George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) was the preeminent theater critic of his day. The author of 34 books on theater, and co-editor of the magazine The Smart Set with H.L. Mencken, Nathan set critical standards for writing about drama that remain influential today.
Nathan was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on February 14, 1882. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 1904. He was an active member of the Cornell community. He edited the Cornell Daily Sun and served on the editorial board of The Widow, Cornell's humor magazine. He was a champion fencer, and a member of Quill and Dagger.
Nathan began his career as a professional journalist at the New York Herald. In 1908 he was hired by The Smart Set as its drama critic, where he met H. L. Mencken, its book reviewer. The pair became life-long friends and assumed joint editorship of The Smart Set in 1914, and later founded The American Mercury in 1924. With these magazines they held powerful sway over American letters, publishing the best writing of the era.
In the spring of 1919 Nathan paid a then unknown and struggling Fitzgerald—who had written 19 stories and received 122 rejections over the previous year—the sum of $30 for his story, “Babes in the Wood.” It was Fitzgerald’s first commercial story sale. He promoted Fitzgerald’s career by publishing five more of his stories in The Smart Set in 1920 before Fitzgerald was famous. Fitzgerald later returned the favor by offering Nathan stories like “May Day” and “The Diamond as Big as a Ritz” when he could have commanded much higher prices from other magazines. Nathan and Fitzgerald would become close friends—Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were frequent dinner and theater guests of Nathan’s, with more than a few riotous weekend-long parties shared between them. Fitzgerald dedicated his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, to three colleagues, including Nathan, who also served as the model for one of the book’s main characters, the cynical, Maury Nobles.
Nathan was a notorious bachelor and man-about-town (he was the model for the caustic critic Addison De Witt in the film All About Eve). For forty-five years he lived in an apartment in the Royalton Hotel, located within steps of Broadway, the Algonquin, and the 21 Club, where he had his own table. His erudition and sharp wit made him the most widely read and highest paid theater critic in the world, and his influence on modern American theater endures today.
Cornell Library is home to George Jean Nathan’s archive, which Nathan bequeathed to his alma mater in 1958. His rich collection of manuscripts, books—including signed first edition copies of several of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books: Tales of the Jazz Age (1922), The Great Gatsby (1925), and Tender is the Night (1934)—and letters document his career as a writer and his relationships with some of the most important authors and playwrights of his time. Correspondence with Eugene O'Neill, Sean O'Casey, H. L. Mencken, F. Scott Fizgerald, and many others, is preserved in his papers.
By will bequest, Nathan established the annual George Jean Nathan Award for drama criticism in 1958. With winners selected by the heads of the English departments of Cornell, Princeton, and Yale for the “best piece of drama criticism during the theatrical year”, it is one of the richest and one of the most distinguished prizes in the American theater with annual awards now amounting to $10,000.