During the 1920s and 1930s, rumors about tiny Neshobe Island flew through the resort hotels along Vermont’s Lake Bomoseen.
The summer vacationers heard that famous people lived on the dinky island and that lots of crazy things went on out there.
They were right, but they could not confirm the rumors for themselves. Neshobe Island was the private club of New York’s famous Algonquin Round Table and their even more famous guests.
Vivien Leigh visited Neshobe Island after winning an Oscar for Gone With the Wind. Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht finished their screenplay for Wuthering Heights there. The landscaping was done by Gerald Murphy, the Mark Cross heir who inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional character Dick Diver.
And Harpo Marx took off all his clothes and waved an ax at snooping tourists.
“The thing we cherished most about the island, along with its natural beauty, was its isolation," Marx wrote in his autobiography, Harpo Speaks.
Old Vitriol and Violets
Lake Bomoseen, just north of Castleton, Vt., is the largest lake within Vermont’s borders. In 1924, drama critic Alexander Woollcott rented seven-acre Neshobe Island just a quarter mile from Lake Bomoseen’s shore. He loved the island so much he bought it and turned it into a private club for his closest friends.
Woollcott was born in Colt’s Neck, N.J., and grew up in his family’s ramshackle 85-room mansion. He had no use for his father, a Cockney ne’er-do-well. When his father came round the breakfast table to kiss his sons goodbye, ‘Aleck would slyly thrust an upright fork above his ear in the fond hope of puncturing the paternal jowl,’ wrote his biographer, Samuel Hopkins Adams.
Woollcott grew up to become a drama critic, radio personality, New Yorker columnist, author and member of the witty group known as the Algonquin Round Table. It was Woollcott who first said, "All the things I like to do are either immoral, illegal or fattening."
He was bitchy, fastidious, bookish, flamboyant and so pudgy Harpo Marx called him an escapee from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He proposed marriage to five different women, but each laughed him off.
James Thurber called him Old Vitriol and Violets.
Neshobe Island Club
Woollcott’s socialized with the media celebrities of his day, and he invited some of them to be charter members of the Neshobe Island Club. They included such Algonquinites as writer Alice Duer Miller, playwright Beatrice Kaufman and illustrator Neysa McMein, along with New Yorker co-founder Raoul Fleischmann, songwriter Howard Dietz, actress Ruth Gordon and publisher Harold Guinzberg.
There were only 10 members at any one time, and memberships could be bought and sold. Each member paid $1,000 to spend the summer on Neshobe Island.
They worked a little in the rustic house, talked a lot and played a lot at sports and games. Not everyone enjoyed it.
Vincent Sheen and Dorothy Parker sat in a corner and drank. "Alec was simply furious," wrote Sheen. "We were in disgrace. We were anathema. we ween't paying any attention to his witticisms and his goddamned games."
Harpo Marx, the goofy, silent, harp-playing Marx Brother, received an invitation to Neshobe Island in the summer of 1927 from Alexander Woollcott.
To Harpo, the invitation was more than a feather in his social cap.
"It meant you had been nominated for the Alexander Woollcott Roster of Who's Who,” he wrote. He was invited a second time, joining the company of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine, Ethel Barrymore, Noel Coward and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Finally he was asked to join as a member.
Years later he waxed nostalgic about ‘The reading of plays around the fireplace, the wonderful voices of the Lunts, Ethel Barrymore, Ruth Gordon and her husband Gregory Kelly.’ He remembered,
The sound of music coming across the water on Saturday nights from the open-air dance on the mainland, tinny and gay, like a crazy, woodland honky-tonk (the only times we ever felt tolerant toward the tourists).
On his first visit to Neshobe Island, Woollcott met Marx at the boat landing. Harpo drove up in a dilapidated car.
“What do you call that?" Woollcott said.
"My town car," Marx replied.
"What was the town?" said Woollcott. "Pompei?”
Neshobe Island Rules
Woollcott ruled the island like a benevolent despot, setting down rules and directing activities: cribbage, poker, or party games like anagrams and Murder.
Breakfast was at 7 a.m. Cocktails ended the day, but intoxication was forbidden. When they played the Murder game, Woollcott wouldn’t allow dinner to be served until the murderer was discovered.
Under the rules, the secretly chosen murderer was to catch a ‘victim’ alone and say, ‘You’re dead.’ The person chosen as the district attorney was to identify the murderer.
Harpo Marx was once the murderer. He knew the women guests sometimes used a bathroom at the back of the house, so he sneaked back and wrote the death message in lipstick on the toilet paper. Under the rules, the victim had to stay where he or she was. For the next five hours the islanders looked for the murder victim. They were all hungry, but Woollcott refused to serve dinner. Finally at 11 p.m. Alice Duer Miller was discovered in the john.
Woollcott, who played the district attorney, immediately fingered the lightly educated Marx because he had written “YOU ARE DED.” Then he stormed off to bed.
Everyone had to take a morning dip no matter how cold the lake. Woollcott, with his protective layers of fat, was impervious to the cold water, and read books propped on his belly while floating on his back.
Marx once caught tourists on shore looking through binoculars at Woollcott swimming and mistaking him for Marie Dressler, a homely, heavyweight comedienne.
The Neshobe Islanders fought for and protected their privacy. Though the Vermonters didn’t bother them, the tourists did.
Once Alice Miller took a walk and rushed back to report tourists were picnicking on the beach. Marx tore off his clothes, put on a red wig, smeared himself with mud and war-danced down to the shore, brandishing an ax. No more snoopers appeared that summer.
Dorothy Parker also wore nothing but a hat for three days, which Woollcott tolerated, except she also got drunk on those days. He asked her to leave.
The Algonquin Round Table is credited with popularizing croquet in the United States, and Woollcott is enshrined in the Croquet Hall of Fame.
When Woollcott wanted to play croquet on Neshobe Island, everyone had to play. He got Harpo Marx hooked on the game -- and also into the Croquet Hall of Fame.
Competition was ferocious and the stakes were steep.
Marx lost $900 to Woollcott in his first week of playing on Neshobe Island.
Once, when Woollcott drove Marx's ball into the woods for the third time, Bea Kaufman found him sobbing his heart out against a tree, wrote Margaret Case Harriman in The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table.
Nothing – absolutely nothing – made Woollcott as happy as a good croquet shot.
"When Aleck sent an opponent's ball crashing down through the maples of Neshobe Island, he would swing his mallet around his head like David's slingshot and whoop, "Buckety, buckety! Buckety, buckety! Buck-ket-ty-buck-ket-ty-in-to-the-lake!," wrote Marx.
Or, wrote Marx, "He would dance around the court on his toes, kicking his heels together (unaware that his shorts were falling down), and singing in the exuberant soprano of a cherub in a Sunday-school play:
I'm des a 'itto wabbit in de sunshine!
I'm des a 'itto bunny in de wain!"
End of the Club
The Neshobe Island Club ended abruptly on Jan. 23, 1943.
Woollcott was broadcasting his Town Crier radio show from New York when he got agitated defending Franklin Roosevelt’s war policy. He stopped in midsentence, wrote “I AM SICK” on a sheet of paper and collapsed of a heart attack. He died a few hours later.
Images: Lake Bomoseen, By Jc3s5h - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44282020
With thanks to Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx.
Art Samuels, Charlie MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott