Before the influencers, there was Alexander Woollcott.
Nor does anyone who reads or discusses Woollcott. But in many ways, the reviewer’s network of projects and outlets looks like a model for today’s powerful social media brokers. Long before Instagram or TikTok, Woollcott engaged his famous friends in a career that encompassed everything from travel writing to a national radio show to touring the country playing himself in The man who came to dinner. His theater reviews had him briefly banned by some producers, and his book reviews were the forerunner of Oprah’s Book Club when it came to propelling unknown authors to bestseller lists. Yet today Woollcott is best remembered for having lunched at the Algonquin Roundtable with Dorothy Parker.
Woollcott’s genius lay in the combination of an enthusiastic fanboy and a sharp critic. He not only proselytized for the work of his famous friends, he often worked closely with them to improve it. Many, including its creator, James Hilton, credit Woollcott with the transformation Goodbye, Mr. Chips from manuscript to a bestseller that won an Oscar-winning film adaptation. And her real pleasure in sharing her preferences on paper or on the radio is like a prototype of Pinterest boards and Instagram grids. As we all scour the internet for things that bring us joy instead of more anxiety or rage, Woollcott’s gleeful enthusiasm strikes us as modern as it is worthy of ridicule for his contemporaries.
The general attitude among the intelligentsia after Woollcott’s death is best summed up by his brief mention in All about Eve, a film set in his beloved Broadway milieu. “I’m available again to dance the streets and shout from the rooftops,” Margo Channing quotes dryly in Addison DeWitt’s column, before sniping: “I thought we were dating Woollcott.”
Parker was also one of those mildly contemptuous contemporaries, even though Woollcott himself helped revamp the Parker brand in “Our Mrs. Parker”. In it, he is as perceptive of its enduring appeal as any 21st century scholar. “It will be noted, I’m afraid, that Ms. Parker specializes in what is called the dirty crack,” he wrote. “If it sounds like it, maybe it’s because the bashing is easier to remember, and the fault, if there is fault, lies with those of us who – and who don’t. do not? – repeat his words.
Part of the problem with Woollcott lies in this phrase from Henry Jamesian. He was a chronicler of books, movies, theater, real crimes and people, sometimes an artist, a radio show host, a sought-after speaker, etc. his extravagance. Today we recognize this artificially elaborate prose as high camp, but to a contemporary of Hemingway, it seemed hopelessly old-fashioned, even though it obscured the stylus he often wielded.
The inevitable irony is that Parker’s derogatory lines are now stuck on Etsy products while Woollcott’s vast output of sharp and insightful scriptures has been called “gushing” and fell out of favor almost immediately after his death.
This reputation was already beginning to haunt him, even at the height of his fame and popularity; an irate reader from the Midwest complained that his book recommendations amounted to forcing Americans to give marshmallows. The man who stood up for Ernest Hemingway and Evelyn Waugh and included Willa Cather as essential reading was not amused.
But as Woollcott himself wrote, the bashing is easier to remember. Thus, his own pioneering efforts continue to languish undisturbed. Long before My favorite murder made crime podcasting a cottage industry, Woollcott tapped the pages of Police diary for what he called “the human gore,” turning murder and mayhem into radio shows and articles for high profile publications like Collier’s and The New Yorker.
An early fascination with Lizzie Borden led her to cover up criminals ranging from housewife Myrtle Bennett, who shot her husband to death in the Bridge murder case, and convicted murderer David Lamson. After thoroughly researching the case until he was convinced of Lamson’s innocence, Woollcott used his immense powers of influence to bring national attention to the case, and Lamson was acquitted after his new trial.
Woollcott generally had no patience for injustice, even though he greeted his close friends with slurs such as “repulsive hello”. Once banned from criticizing the shows produced by the Shuberts, he took his case to the New York State Supreme Court (and lost). And his first radio show ended in 1935 when sponsor Cream of Wheat demanded that Woollcott stop making “caustic references to people like Hitler and Mussolini.” Woolcott responded by giving up his $ 80,000-a-year contract.
His own contradictions may have helped accelerate the fall in his reputation. Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other contemporaries have a more cohesive brand: Woolcott is a man whose adoption of his own eclectic tastes has earned him the lightweight label. But while he succumbed to nostalgia as much as he championed modernity (did another major critic in the 1930s demand more attention from Booth Tarkington’s novels?), He could be just as annoying. than any of the most cited members of the Algonquin Round Tableau.
Woollcott, after all, was the one who described Los Angeles as “seven suburbs in search of a city” and wrote a play that resulted in the hero’s confession that he had been neutered: “In the first act , she becomes a lady. In the second act, he becomes a lady. That sort of breezy layoff is now the default, but back then, Woollcott’s flippancy was maddening to producers. A similar tone earned Parker an anthology of his theatrical reviews; Woollcott’s remains are turning yellow in the archives.
But what calls for an anthology are its Shouts & Murmurs columns for The New Yorker. Created by Woollcott (and named after a credit he spied on for background noise in a London theater program), the weekly page is a prototype of Twitter. Woollcott has put together anecdotes about his famous friends, half-forgotten icons, and hot shots of the day’s events in his unmistakable style. Editor-in-chief Wolcott Gibbs once described him as “one of the most horrible writers who ever existed”, but it didn’t stop While Rome burns, his collection of previously published articles, to become a bestseller.
Like all of Woollcott’s work, the book is long out of print, which means that the most enduring take on him remains that of his friends George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in The man who came to dinner. The 1939 classic comedy about an irascible critic who is forced to stay with his dinner hosts was written for Woollcott, who was forced to turn down the original Broadway production due to previous engagements, but continued to play the role several times before. his death in 1943.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a workaholic, Woollcott died of a heart attack hours after appearing as a guest on the radio The popular platform. Long time ago, a collection of his writings he was working on at the time of his death, was published posthumously a few months later. A collection of his letters was published in 1944, followed the following year by The portable Woolcott. And after that, the man who defended so many remained unpublished. Attempts were made to reassess his contributions to the arts by biographer Edwin P. Hoyt in the 1968s Alexander Woollcott: The Man Who Came to Dinner and by Wayne Chatterton a decade later in a Boise State University monograph, but it remains almost stubbornly unrecoverable.
Then again, Woollcott himself may have seen the writing on the wall long before he had achieved any minimal success. When asked as a child to share his greatest ambition, Woollcott claimed to have written “to be a fabulous monster.”
This may explain why he forever remains on the outskirts of the era he helped define – and it’s as good a reason as any to rediscover it now.
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