The Magazine

Whirlwind Gibbs

The pride of the 'New Yorker,' ripe for recovery.

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By THOMAS VINCIGUERRA
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Imagine a writer who, by his mid-thirties, had published more than a million words in the New Yorker. Imagine one who turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes. Imagine him doing all that despite a loveless childhood, desperate alcoholism, and terrible depression.

Now imagine him almost completely forgotten.

Meet Wolcott Gibbs, dead 50 years this year and the man who, perhaps more than anyone else, helped realize Harold Ross's vision of the New Yorker as the epitome of smart metropolitan journalism. During his 31 years at what he called "that nervous weekly," Gibbs was regularly mentioned in the same breath as E.B. White and James Thurber. Yet if anyone remembers him today, it's mainly for a throwaway line from his 1936 parody of Time, which lampooned that magazine's infamous topsy-turvy narrative structure: "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind."

There was much more to Gibbs than that. He was, in fact, the archetypal Algonquinesque New Yorker figure, always viewing the world through a sardonic lens, expressing what he saw in piercing prose. When Ross declared in his famous prospectus that the New Yorker "will hate bunk," it was as if he had envisioned Gibbs as his chief debunker. Gibbs's unique voice was most apparent in the many years he spent as the first-string drama critic, during which he routinely dispatched Broadway dross with pointed disdain:

 

When the curtain goes up on William Saroyan's play called The Beautiful People, it discloses a set that might have been executed by Salvador Dali, needing, in fact, only a rubbery watch and a couple of lamb chops. (1941)

Total imbecility is something rarely achieved, even on Broadway, but I think that Second Best Bed, a sort of rigadoon on Shakespeare's grave, can modestly claim to have come very close to it. (1946)

Moths fly out of pocketbooks, hats fly off heads, pants fly loose from their moorings, and the ghost of comedy flies out the window, mewing like a gull. (Mike Todd's Peep Show, 1950)

 

"God, he's brilliant," said one awestruck admirer. "He doesn't like anything." To which Ross replied, "Maybe he doesn't like anything, but he can do everything."

It was true. Gibbs was probably the most versatile New Yorker staff member ever. He wrote innumerable "Talk of the Town" pieces and inherited from E.B. White the apparently inimitable job of composing "Notes and Comment," those gossamer-like, quasi-editorial jottings that led off the magazine. For a while, he reviewed movies--90 percent of which, he declared, were "so vulgar, witless, and dull that it is preposterous to write about them in any publication not intended to be read while chewing gum." Other staffers handled columns about the press, books, and nightlife; Gibbs wrote all of these, and others.

His profiles were sharp and fiercely honest, imbued with a fine sense of the ridiculous. His devastating takedown of Thomas E. Dewey, which depicted him as a headline-grabbing, ambitious opportunist, was capped by this vivid description of Dewey's eyes: "These are brown, with small irises surrounded by a relatively immense area of white, and Dewey has a habit of rotating them furiously to punctuate and emphasize his speech, expressing horror and surprise by shooting them upward, cunning by sliding them from side to side behind narrowed lids."

He once wrote of his friend Burgess Meredith, "At the moment it has seemed to him suitable to let his ginger-colored hair grow long on top, so that in dimmer lights he looks rather like a chrysanthemum."

Ross called Gibbs's mastery of both fiction and nonfiction "bisexual." His casuals were as good as anything that Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, et al. ever wrote, and he was the New Yorker's premier parodist. He could effortlessly ape Hemingway's terse philosophizing ("It is a strange world, and if a man and a woman love each other, that is strange too, and what is more, it always turns out badly") or Noël Coward's sparkling self-indulgence ("To this day I haven't the slightest idea why social upheaval should invariably be attended by extreme personal inconvenience to those whose interest in it is, to put the thing mildly, academic").

Rare among writers, Gibbs was also a superb editor, able to massage the work of others into publishable shape. Frequently, he would cut a manuscript into paragraphs with scissors, reorder them, fashion the appropriate transitions, and then line-edit the thing from start to finish. Thus did he practice what he wryly preached: "Try to preserve an author's style if he is an author and has a style."

Not everyone approved of Gibbs's rough treatment; he once drove his good friend John O'Hara to explode, "You're f--ing my story!" But Ross relied on Gibbs so heavily that his influence came to be felt in almost every corner of the magazine, down to the Tuesday afternoon art meetings where hundreds of cartoons were discussed. When Gibbs told the actress Patricia Collinge that he was going to retire, she was aghast. "Oh please, please don't," she pleaded. "We need you." In short, Gibbs was the New Yorker's indispensable man.

He was also one of its saddest. Rarely did he believe in either his work or himself. Gibbs honestly thought that writing was "a ludicrous pastime" and that "play criticism was a silly occupation for a grown man." Once, upon handing a piece to fiction editor Gus Lobrano, he hastened to add, "I wouldn't have my name on it for anything in the world, and if I were an editor I would reject it quicker than the human eye."

For all the New Yorker's prestige, Gibbs couldn't help but feel he was a mere comic paragapher. "I should really be writing novels," he would grouse, "not 'Talk of the Town' pieces." In an effort to be taken more seriously, he wrote several abortive plays and musicals. In 1950 he did score a hit with his Broadway comedy Season in the Sun, which ran for 10 months. To his mind, though, he had only demonstrated "that damn near anybody can write anything."

So insecure was he that simple human contact could be torture for him. Gibbs "glided past like a ghost," said Edmund Wilson. "His eyes always seemed to be closed." Crowds made him nervous. At one party, recalled Thurber's wife Helen, Gibbs "took one look inside the room, shrugged his shoulder in that funny way of his, and ran." One of his colleagues, Frank Modell, said that he never saw Gibbs smile.

"I suppose he was the unhappiest man I've ever known," said his good friend S.N. Behrman. "I used to talk to him endlessly about his impressive gift; it made no impression on him."

Considering his upbringing, Gibbs's sour outlook was, perhaps, inevitable. He had come from prestige and wealth. His ancestors included two governors, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a cabinet member, and Martin Van Buren. The family had made its fortune in shipping, but Gibbs's paternal grandfather lost most of the money, and his engineer father, Lucius, failed too, never realizing his dream of developing a practical electric car. Lucius died when he was 39, leaving the six-year-old Gibbs and his infant sister in the care of their alcoholic mother and relatives who lavished little affection on them. Much of his childhood was spent in boarding schools.

Deprived of emotional sustenance, Gibbs grew up vulnerable, pessimistic, and suspicious. He sought love but rarely found it ("I wonder if there is something the matter with me that I can't like anybody for long") and married three times, more or less on impulse on each occasion. His first union lasted only briefly; his second, to a New Yorker promotion writer, ended in her suicide and drove him into deep despair. The great love of his life was the novelist Nancy Hale, with whom he was involved in the early 1930s: "I am never going to be in love with anybody but you," he told her, "and I suppose I might as well get used to the idea in spite of all the nervous breakdowns it gives me." Unfortunately Hale, still married to her first husband and with a baby son, broke off the affair.

In 1933, very much on the rebound, Gibbs married Elinor Mead Sherwin, a Wellesley dropout and former silent-film actress and model. Elinor was pretty, smart, and urbane; St. Clair McKelway thought them the most attractive couple in New York. But they were both too strong-willed to make a completely successful marriage. They remained devoted to each other, but they settled down to a union that neither could quite endure or entirely escape.

"They lived in the same house," recalled a family friend, "but beyond that it wasn't much."

Not surprisingly, like many a gloomy scribe before him, Gibbs sought refuge in the bottle. Often he would stagger to the theater, slump in his chair, and collapse. "At a party Gibbs was good for about two hours," remembered David Cort, an editor at Life. "After that he didn't fight, he dissolved, and had to be carried." Once, while drunkenly slicing up a steak, the meat slipped off his plate. Cursing, Gibbs got down and proceeded to carve it on the floor.

Periodically he would retreat to sanitariums to dry out; sometimes he would briefly manage to stay on the wagon. But he was convinced that alcohol helped define his identity, and in one casual column, he wrote of an alter ego named Munson who swore off booze, only to find it "a tiresome mistake" because "the gift of repartee left Munson the day he drank his last Martini."

Gibbs channeled his disillusion into his writing. He would come to deploy his wit preemptively, wounding others before they could do the same to him, using words as both sword and shield. He even looked the part of the all-knowing, sophisticated critic: An elegant dresser with a taste for tattersall vests, he sported a delicately trimmed mustache and an ever-present cigarette. Behind owlish glasses, he would squint with one eye and superciliously cock the brow of the other, as if everything around him were beneath contempt.

The posturing won him many enemies. Outraged producers complained that he was too drunk to appreciate their plays. Some of his peers suspected, not without reason, that his first impulse was to childishly trash anything that came his way. Gibbs, Dawn Powell concluded, represented the worst of a nihilistic literary movement she called "The Destroyers."

 

They have perverted their rather infantile ambitions into destruction of others' ambitions and happiness. If people are in love, they must mar it with laughter; if people are laughing, they must stop it with "Your slip is showing." They are in a permanent prep school where they perpetually haze each other. They destroy their own happiness by being ashamed of whatever brings it; they want to be loved but are unloving; they want to destroy but be themselves saved.

 

In Gibbs's case, that was far from the whole truth. He was always happy to praise good work (he thought Harvey "a work of pure enchantment--touching, eloquent, and lit with a fresh, surprising humor") and was devoted to such friends as Behrman, O'Hara, and Charles Addams. When Benchley, his predecessor as theater critic, died, he wrote, "He was one of the most courteous men I ever knew, in the sense that whenever he was aware of a feeling of insecurity or inadequacy in anyone he met, he was automatically their genial, admiring ally against the world."

Most of all, he loved Fire Island, the barrier beach off the South Shore of Long Island where he had a second home for more than 20 years. It inspired nine of his short stories in the New Yorker, which in turn provided the basis for Season in the Sun. Among the few happy memories of Gibbs's childhood were the summers he spent with his aunt's family in nearby Merrick; on Fire Island, he could recapture those lazy, sun-drenched days:

I guess I really like it here better than any place in the world, he thought, and for the moment his delight in Fire Island, in this one place where life could be slowed to the almost forgotten tempo of childhood seemed as much as he could bear. The distance from New York, by train and boat, was only fifty terrestrial miles, but in spirit it was enormous. You ate and slept in the dark, untidy little houses that lay along the dunes between the sea and the bay, but most of your life was spent on the loveliest beach in the East, a narrow, sunny shelf that ran thirty miles along the Atlantic, from Babylon to Quogue, and here you just lay in the sun, and all the staggering complexity of your relations with others, the endless, hopeless bookkeeping of your personal morality with too many people, could be put aside for a little while.

In the end, even so idyllic a Valhalla couldn't save him from his demons. Weakened by years of drinking and smoking, as well as a 1947 operation for pleurisy he never quite got over, Gibbs died on August 16, 1958. Privately, a distraught Elinor suspected suicide.

Gibbs was only 56 when he died, and never got the recognition he deserved. But his colleagues were jarred by the loss, and E.B. White captured his memory in an obituary. He recalled one of Gibbs's funniest and most touching casuals, about the time he played Puck in a prep-school version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. His director had told him, "I want you to be a little whirlwind." And so, covered like a jester in jingling bells, Gibbs did as he was instructed--and proceeded to drown out most of the dialogue.

"He was, in all truth, a whirlwind," wrote White, "and in these offices can still be heard the pure and irreplaceable sound of his wild bells."

 

Thomas Vinciguerra, a deputy editor of The Week, is writing a biography of Wolcott Gibbs.