Irvin S. Cobb

Irvin S. Cobb
Born Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb
(1876-06-23)June 23, 1876
Paducah, Kentucky
Died March 11, 1944(1944-03-11) (aged 67)
New York City, New York
Spouse Laura Spencer Baker
Children Elisabeth Cobb (b. 1902)

Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb (June 23, 1876 – March 11, 1944) was an American author, humorist, editor and columnist from Paducah, Kentucky who relocated to New York in 1904, living there for the remainder of his life. He wrote for the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer's newspaper, as the highest paid staff reporter in the United States.

Cobb also wrote more than 60 books and 300 short stories. Some of his works were adapted for silent movies. Several of his Judge Priest short stories were adapted in the 1930s for two feature films directed by John Ford.


Cobb was the second of four children born to Kentucky natives in Paducah, Kentucky. His maternal grandfather, Reuben Saunders, M.D., is credited with discovering in 1873 that hypodermic use of morphine-atropine halted cholera. Cobb was raised in Paducah, and the events and people of his childhood became the basis for much of his later works.[1] Later in life, Cobb was nicknamed "Duke of Paducah."[2]

Cobb was educated in public and private elementary schools, and then entered William A. Cade's Academy intending to pursue a law career. When Cobb was 16, his father became an alcoholic, after the death of his grandfather. Forced to quit school and find work, Cobb began his writing career.

Writing career

Cobb started in journalism with the Paducah Daily News at age seventeen, and became the nation's youngest managing news editor at age nineteen. He later worked at the Louisville Evening Post for a year and a half.

His anecdotal memoir-cum-autobiography, Exit Laughing, published in 1941, includes a firsthand account of the assassination of Kentucky Governor William Goebel in 1900 and the trials of the killers. He wrote numerous series in periodicals, and also collaborated on dramatic productions.

After moving to New York in 1904, Cobb was hired by the Evening Sun. The publication sent him to Portsmouth, New Hampshire to cover the Russian-Japanese peace conference. His dispatches from the negotiations, emphasizing the personalities involved (including President Theodore Roosevelt), were published across the country with the title "Making Peace at Portsmouth." They earned him a job offer from Joseph Pulitzer's New York World and he became the highest-paid staff reporter in the United States.[3]

Cobb joined the staff of the magazine Saturday Evening Post in 1911, and covered the Great War for the magazine. At the same time, he wrote a book about his experiences, published in 1915, titled Paths Of Glory. After a second visit to France to cover the Great War, Cobb publicized the achievements of the unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, most notably, Croix de Guerre recipients Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts. His article "Young Black Joe," published on August 24, 1918, in the Saturday Evening Post and later republished in Cobb's book, The Glory of the Coming,[4] highlighted the discipline and courage displayed by black American soldiers fighting in Europe during World War I. The three-page article and half-page photograph reached a national audience of more than two million readers, and was widely reprinted in the black press.[5] In the midst of covering the 1920 Democratic Convention, Cobb received 1.5 votes on the 23rd Presidential ballot.


Several of Cobb's stories were adapted as silent movies. He also wrote the screen titles for other movies, including the Jackie Coogan movie, Peck's Bad Boy (1921). With the advent of sound, more of his stories were adapted for the screen, including The Woman Accused (1933), featuring young Cary Grant.

John Ford twice made movies based on Cobb's Judge Priest stories: Judge Priest (1934) featured Will Rogers in the title role. The Sun Shines Bright (1953) was based on his short stories "The Sun Shines Bright", "The Mob from Massac", and "The Lord Provides".

Cobb also had an acting career, acting in ten movies between 1932 and 1938. He won major roles in such movies as Pepper, Everybody's Old Man (1936), and Hawaii Calls (1938). He was also host of the 7th Academy Awards in 1935.

In 1919, Cobb was recruited by former U.S. Navy officer and lawyer Capt. W.H. Slayton to become chairman of the Authors and Artists Committee of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA). The Association based their opposition on the misuse of national government power over U.S. citizens. As chairman, Cobb helped extend coverage of their message through the media and artist networks. "If Prohibition is a noble experiment," he said in one, "then the San Francisco fire and the Galveston flood should be listed among the noble experiments of our national history."[6] At the same time he published Red Likker, an anti-Prohibition novel. After the repeal of Prohibition, the Frankfort distilleries recruited him to compile a recipe book[7] to remind consumers who were out of practice how to mix a good drink.

The cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos caricatures Cobb as "Irvin S. Frog".

Personal life

Cobb has been described as having a round shape, bushy eyebrows, full lips, and a triple chin, with a cigar always hanging from his mouth.[3]

He married the former Laura Spencer Baker of Savannah, Georgia. Their daughter, Elizabeth Cobb[8] (born 1902), was also an author. She published the novel She Was a Lady and the nonfiction My Wayward Parent (1945), a book about her father. Her first husband was Frank Michler Chapman, Jr., son of the ornithologist Frank Michler Chapman.

Cobb's granddaughter was Buff Cobb, a television actor of the early 1950s. She married journalist Mike Wallace as his second wife.[8]

Cobb was honored in 1915 with the march "The War Correspondent" by G. E. Holmes, published by the John Church Company.

Irvin S. Cobb wearing a coonskin cap and smoking a cigar.
Illustration by Tony Sarg for "The Glory of the States: Kentucky" by Irvin S. Cobb, published in The American Magazine for May 1916.

When Cobb died in New York City in 1944, his body was sent to Paducah for cremation. His ashes were placed under a dogwood tree. The granite boulder marking his remains is inscribed "Irvin Shrewsbury Cobb 1876-1944 Back Home".

Cobb wrote a letter detailing his desired funeral arrangements. The document reads in part:

Above all I want no long faces and no show of grief at the burying ground. Kindly observe the final wishes of the undersigned and avoid reading the so-called Christian burial service which, in view of the language employed in it, I regard as one of the most cruel and paganish things inherited by our forebears from our remote pagan ancestors. In deference to the faith of our dear mother who was through her lifetime a loyal though never bigoted communicant of that congregation, perhaps the current pastor of the First Presbyterian Church would consent to read the Twenty-third Psalm, which was her favorite passage in the Scriptures and is mine since it contains no charnel words, no morbid mouthings about corruption and decay and, being mercifully without creed or dogma, carries no threat of eternal hell-fire for those parties we do not like, no direct promise of a heaven which, if one may judge by the people who are surest of going there, must be a powerfully dull place, populated to a considerable and uncomfortable degree by prigs, time-servers and unpleasantly aggressive individuals. Hell may have a worse climate but undoubtedly the company is sprightlier. The Catholics, with their genius for stage-management, handle this detail better. The officiating clergyman speaks in Latin and the parishioners, being unacquainted with that language are impressed by the majesty of the rolling, sonorous periods without being shocked by tressing allusions and harrowing references.


Cobb is remembered best for his humorous stories of Kentucky and is part of the American literary regionalism school. These stories were first collected in the book Old Judge Priest (1915), whose title character was based on a prominent West Kentucky judge named William Pitman Bishop. Writer Joel Harris wrote of these tales, "Cobb created a South peopled with honorable citizens, charming eccentrics, and loyal, subservient blacks, but at their best the Judge Priest stories are dramatic and compelling, using a wealth of precisely rendered detail to evoke a powerful mood."[3] Among his other books are the humorous Speaking of Operations (1916), and anti-prohibition ode to bourbon, Red Likker (1929).

Cobb also wrote short stories in the horror genre, such as "Fishhead" (1911) and "The Unbroken Chain" (1923). "Fishhead" has been cited as an inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth, while "The Unbroken Chain" was a model for Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls".[9] The former was described by Lovecraft as "banefully effective in its portrayal of unnatural affinities between a hybrid idiot and the strange fish of an isolated lake" in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature.[10]



  1. Ben Eder, "Biography: Irvin S. Cobb", Rovi, reprinted at Fandango
  2. History of Paducah, City of Paducah, n.d. Accessed 2013-08-19.
  3. 1 2 3 Kelly Foster (September 30, 1997). "Irvin S. Cobb". KYLit. Eastern Kentucky University. Retrieved 2008-05-13.
  4. Cobb, Irvin. "YOUNG BLACK JOE". The Glory of the Coming. Retrieved 10 August 2014.
  5. Nelson, Peter. A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters' Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home. New York: Basic Civitas, 2009. ISBN 0-465-00317-6.
  6. "Who the Heck Was Irvin S. Cobb?" by Jack Sullivan, Bottles and Extras, Summer 2006
  7. Irvin S. Cobb's Own Recipe Book, Frankfort Distilleries, 1934
  8. 1 2 Hevesi, Dennis. "Buff Cobb, Actress and TV Host, Dies at 82", The New York Times, July 21, 2010.
  9. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. New York, New York: Hippocampus Press. 2000. p. 99. ISBN 0-9673215-0-6.
  10. The Weird Tradition in America, Supernatural Horror in Literature
  11. Chatterton, Wayne. Irvin S. Cobb. Twayne, Boston. 1986. Print.
  12. Lawson, Anita. Irvin S. Cobb. Popular, Madison, WI. 1984. Print.


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