My Severest Critic has recently been reading this column, largely because some of her best friends have been the subject of recent specimens, from which beginning she has got into the habit of seeing what appears in this space every other day or so in the week.
And after reading several of these columns, she spoke thus: “Don’t you think, Harry”â€”this was after the pieces on the so-called “elopment”â€””don’t you think that you ought to write about important things, such things as the Austrian situation, all the terrible things that are happening in Germany, and Poland, the terrible drought and heat wave?”
I pondered a moment and then spoke, not heavily, I trust, saying something like the following:
For the statement of the news, no matter how dramatic and significant, there is the front page, with which the conductor of a column cannot always hope to keep peace. For the statement of opinion on the news, there is the editorial page, or column. Now, although I do not pledge myself never to advert upon the soulshaking events that agitate the world and make the front pages, still I see my mission in less heavy and less editorial terms. My job is (isn’t it?) to cultivate private and personal byways on which no one would ever expect to find noted correspondents and editorial commentators. If this column doesn’t serve as comic relief, it should serve a little as relief from the dramatic events in the capitals and Chancelleries of the world. If I could write verse, and light verse, I would pit it in here. Since I cannot do that, I attempt to tell stories, even if I have to repeat the tales of others, and ride, not too solemnly, various private hobby horses. The world, I hope, or at least some part of it, will continue to be interested in at least some of the things that interest me. I hope, therefore, you will continue to turn to this column, even if you find nothing about the Austrian situation in it.
For this attitude I received corroboration from an unexpected quarter, at least sixteen hours after I had sketched the preceding paragraphs. I had spent an hour of the morning on which I write this reading the front pages of several newspapers; of the civil war in South Austria, and of what the new Chancellor, Starhemberg, was doing in the way of suppressing the Nazis, and of the mobilization of Italian troops on the Austrian frontier, and of Hitler’s nervous attempts to show how virtuous and unresponsible the German Nazis had been in the matter, and of the reverence Vienna was paying to its dead Chancellor, Dr. Dollfuss, and of the flutterings and agitation in Paris, London and Belgrade, and more of the same.
And with a mind overflowing with this kind of data I was leaving the house, stopping by at the desk to ask for my mail, when Jimmie, the man at the desk, showing a particularly distressed face, asked me: “Did you hear the latest?” To me “the latest” could mean only a development of news along the lines on which I had just been reading: the Nazis had captured Vienna, or Mussolini had actually declared war, or a couple of powers had served a notice of some kind on Berlin, or something no less momentous. After all, the editions I had been reading were several hours old and much might have happened since they had left the presses.
So I said, “No, what is it?”
“Montgomery is dead,” said Jimmie.
My face was as nearly a blank as it has been this past year.
“Montgomery the actor,” prodded Jimmie, apparently piqued at my ignorance of things that really mattered. “He used to be in vaudeville with Moore.”
The name still meant nothing to me; the fact of that man’s death did not touch me in the slightest, and Jimmie was obviously irked at my ignorance, and indifference.
“He used to pull down $1,500 a week at the Palace,” Jimmie pressed on, as if that would give me the real clue and I, pretending to recall, said “Oh, yes.” Relieved that I seemed to know, Jimmie went on to tell me that Montgomery had died a pauper in an empty lot in Jersey and that he had been addicted to the fatal habit of “snuffing coke,” meaning cocaine, in case you don’t know.
All of which means that, so far as Jimmie is concerned, and the tens of thousands of other Jimmies, that news which is placed under five and eight column streamers, at vast expense in cable tolls and correspondents’ wages, is not the news which comes home to their own hearths. The edition of my favorite morning newspaper which I read did not even mention the sad fate of Mr. Montgomery. Perhaps the gentlemen on that paper did not know, as Jimmie did, that Mr. Montgomery once “pulled down” $1,500 a week, or knowing, did not care, or, knowing and caring, could not spare the space which the Austrian situationâ€”and rightly, from my own point of viewâ€”was taking up.
I am faced by a dilemma, which I shall probably solve with or without assistance, as is my custom. It is, that I am losing my private life and propose to regain it, to some extent. Column-conductor or not, I was always pretty certain that I had a private life, until a certain friend disabused me of the notion, in the following manner:
I would say something to the effect that I had been suffering from a crick in the neck, and the aforementioned friend would say, as if in dismissal of my verbal report, “Yes, we know that; we read it in your column.” Or I would begin to say something about the manner in which I had acquired a copy of the abridged New Oxford Dictionary and I would hear: “Oh yes, we read all about that, Harry; didn’t you have a piece about it in your column?” Or I would attempt to lighten an evening with an account of a pair of newlyweds and their adventures in getting married, and I would be cut short with: “You don’t have to tell us about that again; we read your column, you know.”
All of which, unless and until I find a solution for the problem, is reducing me to the status of a listener to other people’s stories and no teller of my own. Of course I could make a point of seeing only those who do not follow my column, but then some of my best friends read The Bulletin. In view of all the things that are happening in Austria and Poland and Germany and the Middle West, I don’t propose that you worry your head over this, too. There is only one way out and I must, and shall, find it. I must divide myself in two, like the amoeba, and have one life for conversation and another life for the column. All I have to worry about is finding time during the twenty-four hours for this double life of mine.