Remember, Remember the 23rd of January

by Paul Mathers

ImageThe man in the photograph above is Alexander Woollcott. People who know me know that he is the author with which I most identify and who chiefly formed my character. When Laurie and I watch The Man Who Came To Dinner each holiday season, she invariably says, “He’s like a mean version of you!” I take that as the highest of compliments. I would hazard a guess that I have one of the largest collections of his works in the world. (For reasons I never could fathom, Woollcott has not remained a very popular figure.)

The main focus of Woollcott’s output was championing other works that he considered great. He was a theater critic, a social critic, and more than a bit of a literary critic. He was a critic in the purest sense, and by that I mean that he cared for the arts so deeply that he sought to raise the great to the highest possible visibility and would not suffer the inadequate to live. He was also a rabid logophile, renowned for his wit and verbosity. He also lived his life in such a way that the peers who teased him while he was growing up would all wish they could be him

On January 23rd, 1943, Woollcott appeared on a CBS radio show called The People’s Platform. He was involved with Writers’ War Board (which was headed by Rex Stout). This was a panel discussion on the topic of Germany. Marcia Davenport was also on the program, she of the famous Mozart biography and the possibly even more famous ongoing public feud with Alexander Woollcott.

It had been ten years since Hitler’s rise to power. Woollcott was an early, outspoken anti-fascist long before the rest of the country turned sour towards the Third Reich. He had spoken out against Hitler for years and, in fact, would end up speaking out against Hitler with his final words.

At one point Woollcott quipped, “The German people are as guilty of Hitler as the people of Chicago are of the Chicago Tribune,” adding more seriously, “Germany was the cause of Hitler.” After this he fell silent and scribbled on a piece of paper, “I’m sick.” Noël Coward later joked that a less sick Woollcott would surely have written “I am ill” instead.

The paramedics were dispatched. The massive heart attack that Woollcott had suffered lead to a cerebral hemorrhage. People listening at home, aside from possibly noticing Woollcott’s uncharacteristic silence for the remainder of that broadcast, were unaware that anything had happened. 

There is a side note his friends recalled at his funeral. A story that Woollcott loved to tell was of the near riotous outrage which followed a high stakes boxing match in the early 1900s. The champion was “knocked out,” but after falling and laying on his back, he pulled his derby hat over his eyes to shield them from the sun. When the paramedics carried Woollcott on a stretcher to the ambulance that night, it is said that when they exited the building he pulled his hat over his eyes. 

The fight was rigged.

I think about Woollcott often, but especially every January 23rd. He wrote these beautiful little vignettes which are collected in various anthologies. He had about a half-dozen anthologies that he compiled, works by great authors that he felt everyone should read. There were many compilations of his journalism, some of his work for Stars and Stripes in WWI, some of his theater writings, one charming one about his poodle. His collection of letters are an absolute delight.

But more to the point, when I think about him around this time of year, I think of the multifarious and celebrated quotes by him, many of which have survived in our cultural consciousness, even if his works have fallen out of publication. They often sweep over me, like a parent in the wings, urging their child on:

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

“It comes from the likes of you! Take what you can get! Grab the chances as they come along! Act in hallways! Sing in doorways! Dance in cellars!”