While Rome Burns – Just Fiddling (R16)

One Sunday morning in early autumn, astray in the summerhouse where I go for silence & certainty, I took down from the spidery shelves of my ‘library in the garden’ (thanks to Edmund Gosse who quotes the case of some old writer who had one) a yellowing volume of essays, acquired from a dead friend of my great artist friend who’s not long buried in his wicker casket, and began to read at the first page of pages I hadn’t opened in all of more than twenty years. The morning delivered up a fresh enthusiasm for the writing of long dead authors it’s unlikely that anybody has read for many years, though I note that you can still buy Alexander Woollcott’s book – even in a version of the old Penguin I hold in my hands – from reputable booksellers.

I moved my mind (no doubt jerkily) through the dust & smoke of bloody conflict still hanging in the air as near in spirit to the old author as walked this very earth in that old time and the first essay in his book starts thus:-

Astray on a spring evening in the old library of William and Mary at Williamsburg in Virginia and admonished to silence by the grim female in charge, who kept warning me at the top of her lungs that all about me the young were at their studies, I took down from a shelf the fat volumes of Brand Whitlock’s Belgium and renewed an old acquaintance with the stirring story he had to tell. From this reunion, I came away with fresh enthusiasm for one character in that story, a great gentleman from Spain whose odd, stiff little figure moved jerkily across the stage of the World War and seems to me now, through the dust and smoke still hanging in the air, as near to a hero as walked the earth in that time.

And it continues in this way, well worth rescuing from its dusty hiding place in my garden:-

He was the Marquis of Villalobar. As Spanish Ambassador to Belgium when the rest of the world took up arms, he shared with Whitlock the extra burdens which the war deposited on the doorsteps of the two great neutral embassies in the cockpit of Europe. Fastidious, sensitive, chivalrous, proud, witty, sardonic, the little Marquis, in his huge English car with his chauffeur brave in a livery of red and green, moves like a thread of relieving colour through the sombre fabric of Whitlock’s story. But not once in the two volumes is there so much as a hint of the dreadful and magnificent truth about Villalobar which must have filled Whitlock with wonder and pity and awe every time he saw him, every time he thought of him.

When, still at his post in Brussels, Villalobar died in the summer of 1926 and the news was cabled to America, the obituary in the New York Times next day told all the routine facts about him – his ministry to Washington, his services in the great war – but left untold that single salient fact which still shapes the lingering legend about the man and puts up on the wall of every chancellery in the world a portrait done in whispers. Now surely the full story can be told. Now, while in Tokyo and Constantinople and Berlin, in Washington and Brussels and Madrid, there still be men who might bear witness ; above all, while I myself am still here to read that story, I hope it will be told.

For the little Marquis had been born, they say, with a greater blight laid upon him than was the portion even of Sir Richard Calmady. An ageing few must still recall Lucas Malet’s extraordinary novel of that unhappy baronet who, in obedience to a curse laid upon his line in olden days, was born into the world with the head and torso of a young god, but with feet that came above where his knees should have been – grotesquely a truncated figure that stumbled and scrambled across the world while the heartless laughed and the pitiful turned away. Well, according to the legend I still hope to see filled out and documented, that very curse had been laid also upon the Villalobar line, and this heir to the great house, who was born in 1866, came into the world misshapen in the selfsame fashion. They say there were even heavier odds against him. For his head was hairless and he had only one hand he could let anyone see. The other he carried, whenever possible, thrust into the bosom of his coat. It was, they say, a kind of cloven claw.

I do not know by what heavy and intricate contrivance Villalobar raised himself to the stature of other men and managed a kind of locomotion. It was serviceable enough, however, to carry him to the ends of the earth, and his will lent him seven-league boots. Furthermore, it was so deceptive to one who did not see him move that when first he appeared at court in Madrid, a fledgling diplomat already booked for some minor post in Washington, a great lady – some say the Queen Mother, but I do not believe that part of the legend – turned quickly when she heard his name and told him how as a girl she had visited in his part of Spain and how she had always wondered whatever became of the Villalobar monster. It seems she had heard curious countryside tales of a monster born to the Villalobar line, just such a one as shadowed Glamis Castle in those days and shadows it to-day. Such a fascinating story, my dear Marquis. Quite gave one the creeps. One heard it everywhere. Had the creature died? Or been killed? Or what?

“Madame,” said young Villalobar, with a malicious smile twisting the rich curve of his lips,” I am that monster,” and, bowing low, he shuffled away, leaving her to wish she had never been born.

Whitlock has a hundred anecdotes of the Marquis in his prime – tales of his exquisite tact, of his generous rages, of his devotion to the Exiled Eugenie, who had been kind to him when he was a little boy, of his vain, scornful, passionate, night-long fight to save Edith Cavell from a German firing squad. Whitlock tells about a time when a roaring Prussian martinet bellowed at Villalobar only to have the little Marquis, who, of course, spoke German fluently, turn on him and say with glacial calm: “Pardon, Monsieur, je ne vous comprends pas. Parlez lentement, poliment – et en français.”

And about the time when he was halted in his rounds of Brussels by another Prussian, who asked him brusquely what he was doing there. Villalobar, with the accent of history and doom, made answer: “Sir, what are you doing here?” and stumped off about the business of his king.

Whitlock tells all about the spotless, delicately perfumed, and beautiful embassy in the Rue Achimede, filled with the loot of Villalobar’s life, gifts from kings and queens, portraits, family silver, even his grandmother’s sedan chair. The American Ambassador could not imagine his own workaday forbears associated with a vehicle so elegant. The Italian Ambassador had no such difficulty. “Mine,” he said, “were here.” And he stepped between the shafts.

Whitlock envied Villalobar the lovely Louis XVI table which served as a desk, with the row of silver dispatch boxes standing like sentinels on its gleaming surface. The Marquis said he had picked it up in a second-hand shop in Toledo. Whitlock sighed and murmured something about the luxury of rummaging in these old European cities. Villalobar interrupted him with a chuckle.

“Oh, it wasn’t in my Toledo in Spain,” he said, “it was in your Toledo in Ohio. That time I was there, you remember, for the carnival; I was going down that street – what’s its name ?…”

Whitlock reports that on that desk and in that embassy, no paper was ever, by any chance, out of place. But he says nothing about the despotism, at once comical and terrifying, whereby that order was maintained. Nor does he tell with what bated breath the Marquis was always served. Nor how each thread of the embassy life, however trivial, had to lead to Villalobar’s one available hand. Even when finally the vast concerns, of America and England were added to the French and Spanish business, Villalobar would have only one telephone in the embassy. You see, he wanted to hear each message. It might be only the market calling up about the cauliflower. No matter. The Marquis would take the message. It might be a light-o’-love calling up the young third secretary. The Marquis would take that, too. ? If a picture postcard came for the cook, the Marquis saw it before the cook did.

It was an embassy ruled by a crotchety bachelor. Once Whitlock told Villalobar that had he been born in an unfeathered American nest, he might, with his many and varied talents, have been anything he chose: lawyer, journalist, politician, artist, financier, and certainly as guileful a stage manager as Irving or David “Belasco. If Whitlock wondered privately whether, had he so chosen, Villalobar might also have been a husband, he could scarcely have given voice to that inevitable speculation. Yet when he was approaching sixty, Villalobar did marry. He married a cousin whom he had wooed in vain when she was a young girl, and who came to the shelter of his name and power when the long years had played strange tricks on both of them.

But that is another story. What Whitlock saw was an embassy run by a bachelor, and one thing all its staff knew was that the chief would tolerate no physical assistance while anyone was looking. If, as sometimes happened, he fell, the secretary who ventured to help him or even to notice the mishap would go unthanked and soon be mysteriously recalled to Madrid for transfer to some other capital. Not everyone knew this. It is part of the legend that on the night of a wartime Christmas party at the British Embassy in Madrid, in a scuffle under the mistletoe which hung from the chandelier, the Marquis came down with a crash. The lights were put out lest anyone see him getting to his pins. But in Brussels, the consciousness of him was so acute that once when he was mounting the grand stairway at a tremendous post-war reception and slipped as he was nearing the top, a kind of catalepsy seized the whole sumptuous assemblage as over and over, over and over, over and over, that little figure rolled with a tremendous clatter to the foot of the stairs. In the distance an oblivious orchestra was fiddling away for dear fife, but among the actual onlookers no one dared breathe. And that agonized paralysis lasted while he righted himself somehow, and, tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap, began again – and finished – the difficult ascent.

There is a photograph of him in the lovely Spanish Embassy at Washington – taken, I suppose, at the time of his first assignment to this country. Whitlock speaks of him as handsome and here you see why. He is dressed as a Maestrante Knight of Zaragoza, and something in the white cape, the beplumed helmet, and the amused, contemptuous curve of the sensuous lips makes you think of him as having just come from some torchlit conspiratorial gathering in Zenda or Graustark. At the embassy, too, you can find in the files the list of his honours: Grand Cross of Charles the Third, Grand Cross of Isabella the Catholic, Gold Medal of the Sieges of Zaragoza, Grand Cross of St. Gregory the Great of the Holy See, Grand Cross of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus of Italy, Grand Cross of the Rising Sun of Japan, Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour of France, Knight Commander of the Order of Christ and of Villaviciosa of Portugal, Lord of the Bedchamber of His Majesty. Maestrante, Knight of Zaragoza, Burgess of Brussels, Burgess of Ghent, Burgess of Lille – the list ceases to be a mere string of words and becomes a roll of drums.

Not in that embassy, however, nor in any other, but only in far cafés in moments of unleashed confidences will those who worked under him tell the tales that make up the living legend of Villalobar. They still talk in whispers as if a little afraid to this day that he might reach out and punish them. I have heard in Berlin at second-hand – and only so does one even begin to know how great a man their little Marquis was – the experience of one minor secretary who remembers still, and will, I think, remember while he lives, a wartime night in Brussels when he was homing at three in the morning from some clandestine mischief. Silk-hatted and caped resplendent, he was passing through the guarded dark of the Rue Archimede when, as he passed the embassy, he remembered with a panic clutch of fear that he had gone off that afternoon and left an indiscreet paper in full sight on his desk. If only he could let himself into the chancellery wing and retrieve it, there might even yet be a chance that the chief had not seen it.

When, on this slightly burglarious enterprise, the secretary reached his desk in the office, he found the paper gone. Whether the Marquis had seen it and taken it away the young man never really knew. For next morning he was recalled to Madrid with no chance to bid his chief good-bye. But that night, just as he realized his mission was fruitless, he saw there was a light in the hallway at this unaccountable hour and heard a puzzling noise there as of some animal scuttling across the floor. Alarmed, he tiptoed through the intervening rooms, reached the lighted doorway, and on the threshold stood transfixed. He swears he stopped breathing altogether. There on the rug, crouched as if for a spring, was a small, unrecognizable creature clad in some kind of white night-shirt. It had a human head. Its burning eyes met his. The witness says that before he could move or force a sound through his paralyzed lips, the creature turned, scampered to the foot of the stairs, and then – a streak of white in the dusk of the stair-well – whisked up and along the gallery and out of sight.

This essay comes from While Rome Burns, a book of essays by Alexander Woollcott, first published in November 1934 and reprinted three times before becoming one of the first Penguin books in the year I was born and reprinted the year after – there must have been quite a demand (see below).

What a delight there is in reading old books and finding such memorable accounts – the unacknowledged products of the human brain that represent the true history of humanunkind rather than the insane posturings of miscellaneous kings & Power Possessors. I felt impelled to find out more about him from Wikipedia.


It turns out Alexander Humphreys Woollcott (January 19 1887-January 23 1943) was an American critic and commentator for The New Yorker magazine and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside, the main character in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939) by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and for the far less likable character Waldo Lydecker in the film Laura (1944).

He was born in an 85-room house, a vast ramshackle building in Colts Neck Township, New Jersey. Known as ‘the North American Phalanx’, it had been a commune where many social experiments were carried on in the mid-19th century. When the Phalanx fell apart after a fire in 1854, it was taken over by the Bucklin family, Woollcott’s maternal grandparents. Woollcott spent large portions of his childhood there among his extended family.

His father was a ne’er-do-well Cockney who drifted through various jobs, sometimes spending long periods away from his wife and children. Poverty was always close at hand. The Bucklins and Woollcotts were avid readers, giving young Aleck (his nickname) a lifelong love of literature, especially the works of Charles Dickens. He also resided with his family in Philadelphia, where he attended Central High School (110th Class), where a teacher, Sophie Rosenberger, reportedly ‘inspired him to literary effort’ and with whom he ‘kept in touch all her life.’ With the help of a family friend, he made his way through college, graduating from Hamilton College, New York, in 1909. Despite a rather poor reputation (his nickname was ‘Putrid’), he founded a drama group there and edited the student literary magazine. In his early twenties he contracted the mumps, which apparently left him mostly, if not completely, impotent. He never married or had children, although he had some notable female friends, including Dorothy Parker and Neysa McMein, to whom he reportedly proposed the day after she had just wed her new husband, Jack Baragwanath. Woollcott once told McMein that he was thinking of writing the story of our life together: McMein: What is it?

Woollcott joined the staff of The New York Times as a cub reporter in 1909. In 1914 he was named drama critic and held the post until 1922, with a break for service during World War I. In April 1917, the day after war was declared, Woollcott volunteered as a private in the medical corps. Posted overseas, Woollcott was a sergeant when the intelligence section of the American Expeditionary Forces selected him and a half-dozen other newspaper men to create the Stars and Stripes, an official newspaper intended to bolster troop morale. As chief reporter for the Stars and Stripes, Woollcott was a member of the amazingly talented team that formed its editorial board. Going beyond simple propaganda, Woollcott and his colleagues reported the horrors of the Great War from the point of view of the common soldier.

As one of New York’s most prolific drama critics, he was banned for a time from reviewing certain Broadway theatre shows due to his florid and often vitriolic prose. His book, While Rome Burns, published by Grosset & Dunlap in 1934, was named twenty years later as one of the 52 ‘Best Loved Books of the Twentieth Century’… [which no doubt accounts for the multiple reprints…].

Woollcott’s review of the Marx Brothers’ Broadway debut, I’ll Say She Is, helped the group’s career inflate from mere success to superstardom and started a lifelong friendship with Harpo Marx. Harpo’s two adopted sons, Alexander Marx and William (Bill) Woollcott Marx, were named after Woollcott and his brother.

Billed as The Early Bookworm, Woollcott’s CBS show The Town Crier, which began July 21, 1933, opened with the ringing of a bell and the cry, ‘Hear ye, hear ye!’ followed by Woollcott’s literary observations punctuated with acidic anecdotes; it continued until January 6, 1938. He had no reservations about using this forum to promote his own books, and the continual mentions of his book While Rome Burns (1934) probably helped make it a bestseller.

Woollcott was renowned for his savage tongue. He often greeted friends with “Hello, Repulsive…” His judgments were frequently eccentric. Dorothy Parker once said: “I remember hearing Woollcott say reading Proust is like lying in someone else’s dirty bath water.”

Politically, Woollcott called for normalization of US-Soviet relations. Yet he was attacked viciously in the left-wing press after his visit to the Soviet Union for his less than laudatory depiction of the ‘worker’s paradise’.

Woollcott described himself as ‘the best writer in America’. His principal literary efforts were judgments upon the efforts of others. He was reluctant to test his talent with any boldly original work. Woollcott was primarily a storyteller, a retailer of anecdotes and superior gossip, as many of his personal letters reveal together with a warm and generous heart and a self-effacing manner distinct from his waspish public persona, and his many lasting and close friendships with the theatrical and literary elite of his day.

At the time of his death, Woollcott had completed the editorial work on his last book, As You Were, an anthology of fiction, poetry and nonfiction for members of the armed forces. The idea of creating a much-needed ‘knapsack book’ for service members reportedly came to Woollcott while he was staying at the White House in November 1942. An experienced anthologist, he drew on the knowledge of soldiers’ reading preferences he gained while he was editor of Stars and Stripes during World War I. It was a contribution to the war for which Woollcott waived all royalties and planned to donate profits to welfare organizations.

[It seems that Woollcott may have been a member of the Fortean Society. Something which in itself recommends him to me!]

Thank you, Wikipedia…

While all this was fresh in my mind in the afternoon of that same early autumn day, ‘reading on [an ‘Indian’] summer lawn’, I returned to Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers and found a description of an apparent murder victim (or was it suicide (or is he dead at all)) which might well have been an account of myself.

My aim being to get my notebook from the house in order to record much of this with pen & ink, as I was crossing the lawn, lately recovering from a very long drought, I bent down suddenly to pluck the head of a dandelion gone to seed – it went in the dustbin.

Why is the novel called The Erasers? Because from time to time, pretending not to be a secret agent trying to pursue his role, Wallas visits newsagents & art shops to buy an soft rubber eraser – just a cover ploy, when early pages have you imagining that it had something to do with the notional group of exterminators who are supposed to be killing one person a day.

The murder victim, etcetera, Daniel Dupont, c’est moi… (But then I say that about many of my heroes & heroines…)

Rue des Arpenteurs (the young woman stretches out her arm and points east – unless she is merely indicating the big photograph on the other side of the partition, in the shopwindow)…  “…and not once during those two years did he ever reveal the slightest sign of discouragement or doubt. It wasn’t just a front: serenity was the true expression of his nature.”

“You were saying, just now, that he was melancholy.”

“Yes. That probably isn’t the right word. He wasn’t melancholy… He certainly wasn’t gay: gaiety didn’t mean anything once you got through the garden gate. But melancholy didn’t either. I don’t know how to tell you… Boring? That isn’t right either. I enjoyed listening to him, when he was explaining something to me… No, what made it impossible to live with Daniel was that you felt he was alone, definitively alone. He was alone, and it didn’t bother him. He wasn’t made for marriage, or for any other kind of attachment. He had no friends. At the School of Law, his courses were popular, but he didn’t even know his students’ faces… Why did he marry me?… I was very young, and I felt a kind of admiration for this older man; everyone I knew admired him. I had been brought up by an uncle, and Daniel came to his house for dinner now and then. I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, it can’t be interesting for you.”

“Yes, yes it is,” Wallas protests. “On the contrary, we need to know if Dupont’s suicide is plausible, if he might have had reasons to kill himself – or if he was capable of doing it without any reason.”

“Oh, not that! There was always a reason for his least action. When it didn’t appear at the moment, you found out later that there had been one all the same, a precise, long deliberated reason that left no aspect of the question in doubt. Daniel did nothing without having decided to do it in advance, and his decisions were always rational; unchangeable too, of course… A lack of imagination, if you like, but to an extraordinary degree… I had nothing but virtues to reproach him for, really: never doing anything without thinking first, never changing his mind, never being wrong.”

“But you said his marriage was a mistake?”

“Well yes, of course, in his relations with human beings he risked making mistakes. You could even say that he did nothing but make mistakes. Yet in the long run he was right anyway: his only mistake was in supposing the rest of the world was as reasonable as he was.”

“Do you think he might have been somewhat bitter about this incomprehension?”
“You don’t understand the kind of man he was. Absolutely unshakable. He was sure of being right, and that was enough for him. If other people enjoyed themselves over chimeras, too bad for them.”

“He might have changed as he grew older; you hadn’t seen him since…”

“Oh yes, we’ve seen each other several times: he was still the same. He talked to me about his work, about how he spent his time, the few people he still saw. He was happy, in his way; a thousand miles from any thought of suicide, anyway; satisfied with his monk’s life between his old deaf housekeeper and his books… His books… his work… that was all he lived for! You know the house, gloomy and silent, muffled with rugs, full of old-fashioned ornaments no one is allowed to touch. Once inside you felt uncomfortable, as if you were choking in the gloom that took away any desire to joke, to laugh, to sing… I was twenty… Daniel seemed comfortable there and didn’t understand that someone else might feel differently. Besides, he rarely left his study where no one was allowed to move anything. Even at the beginning of our marriage, he only left the house to do his errands, three times a week; the minute he came back he went upstairs and shut himself in; and he often spent some of the night there. I only saw him during meals, when he came down to the dining room, punctually at noon and at seven.

Wallas, secret agent (or murderer) has not long been trained for the job by his superior, the mysterious Fabius, one of whose recommendations being that

“The special agent… should leave as few traces as possible in people’s minds; it is therefore important for him to maintain a behavior as close as possible to the normal in all circumstances.” The caricature, famous in the Bureau of Investigation and in the whole Ministry, represents Fabius disguised as an ‘idler’: hat pulled down over his eyes, huge dark glasses, and an outrageously false beard hanging to the ground; bent double, this creature prowls ‘discreetly’ through the countryside, among the startled cows and horses.’

I am reminded of the policeman in Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist who seeks to escape recognition by disguising himself as a pirate with one leg and a stuffed parrot on his shoulder. The afternoon theatre was half-empty and I think the actors seemed to appreciate my lonely unrestrained laughter every time he appeared on the stage.

on a spring evening
in an old library

There’s not much that would surpass such an experience! Passages in books take you in and out of memory & awareness forming associations & connections of the most mosaical kind, as Mr Polly might have said. The process is to be compared most interestingly with what appears to be the ordered nature of other people’s experience – an artificiality projected by something-or-other of one’s own construction when one forgets for a moment that others, seemingly solid and organised because you can’t get inside their heads, are very much the same as oneself, mentally speaking. It is especially notable in relation to those who strut about on the world stage: what gives them power & influence – something we let them get away with we can’t get inside their heads – is what we take to be a lack of the mosaic or collage behind their authoritative pronouncements: they give the appearance of being all of a piece, definite & ordered, with sound and polished rectitude, knowing what it’s all about (life & death and so on) when all they’re really doing is following some obscene personal agenda that nets them loads of money, while the rest of us little people, powerless to intervene, just get on with life as best we can, picking up a yellowing old paperback nonchalantly in a summerhouse to make apparently insignificant connections between one paragraph and another across great stretches of time.

dingy old library –
just the place
for a bit of real learning

One thought on “While Rome Burns – Just Fiddling (R16)

  1. You can’t not tell your story. No matter what story it is, it is always yours, my Friend. That was taught to me by a fancier of NLP, Dr. John Savage.


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