Question: of the 400+ books that Paul Elder published, which one sold the most copies?
The surprising answer is Wallace Irwin’s Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum. First published in 1901, this slim volume of jaunty verse remained in print at least through 1907. Fellow San Francisco humorist Gelett Burgess (of “Purple Cow” fame) added a mock scholarly introduction.
Wallace Irwin (1875-1959) was a well-known humorist in the early 1900s. He attended Stanford University where he edited two humor magazines, but was expelled for writing satirical poetry about the faculty. Soon after, Irwin was hired as a writer by the Hearst Corporation. (Getting kicked out of a university seems to have been a requirement for local humorists: Gelett Burgess was fired by UC Berkeley after pulling down a statue of Henry Cogswell. Burgess clearly saw a kindred soul in Irwin.)
Irwin’s humor has not aged well. In Love Sonnets of a Hoodlum, our hoodlum hero fancies a lady and attempts to win her favor, but neither Irwin’s slang nor his references will be familiar to today’s readers.
Most disturbing to modern sensibilities, however, is Irwin’s racial humor. In Sonnet II below, he caricatures both Italians (“Dago”) and Jews (“Cohenstein”). More was to come: in 1907 Irwin began a long serial for Colliers magazine purporting to be the letters of a 35-year-old Japanese “boy,” going so far as to call the fourth volume Yellow Peril, and posing for the cover photograph himself in yellow makeup.
Irwin wrote many other works, including the 1935 novel The Julius Caesar Murder Case, which is generally credited as the first mystery novel set in antiquity.
In 1902 Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford and Addison Mizner wrote a book of witty updates of popular sayings (one example: “people who love in glass houses should pull down the blinds”). The book was packaged into calendar form, entitled The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, printed by the Twentieth Century Press and published by Elder & Shepard. The New York Times reviewed the book on 10 January 1903:
Oliver Herford, Ethel Watts Mumford and Addison Mizner have prepared an attractive little nonsense book in spite of its pessimistic title (The Cynic’s Calendar of Revised Wisdom for 1903, Elder & Shepard, San Francisco, 75 cents) very startlingly bound in warm red calico with two black cats conventionally intertwined to give it finish. Some of the wisdom smacks of bitterness, which even for a cynic is not nice, but others of their distorted proverbs make clever reading. Indeed, the very first sentiment that ushers in the New Year is one that is doubtless echoed by the majority of mankind: “God gives us our relatives; thank God we can choose our friends.”
Nonetheless, the 1903 Cynic’s Calendar was a huge success. It wasn’t high-class literature, but it helped pay the bills. Elder published six more calendars through the year 1909, and followed that with The Complete Cynic, a 1910 compilation of the best quips from the seven calendars. Finally, a Revived Cynic’s Calendar was published for 1917.
Many of Paul Elder’s authors were obscure and quickly forgotten, but this was not the case with Mizner, Mumford and Herford.
Addison Mizner (1872-1933) was an American architect famous for his Mediterranean and Spanish Colonial resorts in Florida. He was one of the most famous architects in America in the 1920s. He was born in Benicia, California and apprenticed with Willis Polk despite the lack of formal architectural training. Addison’s brother Wilson Mizner was manager of The Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, and they were involved in a series of scams and misadventures that inspired Stephen Sondheim’s musical Road Show.
Ethel Watts Mumford (1873-1940) was an American author and artist. She was born in New York to a wealthy family who gave her a fine education, including studying painting at the Académie Julien in Paris. In 1896, Ethel married George Dana Mumford, but divorced him when he became intolerant of her literary career. She swore not to remarry unless the new gentleman accepted her as a professional writer. In 1906, she married Peter J. Grant and for a while wrote as Ethel Watts Mumford Grant before reverting to her original byline.
Oliver Herford (1863-1935) was a British-born writer, artist and illustrator who is sometimes called “the American Oscar Wilde.” When he was a teenager, his father, a Unitarian minister, moved the family to Chicago. He attended Antioch College in Ohio, then later the Slade School in London and the Académie Julien in Paris. He lived in New York City for most of his life and was a longtime member of the Players Club, as was Elder’s partner Morgan Shepard. Herford wrote for magazines such as Life, Punch, Century Magazine, The Mentor, and Ladies Home Journal, and also wrote many plays. His younger sister Beatrice Herford was a humorist, actress and vaudeville performer in England.
In his memoir The Many Mizners, Addison Mizner tells the story of the making of the calendar. It is amusing enough that I have included it here in full. Our story begins in Honolulu, Hawaii, where he has been living for many months. He is almost broke, which apparently was not unusual:
Steamer day was the bright spot in the week, and one forgot his feuds in seeing new faces and getting news from the mainland. Hardly a steamer landed that did not bring people with letters of introduction and although they paid for carriages one had to do something for them, and this shaved my purse to a splinter.
One steamer day a most lovely young woman arrived. She had the usual letter, introducing Mrs Ethel Watts Mumford to me. She had with her, her aunt, Mrs Morrow, and cousin Ethel, and last but not least the “hell child,” her son of about seven. He was a terrible brat, but Ethel Mumford was so gay and attractive that even this handicap did not fend me off. She had just been divorced and wanted to be an author and was looking for local color. It was not long before she had the islands by the tail, for she thought the natives more interesting than the missionaries’ offspring.
She took a house at Waikiki, on the beach, and any moonlight night you could hear native music and see dimly the hula under the coconut trees, with a long cloth laid under the hoawa trees for a luau.
All this so scandalized respectability that at any odd time the acetylene lights would flash on the scene, and finding nothing worse than a native feast, would blink out in disappointment. Curiosity became so keen that, finally, the more advanced came to call. At first they warned politely that one did not mix with the “Kanaka” as a social equal, but many stayed to do a little mixing themselves.
Ethel had too much sense of humor to be considered sentimental. We swam all day, feasted, and learned the hula, and Honolulu was split in twain with those that were shocked and those that were curious and defended the cause.
One day I twisted an old adage to fit the time, and Ethel came back with a quotation from Oliver Herford. We began twisting all the old saws and bringing them up-to-date.
It was nearing Christmas time, and Ethel suggested that we get out a calendar like the Shakespeare ones of the period, where you tore off a quotation each day, only we were to use our twisted aphorisms instead.
We got 365 together and sent them to Elder & Shepard in San Francisco to be printed for our Christmas presents. Elder wrote back and asked us if he could publish it for sale, with a few cuts. The cuts brought our one a day down to one a week, for this was the beginning of the 1900s and the things the editors cut out would be sewing circle stuff today. But, we thought it would be fun and we got up a design, with a gingham cover, and illustrations and sent back the dummy of the Cynic’s Calendar by Ethel Watts Mumford, Oliver Herford and Addison Mizner.
The very first “crack” in the damn thing cost me plenty, for I had said: “God gives us our relatives; thank God, we can choose our friends.” I moulted a couple of rich old aunts on the instant.
Oliver Herford had never heard of me and got fussy and resented our using his name and thought he should get 90% of the royalties. As Ethel and I didn’t expect any return, we didn’t pay much attention to his squawks; besides, we had only used two or three of his jolts, and had done all the work, both as to designs and contracts. We thought a third was fair enough for him. Imagine our shock when the first royalty checks came in and we found that we had made over $1500 apiece!
–from The Many Mizners, by Addison Mizner. Sears Publishing, 1932.
All the Cynic’s Calendars, from 1903 through to 1917, are all the same size, with fabric-covered boards. The fabric was not identical for each copy of the same year’s calendar: your copy may well be different from the fabric in the photos below. I have included photographs of some alternate fabric covers.
Many of the pen-and-ink drawings in the calendars are signed “Towanda,” which was Mumford’s nom de plume. In addition, each of the sayings can be attributed to one of the three authors by means of the accompanying monogram (see photographs below); Mumford’s monogram is a “T” for “Towanda”. If anyone knows more about the name “Towanda” and why Mumford chose it, I would be grateful to hear of it.