Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Road Not Taken

School district elections are today, so it seems fitting to publish again this excerpt from a biography of Alexander Woollcott, which I published on my old blog, First Ward Hudson, back in November. Woollcott was the model for the character Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. A visit by Woollcott to Hart's country house in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, inspired the play. Woollcott demanded chocolate cake and a frosted milkshake, insisted that the heat be turned off, and then wrote in the guest book upon departing: "I wish to say that on my first visit to Moss Hart's house I had one of the most unpleasant evenings I can ever recall having spent."

Woollcott graduated from Hamilton College in 1909 and, in the fall of his senior year, came to Hudson to explore the possibility of gainful employment after graduation.

"Primarily, I wanted to become a teacher and actually got as far as to apply for the principalship of the high school at Hudson, New York," Woollcott wrote.

"The Hudson school board was gracious and encouraging, but during the tea table conference in what passed for a mansion in Hudson one of its more taciturn members took me aside.

"In a whisper he explained that, whereas the ordinances of the town were modern enough to frown on corporal punishment, it was an open secret that the principal must be prepared to thrash the occasional hoodlum among the students. Tranquil months might drift by without its ever being necessary actually to join combat. But that would only be because the principal was able subtly to convince the entire student body that he could, were he so inclined, take the toughest brute in the senior class and beat the living daylights out of him.

"This colloquy was held in a bay window which looked out on the elm-lined street of the old riverside town not far from Albany. At the moment three students were on their way home from football practice, their alarming bulk increased by the doggy high-necked sweaters of yesteryear.

"'There,' said my counselor on the school board, 'could you scare the wits out of one of those?'

"So I decided to become a reporter."

From Smart Aleck: The Wit, World, and Life of Alexander Woollcott by Howard Teichmann (Morrow, 1976)

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