After the Party

If you were looking for a young man with a great literary life in front of him in 1928, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a better candidate than 29-year-old Joseph Moncure March. His narrative in verse The Wild Party, a tale of Manhattan hedonism and the tragic hipsters who indulge in it, had been published that spring in a limited edition, achieving an immediate following and brisk sales. (A musical adaptation will open this month at the Fitzgerald Theater). The book even got banned briefly in Boston, bringing March something every writer craves—a prominent but not damaging censorship battle.

He was the scion of one of America’s most prominent families: His uncle, General Peyton Conway March, had been chief of staff of the U.S. Army in World War I, his grandfather was the eminent philologist Francis Andrew March, and according to one genealogy he was the grandnephew of Moncure Daniel Conway, a great abolitionist and freethinker. (Various Conways, Marches, and Peytons figure in American history back to colonial times.) He was an alumnus of Lawrenceville Prep and Amherst College, where he had been a protégé of Robert Frost, and had served courageously in World War I. He held a prominent job on the New York Post‘s literary supplement, and had recently married the New York society girl Sue Wise. Perhaps the only stain on March’s record (besides a very brief early marriage) was a 1925 stint as managing editor of the nascent New Yorker magazine, where he’d become one of the many victims of the notoriously volatile Harold Ross—according to his successor Ralph Ingersoll, March on his last day at the magazine “was actually removed from the office by little men in white coats.” Even here, however, March had achieved some success: According to several sources he was responsible for putting the magazine’s “Talk of the Town” section into its final brief-items format.

Late in 1928, March followed The Wild Party with another versified narrative, The Set-Up, about racism and corruption in the boxing game. It met with even greater success, made the New York Times bestseller list, and seemingly cemented March’s reputation as a writer to watch. In his own description, March had nothing but contempt for the “respectable oldsters” who saw in him and his cohorts “a complete breakdown of the National Moral Fibre… We were The Lost Generation, they told us, and we couldn’t have cared less.”

But the oldsters were right. If the promise of the 1920s turned out to be false for many Americans, there was a special default in store for Joe March. By 1928, he had already achieved all the success he was due; through the next half-century he would endure financial hardships, multiple indignities and a checkered writing career. He never recaptured the glory of The Wild Party.

His bumpy career, however, took March far and wide, into the highest and lowest places of American literary and cultural life. Much of his work has been lost, miscredited, or ignored; he has never been the subject of a biography, rarely shows up in anthologies, and is remembered by few. But it’s no stretch to say that if you paid any attention to twentieth century American culture, you’re already a fan of Joseph Moncure March.

“Looking back at myself, I’m amazed at how deceptively elegant I was, ” March wrote of his 1920s self in A Certain Wildness. In this 20,000-word reminiscence of composing The Wild Party and The Set-Up—a work that ranks among the best short literary memoirs—March notes that he could usually be found “rubbing elbows with prostitutes and gangsters and those wicked people from Show Business, all of whom recognize me as a kindred spirit.” He composed his signature work in pencil, sitting in a dark apartment, over three months of eight-to-ten-hour days. Surrounding that work was an idyll of jazz age swells, flamboyant artistes, and raucous parties culminating in blackouts, police raids, or both. This is the milieu he captured brilliantly in The Wild Party, wherein a Vaudeville comedian and his loose girlfriend throw a bash peopled by singers, actors, artists, boxers, goons, and hookers, of every gender and sexual persuasion. By the time the poem reaches its rhythmic, staccato end (“The door sprang open/And the cops rushed in”), one main character is dead and another is headed to jail. Not surprisingly, March explained, “The Wild Party caused a stir out of all proportion to the size of its limited edition.”

In 1929, March brought out a limited edition of Fifteen Lyrics , a sheaf of fragile one-pagers that demonstrate his mastery of Frost’s conversational style and wry imagery. Percy Hutchison’s New York Times review called March “a writer of striking originality.” But these were not works to bring large fortunes, and by the end of the year, Joe March had joined a budding American tradition: New York writers making their way to Hollywood to ruin promising careers. Landing in Los Angeles under contract to MGM, March was promptly loaned out for several pictures—among them the British World War I drama Journey’s End and, more famously, the Howard Hughes classic Hell’s Angels.

March’s work in turning the silent Hell’s Angels into a talkie is consistently underrated. Martin Scorsese’s Hughes biopic The Aviator omits his role entirely; movie buffs, understandably thrilled by the movie’s aerial spectacle, deplore the dramatic sequences as a campy distraction. But the Hell’s Angels dialogue credit means, among other things, that March originated Jean Harlow’s career-making line “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” Equally impressive was his work in turning ad-libbed lip movements in the silent version’s Zeppelin sequence into something approaching coherent dialogue in German; in fact, it was March who, after the silent version had been scrapped, crafted an entirely new story that integrated leftover footage with new scenes.The movie also got him in some serious hot water. Hughes sued Warner Brothers for plagiarizing from the Hell’s Angels script for its own aerial spectacular The Dawn Patrol (written by John Monk Saunders, a disturbed, alcoholic specialist in pilot pictures now best remembered as the first husband of King Kong star Fay Wray). With Hughes’ approval, and with an eye toward providing evidence for the lawsuit, March arranged through a private detective to “borrow” the Dawn Patrol script from a Warner secretary. The woman was setting him up, and March was arrested for theft of Warner property.

As he slept in his jail cell, Joe March was approached by a guard demanding to know the value of the stolen script, ostensibly so that the judge could set bail.

“I didn’t steal any script, ” March said, “and you can tell the judge if Johnny Saunders wrote it, it isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

The charges were eventually dropped, and possibly as a reward for not implicating his boss in the theft, March was asked to look after Hughes’ Caddo Pictures studio during one of the erratic tycoon’s months-long disappearances. At the time, MGM was also urging him to come back under a considerably more generous contract, but March, attracted by the lawless, improvisational atmosphere at Caddo, stuck with Hughes, a decision he would come to regret. (Hell’s Angels eventually opened to a mixed reception; The Da
wn Patrol
‘s script won an Oscar.)

When Hughes’ movie operation slowed to a crawl, March signed a lucrative contract with Paramount, and his credits there, several for films starring queen of the weepies Sylvia Sidney, suggest what an interesting career even an unsuccessful screenwriter could have. Among his efforts are an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhardt, several urban tough-guy pictures, and a version of Madame Butterfly with Sidney as Cho-Cho San and a 28-year-old Cary Grant as Lieutenant Pinkerton. (Incredibly, this last film is unavailable in either VHS or DVD.)

Meanwhile, March’s domestic life had gone sour. “Gee, I might as well have popped myself off as got married like this!” says the wife in “Evening At Home, ” a Beckettesque short story of marital dissatisfaction and inanition he published in Cosmopolitan around this time. It’s not clear he was referencing his life with Sue Wise, but March later admitted he was “full of Sturm and Drang in those days.” In a 1931 letter, we find Dashiell Hammett noting: “I saw Joe March with the blonde Peggy Prior.” In love, Joe turned out to be third-time lucky; Peggy Prior, a Pathé screenwriter, would stick with him through thick and (mostly) thin, until his death in 1977. In early 1932, he divorced Sue Wise and married Peggy.

Peggy’s first husband, the character actor Theodore Von Eltz, fought for custody of their two children, eight-year-old Lori and six-year-old Ted. In a publicized court battle, The Wild Party, with its gleefully immoral depiction of drunkenness, sexual high jinx, and murder, was introduced as evidence that Joe was an unfit guardian. While the case dragged through the courts, the kids were put in foster care, and Joe, dismayed at the ratty home they were living in and flush with Paramount cash, bought the foster parents a better house. They stayed there for nearly a year, hoping to move back with their mother; Lori March Williams recalls that one day, when the case was winding down in Peggy and Joe’s favor, she and her brother stood outside the foster home with a garden hose, ready to spray their father if he showed up to grab them.

The family was united just in time for Joe’s screenwriting career to hit the skids. It’s not clear what defeated him in the movie business. Despite The Wild Party‘s uncanny depiction of the stages of drunkenness, Lori insists he was not a big drinker. Nor were his instincts excessively arty: The Wild Party is a familiar story of passion, jealousy and show business in the Pagliacci mode; The Set-Up belongs to a popular tradition of stories about fixed fights and struggling boxers. Perhaps Joe was hamstrung by what he himself identified as a poet’s excessive sensitivity. Here’s how he depicted the screenwriting racket in The New York Times Magazine a few years later:

“Few writers are left alone to write for very long at a time. They are expected to turn in something on paper every few days, and if this does not happen the producer begins a routine known as ‘giving the writer the needle.’…Harassed in this subtle way, a writer often defeats the producer’s purpose by putting down anything he can think of, even if it is only the days of the week. He writes against time; in desperation; ‘from hunger, ‘ as the saying goes. As a result, the average creative effort is fairly low.”

Low enough, as it turned out, that sometime in the mid-thirties, Paramount fired him—by Lori’s recollection, just before Christmas and just after Joe had blown a few weeks’ pay on presents. From the heights of MGM and Paramount, he drifted downward to Republic, a low-grade studio where his most prominent project was Three Faces West , an ungainly blend of modern western, John Wayne vehicle, and left-wing anti-fascist propaganda piece. (“Most of it was still being written by Joseph Moncure March while we shot, ” director Bernard Vorhaus later recalled, “which was a bloody nuisance.”) Hard up for money, the family moved constantly. If you want to understand what drove Joe March to leave the movie business and return to New York in 1940, check out his last credited film, Lone Star Raiders, one of 51 entries in Republic’s “Three Mesquiteers” series and a film that demonstrates why Variety took to calling westerns “oaters.” A forgettable and forgotten programmer, Raiders put an undistinguished period on a career March later described merely as “disheartening.”

Back in New York, Joe and Peggy struggled to make ends meet with a handful of stories for the Times Magazine—most of them score-settling exposés about the movie business. Within a few months the promising jazz age writer had taken a job as a sheet metal worker in a Groton, Connecticut submarine shipyard. While the move appears to have been driven by financial need, Lori March Williams says there was an element of noblesse oblige in the 41-year-old poet’s decision to put his back into some manual labor. “This was during the war, ” she recalls, “and he felt it was important for the war effort.”

If so, this wouldn’t be out of character. In 1918, fresh from a minor scandal involving a satirical newspaper he’d published at Amherst, March had taken a leave from school and, eschewing his family connection to the top general in the American army, enlisted as a buck private. “Joe March could have had a commission more easily than almost anybody in the U.S.A., ” a classmate later recalled. “Joe enlisted as a private and served the whole war in an infantry unit in France from which few came home alive.” In his own recollection of how the other guys in his unit figured out his family connection and asked why he hadn’t used it, March downplayed his nobility and highlighted his foolishness: “I tried to explain that my family regarded nepotism with disfavor, ” he wrote, “and that everyone was expected to make it on his own; but these specious arguments left them cold. They were realists, and had no patience with anyone who did not take advantage of his advantages. From then on, they regarded me with a certain amount of hostility and contempt, and I was sorry the incident had occurred.”

In any event, March appears to have done well in his new job, and soon had become the manager of a sheet metal equipment manufacturing plant. He would elegize the power and drama of American industrial might in “Shipyard Symphony, ” a 1943 article for the Times Magazine. This article, with its boosterish prose-poetry, hinted at things to come. In that same year, he began writing and producing documentaries for the Office of War Information, launching the final stage of his career—as a writer of advertising and industrial films.

One of the realities of distribution is that even a moderately successful advertisement gets seen by a larger audience than any work of creative art. Thus, Joseph Moncure March’s films for the advertising giant MPO Productions, Inc. may well be his best-known works. From the mid-forties until 1964, he wrote and produced several dozen films for the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, Ford Motor Co., Monsanto, American Airlines, General Motors—all the giants of the Populuxe epoch. Many of these can be found in the Rick Prelinger archive of industrial films, and two inparticular— Design For Dreaming and A Touch of Magic , both Technicolor spots for the General Motors Motorama starring industrial films icon Thelma “Tad” Tadlock— have become favorites among the sort of ironists who think it’s the height of wit to mock the styles and affectations of a half-century ago. One couplet from Design, “Girls don’t go to Motoramas dressed in a pair of pink pajamas, ” has been picked up by
fans as a tagline for all that was corny and square in the fifties. Do these sneering hipsters realize that the author of Design For Dreaming was once a sneering hipster like themselves? Both films have a Powell/Pressburger color and theatricality that make them hypnotic to watch even now; if the lyrics don’t indicate a poet at the height of his powers, they do show that March’s knack for catchy rhymes never deserted him.

It’s enough to make you suspect March derived some secret gratification from this creative work for hire, but according to Lori March Williams he hated every minute of his time in industrial films. “He was my beloved stepfather, ” she says, “and he was truly a humanist and an idealist, not at all the type of person you might think from reading The Wild Party. But he was not a happy man. He had a certain bitterness about how his career had gone, and he became kind of dark.”

His screenwriting career was now well over, but Hollywood still had a few humiliations in store. In 1947, March sold the movie rights to The Set-Up and the poem was made into a Robert Wise picture for RKO. “I was out in Hollywood at the time, ” he wrote, “and tried to get to work on the screenplay, but they didn’t want me around.” Nor did they want much of the story of The Set-Up. When the movie was done, the hero, “Pansy Jones, ” a black middleweight who gets railroaded out of a promising career because of his race, had become “Stoker Thompson, ” played by the white actor Robert Ryan. According to Joe, he didn’t find this out until he and Peggy had scraped together enough money for balcony seats at the movie’s New York premier. In a final insult, The Set-Up turned out to be a film noir masterpiece, with a great Ryan performance and the most riveting boxing sequence ever achieved in a dramatic film.

All this time, March continued to write much and publish little. The large collection of Joseph Moncure March papers at the Amherst College Library contains dozens of prose works and poems, lyrics, non-fiction pieces, spec screenplays, and almost as many rejection letters. The highlight of the collection, according to archivist Barbara Trippel Simmons, is Hollywood Idyll, a long retrospective of the 1930s film industry that March tried unsuccessfully to sell over the years.

But March managed to put one more work into book form. In 1968, Bond Wheelright brought out an illustrated edition of the The Wild Party and The Set-Up, and the author kicked in his memoir A Certain Wildness. The book received a few good notices, but the reprint is notable mainly for an act of bowdlerization by the author himself. Uncomfortable with some Jewish caricatures in both works, March rewrote The Wild Party and, much more substantially, The Set-Up, editing out the Jewish stereotypes and in the process eliminating the ethnic markers for all the other characters (except Pansy Jones himself). History has looked on these changes with no favor: The novelist James T. Farrell called the revisions “in fact…a concession to anti-Semitism” that “weakened a fine and original work.” When Art Spiegelman brought out his 1994 reprint of The Wild Party, he threw out the revisions and went back to the original text.

In 1964, Joe retired, and he and Peggy moved into a family house in northern Massachusetts; but they were too old, frail and poor to handle living in a large house. Lori, now married and working as a soap opera actress, moved them across the country to a small house in Laurel Canyon, and Joe occasionally sold magazine pieces, without much improvement in his financial condition. “Joe wasn’t a very good businessman, ” Lori March Williams recalls, “He wasn’t really able capitalize on his successes, and he got used.”

He did live long enough to see his work rediscovered again, and again changed almost beyond recognition. In 1975 Ismail Merchant and James Ivory made a movie version of The Wild Party for Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures. The movie transports the action from a New York apartment to a Hollywood mansion, conflates March’s story with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, and casts Raquel Welch and James Coco in the leads. The spectacle of Raquel Welch in the Merchant/Ivory universe, not to mention of exploitation king Arkoff making a prestige picture, is, predictably, macabre.

“It put things out of whack when Raquel Welch came in, ” says Walter Marks, who wrote the film’s music and screenplay. “She was trying to get past her image as a sex object and wasn’t comfortable with the material. AIP was thinking it could be a big commercial picture, which it was never going to be. So it was the kind of thing we were glad to have done, although it wasn’t everything we’d hoped it would be.”

When Joseph Moncure March died, a few months short of his seventy-eighth birthday, The New York Times published a 280-word obituary. James T. Farrell came through with a much longer appreciation a few months later. And that was about it. Having been an integral figure in the histories of The New Yorker, of jazz age literature, of early talking pictures, and of advertising, he is barely remembered, and would be completely forgotten if not for the many rebirths The Wild Party has had over the years.

Which raises the question of why The Wild Party continues to attract new readers and new adaptations. “I don’t know why it continues to be revived, ” says Walter Marks, “because it ain’t all that great. I mean, it’s very good, but it’s kitschy and melodramatic. I wouldn’t call it a great work of literature. It attracted me because it has this kind of rhythm to the language, and a lot of cross-rhythms. It’s like a jazz improv, which is appealing across time.”

The question “Is it poetry?” has dogged The Wild Party since its first publication. (The best answer may be William S. Burroughs’: “Of course it’s poetry. It rhymes.”) But whatever else The Wild Party is, it is sui generis. Rendered as a prose narrative, it would be banal; as poetry, despite some precise imagery, it doesn’t offer abundant language or compression of thought; strictly as a chronicle of jazz age lingo and characters, it’s pretty thin—nothing seems quainter or softer-boiled than the hard-boiled slang of a bygone era. But taking all these elements together, The Wild Party is a spectacular performance. The verse form heightens the artificiality of the language and plot, and the quick characterizations push the narrative along at such a rapid clip that only a drip would linger for long over the uses or misuses of the language. If there is a better rendering of the geography of an apartment party, of how drunks move around and watch each other in a tight set of rooms, I’ve never seen it.

It’s also one of the great studies in the lost art of prosody, in how to achieve metrical effects. The underlying shape of the poem, despite some deceptively broken-up lines, is simple tetrameter, the verse form of traditional songs. But March continually fools the ear, inserting a ternary foot where you’d expect to find two duple beats, a series of accented syllables where there should be iambs, internal rhymes, near-rhymes, doggerel digressions, one-foot and even one-syllable lines that trip up the rhythmic flow. Here is a description of the poem’s leading man:

Oh yes—Burrs was a charming fellow:
Brutal with women, and proportionately yellow.
Once he had been forced into a marriage.
Unlucky girl!
She had a miscarriage
Two days later. Possibly due
To the fact that Burrs beat her with the heel of a shoe
Till her lips went blue.
For a week her brother had great fun
Looking for
Burrs with a snub-nosed gun:
At the end of which time, she began to recover;
And Burrs having vanished, the thing blew over.
Just a sample,
For example:
One is probably ample.

In A Certain Wildness, March notes that he added a song lyric to the middle of the poem at the request of his publisher, who wanted to “show that sex wasn’t the only thing I was interested in, ” but the effect of inserting a strict form in the poem is like a flourish, a signal that The Wild Party is not just loose verse but a work by a poet who knew exactly what he was doing.

On that note, it may be that Joseph Moncure March’s tough literary life is actually the fulfillment of every writer’s dream. He is now known only through his published works, with no carping critics subjecting him to unkind reassessments, no greedy or vengeful kids peddling tales of parental abuse, and—with one exception, which you are now reading—no busybody biographers trying to make sense of his life and works.

If Joe March is forgotten, he’s not gone. Spiegelman’s 1994 illustrated edition of The Wild Party received glowing notices. In 2000, two different musical adaptations opened at the same time in New York—one by Michael John LaChiusa at the Joseph Papp Theater and another by Andrew Lippa at the Manhattan Theater Club. Though neither show was a breakout hit, Lippa’s version attracted a cult following and issued a popular original cast recording .This version (only partly faithful to the original poem) will be playing in St. Paul this month and next. It’s a fitting tribute to a poet who in twentieth-century America was everywhere present and nowhere acknowledged, who showed through a tough and often unrewarding career that the most you can hope for out of life is one great party.