It was October 31, 1938 and Orson Welles was offering a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells's old thriller The War of the Worlds on CBS. Presented as a series of fake spot news broadcasts concerning a Martian invasion of northern New Jersey (of all places), it scared the wits out of millions of none-too-perceptive listeners.
It was a totally unplanned but entirely successful hoax.
This is the story of a not quite as a famous, but, then again, a not quite so innocent use of the airwaves as a media for confusion. The alleged instigator of this ruse was a teacher at the State University of New York at Albany. And thereby, hangs a tale.
The State University was then known as the State Teacher's College, and the professor was known as Harold W. Thompson. The year was 1935. The victim of the prank (and it has never been proven that Thompson was its perpetrator) was Alexander Humphreys Woollcott.
Some of you out there may not react positively (or even negatively) to the mention of Alexander Woollcott. By occupation he was an author, critic, lecturer, arid occasional actor--but, most of all, he was just Alexander Woollcott.
He was simply something else, a bizarre personality made up of equal parts over sentimentality and hydrochloric acid. His public comportment consisted of making himself as grotesquely noticeable as possible. Being noticeable in his crowd was no mean feat.
He helped found the famed Algonquin Round Table of the early 1920s, a combination of wit and talent that has unfortunately, not been seen since. George S. Kaufman, Dorothy Parker, Franklin P. Adams, Ring Lardner, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, Harpo Marx, Edna Ferber, Harold Ross, Neysa McMein, and Marc Connolly were just some of the members of that unique social club, the Algonquin Hotel's notorious "Vicious Circle." All were unique, and to stand above them was, to say the least, difficult. Yet Woollcott emerged as leader of the pack, the character among characters.
"Woollcott considered that Woollcott was the hub the world revolved around," wrote his closest friend Harpo Marx, "If he wasn't the center of attraction he was miserable, and when he was miserable, somebody caught hell. He was a diabolical master of the insult. He could slay a victim with one stab of a phrase or a word. Some of his victims became his undying enemies. Others, like me, became undying friends."
Anyway, Woollcott (the man on whom the play The Man Who came To Dinner was based) was in 1935 hosting a fairly successful radio show, The Town Crier, which consisted of him haranguing a national audience on what he imperiously considered to be of importance each week.
In February 1935 a fan letter tugged at both his heartstrings and his vanity. It came from two sisters--Minnie and Susan (no last names given)--86 and 76 years of age respectively, residing somewhere to the north of Troy, New York, and living in the direst, most poverty-stricken conditions.
"Life is a little hard," wrote Susan for the both of them, "and this winter we have been so lonely and cold and were hungry at times. . . . Old age is so frightening when one is sick and alone. But we have each other. And we have real pleasant times in the evenings. I prop Minnie up in bed and, oh, Mr. Wolcott, I wish you could see her face as she hears your voice. You see, you make it seem as though one of our own had come back through the long-ago years . . . We are glad that you are young and strong and famous and have so many friends."
The sisters closed by requesting that Woollcott read the Twenty-third Psalm to them over the air. Woollcott was glad to oblige.
There followed another letter, this one signed "Susan Lovice Staples"and its fulsome praise read in part: "You can never know the help and comfort you have been to us. . . . Oh if you could only have been in our little room that February evening when your kind voice spoke The Lord Is My Shepherd. . . . It seemed as though you had taken our feeble old hands into your strong young ones and were showing us the way home to Mother, Father, and the boys, Dear Mr. Woollcott, you brought a little bit of heaven to us that winter night. . . ."
That second missive contained a sad note, however. Minnie had died shortly after the Woollcott reading. The Town Crier was more distraught than ever. He had Troy scoured for any clues to Susan Lovice Staples' whereabouts, and when that failed he sent a representative to Belfast, Maine, the Staples sisters reputedly birthplace. Church records were perused; cemeteries searched, but no trace of a Staples family could be found.
Woollcott broadcast an over-the-air appeal for Susan Staples to reveal herself. He obtained no reply until several months later, when he received a letter postmarked Albany and signed by a "Nurse Obrien" who notified Woollcott of Susan's demise. She described the old woman's reactions as Woollcott spoke out to her: "I wish you could have seen [We've heard that line before] her little wasted face when you called her your sister. It looked like a light had been lit and was shining through her eyes and skin. She stretched out both h her arms like she was taking hold of your hands. . . . Once she called out your name and blessed you . . ."
The awed Woollcott now commenced another still more frantic search. Death records were ransacked and no trace of either Staples could be found, nor could any record of a "Nurse Obrien." Woollcott fended off all suggestions that he had been hoaxed until he came across Dr. Thompson one day at a class-reunion at Hamilton College where both had matriculated.
Realizing that Thompson, living in Albany, a man of literary ability, an antiquarian, and an old friend of his, possessed all the attributes that the hoaxer would, Woollcott turned on him with a sudden accusation.
Thompson denied the offense--and never did admit to any foreknowledge of it. So the mystery of the radio announcer and college professor remains open to this day. Whatever the case, Woollcott should have realized something was amiss long before he actually did.
For the date on the second and longest letter he received, the one signed "Susan Lovice Staples," was dated April 1--April Fool's Day 1935.