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 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...
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