Archy Was Real, but That’s Not His Original Name

170 Nassau St., NYC

170 Nassau Street: “Vermin Castle.”

Here’s a thought that might keep you up at night: The real, live descendants of Archy the cockroach may be scurrying around the streets and alleyways and high-priced real estate of lower Manhattan at this very moment.

That’s right, Archy, the most famous insect in American literature, was based on a cockroach that once was very much alive. His home was in the newsroom of the old Evening Sun newspaper, but his real name was Erasmus, not Archy. Don Marquis revealed Archy’s origins and commented on his enduring appeal — and his frequent reincarnations — in an essay he wrote in 1934 for The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper at Cornell University.

“Archy crawled into my life about twenty years ago, when I was doing a daily column on the New York Evening Sun,” Don wrote. “There was a story in the news columns about a garage up town somewhere that was haunted, . . . the type-writer in the garage office would keep clicking of nights, when no one was in there. So they thought it was a ghost, which is about what a lot of garage loafers would think. It didn’t occur to any of them to put a sheet of paper in the machine and give the ghost a chance to have his say. One night they found a mouse running back and forth on the keyboard; he was the ghost.  Continue Reading →

Help Celebrate Archy’s 100 anniversary in March 2016!

archyMark your calendars! Fans of Archy and Mehitabel are already making plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Archy’s first appearance in Don Marquis’ Sun Dial column in the New York Evening Sun. March 29, 2016 will be a cockroach centenary like no other, and we’d like to hear about your plans — in New York and around the world. (The 1927 classic “archy and mehitabel,” after all, was popular in Canada, England, India and Australia as well as the United States, and translated editions were published in German and Italian.)

Is your theater group planning a production of “archy & mehitabel”? Maybe your school, library or book club can host a poetry reading, or a poetry slam. Or host a showing of the 1971 animated feature “Shinbone Alley.” A group in New York hopes to sponsor public displays and performances, and we welcome your ideas and involvement. Check out the link at the top of this page, “archyFest!” for more, and use the Twitter hashtag #archyfest! to keep in touch!

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 →

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 →

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.

Happy Birthday Don Marquis!


Don Marquis in Atlanta, circa 1903

Happy birthday Don Marquis!

July 29, 2011, is the 133rd anniversary of Don’s birth. He entered the world in Walnut, Illinois, the eighth and youngest child of Dr. James S. and Elizabeth (Whitmore) Marquis.

Growing up in “a little town with muddy streets” on the Illinois prairie, 100 miles west of Chicago, Don spent his childhood fishing when he could, tending the family garden when he had to, and reading every book he could get his hands on. He worked brief stints as a chicken plucker, canal digger, sewing machine salesman, schoolteacher and weekly newspaper editor (and printer) before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1900 to take a job with the Census Bureau. He drifted into big-city newspaper work as a part-time reporter for the Washington Times.

After an exceptionally brief editing job at the Philadelphia North American — it’s unclear whether he was fired or just supremely unhappy — Don moved to Atlanta in 1902 to take a job at the Atlanta News and then the Atlanta Journal as editorial writer.

Don was a popular newspaperman in Atlanta, and his carousings with sportswriter Grantland Rice and columnist Frank L. Stanton were literally the stuff of legends (more on that another day). In 1907 he was recruited by Joel Chandler Harris to join a new publishing venture, Uncle Remus’s Magazine, as associate editor, and his star never stopped rising. But there’s another reason why Don always talked fondly of Atlanta: That’s where he met and married Reina Melcher, a freelance writer at Uncle Remus’s. She was the great love of his life.

Don and Reina moved to New York City in 1909 without a job but with plenty of enthusiasm, and in 1912 — after more than a year at the Brooklyn Eagle and his first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” getting strong reviews — he joined The Evening Sun, where his daily column, The Sun dial, debuted a year later to instant acclaim. Archy the cockroach made his first appearance in print on March 29, 1916, and the rest, as they say, is history. Happy birthday Don!