Alexander Woollcott

Alexander Woollcott

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."

Alexander Woollcott
Alexander Woollcott

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.

Alexander Woollcott
Cartoon of the Algonquin Round Table by Al Hirschfeld. Clockwise, from the bottom left: Robert E. Sherwood, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, Franklin Pierce Adams, Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. In the background, left to right, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, Frank Crowninshield and Frank Case.

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. 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."

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.

Alexander Woollcott
Alexander Woollcott playing croquet.

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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Samuel Hopkins Adams, Alexander Woolcott: His Life and His World (1946)

He (Alexander Woolcott) 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.

(2) Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990)

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.

(3) Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990)

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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

(4) Harriet Hyman Alonso, Robert E. Sherwood The Playwright in Peace and War (2007)

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. 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. 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.

(5) Alexander Woollcott, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights (1922)

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.

(6) Alexander Woollcott, Neysa McMein (1924)

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.

(7) Brian Gallagher, Anything Goes: The Jazz Age of Neysa McMein and her Extravagant Circle of Friends (1987)

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. 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. 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.

(8) Jack Baragwanath, A Good Time was Had ( 1962)

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.
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.

(9) Harpo Marx, 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 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.

(10) Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990)

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.

(11) Howard Teichmann, Smart Aleck, The Wit, World and Life of Alexander Woollcott (1976)

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. 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.

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.

(12) Brian Gallagher, Anything Goes: The Jazz Age of Neysa McMein and her Extravagant Circle of Friends (1987)

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