Dorothy Parker Mysteries

Aleck performing in the role of Sheridan Whiteside, the character based on himself.

It Seems to Me. . . was the Byline of Heywood Broun’s column in The World

If you’ve ever seen the marvelous 1941 film version of the play, The Man Who Came to Dinner, you’ve probably laughed out loud at the disgraceful manners and cunning maneuverings of Sheridan Whiteside, who is the man who came to dinner.  If there was no Alexander Woollcott, there would never have been that play.  The play was inspired by the man who was the driving force behind the famous Algonquin Round Table gang, the Master of the Hounds to a consortium of newspapermen, drama critics, playwrights and Broadway stars who met most afternoons for lunch in the Hotel’s dining room over an astounding ten year stretch.  They called themselves “The Vicious Circle” and their trade was an exercise in tossing about bon mots, vitriolic although it often might be.  Among the members of the unofficial club were Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. That this motley crew influenced the progression of theatre, literature, music and art during the Twentieth Century is unquestioned, and Alexander Woollcott was at the center of the creative whirlwind.

One day, Moss Hart recounted to fellow playwright, George S. Kaufman, his frustration over the weekend he had hosted Aleck at his Bucks County home, where upon arrival, the demanding critic took over the house.  Hart was glad to see the back of him when he left.  And so this sparked the idea, what it would be like if Aleck slipped and broke his hip during a visit forcing him to stay on at his home indefinitely while recuperating? Woollcott?  Most people today have never heard of him.  So fleeting is fame. . . . Alexander Woollcott was the most famous man in America—or so he said.  During the 20’s and for the next two decades, more people across the nation knew Aleck, even if they didn’t know the President.  In the days when newspapers ruled it was his theater column and later, his radio show that brought him into the homes of people across the country.  As the drama critic for The New York Times he was a star-maker.  And he could close a show on opening night if he did not approve.  The Shubert Brothers sued to bar him from their string of theaters because of he often panned their shows.  They lost.  But, when Aleck liked a show he did everything in his power to keep it afloat.  Not only did he discover and promote the careers of Helen Hayes, Katherine Cornell, Eugene O’Neill, the husband and wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, the king and Queen of Broadway for over four decades,  he unleashed the fabulous Marx Brothers into the world.

The story from Harpo Marx’s memoirs, Harpo Speaks goes like this:  The Marx Brothers, after nearly a decade on the circuit, were pretty much washed up as a Vaudeville team by 1920.  Their schoolroom skit (or Skule-room) was old hat. The five brothers (back then Gummo was still performing) had few options left as the jobs dried up and their pay scale plummeted.   Chico met a small time producer at a pinochle game and during a conversation Chico committed his brothers to work up an original show to open a new theater in Philadelphia (the theater owner wanted a show for his girlfriend to appear in–really! Sounds like a contrived plot used in dozens of movie and show plots.) It was their last ditch effort to keep the family act together.  They reworked dozens of old skits, improvised new ones and in a few weeks time had a new comedy in which their names topped the marquee.  They needed a name for the show, and the producer insisted it be no more than four one syllable words for the public’s easy recall.  I’ll Say She Is means nothing in particular, just a catch phrase at the end of a joke to accentuate the punchline, so they tacked that on to the marquee.  The show opened and later toured for a year all over the country before a decision was made to bring it to New York.  Big Time!  It being a broad comic play featuring Vaudevillians, no first-string critic at any of the twelve New York newspapers wanted to review it.  But fate had it that the Broadway play Alexander Woollcott had expected to review had, at the last moment, cancelled the opening.  Woollcott, decked out in evening attire and red-lined opera cape, had nothing better to do for the evening, so he decided to take in the “Vaudeville” show.  He was flabbergasted.  His review was glowing.  And he did all he could to promote the show and its brilliant team of performers through his column.  Harpo was his favorite—the greatest comic genius of their times, and was soon taken into the Round Table fold.  (The character of Banjo, played by Jimmy Durante in The Man Who Came to Dinner is modeled after Harpo Marx.) They would become life-long friends.

Larger than life, Aleck was a force to be reckoned with.  He could appear haughty, pompous, cantankerous, petty, spiteful and often dismissive, because he suffered no fools; he was easily wounded.  He was wickedly witty.  He could be extravagantly generous one moment, and at a turn, niggardly.  But he loved his friends passionately and if you were his friend, he’d never let you down.  He was easily wounded, lavish in his praise and condemning with his censure.

Aleck was a man of ambiguous sexuality, and although there never was evidence after an observer’s initial suspicion that he was a homosexual, his relationships with women were purely platonic.  If questioned: “Mumps contracted as a young man,” he’d say.  Groucho asked straight out, “When you were in France during the War did you get laid?” Aleck replied, “Infinitesimally.”  When George S. Kaufman tried to describe Aleck to a friend who’d never met him he considered the critic for a time and then replied, “Improbable.”  As a student at Hamilton College, Aleck organized its drama club, and insisted on playing all the female leads himself, so that he could dress up in makeup and gowns.   Dorothy Parker referred to the opinionated and demanding gourmand as, “Vitriol and Old Lace”, and sometimes as  ”Louisa May Woollcott”.  You get the idea. Aleck not only inspired Kaufman and Hart, he was Rex Stout’s model for the character of Nero Wolfe, as well as the iniquitous Waldo P. Lydecker in the film noir version of the mystery novel, Laura.   How many people can claim to be the inspiration for so many works of art?  I love including the “improbable” Woollcott in all of my Dorothy Parker Mystery novels.  Below is the composite photo of Aleck by Eric Conover as he appears in A Moveable Feast of Murder!

Aleck in costume at Festival of Fools scene in my book A Moveable Feast of Murder

Until next time,


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