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Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon With Words

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The New Yorker
A Guided Tour Through The New Yorker | Ross's Little Magazine (1925 - 1951) | Mr Shawn's New Yorker (1951 - 1987) | A Condé Nast Publication (1987 - present) | Harold Ross - The History | Harold Ross - The Man | Katherine S White - Rewriter of Noon | EB White - Most Companionable of Writers | James Thurber - Raconteur Extraordinaire | Wolcott Gibbs - Surgeon with Words | William Shawn - Invisible Editor

It is my indignant opinion that 90% of the moving pictures exhibited in America are so vulgar, witless and dull that it is preposterous to write about them in any publication not intended to be read while chewing gum.
— Wolcott Gibbs

Wolcott Gibbs: writer, poet, journalist, editor, playwright, critic, was an early member of The New Yorker's staff who served the magazine in almost every capacity before his abrupt death. Versatile with a typewriter but awkward at socialising, Gibbs was typical of the brilliant misfits who staffed The New Yorker in its early days and raised it to its current prestigious pedestal.

The Facts

Oliver Wolcott Gibbs was born in 1902 to a prosperous and highbrow family. He was named after Oliver Wolcott, a delegate to the Continental Congress who signed the Declaration of Independence and from whom he was descended, but whose first name he despised. When he was six, his father died and his alcoholic mother lost custody of her children; Gibbs and his siblings were raised by a bachelor uncle who wandered all over the West.

Gibbs attended The Hill School, an elite boarding secondary school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, from which he was expelled. Though he attended another prep school, he never went on to college. Instead, he spent some time as a brakeman on the Long Island Railroad and was married to a railroad man's daughter for a brief time. From there he became a reporter for a Long Island newspaper before joining The New Yorker late in 1928.

He married an energetic and ambitious girl from the magazine's advertising department who threw herself out the window one night and died1. He later married again, this time to a well-bred young lady named Elinor, and they had two children, a house near Beekman Place and a summer home on Fire Island. He died suddenly in 1958 on Fire Island, cigarette in hand.

The Man

Appearance and Temperament

Maybe he doesn't like anything, but he can do anything.
— Harold Ross

Gibbs was a bit embarrassed about his lack of university education. Part of his curt and rude temperament probably stemmed from his attempt to cover his ignorance. 'Don't be banal', he would sneer at someone who had made a particularly clever observation. Whether he actually despised college education (having done well enough without) or was desperately jealous will never be known.

Gibbs's most outstanding characteristic was his taciturn rudeness. As an old-timer on The New Yorker's staff, he contributed to the office's lack of social atmosphere. John Bainbridge, a pleasant fellow from Middle America, once greeted Gibbs at the water cooler with, 'Did you have a nice New Year's, Mr Gibbs?' Gibbs tossed his cup into the garbage can, replied 'F— you' and walked back to his office. Close friends like John O'Hara2 could expect better treatment, but Gibbs didn't befriend just anybody. Edmund Wilson said that in the halls Gibbs 'glided past like a ghost...his eyes always seemed to be closed'. They never spoke.

Sometimes Gibbs's rudeness was simply pragmatic. When he first became theatre critic for The New Yorker, he answered all letters criticising his criticism point by point. Three months later he had a secretary answer all the letters with a standard note:

'Dear Sir: You may be right. Sincerely, Wolcott Gibbs.'

Gibbs's self-consciousness manifested in his dress as well. Even at Hill School, he was a meticulous dresser; as an adult he was something of a dandy. He had an unreserved admiration for Lucius Beebe, a dapper man about town who took nine suits and 72 shirts along for a weekend in Hollywood. Gibbs didn't have the nerve to dress in a top hat and tailcoat as Beebe did, but did his best with a tuxedo.

Writing and Editing

Timid in more than just dress, Gibbs only once gathered himself for a grand literary effort. Perhaps he felt little need to prove himself, perhaps he lacked confidence in his abilities or perhaps he simply had nothing grand to say. As a writer, he confined himself to the short pieces that ran in The New Yorker magazine: casual essays, short stories and journalistic pieces. He was excellent at both prose and verse and reviewed books, movies and plays at various points in his New Yorker career.

When Gibbs attended a play, he would shrink down in his seat to avoid notice. 'I've always felt that play criticism was a silly occupation for a grown man,' he said. He was not, however, too shy to walk out after the first act if he deemed it a waste of time. His high standards and honest reporting left him on the bad side of owners, producers, authors, actors and even fellow reviewers. Once, he showed up drunk for a play; Harold Ross's defence was that Gibbs had 'been getting shots for an allergy'.

When his son asked him for a homework assignment what he did for a living, Gibbs replied:

Well think about it for a second. I go out to work at night and don't come back 'til after you are in bed. What do you think I do? I'm a burglar.

The principal was not amused.

His particular forté was parody, a form suited to his mocking approach to the world. His famous profile of Henry Luce, then owner of Time, Fortune and Life magazines (entitled 'Time...Fortune...Life...Luce'), done in a parody of Time magazine's journalism, made a lifelong enemy of the competing magazine. Blunt in real life, Gibbs was a subtle but wounding writer. Time magazine called one of his profiles:

one long cat-scratch.
James Thurber wrote in admiration:
When Wolcott Gibbs set out to do 'a job' on a profile subject, he brought out a fine array of surgical instruments, a rapier and a pearl-handled blackjack.

So terrifying was the prospect of being profiled by Gibbs that Ross sent St Clair McKelway to do the actual interviewing, fearing Luce wouldn't agree to speak with Gibbs. But Gibbs and a small host of spies dug up enough embarrassing information to keep Luce under his bed for weeks. For the rest, Gibbs just parodied Time magazine.

For numbers such as circulation and salary, Gibbs simply closed his eyes and struck keys at random. This was a common Time magazine practice. When subjects refused to divulge sensitive information to Time reporters, the reporters would fill in their best guess and send the article to the subject for previewing. The indignant subject would be forced to provide the correct information or endure publication of the wrong figures.

Back when it was a fledgling venture, Timenterprise developed Timestyle for use by all Timeployees and Timeditors — an affected way of combining words3 with an archaic sentence structure. Gibbs wrote:

Appearing were such maddening coagulations as 'cinemaddict', 'radiorator'...Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

His parody left readers in stitches and almost immediately Timestyle began to fade from the eponymous magazine's pages.

Gibbs's largest literary accomplishment (if meeting deadlines on diverse assignments for 30 years isn't large enough) was a Broadway show entitled Season in the Sun, a vaguely autobiographical sketch starring a thinly-veiled New Yorker staff. (The plot concerns the protagonist's attempt and failure to abandon his banal existence as writer of funny paragraphs and become significant and virtuous.) As a Broadway show, Season in the Sun was only a moderate success; as a parody of The New Yorker — and particularly Harold Ross, its editor — it received high acclaim. The play was published with a small collection of Gibbs's other works, proving to both Gibbs and the world that he was a writer of some import.

Gibbs was a New Yorker editor for many years and carried off that job as excellently as he did everything else. He honed his skill at parody by imitating other writers' styles while perfecting their copy. He took a heavy knife to extraneous wordage and usually relieved manuscripts of the weight of their first few paragraphs, making them lighter and more readable.

Gibbs left the editorial position to become the magazine's dramatic critic supposedly after being faced with a casual4 that began, 'Mr West had never been very good with machinery.' Stories about timid, ineffectual men (known around the office as 'Thurber husbands' because nearly all Thurber's male characters popped from the same mould) drove him mad5. He sent Ross a composition entitled 'Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles', presumably to train his successor.

The average contributor to this magazine is only semi-literate; that is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of elegant variations, and can be relied upon to use three sentences where a word would do.

The document is something of a classic for editors, but also embodies much of what characterised The New Yorker's style, not to mention Wolcott Gibbs's style:

...Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats...anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one and had better be removed.
...On the whole, we are hostile to puns.
...Try to preserve the author's style if he is an author and has a style. Try to make dialog sound like talk, not writing.

Recreation and Health

Gibbs loved his Fire Island home and could talk about it with unrestrained affection. He enjoyed surf fishing and editing the Fire Islander, a weekly newspaper he co-founded for the neighbourhood.

Gibbs was short with light brown hair, a narrow, gaunt face, a brown moustache6, pale skin and a cynical attitude. He enjoyed smoking, drinking and lying in the sun, preferably all at the same time. At his Fire Island home, he would often mix a shaker of dry martini, bury it up to its neck in the sand and drink, sunbathe and smoke for hours on end. After some exposure, his skin would tan and his hair would bleach, prompting Russell Maloney7 to crack that 'Gibbs in summer looks like a photographic negative'.

This lifestyle was not particularly conducive to good health, and indeed, Gibbs could never claim to be in such a happy condition. At one point, he had part of a lung removed. (Tallulah Bankhead, an actress, visited him after this surgery and performed on his behalf a one-woman vaudeville act that thrilled the nurses but embarrassed Gibbs.) He died of a heart attack in 1958 while reviewing a proof of More in Sorrow, a collection of his pieces.

1Brendan Gill has it that during a quarrel she threatened to kill herself, to which he replied 'Go ahead', and she did. Katherine White, who was with the distraught Gibbs the morning after the suicide and probably knew him better than Gill, insists that the situation was completely different.2Another astonishingly rude man. Birds of a feather, perhaps.3Which may have inspired 1984's Newspeak.4A casual was an informal essay or composition, usually humorous.5Note: This is the Thurberian account of his resignation, and Thurber's world revolves around Thurber. However, it's as good an explanation as any other, since Gibbs reserved his highest disdain for such stories.6The 'big three' of the early New Yorker, EB White, Wolcott Gibbs and James Thurber, all had moustaches.7Said to have grown a moustache hoping to become prestigious by association.

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