Cuppy, Will, 1884-1949

Alternative names
Birth 1884-08-23
Death 1949-09-19

Biographical notes:

William Jacob ("Will") Cuppy was an American humorist and journalist, best known for his satirical books How to be a Hermit (1929), How to Tell your Friends from the Apes (1931), How to Attract the Wombat (1949), and The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (1950). He also wrote numerous essays, scripts, and reviews dealing with the animal kingdom, world history, crime fiction, and his personal life.

Cuppy was born and grew up in Auburn, Indiana, spending his summers at the family farm near South Whitley, where he discovered his first interest in the animal world. In 1902, he entered the University of Chicago and remained there for the next 12 years studying literature, although he devoted more attention to his work as a campus reporter for the Chicago Record-Herald and the Chicago Daily News. He was also involved in amateur theatre. Upon finishing his BA in 1907, he decided to stay on and pursue a PhD in English literature. Cuppy's first book, Maroon Tales (1910), was a collection of humorous stories about student life at the University of Chicago. Cuppy eventually lost interest in his PhD and left the university in 1914, after turning in his Master's thesis, "The Elizabethan Conception of Prose Style."

Cuppy then moved to New York City and began working as a copywriter to support himself while pursuing his own literary projects. He briefly served in the US military near the end of the First World War, but did not leave the country in his post in the motor transport corps. Around this time, he began writing for the New York Tribune (and later its successor, the New York Herald Tribune) where his old college friend, Burton Rascoe, was literary editor. From 1924 until his death, he was a staff reviewer at the New York Herald Tribune.

Cuppy despised the noise and hectic pace of life in Manhattan, blaming it for his lack of success as a serious writer. He retreated to a shack made of clapboard, tarpaper, and tin sheeting on Jones Island off the coast of Long Island's South Shore in 1921. He later named his 'estate' "Tottering-on-the-brink". Though he continued to publish, he led a hermit-like existence there for the next eight years. He noted occasional encounters with the crew of the Zachs Inlet Coast Guard Station, who provided food and assistance to the writer, even rowing him ashore for his meetings in the city. Cuppy was eventually forced to give up permanent residence on the island with the expansion of the Jones Beach State Park near the end of the decade, but he received a special dispensation from the chairman of the New York state council of parks, which allowed him to keep the shack. Cuppy's second book, How to be a Hermit, published in 1929, was a humorous look at home economics and the life of a confirmed bachelor, based on his experiences. The book was a best-seller.

Though he became a well-known figure in the New York literary scene and also enjoyed popular success, Cuppy was a self-proclaimed curmudgeon, who often avoided social interaction. After being forced back to the city in 1929, he became an urban hermit in his apartment in Greenwich Village, sleeping during the day and working until the early hours of the morning. Though it was now in the middle of a state park, he continued to periodically retreat to his shack in search of solitude.

In the early 1930s, Cuppy tried his hand at radio and the lecture circuit, but was unsuccessful, due in part to his nervous manner of speaking. He briefly had a 15-minute long radio program with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in 1933, in which he and an actress discussed being a hermit, historical figures, food, animals and Cuppy's pet peeves. It was cancelled within six months due to its lack of broad appeal.

Many of the essays that would form his next three books, How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes (1931), How to Become Extinct (1941), and How to Attract the Wombat (1949), were first published as articles in the Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, the magazine For Men, and other publications. A compilation, The Great Bustard and Other People, containing How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes and How to Become Extinct, was published in 1944.

Cuppy's steadiest source of income was reviewing mystery and crime fiction for the weekly column "Mystery and Adventure" in the New York Herald Tribune. Cuppy reportedly read and reviewed more than 4,000 novels over the course of his career. He claimed to have an alter ego, "Oswald Terwilliger," whom he put to work reviewing murder mysteries while Cuppy pursued more dignified literary projects. Cuppy also edited several collections of murder mysteries, including World's Great Mystery Stories: American and English Masterpieces (1943), World's Great Detective Stories: American and English Masterpieces (1943) and Murder Without Tears: An Anthology of Crime (1946).

Near the end of his life, Cuppy suffered from depression and chronic poor health. Threatened with eviction from his apartment, he committed suicide by a fatal dose of sleeping pills on September 19, 1949. His cremated remains were buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Auburn, Indiana in an unmarked grave until 1985, when local donors erected a granite headstone with the inscription, "American Humorist".

Cuppy's last book, The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, was published posthumously in 1950. It was based on Cuppy's notes and drafts, sorted and assembled by Cuppy's long-time editor and literary executor, Fred Feldkamp, and Feldkamp's wife, Phyllis. Cuppy had been researching the book for more than sixteen years and was close to completing it. The book spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list, and went through several reprints. Feldkamp also arranged for another unfinished project to be published in 1951: the satirical almanac How to Get from January to December, featuring a humorous essay for every day of the year.

From the guide to the Cuppy, Will. Papers, circa 1884-1949, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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