New book examines tragic life of one of America’s most prolific writers of satire

Topic: College of Communication Information and Media

April 2, 2014

Book cover of 'Will Cuppy' by Wes Gehring
Book cover of 'Will Cuppy' by Wes Gehring

The first half of the 20th century is often known as the golden age of humor books, and Hoosier-born Will Cuppy may have been one of its most prolific writers, says a new book written by a Ball State University professor.

Wes Gehring, a Ball State telecommunications professor, dug through letters, note cards and other correspondence for the first biography on the reclusive writer: “Will Cuppy: American Satirist.”

Born in 1888 and raised in Auburn, Ind., Cuppy has been remembered by few Americans since his suicide in 1949, but the author left behind a series of tongue-in-cheek works, including “The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody,” “How to Be a Hermit,” “How to Become Extinct,” “How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes” and “How to Attract the Wombat.”

“He wrote of the failings of modern man decades ago, amazed at the insane things people did to pass the time,” Gehring said. “I could imagine the fun he would have today with Twitter and Facebook. He would have plenty of things to poke fun at in our modern society.

“Cuppy has been mostly forgotten, yet his books still touch our lives decades after his death. Cuppy's writing aped the professorial style of (humorist Robert) Benchley, but the dark comedy tone was Groucho (Marx)-like.”

Gehring’s 214-page book, released late last year by McFarland, examines Cuppy’s life from his time on his grandmother’s farm. It covers his attempt to complete a doctorate at the University of Chicago (which he left with a master’s degree), his days as a book reviewer for The New-York Tribune, his years spent living in a shack on a small island just off Long Island, and his final years as a recluse in a small apartment in Greenwich Village.

An author of more than 30 books on noted American comedians — including Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Red Skelton — Gehring has been interested in Cuppy for many years—starting as a teen.

“Growing up in Iowa, I haunted used book stores and immediately fell in love with the covers and titles of Cuppy’s books,” he said. “They were truly dark satirical pieces that drew me in.”

“This book was a little bit different for me, because in the past I usually focused on actors and actresses from Indiana. But, Cuppy’s life was a story that needed to be told.”

After deciding to write about Cuppy, Gehring spent time sifting through the writer’s papers—including thousands of his note cards—which are archived at the University of Chicago and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in Iowa. He also found letters at Indiana University’s Lilly Library.

Cuppy’s private papers ended up at his alma mater, the University of Chicago, while the Hoover Museum has the former president's correspondence with conservative author Isabel Paterson. Although Cuppy was apolitical, Paterson was his mentor and many of his letters to her were included in papers donated to the Hoover Museum.

Gehring also found other Cuppy letters to friends in the special collections at Cornell University and the University of Iowa.

“I was spending a great deal of my time playing detective, reading old letters that had handwriting so bad that no one could decipher them,” he said. “I discovered that Cuppy was very much a recluse. He lived alone for much of his life, and most of his contact with friends was done through letters or by phone calls.”

In the end, Cuppy’s last years were marked by poor physical health and increasing depression. Facing eviction from his apartment, he took an overdose of sleeping pills.

“Sadly, he believed cigarettes were simply a food group, and he was always in a state of depression, threatening to kill himself if someone wouldn’t do what he asked,” Gehring said. “Like many writers, he was tap dancing on the edge of the abyss. I believe the dark humor finally got to him. At the close, it was his friends who affectionately said, in the satirical spirit of Cuppy, that dying was probably easier than moving.”

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