Alexander Woollcott: Underneath the Trappings

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 ’30s, 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.