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.

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