Alexander Woollcott was born in an 85-room house, a vast ramshackle building in Colts Neck Township, New Jersey, near Red Bank. Called the North American Phalanx, it had once been a commune where many social experiments were carried on in the mid-19th century, some more successful than others. When the Phalanx fell apart after a fire in 1854, it was taken over by the Bucklin family, Woollcott's maternal grandparents. Woollcott spent large portions of his childhood there among his extended family. His father was a ne'er-do-well Cockney who drifted through various jobs, sometimes spending long periods away from his wife and children. Poverty was always close at hand. The Bucklins and Woollcotts were avid readers, giving young Aleck (his nickname) a lifelong love of literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens.
He also lived with his family in Kansas City, Missouri; in that city he attended Central High School, where teacher Sophie Rosenberger "inspired him to literary effort" and with whom he "kept in touch all her life." With the help of a family friend, Dr. Alexander Humphreys (after whom he was named), Woollcott made his way through college, graduating from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, in 1909. Despite a rather poor reputation (his nickname was "Putrid"), he founded a drama group there, edited the student literary magazine and was accepted by a fraternity.
In his early twenties he contracted the mumps, which apparently left him mostly, if not completely, impotent. He never married or had children, although he had a large number of female friends, most notable of whom were Dorothy Parker and Neysa McMein, to whom he actually proposed the day after she had just wed her new husband, Jack Baragwanath. Wollcott once told McMein that “I’m thinking of writing the story of our life together. The title is already settled.” McMein: “What is it?” Woollcott: “Under Separate Cover.”)
Woollcott joined the staff of The New York Times as a cub reporter in 1909. In 1914 he was named drama critic and held the post until 1922, with a break for service during World War I. In April 1917, the day after war was declared, Woollcott volunteered as a private in the medical corps. Posted overseas, Woollcott was a sergeant when the intelligence section of the American Expeditionary Forces selected him and a half-dozen other newspaper men to create an official newspaper to bolster troop morale. As a roving correspondent of Stars and Stripes, Woollcott witnessed and reported the horrors of the Great War from the point of view of the common soldier. After the war he returned to The New York Times, then transferred to The New York Herald in 1922 and to The World in 1923. He remained there until 1928.
One of New York's most prolific drama critics, he was an owlish character whose caustic wit either joyously attracted or vehemently repelled the artistic communities of 1920s Manhattan. He was banned for a time from reviewing certain Broadway theater shows. As a result he sued the Shubert theater organization for violation of the New York Civil Rights Act, but lost in the state's highest court in 1916 on the grounds that only discrimination on the basis of race, creed or color was unlawful. From 1929 to 1934 Woollcott wrote a column called "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker. He was frequently criticized for his ornate, florid style of writing and, in contrast to his contemporaries James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, he is little read today, although his book, While Rome Burns, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1934, was in 1954 named by critic Vincent Starrett as one of the fifty-two "Best Loved Books of the Twentieth Century".
Woollcott's review of the Marx Brothers' Broadway debut, I'll Say She Is, helped the group's career from mere success to superstardom and started a life-long friendship with Harpo Marx. Harpo's two adopted sons, Alexander Marx and William (Bill) Woollcott Marx, were named after Woollcott and his brother, Billy Woollcott.
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