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" 

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."

In all the time that I was close to Nathan, and we saw a good deal of each other over a period of many years, never, not even toward the very end, did he give me any inkling that he was taking lessons leading toward conversion to Catholicism. He told me several other intimate matters, But this he did not tell me.

Was Nathan of Jewish origin? He was, but exactly how deep his Jewish origin was I don't know. Early in my relationship with him, he told me that his father was Jewish. Several years later he told me that his mother was "partly Jewish." He never elaborated on this statement. When the Hitler madness came upon the scene, Nathan was perturbed—I fear I cannot use a more powerful word. On one occasion he said, "You know, Angoff, as I walk down Fifth Avenue, I can see the Mischa Elman in every Jew's eyes." But as the Hitler madness intensified and the persecution of the Jews increased, Nathan talked less and less about "the Mischa Elman in every Jew's eyes." In 1934 he ceased talking about the Jews altogether.

Early in my association with Mencken, he told me that in the very first editorial of the American Mercury he had referred to Nathan as "my unbaptized co-editor."

"This may and it may not surprise you, Angoff," Mencken said to me. "But George objected to this phrase. Apparently he didn't want people to know he had any Jewish blood. So I took the phrase out."

A few months before he died, I had tea with Nathan at the Algonquin; he was (as far as I knew him) more a tea drinker than a coffee drinker, though toward the end of his life he took to frequent coffee drinking on the ground that his doctor had told him that coffee was better for the circulation than was tea. My book on Mencken, H.L. Mencken: A Portrait From Memory, had just gone to my publisher, and I wanted to get Nathan's view on a very touchy matter concerning Mencken.

I decided to come right out with my question: "Was Mencken anti-Semitic? I think that in a very real sense he was, and I say so in my book anyway, I strongly hint at it."

Nathan was silent for a few seconds, then said, "If you say what you have just told me, you won't be wrong. Perhaps I can put it this way. Menck was a Prussian." Nathan hesitated again. Then he added, "I guess it would be right to say that he never wholly liked Jews. He respected them, he was amused by them, he was even afraid of them, but he didn't like them. Maybe he even disliked them. I suppose that's anti-Semitism."

In his theatrical criticism, Nathan was a genuine scholar. It would probably be correct to say that he was one of the best-read dramatic critics in our history thus far. But in his other writings his learning and integrity were of a lesser order. For a while he conducted the department of Clinical Notes in the old American Mercury all by himself. Hitherto it had been conducted by both Mencken and Nathan. Mencken told me to watch Nathan closely, to read his copy carefully, because "George just knows nothing about anything except the theater, and he insists upon writing about the things he knows nothing about. So watch him." Mencken was right. Nathan perpetrated several bloomers in his copy. Once he wrote about Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor as if he were still alive. I pointed out his error to him.

"When did he die?" Nathan asked.

"Two years ago," I said. "No, three years ago."

Another time Nathan wrote a paragraph about military men in the White House and wrote of George Washington that he had been born in England. I changed this, and said so to Nathan. "Now, I always thought he was born somewhere outside London."

Nathan read little fiction. My belief is that he only ran through the novels of Lewis and Dreiser and Anderson and Fitzgerald. But there were two novelists who, I incline to think, interested him above all others—namely, Joseph Hergesheimer and James Branch Cabell. He didn't express his admiration in public very often because (and this is only a hunch) he wasn't too sure of his critical standards with respect to fiction, and he simply didn't want to stick his neck out.

Why did Nathan found the American Spectator, the monthly magazine in newspaper format, whose editorial board included Dreiser, Anderson, Boyd, O'Neill, and Cabell? I fear the answer is very simple: to annoy Mencken, who had pushed him out of the American Mercury and who was having trouble on the magazine. Mencken knew it, Knopf knew it, but Nathan didn't know that Mencken and Knopf knew it.

Why did Mencken and Nathan finally break up on the American Mercury? One reason was that their interests changed; Mencken was abandoning literary criticism and going in for political commentary, while Nathan remained interested chiefly in literary matters. But there was still another reason—Nathan's laziness and selfishness. Nathan spent an average of about an hour a day in the office of the Mercury. He answered a few letters, glanced at a few short stories and poems, and sent most of the manuscripts and a good deal of other correspondence to Mencken. Mencken pleaded with him to do more work. Nathan refused. Then came the two political conventions in 1924, and Nathan continued to send Mencken the manuscripts and correspondence while Mencken was covering the conventions for the Baltimore Sun. When Mencken came back from the conventions, he decided to get rid of Nathan. Nathan fought back, but Mencken won out, with the aid of Knopf, who eventually sided with Mencken.

Nathan occupied a desk in the Knopf offices adjacent to the Mercury offices for some time after he was pushed out of the editorial conduct of the magazine. Several of the secretaries would do his dictation or otherwise help him out. Not once, as far as I knew, did he give a single girl a Christmas gift. Mencken was the opposite. He loved to hand out gifts.

Nathan, who generally had good intuition about people, especially women, was completely wrong about Sara Haardt, Mencken's wife. Nathan thought she was a great admirer of his. Actually she sneered at him, often calling him "a fop and a clotheshorse."

Nathan's reputation, at least in his earlier years, of being something of a Charlie Chaplin in his attraction to very young girls was based on fact. He apparently felt relaxed in the company of seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. A girl in her twenties was very old to him. Mencken, on the other hand, was attracted to older women. Mencken said once, "George likes them while they're still giggly and itchy. I like them over thirty, when they're beginning to get a little ripe and moldy. I look for a touch of gray in a woman."

Perhaps this is the place to say something about the difference between Mencken's and Nathan's views of virginity. It was my impression that Mencken was inclined to take what may be called the traditional view. Deep down in his heart, he probably had grave doubts about marrying any woman who had had sexual experiences in or outside of marriage. In his liquored moments he did call such women sluts. As a matter of fact, this very tendency of his was the cause of a serious squabble between him and Nathan. Eugene O'Neill had just married one of his later wives. Nathan, who was always anxious about O'Neill's happiness, said he was delighted, on the ground that O'Neill's new wife might bring him some of the personal happiness that he was so deeply in need of but had never before wholly achieved. Mencken laughed and said, "That's something, George! The new wife is like his former wives, or his former girls, just a cutie, just a slut." Nathan burst out, "That's barbaric!", and stalked out of the room.

One of the several mysteries about Nathan's criticism was his violent dislike of Thornton Wilder. I seldom argued with him, because I was more eager to listen; besides, my knowledge of the theater, compared to his, was paltry. But I was (and still am) so sure that Our Town was a great play—in itself, perhaps, greater than any single play that O'Neill had done—that I felt impelled on occasion to object mildly. To most of my objections Nathan would say, smiling, "Now, now, you are falling for all that Brooks Atkinson hogwash. Our Town is a steal from Joyce." I asked what he meant by "a steal from Joyce." He answered, "Now, now, don't talk like a professor." Apparently he referred to some article that pointed out Wilder's indebtedness to Joyce's general method. I said that such indebtedness was obvious and nothing to be ashamed of, that such indebtedness, in literary history, was as common as the sunrise. When I said this, Nathan would say, "Let's call a halt to this nonsense. You'll learn when you get older."

Was Nathan always above personal attachments in his criticism? Of course not. Somewhere, in one of his books, he says something to this effect: "Critical objectivity is a wonderful thing, and all decent critics try to abide by it. But let a man's childhood nannie write a play, and out of the window flies all critical objectivity."

I saw Nathan in the company of enormously wealthy people, including one man who is reputed to have made millions in the stock market. I saw Nathan in the company of individuals, both men and women, high in society; and there was a wide streak of social climbing in Nathan. I saw Nathan in the company of nobility—members of the former Russian royal family, members of the former Spanish royal family, members of the family of French pretenders to the French throne, members of the former Yugoslav royal family and of the former Bulgarian royal family and of the former Rumanian royal family. But I never saw him so happy and so relaxed and so utterly at home as he was on the three occasions when he, Sean O'Casey, and I were spending a couple of hours or more at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant on West Forty-fourth Street in New York City. O'Casey was encased in a turtleneck sweater, his fingers occasionally went into his coffee (O'Casey's eyesight is very poor); and Nathan obviously loved it all. Nathan did a great deal for O'Casey, and that is one of his eternal glories. But O'Casey also did a great deal for Nathan. He brought out all that was lovely and all that was true and all that was beautiful in him, deeply buried as it was under heaps of all sorts of rubbish.