Will Cuppy

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Will Cuppy

Will Cuppy, born William Jacob Cuppy (August 23, 1884 - September 19, 1949) in Auburn, Indiana, was an American humorist and journalist known for his satirical books about nature and historical figures. His father, Thomas Jefferson Cuppy (1844-1912), was at different times a grain dealer, a seller of farm implements and a lumber buyer for the Eel River branch of the Wabash Railroad. His mother, Frances Stahl Cuppy (1855-1927), was a seamstress and worked in a small shop located next to the family home. Young Cuppy spent summers at a farm belonging to his grandmother, Sarah Collins Cuppy (1813-1900), on the banks of the Eel River near South Whitley, Indiana. He later said that this was where he acquired his early knowledge of the natural world that he satirized in his writings.

Cuppy graduated from Auburn High School in 1902 and went on to the University of Chicago, where he received a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1907. As an undergraduate, he acted in amateur theater and worked as campus reporter for several Chicago newspapers, notably the Record-Herald and the Daily News. He lingered at Chicago seven more years as a graduate student in English literature, not showing much interest in his studies, but producing in 1910 his first book, Maroon Tales, a collection of short stories about university life. In 1914 he pulled together a short master's thesis, took his degree and left for New York to seek a career in journalism.

After stateside service in World War I as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Motor Transport Corps, Cuppy began contributing book reviews to the New York Herald Tribune where his college friend Burton Rascoe (1892-1957) was literary editor. In 1926 he began writing a weekly "Mystery and Adventure" column for the paper that continued until his death 23 years later, reviewing a career total of more than 4000 titles.

Seeking refuge from city noise and hay fever, Cuppy "hermited" from 1921 to 1929 in a shack on Jones Island, just off Long Island's south shore. The literary result of Cuppy's seaside exile was How to be a Hermit, a humorous look at home economics that went through six printings in four months when it appeared in 1929. The book's subtitle, A Bachelor Keeps House, reflects the fact that Cuppy never married.

Encroachment by the new Jones Beach State Park forced Cuppy to abandon full-time residence on the island and return to New York's noise and soot. A special dispensation from New York's parks czar Robert Moses (1888-1981) let Cuppy keep his shack, to which Cuppy made regular visits until the end of his life.

In a Greenwich Village apartment, Cuppy continued to turn out magazine articles and books, always working from notes jotted on 3x5-inch index cards. Cuppy would amass hundreds of cards even for a short article. His friend and literary executor Fred Feldkamp (1914-1981) reported that Cuppy sometimes read more than 25 thick books on a subject before he wrote a single word about it.

Writing funny but factual magazine articles was Cuppy's real talent. He enjoyed a brief success in 1933 with a humorous talk show on NBC radio, but he flopped on the lecture circuit. Basically shy and introverted, Cuppy was happiest when he was rummaging through scholarly journals prizing out facts to copy out on his note cards.

Many of Cuppy's articles for The New Yorker and other magazines later became books: How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931); and How to Become Extinct (1941). Cuppy also edited three collections of mystery stories: World's Great Mystery Stories (1943); World's Great Detective Stories (1943); and Murder Without Tears (1946). His last animal book, How to Attract the Wombat, appeared two months after his death in 1949.

Cuppy's best-known work, a satire on history called The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, was unfinished when he died. It was completed by Fred Feldkamp, who sifted through nearly 15,000 of Cuppy's carefully-filed note cards to get the book into print within a year of his friend's death. Feldkamp also edited a second posthumous volume, a comic almanac titled How to Get from January to December that appeared in 1951.

Cuppy's last years were marked by poor physical health and increasing depression. Threatened with eviction from his apartment, he took an overdose of sleeping pills and died September 19, 1949, at St. Vincent's Hospital. Cuppy's cremated remains were returned to his hometown and buried in a grave next to his mother's in Evergreen Cemetery. His grave was unmarked until 1985 when local donors purchased a granite headstone with the inscription, "American Humorist." In 2003 Cuppy received another memorial when a committee of the International Astronomical Union approved the name "15017 Cuppy" for an asteroid.

Although Cuppy was reclusive and cultivated the image of a curmudgeon, he had many friends in New York's literary circles. One of them was the poet William Rose Benét (1886-1950), who penned this remembrance of him:

"He had the haunted look of the true humorist. All his friends loved him."

Selected Bibliography

  • Books
    • (1951) How to Get from January to December, New York: Holt. Edited by Fred Feldkamp. Illustrations by John Ruge.
    • (1950) The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, New York: Holt. Edited by Fred Feldkamp. Illustrations by William Steig.
    • (1949) How to Attract the Wombat, New York: Rinehart.
    • (1944) The Great Bustard and Other People (containing How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes and How to Become Extinct), New York : Murray Hill Books.
    • (1941) How to Become Extinct, New York: Farrar and Rinehart. Illustrations by William Steig.
    • (1931) How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes, New York: Horace Liveright, Inc. Introduction by P. G. Wodehouse. Illustrations by "Jacks."
    • (1929) How to Be a Hermit, New York: Horace Liveright.
    • (1910) Maroon Tales, Chicago: Forbes & Co..

  • Books, edited
    • (1946) Murder Without Tears: An Anthology of Crime, New York: Sheridan House.
    • (1943) World's Great Detective Stories: American and English Masterpieces, New York, Cleveland: World.
    • (1943) World's Great Mystery Stories: American and English Masterpieces, New York, Cleveland: World.

  • Book, contributed footnotes

  • Book containing articles by Will Cuppy
    • (1948) The Home Book of Laughter, May Lamberton Becker (ed.), New York: Dodd, Mead.

  • M.A. thesis completed at the University of Chicago
    • (1914) The Elizabethan Conception of Prose Style.

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