Poet left indelible mark on family, society

October 31, 2001|By Frances R. Smith | Frances R. Smith,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Honor: The U.S. Postal Service unveils today a draft of the commemorative stamp of Ogden Nash that will be released next year on the 100th anniversary of his birth. A granddaughter offers a remembrance of the poet-writer and the photo that inspired artist Michael Deas' rendition of the stamp.

Until I took on the task of helping settle my late grandmother's estate in 1994, the name Ogden Nash simply meant the kind and gentle man who was my grandfather. It meant the man who cooked wonderful steaks at summer cook-outs, the man who read Kipling, Tolkien and Arthur Conan Doyle aloud to his grandchildren while they drew and colored pictures.

Growing up as a Nash grandchild, I was a constant frustration to my English teachers, who insisted I had at least a unique literary insight - if not talent - by virtue of some uncracked genetic code passed on by my grandfather.

The first time I began to realize how others viewed my grandfather was in the late 1980s when I attended a Smokey Robinson concert at Pier 6. At one point in the concert, Robinson mentioned that his favorite lyricist was Ogden Nash. Then he sang "Speak Low." I was stunned - even more so when I learned that everyone I asked in the audience knew and loved the song.

In discovering the scope and depth of Nash's contribution to American literature and culture, I realized the continuing popularity and timelessness of much of his work. How many artists have had material performed by luminaries ranging from Bugs Bunny to Barbra Streisand? Or had their poem become the most stolen New York MTA subway placard, causing transit officials to sell a special run of "Riding on a Railroad Train" ?

Now I receive about 10 e-mails a week from Nash fans; three in particular speak to Nash's reach. Irv Pliskin from New Jersey is a World War II veteran. He was looking for a Nash poem, "The Four Prominent Bastards," that, together with a paperback of Nash poems, saw him through the trenches of Europe in 1945.

Judith Ward, an elementary school teacher in Texas, was looking for more Nash verse because she found it useful in getting her students excited about language and reading.

Joe Corey, a 30-year-old English scholar and banker from Indiana, wrote because he admires Nash's mastery of language. I met Corey this spring and was astounded by his knowledge both of my grandfather and of his works.

Many people know Nash for his children's books and verse, but don't know his verse commentary in The New Yorker or his songwriting collaborations with Kurt Weill. Others who know his adult poems don't know about the songs or his children's works.

At the same time, many Baltimoreans still do not know that Nash spent the bulk of his working life here (first in Roland Park and later at Cross Keys) and died in 1971 at Johns Hopkins. He was an avid Orioles and Colts fan - writing numerous verses for each. He was a regular at Pimlico, Center Stage, the symphony and the Mechanic Theatre. He served on several boards, including The Maryland Children's Aid Society.

It was a wonderful surprise to the family to receive the news last year of the post office's decision to honor Nash with a commemorative stamp in 2002. But it was even more fun when we looked at the draft of the stamp.

The image was taken from the one photograph of my grandfather that the whole family loves. Shot in the mid-1950's by Kay Bell (Reynal), it came from a photo session for the 1957 publication of "You Can't Get There From Here." The photograph was hanging over my home computer when the post office called.

Ogden Nash works


Some primal termite knocked on wood Tasted it, and found it good, And that is why your Cousin May Fell through the parlor floor today.

A Word 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.

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