‘A Chance for Mr. Carnegie’

Andrew Carnegie in 1913.

Andrew Carnegie in 1913.

From the very beginning, Don Marquis used his newspaper column to poke fun at the rich and powerful, and proof of that claim can be found in The Evening Sun of April 12, 1913. Don’s Sun Dial column on that day wasn’t even a week old (it had debuted on April 7) when he aimed his wit at one of the richest and most powerful men in the world: Andrew Carnegie. The famed industrialist, founder of the largest iron and steel operations ever owned by an individual in the United States, was, by 1913, giving away hundreds of millions of dollars in a well-publicized rush of philanthropy. Carnegie enjoyed telling stories of his humble childhood in his native Scotland, and of the hard work and determination that brought such wealth to him and, by extension, his adopted home town, Pittsburgh — a city where the smokestacks from Carnegie’s factories turned the noonday sky dark with soot.

Here is an extract from Don’s column of April 12, 1913:

A Chance for Mr. Carnegie

Mr. Andrew Carnegie says, “I would have liked to be a reporter. I tried my best once in Pittsburg to get on a paper, but they wouldn’t have me.”

We are afraid we can’t promise our assistance in getting anything in the news end of a paper for Mr. Carnegie, although we hate to discourage a worthy young man who is trying to better himself. The dull season is coming along pretty soon, anyhow.

But if Mr. Carnegie will drop in to see us any afternoon from 3 to 5, with a letter from his pastor, we will outline to him an arrangement we have in mind whereby he can write short pieces for this column now and then. Let him wear a carnation in his coat lapel and look about him for an average looking sort of a person with an ordinary necktie in plain clothes, and we will know each other at once.

We have the thought of making a poet out of Mr. Carnegie. A stanza of his earlier verse floated into our notice some years ago, and we said at once: “Here is a man with a talent: if he only received proper encouragement he might get ahead in the world.” But evidently no one encouraged Mr. Carnegie. The stanza to which we refer is as follows:

Mary had a little lamb,
     Its fleece was white as snow,
It followed her to Pittsburg –
     And look at the d—d thing now!

The words “snow” and “now” are both to be pronounced so as to rhyme with the word “gnu.”

It will be a rather arduous apprenticeship, and for a while Mr. Carnegie will have to submit to having his best things published over our signature, but if he works hard (crushing, among other things, the slight tendency to profanity which mars the above quatrain), we will give him a start.

After that, it’s up to him.

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Marquis Family AlbumHere is a look at Don Marquis and the most important people in his life: his family. His first wife, Reina, is at the top-left, in a photo from the first decade of the last century. It was taken in Atlanta, at about the time she met a young up-and-coming writer who bought several of her short stories for a new magazine he was editing, Uncle Remus’s Magazine. Their children, at top-right, were Bobby (above) and Barbara (below). Reina died unexpectedly in 1923, and two years later Don married Marjorie Vonnegut, lower-left, an accomplished Broadway actress. Don helped raise Marjorie’s son from a previous marriage, Walter Vonnegut, lower-right, know to his family as Colonel. Tragically, Don saw everyone but Walter die before his own pitiable death in 1937, at age 59, after a succession of strokes. Bobby died in 1921 at age 5, two years before his mother. Barbara — the adored “babs” to whom Don dedicated “archy and mehitabel” in 1927 — had always been a sickly child; she was 13 when she died in 1931. And Marjorie, who drove herself to exhaustion caring for Don in his final years, died in her sleep in 1936. Walter, however, lived for many decades beyond. He was 90 when he died in 2013. To the end, he fondly recalled his childhood with “Uncle Don.”

The Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society

pattersonStories of Don Marquis sharing drinks and tall stories with his friends are legion. He was a regular at The Players club in New York and other clubs and taverns throughout the 1920s and ’30s, where invariably he was at the center of spirited talk. That camaraderie seems in short supply in our busy modern world, but there’s something we can do about it. And so we propose a new club for today’s legion of Don Marquis fans.

Introducing the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society!

The name borrows from a story recounted by Don’s biographer, Edward Anthony, in his 1962 book, “O Rare Don Marquis,” in which Don, after an extended period of abstinence, boldly walked up to the bar at The Players and declared, “I’ve conquered that goddamn willpower of mine. Give me a double scotch!”

There are other literary clubs and groups focused on the 1920s era, of course. The Dorothy Parker Society calls itself a drinking club with a literary problem, and there’s also the Robert Benchley Society, the scholarly Fitzgerald and Hemingway societies, and the marvelously magnanimous Repeal Society, to name a few. But the Don Marquis Double Scotch and Prohibition Society is our own excuse to gather and talk and drink and talk and tell stories and talk some more.

The bylaws of the Society are straightforward. Basically, if you want to join the Society, you just did. And anywhere that you and a friend raise a toast to Don constitutes a meeting of the local chapter.

Please forward your name, contact information and anything else you’d like to say to John Batteiger, founder of the Society, at john(at)donmarquis.com. We will add you to the roster and keep you informed of Society news and cocktail hours. Also, please visit our website at www.donmarquis.com and the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/DonMarquisAuthor.

Chapter secretaries (that means you) will take note of the following administrative files:
Bylaws of the Society 
Society logo
Letterhead for official Society correspondence
A photo of Don
‘Who the Hell Is Don Marquis?’ *

But enough formalities. Let’s end with a toast: Cheerio my deario!

* This line, by the way, comes from the title of a slim tribute volume privately published in 1998 by the late Steve Gatensbury of British Columbia. We regret the Society had not been founded in time for Mr. Gatensbury to have been a member.

Don Marquis Joins New York State Writers Hall of Fame

Don-TribuneIt was a thrilling night at Manhattan’s 3 West Club on Tuesday, June 7, as Don Marquis and seven other literary greats were inducted into the New York State Writers Hall of Fame at a gala dinner hosted by the Empire State Center for the Book and the New York Library Association. 

Don joined Roger Angell, Roz Chast, Samuel R. Delany, Stephen Sondheim, Maya Angelou, Jean Craighead George, and Grace Paley as 2016 honorees. Sixty-six writers have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since its founding in 2010 by the Empire State Center for the Book, including Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Washington Irving and Frederick Douglass. Twentieth-century writers in the Hall of Fame include John Cheever, Toni Morrison, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, Kurt Vonnegut, Nora Ephron, Calvin Trillin and Joyce Carol Oates.

Rocco Staino, director of the Empire State Center for the Book, presided over the Hall of Fame gala. Don’s award, a Lucite plaque mounted on polished wood, was accepted by John Batteiger, creator and editor of DonMarquis.com. Here is a transcript of Batteiger’s induction tribute:

*   *   *


DON MARQUIS once griped to a reporter that after 30 years as a newspaper columnist, poet, short-story writer, novelist and playwright, he would probably be remembered as “the creator of a goddamn cockroach character.”

He was right, of course. “archy and mehitabel” — his lowercase stories of a cockroach with the soul of a poet and an alley cat dancing through her ninth life — remains a classic of American literature. The book has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1927 – more than 100 printings, by my count — and its stories are in virtually every anthology of American humor.

Not his five novels, not his three volumes of serious poetry, or his four Broadway plays – 29 books in all. And that’s not counting the four Hollywood movies and five radio and television dramas based on his work. No, we know Don Marquis best for “archy and mehitabel” – wild bits of fantasy that helped make him one of the most famous writers in America in the years before and after World War One – before the wits of the Algonquin Round Table and the New Yorker magazine gained prominence, and before the writers of the Lost Generation found their voice.

Archy and Mehitabel, by the way, were first conceived just over 100 years ago – in March, 1916 – to fill space in Don’s six-day-a-week newspaper column in the New York Evening Sun. Filler material has never had such staying power.

But I’m certain Don would be extremely proud to accept this honor. Every journalist dreams of being remembered for something more than yesterday’s headline and tomorrow’s fishwrap. In Don’s case, the successful comic, the beloved humor writer always wanted to be taken seriously.

Sadly, Don Marquis has no family left to claim this Hall of Fame honor. Both of his wives and both of his children died before his own passing in 1937. Don’s stepson, Walter Vonnegut Jr. – a cousin of Kurt Vonnegut, by the way – died three years ago at the age of 90.

Me, I’m a stand-in. I am wrapping up work on a bibliography of Don’s writings, and I edit a website and a Facebook page that reprint some of his tall tales and light verse and tell stories about his life.

To most Americans of the 1920s and ‘30s, Don Marquis was the consummate New Yorker – suave, clever and successful. But Don was born and raised on the Illinois prairie. He arrived in New York in 1909 and got his first solid job in New York on the staff of the Brooklyn Eagle, a storied newspaper that had once employed another future member of the New York State Writers Hall of Fame – Walt Whitman.

After a year Don left the Eagle to make a name for himself on the New York Evening Sun, where he created his famous characters Archy and Mehitabel, along with The Old Soak, and Hermione and her Little Group of Serious Thinkers. Don’s last newspaper job was at the New York Herald Tribune, working out of its offices at 219 West 40th Street. Today that building is the home of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

I don’t know for sure if there are any ink-stained ghosts in the CUNY classrooms, but I do know that Don Marquis always warmly regarded his colleagues in that building. And so it seems appropriate that Don’s Hall of Fame award find a home there.

I’d like to introduce Andrew Mendelson, associate dean of the graduate school of journalism, and Tim Harper, adjunct professor and editor of the CUNY Journalism Press. I talked with Dean Mendelson, and he told me that the school would provide a home for this award there on West 40th Street. By doing so, they will make one old ghost very, very happy. Thank you very much.

— John Batteiger

Rocco Staino, left, and John Batteiger with Don Marquis's Hall of Fame award.

Rocco Staino, left, and John Batteiger with Don Marquis’s Hall of Fame award.

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Calvin Trillin Third in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Calvin Trillin has many hats — journalist, essayist, humorist, doggerelist — and he wears all of them well. He is that rare writer who can write authoritatively one day and with absurd abandon the next. His profiles in The New Yorker (where he has worked since 1963) are masterpieces of long-form journalism, and his comic essays on food are pure gold. Consider his decades-long campaign to have spaghetti carbonara replace turkey as the national Thanksgiving dish, or his paeans (dozens of them) to a certain Kansas City barbecue restaurant (operated by one Arthur Bryant).

And then there are his stories about Alice, his wife, and her “seemingly uncontrollable attacks of moderation.” Alice, he once wrote famously, “has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”

Trillin has also won praise as a “deadline poet,” writing bits of light, topical verse in The Nation since 1990. Here are two examples from 2003, the first written after former Vice President Al Gore announced that he wouldn’t run for president in the next election:

We now feel warm toward Albert Gore,
Who will not run in aughty-four.
Most candidates, I must admit,
Seem at their best the day they quit.

And after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, ostensibly to destroy weapons of mass destruction, and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein: 

We’re safe from Saddam, tra-la, tra-la,
We’re safe from Saddam, oh goody!
He can’t send a bomb, tra-la, tra-la.
Which he could have done. Or could he?

Trillin’s doggerel deadline poetry has a precedent stretching back more than a century. Take a look at the following verse from Don Marquis’s budding column in the New York Evening Sun on Nov. 8, 1912, three days after Woodrow Wilson’s election as president ended 16 years of Republican control of the White House:

Woodrow, you have my sympathy —
Think of that awful mob
Of seven million Democrats,
Each howling for a job.

They’ve hungered through the long, lean years,
More famished day by day —
Woodrow, my boy, you stand between
The lion and his prey!

Marquis was also poking fun at politicians on the day Archy the cockroach first appeared in print, March 29, 1916. Archy wasn’t at the top of that day’s Sun Dial column; it was a quick, two-line verse about Charles Evans Hughes, the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president in the upcoming election. Hughes had been a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court for six years at that point and had not commented publicly on topics of the day since he took his seat on the bench. The public was curious, and so was Marquis. He wrote, simply:

Justice Hughes,
What are your views?

In the following years Marquis used Archy to remark on current events, too, and gradually the verses touched more broadly on the human condition. As Archy opined:

i do not kick against my fate
i think that life is swell
contentedly i sit and wait
for the world to go to hell

And Marquis, who eventually worked himself to death writing a succession of books, magazine articles, Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, reverted to doggerel to remind readers — and himself — to slow down and savor what life is left in us:

The golden-days
We waste in toil
Will nevermore return!
The proper sort of midnight oil
Was made to drink,
Not burn!

From one doggerelist to another, it is especially fitting that Calvin Trillin chose to read a few lines of poetry, ostensibly from Archy, as his gracious contribution to archyFest, the yearlong celebration of Archy and Mehitabel’s first century in print. The poem, “fate is unfair,” is from “archy does his part” (Doubleday, 1935).

Thank you, Calvin Trillin!

Here is his video: 

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.


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Dave Barry Second in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Archy the cockroach was the embodiment of reincarnation — he had been a poet in a past life, after all, and spent his insect days tapping out verse on a typewriter. So it’s entirely within reason to speculate who might be the reincarnation today of Don Marquis.

My vote would be for Dave Barry. Like Marquis, Barry was one of the most celebrated newspaper columnists of his era, using humor to shine a spotlight on the human condition. He wrote weekly columns in The Miami Herald from 1983 to 2005 that were devastatingly funny, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for “his consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Like Marquis, he has continued writing humor to great effect after leaving the grind of newspaper journalism, with 37 books to his name at last count.

The New York Times has called Barry “the funniest man in America.” The novelist Stephen King put it another way, declaring, “While reading Dave Barry’s ‘Big Trouble’ (Putnam, 1999), I laughed so loud I fell out of a chair. Luckily, there’s a rug, so I didn’t hurt myself.” On a personal level, one of Barry’s column’s from 1985 reduces this writer to disabling fits of laughter even today, after dozens of readings. It is titled “Ask Mr. Manners” and attempts to prepare a young parent for all the horrifying atrocities in store when hosting a birthday party for a preschool child. Popular themes for a young boy’s party, according to Barry, include action figures such as He-Man, G.I. Joe, The A-Team and the always-popular “Testosterone Bob’s Hurt Patrol.”  

When he was asked to recite a few lines from “archy and mehitabel,” Barry chose an excerpt from one of the funniest distillations of humor ever put onto paper: “certain maxims of archy.” His video is short and sweet. It is the second in a series of self-made videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — a yearlong celebration called archyFest.

Thank you, Dave Barry!

Here is his video: 

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

Next week: Calvin Trillin!

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Neil Gaiman First in a video series. Scroll down for a link to the video.

Novelist and comic-book writer Neil Gaiman counts Don Marquis’s “archy and mehitabel” among his favorite books. One of his top five, in fact. 

Gaiman has mentioned Marquis in several interviews over the years, and he included Marquis in a rambling and fabulous statement of beliefs in his blockbuster 2001 novel, “American Gods,” in which one of the main characters, Samantha Black Crow, declares, in part: “I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman.”

Gaiman first read “archy and mehitabel” many years ago, and it continues to fascinate him. In a 2011 Australian radio broadcast, he included it in a discussion of his five most favorite books.

“Don Marquis was an American humorist and occasional poet and newspaper journalist, and he created Archy and Mehitabel,” Gaiman said on The Book Show, aired by ABC Radio National. “Archy was a free-verse poet who, for the crime of being a free-verse poet, was condemned to be a cockroach forevermore, in every future life, and he is a cockroach who writes poems by climbing on a typewriter and jumping head-first onto the keys. And Mehitabel is an alley cat who claims to have once been Cleopatra, and Don Marquis wrote these beautiful, funny, strange, mocking, glorious little poems about Archy and Mehitabel.”

Gaiman has won numerous international awards for his fantasy writing, including Carnegie and Newberry medals, so who better to lead off a video series featuring the wit and wisdom of a world-weary cockroach and a dissolute alley cat?

A few months ago, Gaiman was one of several writers, entertainers and other public figures asked to recite a few lines from one of the Archy and Mehitabel compilations (there are six) for a series of short, homemade videos on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Archy and Mehitabel’s first appearance in print, on March 29, 1916 — part of a yearlong celebration called archyFest. Gaiman responded to the call immediately and enthusiastically, and the video below is the result.

Given the choice to read any of more that 300 published sketches and poems, Gaiman chose an obscure but brilliant sketch, “quote buns by great men quote,” from the 1927 book that started it all, “archy and mehitabel.” He explains:

I don’t know if this is my favorite of the Archy and Mehitabel poems. I do know that I fell in love with it before I actually understood what it meant. When I was a boy at school, a ‘bun’ was a large, doughy bread roll with raisins in it that you’d be given at four o’clock at school, and it was many, many years before I discovered that a bun was also 1920s slang — for a hangover. 

Here is the video:

These videos were conceived by John Batteiger, creator of DonMarquis.com, and edited by Brandon Cuicchi. We are asking a variety of public figures to take a video of themselves reading a selection from one of Marquis’s “archy” books, using a cellphone camera or other simple video recorder. Our goal: “One take, no big production, all for fun.” We plan to present a new video every week (or so) through the end of 2016. If you or someone you know would be interested in recording a video, please contact Batteiger by email at johnbatt (at) me.com.

And thanks to Neil Gaiman for his gracious help and support!

Next week: Dave Barry!

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tribune-archyThe following story first appeared 100 years ago, on March 29, 1916, in The Sun Dial column of the New York Evening Sun. It was written by Don Marquis, the newspaper’s star columnist, and it introduced a fantastic fictional character: Archy the cockroach.

Archy was unlike anything that had been seen in print before. Sure, literature was already full of anthropomorphic animals — from the characters in Aesop’s fables to Br’er Rabbit. There was even a talking insect: the Woggle Bug in L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz. But Archy was new and different. There were no illusions of grandeur for a lowly cockroach, and his stories had the immediacy of a daily newspaper deadline. More than anything that had come before, he was a product of his times. Reincarnation was a new topic in the early decades of the last century, and so was free-verse poetry, and Archy was the reincarnation of a free-verse poet.

Marquis, as Archy, used wry humor to comment on the most talked-about topics of the day: on flappers and bold women, on Prohibition and World War One peace negotiations, on new invention such as the radio and on the latest exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was topical and it was current, and it survives to this day, still fresh and on-target, still remarkably fun.

And this is how it began. The text below is slightly different from what you will read in the opening pages of “archy and mehitabel,” collected and published in 1927 by Doubleday Page & Co. There are a few extra sentences in this original version, and Mehitabel the cat wasn’t mentioned by name yet – that would come a few weeks later. Enjoy. Continue Reading →

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archyfest logoIt was 100 years ago, on March 20, 1916, that Don Marquis added a fanciful bit of filler material to his daily newspaper column in The Evening Sun. He claimed that a cockroach had crawled onto his typewriter the night before and left a message by diving on the keys, one at a time. Many more messages would follow from the labors of Archy the cockroach, including wild tales of a neighborhood alley cat, Mehitabel. It was brilliant stuff, and it’s still with us today. Let’s celebrate!

Plans in New York City include performances of actor Gale McNeeley’s one-man show, “Archy and Mehitabel”; a walking tour of New York’s old Newspaper Row on Sunday, March 27; and a special gathering of Marquis fans on the evening of Tuesday, March 29, at Jimmy’s No. 43, a bar/restaurant in the East Village, where tales will be told, Archy poems will be sung, and toasts will be raised to Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel.

Further events and exhibits will take place throughout 2016, all under the banner of archyFest! See below for event details: Continue Reading →

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"There's a dance in the old dame yet"The New York Times today printed obituaries for two women whose lives could not have been more dissimilar.

Janet Wolfe, 101, was a New York socialite, “gleeful gadabout” and friend to some of the most powerful and creative men of the last century. Federico Fellini made passes at her, The Times noted, and Orson Welles sawed her in half in a magic show. Holly Woodlawn, 69, was a transgender actress who starred in Andy Warhol’s 1970 underground film “Trash” and was the inspiration for Lou Reed’s epic ballad “Walk on the Wild Side.”

Wolfe and Woodlawn had little in common except a rebellious spirit, bold and unstoppable, and a determination to wring every bit of life out of their time on this planet. So it’s no surprise that The Times has compared both women to Mehitabel, the brassy, bawdy alley cat whose adventures were captured in Don Marquis’s classic 1927 collection of tall tales and light verse, “archy and mehitabel.” The comparisons span many decades but are nonetheless fresh. Continue Reading →