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by Bamber Gascoigne

Will(am Jacob) Cuppy (1884-1949)


American humorist and journalist. Cuppy was best-known for his mock-scientific observations of nature. One of his favorite places for observation was the Bronx Zoo, from where he perhaps picked up the following note: "The Chameleon's face reminded Aristotle of a Baboon. Aristotle wasn't much of a looker himself." Cuppy satirized with his dry and subtle humor everything from arrogant experts to modern society and popular culture. His method was to read as much as possible about his subject, and then squeeze everything into an essay of about two pages. His knowledge of history and literature was extensive, but he abandoned academic studies for the sake of journalism.

"The Egyptians of the First Dynasty were already civilized in most respects. They had hieroglyphs, metal weapons for killing foreigners, numerous government officials, death, and taxes." (from The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, 1950)

William Cuppy was born in Auburn, Indiana. His father, Thomas Jefferson Cuppy (1844-1912), was a lumber buyer for a railroad, whose miscellaneous jobs kept him away from his family for periods of time and eventually he disappeared completely. Cuppy's mother, Frances Stahl Cuppy (1855-1927), ran a millinery shop and was devoted to her children.

In his childhood young Will spent happy summers on the Cuppy farm near South Whitley, where he acquired his first knowledge of nature. He attended the Auburn public schools and in 1902 he entered the University of Chicago, where he studied for 12 years. Most of the time he spent in the English library. He took all the courses offered by the  professor of English and rhetoric Robert Herrick, Richard Morss Lovett, who taught writing and English literature, and James Weber Linn, a founder of Hull-House, a settlement house. Cuppy graduated in 1907 and continued his studies for Ph.D. Burton Rascoe, a journalist, editor and literary critic of the New York Herald Tribune, said of his friend: "Cuppy had been an infant prodigy at the University, graduating at eighteen, and has stayed on until he had become the oldest infant prodigy in the history of active American student life." (Before I Forget by Burton Rascoe, 1937, p. 176) During these years he was also active in amateur theater, worked as campus reporter for the Chicago Herald-Record, and contributed to several other Chicago newspapers. In 1914 he decided to settle for an M.A. degree and went to New York.

As a writer Cuppy made his debut with Maroon Tales (1910), published by John Forber & Company. It was written while he was in graduate school. The collection included eight stories about the traditions of the college and fraternity life. "Mercifully, Most of the first edition was drowned in a flood which visited the cellar of the university press  shortly thereafter." (Will Cuppy in Will Cuppy, American Satirist: a Biography by Wes D. Gehring; foreword by Mark H. Massé, 2013, p. 25) Nineteen years later came out How to Be a Hermit (1929), which was based on Cuppy's experiences on Jones Island, off Long Island, where he lived in a shack for ten years. The coast guards called his house and its inhabitant "Tottering-on-the-Brink." To regain his privacy, after the book had made his shack famous and it began draw too much attention, Cuppy moved to Manhattan.

Cuppy became in the 1930s a well-known figure in New York literary circles. Besides his own writings he edited in the 1940s three collections of crime and mystery stories. Most of the stories in How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931), the first book in trilogy on natural history, had earlier appeared  in New Yorker. Cuppy was a book reviewer for the old New York Herald-Tribune – the column was published under the title 'Mystery and Adventure.' He also wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, but was fired after a three-week trial stint from his job as a New York Post columnit because his editor felt that his pieces were too obscure for the readers. When New Yorker returned his article on Thomas Blanket, he stopped writing for the magazine.

True to his reclusive nature, Cuppy never married. Though he refused to do anything remotely social, he co-hosted in 1933 with the actress Jeanne Owen, who became a prominent fixture of the New York food scene, a NBC radio show, Just Relax, about  his hermit life, pets, and historical figures. One of his closest fiends was Isabel Parsons, a columnist at the Herald Tribune. They quarreled in the 1940s and never spoke to each other again.

In Greenwich Village Cuppy had a city apartment, where he did his writing at night. "I do not travel. I am not much of an extrovert, and I'm not much interested in extroverted objects. I do not care for the 'ideas' of novelists. Novels are wonderful, of course, but I prefer newspapers." ('Cuppy, Will(iam Jacob),' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 1, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens, 1996, p. 650)  Overcoming his shyness Cuppy performed monologues several weeks at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, but after a disastrous  evening, when he got too nervous, he gave up public appearances and wrote an article entitled 'My Careers and What Happened to Them.'

Will Cuppy died on on September 19, in 1949. Suffering from depression and declaining health, and upon learning that he was threatened with eviction from his West 11th Street apartment, he had taken about one and half weeks before an overdose of sleeping pills. Cuppy was buried in Auburn's Evergreen Cemetery next to his mother. In mid-1980s Cuppy's readers placed a new headstone for his grave, to honor the memory of the writer.

In 2003 a nomenclature committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) honored Cuppy by naming an asteroid after him. "15017 Cuppy," originally discovered by the astronomer Edward Bowell, is in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. The name was suggested by Mr. Michael Walter from Auburn; Edward Bowell welcomed the idea and revealed in his reply that he was also a fan of Cuppy's writings.

Cuppy's The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950), edited by his friend Fred Feldkamp and published posthumously, spent four months on the New York Times best-seller list. This well planned and researched book went through the great historical figures from ancient Egypt to Queen Victoria. "It's the history book of the year," the CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow concluded of the work. ('Afterword' by Thomas Maeder, in The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy, 2019, p. 213) Feldkamp also edited How to Get from January to December (1951). Cuppy's quotations have appeared in several anthologies, among others in The Wordsworth Dictionary of Quotations, and his satirical works are still in print. Both creationists and evolutionists have found Cuppy's essays invaluable source of witty remarks, such as: "The Age of Reptiles ended because it had gone on long enough and it was all mistake in the first place." (How to Become Extinct by Will Cuppy, illustrated by William Steig, 2008, p. 104; originally published in 1941)

 For further reading: Will Cuppy, American Satirist: a Biography by Wes D. Gehring; foreword by Mark H. Massé (2013); 'Cuppy, Will(iam Jacob),' in World Authors 1900-1950, Volume 1, edited by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); 'Afterword' by Thomas Maeder, in The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy (1984); 'Will Cuppy' by Sandra Lieb, in Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Humorists 1800-1950, Vol. 11, Part 1, ed. by Stanley Trachtenberg (1982); The American Humorist by N.W. Yeats (1964) - See also: Charles Nordhoff - Will Cuppy in Finnish: Will Cuppyn aforismeihin voi tutustua mm. Hannu Tarmion toimittamassa teoksessa Elämänviisauden kirja (1986). "Aristoteles oli kuuluisa siitä, että hän tiesi kaiken. Hän opetti että aivojen tarkoitus on viilentää verta ja että niillä ei ole roolia ajatustyössä. Tämä pätee kuitenkin vain tiettyihin henkilöihin."

Selected works:

  • Maroon Tales: University of Chicago Stories, 1910
  • How to Be a Hermit; or, Bachelor Keeps House, 1929
  • How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, 1931 (illustrated by  Jacks; with an introduction by P.G. Wodehouse, 1934)
  • Garden Rubbish & Other Country Bumps [by] W. C. Sellar & R. J. Yeatman, 1937 (with footnotes by Will Cuppy)
  • The Great Bustard and Other People, 1941 (containing: How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes and How to Become Extinct, illustrated by Jacks and William Steig)
  • How to Become Extinct, 1941 (illustrated by William Steig)
  • World's Great Detective Stories: American and English Masterpieces, 1943 (dited, with an introduction by Will Cuppy)
  • World's Great Mystery Stories: American and English Masterpieces, 1943 (edited with an introduction, by Will Cuppy)
  • Murder without Tears: An Anthology of Crime, 1946  (edited by Will Cuppy)
  • How to Attract the Wombat, 1949 (with illust. by Ed Nofziger)
  • The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, 1950 (edited by F. Feldkamp, drawings by William Steig; with an afterword by Thomas Maeder, 1984)
  • How to Get from January to December, 1951 (edited by F. Feldkamp, drawings by John Ruge)  

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