Friday, October 16, 2015

Tainted cole slaw contributed to the death of ‘worsifier’ Ogden Nash at 68

Everyone who knows that candy is dandy can undoubtedly provide the next line of that short verse by Ogden Nash. The undisputed American master of light verse was born August 19, 1902, in Rye, New York, a descendant of Francis Nash, the Revolutionary War general for whom Nashville, Tennessee, was named. Nash attended private school in Rhode Island, and then entered Harvard University, where he stayed for only a year.

He went to work as a Wall Street bond salesman (later claiming he sold only one bond in two years—to his godmother) and then taught school, wrote copy for the same New York advertising agency that had once employed F. Scott Fitzgerald, worked in the marketing department at Doubleday publishers, and finally joined the editorial staff of The New Yorker—a job that lasted only three months. After his first book, Hard Lines, won national acclaim, Nash gave up day jobs and devoted himself fulltime to humorous verse, in which he often satirized American social life. With his wife, Frances, he moved to Baltimore, where he lived the rest of his life. 

Known both for his trenchant observations as well as his whimsical rhyming—such as “sybarites” with “flibbertigibberites” and “paunchy” with “Givenchy”—Nash created nonsense verse that conveyed plenty of common sense. Never assuming the mantle of poet or even of versifier, instead he called himself a “worsifier.” Among his output were fourteen books of light verse, several Hollywood screenplays (among them bits of The Wizard of Oz), the book and lyrics for the 1943 Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (which included the hit song “Speak Low, When You Speak Love”), several children’s books, the Broadway revue Nash At Nine, and frequent lectures and television appearances. 

Nash could be insouciant about religious observance and the afterlife, as he indicates in a verse called “I Didn’t Go to Church Today”:

                        I didn't go to church today,
                        I trust the Lord to understand.
                        The surf was swirling blue and white,
                        The children swirling on the sand.
                        He knows, He knows how brief my stay,
                        How brief this spell of summer weather,
                        He knows when I am said and done
                        We'll have plenty of time together.

Nash’s stay was all too brief and ended on May 19, 1971, at the age of sixty-eight, in Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he succumbed to Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder, complicated by a lactobacillus infection acquired from consuming cole slaw that had been improperly handled. As Nash might possibly have observed, if he hadn’t died before he could think of it:

            The sole flaw
            Of cole slaw:
            A bacillus
            That can kill us.

Nash is buried in East Side Cemetery in North Hampton, New Hampshire, a seaside town where he spent the summers.

 “I Didn’t Go to Church Today,” by Ogden Nash, from The Best of Ogden Nash, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, 2007. ©2007 by Linell Nash Smith and the estate of Isabel Nash Eberstadt. Reprinted with permission.


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

    The only Nash poem I know.