The Magazine

Whirlwind Gibbs

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

Dec 15, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 13 • By THOMAS VINCIGUERRA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."