Ogden Nash
[horizontal rule]

Picture courtesy of the United States Postal Service
Poet Ogden Nash is to be honored with the first stamp to be issued at the new first-class rate of 37 cents. It will come out about August 18, 2002 to honor the centennial of his birth (100 years after his birth).

A gentle satirist, Nash poked fun at human shortcomings without pessimism. He wrote on many subjects, but all of his poems expressed his dry wit and demonstrated his playfulness with language.

Poems by Ogden Nash

Photo courtesy of Linell Nash Smith and Isabel Nash Eberstadt
Ogden Nash]
Born on August 19, 1902 into a family that prized education, Ogden Nash was the next to youngest of five children (two girls and three boys). His maternal grandfather was a renowned educator and devout feminist in Louisville, Kentucky who started his own school and educated his own three daughters who applied in the 1870's to Harvard and other East Coast Ivy League colleges using only their initials for their first names on the applications. The daughters all were accepted until it was discovered they were women! This is important because it demonstrates the importance placed on a complete education by Nash's family, the basis for Nash's lifelong love of the classics, languages (including French, German, and Latin), and writing.

When he was 7 years old, Nash developed a serious eye infection that required he stay in bed in a darkened room for nearly a year. He was not permitted to use his eyes, so his mother not only read to him to help pass the time but also took on his schooling. This latter activity developed an extraordinary memory that would serve Nash well in his adult life as a poet and writer.

The Fly

God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.

By 10, Nash was demonstrating the flair for humorous verse that would mark his life-long career. However, he preferred writing serious poetry and, as he reached adolescence, he began writing poetry regularly for family and friends, his school's publications, and, on occasion, the local newspapers. But in those days, very few people could make a living writing poetry (or anything, for that matter) and, as he finished his freshman year at college his family ran into major financial difficulties, forcing Nash to leave college (to which he would never return) and to go to work to support himself and to help his family.

His first full-time job (at 19 years old) was as a teacher at his own high school. From there he went to work on the stock market where he sold one bond (to his god-mother) in eighteen months! His next job - as an advertising copy-writer for streetcar ads - at last began to use some of his creativity. It was during these years that - with co-author, Joseph Alger - Nash wrote his first commercially published work, "The Cricket of Carador". The book was children's fiction along the lines of "Alice In Wonderland" and sold only 900 copies. Nash was not especially disappointed since he had written it primarily for fun.

Nash's next job, however, was at Doubleday, Doran (now Doubleday) where he soon became an editor and enjoyed meeting and working with all the revered authors of the day, including: Dorothy Parker, Stephen Vincent Benet, P.G. Wodehouse, Thorne Smith, etc. It was here that his boss, and mentor, Dan Longwell encouraged Nash to submit some of the light verse he wrote when bored at the office to "The New Yorker." Much to Nash's surprise, they were bought and published, the first appearing in the January 11, 1930 issue of the magazine. And the rest, as they say, is history!

The Octopus

Tell me, O Octopus, I begs
Is those things arms, or is they legs?
I marvel at thee, Octopus;
If I were thou, I'd call me Us.

Nash never lost his childhood dream of being a serious poet but life intervened. In 1931, he married Frances Leonard, a Baltimore woman, and promptly had two baby girls, Linell and Isabel. Publishers would not even look at his serious material, and, in order to support his wife and children, Nash stuck with the light verse that became his trademark. Luckily, he enjoyed seeing the humor of everyday life and was able to illustrate it for us through his verse. As his career grew, he was able to satisfy his own appetite for serious writing through the inclusion of an occasional serious poem in books of collected Nash poems.

There are at least 1500 copyrighted works and no one is completely confident that there are not a good number more. Nash himself was not very good in keeping records. A full search at the Library of Congress could cost well over $20,000 which none of the family has as loose change to spend on such a project.

Most people do not know that Nash also was the lyricist for several musicals. He wrote the lyrics for "One Touch of Venus" (with Kurt Weill) which gave Mary Martin her big break on Broadway, "He and She", "Sweet Bye and Bye", "Two's Company" and "The Littlest Review". Smokey Robinson has said publicly that Nash is his favorite songwriter of all time.

Nash also did the verses to accompany Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals" at the urging of Andre Kostelanetz who also got him to write verses for Ravel's "Mother Goose Suite" and "Peter and the Wolf".

While a complete gentleman in every sense of the word, Nash was also a pragmatist. He was not "snooty" about selling his verse. He sold to magazines that included the following (in addition to the New Yorker): Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post, Ladies' Home Journal, Reader's Digest, and Playboy! He also sold to Hallmark and actually did some advertising verse for several companies. He strongly believed in providing for his family and since he often felt that the last poem he sold would indeed be his last, he was not choosy about buyers.

Many people think that writing humorous verse was easy for Nash, but it was far from it. He struggled over it daily, a task that was made all the more difficult as he did it at home - with all the distractions of family life, but he kept at it religiously. He always wrote on lined, yellow legal pads and was always making notes to himself about words and their relations to other words on little note pads that were scattered about his house. It was not unusual for him to write down a word he wanted to rhyme on one of these, another word to go with it on another pad a month or two later, and finally they would show up together in a poem two or three years later! Much of the inspiration for his poems really came from observing the day-to-day life around him, especially his poems dealing with relationships between husbands and wives:

Advice to Husbands

To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up!

Recognizing that it is almost unheard of to earn a living writing poetry, Nash was always afraid that the poem he had just sold would be the last one; since its income was the means by which he provided for his family, he could not merely sit back and hope the next one would be bought, too. So, to ensure a steadier income flow, he did something he hated - he regularly went on the lecture circuit! This meant he had to be away from home by himself for as much as two or three months at a time and that he had to stand up in front of a bunch of strangers and talk about his verse - a situation that had a distinctly negative impact on his health.

The Guppy

Whales have calves,
Cats have kittens,
Bears have cubs,
Bats have bittens,
Swans have cygnets,
Seals have puppies,
But guppies just have little guppies.

On a more personal note, he loved going to plays, reading murder mysteries (especially Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and Dick Francis), reading aloud to his children and grand-children (Kipling, Tolkein - before anyone knew him, and Lloyd Alexander), the beach at his summer home in New Hampshire where he swam every day in the 50-degree water, birds, dogs, and semi-annual visits to the racetrack.

Although born in Rye, New York, Nash was a true Baltimorean. Once he began to sell his poetry regularly, he quit his day job in New York and moved with his wife to Rugby Road in Baltimore, where he was an avid fan of the Orioles, the Colts, and Pimlico. For the last eight years of his life, he lived in the Village of Cross Keys, one of the very first residents of Jim Rouse's experiment in planned development.

Written by Frances R. Smith (Ogden Nash's Granddaughter)

© Copyright November 29, 1999, Office of the Secretary of State.
Last Modified February 15, 2003 .