The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O’Hara
by Geoffrey Wolff
Knopf, 373 pp., $30.00
John O’Hara died in April 1970, and was buried in the old Princeton Cemetery, Princeton, New Jersey, a burial ground that holds the remains of Grover Cleveland, Aaron Burr, the pollster George Gallup, and the parents of the murdering Menendez brothers of Beverly Hills. The governor of New Jersey attended the service, as did John Hay Whitney, Donald Klopfer of Random House, the cartoonist Charles Addams, and the wives of Bennett Cerf and John Steinbeck. There was a small herd of limousines, and O’Hara’s own dark green Rolls, for family use.
O’Hara’s widow, known as Sister, had two simple headstones erected, on one of which John O’Hara’s epitaph is engraved. And there, for this reviewer, certainty ends. His four biographers (Finis Farr, Matthew J. Bruccoli, Frank MacShane, and, now, Geoffrey Wolff) manage to record three versions of this self-composed epitaph. The one that is on the gravestone, I assume, is this rendering by Frank MacShane:
JANUARY 31, 1905
APRIL 11, 1970
BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE
HE TOLD THE TRUTH
ABOUT HIS TIME HE
WAS A PROFESSIONAL HE WROTE
HONESTLY AND WELL
In his short report of the funeral Geoffrey Wolff leaves off the final “He wrote honestly and well”; but Wolff, along with Finis Farr and Matthew J. Bruccoli, includes a sig-nificant addition: “Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time, the first half of the twentieth century” (emphasis mine).
What can have happened here? Matthew Bruccoli says that Sister—who seemed to have good judgment—”selected” the epitaph. Perhaps she left the twentieth century line off because she realized that it would be regarded as an obnoxious boast; perhaps she left it off because it meant cramming too many words onto a gravestone, a correct call, in my view.
Four biographers of a contentious cuss such as John O’Hara are of course likely to come up with variants of many incidents in his life, particularly his many fights and disputes. It may not matter much whether Robert Benchley said to O’Hara, “You’ll always be a shit but you’re our shit,” or instead attempted to discourage O’Hara from apologizing for being a shit by assuring him that one needn’t apologize for being what one could not help being: in his case, a shit.
But the variation in the epitaph is more serious. O’Hara hungered for praise all his life; when he couldn’t get anyone else to praise him he had little compunction about praising himself. He let it be known that he deserved the Nobel Prize, but he didn’t get it. His New Yorker colleague Wolcott Gibbs, whose last name O’Hara borrowed when he got around to creating his fictional town Gibbsville, claimed that O’Hara had always been a master of the fancied slight, which may be, but did he really believe that he had told more truth about the first half of the twentieth century …