|Born||October 1, 1885|
New York City, New York, United States
|Died||December 18, 1977 (aged 92)|
Newtown, Connecticut, United States
|Occupation||Author, anthologist, editor, poet|
Louis Untermeyer (October 1, 1885 - December 18, 1977) was an American poet, anthologist, critic, and editor. He was appointed the fourteenth Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1961.
Untermeyer was born in New York City, the son of a German-Jewish jewelry manufacturer. He initially joined his father's firm as a designer, rising to the rank of vice president, before resigning from the firm in 1923 to devote himself to literary pursuits. He was, for the most part, self-educated.
He married Jean Starr in January 1907, and their son Richard was born in December of that year. (Richard Untermeyer committed suicide in 1927, at the age of 19.) After a 1926 divorce, they were reunited in 1929, after which they adopted two sons, Laurence and Joseph. He married the poet Virginia Moore (1903-1993) in 1927; their son, John Moore Untermeyer (1928), was renamed John Fitzallen Moore after a painful 1929 divorce. In the 1930s, he divorced Jean Starr Untermeyer and married Esther Antin (1894-1983). This relationship also ended in divorce in 1945. In 1948, he married Bryna Ivens, an editor of Seventeen magazine.
Untermeyer's first book of poetry, First Love (1911), reflected the influences of Heinrich Heine and British poet Laurence Housman. His next collection, Challenge (1914), showed his growing maturity as a poet.
Untermeyer was known for his wit and his love of puns. For a while, he held Marxist beliefs, writing for magazines such as The Masses, through which he advocated that the United States stay out of World War I. After the suppression of that magazine by the U.S. government, he joined The Liberator, published by the Workers Party of America. Later he wrote for the independent socialist magazine The New Masses. He was a co-founder, in 1916, of The Seven Arts, a poetry magazine that is credited for introducing many new poets, including Robert Frost, who became Untermeyer's long-term friend and correspondent.
On May 1, 1935, Untermeyer joined the League of American Writers (1935-1943), whose members included Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Frank Folsom, Alexander Trachtenberg, I.F. Stone, Myra Page, Millen Brand, and Arthur Miller. (Members were largely either Communist Party members or fellow travelers.)
In 1950, Untermeyer was a panelist during the first year of the What's My Line? television quiz program. According to Bennett Cerf, Untermeyer would sign virtually any piece of paper that someone placed in front of him, and Untermeyer inadvertently signed a few Communist proclamations. According to Cerf, Untermeyer was not at all a communist, but he had joined several suspect societies that made him stand out. He was named during the hearings by the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigating communist subversion. The Catholic War Veterans and right-wing organizations began hounding Untermeyer. Goodson-Todman, producer of the show, did not act on the protests against Untermeyer for some time, but finally war veterans began picketing outside the New York City television studio from which What's My Line? was telecast live. The pressure became too great, and the sponsor Jules Montenier, inventor of Stopette deodorant, said, "After all, I'm paying a lot of money for this. I can't afford to have my product picketed."
At that point, the producers told Untermeyer that he had to leave the television series. The last live telecast on which he appeared was on March 11, 1951, and the mystery guest he questioned while blindfolded was Celeste Holm. The kinescope of this episode has been lost. His exit led to Bennett Cerf becoming a permanent member of the program.
The controversy surrounding Untermeyer led to him being blacklisted by the television industry. According to Untermeyer's friend Arthur Miller, Untermeyer became so depressed by his forced departure from What's My Line? that he refused to leave his home in Brooklyn for more than a year, and his wife Bryna answered all incoming phone calls. It was she who eventually told Miller what had happened because Untermeyer would not pick up the phone to talk to him, even though Miller's support of blacklisted writers and radio and television personalities was well-known to Untermeyer and many others. But for more than a year, whenever Miller dialed the Untermeyers' phone number, Bryna "talked obscurely about [her husband Louis] not wanting phone conversations anymore, preferring to wait until we could all get together again," wrote Miller.
Miller was a "very infrequent television watcher" in 1951, according to words he used in his 1987 autobiography, and so he did not notice that Bennett Cerf had replaced Untermeyer on the live TV game show. Miller did read New York City newspapers every day, but apparently there was no published report of Untermeyer's disappearance from television, so Miller was unaware that anything was wrong until Untermeyer's wife Bryna eventually revealed what the problem was, after they had conversed by phone for more than a year.
Louis Untermeyer was the author or editor of close to 100 books, from 1911 until his death. Many of them and his other memorabilia are preserved in a special section of the Lilly Library at Indiana University. Schools used his Modern American and British poetry books widely, and they often introduced college students to poetry. He and Bryna Ivens Untermeyer created a number of books for young people, under the Golden Treasury of Children's Literature. Untermeyer also rounded up contributors for a Modern Masters for Children series published by Crowell-Collier Press in the 1960s--the books were designed to have a vocabulary of 800 words and contributors included Robert Graves, Phylis McGinley, and Shirley Jackson. He lectured on literature for many years, both in the US and other countries. In 1956 the Poetry Society of America awarded Untermeyer a Gold Medal. He also served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1961 until 1963.