Swinging it

Mark Ford

  • S.J. Perelman: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann
    Simon and Schuster, 337 pp, £14.95, November 1987, ISBN 0 671 65460 8
  • Don’t tread on me: The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman edited by Prudence Crowther
    Viking, 372 pp, £14.95, October 1987, ISBN 0 670 81759 7

Of all the now vanished breed of New Yorker humorists – James Thurber, E.B. White, Dorothy Parker – S.J. Perelman wrote by far the richest, most meticulously crafted prose. His dedication to his art was almost frightening. He was once asked in an interview how many drafts each piece went through. ‘Thirty-seven,’ he replied. ‘I once tried doing 33, but something was lacking, a certain – how shall I say? – je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried 42 versions, but the final effect was too lapidary – you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort – my trade secrets?’

As everyone knows, being a funny man is no laughing matter: our most popular clowns seem almost expected to have a savage, twisted underside to their natures. Perelman, who lived entirely off his wit, as scriptwriter, play-wright feuilletoniste, as he liked it to be called (‘a writer of little leaves’), normally appears in his own work as a wide-eyed naive, the easiest of marks to a swarm of fraudulent predators: so it is no surprise to be told in this first biography that he was really a crotchety manic-depressive, bilious, miserly, insecure, inadequate as a husband and a father, cold, unfaithful, vindictive and terminally selfish.

Perelman was born in 1904 in Brooklyn, the only child of poor Russian Jewish immigrants, who soon after settled in Providence, Rhode Island. What money his parents had brought with them they lost first in a dry goods store, then in a chicken farm. Sid had an uneventful childhood during which his primary obsessions were cartooning, pulp fiction and the movies. At Brown University he became editor of the humorous magazine, the Brown Jug, and met Nathan Weinstein, who later changed his name to Nathanael West; Sid himself had originally been named Simeon. That Weinstein or West ended up a graduate of Brown was the result of an extraordinary mixture of machinations and luck, in that he never even graduated from high school; to qualify for college he doctored his transcripts with ink and ink-eradicator, awarding himself passes in the subjects he’d failed. On being thrown out of Tufts for non-attendance of classes he applied to Brown, where his record was mixed up with that of a different Nathan Weinstein who already had 57 credits to his name, with which advantage even the notoriously lazy West was able to fulfil his requirements. Perelman consistently flunked trigonometry, and left the university in a temper without a degree. Both men, as Jews, were excluded from all fraternities.

Dorothy Herrmann makes much of Perelman’s relationship with West, whose nickname was ‘Pep’ because he had so little of it, probing it for sexual and artistic jealousies. In 1929 Perelman married West’s sister Laura; Herrmann greatly doubts that she was ever as close to her husband as she was to her brother, but without really proving her case. Nor as writers could they have been more different in their talents. West’s genius was gloomy and ironic, and his only attempt at parody, A Cool Million, which is dedicated to Perelman and was written in a converted pigpen on the Perelmans’ Bucks County farm, doesn’t really take off. They collaborated once on a play called Even Stephen that was never produced, and talked of writing a novel together: nothing ever came of it. If anything, West rather deferred to Perelman in their literary relationship, submitting everything he wrote to his brother-in-law’s approval.

Perelman moved to New York straight after Brown, and worked as a cartoonist for various ailing humour magazines; his drawings tended towards the surreal, and their captions were often wholly unconnected verbal jokes: ‘I’ve Got Bright’s Disease and He’s Got Mine’, runs one. His early prose pieces from this period owe an enormous amount to previous humorists, particularly George Ade and Ring Lardner, as Perelman later confessed: ‘I was such a shameless Lardner thief that I should have been arrested.’ His liaison with the Marx Brothers began in 1929, when, during the interval of their Broadway show Animal Crackers, he sent Groucho a note thanking him for the jacket copy he had offered Perelman’s publisher for his first collection Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge. The copy read: ‘From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.’ Groucho flamboyantly sent for him backstage and commissioned him on the spot to collaborate on a script for a radio serial. The only scenario he and Will Johnstone, a cartoonist for the New York Evening World, came up with involved the comedians stowing away in barrels aboard an ocean liner. They both thought it rather silly, but the Marx Brothers decided it was much too good for radio, and should form the basis of their next picture – Monkey Business, as it was later called. So began the first of Perelman’s lucrative but intensely hated Hollywood ventures.

At the time, Hollywood was the obvious solution to anyone struggling to make a living out of writing. Scott Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, all did their time on studio payrolls, and West and Fitzgerald in their respective last works, The Day of the Locust and The Last Tycoon, somehow succeeded in putting its ridiculous myths to serious use. Perelman, too, though he compared it unfavourably with Devil’s Island, discovered some of his best material lampooning the movie clichés of the day. His brilliant piece ‘Scenario’ is a breathless collage of Hollywood fragments from the historical epic, the hard-boiled detective, the adaptation from the Russian, all interlarded with the hysterical showbiz-speak Perelman perfected beyond all others: ‘Jeez Crize – it’s a hisTORical drama, Mr Biberman, it’ll blow ’em outa the back of the houses, it’s the greatest thing in the industry, it’s dynamite!’ Perelman was touched by the earnestness with which Fitzgerald set about trying to become a successful and meaningful screenwriter, but knew himself they were all just Hollywood hacks and he rather admired the panache of Dorothy Parker, who used to take her knitting into high-level script conferences with studio heads. Apart from the time he spent on the two Marx Brothers pictures Monkey Business and Horse Feathers (the one set in a university), an experience he described as ‘no worse than playing the piano in a whorehouse’, most of the projects Perelman and his wife worked on during the Thirties were dross from the start, and were often not made. Perelman disclaimed all pride in his screenplays, even when he hit the jackpot with Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956), for which he was awarded an Oscar: he used the statuette as a doorstop in his Sixth Avenue workroom.

As a screenwriting duo, the Perelmans could command around $1,000 a week, so were able to spend half the year back East, on the 83-acre farm in Erwinna, Pennsylvania they bought in 1932, and which was the setting for Perelman’s most brilliantly funny series Acres and Pains (1947), which describes the tribulations of country living, and first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Most of his best pieces, however, were published in the New Yorker, where the battle with subeditors was less gory, though even there he was greatly irritated by ‘their august editorial decisions, their fussy little changes and pipsqueak variations on my copy’. He appeared in the New Yorker for almost fifty years, and the strange thing is that his contributions changed in length, style, motifs, hardly at all. He embraced the limitations and perfectibility of his chosen form as fervently as Jane Austen her two inches of ivory.

Material on which to base his intricate confections Perelman found mainly in advertisements, wacky newspaper clippings – many of these were sent in by admiring readers – and in the pulp fiction and schlock movies of his youth. In his very popular ‘Cloudland Revisited’ series he would reread or rewatch a favourite from his adolescence, such as Sax Rohmer’s Dr Fu Manchu, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan and the Ape Men, Cecil B. De Mille’s Male and Female, and extort hilarious comedy from the puncturing of his earlier illusions. The first time he saw Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives the effect was momentous: ‘For six months afterward, I exhibited a maddening tendency to click my heels and murmur Bitte? along with a twitch as though a monocle were screwed into my eye. The mannerisms finally abated, but not until the Dean of Brown University had taken me aside and confided that if I wanted to transfer to Heidelberg, the faculty would not stand in my way.’ But a rescreening of the film only begets ‘such lassitude that I had to be given artificial respiration and sent home in a wheelbarrow’.

Perelman’s comic essays are most extraordinary in the rigorousness of their impersonality. They have none of Benchley’s whimsical helplessness, nor Lardner’s outrage and cruelty. Perelman was the ultimate professional. Only once did he fail to deliver copy: this was the write-up of the disastrously dull car trip from Paris to Peking commissioned by Harold Evans for the Sunday Times in 1978, the year before Perelman died. Though Herrmann mines the essays for evidence of his states of mind over the years, her endeavour is mostly wasted. The Perelmans’ open marriage, in which they were to tolerate each other’s infidelities, was unspectacularly unhappy. Perelman took more advantage of the arrangement than Laura, whose affairs were infrequent, but included a glamorous though brief elopement with Dashiell Hammett to San Francisco. Perelman asked Laura for a divorce at one point during the winter of 1969, but soon after she was found to be suffering from terminal breast cancer, which resulted in her death only a few months later. Both were devastated by Nathanael West’s death in a car crash in 1940. West at the time seemed at last to be coming into his own. He had married nine months earlier and seemed happier than ever before. The Day of the Locust had been published the previous year to excellent reviews. Perelman flew out to California to collect the bodies of West and his wife, and brought them back East on the same train that carried the corpse of Scott Fitzgerald, who had died of a heart attack the day before. But none of this surfaces in his published writings, or in many of his letters. Nor do the problems they had with their son, Adam, who, when only 15, was convicted for assaulting and robbing two women in Greenwich Village at knifepoint, and sent into corrective detention. Six years later, he was arrested again and charged with assault, robbery and attempted rape; he was later discharged after a doctor had testified to the ‘mental turmoil and anxiety’ from which he was suffering.

Herrmann sees the extensive travels Perelman embarked on soon after the Second World War as inspired to a degree by his domestic unhappiness. They also opened up a whole new type of material that he milked to exhaustion during the rest of his life. The bulletins from his first trip with cartoonist Al Hirschfield, sponsored by Holiday magazine and collected in Westward Ha!, set a standard for comic travel writing. Perelman’s prose here is at its most charged and precise in its pursuit of the eccentric, and is almost Dickensian in its relish of the grotesque: ‘in Number 3 hatch amidships lay two Chinese cadavers, snugly flanked by mouthwash, desk calendars, insect bombs, and movie film.’ Many of the jokes, as in so much of his writing, depend on deflation and disillusionment. The Pearl of the Orient, Macao, he finds ‘slightly less exciting than a rainy Sunday evening in Rochester’. Singapore is ‘Jersey mosquito country and strictly for goyim’. When he meets the Prince Regent of Burma he is surprised to find him a keen student of American culture: ‘ “Based upon your personal experience,” he asked with a thoughtful frown, “would you say that Greer Garson wears falsies?” ’ Perelman liked to discover an angle for his trips. In East Africa he arranged to travel with an all-girl safari set up as a publicity stunt by Scandinavian Airlines. Another time, after Laura’s death, with enormous fanfare and a female passe-partout, he set off from the Reform Club to reduplicate Phileas Fogg’s journey around the world in 80 days, using only land and sea transport. This, like the Paris-Peking trip commissioned by the Sunday Times, was ill-fated: he squabbled endlessly with the girl, and ended up flying most of the way.

Perelman was well-paid for his work. His perfectionist dedication to the mot juste, however, meant writing itself was sheer agony. ‘Any writer who tells you he’s in a hurry to get to that desk is a faker, not a writer,’ he reported. The enthusiasm for the process expressed in his letters is at best grudging. ‘In so far as any writing can be said to be enjoyable – I categorically deny that it can – I find this new stuff of some slight absorbing interest while working on it.’ He declared: ‘I loathe writing. On the other hand I’m a great believer in money.’ His correspondence is littered with altercations with producers, publishers and agents, nearly all of whom Perelman seemed to feel were chiselling him out of his livelihood, by not advertising his books or promoting his interests. When The Beauty Part (starring Bert Lahr) closed in 1962 after only 100 performances, and with everyone involved expecting it to run and run – it was taken off mainly because of a printers’ strike that closed down all the city newspapers – Perelman wrote a particularly vindictive piece, characterising his agent as a bloodsucker ‘who betrayed a man the moment he turned his back’. From early on in his career he had looked to Broadway as the most likely means of financial security, but out of his eight revues and plays, only One Touch of Venus (1943), with lyrics by Ogden Nash and music by Kurt Weill, proved a money-spinner. It was on the proceeds from this that he was able, temporarily, to escape Hollywood. When he returned in 1956 it was to work for Mike Todd, famous for not paying anyone: at the time, though, Todd was desperate for script adaptations to feed to the luminaries he was signing each week for cameo roles in his magnum opus, so Perelman wisely established a deal on a piecework basis: ‘Nightly in the weeks that followed, therefore, we would meet in a Beverly Hills parking lot, I clutching the pages required for the next day’s shooting, he the pro rata payment. At a concerted signal, we made a lightning exchange, leaped into our respective cars, and drove off.’

The humorist E.B. White described Perelman’s vocabulary as ‘a Wurlitzer Organ that has three decks, 50 stops, and a pride of pedals’. Perelman’s great hero was Joyce, revealingly characterised as ‘probably one of the most careful writers who ever lived’. His own reverence for words shines through all of his pieces, and many of his letters too. In the introduction to her selection from his correspondence, Prudence Crowther relates how he once spent a whole day writing a postcard. There is something specially satisfying about a writer whose effects are so hard-earned, whose comic persona is so deliberately assumed. One can sense him rationing his jokes in a professional way throughout these letters, not wanting to tap too profligately material that could earn him money elsewhere. When he does set out to be funny he very rarely fails.

His humour relies on a verbal timing and patterning so precise as to be better read than spoken. Groucho Marx, who greatly resented the suggestion he was a creation of Perelman’s, used to complain that his lines were too literary and long-winded for the screen. Larry Adler commissioned him to write the banter between his harmonica numbers, and found the same thing: the spots Perelman produced were too complex to sound natural as ad libs, and in the end had to be jettisoned, much to Perelman’s anger. Nor could he create comic structures of any scale, or develop his humour through plot or narrative: his work as a television writer in the Fifties was only averagely successful. His chosen genre, however, the six-page sportive essay, he brought to perfection. That the form has now more or less died may be partly because Perelman did it so well there was nowhere left for it to go. One of his most treasured accolades came from Robert Benchley, who wrote that Perelman did

to our weak little efforts at ‘crazy stuff’ what Benny Goodman has done to middle-period jazz. He swung it. To use a swing phrase, he took it ‘out of this world’. And there he remains, all by himself.’

Acres and Pains really only recycles the most time-honoured of jokes about the bewildered townsman suffering at the hands of canny yokels, but the prose in which it does so has the polish of Chinese lacquer. At one point he hires builders to construct a swimming-pool in the yard:

What I had when the gang of workmen departed was a small, shrunken buffalo wallow infested with every variety of poisonous snake known to man, including several found only in the upper reaches of the Orinoco. Its surface was covered with an attractive green film dotted with decaying stumps and half-submerged oilcans. At night a dense mist shrouded the tarn, eerie lights flickered in the rushes, ghostly chuckles were audible, and if you ventured too close, you were liable to encounter a transparent citizen carrying his head under his arm. Thirteen families of ground hogs had set up light housekeeping in the dam itself, a massive affair of earth and logs that looked like the Union breastworks before Vicksburg. Every time it rained, the water boiled up, punching another hole in the structure, and I ran down the hill to pay the neighbours for the chickens it swept away.

Perelman cultivated his awesomely perfect style at the expense of all awareness of everyday reality, and considered himself one of the last humorists to be able to do this. He intensely disliked the black humour of the Sixties and Seventies: ‘Reality has overtaken the comic writer,’ he complained. In fact our greatest living comic, Woody Allen, derives directly from Perelman’s intellectual schlemiel routine. Perelman ended up feeling rather out of touch with the times. After the death of Laura he precipitately sold the farm in Pennsylvania and tried to settle down in London. All his life he was an Anglophile, but found London impossible to live in, missing the give and take of Manhattan, and above all the American idiom. In the end, he moved permanently into an apartment in the Gramercy Park Hotel, where he died of a heart attack in 1979. For all his surly disclaimers about the purpose of his writing, he did once confess his belief that ‘you can be as deeply moved by laughter as you can by misery’. His pieces are beginning to seem as timeless and perfect as a Chaplin or Keaton two-reeler. Anyone who can describe a bank balance as shrinking ‘to a wizened condition hitherto only approached by my genitalia’, is unlikely to go unread by any generation for long.