I have been working this summer on a new book, simply entitled Tales of the Grove Park Inn. As its name implies, it is a collection of stories, all historical, which illustrate the first one hundred years of the famous hotel once called “the finest resort hotel in the world.”
Of course, that phrase was coined by none other than Fred Loring Seely, who designed and managed the Grove Park Inn from its opening in 1913 until he was ousted by his spiteful brother-in-law shortly after E. W. Grove’s mysterious death in 1927.
But, as they say, that’s another story.
I have come to the conclusion that I write to justify doing research. And to share my research with others who share my passion for history, even if its focus is a solitary hotel perched on a mountain in North Carolina. Now that’s a case of advanced tunnel vision.
One of the tales that has often been told about Fred Seely has to do with the small cards he had printed up and given to each of his bellmen. While I have never seen one, they reportedly were discreetly handed to any guest in the Great Hall who was either laughing or talking too loudly, informing them that the hotel was intended to be, in Seely’s actual words, “a place where tired busy people may get away from excitement and all annoyances and rest their nerves.”
As the story goes, a bellman, perhaps after a slight nod of the head by Seely, approached Irvin Cobb, described as a popular comedian of the 1920s, who was holding court in the Great Hall. Cobb, upon reading the card, in an exaggerated fashion removed both of his shoes and tiptoed in his stocking feet to the front desk, where, in a loud whisper, he asked for his bill and promptly tiptoed out of the hotel.
I’ve told this story a hundred times myself and while it often brings to mind the admonition “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” when I was writing Tales of the Grove Park Inn I finally had to answer a question.
Who was Irvin Cobb?
I expected to discover that he was a popular comedian of the era, one of the hundreds of vaudeville performers who barnstormed the country, possibly on the Chautauqua circuit. Certainly no one who would bear comparison to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the most famous literary guest who ever stayed at the G.P.I., and who rated an entire chapter in my book. Fitzgerald, who wrote four novels and 164 short stories, literally lived at the Grove Park Inn in 1935 and 1936.
Irvin Cobb, I soon discovered, also did a little writing. Something to the tune of 60 books and more than 300 short stories, plus a couple of Broadway musicals and a handful of screenplays, two of which were directed by John Ford. Prior to that he had been a newspaper reporter and a columnist for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, where he rose to become the highest paid journalist in the country. He covered Washington politics, was friends with Teddy Roosevelt, and was a war correspondent, later writing Paths of Glory. In his spare time he acted in ten movies. In 1935 he was asked to host the Academy Awards, an honor that the previous year was bestowed on Will Rogers (another G.P.I. guest) and a couple of years later on a young man named Bob Hope. He was often called a modern day Mark Twain for his brand of storytelling humor.
Not bad company, eh?
Nor a shoddy resume…..
Irvin Cobb’s final book, published just before his death in 1944, was called Exit Laughing.
Now, that’s a man you wish you could have spent an evening with.
I have not yet read any of Cobb’s novels or short stories, but I intend to, for I have to answer another question.
Why had none of us been taught anything about Irvin Cobb?
The man was compared to both Will Rogers and Mark Twain. Publishers saw fit to print 60 of his books. Sixty! Editors bought more than 300 of his short stories. He was a war correspondent, an actor, and he hosted the Academy Awards. We can’t simply dismiss him as a hack, right?
Intrigued, I have started to track down more information about Irvin Cobb. Turns out he had a few more things in common with F. Scott Fitzgerald. They both died in the early 1940s, and both had a daughter who wrote about their famous fathers. Elizabeth Cobb, herself a respected writer, wrote a biography of her father in 1945 called My Wayward Parent. I ordered a copy off Amazon last week.
It cost ninety-four cents.
A final footnote:
Two weeks ago I re-read The Great Gatsby (1925), one of our book club selections for discussion at the February Arts & Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn. I have been a Fitzgerald fan since I first read Gatsby in 1967 and even am a card-carrying member of The Fitzgerald Society, but this whole Irvin Cobb deal makes even a former English teacher wonder who decides — and how do “they” decide — which writers will be studied in the future?
Could my beloved Fitzgerald and his four novels be that much better than Irvin Cobb and his sixty? So much better that today he completely overshadows this far more prolific, far more respected, and far more popular contemporary of his?
Or does leading a tragic life score points with the judges?
Would The Great Gatsby be considered so great if we didn’t know the story behind the story? That Tom and Daisy could also have been Scott and Zelda?
Does make you wonder….
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!
Note: Use your cursor to enlarge the photograph of Irvin Cobb.