Ogden Nash Brings Us Home to Rye

No matter how far away I travel, I often encounter surprising reminders of my hometown, Rye, New York. The first time this happened, I was on a plane flying home from overseas, a rare flight without my children, and I was binge-watching movie after movie on the in-flight entertainment system. My third movie choice was the heartfelt and thought-provoking This Is Where I Leave You. Near the end of the movie, one of the characters drives into a picturesque town and parks outside of a pizza place – Sunrise Pizza. A new transplant to Rye, I pushed rewind on the screen a couple times, delighted to see the familiar street scene and more eager than before to reunite with my children. Last summer at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, the mother in the booth next to us was wearing a Milton School baseball cap, and against my better judgement given my children’s inability to remain in their seats with limbs in appropriate places and voices at an “indoor” level, I said hello and introduced myself, quickly discovering mutual Rye friends.

Over the recent spring break, my family and I traveled to Hawaii, joined by my sister and her family from Melbourne, Australia and my parents from Pennsylvania. Stopping by the road at a collection of food trucks in the trendy little surfer town of Hanalei Bay, we chatted over fish tacos, burritos and burgers. As we gazed up at the puffy white clouds drifting through a bright blue sky, obscuring the lush green mountain tops in this breathtaking town where the mountains reach from sky to sea, we had an impromptu discussion about music and poetry that brought us to Rye once again.

“Hanalei is from the song, Puff the Magic Dragon,” my dad stated. When it seemed people were vaguely interested in the topic, he continued, “You know, the one guy from Peter, Paul and Mary wrote that as a student at Cornell. But they say the land of Hanalee, not Hanalei.”

“But it was from a poem,” my mom added.

“Isn’t it supposed to be a metaphor for something… else?” my sister alluded.

“No, it was about a little boy and his dragon, and the kid grows up,” my dad countered, not open to anything but the literal interpretation.

“Jackie Paper,” I specified.

“Ogden Nash wrote it,” my mom interjected.

“No, Peter or Paul, whoever went to Cornell wrote it,” my dad insisted.

“Ogden Nash wrote the poem. Not the song itself, but the original poem,” my mom clarified.

“Ogden Nash is from Rye!” I said, remembering the room named after him at the Rye Free Reading Room, excited as this puzzle of partial information came together.
“April is National Poetry Month!” my daughter Eliza chimed in.

As some level of factual knowledge emerged, my thoughts turned away from the land by the sea to a figure from Rye’s history, a writer whose mastery of rhythm, rhyme, vocabulary and humor make him one of the most memorable American poets of this century: Ogden Nash.  Back at the hotel, with the tried-and-true research tools we call WiFi and Google, I found the original poem, The Tale of Custard the Dragon, by Ogden Nash. Other than featuring a dragon and a child, it bears little resemblance to the song, but is credited as the inspiration behind it. After reading a bit about his Rye upbringing, I followed Nash’s poetry into a lyrical rabbit hole of endless clever verses featuring word play that is simultaneously thought-provoking and hilarious.

Ogden Nash’s life story is one of hard work, self-discovery, passion and luck. He is on an informal list of college-drop-out-turned-creative-innovators that we both do and do not want our children to admire, including Bill Gates, Ellen DeGeneres , Maya Angelou and Walt Disney. Throughout his career, Nash carved out his own niche in literature and pop culture. He had broad appeal, resonating with children and adults, comedians and critics, highbrow literary types and sports fans alike. With clever wit and a personable demeanor, Nash was as popular on live radio and television shows as he was on the printed page.

Frederick Ogden Nash was born in Rye in 1902, the fourth of Edmund Nash and Mattie Chenault Nash’s five children. Other than the family living for a short time in Savannah, Georgia, Ogden spent his childhood here at an estate known as Ramaqua. In the rolling grass, ponds and woods surrounding his childhood home, Ogden developed a sense of adventure, a love of mischief and a rich imagination. According to legends, his home was haunted by a ghost and featured a secret tunnel, both of which he and his brother, Aubrey, spent afternoons hoping to discover. Ogden’s parents enjoyed their children’s playful demeanor and his father, while a serious business man, invented a game called “mushroom creeping,” teaching his children to sneak up on mushrooms before they pop back into the ground. Storytelling was a natural extension of Ogden’s youthful days spent playing, creating and exploring.

While Ogden Nash began writing and thinking in verse when he was six years old, it took him many years before starting his writing career. After graduating high school from St. George’s School in Rhode Island, Nash went to Harvard, but dropped out after one year. His father’s import/export business experienced a downturn, and rather than work to pay his way through college, Nash chose to find a full-time job. His first job was back at St. George’s School as a French teacher. Nash then moved to New York where he tried out investment banking before working on Wall Street as a bond salesman, soon concluding that this was not his calling when, after many months in the business, he had sold only one bond to his grandmother. Nash then transitioned into writing as a copywriter for an advertising company and then as an editor at Doubleday, Page & Co., who published a children’s book that he co-wrote in 1925. As his commitment to writing grew, Nash began looking more seriously for publishing opportunities. His big break came when the New Yorkeraccepted one of his poems, Spring Comes to Murray Hill, in 1930, asking him for more and eventually offering him a staff position.

Ogden Nash, on a visit from New York to Baltimore. Courtesy the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Ogden Nash only worked for a brief time at the New Yorkerbefore leaving to pursue his own writing interests. He married and moved to Baltimore, where he continued to live and work as a writer for the rest of his life. Throughout his long and successful career, Nash was a prolific writer who moved across genres and topics freely, infusing humor, rhyming patterns and creative narratives into poetry, screenplays and even Broadway musicals. His light verse and pun-filled rhymes were not without deeper meaning, however; Nash was a perceptive critic of American life, from politics to parenting and popular culture. He gave people common language to laugh at themselves, think critically and connect with others.

In that first New Yorker poem, submitted on a whim to the New Yorker, Ogden Nash’s perceptive wit and creative language that came to define his poetry are already evident:

Spring Comes to Murray Hill

I sit in an office at 244 Madison Avenue
And say to myself You have a responsible job havenue?
Why then do you fritter away your time on this doggerel?
If you have a sore throat you can cure it by using a good goggeral,
If you have a sore foot you can get it fixed by a chiropodist,
And you can get your original sin removed by St. John the Bopodist,
Why then should this flocculent lassitude be incurable?
Kansas City, Kansas, proves that even Kansas City needn’t always be
Missourible.
Up up my soul! This inaction is abominable.
Perhaps it is the result of disturbances abdominable.
The pilgrims settled Massachusetts in 1620 when they landed on a stone
hummock.
Maybe if they were here now they would settle my stomach.
Oh, if I only had the wings of a bird
Instead of being confined on Madison Avenue I could soar in a jiffy to
Second or Third.

Through this poem, I learned something new about a previous home of mine, an apartment in 244 Madison Avenue. My husband and I moved to a small unit in the converted high-rise after getting married, and it was our home when our first two children were born. I lived there for four years and never knew Ogden Nash once had an office in the building, writing his groundbreaking poem as he pondered his feeling of aimlessness. Life is full of coincidences.

As National Poetry Month nears the end, I leave you with a connection between Ogden Nash’s legacy and Rye in 2018. A few weeks ago, I attended the Rye Historical Society’s luncheon and listened to a favorite local humorist of today, Annabel Monaghan. Only a week later, as I laughed at the playful verses on my Ogden Nash journey, I recalled the explosions of laughter as Annabel described the CVS parking lot and other cultural idiosyncrasies in our hometown. Rye is full of stories and characters from the past and present. It is a town of writers, artists, teachers, investment bankers, advertising executives, police officers, philanthropists, mothers, fathers, and children dreaming of dragons as they play by the sea. Hopefully Ogden Nash’s imaginative poetry or the everyday surprises in life will inspire some children and adults to write a piece of their own Rye story.

 

For the sources behind this story, please visit the Rye Historical Society. A special thanks to Robert M. Parker for his informative biography, Ogden Nash: The Life and Work of America’s Laureate of Light Verse. 

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