George Jean Nathan: A Candid Portrait

"George Jean Nathan is dead four years, but already he seems to have lived in a far-gone age.... I have no intention of writing a biography of him, but I would like to put down some facts and impressions that may keep future biographers from making fools of themselves" 
More

George Jean Nathan is dead four years, but already he seems to have lived in a far-gone age. This slump into oblivion is common to virtually all writers of genuine stature. They nearly all slump immediately after their deaths and remain in the valley of neglect for a score of years, and then they emerge into their rightful places in literary history.

That history, unfortunately, is often written by men and women who have access to secondary sources alone, who have never known their subjects personally; and thus they commit gross errors of fact and of judgment—as is evident in the spate of biographies that have appeared about Mencken and Fitzgerald. Most of them have little value. Nathan will probably suffer from the same kind of bogus scholarship. I knew him, at times intimately, over a period of nearly thirty-five years. I have no intention of writing a biography of him, but I would like to put down some facts and impressions that may keep future biographers from making fools of themselves.

Nathan tried to give the impression that he never voted, never served on juries, and found special pleasure in being a bad citizen. This was only one of his poses. Near the end of his life he confessed to me that he voted often and served on juries often, and I had the feeling that he took his voting and jury service seriously. What were his politics? In the main he was a Republican. He voted for Eisenhower twice, and I believe he was disappointed in him twice. He didn't take to Adlai Stevenson. I never knew why. All Nathan ever said was, "Well, Eisenhower is better for the country, for business, and I trust him more.''

When Nathan was seventy-one I asked him why he didn't marry Julie Haydon, since he had told me he had been in love with her for years. "Now, now, Angoff," he said. "Hold your horses. What's your rush?"

One of Nathan's most unpleasant duties was to comment upon the plays of friends such as Dreiser and Anderson. "They think," he once said to me, "that a novelist can write a few plays between his novels. They just don't know how hard it is to write a play. The real trouble is that, deep down, they don't take playwriting seriously. Well, Henry James made the same mistake, and so has Hemingway, who is one of the worst playwrights who ever lived. He made the special mistake of thinking that all a play needs is dialogue. It also needs a dramatic mind, and that Hemingway hasn't got."

The critical and psychological mystery about Nathan is a simple one: how did this fop, who knew nothing about slum life, who prided himself upon being above the vast and silent majority of misery—how did he come to be the champion of O'Neill and O'Casey, both of whom wrote so dramatically and so sincerely and so lovingly about the people of the slums? And how was it that this same fop and boulevardier and snob sat through Noel Coward so readily—Noel Coward who wrote almost entirely about snobs and fops? There is still another mystery about Nathan: how was it that this same man who saw through Noel Coward and who so admired O'Neill and O'Casey could see through the pretentiousness and hollowness and falseness of Clifford Odets? Time and again Nathan told me, as he wrote in his articles that Odets was a third-rate writer who didn't know the people of the Bronx but wrote about them as they were reflected through Odets' Hollywood mind.

Nathan had the highest opinion of his own critiques. He thought that they were far superior to those of any other critic of his time, or of any other time in American dramatic history. Yet, he nearly always asked the elevator operator at the Royalton Hotel, where Nathan lived for nearly fifty years, what he thought about his last review. And if the elevator operator was not entirely enthusiastic often he hesitated in expressing his opinion simply because he hadn't read Nathan's last review and didn't dare to say so—Nathan's whole day would be spoiled. I doubt that he ever learned to take criticism, real or fancied, from anyone.

I went with Nathan to the opening night of Grand Hotel. The applause had been tremendous. Sam Jaffe and Hortense Alden, the principals, took curtain call after curtain call.

As we walked back to the Royalton for a nightcap, Nathan said, "So what do you think, my dear Herrn Professor Doctor?"

I was afraid to express my opinion. He insisted that I talk. I said, "Well, I thought it was a piece of cheap pulp."

"For once you are right," he said, "Now listen to an even greater professor. My dear friend X on the New York — will say of it, 'A deep and penetrating slice of life, wonderfully acted.' And my dear friend Y of the New York — will say of it, 'A deep and heartwarming insight into life, magically acted.'

Nathan was absolutely right, to the last comma and period.

Later that same evening Nathan said, "Remember this. Whenever a critic says something is 'heartwarming,' he means he is bewildered by what he saw or read or is ashamed for having liked something that his better sense tells him he should not have liked. In other words, he is confessing mediocrity."

Why did Nathan join the Catholic Church toward the end of his life? I don't know. He had sneered at the "superstitions" of the Church for many years, as anybody who reads his various books, and especially the Clinical Notes department in the old American Mercury, can see. It is true that he never denounced the Catholics as much as he denounced or made fun of the Methodists and the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, but he had never revealed to me that he planned to join the Catholic Church. The feeling I had was that he would never formally join any church. Further, I had the impression that he was totally "non-church.'' This was confirmed for me by his attitude toward Mencken's marriage in an Episcopalian church. Nathan said to me several times, "Mencken's marriage in church I don't understand at all."

Some things may throw light upon Nathan's very late conversion to Catholicism. On several occasions he had told me that his mother was friendly with the late Cardinal Dougherty of Philadelphia. He also told me that his mother was friendly with a priest from a Catholic church in Philadelphia.

Nathan frequently spoke in a very sympathetic manner of Catholic customs and rituals. When a friend of his, Curley by name—I do not remember his full name; I believe he was associated with the Hearst publications—died, Nathan went to his funeral, and Nathan spoke movingly of the Catholic funeral service. "It was rather impressive," he said to me.

Nathan was too much of the civilized, metropolitan man to denounce the violent anti-Catholicism of Sean O'Casey, for whom he had not only vast respect but deep affection. But he did say to me, "You know, Sean is a little unfair to the Catholics. They're much better than he makes them out to be."

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In