Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Alexander Woollcott by Wolcott Gibbs

from Backwards Ran Sentences:
Charles Brackett, a devoted admirer, described him in one of his novels as "a competent old horror with a style that combined clear treacle and pure black bile," while Harpo Marx spoke of his idol considered sheerly as an artist. "He is just a big dreamer;" said Mr. Marx, "with a good sense of double-entry bookkeeping." Elsie Janis's mother, struggling to define the effect that Mr. Woollcott has on people who aren't altogether used to him, said that in many ways he was like a fine old olive, and S. N. Behr-man, who twice permitted him to play himself on the stage, caused one of his heroines to express herself crossly. "Oh, Sig, Sig," she cried, "if you'd been a woman, what a bitch you would have made!" Back in 1921, George Jean Nathan wrote a scurrilous article about him in the Smart Set entitled "The Seidlitz Powder of Times Square," and once, Howard Dietz, afflicted by prose more beautiful than he could bear, called him Louisa M. Woollcott, thus speaking for thousands who had also been troubled without ever quite knowing what was the matter with them. These tributes for the most part have come from the more articulate of the eight hundred. The rest have usually contented themselves with describing him simply and passionately as a monster, or at the very least as a man of absurdly mixed ancestry. The caricaturists have also been severe, which is probably un-grateful of them, for Mr. Woollcott is a persistently obliging model, one wartime associate on the Stars and Stripes, the A.E.F. weekly newspaper, even hinting that he was by no means above using his sergeant's chevrons to compel gifted privates to draw pictures of him. His face, of course, could not have been more helpfully designed for their purposes. Florence Atwater, one of Booth Tarkington's darkly observant little girls, once came close to his total effect, al-though at the time she was speaking of her grandfather's cook. "Her face is sort of small," she said, wrestling with the inexpressible, "but the other parts of her head are terribly wide." Mr. Woollcott's small features occupy the front part of a head which is at least wider than most. He has a rather beaked nose and a tight mouth and a negligible mustache, all closely grouped. His eyes are made strange and fierce by thick glasses. A clever child could easily draw him and, as a matter of fact, many have, although usually under the impression that they were turning out owls.
It has also called forth a certain amount of criticism, a few serious thinkers being of the opinion that Mr. Woollcott's interests are rather peripheral, to put it mildly. There have been moments of embarrassment when his proteges have backfired on him.
He loves Neshobe as proudly and jealously as young Bonaparte loved Corsica. The island is a perpetual source of wonder to the simple Ver-mont natives who circumnavigate it cautiously in motorboats and observe the inmates, who are frequently to be seen lying like seals along the rocky shore. The general opinion apparently is that Ne-shobe is a sort of Hollywood nudist camp, and this leads to odd con-fusions. Thornton Wilder has been mistaken for Jack Benny, and MacArthur, sun-bathing in the nude, was once pleased to hear him-self identified as Irving Berlin and sang "All Alone" loud and clear in gratitude. A few years ago, Mr. Woollcott himself, inadequately wrapped in a dressing gown and wearing a limp, enormous straw hat, was reading one day on the dock when a boatload of sightseers drifted by. Their voices came to him quite plainly over the water. "Who on earth is that?" he heard one lady cry in startled and even rather horrified tones. "I'm not sure," said another voice doubtfully, "but I think it's Marie Dressler."

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