While Rome Burns

The Drink


The town crier proclaims that half a dozen of these will improve your fiddling, help you remember the wisecracks of Dorothy Parker, and may even lead you to retelling the story of Christmas on the front.


-from So Red the Nose

RomeBurnsWe’ve discussed before how fortuitous it is that I started this blog just as New England rums were making an 80-years-delayed comeback, and that goes double for Medford rum, which – despite its immense popularity in the 18th Century – I had a hell of a time tracking down in the 21st. The GrandTen rep I spoke to on the phone claimed they only sell a few thousand bottles a year. So thanks so much to my East Coast contact* for hunting some down for me in Boston.

And it was completely worth the effort. These New England rums just add a whole new, wonderful dimension to something I love already. Add to that the deliciously interesting choice of maple syrup, and we have the most New Englandy drink in the whole series. However, if you’re not close enough to Massachusetts to buy a bottle, you can always substitute the more popular cocktail our author inspired.

The Book


By the time you have reached the middle years, it may well be that people dearer to you than anyone can ever be again will already be ashes scattered to the winds.

– from While Room Burns

alexander-woollcott-06-otrcat.comWhile Rome Burns. I can’t think of a more apt title for this lighthearted collection by a journalist veteran of the first World War, published during that small eye of the storm before the next one. Just substitute bitchy reviews of famous actresses for fiddling.

Author Alexander Woollcott was a newspaper columnist and radio personality, most known for his witty, biting, and heavily sarcastic theater reviews. He was a sort of proto-Egbert: entertainer, celebrity, and critic. While Rome Burns was a compilation of the then-middle-aged writer’s body of work.

At one time it was named one of the “best loved books of the twentieth century,” but for the modern reader it’s most valuable as an absolute treasure trove of forgotten pop culture: reviews of performances by actors who retired just before the age of film, ostentatious name dropping of celebrities you both have and have not heard of, travel writing by an American in Japan before the war and the Soviet Union before the curtain fell, and — my favorite — recountings of all the gruesome details of various trials-of-the-century (for the previous two centuries, that is). Probably the only boring part was his reviews of forgotten, out-of-print books and… oh God what am I even doing with my life.

woolcott[1]Anyway from the outside, this book looks like a dull collection of essays from a long-forgotten journalist. Which it is. But it’s that very journalist who makes this book something worthwhile.

Alexander Woollcott may not be a name you recognize, but, as a uniquely obnoxious personality always on the outskirts of fame, he had this strange influence over the pop culture of the time, which, in turn, trickles down to our own. In addition to cocktails, he was the inspiration for play and movie characters, Marx brothers’ progeny, and Merrie Melody parodies. He got around in the way only a man who can’t get it up has time for.**

Forgotten Classic or Better Left in the Past?


The many fictional tributes to Alexander Wollcott

I understand completely why this book is not exactly flying off the shelves in 2017, but I still have to give it a positive review. Woollcott just has such a funny and entertaining writing style, even if the dated nature of the material meant I had to use Google to get the joke most of the time.

I don’t recommend reading it cover to cover like I did, but I can see a certain kind of person dipping in and out, skipping around to whatever articles interest them. I imagine Woollcott’s ideal reader to be much like the man himself: aggressively boring and completely unapologetic about it.

It’s strange to say about someone whose main characteristic was a very dry wit, monotone voice, and snotty pretentiousness, but the man just had this force of personality. I mean, what does it say about a person that they inspired a noir murder mystery, a Christmas comedy, and two Warner Bros cartoons? And yet, after having immersed myself in his writing, I immediately recognized his character in every single iteration. (And you bet your ass I watched old movies and recorded it as a writing day.)

Plus, I think the ultimate purpose of While Rome Burns, written by this middle-aged man who hated the new-fangled talkies, is to make sure all the great talent and mediocre talent and even no-talent of his youth would not be forgotten. And if there’s one thing us millennials should be able to relate to, it’s holding on to pop culture ephemera.

Oh, and speaking of those Warner Bros cartoons, guess what book is referenced in the one called “Have You Got Any Castles?”?


*AKA, Grandpa

** mumps. Vaccinate your kids, folks.

While Rome Burns appears to be mostly out of print, but is abundantly available in used form

Next time: Hey, remember up top I mentioned murder trials of the century Alexander Woollcott wrote about? Well, one of them forms the basis of our next literary adventure. True crime novel, ahoy!



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