Ogden Nash

by Douglas M. Parker

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Ogden Nash

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Frederick Ogden Nash was born in Rye, New York, on August 19, 1902. His father, Edmund, was such a successful businessman in the first years of the twentieth century that the New York, New Haven, and Hartford commuter train made a special stop for him at the edge of his fifty-acre estate, Ramaqua, in Rye, where Ogden grew up. Though the family would experience some financial difficulties in the 1910’s, Nash throughout his life remained part of the genteel tradition in both his life and his writing. Indeed, Parker’s book suggests that Nash’s high living would impel some of his not-so-high writing throughout his life.

Nash’s fondness for light verse appeared early and was encouraged by his family. When he was ten, he was allowed to read a poem at his sister Gwen’s wedding. The piece began, “Beautiful spring at last is here!/ And has taken my sister, I sadly fear,” and ends, “the mother of the playful cat/ Is always anxious on her behalf.” Nash also proved a good student; when he graduated from St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island, he received the Binney Prize, the institution’s highest academic award, and matriculated at Harvard University. After a year of college and another of teaching at his old high school, he moved to New York, like Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), to sell bonds.

The world of finance was not his ideal milieu. In eighteen months he sold one bond (to his godmother). He then turned to writing streetcar advertisements for the Barron G. Collier firm, which a few years earlier had employed another Ivy League drop-out, Fitzgerald. Nash was rooming with Joe Alger; together they wrote a children’s book, The Cricket of Carador, which Doubleday, Page & Company published in 1925.

The most important consequence of this success was that it landed Nash a job with Doubleday, first in advertising, then in detective fiction, and finally as a literary editor. In this capacity he saw a lot of bad poetry but also recognized that there was a market for humorous verse. Parker observes that one book Nash saw at Doubleday was Roland Young’s Not for Children (1930), which contained short poems about animals, and Parker links Young’s verses to Nash’s similar work, such as “The Turtle,” which appeared in Nash’s first volume of poetry, Hard Lines (1931):

The turtle lives twixt plated decksThat practically conceal its sex.I think it clever of the turtleIn such a fix to be so fertile.

One of the delights of Parker’s book is its reprinting of many of Nash’s pleasure-giving lines.

While Nash was working at Doubleday, his boss, Dan Longwell, introduced him to the prolific Christopher Morley, a leading man of letters in the early twentieth century. Morley owned two theaters in Hoboken, New Jersey, and encouraged Nash to write for the stage. Nash’s efforts in this field failed, as did his attempt to write for radio. However, on December 31, 1929, Nash received a check for twenty-two dollars from The New Yorker for “Invocation,” which appeared in the January 11, 1931 issue. Nash would continue to publish with The New Yorker for the following forty years; his last poem for the magazine, the 353d of his that appeared in its pages, was printed posthumously on May 29, 1971.

“Invocation” made fun of Senator Reed Smoot of Utah (best known for his ill-conceived tariff legislation) for a bill objecting to the importation of salacious literature. Nash’s poems also satirize the Daughters of the American Revolution, prudish religious figures, gossip columnist Walter Winchell, and...

(This entire section contains 1678 words.)

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politicians of all stripes. Most of Nash’s work, however, deals with the slings and arrows of daily life, and his commentary is genial rather than strident.

Harold Ross, legendary editor of The New Yorker, admired Nash’s verse, as did the magazine’s literary editor Katherine White; both repeatedly asked Nash for more poems. When Ross’s managing editor Ralph Ingersoll left for Fortune, Ross offered the post to Nash. Initially reluctant, Nash accepted the job on December 3, 1930. Parker demonstrates that Nash was right to be hesitant: He lasted at the job three months, though he and Ross had an amicable separation that did not diminish the latter’s admiration for Nash’s work.

Nash returned to book editing with Farrar and Rinehart, but as the Depression worsened, so did Nash’s salary. By the spring of 1933 he was earning only twenty-five dollars a week from his job. Meanwhile, his poetry was gaining a large audience. In 1933 Redbook, the New American, and the Saturday Evening Post all gave him contracts guaranteeing a substantial income, and The New Yorker raised his fee to two dollars a line. Nash now was able to quit his editorial post and devote himself full time to his writing.

He moved from New York to Baltimore, the hometown of Frances Leonard, whom he had married on June 6, 1931. Like the Nashes, the Leonards were well-off and gave a house to the couple, soon to be a foursome with the births of two daughters, Linell and Isabel. Though Parker denies that the names were chosen with rhyming in mind, one cannot but wonder. The girls provided matter for verse, such as Nash’s comment, “Isabel’s chiffle/ In spite of her sniffle.” Demonstrating both his humor and his understanding of how his daughters might react negatively to appearing in his poetry, Nash wrote in “My Daddy,”

I have a funny daddywho goes in and out with me,And everything that baby does,My daddy’s sure to seeAnd everything that baby says,My daddy’s sure to tell.You must have read my daddy’s verse,I hope he fries in hell.

In fact, his daughters responded good-naturedly to his use of their words and deeds.

In 1935 Nash published 125 poems in magazines and was doing well financially, but the following year he listened to the siren song of Hollywood when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Irving Thalberg beckoned. Despite the Depression, Hollywood had money: In the 1930’s Louis B. Mayer was earning more than any other man in America. A screenwriter could earn five thousand dollars a week. No wonder, then, that William Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, John O’Hara, Aldous Huxley, J. B. Priestley, and P. G. Wodehouse all migrated to Southern California. While the money was good, the work was frustrating.

Nash’s Hollywood experience matched that of almost all other authors who went there. His work for the studios was rewritten by others or was not produced. In his spare time he wrote little. In 1937-1938, Parker writes, Nash wrote two new poems. Nash returned east at the end of 1938. In the following two years he published fifty poems in magazines, and in 1941 he published forty-two. Two collections of his verse also appeared in these years, The Face Is Familiar (1940) and Good Intentions (1942).

During World War II Nash took up selling bonds. He fared better than he had in the 1920’s: Parker quotes Julian Street’s crediting Nash with $170 million in sales. Nash also enjoyed his one great theatrical triumph at this time. In Hollywood, Nash had become friendly with fellow humorist and New Yorker contributor Sid J. Perelman. Together they wrote One Touch of Venus (1943), with music by Kurt Weill. Starring Mary Martin, the show enjoyed 567 performances on Broadway. Nash’s subsequent theatrical efforts failed for various reasons. Two’s Company (1952) came closest to succeeding but had to close after eighty-nine performances on Broadway when its star, Bette Davis, became too ill to continue with the show.

Even though Nash’s royalties from 1938 to 1961 totaled some $200,000, and by the late 1950’s The New Yorker was paying him $400 for a twenty-line poem, Parker points out that Nash was always looking for new ways to make money. In the 1950’s he appeared regularly on the television show Masquerade Party, which earned him a respectable $350 and then $450 a week. He endured grueling lecture tours, and for a decade starting in 1957 Nash wrote for Hallmark Cards. In that year he also published his first book for children since 1925, The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, illustrated by his daughter Linell, who also provided the pictures for Nash’s Custard the Dragon (1959) and Custard the Dragon and the Wicked Knight (1961). Both Linell and Isabel went on to write children’s books of their own, and Nash created an additional dozen books for young readers. In 1965 he sold his papers to the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas for ten thousand dollars.

Parker quotes Clifton Fadiman’s 1955 comment that Nash was “the laureate of the age of friction.” Nash’s poems certainly addressed the frictions of daily life, such as consumerism, aging, and parenthood. In the late 1950’s and the 1960’s, however, he seemed out of touch with the changing literary and social worlds. His appearances in The New Yorker declined, while rejections from the magazine increased. Parker counts seventeen poems sold to that publication in 1956, ten in 1957, and another ten in 1959. Some associated with the magazine blamed the poetry editor Howard Moss, who had joined The New Yorker in 1950, for the large number of rejection notices Nash was receiving from 43d Street, though Moss was not Nash’s editor. Nash usually was able to place his work somewhere, including Playboy, an anomalous choice for someone generally unsympathetic to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

In his foreword, poet Dana Gioia likens Nash to Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, and Archibald MacLeish, all of whom attracted a wide readership but lacked the critical prestige of their contemporaries T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. This analogy might be extended to suggest that Nash, Lindsay, Sandburg, and MacLeish are, pace Fadiman, not poets of an age of friction but rather reflect the attitudes of a more innocent and cheerful time. To steal one of Nash’s rhymes, he is nearly always chiffle, and life’s problems rarely elicit from him more than a sniffle. He is charming but lacks profundity. The same might be said of Parker’s biography.

Bibliography

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Booklist 101, no. 15 (April 1, 2005): 1336-1337.

The Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2005, p. 15.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 2 (January 15, 2005): 108.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (June 5, 2005): 26.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 7 (February 14, 2005): 65.

The Times Literary Supplement, November 4, 2005, p. 7.

The Washington Post Book World, May 8, 2005, p. 2.