The First Roast
by Kate Davis Jones
The week before Christmas of 1895, in the parlor of one of the fanciest hotels in Buffalo, New York, the Society of the Philistines held its first annual dinner to celebrate six successful months of its eponymous little magazine. The editors, Elbert Hubbard and Henry Taber, sat at the foot and head of the long table. The guest of honor, twenty-three-year-old writer Stephen Crane, sat anxiously fidgeting beside one of his only friends, Willis Hawkins, another writer twenty years his senior. Twenty-seven others were in attendance, mostly men of the New York newspaper and publishing world, and the booze was flowing. Hubbard opened with an eloquent address lauding the importance of Crane’s work to the American literary landscape, and closed it by welcoming a “’strong voice now heard in America,’ the voice of Stephen Crane.” Crane was then called upon to respond. He stammered his way through a short speech: He’d done nothing of import, he said; he was just writing what he saw, how he saw it. Taber stood to begin the toasts in Crane’s honor. “Probably,” Taber said, “the most unique — ” Near the foot of the table, a drunk reporter heckled, “Can ‘unique’ be compared?” It was the equivalent of the first spitball: something can’t be more unique than something else, duh. The roast began.
A roast, popularized in recent years by Comedy Central as a place for maligned celebrities to show off how good-natured they are, like Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump, is an event in which a celebrity (usually a man) is taken down a few notches by good-natured jabs from friends. In the early nineteen hundreds, a group of Broadway theater reps and New York City publicists founded the Friars Club, and the men started having an annual dinner where they ribbed on a member in a friendly, good-natured fashion. (“Let me give you an idea of the friendship Johnny Carson and I have for each other,” Groucho Marx deadpanned at the 1968 Friars Club roast of Johnny Carson, “I’ll never forget the first night I met him — and heaven knows I’ve tried.”) With their roots in the New York entertainment world, Friars were often celebrities. The first roastee was popular Broadway playwright Clyde Fitch, who once had five Broadway plays running at once. The dinner was such a success that three more industry personalities (an entrepreneur, an actor, and a composer) were roasted before the year was out. Out there, the roast implies, you’re that famous guy, but in here, you’re just another member of the club. The Friars’ motto is “We only roast the ones we love,” and roastees like Carson and Fitch were club members first, famous people second.
But long before Comedy Central, and even before the Friars, men were gathering in clubs to drink and shoot the shit. Stephen Crane was not one of those men. Clubs required money and friends to spend it with. Crane had neither. He was reclusive, constantly broke, and had bad teeth, Dumbo ears, unfashionable hair, an unflattering mustache, iffy manners, and a love of finding stories to report on in the rough-edged slums of New York City. In May of 1895, Crane was living with his brother, freelancing in New York City, and dangerously close to being broke. He published a short book of poems called The Black Riders. The New York Tribune called it “so much trash,” and the New York World said it “had better be forgotten.” At the time, popular poetry was verse: elegant, rhyming, metered, often waxing on and on about the beauty of nature (think Yeats, Thoreau, and the lines that would eventually become the lyrics to America the Beautiful). Crane ignored all that and published untitled freeverse scenes of the uncanny.
I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never — ”
“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.
Many red devils ran from my heart
And out upon the page,
They were so tiny
The pen could mash them.
And many struggled in the ink.
It was strange
To write in this red muck
Of things from my heart.
While Crane was writing in the red muck of his heart, a successful thirty-seven-year-old businessman named Elbert Hubbard had just ditched his soap company to pursue his literary passions, taking his remarkable understanding of marketing and advertising with him. He was a salesman through and through, a bit of a dandy, eccentric, but with self-confident charm. He founded the Roycroft Shop in East Aurora, New York, and enticed writers, craftsmen, and artists to join him, offering modest pay and — more seductively — artistic freedom with a guaranteed livelihood. In June, with co-editor Harry Taber, he began printing The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, a satirical “little magazine” that inspired many imitators and parodies during its peak at the turn of the century. The magazine ran criticism, poetry, parodies, and takedowns of journalists Hubbard didn’t like. The Society of the Philistines was founded alongside the magazine, and included the two editors and a handful of other local newspapermen. Hubbard got his hands on a copy of The Black Riders, and wrote a pithy review in the very first issue of the Philistine:
“Messrs. Copeland & Day of Boston recently published for Mr. Stephen Crane a book which he called ‘The Black Riders.’ I don’t know why; the riders might have easily been green or yellow or baby-blue for all the book tells about them, and I think the title ‘The Pink Roosters’ would have been better, but it doesn’t matter.”
But Crane was the kind of artist Hubbard wanted to support: young and fairly prolific with a vivid, new voice. Despite The Black Riders’ consistently bad reviews, Hubbard saw potential for Crane to make a splash in the literary world, and mailed a copy of his charming review to Crane, promising that it was nothing but a “little stunt.” He promised to take it back in the next issue, and asked Crane to contribute poems to the Philistine. (This was Hubbard’s charm: the neg.) He spun it as mutually beneficial transaction: There was no pay, but Crane would get exposure, and the magazine would get some lines to fill its pages. Hubbard saw himself as on the literary up-and-up, and saw a Crane on a similar path — what he didn’t say it outright, but knew, was that if Crane did succeed as a writer, he’d be associated with the Philistine, increasing its readership.
Crane, battered by The Black Riders’ bad reviews, sent Hubbard two poems. In the July issue, Hubbard published a bumbling parody of Crane’s poetry titled “THE SPOTTED SPRINTER.”
After the Manner of Mr. Steamin’ Stork.
I saw a man making a fool of himself;
He was writing a poem,
Scratch, scratch, scratch, went his pen,
“Go ‘way, Man,” says I; “you can’t do it.”
He picked up a handful of red devils and
Threw them at my head.
“You infernal liar!” he howled,
“I can write poetry with my toes!”
I was disquieted. I turned and
Ran like a Blue Streak for the Horizon,
Yelling Bloody Murder.
When I got there I
Bit a piece out of it
And lay down on my stomach and
And breathed hard.
After the parody, Crane’s poetry appeared in both the August and September issues of The Philistine. Then, in October, The Red Badge of Courage was published. In that month alone, glowing reviews appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The St. Paul Globe, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Chicago Post, and The Boston Times. Hubbard’s intuition had been correct.
A month later, in November, Hubbard mailed Crane a jaunty personal note above a fancy invitation. “The enclosed sounds a bit formal,” Hubbard wrote, “But it is all straight business.” The enclosed was a letter from The Society of the Philistines, inviting Crane to their first ever annual dinner, a mere six months after the first issue of their magazine. Crane had been regularly publishing poetry in the magazine, and The Red Badge was a smash, so Hubbard invited Crane to be the dinner’s guest of honor. The dinner would celebrate his achievements! It’d be grand.
Upon receiving the invitation, Crane freaked out and forwarded it to the man who would be his plus-one, Willis Hawkins, a respected New York City journalist and one of Crane’s closest confidants (until their relationship disintegrated a few years later over a money squabble). Crane, a recluse, went into fits of anxiety merely imagining this dinner, but couldn’t bring himself to outright reject the invitation without first hearing Hawkins’ judicious opinion.
CRANE: Write me at once and tell me how to get out of the thing. If you will invent for me a very decent form of refusal, I will still be happy up here in my woods.
HAWKINS: You must — you just must — accept their invitation. There is a business side of life that must not be wholly ignored. […] Tell me of the day you fix on, and I’ll agree that you’ll be togged properly for the occasion.
CRANE (not owning any proper clothes for a fancy dinner, but getting stoked anyway): The dinner scheme mingles my emotions. In one sense, it portends an Ordeal but in the larger sense it overwhelms me in pride and arrogance to think that I have such friends.
CRANE (three days later, ignoring Hawkins’ lack of response): Blast it all, on the strength of your letter I have accepted the invitation. […] What do you suppose made the Philistines do this dinner thing? Was it because I wrote for their magazine? You could have knocked me down with a gas-pipe when I got their bid.
HUBBARD (upon receiving the acceptance): I feared you might think we were merely contemplating a pleasant meeting and dinner with you. But it is more than this — you represent a ‘cause’ and we wish a dignified, public (and at the same time) elegant manner to recognize that cause.
CRANE (sending Hubbard’s letter to Hawkins, getting less stoked): Write to me quick and tell me that you don’t think I am a villian [sic]. Would you come out to Buffalo for the dinner?
HAWKINS: We’ll have a bully time.
In another letter to Crane, Hawkins laid out a clear order of their pre-dinner prep events, including meeting times, clothing items Crane needed to bring, and various what-if scenarios. Crane needn’t worry, Hawkin assured. Hubbard claimed to have sent two hundred invites to various men in the literary world; he had invited journalists and writers to the dinner because he wanted them to write about the night, drawing attention to the Philistine, increasing its circulation and profitability. But just thirty-one attended, including Crane and Hawkins — not a great turnout.1
Hubbard probably didn’t explicitly tell his guests how to behave at the dinner, but the Clover and Gridiron clubs were known in writerly circles, and their events provided the blueprints for smaller clubs. The Society of the Philistines was organized by that blueprint. With a bit of booze to loosen the tongue, it’s hard to imagine Hubbard didn’t know the jokes would start coming. But Crane, a young, broke, shy reporter, didn’t have that insight.
Even at the time, dinners in the style of Crane’s roast were not unheard of. The Clover Club was established in Philadelphia in 1882 by professional men who moonlighted as professional drinkers; it served as space for these men to build their friendships within the group, and as part of their annual dinner, they invited prominent members of the Philadelphia community — Mark Twain attended in 1885 — to address the club, and spontaneously heckled them throughout. The Gridiron Club of Washington D.C. was founded as a Clover clone, but its membership consisted of press and journalist men, and their dinners included planned skits and stunts to rib on guests. The clubs encouraged a raucous good time with a side order of networking. If you were liked in the group, often achieved by being a gracious roastee or hilarious roaster, you had access to a lot of people in your field who might be willing to help you boost your career.
On the day of the dinner, Crane and Hawkins met at the Genesee around noon. Hawkins had express-shipped an overcoat for Crane to wear, and together they hustled a passable outfit, borrowing a pair of cufflinks from another guest, Philistine contributor Frank Noxon, who never got them back. That evening, the Philistines threw their dinner in the Genesee’s private colonial parlor. Crane was already anxious about being the center of attention. Hubbard opened, Crane stammered, Taber toasted and the reporters launched the first spitball. After Taber, in the tradition of a roast, the guests were called upon to speak.
Guests gave toasts in honor of Crane, but each attendee was also heckled by the other attendees throughout their toast — a double-whammy. We don’t know exactly how many people spoke or for how long, but with someone of Crane’s disposition, it probably felt like about a century; there’s no record of the exact digs sent Crane’s way, but it’s not hard to speculate. Guests may have hit upon the Crane’s following quirks:
• Success in college as a baseball player and not much else
• Tendency to freeload clothes and housing from siblings and friends
• Fascination with the slums of New York (especially the women of them)
• Total bombing of first book, Maggie (one hopes, for Crane’s sake, that the roasters did not know Crane hired people to read it on the train in a failed attempt to increase its sales)
• Total failure and general weirdness of his poetry
• That whole thing where he wrote a book about the Civil War without ever being in a war himself (lauded for its heart-wrenching emotional detail, The Red Badge was a major departure from the stoicism of earlier Civil War writing, and many readers just assumed he had to be a veteran)
After the toasts, attendee Claude Bragdon stood up. “I came here to do honor to Stephen Crane, not to ridicule him,” he said. “I regret to take this step, but I cannot longer remain in the room.”
The door was behind Crane. Bragdon was across from him. When Bragdon tried to get up and leave the room, Hawkins stood and blocked the exit.
HAWKINS: I know Stephen Crane better than anyone else here. I have come here, like our friend, to do honor to Stephen Crane. I have taken part in all that has occurred, and he knows I love and admire him. He knows that you all do. I assure he feels more complimented by the spirit of this meeting that he would have been by all the solemn eulogies that could be pronounced.
CRANE: (nodding his head off)
EVERYONE ELSE: (awkward applause)
BRAGDON: I am sorry if I have had made a mistake. I beg your pardon.
HAWKINS: Pardon is granted you… on one condition.
HAWKINS: That condition… is that you turn around and take your seat.
Bradgon, cowed, did so. He believed Hubbard would not intentionally subject Crane to heckling since he was such a fan of Crane’s poetry. But Hubbard was a weird fan: He peppered his magazine with snide reviews and parodies of Crane’s work. In a letter to Crane, he claimed Crane’s poetry was so bizarre and evocative that it resisted traditional criticism — hence the reliance on humor, but with Hubbard it’s difficult to say what is truth and what is flattery.
After the dinner, the Buffalo Evening News reported on the welcoming statement and included the full guest list. It then succinctly noted that “Informal addresses by many others followed.” A month later, Crane clipped the article and enclosed it to a letter to a woman he was courting, Nellie Crouse. “I went to Buffalo,” he wrote, “And this is not at all what happened.” Hubbard capitalized on the Roast immediately: He published A Souvenir and a Medley, which simultaneously mocked and praised Crane, as Hubbard was wont to do. The pamphlet gushed that Crane’s work contains “a virile message, deep in its philosophy, daring in its imagery and unmistakable in the subtle play of its writer’s genius” but also takes care to note that reclusive, awkward Crane was only known in college for being a decent baseball player. The cover shows “black riders” on rocking-horses and a cartoon man pursuing the horizon. “It would be presumptious [sic] to claim that a single Square Meal brought such fame and fortune to a modest, blonde youth, wonderful heretofore only as a Shortstop,” the pamphlet reads in the foreword. Crane never became well-known for his poetry, but the success of The Red Badge, not the Philistines’ “Square Meal,” cemented his reputation as a writer.
Over the next few years, the Philistine continued to be a major outlet for Crane’s work, publishing twenty-one of his poems, some multiple times. Crane worked as a journalist in New York until 1896, when he was caught up in a misunderstood scandal of prostitution and opium. (Upon Crane’s leaving a hashish parlor, police tried to arrest a woman in his party, Dora Clark, for solicitation. He testified that she wasn’t soliciting and she was released. Clark sued the police for wrongful arrest, citing Crane as a witness, and when police searched his apartment they found his opium pipe. He unconvincingly claimed it just a souvenir. Testimonies dredged up Crane’s history of hanging out with women associated with brothels and opium dens. In 1896 sex and drugs were not good for one’s reporting reputation.) Between 1897 and 1900, he bounced between Greece, England, and Cuba, where he fell seriously ill. He died in a German sanatorium in May, 1900, at twenty-eight years old. Hubbard went down with the Lusitania in 1915, and the Philistine died with him. But the Clover Club still drinks and rollicks in Philadelphia, the Gridiron Club hosts the president each year, and Comedy Central and the Friars roast their celebrities separately.
“You have it all,” comedian Chris D’Elia said during the March 2015 Comedy Central Roast of Justin Bieber. He gripped the podium. Bieber was not in his line of sight. “You are literally a guy who has it all.” D’Elia looked directly into the camera. “Except for respect, love, friends, good parents, and a Grammy.” The audience tittered with laughter. Cut to Bieber, his shoulders shaking in a silent chuckle, an unmoving grin on his face.
1.Hubbard published the ominous regrets in A Souvenir and a Medley, a pamphlet about the dinner that included seven Crane poems and other writings.
S. S. MCCLURE (of McClure’s Magazine, and an original muckraking journalist): I admire Mr. Crane’s work, and I admire the man. I also admire the valiant Philistines — from a safe distance.
J.C. HOPPER (of the US Treasury): Mr. Crane certainly wears the Red Badge of Courage if he can face the Philistines in such an encounter as this.
AMBROSE BIERCE (actual Civil War veteran, strong critic of The Red Badge for fictionalizing the veteran’s narrative and contributor to a British Philistine parody, the subtly-titled Anti-Philistine): Were it not for the miles which separate us, I would be with you and lick a place so clean it would not need to be washed for a month
Photo from the Granger Collection