Final Days of United States Journalists Alexander Woollcott

About the final days of United States journalist Alexander Woollcott, biography and history.


ALEXANDER WOOLLCOTT, U.S. journalist, raconteur

Died: Roosevelt Hospital, New York City, Jan. 23, 1943, 11:46 P.M.

The physically and emotionally gross Woollcott more closely resembled Faruk than Falstaff. Woollcott was not only "The Man Who Came to Dinner" in the play that George S. Kaufman wrote satirizing him, but also a man who, in real life, stayed for four helpings. Critic Percy Hammond described him as "a mountainous jelly of hips, jowls and torso [but with] brains sinewy and athletic." His self-dramatics were legendary, as were his gifts for spontaneous invective and studied insult; many viewed him as a petulant, 230-lb. exhibitionist who made enemies for effect and never climbed offstage. His compulsive role of everyman's intellectual made him a middlebrow favorite, however, and his books and broadcasts gained popularity for their engaging style if thin substance. A survivor at 56 of two previous heart attacks (the first in 1940), Woollcott lunched on his last day with DeWitt and Lila Wallace, editors of Reader's Digest. He napped at his Gotham Hotel suite and made plans to attend the theater that evening after a CBS broadcast commitment. He was hardly an expert on Nazi Germany, but because he could be relied upon to opinionate about anything, he had been invited to discuss the subject "Is Germany Incurable?" on the program People's Platform. Fellow panelists were novelists Marcia Davenport and Rex Stout and two college presidents, Dr. George N. Shuster and Harry D. Gideonse.

Woollcott arrived at 5:30 P.M., ate what was for him an unusually light dinner in the studio with the other panelists, and exchanged bitter remarks with Marcia Davenport, resuming an ancient feud between them. On the 7:00 P.M. broadcast, he opined that Germany "might be cured by the process of time as the Vikings were." His last words on the air, at about 7:15, were typical of him: "The people of Germany are just as responsible for Hitler as the people of Chicago are for the Chicago Tribune. . . . I do think it's a fallacy to think that Hitler was the cause of the world's present woes. Germany was the cause of Hitler." Then he flushed, bent over his microphone, and printed on a slip of paper "I AM SICK." "I knew something was radically wrong with Aleck," said panelist Stout later. "A healthier Woollcott would have printed: I AM ILL." Moderator Gideonse signaled for the others to continue and helped the stricken man to a sofa in an outside corridor. "I am dying," he gasped. "Get my glycerin tablets." In a matter of minutes his body seemed to self-destruct; the massive heart attack had fused a sudden cerebral hemorrhage with left-side paralysis. His physician, a police emergency squad, and a coronary specialist administered oxygen before taking him to Roosevelt Hospital at 9:20 P.M. There he rallied briefly, then failed rapidly until he died. Most listeners to the broadcast were not aware that anything was wrong until his obituary appeared the next day.

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