional district). On a more poignant note, Whiteside’s Christmas Day telephone call came from Walt Disney rather than from the writer Gertrude Stein as originally written, in tacit recognition of the fact the Nazis then occupied Paris. However, Whiteside’s oblique reference to Eleanor Roosevelt’s legendary hospitality in the form of the “twenty-two Chinese students who came straight from the White House” to see him remained as written. 28

After the performance, Woollcott told a reporter that he hoped he would finish out his stay at the White House and not “get put out beforehand.” Then he and the rest of the cast members repaired to the White House for supper. 29 “Supper was served in the State Dining Room,” recalled Janet Fox Goldsmith, who played Whiteside/Woollcott’s nurse in the play. “It was marvelous and we all enjoyed ourselves thoroughly.” However, Woollcott, never one to settle for moderation when excess would do, continued to host midnight suppers after each night’s performance “and word came back to us that the Roosevelts were getting a bit upset. . . . The White House chef gave his notice saying, ‘I’ve served an awful lot of people but at two in the morning?’” 30 Woollcott’s active social life particularly annoyed White House Chief Usher, Howell G. Crim, who could not get over the way the actor invited “guests right up to his room.” Crim also found Woollcott’s habit of ringing for coffee “at all hours of the night” irritating. 31

As his visit drew to a close, Woollcott wrote a vacationing Eleanor Roosevelt in Florida, using White House notepaper because “I thought you would get a thrill out of receiving a letter written on this stationery.” After telling her about a snowfall in Washington that “flabbergasted” the city, he described FDR’s reaction to Woollcott’s airy dismissal of the fact that the bad weather would reduce the size of his audience. “I replied cheerfully that inasmuch as the seats had all been sold I would be undisturbed by the fact that the people did not occupy them. He [FDR] seemed decently appalled at so commercial a viewpoint.” 32

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (pictured here in the White House c. 1937) considered Woollcott a “perfect guest” and a “delightful story teller.”

Woollcott finally left the White House on March 9, 1941, when the Washington run of The Man Who Came to Dinner ended. He never again spent so much time at the White House, but he did visit several times in 1942. Although he generally managed to behave, there were times when “the imp” of The Man Who Came to Dinner reappeared. For example, he never overcame his habit of demanding coffee at all hours of the day and night. His demands plus the coffee rationing World War II brought on caused “a strain,” according to the White House housekeeper, Henrietta Nesbitt. Woollcott, whose health was failing, was so “irascible and impatient,” she recalled, that the staff who worked on the Second Floor “was afraid of his sharp tongue.” He did, however, leaven his demands with humor “so they couldn’t resent him.” 33

On at least two occasions, Woollcott shifted from guest to host, a shift that was easy to accomplish as Mrs. Roosevelt was often away from the White House. At one point he met her as she was coming in and he was going out. “Welcome, Mrs. Roosevelt, come right in,” he said. “I am delighted to see you. Make yourself at home.” 34 Another time he actually extended White House hospitality to a young friend serving in the Marines. When, after a night of eating and drinking with Woollcott and his friend, the writer Thornton Wilder, the young man missed the last train back to his barracks, Woollcott—in a manner Sheridan Whiteside would have envied—took him back to the Executive Mansion and “not finding so much as a third-assistant usher on duty” installed the startled serviceman in a room once used by Winston Churchill. By way of apology, he wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, who was then at Hyde Park, that it was not true “that as soon as you and the President had carelessly left the premises unguarded, I quartered a regiment of marines at the White House.” 35

Despite his White House peccadilloes, Eleanor Roosevelt and Woollcott continued to stay in touch. They met one last time in New York City, shortly before his sudden death on January 23, 1943. According to “My Day,” they discussed “the last war and this one, our mistakes in between, what we must to do obviate their repetition and what he himself was trying to do.” Apparently, they also discussed how she should answer when asked, “What is your war work?”—a question she apparently found “embarrassing.” 36 They also discussed the possibility of the first lady giving a birthday party for Woollcott. He advised her “to give the whole thing up” because “none of us has a right to plan such an evening in these times.” She reluctantly agreed. 37

After his death, Eleanor Roosevelt eulogized Woollcott in “My Day,” remembering his “foibles and eccentricities,” his storytelling ability, his conversational skills, and, somewhat surprisingly given his reputation for insulting friends and foes, his ability to listen, especially to young people. “I am glad to have the memory of his friendship,” she concluded. “I shall miss him.” 38

Eleanor Roosevelt did more than miss the man journalist Elmer Davis once called a “cross between Nero and St. Francis.” She burnished his reputation, meeting with one of his early biographers and commenting favorably when she received advance copies of his last posthumously published book, a literary anthology for servicemen called As You Were. 39 She also continued to remember Woollcott long after his death. More than twenty years after their meeting at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, she was still reminiscing about him. “I never go there without thinking of Alexander Woollcott who used to love to stay in one of the rooms . . . where he would ask friends to come to tea,” she wrote in “My Day.” “I remember what a pleasure it was to sit and listen to him talk.” 40

This article was originally published in White House History Number 30 Fall 2011

Alexander Woollcott- His last word was ‘Hitler’

Alexander Woollcott, in full Alexander Humphreys Woollcott, (born January 19, 1887, Phalanx, New Jersey, U.S.—died January 23, 1943, New York City, New York), American author, critic, and actor known for his acerbic wit. A large, portly man, he was the self-appointed leader of the Algonquin Round Table, an informal luncheon club at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel in the 1920s and ’30s.

Woollcott, when, on January 23, 1943, he appeared on his last radio broadcast, as a participant in a Writers’ War Board panel discussion on the CBS Radio program The People’s Platform. Marking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the topic was “Is Germany Incurable?” Panelists included Woollcott, Hunter College president George Shuster, Brooklyn College president Henry Gideonse, and novelists Rex Stout and Marcia Davenport. The program’s format began as a dinner party in the studio’s private dining room, with the microphones in place. Table talk would lead into a live network radio broadcast, and each panelist would begin with a provocative response to the topic. “The German people are just as responsible for Hitler as the people of Chicago are for the Chicago Tribune,” Woollcott stated emphatically, and the panelists noted Woollcott’s physical distress. 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, of a cerebral hemorrhage.

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Alexander Woollcott - History

One of the greatest keepers of correspondence of the Algonquin Round Table was the man who the group formed around, Alexander Woollcott. Of all 30 members of the Vicious Circle, only he had his letters posthumously published. One of his greatest hits, from November 10, 1934, turns 85 years old today.

It was written to lyricist and friend Ira Gershwin, among the biggest names in Broadway from the last century. Woollcott was close to him and his brother, George Gershwin. For whatever reason–lost to history today–Ira decided to use the word “disinterested” in the presence of the public and Woollcott. The electric chair that Woollcott wanted to put the Broadway star onto just leaps off the page. Among the others in the letter are Ben Hecht, the newspaperman-turned-playwright who co-wrote The Front Page with Woollcott’s pal, Charles MacArthur, and producer Jed Harris.

The letter in all its glory is presented here.

At the time Woollcott was a radio star on CBS, writing for The New Yorker, and spending months at his vacation home in Vermont on Lake Bomoseen.

There are many, many other Woollcott letters out there. One of these is a form letter he sent on behalf of a liquor company. It was an early form of product placement, disguised as a letter. The letter is written about from time to time by spirits and Americana writers.

Do YOU own any letters written by members of the Algonquin Round Table? That are not forgeries? Contact me and I’ll gladly look them over.


It seems to me most folks (including most people back in the day) have the wrong idea about Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943). There’s a notion about the influential drama critic that assumes a state of having been born into wealth, presumably because he was erudite and sophisticated. Woollcott gave that impression himself, with his projected pomposity and love of fine things. Silk smoking jackets! And who becomes anything as frivolous as a drama critic but someone who can afford to?

But the truth is that Woollcott came from extremely humble origins. He partially grew up in this run-down ramshackle old building that had previously been occupied by a communal living experiment in New Jersey, known as the North American Phalanx:

My buddy Kevin Fitzpatrick just visited the site and made this little film.

Woollcott’s father was a cockney immigrant who was perpetually out of work, and the family lived in near poverty. Fortunately an English teacher mentored the precocious and literarily inclined youngster. A family friend underwrote his education at Hamilton College. So you see, “Alexander Woolcott”, the larger-than-life persona was a creation, an armor to keep the world at bay. I’m not saying he didn’t have the famous personality within him, but you must admit, it was a convenient one, designed to impress, and deflect one from any notion that he’d ever been associated with anything modest.

After college (1909) he was hired by the New York Times as a rookie reporter, and became a drama critic there in 1914. In 1917 he helped Minnie Maddern Fiske write Mrs Fiske: Her Views on Actors, Acting and the Problems of Production.

In 1917 — shockingly — he volunteered for duty in World War One. We think of him as “soft”, perhaps the softest man that ever lived, but he wasn’t that soft. He became one of the founding staff of the official U.S. service newspaper Stars and Stripes, along with Harold Ross, who would later found The New Yorker, and Franklin P. Adams (a.k.a. F.P.A.) a fellow future member of the Algonquin Roundtable. After the war Woollcott returned to the critics’ desk at the Times, where he remained until 1922. George S. Kaufman became drama editor at the Times in 1918 the two became lifelong friends and sometime collaborators. Dorothy Parker became drama critic at Vanity Fair in 1918 she and her colleague Robert Benchley started meeting for lunch at the Algonquin. Fellow drama critics Woollcott and Kaufman were natural ones to join them, and in time, dozens of people claimed to be part of these daily regular wastes of time. I am not going to quote the famous wits at all here. It’s been done to death, it gives me no pleasure, go somewhere else for that.

After the Times, Woollcott was at the New York Herald (1922-1923) and the New York World (1923-1929). It was during this time, the Roaring Twenties, that his secretly plebian tastes put some cherished popular theatre artists on the map. His review of the Marx Brothers’ first show I’ll Say She Is, and his continued advocacy on behalf of the genius of Harpo were the making of the team. Likewise, that same year (1924), his review of Poppy did the same thing for W.C. Fields. (As a fellow lover of Charles Dickens it was a near-given that Woollcott would love Fields) In 1925 he wrote a biography about another populist genius Irving Berlin. At the same time, Woolcott was so vicious to certain shows that some Broadway theatres banned him. Woollcott took them to court in 1916, and lost.

As the 1920s draws to a close and we get into the 󈧢s, Woollcott outgrows the drama critic mantle and becomes many things all at the same time:

From 1929 through 1934 he wrote the “Shouts and Murmurs” column for The New Yorker for his old army buddy Harold Ross.

At the same time he became a radio star, helming a book review show called The Early Bookworm for CBS from 1929 to 1933, and then a show called The Town Crier from 1933 through 1938 on the same network.

At the same time he became a Broadway star . He cowrote the comedy The Channel Road (1929) with Kaufman acted in the play Brief Moment (1931) co-wrote the drama The Dark Tower (1933) with Kaufman acted in the play Wine of Choice (1938) and (mind-bogglingly) played the character based on himself Sheridan Whiteside in the 1939 Kaufman-Hart comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner on a 1940 tour (pictured above).

At the same time, he became a movie star , fronting the Benchleyesque comedy short Mr. W.’s Little Game (1934) has a cameo in the Gift of Gab (1934) with Edmund Lowe, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting has a supporting role in The Scoundrel (1935) with Noel Coward and a cameo in the Mickey and Judy musical Babes on Broadway (1941).

At the same time, he was a bestselling author . While Rome Burns (1934), an anthology of his humor pieces was one of the most popular books of the first half of the 20th century. His last one, As You Were (1943) was an anthology of inspirational writings by great authors touchingly designed to be carried by troops at the front in their knapsacks . he churned about many other books than these, most of them collections of his reviews, essays and humor.

In fact, in early 1943, he died a star’s death — suffering a fatal heart attack whilst on the air on a radio show called The People’s Platform. Fortunately it was a panel show, so his fellow guests were able to cover for him as he was rushed to the hospital… where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage a few hours later.

If Woollcott had lived a few months longer he would have seen himself lampooned onscreen yet again, and this time he probably wouldn’t have liked it. In Laura, 1944 Clifton Webb plays Waldo Lydecker, an ineffectual drama critic with a radio program who goes on a killing spree out of love for a woman he can never have. Webb was gay, a fact that was but thinly disguised in most of his screen characters. Many also assumed Woollcott to be gay, but in reality “sexless” would be the more accurate characterization. As a young man he had contracted mumps, which made him almost entirely impotent. It’s the sort of thing that could make a guy real angry and savage some of the people he writes about, huh?

It’s a shame Woollcott died so young. He would have been so great on panel quiz shows and the like on television during the next decade. Like most of his Algonquin compatriots he bemoaned having “nothing to say” in his writing. It’s true, they were craftsmen and stylists, creators of trifles and bagatelles, but that’s okay. Essentially they were the literary equivalent of show business, which is why they were able to overlap so easily with the world of comedians and actors. They had a half a foot in that world themselves.

Alexander Woollcott - History

The Vermont Painting. Now that my book is out, I am looking at what went right and what went wrong with The Algonquin Round Table New York: A Historical Guide. Today I was in a file of letters, and I came across one that I never got a response to.

In 2010, I wrote to the director of the Castleton Free Library, in Castleton, Vermont. This is not far from where Alexander Woollcott and his friends had a vacation house on an island in nearby Lake Bomoseen. From what I learned, Woollcott, the egomaniac that he was, gifted to the little library a large oil painting of himself. It is the work of John Decker, a close Hollywood friend of John Barrymore and W. C. Fields. It’s based on a photo of Woollcott wearing his favorite vest, embroidered by Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt II.

At the time of the letter I was working like crazy to collect as many photos, rare and unseen, as possible. I loved this lost little piece of art, and wanted a photo of it for the book. At the most, someone just needed to get on a ladder and snap a photo for me. (The one in this blog post is from this site).

Here is my letter from Nov. 3, 2010:

I’m an author currently completing a book about New York City authors in the 1920s and one of my subjects is Alexander Woollcott. I was delighted to learn that there is a fantastic painting of Mr. Woollcott hanging in the Castleton Free Library.

I’m writing to humbly request if you could ask someone to send me a photo of the painting as it hangs in the library. Because of Mr. Woollcott’s lifelong association with literature, I’d like to include a photo of your library and the painting in my book.

If you would be so kind as to let me know if you can assist me, I’d appreciate it very much. I have until the end of the year to track down photographs, and having this addition would be a real asset to the book.


Kevin C. Fitzpatrick

And… I never got a reply. One day I hope to go to Vermont and visit the lake house and I’m going to the library to see the painting.

Watch the video: 385 Alexander Woollcott


  1. Mashiro

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  2. Nascien

    Brilliant phrase

  3. Tayyib

    you strayed from the conversation

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