Sunday, February 20, 2011

Introducing "Will Cuppy Tonight"


"My philosophy of life can be summed up in four words: It can't be helped."
-- Will Cuppy, quoted by Thomas Maeder in his afterword
to The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
It was my college roommate Brian, a classics major who went on to become a hotshot library scientist, who introduced me to Will Cuppy, whose astonishing lessons in natural history dealt extensively and, I'm afraid, rather harshly with the "learning" of the ancients. (Pliny the Elder was an especial trial for our Will, but I'm afraid Aristotle's ideas about natural history took quite a beating too.)

I've dusted off my copies of How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, How to Become Extinct, How to Attract the Wombat, and of course the posthumously published Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, and this week we're going to take a quick peek. The Decline and Fall was published with an affectionate and informative introduction by Cuppy's friend and onetime editor Fred Feldkamp, who undertook the task of bringing the raw materials of the book to print, and I would surely offer it here except that a 1984 edition of the book came with an added afterword by Thomas Maeder which I think is even more valuable for readers unfamiliar with the subject. So tonight we launch "Will Cuppy Tonight" with that. -- Ken

"In the mid-thirties, he was fired after a three-week trial stint as a New York Post columnist because his editor felt that obscure, convoluted pieces on Victor Hugo, Lady Godiva, the planet Saturn, and various fish were not precisely the sort of topical witticisms the Post's subscribers were believed to prefer."

Afterword to The Decline and Fall
of Practically Everybody
by Thomas Maeder (1984)

In 1950 a group of V.I.P. wives was taken on a tour of NATO headquarters in Europe. Entering Dwight D. Eisenhower's office, they saw a single book lying on an otherwise empty desk, evidently a work of profound importance that consoled or inspired the Commander in Chief as he searched for a path to world peace. The book's rather disconcerting title was The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.

It was not surprising that the book should be there: it was, after all, almost everywhere, being one of the major hits of the year. The Decline and Fall spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list, and Edward R. Murrow devoted more than two-thirds of one of his nightly CBS news programs to a reading from Will Cuppy's historical sketches, with his colleague Don Hollenbeck appending the footnotes. "It's the history book of the year," Murrow concluded. Scholars praised its impeccable accuracy, while critics and laymen applauded its humor, scarcely realizing that every fact it contained was correct. The book eventually went through eighteen hardcover printings and ten foreign editions before it, and its author, lapsed into temporary obscurity.

Will Cuppy, who died in September 1949, would have been astonished by the success his masterpiece achieved, and perversely gratified that his greatest recognition was posthumous. Although he enjoyed the great honor of being what one might call a humorist's humorist, admired and loved by P. G. Wodehouse, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, and Frank Sullivan, as well as by a tight circle of devoted fans, he was comparatively neglected, seemed to get forgotten when editors compiled humor anthologies, and was forced to depend upon wearisome hack work to earn a meager living. Cuppy, whose own woes were, as with many humorists, his primary source of material, enjoyed making his life out to be worse than it actually was. He depicted himself as the tortured plaything of fate and even postulated a tireless and ubiquitous Hate Cuppy Movement that forever dangled solvency just beyond his grasp and arranged disasters such as the 1929 stock market crash and the bombing of Pearl Harbor to take place just when his books came out so that everyone would be too worried to buy them.

Cuppy believed his luck was so rotten, as he lugubriously predicted to his friend and illustrator William Steig, that just when they were lowering him into the grave scientists would probably come boiling out of their laboratories exulting, "Eureka! we've got it -- the secret of eternal life!" Instead, the Hate Cuppy Movement took its parting shots when the New York Herald-Tribune, where Cuppy had been on staff for more than twenty-five years, printed the wrong man's photograph with his obituary and, through a series of grotesque errors, his cremated ashes were poured into a leaky shoebox and sent to his home town by parcel post while relatives waited with a hearse at the train station. And then, a year after dying in poverty, financial success. "Ah, well," as Will liked to say. "My philosophy of life can be summed up in four words: It can't be helped."

William Jacob Cuppy was born in Auburn, Indiana, on August 23, 1884, the son of Thomas Jefferson Cuppy, tool salesman, railroad man, grain trader, and lumber merchant. Thomas Cuppy was already listed on his son's birth certificate as a "traveling man," and his miscellaneous jobs took him farther and farther from home until one day he never came back. Will and his sister were thus raised by their mother, a strong-willed, overly attentive, and devout woman who ran a millinery shop and taught others to do fancywork and make Battenburg lace. Cuppy's chief memories of his midwestern childhood were pumping the organ at the Presbyterian church, carrying potato salad to church socials, and passing pleasant summers at his grandmother's farm, where he was scarcely allowed out of doors lest his supposedly fragile constitution be damaged by sun, heat, and exercise.

Cuppy attended the University of Chicago for twelve long years without much sense of purpose or even, he claimed, an awareness of why he was there. As an undergraduate he spent less time at his studies than on amateur theatrical productions, writing for the school paper, or at his job as campus correspondent for the Chicago Herald-Record. During his graduate years he was commissioned to write a book, Maroon Tales, about the hoary old traditions of the university, which at the time was only sixteen years old and had none. He accomplished this task by reading books about the eastern Ivy League schools, and inventing tales as similar to theirs as he could possibly contrive. Dismayed by the book's tepid reception, he returned to his studies, and several years later, in 1914, received a Master's in literature and set off east to seek fame and fortune by writing the Great American Drama.

In New York City, Cuppy caroused in Greenwich Village nightspots, wrote odds and ends for ad agencies and newspapers, and labored away at his dramatic masterpiece, with little tangible result. After four years, at age thirty-four, he ruefully concluded that he simply never could finish anything while subjected to the constant distractions of life in Manhattan, and he took the strange and radical step of becoming a hermit. The closest thing Cuppy could find to a desert atoll in the New York vicinity was Jones's Island, a thin barrier beach off the south shore of Long Island, populated only by the crew of the Zachs Inlet Coast Guard Station and, in the summer, by a few vacationers from the towns on the other side of South Oyster Bay. There, Cuppy stumbled on an abandoned clapboard, tarpaper, and tin sheeting shack. He arranged to buy it, and he moved in. It was his home for the next ten years. When it rained, water seeped through the three-layer roof. During storms, much of the island vanished under the waves, and Cuppy's shack nearly blew away. In the winter he took his vegetables to bed with him to keep them from freezing at night.

Cuppy admitted that, as hermit life went, he had it pretty easy. The Coast Guard station was just three hundred yards away, and the crewmen invited him over for chicken dinners, rowed him to shore when he had business in town, helped fix his pump, mended his roof, propped up his porch, painted his shack with assorted bright colors of leftover paint, and aided him with other complex mechanical tasks such as changing the ribbon on his typewriter. In exchange, Cuppy kept them amused with his odd wit and ineptitude. They suggested various names for the home of their curious neighbor -- "Castle Terrabil," "Dumbellton Grange," or "A Damned Old Hermit Lives in This Here Shack," but Cuppy himself finally gave it the label that most aptly described both the house and its inhabitant: "Tottering-on-the-Brink."

In 1922 Cuppy began writing newspaper book reviews, and from 1924 until his death he was a staff reviewer for the New York Herald-Tribune "Books" supplement. Every few weeks he took a sequence of rowboats, taxicabs, trains, and subways into Manhattan, where the ragged old anchorite emerged as a dandy, clad in an immaculate blue suit, looking for all the world like a prosperous banker. He would spend several days in town, visiting friends and attending to business before returning to his island retreat with a trunkload of books to review at $2 apiece. Initially he attempted to write fourteen reviews per week, but found that such high volumes of bad literature made him ill. To his lasting shame and disgust, when he was finally given a permanent column, it was "Mystery and Adventure," two categories which he despised, and he claimed to have created a convenient alter-ego who did the work for him -- Oswald Terwilliger, a bloodthirsty halfwit who loved mayhem of all kinds and whose vocabulary consisted exclusively of pulp review words such as "grand," "thrilling," and "unforgettable." Cuppy estimated that he eventually read nearly four thousand mystery books, and he always looked forward to the end of each workday, when he could curl up in bed with a good treatise on natural history.

From Jones's Island, Cuppy inundated his friends with letters detailing the eventful life of a modern hermit: speculations on such profound scientific enigmas as why all beaches slope down to the sea, inventories of the groceries that vacationers departing at summer's end donated to his collection box on the dock, complaints about passing rum-runners smuggling liquor into New York who shot out his windows for fun, and endless laments over his broken can opener, leaking mattress, his hypochondriacal afflictions, and life in general. Isabel Paterson, Will's closest friend, who wrote a Herald-Tribune column of literary gossip, regularly printed Will Cuppy anecdotes and quotes in her weekly articles, delighting readers who for years supposed that this improbable hermit with an obviously fictitious name was no more than a figment of her imagination. "I could only wish that this legend might persist," Cuppy humbly replied, "for I know of nobody at all of whose imagination I should feel prouder and more signally honored to be a figment."

Isabel Paterson urged Cuppy to give up his efforts at drama. This he would never do, and he continued to fiddle with the Great American Drama until the time of his death, when, after forty-five years of work, several hundred pages of variants on a first draft of Act I were found among his effects. Paterson was more successful in dragging articles out of him based on his humorous accounts of hermit life. She patiently helped to edit them, assured him they were funny, and convinced Horace Liveright to publish in book form a collection of them entitled How to Be a Hermit.

How to Be a Hermit appeared in 1929 to critical praise, particularly in the Herald-Tribune, where Cuppy contrived to review it himself. P. G. Wodehouse, who tried to arrange for an English edition of the book, later claimed it was one of his favorite volumes and that he reread it two or three times a year. But the timing of the book's publication was a bad joke, for when it appeared Cuppy's hermit life was coming to an end. Robert Moses had decided to transform Jones's Island, Cuppy's neglected, barren isle, into Jones Beach, eventually the most densely populated resort in the world. When the ice broke up in the spring of 1927, enormous dredges moved into South Oyster Bay, and to the dismay of poor Cuppy, who had a horror of any type of noise, they worked around the clock for the better part of a year, transforming the landscape around him. The elevation of the island was raised as much as twelve feet in some places, and during the summer of 1928 Cuppy watched hundreds of workers creep around his shack planting tufts of beach grass to hold the new sand hills in place. On the day the Wantagh Causeway to Jones Beach opened in August 1929, twenty-five thousand automobiles invaded Cuppy's kingdom, and in the park's first full holiday season there were one and a half million visitors.

When Cuppy was threatened with eviction from his shack, which was now in the middle of a state park, he wrote to Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, enclosing a copy of How to Be a Hermit and begging for mercy. Inexplicably, Moses, who had never stopped for anyone in his ruthless construction of bridges, highways, and parks, decided to let Will Cuppy remain in his shack; he called a special meeting of the Long Island Parks Commission and, to hear Cuppy tell it, they "unanimously decided that they wouldn't take the responsibility of adding any more worries to the life of a person who had so many troubles already." In a 1970 book on his career in public works, Moses, on his side, grudgingly conceded that "we made the right decision, but hermits must move a little further from town." The reprieve was only temporary, however, and Cuppy could never feel fully comfortable there afterwards. The Coast Guard station was demolished and replaced by Dump No. 2, and his home was overrun by squadrons of visitors with squealing kids who gaped through his windows and made disparaging remarks about the decor. In late 1929 he rented a fourth floor walk-up apartment at 130 West 11th Street in Manhattan and became an urban hermit instead, going out to the beach only occasionally thereafter, when he was exceptionally desperate for solitude.

On his return to civilization, Cuppy entered his most productive period. He wrote for a variety of magazines and newspapers, and in 1931 published How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, the first book of his humorous trilogy on natural history, eventually followed by How to Become Extinct and How to Attract the Wombat. The success of this curious volume, much of which had originally appeared as a series of New Yorker articles, made his name known and enabled him to find sporadic jobs as a guest host on NBC radio shows. In 1933 he persuaded network executives to give him his own weekly fifteen-minute program, written entirely by him, in which he and an actress named Jeanne Owen carried on witty, rambling dialogues about Cuppy's hermit life, the animal world, and assorted historical figures. More often they discussed Cuppy's nearly inexhaustible supply of pet peeves, which included parrots, tripe, snails, fried bananas, sunsets, interior decorators, chintz, the classification of the bat as a mammal, the proliferation of French kings named Louis, the tendency of ham to curl in the skillet, pineapple pie, canaries, rain, umbrella-toting pedestrians, poetry, nightingales, love birds, detective stories, neighbors, beet picklers, parsnips, the world's lack of interest in atoms, and everyone's lack of interest in Will Cuppy himself. Cuppy's friends found the program tremendously funny, but the NBC executives couldn't decide whether it really was or not, nor even what it was in the first place, and after six months of moving it from one time slot to another in search of an audience, they cancelled the show.

Cuppy next took a stab at the lecture circuit -- a potentially lucrative business at the time -- but he was a nervous and erratic speaker. While he enjoyed enormous success for several weeks giving a comic monologue at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, on another occasion he flopped so badly before the Ad Club in Rochester that by mutual consent he was not even paid, and he went down in the Ad Club's history book as the most terrified and execrable speaker they had ever seen. In a self-mocking lecture called "My Careers and What Happened to Them," Cuppy claimed that when he gave up lecturing he tried to break into Hollywood scriptwriting, but that the man he approached for a job walked out on him in the middle of lunch. If Cuppy never achieved the more widespread popular success enjoyed by some of his peers, it was due as much to his own oddities and unwillingness to compromise as to the insidious work of a Hate Cuppy Movement. Being a recluse, he tended not to mingle with the right people, or with many people at all, and was always thought a bit peculiar. He put off some people with his self-effacing warnings: when a New York Times editor solicited an article from him, Cuppy cautioned "that he was a very slow worker and wasn't too sure that people liked his kind of stuff any more." Others were annoyed by his constant complaints. His friends recognized as a running joke Cuppy's threats to poison himself or to slit his throat on the steps of the Herald-Tribune building if they didn't publish his reviews promptly, and after a time the "Books" staff benevolently sent him all works on poisons, hanging, and other means of extinguishing life. But this maudlin jesting was an uncontrollable and to some an unpleasant habit, and his career as a regular New Yorker contributor was damaged when he fought with Wolcott Gibbs after the latter took him to task for accompanying his manuscripts with little notes threatening to commit suicide if they were not accepted, or discreetly mentioning that his nonexistent wife and nine children were withering up and blowing away from hunger and lack of adequate medical care.

Worse, his fascination with abstruse topics earned him the reputation of being an intellectual, a lethal label for a humorist. In the mid-thirties, he was fired after a three-week trial stint as a New York Post columnist because his editor felt that obscure, convoluted pieces on Victor Hugo, Lady Godiva, the planet Saturn, and various fish were not precisely the sort of topical witticisms the Post's subscribers were believed to prefer. "I think Cuppy is a great humorist -- " the Post editor wrote to Will's agent, "probably the funniest man in the world -- but only a few of us will know that so long as he deliberately hides his light under a bushel of antiquities." Yet Cuppy refused to write about racehorses, politics, and movie stars, as was suggested. Instead, he became even more recondite.

Cuppy's last submission to the New Yorker was a fine example of his ability to turn pure fact into humor, but the reception it got there dismayed him. The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for "blanket," mentions that Thomas Blanket, "to whom gossip attributes the origin of the name, if he really existed, doubtless took his name from the article." In his "Footnote on Thomas Blanket," Cuppy assailed the O.E.D. editors for assuming, first, that Thomas did not exist, whereas he was a fully documented fourteenth-century Bristol corn merchant, and second, that if he had existed he had been too silly to think of a last name for himself until 1339 when, his corn export business prospering, he set up a factory to make cloth and saw blankets coming out of it. Cuppy proved to his own satisfaction, moreover, that there had been Blankets in Bristol long before Thomas, and that consequently, the O.E.D. notwithstanding, Thomas Blanket had probably gotten his name the way the rest of us do, from his parents, rather than from a bit of woollen goods.

The New Yorker returned Cuppy's article, not so much because they disliked it, but because, as editor Katharine S. White wrote, such made-up history based on imaginary sources was confusing and not quite their sort of thing. That the supremely fastidious New Yorker should have doubted the even more fastidious Will Cuppy was a dreadful blow, and after stewing for a few weeks, Cuppy wrote to Mrs. White, "I hate to clutter up your mail, but I did want you to know (just for the record) that it wasn't a 'made up' piece at all. You wouldn't think so if you knew of the ungodly amount of actual physical toil I went through with it, such as getting information from the British Museum and reading the archives of the city of Bristol. As it stands, it is a contribution to history of the most authentic nature -- but I thought I would make it funny, too. I intended it simply and solely as a few pertinent facts set down as lucidly as possible in order to right a great wrong, the smothering of Thomas Blanket (which now seems to have succeeded, and the truth will die with me)." He submitted nothing to the New Yorker after that.

Cuppy continued to contribute to assorted newspapers, and had regular pieces in his friend Fred Feldkamp's magazine For Men and in the Saturday Evening Post. How to Become Extinct appeared in 1941, and was reprinted soon afterwards in omnibus with his earlier animal book. But he was growing discouraged, and no longer sought fame and fortune in movies, radio, or anywhere outside his modest field of short magazine articles. In 1944, Cuppy was sixty years old, and his health was beginning to deteriorate. Some friends died and others went to war, and he felt alone and depressed. He and Isabel Paterson quarreled and never spoke to each other again. When the war ended, he said he felt that he had died, as though one of the bombs had killed him. The world of publishing underwent radical changes, and many of his old acquaintances at magazines were replaced by bright young faces. He began to say that he had written all he knew how to write, and that he was unable to do any more.

In 1949, just when he was making final corrections on the proofs of How to Attract the Wombat, Cuppy was threatened with eviction from his West 11th Street apartment. This inconvenience seemed catastrophic to Cuppy. He had spent most of his hours for the past twenty years in that apartment, and it had become an extension of himself. His new complaints to his friends, though, seemed to them almost indistinguishable from his routine, lifelong laments, and not until the last few days, when he sank into a depression so profound that not a spark of good humor could be drawn from him, did anyone suspect how distressed he truly was. On September 8, 1949, Cuppy took an overdose of sleeping pills, and he died, without regaining consciousness, eleven days later. Had he been able to explain his tragic end from beyond the grave, he would probably have said that it just seemed easier than moving.

As is mentioned in Fred Feldkamp's introduction to this book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody was left incomplete at Cuppy's death. He had been under contract for this work, which he always considered to be his masterpiece, since the early 1930s, but he had substituted first one, then another book, forever renegotiating new deadlines and advances for The Decline and Fall. Rough versions of most of the pieces had appeared as short magazine articles, but he continued to expand and perfect them, and occasionally expressed doubt that he would ever be sufficiently satisfied to call his favorite book complete. Among the notes that he left at the time of his suicide were instructions concerning Decline and Fall.

Fred Feldkamp, Cuppy's literary executor, close friend, editor, and ardent admirer, devoted many months to the completion of The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody. He had worked with Cuppy for many years, and was able to fashion rough fragments and voluminous notes into pieces faithful to Cuppy's style and thought, and which earned the acclaim that their author properly deserved. It is a pleasure to know that now, in the centennial year of Cuppy's birth and thirty-five years after his death, this superb book is again being offered to the public -- proof, perhaps, that the Hate Cuppy Movement has finally been beaten into submission while the Help Poor Old Cuppy Movement, which Will thought was on its last legs, has gained the ascendant at last.

TOMORROW in WILL CUPPY TONIGHT: "Are Wombats People?," the introductory piece from How to Attract the Wombat

THURBER TONIGHT (including BENCHLEY TONIGHT and WILL CUPPY TONIGHT): Check out the series to date

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At 3:35 AM, Anonymous Robert Dagg Murphy said...

I discovered this book in college (late 50's). Thanks for bringing it to our attention. It's a classic.

At 7:17 AM, Blogger Ulysses said...

What a fascinating post! I'm motivated now to read as much Will Cuppy as I can find. Thanks!

At 12:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My favorite (history) book! Seeing your posts, I've bought it and I'm re-re-reading it again. I'll start next on Cuppy's other books.
If you have kids, give them "Decline etc." to read and you'll never again hear them they "don't like history"!

At 8:00 PM, Blogger FlickSheridan said...

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