“[A]iring the secret despair of a great many million people”: On Being Too Late to Be John Crosby

Assuming the role of an old-time radio columnist is like being coy in a funeral parlor. I mean, you can go on dropping those long-forgotten names like so many mended handkerchiefs—but you shouldn’t expect anyone to take the hint and pick them up along with the rest of you. So, you pick yourself up instead, make an orderly pile of those disregarded squares, and wait for the next sneeze. If the cold shoulder you’ve gotten from leaning against that wall of silence is any indication, there’s a good one coming on. I envy John Crosby, who had a radio column at that just the right moment in the history of the medium, when the multitudes were still tuning in but were getting increasingly cross with the old Crosley—the giveaway programs, the soaps, and whatever dross wafted across. The late 1940s, in short. Crosby, whose Out of the Blue I snatched up when last I was at the Strand, “greatly enjoy[ed] those things of which [he] most heartily disapprove[d].” Luckily, there was not much on the dial to fill him with boundless admiration, a reaction less tolerable than a rash, since it had the nasty side effect of striking him “dumb.” As he observed in his Afterword “most critics,” including himself, are “incoherent” in their “admiration but afflicted with a formidable coherence when [they] disapprove.”

So, what did Mr. Crosby disapprove of, aside from the novels of Taylor Caldwell, which he bought and displayed to remind himself what not to read? Mr. District Attorney, for instance, which he found “vastly more irritating” than most of the crime dramas so prominent on the programming schedule of the national networks during the years between VJ-Day and the Korean War. He went so far as to opine that Mr. DA was the “most reprehensible piece of trash ever dramatized.” Even the voice of the lead was so obnoxious to him that he felt obliged to string together a few adjectives the aptness of which you may test by sampling here what Crosby was sounding off about):

A few of [those adjectives] are pompous, complacent, sonorous, humorless, dogmatic, unconvincing and—I don’t know how this one got in here—superfluous. Mr. DA, to put it more succinctly, sounds like a bad Shakespearean actor in an empty auditorium.

I know that sound, having made it often enough. Sure, a scolding tongue wags faster than one tied in a lover’s knot. And the pen, the keyboard, or whatever implement you use to churn the bile, is really giving your hands a workout when it is propelled by or pounded with utter contempt. I learned that when I wrote my first play—the only one I did not tire of before its completion. It concerns a pair of sisters who delight in being mean; but at least their targets still numbered among the living (until, that is, one of them hung himself in despair). I thoroughly enjoyed feeding them lines that I might not have had the chance or the nerve to administer otherwise. I have mellowed since then, although some remarks I made about Kevin Spacey incited one reader to accuse me of sounding like a “bitter old queen.” I may be a “queen,” I’d even admit to being “old.” But “bitter”?

Besides, what is the point of spitting in the face of old Mr. Keen (whom I loathe as much as Crosby despised Mr. District Attorney) when he is best left in the welcome peace that ensued after the cancellation of the incomprehensibly long-running mystery series named after him? I am the Tracer of a lost culture, or one to which too few have found back; and, so as not to get lost in the miasma of stale air shrouding the tomb of John’s Other Wife or some such dearly departed, it is best to open up about what I am truly keen on. That doesn’t mean I don’t envy Mr. Crosby . . .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: