|John O'Hara at the time of his first success as a novelist at the age of 29.
John O’Hara was one of those mid-century American novelists who soared to fame and acclaim. But like a supernova his fame seems to have burnt out. In his day he was as controversial as he was famous. His defenders like John Updike compared him to Chekhov and wag Fran Lebowitz tagged him “The real F. Scott Fitzgerald.” But many critics dismissed him as a hack turning out sensationalized pot boilers for a low brow audience. O’Hara himself said simply, “Being a cheap, ordinary guy, I have an instinct for what an ordinary guy likes.”
Of course O’Hara never really considered himself either cheap or ordinary. He spent a life time chaffing against the social slights suffered as an outsider on the edge of social respectability and resenting that his father never sent him to Yale. All of this became grist for his short stories and novels, but also earned him a well-deserved reputation as a needy social climber.
O’Hara was born in Pottsville, Pennsylvania on January 31, 1905. The town, 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia, was in the heart of the state’s coal country on the banks of the Schuylkill River. The river also provided power for a textile industry that included the Phillips Van Heusen Company of shirt fame. The mines and textile mills generated enough local nabobs to populate mansions in a swanky part of the otherwise grimy city. O’Hara’s physician father grew rich enough to live there. But the O’Hara’s, Irish Catholics, were excluded from polite society tightly guarded by a WASP elite. Both father and son bitterly resented it.
John’s father imbued him with the idea that if he went to Yale, it would be the ticket to respectability and acceptance both yearned for. In pursuit of that dream his father had high academic expectations for his son and little tolerance for not meeting them. He was sent to Niagara Prep in Lewiston, New York where he was named class poet but was otherwise a lackluster student. To teach the boy a lesson of what life would be like without college, his dad sent him to work in the steel mills over summer breaks. John hated the humiliation even more than the back breaking labor.
His disappointed father felt he had not earned the right to attend Yale and refused to send him. Moreover when the elder man died shortly after John’s graduation and he left no provision in his will for his education. It was a bitter blow from which he literally never recovered, spending the rest of his life pining for Yale and all it could have brought him.
Rather than attend a lesser school which he might be able to work his way through, O’Hara went to work as a reporter on the local Pottstown paper. Among his assignments was covering the Pottsville Maroons, the town’s short-lived entry into the infant National Football League.
But he soon threw even that up, going, as he described it, “on the bum. I traveled out west, worked on a steamer, took a job in an amusement park.” Great experience for a writer, but for him a constant reminder that he had been “cheated” of a better life.
Eventually O’Hara drifted to New York City determined to become a writer. He took a cheap room and began writing. He supported himself with book and film reviews while concentrating on short stories. In 1928 the first of those stories appeared in the still young New Yorker. He would soon become a fixture in its pages, publishing more than 200 stories in the magazine over the next decades. The stories featured a keen eye for the details of life and sharp, believable dialogue. They were often set in a thinly veiled version of Pottsville named Gibbsville and chronicled the lives and foibles of both the local elite and those who aspired to crash their party.
The stories were highly regarded and established O’Hara’s reputation. They were even said to have established the New Yorker style of short story. Updike and other future contributors like Saul Bellow were directly in his debt.
In 1934 O’Hara published his first novel, Appointment in Samarra which he had been working on for years. The novel describes how, over the course of three days, Julian English, the owner of the Gibbsville Cadillac dealership and a younger member of the WASP social clique, destroys himself with a series of impulsive acts, culminating in suicide. O’Hara never gives any obvious cause or explanation for his behavior, which is apparently predestined by his character. The novel was a critical—mostly—and popular success. No less than Ernest Hemingway enthused, “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra.” On the other hand Sinclair Lewis castigated the book as vulgar for it oblique but frank sexual episodes.
What is left of O’Hara’s literary reputation today rests on the short stories and this first novel. In 1998, long after the literary establishment had turned on O’Hara, Modern Library ranked Appointment in Samarra 22nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. As a result at least one critic said its placement on the list “was used to ridicule the entire project.” Harsh.
|Heady days at the Stork Club in New York O'Hara, left, with Ernest Hemingway and club owner Sherman Billinsgley.
If contemporary critics thought O’Hara’s first book was vulgar, they hadn’t seen anything yet. BUtterfield 8 was based on a real life juicy scandal of speakeasy days when the dead body of a young woman named Starr Faithfull was found drown on Long Beach in Long Island. She was shown to be a goodtime girl of easy virtue who drank and partied too much. Her back story even included a childhood molestation by a former mayor of Boston. O’Hara made her Gloria Wandrous and put her in a mutually destructive an obsessive relationship with—you guessed it—a wealthy WASP. A classic O’Hara story, according to one reviewer, in which he “He plumbs the fault lines of society where the slumming rich meet with the aspiring poor.” Of course the book had plenty of juicy sex.
It is best known now for the 1960 film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey which took considerable liberties from the book—including resetting it in contemporary New York. But like the novel, it sizzled with sex and won Taylor an Academy Award as Best Actress.
In 1940 O’Hara stitched together a popular series of stories that he ran in the New Yorker about a second rate nightclub entertainer in Chicago, a certified heel and louse, with big ambitions. Written in the form a series of letters from Joey to his much more successful pal Ted, Pal Joey was more character study than story.
|The Playbill for the 1940 Broadway production of Pal Joey, a triumph for O'Hara and the show that catapulted Gene Kelley to stardom.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart inspired by the success of Porgy and Bess, which was based on a gritty novel, were on the lookout for darker, more serious material when they came on O’Hara’s book. They enlisted the author to write the script for a new kind of musical. The show Pal Joey opened to acclaim in 1940, just months after the book hit the stores with Gene Kelly in a star making turn in the lead. The show featured two great American standards, If They Ask Me, I Could Write a Book and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. It became the third longest running show of Rodgers and Hart’s long collaboration. But it was also controversial. Radio effectively banned playing songs from the show through most of the 1940’s because of their frank lyrics. It was considered un-filmable in a Hollywood built on sunny, optimistic musicals.
It was not until 17 years later that Pal Joey finally made it to the screen in an adaptation staring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak and featuring additional Rodgers and Hart songs cribbed from other shows, including My Funny Valentine. The play, now considered a landmark classic, has been revived several times on Broadway and in London.
During World War II O’Hara returned to journalism. He was a war correspondent in the Pacific Theater, although he would have preferred a gentleman’s commission like the graduates of Ivy League colleges received—or maybe an OSS posting like so many old Yalies.
After the war he returned to New York more confident in his own greatness as a writer on one hand and more than ever resentful of what he believed was the back hand snubbing by the snooty aristocrats of publishing and critical circles. The more wounded he was, the harder he tried to become one of them. He aped their manners, style of dress, and distinctive speech patterns. He studied and memorized trivia and minutia about the Ivy schools and even the elite prep schools that fed them. He stalked social gatherings.
But in perfect imitation of the self destructive social climbers of his fiction, O’Hara only further alienated the closed club he yearned to join. Then he would get belligerent. A leading critic referred to him simply as “a well known lout.” The harder he tried, the harder the critics—most of them—got on his work.
He continued to churn out novels—O’Hara was nothing if not prolific—but most did not catch on. Finally in 1955, the same year his reputation was somewhat buoyed by the release of the film version of Pal Joey, he won a highly controversial National Book Award for Ten North Fredrick,the story of Joe Chapin, an ambitious man who yearns to become President and his long suffering patrician wife, two rebellious children, and mistress. The book was made into a film in 1958 starring Gary Cooper.
O’Hara had one more moderate success as a novelist before critics started simply ignoring his work and the public stopped buying. In From the Terrace he painted a picture of a young lawyer from a family of small city aristocrats. His mother has been driven to drink by a neglectful and distant father. His wife is socially ambitious, self-pitying, and unfaithful. The man finds solace with a young, tenderhearted exotic—read Jewish—do-gooder in the city. O’Hara himself wrote the screenplay for the 1960 film version starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Ina Balin.
Probably contributing to O’Hara’s fading reputation as a novelist was his decision to become a columnist with a weekly book column, Sweet and Sour, for the Trenton Times-Advertiser, and a biweekly column, Appointment with O’Hara, for Collier’s magazine. In both venues he proved himself to be, “simultaneously embarrassing and infuriating in his vaingloriousness, vindictiveness, and general bellicosity.” He bemoaned never receiving any academic honors, despite his firm conviction that he was the greatest living American Novelist. He openly invited Yale to finally recognize his genius. Yale considered it groveling and did not deign to respond.
But he still yearned for vindication. Privately, he told friends that he expected to be the next American recipient of the Nobel Prize. He wrote to his daughter “I really think I will get it,” and “I want the Nobel prize... so bad I can taste it.” It was not to be. The next American to win the prize for literature was John Steinbeck in 1962. He could barely conceal his disappointment.
When he took this act to a broader stage as a nationally syndicated columnist based at Newsday in 1964, O’Hara showed himself to be not just a conservative, but a vicious reactionary. Many young writers had suffered the stings of class prejudice. Most of them became liberals, even radicals. Not O’Hara. Just as he assumed the proper suites and accents of the WASP elite, so did he assume what he believed were the politics of the very richest barons of the boardroom and denizens of the old school clubs.
|O'Hara as a reactionary curmudgeon and critic.
In his first Newsday column O’Hara proclaimed his willingness to spit in the eye of his critics: “Let’s get off to a really bad start.” He endorsed Barry Goldwater for President claiming that he spoke for the stolid fans of Lawrence Welk and blaming the downfall of the country on those who loved the jazz of Black musicians like Lester Lanin and Dizzy Gillespie. Then he railed at Martin Luther King’s Nobel Prize. It was downhill from there, week by week more antagonistic and outrageous. Papers started dropping the syndicated feature. In 53 weeks Newsday canceled the column.
The super rich graduates of his beloved Yale might have nodded approval, but the literary establishment was notoriously liberal. The columns were like thumbs in their eyes. O’Hara had successfully poisoned the well.
O’Hara continued publishing to diminishing success. The last novel published during his life time was The Ewings in 1970. A sequel to that novel more came out posthumously. Neither was successful.
O’Hara died in Princeton, New Jersey, his longtime home, on April 13, 1970 at the age of 65. Just to make sure that everyone knew just who he was, he had this inscription carved on his headstone, “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.” The final hubris of Pal Johnny.