The Broadway they “invented” was not of course the Broadway of popular plays and bright musical comedies, but rather the Broadway part of New York that was home to the great newspapers of America during the first half of the 20th century, the Great White Way that spawned and nourished legendary editors, reporters and writers like Runyon, Winchell, Herbert Bayer Swope, Richard Harding Davis, Horace Greeley, Ring Lardner, Ben Hecht, Westbrook Pegler, Lucius Beebe, Franklin P. Adams, Heywood Broun, E.B. white, Alexander Woollcott, Gene Fowler—and Don Marquis.
These guys were larger-than-life characters: great writers, high livers, big talkers and spinners of yarns, brilliant, tenacious researchers who turned the imperatives of daily journalism into unstoppable and unforgettable stories. They were men who panned for language in the sluices of the city and came up with nuggets of hair-raising prose-beauty.
It’d be nice to be able to say that the fruits of these decades of high journalism stayed with us forever. The truth is, most of it is long gone—gone with the dwindling of the newspapers (there were once 40 newspapers in NYC) that engendered it (TV and in the Internet cannot generate or sustain great journalism).
If you’re nostalgic, you can take a glancing blow of Walter Winchell’s world by watching director Alexander McKendrick’s film, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), or by listening to Frank Loesser’s Damon Runyon musical, Guys and Dolls (1956). The best film about the frenetic-demonic New York newspaper world in general is probably The Front Page (1931) by two ex-Chicago reporters turned playwrights and screen-writers, Ben Hecht and Charles McCarthur. Even better is Howard Hawks’ high-speed remake of it called His Girl Friday (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant.
It was my reading of The Men Who Invented Broadway that brought me back to Don Marquis and, therefore, to Archy and Mehitabel.
I have this beautiful, battered copy of Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel published in 1932 by Doubleday Doran. I browse around in it a lot.
Don Marquis (1878-1937), who was a journalist, a columnist, a port, novelist and playwright, came to the New York from Atlanta in 1912 to work for The Evening Sun and later, in 1922, for The New York Herald Tribune. His Archy and Mehitabel stories first began appearing in Marquis’s “The Sun Dial” column (for The Evening Sun) in 1916.
Archy is a cockroach. His friend, Mehitabel is a female cat who has been around.
In Marquis’s first chapter of A & M—“The Coming of Archy”—he explains that he came to his office earlier than usual one morning and discovered a gigantic cockroach jumping about on the keys. “He did not see us,” Marquis writes (he usually referred to himself in this amiable plural way), “and we watched him. He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had great difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so hat a fresh line cat be started. We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before….”
When Archy falls exhausted into a nest of crumpled papers on the floor, Marquis carefully investigates what the industrious, driven insect has been writing (“…congratulating ourself that we had left a sheet of paper in the machine the night before so that all of this work had not been in vain….). This is what Archy has typed:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
but your paste is getting so stale I cant eat it
there is a cat here called mehitabel I wish you would have
removed she nearly ate me the other night
why dont she
catch rats that is what she us supposed to be for
there is a rat here she should get without delay
Later in the “chapter,” Archy complains:
dont you ever eat any sandwiches in your office
i haven’t had a crumb of bread in i dont know how long
or a piece of ham or anything but apple parings
and paste leave a piece of paper in your machine
every night you can call me archy
And thus the saga begins.
Archy of course grows fond of Mehitabel the cat, the raffish “dissolute female who was a dancer and always the lady, toujours gai.” And Mehitabel, seeing Archy as her biographer, regales him with outlandish stories—which he types up by his usual method. In the illustration here—all the Archy and Mehitabel illustrations were by the great George Herriman (1880-1944), who writer and illustrated his brilliant Krazy Kat from 1913-1944)—Archy is typing (junping) madly about while Mehitabel, picking at a tin of sardines is being encouraged to tell more a bit what a certain “duke” once said to her.
I wish I could go on telling all about Archy and Mehitabel’s stories but, like Archy himself, I’m tired now and must go curl up on a pile of crumpled print-out paper near my keyboard.