The Forgotten Gibbs

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Wolcott Gibbs contributed more words to The New Yorker than any of his better-remembered contemporaries — Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, E.B. White, to name a few. And unlike them, he contributed pieces of every kind. His boss, founding editor Harold Ross, called him “the best goddam editor in the world.” Yet, as Thomas Vinciguerra reminds us, Gibbs is hardly thought of today. To remedy this unfortunate oversight, editor Vinciguerra has brought forth a new collection of Gibbs’ writing, which he entitles Backward Ran Sentences. With a useful introduction by the editor and a foreword by P.J. O’Rourke, the book is a literary bargain.

Gibbs wrote fact and fiction pieces — “Talk of the Town” items, so-called casuals, profiles, short stories, reviews of plays and motion pictures. His writing had an elegant bounce, when he was just trying to be funny, or when he was taking apart an unsatisfactory play or a bothersome personality. And yet, as editor Vinciguerra tells us, Gibbs was a sad man, full of self-doubt, caught up in cycles of alcoholism, and all the while a chain smoker. Like Harold Ross, A.J. Liebling, and Alexander Woollcott, Gibbs died in his fifties. His wife suspected suicide, but smoking on top of pleurisy and too many martinis may have been enough to kill him.

Backward Ran Sentences contains some fascinating cultural history. The names associated with the Gibbs era roll off the pages like gumdrops — Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mrs. Fiske, Marlon Brando, Joan McCracken, Ethel Merman, Alfred Drake, Eva Le Gallienne, and on and on. Among his shorter pieces, Gibbs addresses the joys of getting the measles — a disease with little suffering, but still requiring a quarantine — and the sadness of leaving his beloved refuge, Fire Island, and returning to Manhattan. There is the tale of a man who leaves his car, typewriter, and golf clubs in a creek because he was “tired of fooling with it.” (I am in complete sympathy.) And consider the following lines from an item dated December 13, 1941: “War came to us with the ball in Brooklyn’s possession on the Giants’ forty-five yard line. ‘Japanese bombs have fallen on Hawaii and the Philippine Islands,’ a hurried voice broke in to announce.”

Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.”

Gibbs’ profiles describe the rise to prominence of some New York lights and contain perhaps the best writing in the book — witty, detached, and not overly personal.

One unique offering describes a lady who collects stray cats and hauls them to the SPCA.

While not an icon, “Our Lady of the Cats” — Miss Rita Ross — will live on in this footnote to New York’s history. The three-part profile of Alexander Woollcott isn’t all that insulting, though it led to a final break between Woollcott and Harold Ross. Gibbs was apparently unfazed, since he considered the subject celebrity “one of the worst writers who ever existed.” Other profiles in the present collection include those of Lucius Beebe, epicure, journalist, chronicler of “Cafe Society”; Ethel Merman, who could carry a Broadway musical “on her shoulders”; and William Sylvester Maney, famously irreverent press agent and inventor of an ersatz profanity. The not-quite-flattering description of Thomas E. Dewey led him to impound Gibbs’ bank account. According to editor Vinciguerra, Dewey thought Gibbs was employed by the Democrats. When the Gibbs article appeared, Dewey wasn’t yet Governor (here the editor errs), but still District Attorney for New York County. Thus he could sequester Gibbs’ reserves as evidence in a criminal investigation — though the necessary legal cause has eluded me. At the time (1940), Dewey was beginning his first run for the presidency after a famous tour as prosecutor of mobsters. He became the prototypical Republican losing candidate.

The Ralph Ingersoll profile contains some interesting history. Ingersoll worked at The New Yorker and then for Henry Luce at Time. While there, he split with Luce over the traditional Time cover showing the Man of the Year. The chosen man in this case was Adolf Hitler. Luce wanted to display an ordinary photograph, but Ingersoll preferred an illustration carrying an anti-Hitler message. Later, in the course of building the left-leaning PM magazine, Ingersoll scooped everyone on the burning of the French ocean liner Normandie. The US government had seized the liner and was converting it into a troop ship when it caught fire in its berth in New York Harbor. Before the fire, a PM reporter had sneaked aboard the Normandie and discovered that it was, as Gibbs put it, “a fire-bug’s dream.” And so, when the liner finally burned, the PM story was ready to run.

Placed among a cluster of Gibbs’ parodies — those of Hemingway and Noel Coward are themselves funny — is his famous portrait of Henry Luce, written in the compressed, turned-around style invented by Luce’s late partner, Briton Hadden. In it we find the words, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which provide the title for editor Vinciguerra’s collection. The parody of Time’s style later became a tit-for-tat justification for Tom Wolfe’s satirical treatment of The New Yorker as it was under William Shawn. Wolfe’s effort was rather more barbed than Gibbs’ parody, its author perhaps having failed to see the sadness of a man trying to preserve an age forever gone. Still, as the legend goes, when Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window. Were passages like the following all that provocative? “Very unlike novels of Pearl Buck were his early days. Under brows too beetling for a baby, Luce grew up inside compound, played with two sisters, lisped first Chinese, dreamed much of the Occident.” Or this one: “Typical perhaps of Luce methods is Fortune system of getting material. Writers in first draft put down wild gossip, any figures that occur to them. This is sent to victim who indignantly corrects errors, inadvertently supplies facts he might otherwise have withheld.” Well — perhaps.

The New Yorker “casuals” were very short stories, short fact pieces, anecdotes, and even brief parodies. In these and in his short stories, Gibbs could be unfunny when he wrote about the drinking class and its special problems. “Wit’s End” is a depressing story about a man who awakens to find his bed on fire — a situation in which Gibbs found himself more than once. On the other hand, “Ring Out, Wild Bells” is an amusing tale of his own youthful performance as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His mother had sewn little bells on his costume, and as he maneuvered on stage their ringing drowned out the other players’ lines. “The Curious Incident of Dogs in the Night-Time,” a story set in a restaurant, tells of two men, learned in Sherlock Holmes lore, who ingest an unbelievable number of martinis. Finding their way to an upstairs dining room, they think they’ve discovered a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars. Actually, it’s a convention of roofers from Denver. The story ends with the two inebriates singing at the piano and the conventioneers filing out of the room.

As the legend goes, when Henry Luce read the Gibbs piece, he threatened to throw Harold Ross out the window.

For 18 of his New Yorker years, Gibbs was its drama critic — for some of that time, he also reviewed motion pictures, a task he disliked. As P.J. O’Rourke writes, “He was not fooled by talent.” His standards applied equally to everyone who wrote, acted in, or directed Broadway productions. Taken together, his reviews represent a theatrical history of Broadway’s great age. They address plays by, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, and musicals with words or music by Frank Loesser, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner, and Lowe. The productions had names such as Ah, Wilderness! (a mixed review from Gibbs, with praise for George M. Cohan, playing the father), The Time of Your Life (slightly favorable), Romeo and Juliet (poor, but Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh will attract an audience), Blithe Spirit (good), Oklahoma! (great, of course), South Pacific (excellent, with special praise for the players), Guys and Dolls (great, with praise for Pat Rooney, Sr.), Me and Juliet (mixed, but with praise for the fated Joan McCracken), The Glass Menagerie (excellent, with exceptional praise for Laurette Taylor), My Fair Lady (excellent), Waiting for Godot (“meager moonshine”), Long Day’s Journey into Night” (good, with reservations about the play’s “epic scale of calamity,” but with praise for director Jose Quintero), West Side Story (fair, with praise for choreographer Jerome Robbins), The Music Man (good, but “not as good as all that”).

There are bits and pieces of other reviews under the heading “Curtain Calls,” including a very good one for Kiss Me Kate and a dismantling of Shaw’s The Millionairess and Katharine Hepburn’s performance in the title role. There follow some movie reviews, including an amusing one of National Velvet, and some personal essays. Among these last is a tribute to his friend Robert Benchley, who preceded Gibbs as The New Yorker’s drama critic. Benchley was famous for such humorous essays as “The Menace of Buttered Toast” and “Carnival Week in Sunny Las Los,” as well as his appearances in movies. Like Gibbs, he was a serious drinker, and like Gibbs, he died at the age of 56.

As I emphasized, Wolcott Gibbs drank to excess and was a chain smoker. Neither of those habits met with the same disapprobation that meets them today. Writers drank — perhaps Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Sinclair Lewis set the style — and some drank too much. (The trick was to drink without being tiresome.) The quality of Gibbs’ writing doesn’t appear to have suffered from the constant bombardment of martinis. But why did he saturate himself so often? Perhaps because what he had wasn’t what he wanted, and what he wanted, he couldn’t have. When Gibbs said he should be writing novels, I think he was telling the awful truth. That was what he perceived as unattainable. But was it really? — no, not if he had been less of a defeatist. He certainly had the talent required to write novels. Perhaps he should have gotten away from New York — with all its personal and professional entanglements — found some odd corner, and started pecking away on his Royal typewriter. But that would have put at risk the only comfort and security he had ever known. So, instead, he maintained his self-deprecating attitude, and took to minimizing the importance of the writing profession and the magazine that employed him. He remained a resident outsider, which probably made him a more effective editor and critic. And he kept on drinking to ease his pain.

The final Gibbs piece in the current collection is an intra-office memo that found its way into print. It’s entitled “Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles,” and contains some worthwhile advice for writers. For example — “Writers use too damn many adverbs. On one page recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said.’” The office copy of the Gibbs memo carried a note by his contemporary, the fiction editor Katharine White. It describes Gibbs as “one of the most talented and witty magazine editors of all time.” He was that good.


Editor's Note: Review of "Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker," edited by Thomas Vinciguerra. Bloomsbury, 2011, xix + 646 pp.



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Dave Linden

This article contains two different spellings of Mr. Gibbs's first name: "Wolcott" and "Walcott".

LibertyUnbound

Corrected, thanks!

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