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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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.