Opinion is a thought thrown into the wind. There is arguably no more ephemeral job than that of a critic; 99% of all critical writings fade with time. If we knew Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and George Bernard Shaw only for their works of theatre criticism, they would be unknown to most people.
Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943)- 'Aleck' to his friends - was a critic. His reputation was built on his wit and his skill as an arbiter of taste. He built a definite personality - acerbic, sometimes gushingly sentimental ('Old Vitriol and Violets' in James Thurber's phrase) - that was only sometimes connected to his written works. Time has not been kind to his reputation.
The Man Who...
To understand Woollcott, let's start with his greatest claim to fame. If you have never seen The Man Who Came to Dinner, either on the stage or in the movie version, then Woollcott may be a complete mystery to you. Otherwise, you have already got an inkling of his character just by remembering Sheridan Whiteside in that play. Whiteside is Woollcott, a caricature that exaggerates all of Woollcott's best and worst qualities. The part was written for Woollcott by two friends (well, acquaintances, anyway), Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, for Aleck to play.
Sheridan Whiteside is a radio star, writer, and spoiled middle-aged baby. He is also, during the play, trapped by a broken ankle in the home of Ernest W Stanley, in a small Ohio town. Whiteside insults people freely, meddles in the lovelife of Stanley's daughter, with good results, meddles in the love life of his secretary, with mixed results, and copes none too well with eccentrics in the house and the neighbourhood. It is great fun, and has been put on by countless schools and amateur groups over the years. Monty Woolley, a former Yale drama professor, made his greatest hit playing Whiteside on Broadway. Clifton Webb and Woollcott played in touring companies throughout the United States. Robert Morley played Whiteside in London, and went so far as to name his son Sheridan. Woollcott became Sheridan Morley's godfather, of course. Woolley appeared with Bette Davis in the movie version. Nathan Lane played Whiteside most recently on Broadway, as always, to great reviews.
Woollcott was born in an 85 room house, a vast ramshackle building that had once been a commune. It was called The Phalanx, and was in Phalanx, New Jersey. There were many social experiments in the mid-1800s, some more successful than others. When the Phalanx fell apart, due to internecine1 squabbles, it was taken over by the Bucklin family, Woollcott's maternal grandparents. There, amid his extended family, Woollcott spent large portions of his childhood. His father was a ne'er-do-well, a supposed Cockney, who drifted through various jobs, sometimes spending long periods away from his wife and children. Poverty was always close at hand.
The Bucklins and Woollcotts were avid readers, defining in young Aleck a lifelong love of literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens.
Through a family friend, Dr Alexander Humphreys (after whom Woollcott was named) young Aleck made his way through college, graduating from Hamilton College, in upstate New York, in 1909. There, despite a rather poor reputation (his nickname was 'Putrid') he founded a drama group, edited the student literary magazine, and was accepted by a fraternity.
Another quality instilled in Woollcott by his family and Doctor Humphreys was a willingness to help his fellows. It is impossible to calculate how many times he loaned money to friends, or helped put someone through college. Because of his poor eyesight, he became an ardent champion of The Seeing Eye, an organisation that trains guide dogs for the blind. He did not do such things for publicity; indeed, most of his good works went unrecorded. As a friend said, after Woollcott's death, 'If I were in trouble, and Aleck Woollcott was still alive, he'd be the first one I would go to'.
People who like exhuming skeletons from closets have often wondered about Woollcott's sexual orientation. He was, by his own admission, a rather effeminate young man. In his college drama group, he often played the female lead.
In his early 20s he contracted the mumps, which left him almost, if not completely, impotent. Whether he had any sex life afterwards is debatable. What is clear is that he formed strong and sometimes lasting affection for people of either sex. Romance might be too strong a word, though his devotion to artist Mesa McMein or actress Ruth Gordon smacked of some great romantic amour. His friendship was often returned, though there were no true love affairs. He was many times a godfather ('Always a godfather but never a god' was how he put it) and had a few friends who were close enough to constitute family. In the end, his sexuality is irrelevant. He did nothing scandalous, or even worthy of rumour.
After a short period as a bank clerk, Woollcott got a job as a reporter for The New York Times, where he soon came to the attention of Carr van Ada, the editor. Woollcott worked for a few years as a reporter, covering such things as the sinking of the Titanic, and then got the post he coveted: drama critic. He held the job until 1922, when he moved to The New York World and did the same job there until 1928.
It was as a critic that Woollcott's mixture of bile and honey drew the public's attention. Any writer who described a play as bringing on 'a taste of lukewarm parsnip juice', or an actor as 'scrupulously artificial and ever glacial' is likely to attract notice. The Schubert, who were the toughest theatre managers of the time, tried to ban him from their shows. The Times threw out Schubert's advertising, causing a considerable flutter - no critic had ever been allowed such freedom before - and the Schubert relented. One actor, outraged by a Woollcott jibe, punched Aleck in the jaw. He was not always popular with those in the profession, but the public lapped up his reviews.
Yet Woollcott could gush like a romantic schoolgirl when he wished. He was effusive in his praise for the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Spender Tracy, Orson Welles, and many others. As a book critic he took two works by James Hilton - Goodbye, Mr Chips and Lost Horizon, and beat the drum for them until they became best-sellers. His praises and damns weren't always successful, but they were hard to ignore.
When the United States entered the First World War, Woollcott was eager to participate. His poor eyesight and physique made him unfit for military service, so he signed up as an orderly in a medical unit. It was hard work, but he stayed with it through the cold and the mud of war-torn France, and was eventually promoted to Sergeant.
His next step took him back to journalism, to a new publication, a newspaper designed for soldiers, entitled Stars and Stripes. Sergeant Woollcott joined its ragtag staff, which included Captain Franklin P Adams, a well-known New York columnist, and, most especially, Private Harold Ross, a peripatetic newspaper reporter who quickly rose to become editor of Stars and Stripes and, after the war, founder and editor of The New Yorker. Woollcott found that reporting gave him access to all the danger zones denied him previously. He reported from the front, and impressed his colleagues with his fearlessness and devotion to his work.
When the Second World War began, Woollcott was again ready to serve. His physical condition was even worse than before, but he found a way. His articles, radio broadcasts and lectures all promoted the US support of Britain as the Nazi bombs tore holes in England. At the behest of the BBC, and despite his weak heart, Woollcott went to England to make several broadcasts and while there he toured the damaged cities and towns. He was personally thanked by Winston Churchill before making his way back home.
The Round Table
After the Armistice that ended the First World War, Woollcott returned to New York and resumed his literary life. He became a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of literati and others who met regularly for lunch at the Hotel Algonquin in Manhattan. Woollcott and some of his Stars and Stripes colleagues, such as Adams and Ross, were joined by many of the best people the New York arts world had to offer: Irving Berlin, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber were all regulars. Their quips and quotes only served to boost their popularity, and give the New York literary scene whatever piquancy it had at the time.
On the Air
Though he wrote for many magazines throughout his life, including stints with The New Yorker and Reader's Digest, Woollcott was not content to be a writer only. He had the theatre in his blood - though John Barrymore suggested he had printer's ink in his veins instead of blood - and itched to perform. Starting in 1929, Woollcott began appearing on CBS radio as The Town Crier, a 15 minute programme that consisted of Woollcott reading his latest anecdote, or even an anecdote several years old. His reedy, birdlike voice (it might even be described as pigeon-like) was not the best on radio, but he soon learned the craft of radio performance. He was fairly successful, inasmuch as when his sponsor, Cream of Wheat, dropped him abruptly after he made harsh comments about Hitler and Mussolini, CBS kept him on until another sponsor could be found. This is not always the case; Eddie Cantor was very popular on radio, but he was off the air for a year after his sponsor pulled the plug on him for similar reasons.
For Woollcott's stage and screen appearances, see below.
Woollcott, being ever aware that he was a character in public and private, managed to make an exit from this life worthy of any actor. His health had been failing for some time, but in early 1943 he felt sufficiently better to think about the future. Another play, perhaps, or the next book? He had two books in the works when he died, both posthumously published. In the meantime, there were the usual duties; articles and letters to write, and radio appearances.
On 23 January, 1943, Woollcott participated in a radio discussion program on CBS, entitled 'The People's Platform'. On the air with him were mystery author Rex Stout, novelist Marcia Davenport, and two college presidents, Harry Gideonse of Brooklyn College and George Shuster of Hunter College. Their topic was the book Is Germany Incurable? by Dr Richard Brickner. The show began well enough, but, several minutes in, Woollcott scribbled 'I am sick' on a piece of paper and held it up for the others to see. He slumped in his chair and Gideonse helped him out of the studio. What began as a heart attack was worsened by a cerebral hemorrhage. His death was announced at midnight that same day.
Perhaps Woollcott is not an important figure in any respect, but he lent colour to his times. He was not a cookie-cutter celebrity, shaped by press agents and opinion polls. He did what he liked, and took the consequences without flinching. As Harry Hansen wrote, in the New York World-Telegram, 'Now the landscape seems a bit greyer and more cheerless. It can't all be the fault of bituminous coal.'
Stage and Screen
Woollcott wrote plays, and appeared in plays and films. Here is a chronological list of them:
Channel Road (1929) A play written by Woollcott and George S Kaufman. It was, at best, a moderate success.
Brief Moment (1931) A play by SN Behrman, in which Woollcott played a supporting role based on himself.
The Dark Tower (1933) Woollcott's second play with George S Kaufman, with similar results.
The Gift of Gab (1934) Woollcott has a cameo appearance.
The Scoundrel (1935) This Oscar-winning film was made by Woollcott's friends Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and starred longtime Woollcott crony Noel Coward. Woollcott appears in a supporting role.
Mr W's Little Game (1935) Woollcott's only short subject, in which he plays a word game with a waiter and a blonde woman.
Wine of Choice (1937) SN Behrman tried again to include Woollcott as a supporting character in a play, and Woollcott played the part on stage.
The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) Moss Hart and George S Kaufman, at Woollcott's insistent bidding, wrote this play for him, and, at their own instigation, about him. Though Monty Woolley played Sheridan Whiteside on Broadway and in the 1941 film version, Woollcott played in touring companies to some success.
Babes on Broadway (1941) Woollcott has a cameo in this Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical.
Laura (1944) Woollcott was the inspiration for Waldo Lydecker in this classic thriller. Clifton Webb, who plays Lydecker, played Sheridan Whiteside in a touring company of The Man Who came to Dinner.
The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1993) Woollcott is a character, along with other Round Tablers, in the two-hour episode entitled Young Indiana Jones and the Scandals of 1920.
Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) Woollcott is portrayed in this film about the Algonquin Round Table.
Here is a list of books written or edited by Aleck Woollcott. Many of these have never been reprinted; his later books sold well, and are more easily found in second-hand bookstores and libraries:
Mrs Fiske: Her views on Actors, Acting and the Problems of Production (1917) - Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865-1932) was one of the foremost actresses of her day. Woollcott's first book is a study of her thoughts on the acting profession.
The Command is Forward (1919) - A collection of his reportage and essays from The Stars and Stripes.
Shouts and Murmurs (1922) - Theatre articles. His column in The New Yorker was named after this book. The New Yorker revived the title as a catch-all for humorous pieces in the 1990s.
Mr Dickens Goes to the Play (1922) - A few chapters by Aleck on Dickens's love of the theatre, and a great many reprinted selections from Dickens's writings. Someone should have told Aleck that Sketches by Boz is not a novel.
Enchanted Aisles (1924) - More theatre articles.
The Story of Irving Berlin (1925) - The rags-to-riches story of the great composer, told in a rather sketchy manner.
Going to Pieces (1928) - More stories of Aleck's friends in and out of the theatre.
Two Gentlemen and a Lady (1928) - A short book about dogs.
While Rome Burns (1934) - It was Thornton Wilder who convinced Aleck that his work was important enough to deserve reissue in book form. While Rome Burns was a surprise best-seller, and further cemented Woollcott's reputation nationally. It is light reading, but includes much that is amusing, or quaint, and one very fine piece, entitled 'Hands Across the Sea', about justice during the war.
The Woollcott Reader (1935) - An anthology of works by other writers that Woollcott felt deserved the public's attention. The pieces run several gamuts, from treacly biography to acid modernism.
Woollcott's Second Reader (1937) - More of the same.
Long, Long Ago (1943) - Issued just after his death, this follows in the steps of While Rome Burns, but is not as good. The decline in his prose, as other interests drew on his time, is evident. Still, there are some amusing pieces. Another best-seller.
As You Were (1943) - An anthology of other people's works, compiled by Woollcott for issue to servicemen in the Second World War. It is dedicated to Frode Jensen, a young Danish man whom Woollcott befriended and who was the closest to a son as Aleck ever had.
The Letters of Alexander Woollcott (1944) - A collection of his voluminous correspondence compiled by two of his dearest friends, Beatrice Kaufman and Joseph Hennessey.
The Portable Woollcott (1946) - An anthology of the best of Woollcott's writings.