A 'visit' with Philadelphia's favourite author
in a city that keeps his memory alive
By Richard Carreño
If you remember buying pink-colored button-down shirts at Brooks Brothers (when the real-deal Brethren of yore was at Chestnut and 15th); the old 'Y' off Broad (chockablock with GI's on leave or ready to ship out); the eery, back-in-the day feeling of Suburban Station (packed with Grace Kelley look-alikes in white gloves on Saturday shopping sprees), well, you're either an aging Baby Boomer about to go bust, or, perhaps, simply, a reader of John O'Hara.
John O'Hara who? You know, the John O'Hara who wrote Appointment in Samarra , BUtterfield 8, From the Terrace, A Rage to Live , and some the best American short stories in modern times (see Sermoms and Soda Water) . Still, a little iffy?
Don't feel bad. Or, maybe you should. For O'Hara, the mid-20th century author, short story writer and playwright (yes, Pal Joey was among his oeuvre), is nothing less than arguably Pennsylvania's greatest modern literary titan. (No, that would not be John Updike. He moved from Shilling, Pennsylvania, years ago to Massachusetts' North Shore). O'Hara, on the other hand, never really left the 'Region,' the area surounding his birthplace in Pottsville -- at least, not in a literary sense. Though success took him to New York (and to The New Yorker), later to Hollywood as a screen writer, and, finally, to Princeton, N.J., to a life as a 'country squire,' O'Hara's real spiritual home was Pennsylvania.
Throughout his 65 years, as well, Philadelphia was always front and center as he, personally, and his characters, fictionally, interacted with what was then an early-1900s-to-post-War city -- and one still deeply defined by its white-bread Establishment of Main Line bankers and lawyers and, yes, its crooked pols. (Some things never change). While Pottsville -- redubbed 'Gibbsville' -- was the heart of O'Hara Country, Philadelphia was its capital city.
Though out of the literary limelight (despite his local stature, one would hard pressed, even at Penn, to find him on the English Department reading list), O'Hara in 2005 -- 35 years after his death -- is not entirely forgotten. Time magazine, just last month, named Appointment in Samarra , published in 1934 as O'Hara's first blockbuster, as one of the best 100 American novels ever.
And, in a dramatic turn (for O'Hara had no great love for his birthplace in Schuylkill County's coal region), the city of Pottsville rolled out the red carpet earlier this month for a five-day celebration of the 100th anniversary of the author's birth in 1905. (O'Hara died, following a heart attack, in 1970 in Princeton and was buried there).
Among the Pottsville events were a ball at a local country club (shades of Appointment in Samarra , where key scenes occur at a local country club, per chance?); a dinner theatre; a screening of 'Ten North Frederick,' a film adaption starring Gary Cooper; and, best of all, a wonderfully-researched brochure that highlights O'Hara's Pottsville and environs. I also particularly liked a newly-installed life-sized bronze statue of the beefy author.
Pottsville and Schuylkill officials are on to something. What with Pottsville on its last legs (mining is long gone), they're now marketing their biggest star with gusto. Never mind that O'Hara considered Pottsville a backward pit of Philistines, and longed for the day when he'd see its best view -- that would be in a rear-view mirror. In his 20s, he did just that, and the town reciprocated with 'Good riddance.' (I suppose there's a bit of ironic justice in that the O'Hara statute, located on Centre Street, has the author gazing across the thoroughfare with a wincing 'got-cha' look).
O'Hara's gone-missing fate has a lot to do with two factors. One, his works are society-oriented about life among the upper classes and the rich. Contemporary critics -- the populist Alfred Kazin was among the most severe -- simply dismissed O'Hara as a novelist of manners. (I met Kazin in the early '90s, shortly before death, at Harvard, and he was still sputtering venom against O'Hara. Go figure).
Unlike the old Hemingway, the young Mailer, and even satirist Philip Barry (author of The Philadelphia Story), the knock on O'Hara was that he chronicled ga-ga twice-told tales of the louche upper classes. Oh hum.
Another O'Hara 'concern' was his personality. By all accounts, he wasn't engaging. OK. He was disliked -- hugely disliked. He had few friends, and those he did have often turned against him. He was a mean drunk, a snob with lowly affectations (a black-thorne walking stick, for instance), and, -- although a target himself of early 20th-century bigotry as a Irish Catholic -- he was less than compassionate with those he refered to as 'Lawrence Welk people.' In O'Hara's charmed world, people were divided between those who bought their own household furniture and those who inherited their furnishings. No need to ask which side O'Hara identified with.
Recently, I got to wondering why Pottsville should have all the fun, claiming O'Hara as a native son, and all, when Philadelphia, by rights, has more than a few dibbs on the author, as well. Moreover, wouldn't bragging rights to O'Hara -- or, at least, his literary reputation -- goose the city's gritty image?
These thoughts were originally triggered earlier this year when I met Sue Gould, president of the Philadelphia City Institute Library. Gould had met O'Hara in the 1950s. ('I was charmed,' she said). Gould had also just finished reading a new O'Hara biography, and, now, was less than charmed. ('If you like to read about drunks with literary talents, he's your man,' she also remarked, in a PCI newsletter about the same time we met).
'O'Hara was intrigued by social differences, class distinctions,' Gould said. 'He once remarked that the 4:35 commuter train from Philadelphia got the well-to-do home in time for dinner and the less well-off late for supper.' . (Turn to Ten North Frederick for that quip . ). Gould also remembered that O'Hara's favorite hotel was the Warwick, the Racquet Club was his in-town club, and that, notably, that Washington Square was the venue of a frequently-told tale involving a stumble and a head injury that plagued the author for years.
The Warwick. The Racquet Club. Washington Square. Hmm.
If Pottsville could have its walking tour of O'Hara country, I thought why shouldn't Philadelphia? Despite a current building boom, much of O'Hara territory -- places where the author and his characters often frequented -- still exist. What follows, then, is an eclectic, arbitrary catalog of main O'Hara 'literary sites,' culled from the author's life and fiction. Not surprisingly, many tour sites date to another Philadelphia building boom period in the '20s and '30s.
But at least one prominent site from that period no longer exists, Broad Street Station . Like Art Deco-styled Suburban, 30th Street Station (a neo-Classical pile formerly known as Penn Station ), and Reading Terminal on Market East, Broad was another major terminus for O'Hara's Main Line folk to arrive in the city. While Broad Street station is gone (thanks to Ed Bacon and his unforgiving bulldozers), fortunately Suburban, 30th Street, and Reading, now all restored, thrive. (More than 100,000 people use Suburban each day, as a matter of fact!)
Broad and Penn stations were also transportation hubs for O'Hara's Philadelphians returning from obligatory shopping and business trips to New York. On one such occasion, as recounted in Ten North Frederick, two of these prominent Philadelphians, in addition to an admiral, were met at Broad Street Station by a naval car. The admiral took the two men to the Union League Club (140 South Broad Street) for dinner. Later, one of the men retires to the venerable Philadelphia Club (1301 Walnut Street) to play an arcane card game known as 'sniff.'
O'Hara figures are always trolling Center City. They had offices in South Broad Street , had shoes polished by a bootblack in the Land Title Building (Chestnut and Broad), shopped at Bailey, Banks & Biddle (now H&M at 15th and Chestnut) and Brooks Brothers , dined at Bookbinder's (formerly on 15th, between Walnut and Locust), or met business clients (or girlfriends, as in 'Afternoon Waltz') at the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue) on South Broad. Lovey Childs, the Lovey of Lovey Childs: A Philadelphian's Story, also favored the old Bellevue -- for lunch with her good friend Grace Wells.
Indeed, O'Hara and his figures would still recognize much of Center City, especially along South Broad. (Though one wonders what they would make of the Kimmel Center and the Girard Bank converted into a hotel!)
'Philadelphia was so much part of the Gibbsville middle- and upper-class life,' reports one of O'Hara's omniscient narrators, 'that when Gibbsvillians saw each other on Chestnut Street, they bowed and smiled....' O'Hara even created -- I suppose to sidestep calumny -- his own Philadelphia newspaper -- the Sun.
Philadelphia looms large in the short story 'Andrea.' The eponymous Andrea, an out-of-town naif, simply doesn't get it 'Don't call it U. of Penn,' Peter Hofman admonishes. 'Penn, or U. of P., but not the U. of Penn. Ugh.'
Andrea's downfall, while still living in Gibbsville, had been at the hands (and other parts) of another Philadelphian philanderer. 'The next week, on a Tuesday afternoon, Andrea came to [my] apartment on Walnut Street, and I committed statutory rape,' he relates. Six years and ten years later (the character is now living on Spring Garden Street), he has other flings with Andrea. '[S]he was the only woman I could not do without.'
Andrea wasn't as smitten, however. Her other lovers were denizens of Rittenhouse Square and members of the First Troop,Philadelphia City Cavalry , a high-Society riding club which still maintains its 'clubhouse' and museum in an Armory on 21st Street, between Market and Chestnut.
O'Hara's personal attachment to Philadelphia was equally strong. Whether living in New York, Los Angeles, or Princeton, he was a frequent visitor to the city. Some stays were on business, and he would be at the Warwick (17th Street, between Walnut and Locust). During a try-out of Pal Joey at the Forrest Theater (Walnut, between 11 and 12 streets), O'Hara and Budd Schulberg were sharing a suite at the hotel. The author was drinking heavily at the time, and an evening at the Pen and Pencil Club , the prominent writers club on Latimer Street (between 15th and 16th) was typical. That is, almost ending in a fight. Schulberg ushered him out and walked him back to the nearby Warwick.
When not hanging at the Pen and Pencil (the oldest press club in America, by the way), another favorite O'Hara haunt was the bar at the old Hotel Adelphia , across the street, at 13th and Chestnut, from the former John Wanamaker department store, now Lord & Taylor.
In his later years, O'Hara found other reasons to visit the city. He frequently attended performances of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Academy of Music and, more significant, to see an old friend, Mayor Richardson Dilworth. Dilworth had recently moved to his neo-colonial house, now known as the Dilworth House , on Washington Square . The routine during these visits involved O'Hara parking his garrish Rolls Royce in the garage of Hopkinson House , also on Washington Square. This was where O'Hara suffered a fateful fall that required hospitalization at Pennsylvania Hospital , leading, as well, to an enduring period of doom and gloom.
Above all, the world of Philadelphia's private men's clubs especially fascinated O'Hara. Though O'Hara's characters were often members of the Philadelphia Club (still the city's most élite men's-only haunt and older, in fact, than many of London's legendary men's playpens), O'Hara's own attempts to join were fruitless. An Irishman. A Catholic. Hardly.
O'Hara understood fine distinctions among clubs. In The Lockwood Concern, the scion of a rich, but murderous father, asks a friend whether his son could ever make it in the Philadelphia Club. 'No Locky, he won't,' the friend says. 'Memories are too long.' In a letter to Richardson Dilworth, O'Hara writes, 'I personally have about much chance of getting a Nobel as I have of being made chairman of the Sniff Committee at the Philadelphia Club....'
Thanks to another Philadelphian, long-time friend and socialite Edgar Scott, O'Hara didn't get blackballed at the city's 'second best' club, the now 116-year-old Racquet , 215 South 16th Street. (Not surprisingly, many of O'Hara's most prominent fictional characters -- Samuel Eaton of From the Terrace is one -- were clubbed up at the Racquet).
O'Hara had little use for the Union League , however. Yes, it was Republican, old (founded in 1862), and conservative. Words that might describe O'Hara, as well -- when not tanked, that is. In O'Hara's convoluted mind, he had concluded that the Union League wasn't posh enough. Not even for his Republican blueblood pal Richardson Dilworth, he alluded in a letter to Scott.
Philadelphia was more than just places to O'Hara, however. The city itself often became a 'character' in his works. If a figure has an office on South Broad, nearby, perhaps, to the old Philadelphia Stock Exchange on Walnut, the reader immediately pigeonholes that character as a monied power broker. Instantaneously, thanks to O'Hara's coda, the reader establishes a composite. Does the character have clothes tailored at Brooks? Was his merchant banker Brown Brothers Harriman (still there at the corner of Walnut and 16th)? For O'Hara, these nuances were key in character development. Up and down Walnut and Chestnut, glimpses of these totems float by as specters on faded signs and branded bas-reliefs.
In the 1940s, the period O'Hara mined most assiduously, Philadelphia was still that kind of town: a huge industrial and financial engine, of 4-million, ruled grandees who ran the place almost by fiat. It was also still a city populated by what sociologist E. Digby Batzell called 'Proper Philadelphians' in his seminal work, Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class.
Despite his wealth (O'Hara was a phenomenally popular author), literary standing, and connections (Dilworth was right up there on anybody's list), O'Hara was still, personally, only chipping away at that long-ago Philadelphia -- which didn't take kindly to Irish Catholic upstarts with allusions of grandeur. Fighting anxiety, an inferiority complex, and self-esteem issues, at the end of the day O'Hara was less a Philadelphia WASP than other another Philadelphian, his own creation, Pat Collins.
Like Collins, O'Hara really was just looking in. His nose pressed up to the glass. '[Collins] would walk or take the "El" from home in West Philadelphia to the area near City Hall, and wander about, stopping in front of hotels and clubs and private residences and theaters and the Academy of Music, staring at the limousines and town cars, engaging in conversation with chauffeurs; and then he would walk up North Broad Street, Automobile Row....'
O'Hara might have conquered Pottsville. But in Philadelphia, he still had a long way to go.
(This article, in a slightly different form, appeared in the Weekly Press of 9 November 2005).