The Origin of Dirk Wagstaff

As a writer I’ve only used two pseudonyms: “Evan Nescent” back in the ‘70s and more recently, “Dirk Wagstaff,” which came into being after the collision of two movie memories.

Fans of the Marx Brothers will recall that Professor Wagstaff was Groucho’s character in Horse Feathers. Groucho had many wonderful names: Wolf J. Flywheel in The Big Store, Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera and Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup. Hard to pick a favorite, but “Wagstaff” worked for me.

“Dirk,” however, has a more complicated etymology, stemming from my freshman year of college. In 1964, if you wanted to see a movie, you went to a theater. Or you stayed up until 11:30 for the late movie on television, small screen, black & white. But on campus, I was informed, they showed a free movie on Friday night. That first Friday, the room was packed, predictably, with freshmen. And no parents.

The film was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Elizabeth Taylor’s name appeared on the screen and the young men in the audience cheered. Paul Newman’s name appeared and the young women screamed their approval. Burl Ives’ name appeared, and there was silence. Then laughter. (Wasn’t he the guy who sang “Froggy Went a’Courtin’”? Yes, but as it turned out, Burl Ives was the best thing about the movie.)

dirks

The next week, the movie was Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue, the 1953 Disney version. Not a film you’d pick for a college audience in 2013, but back then, hey, it was in color, it was a movie. And it was interactive, not quite Rocky Horror Picture Show interactive, but the audience cheered and offered commentary. We had just got to the moment when Rob Roy is celebrating his marriage with a swell reception, when suddenly the English arrive with a warrant for his arrest. Rob’s friends all reach for their swords, but Rob says, “Put up your dirks, men.”

Dirks, indeed. This simultaneously struck about 150 young men as insanely funny. The room exploded with laughter, and I don’t think anyone heard a line of dialogue for the next minute or so. The word still brings back the memory and makes me smile again. And it fits nicely with Wagstaff.

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