Honouring Randy Gener, Senior Editor, American Theatre Magazine Winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism 2007-2008
Randy Gener has asked me to speak about George Jean Nathan. I am the Literary Executrix of his estate by virtue of being the surrogate daughter of his widow, the late actress Julie Haydon—notable in her own right for creating such roles as “Laura” in The Glass Menagerie and “Kitty Duval” in The Time of Your Life—who was always proudest of being called, “Mrs. George Jean Nathan.”
Mr. Nathan is a tough guy to pin down. A definitive biography has yet to be written. Born a Valentine’s Day baby, he ‘came in’ at midnight on February 14, 1882 in Fort Wayne, IN. As Julie would say if she were here, “A mere lad of 127 today!” His mother’s people were Nixons and Nirdlingers—both theatrical business names. Indeed, so theatrically well-connected were they that Sarah Bernhardt herself visited the Nathan home, and gave young George Jean (always “George Jean,” incidentally, partly because there is another author named George Nathan!) an amethyst ring from her own hand, which Nathan always wore on his little finger, and (most unfortunately as it seems to me) with which Mrs. Nathan buried him. His maternal great-grandfather established the first Hebrew congregation in Ft Wayne, Indiana.
The Nirdlinger/Nathan families were affluent and young George Jean was educated very well in both public school and by personal tutors in language and literature: French, German and Spanish—Spanish was his father’s favorite language, and perhaps consequently George’s bête noir, although he did learn to read it fluently. The family moved to Cleveland when the boy was 8, and he traveled frequently to Europe with his Father, attended Cornell—supposedly because of all the U.S. universities it most reminded him of Heidelberg, but perhaps more because his school friends were planning to attend. Whatever the real reason he made that schoolboy decision, Cornell was his Alma mater and his papers reside there today. He was already in Italy to study further at University of Bologna, when he was recalled to the United States by the sudden death of his Father soon after graduation from Cornell in 1904.
So young George had to go to work! He got a job as a cub reporter for James Gordon Bennet’s The New York Herald. –you know, as in ‘Herald Square’—and moved to New York, reporting on sports and current events . It was a very different world from our own, and yet…’Gangstas’ are part of the culture now, and back then, well… the crime-connected playboy and playwright, Wilson Mizner, owned a hotel in the Broadway district so notoriously ‘informal,’ shall we say, that he put up a sign in the lobby reading,
“There are no house rules, but please don’t smoke opium in the elevator.”
There was at that time a real “he-man” cult in American literature (Brett Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, O Henry)—the London counterparts being represented by Rudyard Kipling. Eugene O’ Neill went to sea as part of this zeitgeist. Overall, a very Victorian puritan moralism held sway. Ibsen and Strindberg were considered immoral, and therefore unfit for American audiences while Feydeau’s and Hauptmann’s works were “cleaned up” for American consumption. GJN was by nature refined—and he deplored the hypocrisy then rampant. An accomplished fencer, he fought, not with metaphorical fists, but with his pen as a sword.
He joined The Smart Set magazine in 1908, and went about turning it into a literary magazine. He preferred magazines to newspapers. Therein a critic had more space and could be more independent of thought…since magazines then didn’t rely solely on advertising. With his partner, H.L. Mencken, in the pages of The Smart Set, and later as enfants terrible of the 1920’s in the fabled American Mercury magazine, he worked diligently to bring the best of the Europeans and Americans to the notice of an unwilling public…attempting to change, inasmuch as possible, literary taste. He was the first to publish Eugene O’Neill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Willa Cather, Somerset Maugham’s short story, Miss Thompson, (which later became the basis for the play Rain, and then the musical 110 In the Shade) for example, and so many others. Before the Depression forced its demise, GJN founded the American Spectator magazine with fellow-editors Eugene O’Neill, Theodore Dreiser, James Branch Cabell and Jim Tully. In my personal opinion, he was one of the decisive voices pulling America, screaming and kicking, from the 19th century into the 20th century.
He was a tireless champion of Eugene O’Neill, especially, whose work he always saw in manuscript prior to production, and who dedicated his play, Ah, Wilderness! to Nathan; he banged the drum relentlessly for Sean O’Casey, the great Irish Dramatist; and for William Saroyan, with his idiosyncratic loveliness, and got The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams produced. Thomas Quinn Curtiss, Nathan protégé and the late Drama Critic of the International Herald Tribune in Paris, told me that literary critic Hunecker had said of Nathan that the young man should, “Go to Paris; there he would be appreciated, here he will merely bang his considerable brain against the box office.” But he stayed to do battle here.
[Sean O’Casey’s description of GJN from Rose and Crown (1952)]
[O’Casey] had contributed a few things to The American Spectator, a magazine that had told him there were minds in America that were flushed with courage, with wit, and an unreluctant will to show up political hypocrisy and intellectual sin. He knew something about Nathan’s American Theatre by what the critic had written about it…. Here thought went back to the past, and here thought stretched forth to the future.
During all his life Sean had spoken to but four Americans… Going down the [ship’s] gangway, he felt very lonely…. Not for long, though: in the Customs’ shed, George Jean Nathan, the famous critic, [was] waiting for him with hands outstretched.
Here, Nathan stood looking at nothing, seeing everything, his luminous, wine-coloured eyes glancing at Sean, to see, maybe, if there was a chance of him being something more than a bore; and Sean thinking what in the name of God he would say to this famous critic now standing before him, a soft slouch hat on his finely formed head, set safely on a thick crop of dark hair, slightly tinged with grey here and there; a greatcoat, so full in the shoulders that it fell round him capewise, down below his knees, a curving wrinkle of humour, now in repose, trimming the corners of a full, sensuous, handsome mouth.
Nathan in his cape-coat…half a dream in the agitated crowd; almost motionless, his own wakefulness, maybe, a hope that this O’Casey will be something more than just bearable company, standing there with the surge of two thousand years of drama forming the kingdom of heaven within him.
At this point he was a celebrity in the old real sense of the word. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who admired him, patterned his character “Maury Noble” in The Beautiful and the Damned after some of his traits, ditto the Critic character in the movie with Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe, All About Eve, and currently, with Guys and Dollsbeing revived one may mention that it is rumored that Guys And Dolls (Damon Runyon’s Dream Street) slyly references Julie Haydon and GJN’s long-running engagement (it took them 20 years to get married) in the characters of “Miss Adelaide” and “Nathan Detroit..”
Although he never wrote for The New York Times, he was the best-known and most highly paid critic of his time. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle, still operational today, was his idea. He did his work so thoroughly that he is largely forgotten. The man wrote 45 books, for Vanity Fair, Esquire, and others, and—to honor the dying wish of his friend, Bill Curley, promised to write for the Hearst Newspaper Syndicate…Curley promptly recovered…and George Jean was stuck with writing for The New York Journal-American!
He instructed his wife to “Go to the colleges and universities; there lies the future of the American Theatre.” He was, as in so many things theatrical, perfectly correct, foreseeing the rise of the Regional Theatre movement which created the need for American Theatremagazine.
He died April 8, 1958 in his rooms at the Royalton Hotel—which you can glimpse in the Life magazine article displayed on the easel in the reception area—having lived there for over 50 years.
[William Saroyan’s valediction from his chapter, The Light Fantastic of George Jean Nathan in Sons Come & Go, Mothers Hang In Forever (1976)]
George Jean Nathan never has anything instructive to say about the writing of plays, but he knew more about the theatre than anybody else I have ever talked with. He passed along what he knew in a way that was easy for me to take or leave. And his talk both invited and compelled participation on my part, and on the part of anybody else who happened to be at the table.
And then all of a sudden he was sick, and it was terrible….. And then he died, and Broadway was diminished enough not to be thought of seriously again.
Did he really do anything for Broadway, for New York, for America, for the theatre, for art, for life?
Yes, he did. He dressed neatly and went out among the thieves and assassins. And…he…berated and scorned frauds of all categories. And he wrote. He was always writing. And everything he wrote had laughter in it. He was one of the most serious men in the living world, …but he refused to burden his writing, or his readers, with the agony of his unconverted and apparently indestructible soul…. There can’t ever be anybody like him again.
Mr. Gener asked me to speak about GJN and not about him. However, allow me to say that I am grateful to Randy, for in reading his work in American Theatre, he has made me think about the Theatre again; to think about the Theater is to love the theatre. For me, they—thought and theatre— flow into one another. This gives me insight and joy—delights and instructs in the Aristotelian sense. Randy Gener has just made me a better theatre-goer—and that is what GJN wanted! GB Shaw wrote to GJ Nathan once (on a postcard currently in my possession) that he considered Nathan to be, “Intelligent theatre-goer and writer number one: Atta-boy, keep it up!” Gener is a worthy recipient of the GJN Award, in the words of Sean O’Casey in an inscription to Nathan on the fly-leaf of his autobiographical book, Windfalls, “Comrade in the fight that Drama may have Life, and have it more abundantly.” The same can be said to Randy Gener.
Sketch by Al Hirschfeld
My Very Dear Sean: Letters and Articles from George Jean Nathan to Sean O’Casey
(with Robert Lowery)