Literary Daybook, Jan. 23

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

Published January 23, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Jan. 23, World Champion Six Day Bike Race is scheduled to start.
-- "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" (1969)
by Jimmy Breslin

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
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Today in Literary History

On this day in 1943, author, drama critic, radio personality, raconteur, wit and man-about-town Alexander Woollcott died. Though not as quoted or quotable as Dorothy Parker, the acid-tongued Woollcott played King to Parkers Queen at the Algonquin Round Table in the '20s and '30s. Insofar as the Vicious Circle allowed alliances, of course: When Woollcott returned contentedly from a book-signing with the rhetorical sigh, "What is so rare as a Woollcott first edition?" Parker quipped, "A second edition." He described her as a "combination of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth," but descriptions of Woollcott as "Old Vitriol and Violets" or "Louisa May Woollcott" point to the same bipolarity. Though renowned for being long-winded in print, he could be pithy: "The scenery was beautiful but the actors got in front of it" and "He has been many things on the stage in his day, but he has never been funny." His judgments saved or skewered many Broadway productions, and later his nationally syndicated "Town Crier" radio show did the same for many of his guests. His cutting remarks, or his silk-dressing-gown-and-long-cigarette-holder pronouncement of them, or his hobnob-and-name-drop lifestyle, or his enthusiasm for food, made Woollcott a large target. One radio hoax involved a deathbed plea from two spinsters that Woollcott recite the Twenty-third Psalm to them on-air; he gave a rousing rendition, accompanied by the full CBS radio orchestra, and grieved openly when news reached him of the deaths of these good, grateful and totally fictitious ladies. Friend and fellow Algonquin George S. Kaufman combined with Moss Hart to lampoon him in their 1939 hit, "The Man Who Came to Dinner." Seeing an opportunity to have his wit and eat it too, Woollcott agreeably played the title role in one touring production of the play, though he was apparently much better at being offensive than acting it.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," email Steve King.

By the Salon Books Editors

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