Lucius Beebe: A Biographical Sketch

Lucius Morris Beebe was born on December 9, 1902, at Wakefield, Massachusetts, near Boston, the son of Junius and Eleanor (Merrick) Beebe. The first Beebes had come to America in 1650 and had prospered in their various ventures, so that by 1750 the descendants, scattered throughout New England but concentrated chiefly in Somerset County, Massachusetts, were landed and wealthy men of property. Lucius' father was no exception to this tradition, and during his lifetime was head of his own large leather business in Boston, president of the Wakefield Trust Company and of the Brockton Gas Company, director of the Atlantic National Bank of Boston, and director of the Mutual Chemical Company of New York. The Beebe farm at Wakefield was a sizable 140 acres, and it was here and, during the winter months, in Boston that the "Boy Beebe" grew up.

Beebe's early schooling was peripatetic: from the North Ward School in Wakefield he went at the age of fifteen to St. Marks in Southboro to be sent home, almost instanter, for a dynamiting episode comparable to the one he describes in "Wakefield: The Town That Will Never Forget Me;" he then went to the Berkshire School in Sheffield and was in due course returned for having discovered alcohol in Boston and bringing it, Beebe-Prometheus, to Berkshire; his third prep school was the Roxbury School, in Chesire, Connecticut, which he survived to enter Yale in 1922. At Yale he would have graduated with the class of 1926 -- with Peter Arno, John Hay Whitney, Rudy Vallee, Henry C. Potter, and other extraordinaries of his time -- had he not in a letter to the Yale Daily News, with zeal born of his own and the Jazz Age, attacked the Yale Divinity School lock, stock, and barrel for its lunacy in supporting prohibition. Professor Henry Hallam Tweety of the Divinity School was not amused, nor was President Angell of Yale. Two weeks later, moreover, Beebe locked himself in one of the stage boxes of the Hyperion Music Hall Theater, and, at an appropriate moment in the performance, rose tall (6' 4"), white-bearded, and clerically dressed, and shouted "I am Professor Tweedy of the Yale Divinity School!" and hurled an empty bottle on the stage. President Angell, with an administrative assist from Dean Jones, sent Beebe, in the middle of his sophomore year, north to Boston and Cambridge.

Following a year on the Boston Telegram whose purple works and 72-point orgies are set forth in this collection, Beebe entered Harvard to graduate as a Bachelor of Arts in 1927, but not without having been first suspended by President Lowell for having clobbered a classmate and given him a near concussion. The reason for the attack was literary: Beebe had, through access to some hundred-odd manuscript lines of Edwin Arlington Robinson's verse, conceived the idea of publishing them privately in a rare edition limited to seventeen copies. Without the poet's permission. He did so, distributed copies from Amherst Library to the British Museum, and all would have been reasonably well had not an undergraduate by the name of Wetherby informed Mr. Robinson of it. The poet was pained, but forgave Beebe since the project had been purely bibliophilic with no commercial overtones. Wetherby, however, was hospitalized, and Beebe suspended pro tem.

After graduation from Harvard and following a stint on the Boston Transcript as contributor to its literary section, Beebe's New England days ended. He was ready for the champagne and damask fields of New York.

In June 1929, at the age of twenty-seven, Beebe became a member of the Herald Tribune staff and remained with the paper for twenty-one years. Stanley Walker, mesmerized by Beebe's six-foot-four and sartorial elegance, hired him at thirty-five dollars a week. Beebe started as a reporter frustrated by garden-club doings, annual conventions, minor fires, and occasional assignments as ship's-news reporter. Appearing once in top hat and morning coat among flames and snaking hoses, he was quickly moved to the drama department of the paper. This was again temporary, a mere way station on the road to the ultimate depot: Beebe came into his own on September 9, 1933, with the first tryout in the Philadelphia Inquirer of his column to be called "This New York." The column was further tested in outlying papers as far west as Wyoming, proved successful, and given the final cachet with its appearance in June 1934 in the Herald Tribune itself.

The weekly syndicated (Cleveland, Kansas City, St. Louis, and points west) column dealt only with the good things of this life enjoyed by a limited five hundred members of Café Society. Beebe was not only a fascinated observer and reporter of this Café Society but was himself an active member of it. His wardrobe, spectacular at Yale and Harvard, where he not infrequently brightened morning classes wearing the top hat, tails, and gold-headed walking stick of the evening before, now blossomed to meet the greater demands of the metropolis and his position. He is reported to have owned forty suits, not an excessive number for an individual of means, but certainly a fantastic wardrobe for a working newspaperman during the Depression era. One of his overcoats was minklined with an astrakhan collar, another mink-lined with sable collar. His top hats ranged from sporting dove gray to formal black, and his gloves from fawn-colored doeskin to evening white. It is doubtful that he ever went abroad without a stick.

The New York which he graced included Bleeck's Artists and Writer's Saloon, an extension of the editorial offices of the Herald Tribune; the Biltmore Turkish Baths where he presumably dripped Bollinger; the restaurants and night spots: Le Pavillion, the Colony, El Morocco, "21"; the hotels: the Plaza, the St. Regis, the Madison, and, of course, theater first nights, cocktail scuffles, gourmet dinners, and assorted sarabands in the tight inner circle of socially acceptable Manhattan. Leaving the pleasant confines of this inner island, nothing existed westward until Beebe reached the Pump Room in Chicago via The Twentieth Century Limited. Comparable vast spaces separated him from the civilization of Antoine's and Commander's Palace in New Orleans to the south, and Locke-Ober's in Boston to the north. New Jersey was an unmentionable wilderness, but Pennsylvania securely saved by a railroad, Bookbinder's, and the Stotesburys, Cadwalladers, Mellons, and such.

He was referred to generally as "Mr. New York," an honorific which delighted him and which went down well beyond the Hudson. Walter Winchell irritatingly enough called him "Luscious Lucius," and he was also enviously described as "the orchidaceous of café society." Kyle Crichton termed him "a sort of sandwich man for the rich," and Walter Pritchard Eaton, reviewing Beebe's book The Boston Legend reported: "He betrays an incomprehension in a historian."

In 1937, eight years after his assault on the Big City, Beebe was the subject of an entertaining two-part profile in The New Yorker by Wolcott Gibbs, and, in 1939, made the cover of Life: "Lucius Beebe Sets a Style." Gibbs did other pieces on Beebe's Tribune style and material. The closing lines of the The New Yorker profile deserve a place between these hard covers: "Whatever admirers or detractors say, however, one tribute must be paid. . . . The words of it, with one tiny exception, are from a song made popular in his own time by Miss Ethel Merman, and they can be sung when he is gone: 'Beebe had Class, with a capital K.'"

He was an indefatigable worker, and his production from the time of his arrival in New York to his death in 1966 was constant in quantity and high in quality. He was a "pro." There were fifty-two weekly double columns for the Herald Tribune; a book a year for a total of at least forty books; the once-a-month "Along the Boulevards" feature for Gourmet Magazine; six to ten full articles a year for Holiday, Town & Country, The American Mercury, Cosmopolitan, American Heritage, The Ford Times, Gourmet, Status, Playboy, Esquire, Collier, Railroad, Trains, and other periodicals; and added related matter including book reviews, irate "letters to the editor," a script stint for Hollywood on a film dealing with Café Society, consultant to Hollywood on the railroad film Union Pacific, and personal appearances before clubs and such until he cut these off as a waste of his time. In addition, of course, were the activities providing the material about which he wrote: ranging from white-tie first nights and champagne suppers in New York, Central City, and San Francisco to the patient waiting, with focused camera, for the engine of a great or little train (he loved them both) to come thundering or puffing around a bend in Colorado, Missouri, New York, or Texas.

Lucius Beebe, in the year 1950, opted for Nevada. The decision can be traced back to the Warner Brothers junket which he joined from New York to Nevada for the premier of the film Virginia City in 1939. The town at that time fascinated him on all counts: the citizens were completely normal and uninhibited characters who drank, if they felt like it, firm slugs of scotch or bourbon at the bars with their bacon and eggs, or skipped the eggs and bacon altogether: the residents were descendants of miners and mine operators who had built the town, and, if they ever noticed them, gave not a damn for the opinions of anyone; there were no confiscatory income taxes of any sort whatsoever: this made supreme sense; lastly and above all, there was a newspaper on which Mark Twain had worked, The Territorial Enterprise, one of the most famous papers in this history of the land, up for sale: Beebe and his associate, Charles Clegg, bought it together.

With Clegg, he published for eight years an exciting newspaper, one which took no guff from any quarter and which, as the occasion warranted, fired grapeshot or slammed broadsides at any and all.

In 1960 the paper was sold and Beebe and Clegg took to living during inclement Nevada months in ineffable Hillsborough on the Peninsula south of San Francisco. Beebe contributed from 1960 to his death in 1966 a weekly column to the San Francisco Chronicle titled "This Wild West," balancing his earlier "This New York." The opinions expressed in it were at poles removed from the Chronicle's editorial policy and horrified the owners, who, however, allowed their San Francisco urbanity to triumph over liberal prejudices. A variety of pieces, selected and trimmed down from the full columns, were published in book form in 1966 by the Chronicle under the title The Provocative Pen of Lucius Beebe, Esq.

While maintaining their residence in Nevada, Beebe and Clegg continued their annual visits to New York with occasional trips via Cunard to London. They also traveled the United States in their jointly owned, fabulous private railroad car, Virginia City, an eye-popping legend in its own right, complete with Venetian décor, fireplace, wine cellar, and Turkish bath. Beebe continued producing books and articles to the last: his entertaining The Big Spenders appeared after his death, and for more than a full year magazines printed articles of his which had been submitted before he passed on.

Beebe lived a full and expansive life to the end. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, on February 4, 1966.

-Duncan Emrich

Washington, D.C.

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