The creator of Archy & Mehitabel, Freddy the Rat, Warty Bliggens the Toad, The Old Soak, Hermione and other timeless American treasures
How Archy was born in The Atlanta Journal by Wylly Folk St. John The Atlanta Journal November 11, 1951
THERE's a little brown cottage down in Macon, Ga., where Don Marquis is still alive.
The obituary editorials -- tender, affectionate eulogies they are, too, written by some of the best literary men of our time -- say that Don Marquis died in 1937. But Charlie Bayne can see him as well as ever -- a strange thing, because most people would judge that a Mr. Bayne's eyes are not as good as they used to be. He is 80 years old; his silken silver-white hair is worn an old fashioned poet's-length; and he is probably the oldest active newspaper man in Georgia. He goes from the brown cottage every day down to his little office at The Macon Telegraph, to dictate his column and his Sunday editorials -- the office which he says is not much larger but a lot cleaner than the one he used to share with Don Marquis when The Atlanta Journal was on Broad Street.
It was in this tiny cubbyhole of an office, says Charlie Bayne, that archy the (lower case) cockroach, Don Marquis's most famous character, was born. Mr. Bayne has no trouble, across time and space and the wave-glass nostalgia of age, in seekng Don at his old desk there, keen and laughing and somehow always 25, talking about his sardonic cockroach who had the transmigrated soul of a verse libre poet.
You may have thought archy and mehitabel, the toujours-gai alley cat, were born in Don Marquis's column, The Sun Dial, on The New York Sun. It is true that they first saw the light of print on that paper, but when young Charlie Bayne and Don Marquis occupied that Journal office, archy was right in there with them, crawling over the paste pot and literally leaving tracks on Don's typewriter keys; and mehitabel was flirting with a lean and hungry tom cat in the alley instead of catching the rats she was employed to remove from The Journal premises. Christopher Morley has advanced the happy legend that mehitabel grew from the lettering on a packing box Don used for a typewriter desk when the Sun moved offices and his desk was misplaced. The box said, "One gross tom cat" -- having once held tomato catsup. But mehitabel was no tom cat -- she was "always a lady in spite of hell." And besides, there she was in the old Journal building, long before the Sun days, taking a swipe with a lackadaisical paw at archy as he flung himself headlong onto the typewriter keys. (You remember he could not work the shift key; so all his free-verse appeared without capitals or punctuation marks.)
MR. BAYNE remembers how he and Don talked, in that little office as well as roving all over Atlanta, about everything from archy to Kit Marlowe. They were close friends from 1903 on until Don went to New York. Mr. Bayne followed Don in several jobs: on the old Atlanta News and then on to The Journal around 1906, where he remained when Don left to go to the Uncle Remus Magazine with Joel Chandler Harris. But all the time Don was in Atlanta, on The Journal and off, they were close friends. Mr. Bayne, who has published four books himself, has a shelf of Marquis in his library, gift copies autographed with affectionate message from the author, for the most part. There is one leather-bound copy of "The Master of the Revels" which was made into a special one-volume edition by Don for Charlie, to whom it is dedicated because the idea for it grew out of some of their talks together. In the dedication the author reminisces about their youth, reminding Charlie how "we worshipped together at the shrine of Keats, Shakespeare and Kit Marlow, in the fragrance of blossoming honeysuckle and spilled bourbon . . . wallowing in youth, springtime and poetry." He recalls the time Charlie flagged down a train just to ask the engineer for a match, and other mad and wonderful exploits of their salad days, their own Mermaid Tavern experiences.
And though Charlie never saw Don Marquis but once, after the author left Atlanta for New York, his friend is just as alive for him today as he ever was. (Charlie doesn't even use the past tense when he speaks of Don, sometimes.) The one time was when Mr. Bayne was on his wedding trip to New York.
THE memories Mr. Bayne has of Don are many of them inconsequential, yet provide bright intimate sidelights on an author who has charmed the succeeding generations as thoroughly as his own. Don Marquis's name was not Don, but Robert -- he was tagged "Don" by a brother who thought he looked like the family dog, Don Pedro. He always said there was a family tradition that he was born during a total eclipse of the sun.
Mr. Bayne tells how he and Don used to go to Grant Park together and feed tobacco to the deer ("They loved it"); and how Don enjoyed rhubarb pie and steak and onions; and how he lived in a little boarding house on Edgewood Avenue. Mr. Bayne's scrapbooks are full of Don Marquis -- and archy -- clippings.
Looking back over the free-verse of archy, one is often struck by the odd timeliness of his ideas even now, more than 30 years after the cockroach spoke. In one column he predicted the atom bomb, "I shall fling the mighty atom that splits a planet asunder"; and in another he said,
"I have the feeling that something else
will have to be done as well
i am ashamed to say that I dont
feel any surer of what it is
that has to be done
than the economists and financiers
and other experts and wizards who are
at the present moment not doing it"
When Don Marquis died, Mr. Bayne of course wrote The Macon Telegraph's obituary editorial on his friend. As he tells it, "I am not usually emotional, but when I tried to dictate at the end that quotation from Hamlet,
'Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest . . .'
I choked up and couldn't finish it."
But Don Marquis couldn't really die, to Mr. Bayne. And though it has long been gone from busy Broad Street in Atlanta, that little dirty office is still somewhere in time-and-space, occupied by young Charlie Bayne and Don Marquis and a girl mailing clerk named Helen, and a cat named mehitabel and a cockroach named archy.