Alexander Woollcott - Reputation

Reputation

He was one of the most quoted men of his generation. Among Woollcott's classics is his description of the Los Angeles area as "Seven suburbs in search of a city" — a quip often attributed to his friend Dorothy Parker. Describing The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, he said: "He looks like a dishonest Abe Lincoln." He claimed the Brandy Alexander cocktail was named for him.

Woollcott was renowned for his savage tongue. He dismissed a notable wit and pianist: "There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix." He greeted friends: "Hello, Repulsive." When a waiter asked him to repeat his order, he demanded "muffins filled with pus."

His judgments were frequently eccentric. Dorothy Parker once said: "I remember hearing Woollcott say reading Proust is like lying in someone else's dirty bath water. And then he'd go into ecstasy about something called, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, and I knew I had enough of the Round Table."

Wolcott Gibbs, who often edited Woollcott's work at The New Yorker, was quoted in James Thurber's The Years with Ross on Woollcott's writing:

"Shouts and Murmurs" was about the strangest copy I ever edited. You could take every other sentence out without changing the sense a particle. Whole department, in fact, often had no more substance than a "Talk " anecdote. I guess he was one of the most dreadful writers who ever existed.

After being kicked out of the apartment he shared with The New Yorker founders Harold Ross and his wife Jane Grant, Woollcott moved first into the Hotel des Artistes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, then to an apartment at the far end of East 52nd Street. The members of the Algonquin Round Table had a debate as to what to call his new home. Franklin P. Adams suggested that he name it after the Indian word "Ocowoica", meaning "The-Little-Apartment-On-The-East-River-That-It-Is-Difficult-To-Find-A-Taxicab-Near". But Dorothy Parker came up with the definitive name: Wit's End.

Woollcott yearned to be as creative as the people with whom he surrounded himself. Among many other endeavors, he tried his hand at acting and co-wrote two Broadway shows with playwright George S. Kaufman, while appearing in two others. He also starred as Sheridan Whiteside, for whom he was the inspiration, in the traveling production of The Man Who Came to Dinner in 1940. He also appeared in several cameos in films in the late 1930s and 1940s. He was caricatured twice in Warner Brothers cartoons in 1937: as "Owl Kott" in The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, and as the town crier in Have You Got Any Castles?, playing almost identical roles in each.

Politically, Woollcott called for normalization of U.S.-Soviet relations. He was a friend of reporter Walter Duranty, even though he described him as a "man from Mars." He was also a friend of Soviet foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, and traveled to the USSR in the 1930s, as well as sending his friend Harpo Marx to Moscow on a comedy tour in 1934. Yet he was attacked viciously in the left-wing press after his visit to the Soviet Union for his less than laudatory depiction of the "worker's paradise."

Towards the end of Woollcott's life he semi-retired to Neshobe Island in Lake Bomoseen in Vermont, which he had purchased. Shortly before he died, Woollcott admitted: “I never had anything to say.”

Thurber in The Years With Ross also reports Woollcott describing himself as 'the best writer in America', but with nothing in particular to say; Wolcott Gibbs made a similar criticism of himself; both men had a background of journalism and theatrical criticism, their principal literary efforts being judgments upon the efforts of others. Both were reluctant to test their talent with any boldly original work. Woollcott was primarily a storyteller, a retailer of anecdotes and superior gossip, as many of his personal letters reveal. His letters also reveal a warm and generous heart and a self-effacing manner distinct from his waspish public persona, and his many lasting and close friendships with the theatrical and literary elite of his day.

Woollcott was friends with actress Katharine Cornell and it was he who bestowed the moniker "First Lady of the Theatre" upon her. He often gave her extremely favorable reviews, and also her husband's productions, director Guthrie McClintic.

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