Alexander Woollcott was a raconteur and member of good standing at the Algonquin Round Table. He was known for his dry humor and way with words. His aphorisms include observations on Los Angeles (“seven suburbs in search of a city”) and pianist Oscar Levant (“there is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix”). He liked to greet friends, “Hello, Repulsive.”
Genius lyricist Ira Gershwin must have been a dear friend to receive this poison pen letter…
Nov. 10, 1934
Listen, you contumscious rat, don’t throw your dreary tomes at me. I’ll give you an elegant dinner at a restaurant of your own choosing and sing to you between the courses if you can produce one writer or speaker, with an ear for the English language which you genuinely respect, who uses “disinterested” in the sense you are now trying to bolster up. I did look it up in my own vast Oxford dictionary a few years ago only to be told that it had been obsolete since the 17th Century. I haven’t looked up the indices in your letter because, after all, my own word in such matters is final. Indeed, current use of the word in the 17thCentury sense is a ghetto barbarism I had previously thought confined to the vocabularies of Ben Hecht and Jed Harris. Surely, my child, you must see that if “disinterested” is, in our time, intended to convey a special shade of the word “unselfish” it is a clumsy business to try to make it also serve another meaning. That would be like the nit-wit practice of the woman who uses her husband’s razor to sharpen her pencil. The point of the pencil may emerge, but the razor is never good again for its peculiar purpose.
Hoping you fry in hell, I remain
ANSWERED BY A.W.
FOUR HUNDRED AND FIFTY EAST FIFTY SECOND STREET