An early friend of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, Donald Ogden Stewart lived, for most of his life, in a charmed world. After graduating from Yale University, Stewart began writing satires in the manner of Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker and others, and, while writing for Broadway, become a member of the renowned Algonquin Round Table. After a stint in Paris, where he developed close friendships with Hemingway (he was the model for Bill Gorton in The Sun Also Rises), Dos Passos, Tristan Tzara and numerous others, he returned to write screenplays for Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his adaptation of his friend Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story.
We said: "Do you want to die?"
"No," he answered lightly, "do you?"
"We don't mind," we answered, stepping into the night.
One of Stewart's most noted satirical works, Aunt Polly's Story of Mankind, a seemingly gentle riff on WASP culture and values, sat for years in my library until I recently aired it out.
Meanwhile, his cousin Samuel and his two sisters, who have obviously grown up in a more liberal atmosphere, are naturally curious and pepper Polly with numerous questions that she determines are certain signs of their impoliteness, discouraging, accordingly, any deeper entry into her bumbling recounting of the past.
"Egyptians did build up a certain form of civilization although of course
the wrong form and did not last."
"How long did it last, Aunt Polly?" asked Samuel.
"Why—I think about five or six thousand years," replied Polly.
"That's longer than America, isn't it?" said Mary.
"Why, yes, dear," replied Aunt Polly, 'but, children, you must remember that all that happened a long, long time ago when time didn't really matter so much. ...An Egyptian didn't have anything to do all day compared to a person to-day. He had no magazines, no books, no shopping, no church work, no lectures, no social duties, so, don't you see, time didn't really matter."
Had Stewart kept his entire tale at this level, however, we might consider this a slightly humorous piece, without any serious satirical bite. But Polly's bland musings on "the best of all possible worlds," are constantly undercut by the series of good deeds she, the church, and the school inflict upon the children, with David as the centerpiece.
After being told about the Crusaders and visited soon after by a War veteran, her husband and her son cook up the idea of creating a crusader group of young boys, with David as their leader.
The boys proudly march for a while, but David's dog gets in the way and the boys soon lose their patience with the child's pointless commands. A day later, the dog is found dead, and David insists it is the work of another school class. Now with an enemy on the horizon, most of the boys return to their marching. Frederick buys them uniforms, and, with his father's help, David purchases air-rifles at a discount, selling them back to the boys at the regular price. The crusader company is formed, and the other class develops its own competing group. When the church gets involved, they change their name to the Christian Scouts.
Los Angeles, February 19, 2010