February 9, 2017
by Ian Dreiblatt
Nevertheless, he’s gone.
Professor Irwin Corey, the world’s foremost authority, has died at the age of 102, leaving foremostness and authority in a state of imbalance from which they will likely never again approach authority or, foremost, the world. And what is more.
Corey was a rare and magnificent performer-cum-deformer — of language, of affects, and of the kinds of pretense the world is made from. For decades, he was a staple of American TV and live comedy, instantly recognizable in his ill-fitting coat, string tie, and bonkers hairdo, spouting wondrous gibberish that, without meaning a goddamn thing, nonetheless pointed with ragamuffin grace to the absurdities atop which so much public language teeters.
Corey, the youngest of six children, was born poor in New York City, a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. After a rough childhood—his mother, Jenny, a dressmaker, had the children placed in the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of New York to keep them from being put up for adoption—he hoboed west to California, where he cobbled together a mixture of school, work, professional boxing (he was a featherweight), and button-making. This last engagement earned him membership in the International Ladies Garment Union, which would in turn set him on a course of lefty political agitation that would last the rest of his life.
By the early forties, Corey was back in New York and taking work as an actor. Once, at an audition, Corey read Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be” monologue and elicited howling laughter from a casting director who told him, “You should be a comedian.” He took the advice.
Over the next seventy-plus years, he could be seen often on stages and screens around the country. His signature move was to wind a blustery, scholarly diction in preposterous circles, an intellectual burlesque that seemed to model, with shabby elegance, the nonplussed response of reason itself to a century of cartoonish, often horrific excesses. He could be blandly bureaucratic (“If we don’t change direction soon, we’ll wind up where we’re going”), squackademic (“Today, we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure”), and oddly wistful (“Being born in New York, it was wonderful because on a clear day you could see where you lived”). The critic Kenneth Tynan once famously described him as “Chaplin’s tramp with a college education.” He was wont to amble up to microphones and begin his speeches with the word “However—”, and did indeed declare himself “the world’s foremost authority,” a title no fool ever seems to have contested.
If you’d like your day to get a whole lot better, check out this video of Corey, around the age of seventy, conscripting a thirty-something David Letterman as his straight man on Late Night in 1983:
Corey would also keep up with politics for his entire life. In 1960, he ran for president under slogans like “Vote for Irwin and get on the dole!” and “Professor Corey will run for any party and bring his own bottle.” Less impishly—and at real personal risk, given the red-baiting atmosphere of the times—he raised $40,000 in the sixties to send to Cuba for medical supplies, and met Fidel Castro in New York. Into his nineties, he was still panhandling around Manhattan (this is true) to collect funds for Cuban orphans, estimating that he had gathered hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years. Corey’s manager, Irvin Arthur, told the New York Times the fundraising was “an extension of his performing.” In 1970, Corey told the Washington Post, “The role of the artist is to be a rebel. That’s what the great ones have always been.”
Although he was not an author of books, Corey made a direct and lasting impression on the publishing world, too. In 1974, Thomas Pynchon was given the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, his massive, weird, unstraightforward novel of the V-2 rocket and its role in World War II. The book has affinities with Corey’s brand of sidewinding, low-meets-high, digressions-becoming-the-main-path monologue, and its author, being a notorious recluse, was unknown to most of the audience. Corey and Pynchon had a mutual friend, and that is why, on April 18, 1974, at Alice Tully Hall, after being introduced as Thomas Pynchon by none other than Ralph Ellison, Irwin Corey was able to accept the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow, and make this speech:
However… accept this financial stipulation — ah — stipend in behalf of, uh, Richard Python for the great contribution and to quote from some of the missiles which he has contributed… Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure. Howewer you say — WHAT THE — what does this mean… in relation to the tabulation whereby we must once again realize that the great fiction story is now being rehearsed before our very eyes, in the Nixon administration… indicating that only an American writer can receive… the award for fction, unlike Solzinitski whose fiction doesn’t hold water. Comrades — friends, we are gathered here not only to accept in behalf of one recluse — one who has found that the world in itself which seems to be a time not of the toad — to quote even Studs TurKAL. And many people ask, “Who are Studs TurKAL?” It’s not “Who are Studs TurKAL?”, it’s “Who am Studs TurKAL?” This in itself as an edifice of the great glory that has gone beyond, and the intuitive feeling of the American people, based on the assumption that the intelligence not only as Mencken once said, “He who underestimates the American pubic — public, will not go broke.” This is merely a small indication of this vast throng gathered here to once again behold and to perceive that which has gone behind and to that which might go forward into the future… we’ve got to hurdle these obstacles. This is the main deterrent upon which we have gathered our strength and all the others who say, “What the hell did that get?” — We don’t know. We’ve got to peforce withold the loving boy… And as Miller once said in one of his great novels — what did he… that language is only necessary when communication is endangered. And you sit there bewildered, and Pinter who went further said, “It is not the lack of communication but fear of communication.” That’s what the Goddamn thing is, it’s we fear — communication. Oh — fortunately the prize has only been given to authors — unlike the Academy Award which is given to a female and a male, indicating the derision of the human specie — God damn it! But we have no paranoia, and Mr. Pynchon has attained, and has created for himself serenity, and it is only the insanity that has kept him alive in his paranoia. We speak of the organ… of the orgasm… Who the hell wrote this? And the jury has determined to divide the prize between two writers — to Thomas Pynchon for his Gravity’s Rainbow. Now Gravity’s Rainbow is a token of this man’s genius… he told me so himself… that he could… in other words, have been more specific, but rather than to allude the mundane, he has come to the conclusion that brevity is the importance of our shallow existence. God damn. Ladies and gentlemen. To the distinguished panel on the, on the dais and to the other winners, for poetry and religion and science. The time will come when religion will outlive its usefulness. Marx, Groucho Marx, once said that religion is the opiate of the people. I say that when religion outlives its usefulness, then opium… will be the opiate… Ahh that’s not a bad idea… All right… However, I want to thank Mr. Guinzburg, Tom Guinzburg of the Viking Press, who has made it possible for you people to be here this evening to enjoy the Friction Citation — the Fiction Citation. Gravity’s Rainbow — a small contribution to a certain degree, since there are over three and a half billion people in the world today. 218 of them… million live in the United States which is a very, very small amount compared to those that are dying elsewhere… Well, I say that you will be on the road to new horizons, for we who live in a society where sex is a commodity and a politician can become a TV personality, it’s not easy to conform if you have any morality… I, I, I said that myself many years ago… But I do want to thank the bureau… I mean the committee, the organization for the $10,000 they’ve given out… tonight they made over $400,000 and I think that I have another appointment. I would like to stay here, but for the sake of brevity I, I must leave. I do want to thank you, I want to thank Mr. TurKAL. I want to thank Mr. Knopf who just ran through the auditorium and I want to thank Breshnev, Kissinger — acting President of the United States — and also want to thank Truman Capote and thank you.
Corey kept on performing through his very old age. At his hundredth birthday party, he quipped, “My son is writing a book, called The First Hundred Years are the Hardest.” His daughter Margaret having died in 1997 and his wife Frances in 2011, he is survived by his son Richard, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, and fans of grateful generations. Wail and hair fell, Professor.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.