Queer Places:
North American Phalanx, Newman Springs Rd, Holmdel, NJ
Hamilton College, Clinton, NY 13323
412 W 47th St, New York, NY 10036
Algonquin Hotel, 59 W 44th St, 10036
Hotel and Café des Artistes, 1 W 67th St, New York, NY 10023, USA
The Campanile, 450 E 52nd St, New York, NY 10022
Neshobe Island, Castleton, VT 05732
Hamilton College Cemetery Clinton, Oneida County, New York, USA

Woollcott in 1939 photographed by Carl Van VechtenAlexander Humphreys Woollcott (January 19, 1887 – January 23, 1943) was an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, an occasional actor and playwright, and a prominent radio personality. Charles Brackett's earliest published references to homosexuality are in his novels American Colony and Entirely Surrounded. The former features three attractive young men, whose bodies are described in some detail, and one less attractive young man named Sydney Gibbs, who wears raspberry-colored Chanel underwear and is early in the novel identified as a "fag" although later he is assured that homosexuality is "a good fashionable vice"... American Colony is dedicated to Woollcott, and he is also featured in Entirety Surrounded in the character Thaddeus Hulbert. Hulbert is one of a group in the book who is told the story of a young man, Smith Wetherby, Jr., identified as "homosexual" and "an incurable fairy."

Clearly, Woollcott's peers thought of him as a homosexual. He was caricatured as mincing into the trenches carrying a single rose and was called "Louisa M. Woollcott", "a faint homosexual mosquito", and "a fag but nobody ever caught him"--all of which never failed to arouse his ire. The only sexual stories in print are of the briefest encounters, one of which connected him with a female prostitute "who needed a few minutes of rest". Contrasting this is the embarrassing confession to Anita Loos that he "had always wanted to be a girl" and that "All my life I've wanted to be a mother". After these admissions, he avoided Loos for the rest of his life. While no evidence of male sexual liaisons exists, his long association with selected younger man (Joseph "Jo" Hennessey, Richard Carver Wood, and Dr. Frode Johnson), bespeak of homosocial bonds if not downright mothering by Woollcott. Indeed "mother" may have been the safest role for Woollcott and is evidenced in his arrangements of many of his friends' weddings (the Herbert Rosses, Helen Hayes to Charles MacArthur, end Irving Berlin to Ellin McKay) and his gatherings of friends for strictly regulated vacations at Neshobe Island in Vermont.

Richard Carver Wood was another Hamilton man. He had studied and trained to become an architect just at the time when the New York Stock Exchange plummeted into the Depression. He became a photographer.

Woollcott was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart,[1] and for the far less likable character Waldo Lydecker in the film Laura (1944). Woollcott was convinced he was the inspiration for his friend Rex Stout's brilliant, eccentric detective Nero Wolfe, an idea that Stout denied.[2]

Alexander Woollcott was born in an 85-room house, a vast ramshackle building in Colts Neck Township, New Jersey. Known as "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 resided with his family in Philadelphia, where he attended Central High School (110th Class), where a teacher, Sophie Rosenberger, reportedly "inspired him to literary effort" and with whom he "kept in touch all her life."[3]

With the help of a family friend, he made his way through college, graduating from Hamilton College, New York, in 1909. Despite a rather poor reputation (his nickname was "Putrid"), he founded a drama group, edited the student literary magazine, and was accepted by a fraternity (Theta Delta Chi).

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 some notable female friends, including Dorothy Parker and Neysa McMein, to whom he reportedly proposed the day after she had just wed her new husband, Jack Baragwanath. Woollcott 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.”[4]

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 the Stars and Stripes, an official newspaper to bolster troop morale. As chief reporter for the Stars and Stripes, Woollcott was a member of the team that formed its editorial board. These included Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker magazine; Cyrus Baldridge, multifaceted illustrator, author and writer; and the future columnist and radio personality, Franklin P. Adams. Going beyond simple propaganda, Woollcott and his colleagues 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.[5]

One of New York's most prolific drama critics, he was banned for a time from reviewing certain Broadway theater shows due to his florid and often vitriolic prose.[6] 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.[7] From 1929 to 1934, he wrote a column called "Shouts and Murmurs" for The New Yorker. His book, While Rome Burns, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1934, was named twenty years later by critic Vincent Starrett as one of the 52 "Best Loved Books of the Twentieth Century."[8]

Woollcott's review of the Marx Brothers' Broadway debut, I'll Say She Is, helped the group's career inflate from mere success to superstardom and started a lifelong friendship with Harpo Marx.[9] Harpo's two adopted sons, Alexander Marx and William (Bill) Woollcott Marx, were named after Woollcott and his brother, Billy Woollcott.[10]

Billed as The Early Bookworm, Woollcott was first heard on CBS Radio in October 1929, reviewing books in various timeslots until 1933. His CBS show The Town Crier, which began July 21, 1933, opened with the ringing of a bell and the cry, "Hear ye, hear ye!" followed by Woollcott's literary observations punctuated with acidic anecdotes. Sponsored by Cream of Wheat (1934–35) and Grainger Tobacco (1937–38), it continued until January 6, 1938. He had no reservations about using this forum to promote his own books, and the continual mentions of his book While Rome Burns (1934) probably helped make it a bestseller.

Woollcott 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 Oscar Levant, the notable wit and pianist, by observing, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can't fix." He often greeted friends with "Hello, Repulsive." When a waiter asked him to repeat his order, he demanded "muffins filled with pus."[11]

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." [12]

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.[1] 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.

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 claimed, “I never had anything to say.”[14]

Woollcott was friends with actress Katharine Cornell, and it was he who bestowed the moniker "First Lady of the Theatre" upon her.[17] He often gave extremely favorable reviews both to her and to the various productions of her husband, director Guthrie McClintic.

Woollcott was still not saying anything—at great length—when, on January 23, 1943, he appeared on his last radio broadcast,[18] as a participant in a Writers' War Board panel discussion on the CBS Radio program The People's Platform. Marking the tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, the topic was "Is Germany Incurable?" Panelists included Woollcott, Hunter College president George Shuster, Brooklyn College president Harry Gideonse, and novelists Rex Stout and Marcia Davenport. The program's format began as a dinner party in the studio's private dining room, with the microphones in place. Table talk would lead into a live network radio broadcast, and each panelist would begin with a provocative response to the topic. "The German people are just as responsible for Hitler as the people of Chicago are for the Chicago Tribune," Woollcott stated emphatically, and the panelists noted Woollcott's physical distress.[19] Ten minutes into the broadcast, Woollcott commented that he was feeling ill, but continued his remarks. "It's a fallacy to think that Hitler was the cause of the world's present woes," he said. Woollcott continued, adding "Germany was the cause of Hitler."[20] He said nothing further, but reportedly took a notepad and wrote the words, "I am sick." The radio audience was unaware that Woollcott had suffered a heart attack. He died at New York's Roosevelt Hospital a few hours later, aged 56,[21] of a cerebral hemorrhage.[22]

He was buried in Clinton, New York,[23] at his alma mater, Hamilton College, but not without some confusion. By mistake, his ashes were sent to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. When the error was corrected and the ashes were forwarded to Hamilton College, they arrived with 67¢ postage due.[24]

At the time of his death, Woollcott had completed the editorial work on his last book, As You Were, an anthology of fiction, poetry and nonfiction for members of the armed forces. The idea of creating a much-needed "knapsack book" for service members reportedly came to Woollcott while he was staying at the White House in November 1942. An experienced anthologist, he drew on the knowledge of soldiers' reading preferences he gained while he was editor of Stars and Stripes during World War I, and also asked for nominations from friends including Stephen Vincent Benét, Carl Sandburg and Mark Van Doren. Like his final radio broadcast, As You Were was a contribution to the war for which Woollcott waived all royalties and planned to donate profits to welfare organizations. The book was published by the Viking Press in March 1943.[25]


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