Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Birthday: "I'd horsewhip you if I had a horse."


Sidney Joseph Perelman (1904-1979)

Sid Perelman never harbored illusions about the shelf life of a humorist. He knew the fashions could, and did, change overnight. Interviewed by George Plimpton for The Paris Review in 1963, he summarized his work:

Well, there are a couple of them I consider verbal zircons if not gems….Otherwise, let me assure you I don't sit in the chimney corner cackling over what I've written.

He just didn’t think it would happen to him. Many writers have died too soon; Perelman was one, perhaps, who lived too long.

He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where he worked in his father’s dry goods store and developed lifelong contempt for chickens from the flock his father kept in the Perelman backyard. He was a townie at Brown University, a Jew in a sea of Protestant Ivy League exclusivity, and worked out his frustrations in student paper cartoons and editorials that always teetered on the line between satire and scolding, and generated regular invitations for chats with the dean.

Along came Nat Weinstein, a handsome, English-tailored wit who enrolled at Brown, becoming, in time, Perelman’s brother-in-law. Expelled from Tufts, “Pep” as Weinstein was known, got into Brown on a forged transcript and graduated- barely- in 1925. He and Perelman became fast friends- they even looked like each other.

Perelman left Brown without a degree (he flunked trig four times) and spent the 1920s as a cartoonist and writer for the humor magazines Judge and College Humor. In 1928 he saw the Marx Brothers on stage and wrote Groucho a fan letter. Lunch followed, and some Perelman jokes in the mail, which Groucho used on radio. In 1931 the Perelmans were off to Hollywood, where he wrote the screenplays for Monkey Business and Horse Feathers.

Sid and Groucho found each other impossible to work with (“His head was as big as a desk,” Perelman remembered; of Perelman’s only novel, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge (1928), Groucho slashed, “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it”), despite their love of the surrealist humor in which Perelman became the American master. They ran each other down for decades. The only thing Perelman found worse than working for Marx in Hollywood was being in Hollywood at all. He called it

a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched. I don't mean to sound like a boy Savonarola, but there were times, when I drove along the Sunset Strip and looked at those buildings, or when I watched the fashionable film colony arriving at some premiere at Grauman's Egyptian, that I fully expected God in his wrath to obliterate the whole shebang. It was—if you'll allow me to use a hopelessly inexpressive word—dégoûtant.
In a story, he indulged his Savonarola fantasies again:

‘The violet hush of twilight was descending over Los Angeles as my hostess, Violet Hush, and I left its suburbs headed toward Hollywood. In the distance a glow of huge piles of burning motion-picture scripts lit up the sky. The crisp tang of frying writers and directors whetted my appetite. How good it was to be alive, I thought, inhaling deep lungfuls of carbon monoxide.’

Perelman hated even talking about Hollywood, but when he got started, there was almost no shutting him up, as his ornate, slow-burn rage vented:

...With revulsion. I worked there sporadically from 1931 to 1942, and I can say in all sincerity that I would have spent my time to better advantage on Tristan da Cunha.

...Well, of course everyone imaginable worked there at one time or another, and the closest analogy I can draw to describe the place is that it strikingly resembled the Sargasso Sea—an immense, turgidly revolving whirlpool in which literary hulks encrusted with verdigris moldered until they sank. It was really quite startling, at those buffet dinners in Beverly Hills, to encounter some dramatist or short-story writer out of your boyhood, or some one-shot lady novelist who'd had a flash success, who was now grinding out screenplays about the Cisco Kid for Sol Wurtzel. I remember, one day on the back lot at MGM, that a pallid wraith of a man erupted from a row of ramshackle dressing rooms and embraced me as though we had encountered each other in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. He was a geezer I'd known twelve years before on Judge magazine, a fellow who ran some inconsequential column full of Prohibition jokes. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he had been writing a screenplay of Edwin Drood for the past two years. He confessed quite candidly that he hadn't been able as yet to devise a finish, which, of course, wasn't too surprising inasmuch as Charles Dickens couldn't do so either.

...I always felt that the statement attributed to Irving Thalberg, the patron saint at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, beautifully summed up the situation: “The writer is a necessary evil.” As a sometime employee of his, I consider that a misquotation. I suspect he said “weevil.”

Such was the low state of writers in Hollywood, that he said of William Faulkner,

Sometimes, of a Sunday morning, he used to stroll by a house I occupied in Beverly Hills. I noticed him only because the sight of anybody walking in that environment stamped him as an eccentric, and indeed, it eventually got him into trouble. A prowl car picked him up and he had a rather sticky time of it. The police were convinced he was a finger man for some jewelry mob planning to knock over one of the fancy residences.

Perelman admitted what drew him back to Hollywood- he won an Oscar for the screenplay to Around the World in Eighty Days in 1957- was the money. During the Depression, it was a good living when few were to be had; later it was to keep up the good living to which he had become accustomed.

He had a big farm in Pennsylvania, which provided grist for a number of books and stories. One, called Acres and Pains, was first published as Home is Where You Hang Yourself. He portrayed himself as a sharper-tongued version of the gentleman husbands of Robert Benchley’s stories, always ready with a retort, if not a solution.

“Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor is S.J. Perelman, whose tall, stooping figure is better known to the twilit half-world of five continents than to Publishers' Row. That he possesses the power to become invisible to finance companies; that his laboratory is tooled up to manufacture Frankenstein-type monsters on an incredible scale; and that he owns one of the rare mouths in which butter has never melted are legends treasured by every schoolboy,” is how he described himself.

Another time, he declared, “Before they made Perelman, they broke the mold.” In the 1960s, the critic Douglas Fowler described Perelman as “Don Knotts with a thesaurus in his pocket.”

Perelman described his essays as “feuilletons”- one of those untranslatable French phrases suggesting a peice so casual, so airy, it was like a leaf on a breeze (Karel Capek, the Czech writer, was renowned for the same style in the same decade).

Effortlessness takes a lot of work, as Perelman explained to Plimpton in 1963:

How many drafts of a story do you do?
Thirty-seven. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking, a certain—how shall I say?—je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried forty-two 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?
. . . merely to get some clue to the way you work.
With the grocer sitting on my shoulder. The only thing that matters is the end product, which must have brio—or, as you Italians put it, vivacity.

Sid found his home at The New Yorker, which published over three hundred of his stories between 1930 and 1979. His fanatical dedication to language as high culture depended on an endless supply of pulp magazines, advertising, and pop culture to satirize.

His role models were James Joyce and Ring Lardner. Among his fans were T.S. Eliot (who adored that sort of humor and became Groucho’s pen pal) and Somerset Maugham (mostly out of envy; Willie never could have been so clever). While I have never really understood deconstructivist theories of literature, I like to think of Perelman as the theory in practice. He could see words hanging in the air, floating free of content, and rearrange them into new combinations whose humor lay in their absurdity:

I have Bright's disease and he has mine.

"Great-grandfather died under strange circumstances. He opened a vein in his bath."
"I never knew baths had veins," protested Gabrilowitsch."
"I never knew his great-grandfather had a ba—" began Falcovsky derisively.

“One of our stage-craft is missing.”

I guess I’m just an old mad scientist at bottom. Give me an underground laboratory, half a dozen atom-smashers, and a beautiful girl in a diaphanous veil waiting to be turned into a chimpanzee, and I care not who writes the nation’s laws.

Perelman was on a roll in the 1930s and ‘40s, and from then came most of his best work. A 1944 book title made the phrase “crazy like a fox” a national commonplace. In 1948 he published Westward Ha!, the tale of trip around the world with his friend the Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.
He was only married once, but it was a fraught affair. Behind the steel-framed glasses he bought in Paris in 1927, Perelman’s eyes constantly wandered. He considered his children expensive nuisances, and both seem to have gone out of their ways to not be known as his. The only things he seemed to adore in life were his MG roadster and a mynah bird.

In the Sixties, the low culture he mocked became, increasingly, the mainstream, while his sort of work became increasingly precious and obscure. Like John O’Hara’s product-laden stories of social status, Perelman stories required a lot of stored-up arcana to get through. The blog Mrs Gummidge Speaks gives an example:

“‘I had a suit over my arm and was heading west down Eighth Street…when I ran smack into Vernon Equinox in front of the Waffle Shop. Fair weather or foul, Vernon can usually be found along there…scanning the bargain Jung in the corner bookshop or disparaging the fake African primitive masks at the stationery store. His gaunt, greenish white face, edged in the whiskers once characteristic of fisherfolk and stage Irishmen and now favored by the Existentialist poets, his dungarees flecked with paint, and his huaraches and massive turquoise rings clearly stamp Vernon as a practitioner of the arts, though which one is doubtful. The fact is, he favors them all impartially.”

“That’s a lot of literary work for any reader, let alone those of us who didn’t incubate in a dictionary or grow up during the Jazz Age.”

As Perelman’s star faded, his brother-in-law’s rose. Having renamed himself Nathanael West, he followed Sid to Hollywood after a couple of successful novels. He turned his experiences on B pictures into a book still considered one of the best on the film industry, The Day of the Locusts, in 1938.

Killed, with his wife, in a 1940 auto accident, West was rediscovered after New Directions issued his collected works in 1957; Miss Lonelyhearts was made into a film and stage play. W.H. Auden, to describe a poverty that is, at once, physical and spiritual, dubbed it “West’s disease” in a 1970 poem.

Sid’s wife, Laura, died in 1970. He auctioned off the farm and nearly all their possessions and moved to England for two unhappy years. Anglophilia was easier than the real thing; “It is possible to have too much couth,” he said of the experience.  

Increasingly depressed, he still cranked out the work, though it became darker and sharper-edged. Seeing the comic Robin Williams, he was baffled and depressed. It was a peek into a world he didn’t fit.

His last hurrah was Eastward Ha! (1977), in which he and the MG meandered across Central Europe, Russia, the Middle East and Asia, in search of things to mock. He complained that New Yorker editor William Shawn was sitting on his submissions, but he still had mojo: his praise of Catch-22 made it a bestseller, and, after seeing “Annie Hall” three times, he presented the New York Film Critics’ best screenplay award to Woody Allen.

Allen is probably Perelman’s truest heir, veering in and out of the every day, and the fantastic, the arch precision of writers past and the sudden Yiddishisms. Some see David Sedaris in Sid’s path as well, and, on a good day, Stephen Colbert. At his death in 2007, the British writer Alan Coren was remembered as one of the last, best Perelmanians.

For his part, Perelman remained diffident to the end:

It may surprise you to hear me say—and I'll thank you not to confuse me with masters of the paradox like Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton—that I regard my comic writing as serious. For the past thirty-four years, I have been approached almost hourly by damp people with foreheads like Rocky Ford melons who urge me to knock off my frivolous career and get started on that novel I'm burning to write. I have no earthly intention of doing any such thing. I don't believe in the importance of scale; to me the muralist is no more valid than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop. I think the form I work can have its own distinction, and I would like to surpass what I have done in it.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #SJPerelman #Charlotte

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