Friday, March 14, 2003

[3/14/2011] Wolcott Gibbs Tonight: "To a Little Girl at Christmas" -- meet Comrade Jelly Belly (continued)


The famous New York Sun "Yes, Virginia" editorial.
You can click on it to enlarge and actually read it.


"Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce" was conceived and printed in an astounding send-up of the formats and styles of the then-36-year-old publishing magnate's magazines, in particular the breathless word-order inversion associated with "Timespeak," which the piece tells us required a brief period of evolution. At the magazine's founding --
Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle. It was months before [Luce's original partner and founding Time editor Briton] Hadden's impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish.
Gibbs's demonic sentence inversion yielded the immortal specimen: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind." The piece ended on the apocalyptic note: "Where it all will end, knows God."

I'd love to present "Time . . . Fortune . . . Life . . . Luce" in its entirety, but I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with either its length -- it's almost encyclopedic in its prolonged derision -- or its exceedingly diverse and precise typography. At some point we can perhaps at least enjoy some excerpts. But then, we would also want to refer to the corresponding section of Thurber's The Years with Ross. I'm working on it.

There's certainly an inherent problem in re-presenting Gibbs's parodies: that we've largely lost connection to their subjects, or should I say objects? I think, though, that the parodies are so good that we actually get a reasonable feel for the styles and modes of thought being travestied. For sure, the parodies are more fun to read than their prototypes.


"To a Little Girl at Christmas" appeared originally in The New Yorker of Dec. 24, 1949, and was included in the Gibbs anthology More in Sorrow.

To a Little Girl
at Christmas

(How a famous question might be answered
if it were asked today and Mr. Westbrook Pegler
happened to be writing editorials for the "Sun")

You're damn right there is a Santa Claus, Virginia. He lives down the road a piece from me, and my name for him is Comrade Jelly Belly, after a poem composed about him once by an admiring fellow-traveller now happily under the sod.

In a manner of speaking, this Jelly Belly is in the distributing end of the toy business, and I guess the story of how that came about has its points for the social historian. Mr. Claus is understandably a reticent man, but the facts would seem to be that he was born quite a while back in the Red Hook section under the appetizing monicker of Sammy Klein. His mother was employed in a celebrated bucket of blood known as the Haymarket, also in what you might call the distributing end, and his father was any one of a number of slick operators, though the weight of evidence would seem to point to Police Lieutenant Becker of fragrant memory. How his mother happened to name him Sammy Klein is not known to this deponent, but there is a suspicion that she got it off the front of a clothing store she was in the habit of looting. It is not my way to speak ill of the dead, Virginia, but you d have to go a long way to find a scurvier pair than the two who spawned the tot we're discussing.

In his youth, Jelly Belly did a short stretch of military service with the Hudson Dusters and the Dead Rabbits, two pinko front organizations of the period, and then passed on to the less perilous profession of rolling lushes in the subway. According to surviving court records, an operative in this classification, variously known as Sid Kline, Saul ("Fingers") Klem, and K. Stein, was arrested no less than thirty-seven times between 1908 and 1916, and stored in the poky for periods ranging from ninety days up. This was presumably Santa Claus.

So much, Virginia, for our hero's boyhood. In 1917, as you probably remember, a sick college professor in the White House [you can click on it to enlarge the photo of President Woodrow Wilson at right -- Ed.] ranted us into what he called a war to make the world safe for democracy, and Jelly Belly had one of the first numbers they pulled out of the bowl. This, however, was one rap he knew how to beat, and young Klein sat out World War I in a hospital for the criminally insane, having prudently assaulted a six-year-old girl on the very day his draft board invited him to call. He was pardoned in 1919 at the special request of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, whose name happened to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and who even then displayed a strong affinity for the unbalanced.

It was at this time that Jelly Belly changed his name to Santa Claus, partly to escape from his too vivacious past and partly because he had just become a full member of the Communist Party and needed an alias with a sanctimonious flavor. His affiliation with the toy business began soon after that. When F.D.R. sprung Jelly Belly, or Santa Claus, from the loonybin, he went to work for the New York Times as a bushwhacker in the circulation department, his job being to mess up delivery boys from the rival Herald. This was naturally an employment highly to his taste, but when one boy died as the result of his attentions, it seemed sagacious to move on. It was in this manner that he came to F. A. O. Schwarz, where they made him first a shipping clerk and then the driver of a truck. The rest of the story -- the prearranged hijackings that proved profitable enough to set Santa Claus up in the toy business for himself, the deals with Henry Agard Wallace, Felix Frankfurter, and his old friend Roosevelt that permitted him to pick the taxpayer's pocket to the tune of about eighty million dollars a year -- is too complicated and dirty for a lady of your tender years. The important fact is that there is a Santa Claus, Virginia -- a fat old party, with nasty habits and a dirty white beard, who, for reasons best known to himself, likes to go around either wholly undressed or else in an ill-fitting red suit.

Today, Jelly Belly enjoys what is sometimes called the odor of sanctity, being generally regarded as a hell of a fellow by little children, soft-headed women, and the kind of deep thinkers who openly profess their opposition to the sterilization of all Communists. My own information is somewhat different. Jelly Belly gets around even more than Eleanor the Great, and I can't speak for his activities in other parts of the country. In my neighborhood, however, it is a matter of common knowledge that the burglary rate never fails to hit its peak at Christmas. No one has ever been caught for any of these misdemeanors, but the evidence in each case is always the same -- a few shoddy toys in a stocking on the mantelpiece, and a mink coat or a pearl necklace missing from the hostess's effects. One victim I know said she wouldn't mind so much if the toys were any good, but they are just the cheap, tasteless junk that crooked labor unions have been turning out ever since the Great Brain decided to sell out his country to the lazy and incompetent.

I could go on for a long time telling you about Jelly Belly, Virginia. I could tell you, for instance, how the gross old slattern who passes herself off as his housekeeper would be described in less respectable pages than these by quite another word. Or I could tell you how he is a member of the Westchester Commuters Association, the National Association of Dahlia Growers, the Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor, and any number of other thinly disguised Communist organizations. Or I could even tell you with what drooling pleasure he beats his eight undersized reindeer, whose cruel whip sores I have seen with my own eyes. But these are probably not good things for a little girl to know. Youth is a time for innocent dreams and illusions, Virginia, and I don't believe I could live comfortably with myself if I destroyed yours. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. There is old Jelly Belly.




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