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Accession Number #91-016

Biographical Note


ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT (1887-1943), the charismatic writer, theater critic, and star of national radio in the early 20th century, became even more noted after a play was written about him by his friends, Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. In the play titled “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” Sheridan Whiteside, a radio star and writer, insults people and meddles in their lives. 

Woollcott was born in an eighty-five room house in Phalanx, New Jersey. Once used a commune, the property, by the late 1800s, was owned by the Bucklin family, Woollcott's grandparents. Woollcott spent much time there as youngster. Although his family was poor, Alexander developed a great love of literature and, with the help of a family friend, he attended Hamilton College in upstate New York. Woollcott graduated in 1909. 

After working for a short time as a bank clerk, Woollcott got a job as a reporter for The New York Times. Thereafter, he became a drama critic. As a critic, Woollcott was adept at drawing the public's attention. Describing a play as leaving "a taste of lukewarm parsnip juice," or an actor as "scrupulously artificial and ever glacial" would definitely attract notice. In fact, the Shubert brothers tried to ban Woollcott from attending their shows.

During World War I, Woollcott served as an orderly in a medical unit. Upon his return, he became a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table which consisted of a group of individuals who met regularly at the Hotel Algonquin in New York City. The group included Irving Berlin, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Edna Ferber. During World War II, Woollcott again went abroad and sent broadcasts from several bombed out cities in Britain. 

In 1929, Woollcott appeared on CBS radio as “The Town Crier,” a short program that consisted of Woollcott reading his latest anecdote. He was very successful on the radio but when his sponsor, Cream of Wheat, dropped him due to his harsh comments on Hitler and Mussolini, CBS kept him on until another sponsor could be found. 

On January 23, 1943, Woollcott participated in a radio program on CBS, titled “The People's Platform.” Appearing with him were the mystery writer Rex Stout, novelist Marcia Davenport, and two college Presidents, Harry Gideonse of Brooklyn College, and George Shuster of Hunter College. Their topic was "Is Germany Incurable?" Several minutes into the show, Woollcott scribbled "I am sick" on a piece of paper and held it up for the others to see. He slumped in his chair and President Gideonse helped him out of the studio. What began as a heart attack ended as a cerebral hemorrhage. Alexander Woollcott died later that day.

 

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