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."