Thursday, May 22, 2008
A Harpo Profile
I was excited when I came across an extensive profile of Harpo Marx in the December 1, 1928 issue of The New Yorker. I couldn't wait to read a contemporary account of his life -- written during the run of the stage version of "Animal Crackers" -- and I'd actually be able to contribute something to this blog OTHER than Frigidaire advertisements!
But then I realized it was written by Alexander Wollcott. Oh hell.
Only Wollcott -- and his flippant associates of the Algonquin Round Table -- could turn Harpo Marx's life and behaviour into a boring (and largely incomprehensible) profile. The Wollcott technique? Using sly, dry, ironic language to twist little-known personal anecdotes into descriptions of how gosh-darn unusual Harpo was and -- by extension and association -- how clever Mr. Wollcott was.
This was the entire problem with early New Yorker issues, this reliance on witty bon mots and self-aggrandizing style that managed to make even the most interesting subject sound like...well, a bunch of rich and cynical critics sitting around in a restaurant, trying to top each other's stories with a combination of embellishment, dry humour, and wordplay.
Is it any wonder that I reprint the newspaper advertisements more often than anything else?