Woollcott remembered

180px-woollcott-1(Canscene) — When I’m in between books scheduled to be read for their serious content or as mere time-wasters, I frequently turn to two tattered paperback anthologies of writings by Alexander Woollcott, chronicler of his times — the 30s and early 40s– and also raconteur of times and crimes of an earlier past.

The books are While Rome Burns, published in 1933 and Long, Long Ago, published posthumously in 1943.

This last reading, Woollcott turned me on to two great movies which fortunately I possess on DVD: Noel Coward’s World War II sea epic and Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

The first piece was a paean of praise for In Which Se Serve, which was the story of a destroyer and its dedicated captain, written and played by Coward. The astonishing Coward and co-director David Lean brought me back to those wartime days and the combination of comedy and tragedy experienced by those at home and those in the fighting forces and made us all part of the same effort to survive and conquer.

The second was that time honoured legend of a young woman’s mother disappearing without a trace during the World Exposition in Paris. We jump several decades to Ethel Lina White’s novel The Wheel Spins which as a film became one of Hitchcock’s finest comedy dramas with an elderly woman disappearing on board a train in Europe and the efforts of a young Englishwoman to prove her existence. It’s entirely possible that Ms. White had read Woollcott’s story.

Woollcott, in his time, was a college graduate, World War I soldier, columnist, critic, broadcaster and even an actor. He was a member of the notorious Algonquin Round Table that gave the Smart Set a literate and sophisticated gloss. He was far from shy about mentioning his presence at great events and meeting famous and infamous people but his abounding curiosity and sense of what made a good story led him to profiling some lesser known and even obscure people. There’s his account of lunching with an aspiring young unknown whose name was Orson Welles soon to electrify the airwaves with a radio generated Martian invasion.And a long essay reveals the essential goodness of Jack Humphrey, cowboy, roughneck, animal lover and founder of the Seeing Eye dog program for the blind.

The George Kaufman-Moss Hart Hart comedy “The Man Who Came to Dinner satirized a real character while he was still alive with Bearded Monty Wooley, academic turned actor as Sheridan Whiteside. It was a hit on Broadway and later became a top movie with Wooley.

Although the part of Sheridan Whiteside was immortalized by Wooley, Woollcott himself, far from being offended by the satire written by two Round Table friends, basked in its glory by actually playing Whiteside in a road show tour.

These are what normally would be “dipping into volumes, but when I find myself going after a certain piece, I find myself reading on and on. Who can deny the wayward genius of a man who coined such phrases as

“His huff arrived and he departed in it”

“There is no such thing in anyone’s life as an unimportant day.”

“Germany was the cause of Hitler as Much as Chicago is responsible for The Chicago Tribune.”

Thanks be for the irreverent and stylish Alexander Woollcott, who died all too young at 56.


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