‘My Dear Miss Hickman’

EnvelopeIn 1927 a young journalism student at the University of Illinois, Frances Hickman, wrote to Don Marquis. She was preparing a class paper on the famous newspaper columnist and boldly decided to ask him directly for details of his life. Don responded with an incredible, 988-word summation of his past, present and probable future — rich with detail, honest to a fault and brutally funny.  

Don’s letter, dated December 14, 1927, was eventually given to the Library of Congress. It has been reprinted only once before, in William McCollum Jr.’s “Selected Letters of Don Marquis” (Northwoods Press, 1982).

*  *  *

My dear Miss Hickman:

I am in receipt of your letter of recent date asking me to tell you something of myself which you can use in your thesis; the way you put it is: “Tell me just as much as you will about yourself.” This at once plunges me into a difficulty—just how much to tell about myself in any perfectly proper thesis submitted to the authorities of any reputable university by any young woman student of Journalism, (for my secretary assures me you must be a young woman on account of the hand writing.)

With regard to my past it can all be summed up by saying I have been a promising young man in literary circles for at least thirty years. With regard to my present, I am in a very low and depressed state of mind, consequent upon having the greatest romantic drama ever written in America [“Out of the Sea”] turn out to be a commercial failure; and in planning a campaign of wholesale murder, mayhem and arson against certain dramatic critics, not to mention a couple of actors. With regard to my future I have no hopes: fountains of evil which have welled up in me on account of various literary disappointments have no legal outlet in the way of dissipation: the time is past when one could get drunk and forget a licking. Continue Reading →

Don’s Baked Beans

A comic theme running through Don Marquis’s 1927 book “The Almost Perfect State” is his avowed distaste for beans. “The ancient Egyptians lived largely on lentils; and where are the Pharaohs now?” Don asks at the start of the book, and he proceeds to blame all the world’s ills on the deleterious effects of the “accursed” bean.

“There will be no beans in the Almost Perfect State,” he flatly declares, but at the end of the book he reveals the joke: “If you will eat beans, here is the way to prepare them,” Don writes, and he then delivers, in narrative form, a glorious, laborious recipe for country-style baked beans made with generous helpings of salt pork, molasses, onions and mustard. Continue Reading →

99 Years of Archy and Mehitabel!

Gale

Gale McNeeley as Archy. Click the photo for a link to Gale’s performance.

It was 99 years ago — March 29, 1916 — that Archy the cockroach first spoke to the world. Don Marquis had come into his office at The Evening Sun earlier than usual and discovered “a gigantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys” of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Don wrote in his newspaper column that day. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started.

“We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.”

It was the first of hundreds of stories, poems, japes, jests and epigrams by Archy that would appear in Don’s writings over the next 20 years, often accompanied by comments from an alley cat of questionable morals, Mehitabel. 

The Kardashians? A Century Late and a Dollar Short

When the reality TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” first appeared, in 2007, Americans justifiably wondered who in the hell were these dysfunctional egotists and why did they deserve to be on television? They were simply “famous for being famous,” a strange concept that seemed to be a result of today’s celebrity culture. 

But there’s nothing new under the sun. Don Marquis was laughing at the same sort of people more than a century ago, as the following poem makes clear. It appeared in The Evening Sun on February 14, 1912, and is reprinted here for what is almost certainly the first time since then. This was Don’s first byline in The Evening Sun — barely a month after he joined the newspaper and a year before he started writing his Sun Dial column. Continue Reading →

‘Letters We’d Write if We Dared to’

Don Marquis used his newspaper columns to poke fun at popular fads and conventions of the day. Reincarnation and free-verse poetry were skewered with every mention of Archy and Mehitabel, and Don’s Old Soak character owed its long and successful run to the nagging persistence of Prohibition. The era’s rich and powerful politicians and business leaders were targets, too, as evidenced by the following item from Don’s Sun Dial column, reprinted here for the first time since it appeared nearly a century ago. Continue Reading →

‘The Wooden Indian’s Story’

Don Marquis' "The Wooden Indian's Story"Another forgotten bit of silliness:

In January 1910, Don was settling into his first solid newspaper job in New York City after weeks of frustration. He had arrived from Atlanta barely a month earlier (on Thanksgiving day) and assumed that one of the big New York dailies would instantly recognize his talent, if not his name. He had been a big deal down in Atlanta, after all: associate editor of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus’s Magazine and an up-and-coming poet published in a dozen other magazines with national readership.

But New York was unimpressed. An expected offer from the Herald never came, and a tryout at the Tribune ended bitterly. So did a brief stint at one of the news services there. Desperate for work, Don submitted freelance pieces to all sorts of publications, including a poem poking fun at recent events that appeared in the February 1910 issue of Mother Earth, an anarchist magazine edited by Emma Goldman.

By January, however, things were looking up. A friend had helped Don get a job on the rewrite desk of the New York American, Hearst’s morning daily, and its editors agreed to pay him extra for additional light fare that they ran on a feature page — with Don’s byline.

“The Wooden Indian’s Story” is one of those pieces. Like much of Don’s later work, humor is a veneer on news of the day — in this case revelations of breakfast cereals being routinely adulterated with sawdust filler. The poem ran in the American on January 17, 1910, and was then syndicated to newspapers across the United States via Hearst’s news service. Don’s friends in the South got a chance to read it when the poem appeared January 22, 1910, in the Atlanta Georgian and News (the source of the image here). Continue Reading →

Don Tells the Story of ‘Moister Oysters’

Many of Don Marquis’ funniest pieces have never been published in books. Unless they involved Archy, Mehitabel or the Old Soak, almost none of the sketches, poems and smart-aleck observations that made his newspaper columns so much fun were include in later compilations

The following poem is one of those forgotten gems. It’s from one of Don’s earliest columns in The Evening Sun – even before the column got its name, “The Sun Dial,” and before Don was given a byline. It has never been directly attributed to him until now. Continue Reading →

Goodbye, Colonel Vonnegut (1922-2013)

Walter VonnegutWe regret to report that Walter Vonnegut Jr., known to his family and friends as “Colonel,” died January 9 at his home in Anacortes, Washington. He was 90 years old. Walter was the stepson of Don Marquis and the last living link to the author of “archy and mehitabel.” He was a gentleman, and a friendly soul.

Born December 5, 1922, Walter was the son of Walter and Marjorie Potts Vonnegut. His parents divorced in 1926 and soon afterward Marjorie married Don, whose first wife, Reina, had died two years earlier.

Walter and his older sister, Ruth, lived with Don and Marjorie in a townhouse at 125 East 62nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Walter helped take care of the family’s pet Boston terrier, Pete, whose adventures as “pete the pup” were told in several “archy and mehitabel” stories. The family (including Pete) later moved to an apartment on the Upper West Side, at 276 Riverside Drive.

Walter lived 10 years with “Uncle Don,” and in a 2005 interview he remembered Don as “friendly, pleasant. He was in his 50s at the time and he seemed old to me because I was very, very young.”

Don taught Walter chess, which they played whenever time permitted. However, Don was often loaded down with work. He had quit writing a daily newspaper column in 1925 but faced constant deadlines for magazine essays and short stories, book manuscripts, playscripts, and, when he was in Hollywood, movie scripts. He was a frequent guest on radio programs and was in high demand as a public speaker.

“We didn’t see a whole lot of him,” Walter said. “He often wrote late into the night. I thought he worked all night long, but it was probably until 1 or 2 in the morning. It was a rare occasion when he had dinner with us. It was an event — about once a week.”

Walter remembered that Don “did drink a little, but not to excess. I never saw him drunk. If he had been a heavy drinker I don’t think he would’ve lasted 10 years with my mother. She was a teetotaler.”

Marjorie was an accomplished actress. Her most famous role was that of Essie Miller in the Broadway premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah Wilderness!” in 1933. She played opposite George M. Cohan, and Walter also had a role in the production, as young Tommy Miller.

Walter was 13 when Don was felled by the first of a series of strokes that left him unable to write. And then, less than a year later, on October 25, 1936, Marjorie died in her sleep after a brief illness. She had worked herself to exhaustion caring for Don and her family while also attempting to run an acting school. Walter’s young life fell apart in an instant. 

“I never saw Uncle Don after October 1936,” Walter said. “He was hauled off by Maude after my mother died.”

Maude was Don’s older sister, remembered by Walter and virtually all of Don’s friends as bossy and unpleasant. With Marjorie dead and Don unable to care for himself, Maude stepped in and sent Walter away to live with Vonnegut relatives. She vacated the apartment on Riverside Drive and took Don to the home at 51 Wendover Road in Forest Hills, Queens, that she shared with another Marquis sister, Neva. Don was powerless to do otherwise. 

“He was protesting,” Walter recalled. “He did not want to go. He couldn’t talk, but it was clear to me that he didn’t want to go.” One year later, on Dec. 29, 1937, Don died. 

Walter went on to spend his teen years with his Vonnegut grandparents in Indiana, where he developed a lifelong friendship with a cousin the same age, the writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Both Walter and Kurt Vonnegut went on to serve in World War II, in the Air Corps and Army, respectively, and both were captured and held as German prisoners of war. Kurt Vonnegut’s experiences as a POW during the Allies’ 1945 firebombing of Dresden were the subject of his novel “Slaughterhouse Five.”

Walter’s nickname, Colonel, by the way, had nothing to do with his military service. He was born in Kentucky, and a grandmother gave him that nickname as a “junior Kentucky colonel.” It stayed with him all his life. 

After the war, Walter and his wife Helen moved from Indianapolis to Washington State, where they raised two sons, Kit and Ken. He taught math, English and drama at public schools in Anacortes and was active in local theater productions as a director and actor for many decades. Helen was killed in a car accident in 1994, and a year later Walter married a widow in Anacortes, Jean De Zan, who survives him, along with his sons. May he rest in peace.

Photo Gallery

Young Walter Vonnegut Jr. Ah Wilderness! Walter and Jean Vonnegut, March 2005 Marquis crowd, March 2005 Marquis Crowd, March 2005

Photo captions, from top-left:
1. Walter and Pete on the roof of the Marquis townhouse at 125 East 62nd Street in Manhattan.
2. Walter and his mother on the set of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness!” in 1933.
3. Walter and Jean Vonnegut, outside their home in Anacortes, Washington, in March 2005.
4. Walter with Robert Lyon, publisher of the 1976 edition of Don’s play “Everything’s Jake”; Jean Vonnegut; and Jim Ennes, a Marquis collector and namesake and the editor of DonMarquis.org, in March 2005.
5. DonMarquis.com editor John Batteiger, Walter, Jim Ennes, Robert Lyon and actor Gale McNeeley, in March 2005.

Sam Waterston Reads ‘archy interviews a pharaoh’

Here’s a treat: a YouTube video of actor Sam Waterston reading, with great solemnity, one of Don Marquis’ craziest and most enjoyable poems, “archy interviews a pharaoh.”

The occasion was a May 14 gala in Manhattan to benefit the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly — the first of a series of “Decade Balls.” This one celebrated the 1920s and included readings of works by Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Don. 

Waterston’s selection was a poem that first appeared April 26, 1922, in Don’s Sun Dial in The Evening Sun and was later included in the 1927 book “archy and mehitabel.” Archaeological digs were making headlines at the time and so was Prohibition, making a perfect combination for satire.

 

A Bit of Fun From The Sun Dial

Academics and social critics take note of Don Marquis for his wry commentary and biting satire, but many of us love his writing simply for its good fun. Take, for example, this brief exchange in one of Don’s Sun Dial columns:

ANTONY (To Cleopatra’s lady-in-waiting): Please tell your mistress I am here and would like to see her.
LADY-IN-WAITING: Not today, good sir.
ANTONY: Why not?
LADY-IN-WAITING: She’s in bed with tonsilitis.
ANTONY: Wait till I get hold of that dirty Greek!

Edward Anthony, author of the biography “O Rare Don Marquis,” said this gag got Don in hot water with his publisher, the renowned crank Frank Munsey, who thought it inappropriate for a family newspaper. Munsey never understood Don, and such opprobrium probably only inspired him to further bits of cheap and eminently enjoyable fun.