(above: foreground: Fritz Foord, Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Case (owner of the Algonquin Hotel) and Dorothy Parker. Standing, left to right: Alan Campbell, St. Clair McKelway, Russell Maloney and James Thurber.
An Ink Spill Exclusive:
Wolcott Gibbs and Co. in Upcoming Group Portrait
There’ve been a handful of New Yorker-centered books in recent years that have caused the house lights here to blink in excitement and anticipation. The Linda Davis biography of Charles Addams, James Stevenson’s lovely book on Frank Modell, and Deirde Bair’s biography of Saul Steinberg. Now another is added to that short list. Last August, Publisher’s Weekly announced that W.W. Norton would be publishing Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber and the Golden Age of The New Yorker, by Thomas Vinciguerra in the spring of 2015, coinciding with the magazine’s 90th anniversary. Since then, little has been heard from Vinciguerra. But some delicate arm-twisting elicited an update and overview from the harried author.
“After months of plowing through The New Yorker records at the main branch of the New York Public Library, I can safely say that I should be able to wrap up my primary digging there by the end of the summer,” Vinciguerra says. “I’ll soon be off to a few other archival collections and conducting some interviews. But happily, I’ve been working on this book in one form or another for so long that much of my research is already done.”
Thereby hangs a tale. In the fall of 2005 Vinciguerra began investigating the life of Gibbs (1902-1958), who in more than 30 years at The New Yorker contributed countless comic sketches, parodies, profiles, short stories, “Talk” and “Comment” pieces and, notably, a pungent theatre column for approximately two decades. “I was appalled that this incredibly productive, versatile, indispensable contributor had been largely forgotten to history,” he recalls. “But for five years, nobody wanted a biography about him. Their attitude was, ‘Wolcott Gibbs? Who’s he?’ Then, in 2010 I got lucky. Bloomsbury had published A Reporter at Wit’s End, a collection of the journalism of Gibbs’s colleague and friend St. Clair McKelway, and I found they were looking to do a follow-up. So in 2011 they came out with my anthology Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs From The New Yorker.
Backward Ran Sentences (its title derives from the famous 1936 Gibbs profile of Henry Luce, which spoofed many aspects of Time magazine, notably its weirdly inverted narrative structure) was a minor success and reawakened some interest in Gibbs. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post named it one of his best books of the year and even Time declaimed puckishly, “Forward run to this Wolcott Gibbs anthology.” Still, there was no interest in a full-length account of Gibbs’s life.
“Finally,” says Vinciguerra, “I got in touch with my old friend John Glusman, editor-in-chief at Norton. He suggested a book about Gibbs and his circle, shamelessly playing up The New Yorker angle and such giants as White and Thurber, to elicit as much interest as possible. Proceeding from the principle that half a loaf is better than you know what, I gratefully accepted.”
The volume will be neither a history of The New Yorker nor a conventional biography, but rather a group portrait of a certain collection of writers, editors, artists, entertainers and other personalities placed against the backdrop of the magazine, with Gibbs as a focal point. “The best comparison I can make is to Poets in Their Youth,” Vinciguerra says, “in which Eileen Simpson chronicled the lives and times of a whole bunch of interconnected persons—Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, R.P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell—with her husband, John Berryman, as a connecting link.”
It’s an unconventional approach, and Vinciguerra is finding that he has his work cut out for him. “This is unlike anything I’ve done before,” says the author, a founding editor of The Week magazine and a contributor to various sections of The New York Times for almost 20 years. “And I’m afraid that I’m going to disappoint some people. When Brendan Gill came out with a new edition of Here at The New Yorker, he explained that the book wasn’t an official account of life at the magazine; it was an account of his life at the magazine. Similarly, Cast of Characters will concern itself almost exclusively with Gibbs and the people who were part of his orbit.
“Fortunately, Gibbs wasn’t merely a writer but a major New Yorker editor as well. And unlike White and Thurber, with whom he was always mentioned in the same breath, he never formally left the staff. So he was absolutely an ongoing, sometimes omniscient, presence. At the same time, there were many big names that weren’t in his crowd. You’re not really going to see anything here about folks like Joe Mitchell, Jean Stafford, Dorothy Parker, Richard Rovere, Saul Steinberg, or S.J. Perelman. A.J. Liebling, Robert Benchley and Peter Arno, among others, will enter only fleetingly.
“At the same time, there will be new information about hitherto elusive figures who Gibbs did interact with, like St. Clair McKelway, Russell Maloney, Gus Lobrano, John Mosher, Hobie Weekes, and Freddie Packard. It goes without saying that along with White and Thurber, Harold Ross and Katharine White will loom large. So, too, will Gibbs’s close friends Charles Addams and John O’Hara, and his literary enemy Alexander Woollcott. And I’m paying special attention to the two worlds that Gibbs really made his own—Broadway and Fire Island.
“I’m tempted to spill even more, but I do have a deadline.”
Some links of interest:
From newyorker.com, October 11, 2011, an interview with Jon Michaud of The New Yorker: “Q&A: Thomas Vinciguerra on Wolcott Gibbs”
From The Committee Room, December 12, 2012, this interview: “TCR Recommends — “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs by Thomas Vinciguerra”
From The Washington Post, December 9, 2011, “Year-end Picks”
From Time, October 25, 2011, “Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker”
Mr. Vinciguerra has been kind enough to pass along to this address examples of some of the treasure he has discovered while digging through the New Yorker’s archives in the New York Public Library. From what I’ve been seeing, there is no doubt “Cast of Characters” will be in a league with “Genius in Disguise” Thomas Kunkel’s spectacular biography of Harold Ross. Come 2015, we are in for a treat.