1887-01-19

On this date the American intellectual, critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine, and a member of the Algonquin Round Table, ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT was born (d. 1943). Moss Hart’s brilliant farce “The Man Who Came to Dinner” is about the caustic “Sheridan Whiteside” who, after injuring himself slipping on ice, must stay in a Midwestern family’s house. The character was based on Woollcott. Woollcott didn’t seem to mind. In fact he later toured in the role around the country. Woollcott’s review of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, I’ll Say She Is, helped highlight the renaissance of the group’s career and started a life-long friendship with Harpo Marx. Harpo’s two adopted sons, William Woollcott Marx and Alexander Marx, are named after Woollcott.

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 incorrectly attributed to his friend Dorothy Parker. Describing The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, he said: “He looks like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.”

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.”

Woollcott, who claimed the “Brandy Alexander” was a concoction named after him, was known for his savage wit. He once said about another contemporary wit and piano player: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix.” He also was known to greet friends with, “Hello, Repulsive.” Famously, he published the shortest theatrical review in history by submitting to his editor simply: “Ouch.” The letters between Woollcott and his good friend and pen-pal Noel Coward are worth the price of admission of the recently published Letters of Noel Coward. They’re all sharp wit and staggeringly good fun. In preparing today’s Gay Wisdom, I came across his lovely line about democracy below.

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