The legendary day Gertrude Stein met Roundy

Literary icon met popular local columnist in 1934
The legendary day Gertrude Stein met Roundy
Images courtesy of John Hopkins University Press and Amazon.com
The publication of a new biography of Gertrude Stein (left) brings to mind her meeting in Madison with local columnist Roundy Coughlin nearly 85 years ago.

Gertrude Stein was an American writer known for her experimental prose and a salon in 1920s Paris that attracted the likes of Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.

Joseph Leo Coughlin was a Madison newspaper columnist known for his eccentric prose and a nickname — Roundy — that, beginning in the 1920s and lasting half a century, was instantly recognizable to Midwest readers.

Now, a new book, “Gertrude Stein Has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend” by Roy Morris Jr., chronicles the 1934 tour that brought these two outsized personalities, Gertrude Stein and Roundy, together in Madison.

I haven’t yet managed to lay my hands on the book, so I don’t know if Morris touches on Stein’s Madison stop. A Sept. 7 Wall Street Journal review noted that Morris “seems content to take us through the trip chronologically,” so presumably Stein’s time in Madison gets coverage.

But it really doesn’t matter, because a report on the Stein-Roundy summit has already been filed by Roundy himself, in a memorable piece published Dec. 7, 1934, in the Milwaukee Journal. First, let me provide a little background on Roundy, who makes several appearances in Stuart Levitan’s fine recent book on Madison in the 1960s. Stu “got” Roundy’s philistine-of-the-prairie persona and sprinkled boxed excerpts from Roundy columns throughout the book.

By the 1960s, Roundy had been Madison’s best-read columnist for decades.

The foremost account of Roundy’s improbable life and career is John Newhouse’s book, “What More Could Be Fairer: The Story of Roundy.” Newhouse was an excellent Wisconsin State Journal reporter and feature writer. His son, Eric Newhouse, won a Pulitzer Prize.

Roundy would not have impressed the Pulitzer jury. But he got the attention of the staff of The Daily Cardinal, circa 1920, who drank in the pool hall Roundy, a Madison native, operated. Roundy impressed the student journalists with his ability to pick college football winners. His selections and droll commentary were soon published in the Cardinal.

Newhouse noted: “Roundy was stricken with the incurable disease of liking to see his immortal prose in print.”

That prose — grammar-free and punctuation-challenged — moved to The Capital Times and then, in 1924, to the Wisconsin State Journal, where he spent 47 years. Roundy was already so popular the State Journal trumpeted the switch as “the most significant newspaper announcement in years.”

In a sense, Roundy was ahead of his time, offering brief, random takes that would have worked well on Twitter. Like this one: “A lot of times slot machines spit and you get some money but the parking meters just say so long sucker.”

I met Roundy once. It was the late 1960s. My dad was manager of WKOW–TV, Channel 27. On fall Friday nights, they had Roundy on the local news to pick the next day’s football games. One night my dad took me along and we watched from the control room. I remember, 20 seconds before “air,” the director’s frantic cry to the studio: “Tell Roundy to zip his pants!”

Gertrude Stein’s 1934 tour of the United States was precipitated by the publication, a year earlier, of her book, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” Toklas being her longtime partner. The book was a surprise hit. Americans wanted to see the author.

Stein visited Madison on Dec. 6, 1934, and delivered two lectures to large crowds in the Memorial Union’s Great Hall. The State Journal assigned different reporters to each speech and ran both accounts side by side on page one of the next day’s paper.

Oddly, Roundy’s account appeared Dec. 7, not in the State Journal but rather the Milwaukee Journal, and was reprinted in Newhouse’s book.

I particularly like the way a Milwaukee editor introduced Roundy’s story:

“Roundy Coughlin of Madison, whose bizarre treatment of the King’s English has delighted sports page readers for years, interviewed Gertrude Stein Thursday. Roundy avers that his style is the natural result of a fall from a telephone pole several years ago. He landed on his head.”

Early in his Stein story, Roundy noted, “After talking to Gertrude Stein a while it wasn’t long before I knew that we both didn’t know what it was all about.”

A classic of failed communication followed, and before too long, Roundy wrote, he was headed for the door.

“Gertrude Stein looked at me,” Roundy concluded, “as if to say there’s a guy that’s just dumb enough to be smart. Well I said goodbye to Gertrude she said goodbye professor you ought to have heard the co-eds giggle and laugh then but I’ve always made the co-eds happy and I made Gertrude Stein awful happy too when I left.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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