By RICH BARBER
Adapted from remarks delivered at Founder's Night 2007:
My own introduction to our club came through a literary line of humorists starting nearly a decade before I was admitted. In the fall of 1959, as a rugby player at Dartmouth, I was introduced to our “Coach,” Corey Ford, on a road trip to New York to play against his alma mater, Columbia. This fortunate meeting changed the life of a young pre-med/history major. Through the efforts of Dean Thaddeus Seymour, son of Player Whitney North Seymour, and brother to Player “Mike” Seymour, Jr., I was made a Dartmouth Fellow, assigned as research assistant to Ford. For the next five years our scholarly efforts led us many places, always passing through The Players with side trips to fellow club members.
Corey had joined the club in 1926, at the age of 24. It was the same year that his work appeared in the inaugural issue of The New Yorker. When Player Rea Irvin created its signature top-hatted fop gazing through his lorgnette at a butterfly, it was Corey who gave him his name, "Eustace Tilley," and wrote his background and history. Corey's illustrious career began at Columbia where he was the editor of the college humor magazine, the Jester, and a stringer for The New York Herald. He also wrote the book and lyrics for the Varsity Show in 1923, which yielded Columbia’s football song, "Roar Lion Roar," and eclipsed the Broadway run of the previous year’s show which he had panned, written by his upstart classmates, Oscar Hammerstein II, Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers.
We often stayed in rooms at The Gramercy Park Hotel, and “breakfasted at The Club.” It still sported a bay window in the old dining room, and garden in back.
These were the last years of Franklin Pierce Adams, who lived just a few blocks away on 13th Street. He came in often, especially for Sunday breakfast. One morning all the “good" newspapers had been grabbed up – the city still had multiple dailies then. A lone fat copy of The New York Times remained. Adams leafed through rapidly, growing increasingly agitated. Finally he threw it across the room, growling, “Nothing but f---ing news.”
I was invited by Corey to “Founder’s Night,” for which my dad bought me my first tux, stating, “a gentleman should wear his own.” Howard Lindsay presided. Van Wyck Brooks gave the address, seated in front of the fireplace in the Great Hall and in front of the masks of Comedy and Tragedy designed as a gift to Edwin Booth and his club by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. I stood between Corey Ford and Russell (Buck) Crouse. As he received the Loving Cup, Crouse took it and pressed it to his forehead, holding it there for a moment, before passing it along to me. Ford told me later that Buck had stopped drinking many years before, admitting, “One drink and it was like I was hit in the ass with a banjo.” It was an impressive assembly. Heywood Hale Broun stood next to Ford. Next to him was Brooks Atkinson. The list went on.
On our return trip to Hanover, we stopped in to have dinner with Player Frank Sullivan in Saratoga Springs. Sul and Ford had shared an apartment on Beekman Place during Prohibition and the Thirties. Sul became famous for his droll humor pieces, especially Mr. Arbuthnot, the Cliché Expert, and his annual New Yorker Christmas poem. It was a sort of Cox & Box arrangement with Corey, the early riser, greeting Frank, the night owl, coming home from covering the Roaring Twenties and speak-easies for his column. William Faulkner stayed with them for part of an impecunious season and wrote As I Lay Dying on a card table in their living room, sleeping on the couch.
In the summer of 1964, Ford was given an assignment by DeWitt Wallace of Reader’s Digest to cover the Republican Convention in San Francisco. And I was given my first real assignment to report on the reaction of foreign correspondents to the nomination of a “true conservative.” The selection of Barry Goldwater was pretty much a sure thing. I had met him numerous times when he came to see Julius Monk’s Dime A Dozen at the Plaza. I was seeing Susan Browning, one of the stars of the show, and Barry loved to bring friends and laugh at himself and the parody song, “Back With Barry’s Boys,” that was a featured piece. We stayed with Maggie and Merritt Ruddock, the mayor of Belevedere Island. They were old friends from OSS days, and Maggie had recently divorced Player John Falter. We would sneak over the hill to Johnno’s studio whenever we could for Scotch and gossip. Maggie was beautiful, statuesque, but a bit cold. Merritt was the picture of a British Colonel with a wicked, dry sense of humor. He and Johnno had become great good friends, much to Maggie’s displeasure. The Ruddocks' luxurious five-story home, on a lot that cascaded down the island’s hillside facing the Golden Gate Bridge, was ideal for our assignments as they were hosting several events for the foreign press.
Following the predictable outcome of the convention, we headed north to the middle fork of the Feather River for a fishing trip with Frank Dufresne and an old friend of both his and Corey’s, Player Bing Crosby. The guides picked us up in their trucks loaded with gear. Suddenly one of them just had to return home to fetch something indispensable. We were all invited inside when we got there, and I realized he wanted to show off Mr. Crosby. His boys were not impressed. Bing disappeared back to the truck and fished his toupee out of his duffel. Back inside, things were set to rights and the boys were thrilled – an extraordinary gesture. On the trip, Bing was full of stories and puns and good cheer, whether showing me how to cut fur branches to make a mattress or cooking. Ford said later that Crosby was much funnier in person than Bob Hope, with a keen sense of wordplay.
Kathryn Crosby once said she didn’t worry about Bing cheating on her: “He would just be off fishing or hunting with Frank.” Dufresne was the first U.S. Game Commissioner of Alaska, and Rachel Carson's boss. He encouraged her to write Silent Spring. Frank had traveled by kayak the full extent of the Aleutian Chain of islands with Aleuts, and spoke their language. Largely because of him they helped fend off Russia's attempt to retake the peninsula. He also wrote two outdoors classics, My Way Was North and No Room for Bears, and almost singlehandedly saved the Kodiak bear from extinction.
Back in New England, I taught another year at Exeter, Ford and I finished the book for Little, Brown, and, after a few more adventures, including a stint with the Marines, I pitched up in New York publishing where Ford and his friends Sullivan, Marc Connelly and Falter, along with Roy Doliner and Jack Tebbbel, decided I should become a Player.
For a number of years I was the youngest Player and a proverbial bump on a log, awed and delighted at the company in the grill. It was a heady time, with Robards, Lemmon, Kiley, Ferrer, O’Brien, and Cagney often at the bar, Peter Turgeon spinning tales of a young chorus boy cutting a swath through the leading ladies of Broadway. Returning from a road-tour he strode up to the bar, and when the young new tender poured him a shot said, “Fill it up, lad, don’t you know I’m an alcoholic?”
Years later, at the second Cagney Pipe Night, women had finally been admitted and I brought my wife. It was truly an all-star event, even down to police barricades around Gramercy Park. The Board decided to corral all the stars in the library before dinner, but Cagney was having none of it. “This is my club,” he said, and he and Billie came down, where he sat in Booth’s chair between the Great Hall and the Sargent (now Kinstler) Room, greeting all graciously. I approached with my wife, excused myself, and asked to introduce Elaine. Cagney squinted up at me, and said, “You’re Ford’s boy, aren’t you?,” reaching out to shake my hand and holding Elaine’s for a few extra moments. What a memory. What kindness.
After the festivities many of us gathered around the bar in the Great Hall. I was talking with Jack Lemmon, who was keeping an eye on Sir/Lord Laurence Olivier. We had learned that if Jack had such an assignment, it curbed the intake. My wife had joined Lord Larry’s group and he put his arm round her waist. His hand moved down and he patted her ass. Jack started to move forward, but I restrained him, “She’ll dine out on this for years.”
Some years later I brought “Mickey” Powell of The Red Shoes to lunch, to interview him for a newletter I was writing called Inside Bookselling with Player Brock Brower. Mickey was a member of The Garrick, and wanted to sit at the long table. Peter Turgeon, Rollie Winters, Marty Gabel, Ben Lucien Burman, and a group of the Wednesday regulars were delighted. Mickey had just come from a meeting at his publisher, Knopf, and was still bristling over their attempt to title his biography My Life in Film. “I finally impressed upon them that I love movies, I don’t love film,” he stated. The table was charmed, and thankfully, his title prevailed.
Rich Barber is a literary agent, writer, and President of A. Richard Barber & Associates, a marketing consultant to publishers. A Player for 53 years, he was a board member as well as First Vice President to Johnnie Planco. He has co-authored two books, on Revolutionary history and on humor.