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Smart Aleck: The Wit, World, and Life of Alexander Woollcott Hardcover – 1976
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From the jacketflap:
To those who knew Alexander Woollcett, he was literally larger than life. Harpo Marx once described him as something that got loose from the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade. And Irma Selz, who sketched him, said he gave the impression of a great stuffed owl. But it was not just his formidable appearance that made Aleck a distinctive figure. For Woollcoot was a true American original.
One fo the most charismatic personalities of his or any other time, Alexander Woollcott helped set the literary and theatrical standards of the nation from the 1920's through the early 1940's. A man of arsenic wit and impeccable taste, he served as a drama critic for The New York Times, founded the Algonquin Round Table, became radio's first superstar as the Town Crier, and was immortalized as Sheridan Whiteside in the now classic comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman.
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Top Customer Reviews
Among the high points of Smart Aleck are the aspects of his early life that to me seemed unlikely. His early life in semi-poverty was not nearly as surprising as his early life in a commune. That he was relatively un-athletic and picked on by his peers was no surprise. That he found a patron would help him attend Hamilton College was all but predictable. The author declares without reservation that Alexander Woollcott was a transvestite. More exactly he believes that he was a man of mostly indeterminate or at least minimal sexuality but with a preference for dressing up in women's clothing. That the men of Hamilton College would accept him as a drag queen seems to suggest a modern militancy about sexual identity that may not have existed over 100 years ago.
It was known to me that as a drama critic Woollcott's opinion was the published voice that could make or break new Broadway New York productions. That he would have had to work his way up with in the reporter's trade is obvious in retrospect but had not occurred to me before. Given his personal extravagances, prickly ego, and famous skills at the groaning board I would never have thought of him as a soldier serving in the front in World War I. His original service was as a private soldier in an ambulance unit where he would've been exposed if not to shell fire then certainly the bloody realities of trench warfare. After his promotion to sergeant it would appear his many friends pulled some strings and got him assigned to a then brand-new publication Stars & Stripes. As a reporter on this soldier's newspaper he would take himself to the battlefront with the same clarity of clarity that he would take himself to the finest restaurants in Paris. It would be during his military service that Woollcott and his friend George Kaufman would begin the card games that would later morph into the Algonquin Round Table.
It is likely that many important drama critics of his generation would've had a hand in promoting many of the careers that would become associated with Woollcott. He would claim the Marx Brothers as special protégés and Harpo Marx would become a lifelong friend. Woollcott was almost the sole critic to promote the play that would introduce Spencer Tracy. And while this list could go on for many more lines; Teichmann devotes little more than a paragraph to efforts by Woollcott to advance the career of a young black singer Paul Robeson.
For the rest, Woollcott was a large man and lived a large life. He would succeed in several media. Listing his many friends often read like name-dropping. This becomes a problem when Teichmann frequently assumes that you know the careers that go with the names.
The weakness to this book is its preference for the sharper retorts and cutting witticisms. The Round Table was famous for saber slash insults made by brilliant writers. It is fun to store up famous Woollcott jabs, but only towards the end to we get significant samples of his writing. The subtitle of Smart Alack is: The Wit, World and Life of Alexander Woollcott. All of these things are delivered. What is missing from the title, and more critically missing in the text are Woollcott's words.
It would have been interesting to have a few extended selections from the Woollcott keyboard. Especially those that demonstrated the various qualities Teichmann ascribes to Woollcott. It would have been interesting to contrast his early reports from the seamy side of New York City with his sometimes gushing reviews of performances by favored actors. A partial radio script would help to demonstrate the more mature writer, but also the differences he knew to be necessary in writing for the theater page and speaking to a live audience.
This is not an academic biography; this is a good thing for us non-academic readers. I also credit Teichmann with working to attempt neutrality about his subject. The result is readable, if overly larded with needless references to the man's weight and Buddha Belly. It is also too much of a name dropper book. These are petty complaints, but near dearth of original Woollcott material makes Smart Alack less than it could have been.
This charming book brings him back to life, as the witty, influential, narcistic man he must have been. Always in for a joke ('Guess which famous writer has his birthday today!' 'You, Aleck?' 'Close. It's Shakespeare.'), always ready to write a rotten review about a mediocre talent. I'm really glad I came across this book: it makes me appreciate Smart Aleck even more.
Howard Teichmann's biography traces Woolcott's life from its modest beginnings in New Jersey to his meteoric rise to fame. A natural show-off even from his earliest days, he was possessed by the desire to write, publish, and transcends his humble origins. In private he was a much more complicated person; in his young days, he had an accident that rendered him sexually impotent, or at least frightened of his - perceived - inability to make love. Teichmann implies that Woollcott was a lot more complicated sexually than people knew - at least once he admitted to his fellow-writer Anita Loos that he wished he had been born a woman, a comment that left her speechless. What we do know is that while at school Woollcott played several female roles - and quite convincingly, it must be admitted.
In adulthood Woollcott concealed his sexual complexities under a veneer of urbanity. He made several close male friends who stuck with him through thick and thin, and cultivated a wide circle of friends from the theatrical as well as other professions. He could not really bear to be alone; hence he tended to party hard as well as work hard, driving himself to extremes by eating huge meals, consuming vast quantities of alcohol and spending most of his nights playing poker and other games. Inevitably his fast lifestyle caught up with him, and played a major contribution to his premature demise at the age of only 55.
Woolcott's complexities were numerous. Sometimes he played the deliberately irascible critic/ socialite delighting in insults, whether at the famed Round Table at New York's Algonquin Hotel, or while dealing with his theatrical friends. His persona was immortalized in the 1939 hit THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER in the character of "Sheridan Whiteside," played by Monty Woolley on Broadway (and later on film), and by Woolcott himself in a touring company during 1940-41. On the other hand Woolcott was capable of acts of extreme generosity, using his quite considerable wealth to help those less fortunate than himself.
Teichmann's biography is very good at sketching out the bare bones of his subject, but regrettably substitutes too much anecdote for genuine psychological analysis. We would liked to have known more about Woolcott the person, rather than listening to yet another litany of his most famous, scatological - yet undoubtedly funny - stories.