The Selected Letters
of S. J. PerelmanPrudence Crowther, Editor
S. J. Perelman
(Penguin)At Tucumcari, New Mexico, we had a room in the Randle, a matchboard hotel with people clearing their throats all night and peeing into the cuspidors. The worst horror was the Beale in Kingman, Arizona, which had a coating of fine gray fur over everything as thick as Gurke's [the dog's] coat. Men walked up and down an alley contiguous to our room and three women in the next room came in about four and tried very hard to vomit up their drinks without much success.--- Letter to Ruth and
[The children's] uncle, Mr. West, has been flat on his pratt the last few weeks with a battery of doctors peering up his pecker hunting for a stone of the Triassic period that got lodged in the tubes. They have finally dynamited it, somewhat in the fashion of a logjam, with a musical chorus of wails furnished by Laura's mother, which, combined with two growing children, made the premises reminiscent of Donnybrook Fair.--- Letter to
Lord knows why anyone would want to publish the letters of S. J. Perelman. He was an important, gifted, supremely witty writer --- but his writings were crafted over months of pain and trial. The letters, on the other hand, were tossed off quickly, and although there are rare nuggets, they bear as much interest as the eight-volume set of The Essays of Nikolai Semionovich Leskov.
For those interested in Perelman's life --- and god knows there are drones in graduate school at Columbia or Berkeley who are plotting some computer study of the adjectives in Perelman's writings --- the letters are only mildly absorbing. They constitute the raw stuff of his masterpieces, counterpoint to his descriptions of Hollywood, or the Pennsylvania farm, or his bread-and-butter trips around the world.
As we watch Perelman growing older and more cantankerous, the letters turn more bitter, and we may not necessarily want to pick up on what Ms. Crowther is laying down. Her introduction is sprightly enough (at one point Perelman refers to producer Mike Todd as "an ulcer no larger than a man's hand"), but intermixed is the portrait of a humorist burned-out, living by himself in a drab walk-up, reduced to trying to seduce the various literary pilot fish (such as Ms. Crowther) who seek him out. (Indeed, five of the last letters are addressed to her, but the book is coyly obscure as to the exact nature of their relationship.)
§ § §
With only two hours in Chicago I would be unable to see the city, and the thought drew me into a state of composure. I noted with pleasure that a fresh coat of grime had been given to the Dearborn Street station, though I was hardly vain enough to believe that it had anything to do with my visit. There was the usual ten-minute wait while the porters withdrew with my portable typewriter to a side room and flailed it with hammers, and at last I was aboard the "Sachem," crack train of the B.B.D.& 0. lines...--- Strictly from Hunger
He was one of the great stylists of the century. He said that his inspiration was George Ade but reading Ade, with his fables and morals, doesn't force us to laugh out loud as we must, if we have even the slightest bit of wit in us, with Perelman. He's closer to Mark Twain or the early Dickens or Benchley --- or even Jerome K. Jerome --- than Ade. He will use any trick to stick a witticism to us. He will zip in with an idea or thought or word at the end of the sentence that doesn't belong, doesn't belong at all, and yet it works. He will pull out a word that is mysteriously obscure, but its roots or usage will not be so rare that we can't figure it out.
His style is one they used to call "deadpan," but it is better defined as elaborately droll. He used to write for the Marx Brothers, and there is an element of Perelman in those fried speeches of Groucho --- but it always put Perelman in a frenzy when someone wanted to interview him about that period of his life. He did not like Hollywood, and he did not like what Hollywood did to him --- nor that he had to depend on it in order to eat.
He was first and foreskin a writer for the New Yorker, with all that it meant. His prose was elegant, and even when he was being tricky, he was being elegant:
"Have a bit of the wing, darling?" queried Diana solicitously, indicating the roast Long Island airplane with applesauce. I tried to turn our conversation from the personal note, but Diana would have none of it. Soon we were exchanging gay banter over the mellow Vouvray, laughing as we dipped fastidious fingers into the Crisco parfait for which Diana was famous. Our meal finished, we sauntered into the play-room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her and we slid over the waxed floor in the intricate maze of the jackdaw strut.--- From Strictly from Hunger
§ § §God knows (as well) why they wanted to bring out a rerun of The Swiss Family Perelman. The aficionados --- the real aficionados --- know that the early works are the only ones worth reading and rereading and calling up your friends and reading to them on the telephone. At the top of the list is Acres and Pains (originally titled Home Is Where You Hang Yourself). His tale of being a gentleman farmer in Pennsylvania bears reading a hundred times, and for those of us given to irrision, it can make us weep even after that hundredth time. Right below that in the panoply of Perelman Wonders is Crazy Like a Fox. The best collection is The Most of S. J. Perelman --- all pieces from the thirties and forties. Some of his fans are nuts about Dawn Ginsburg's Revenge and Westward Ha! No one in his right mind would buy the later books like Swiss Family Perelman or Baby It's Cold Inside.
Jon Gallant, scholar supreme with a self-imposed degree in early Perelmania claims that The Last Laugh is almost as good as the early writings (it was published posthumously) but I gave it a whirl recently and except for the part on the Marx Brothers, and a very interesting, but not riotous, chapter on his brother-in-law Nathanael West, it was mostly Perelman Downhill. Gallant and I are having a duel over this trifling disagreement: wet hamentashem at twenty paces at the crack of Dawn Ginsburg tomorrow on this very moor.
§ § §
It was hard for Perelman to keep the fireworks going and --- even worse --- to compete with himself as he was forced to do in his later years. Not only was he older, and grayer, and wiser; he was also more sardonic; unremittingly so. His early writings worked because he was wry and sarcastic and caustic, but all the while, there was a sly hope at the silliness of it all: a forgiving air, as it were. After middle age, he lost much of that and turned --- always the tragedy of the great writer --- into mining the same lode over and over again. It was enough to make his readers long for the wonderful old days:
The first couple of days out of the Golden Gate were uneventful. I spent them stretched out in the lower tier of my double berth, gritting my teeth to prevent my tongue from escaping and making a minute study of the plywood ceiling above me. Approximately every fifteen seconds, The Marine Flyer rose with the speed of an express elevator, shivered deliciously, and lurched steeply forward into the trough. As it reached the bottom of the curve, all the bureau drawers flew out, the locker doors opened, suitcases slid halfway out of the top bunk, and our toilet articles teetered toward the washbowl. The moment the ship began its ascent, the process reversed: with a salvo like the bombardment of Port Arthur, drawers and doors banged shut, suitcases smashed into the wall, and bottles splintered the shaving mirror. It was pikestaff-plain and Doomsday certain to me, a deep-water sailor since boyhood, that The Marine Flyer was little more than a cheesebox on a raft and would momentarily founder with all hands. Even the veriest landlubber could perceive that the man whose duty it was to drive the ship --- the chauffeur or the motorman or whatever you call him --- was behaving with the grossest sort of negligence.--- From Westward Ha!
Perelman is a writer who doesn't prosper under close examination. He's not like Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Dickens or even West himself: the more you look, the more mysterious their writings become. Looking deeply into Perelman is like analyzing a joke. Why is this funny? It always turns a bit sour when you do that.
Even worse are the stories that Prudence Crowther (where'd she get that name? is she a character in one of those fake Perelman three-minute dramas?) digs up for us: stories of his cruelty to his family, the suicide of his son, his bitterness toward America; these chip away at the other story, the one we like better: the story of a man named Perelman who was well content to make fun of himself, who was a lousy traveler, who could never make the plumbing work or grow tomatoes, who hated everything to do with American P.R. and salesmanship and loud, pushy people and --- most of all --- who could hoist on a fine petard those who were stupid with his beloved language. Perelman's essays are an ongoing lesson in how not to misuse the language. His way was to turn the words bottomside up, and spin our heads in the process:
"And you were cruel," I said.
"I'm sorry," added Quigley.
"Why did you add Quigley?" I begged him. He apologized and subtracted Quigley, then divided Hogan. We hastily dipped the slices of Hogan into Karo, poured sugar over them, and ate them with relish.--- From "The Love Decoy"
This type of writing, which could well be part of the script of Animal Crackers, was abandoned later on, perhaps as the New Yorker changed, becoming more nationally and internationally responsible. This left Pereman behind, because he was at his best with sardonic upper-class humor --- the juvenile humor of a Yale or Brown senior, the word play of graduate students at Harvard or Columbia --- the wit that mocks all those who lack the east-coast knowledge and assurance, especially those who trade in the bathetic dross of Hollywood. For Perelman, the world was delightfully foolish, and the America of 1935 - 1955 became a parody of itself.
This elegant world-weariness was owned, guarded, staked out, and exploited by the New Yorker intelligentsia --- Perelman, Kaufmann, Thurber, Benchley, Dorothy Parker, E. B. White, J. D. Salinger, John Cheever. Theirs may have been a series of ill-concealed yawns, but they were all underlaid with a rich sardonic whimsy:
All together I spent three and a half weeks in Penang before The President Monroe nosed over the horizon, and this much I will say for it: if you ever want a perfect honeymoon spot, a place where the scenery and climate fuse to produce unadulterated witchery, where life has the tremulous sweetness of a plucked lute-string and darkness falls all too soon, go to the Hotel Plaza in New York. Of all the lethargic, benighted, somnolent fleabags this side of Hollywood, the port of Georgetown on the island of Penang is the most abysmal. At the time I was there, its recreational facilities consisted of four Tarzan films, a dance hall housing eighty-five pockmarked Malay delinquents, a funicular railway, and a third-rate beach situated five miles from nowhere. If, after exhausting the potentialities of these, you retained any appetite for sightseeing, you could visit the Ayet Itam temple and botanical gardens. The former is possibly the largest, and unquestionably the dullest, Buddhist temple in Malaya, and no wastebasket is complete without a snapshot of this historic shrine. The botanical gardens boast many varieties of cactus not found anywhere, not even in the botanical gardens. The day I was there, I waited almost three minutes for them to show up, but never caught so much as a glimpse of anything resembling a cactus. I related the incident subsequently to a group of passengers aboard ship who were discussing occasions on which they had failed to find cacti, and it was unanimously agreed that my experience was by far the most unusual.-- From Westward Ha!
The last days were not kind to Sidney J. Perelman. He lived by himself, occasionally allowing himself to be interviewed, courted and titillated by Smith College literary kittens. He dressed impeccably, was prompt in all his appointments, and worried aloud that William Shawn at the New Yorker was sitting on too many of his pieces. He had reason to worry. Unlike brother-in-law Nathanael West, killed in an auto accident in 1938, risen to become a major cult figure in the fifties and sixties --- Perelman had the ironic duty of living on and on, not necessarily amusing to a new generation of Americans who were intent on civil rights, Vietnam, racism, and foreign policy more than travel-ennui, harridan wives, and the grotesqueries of Hollywood.
Perelman had prospered in a time when Americans were more gauche and less aware. The selective dumbness had permitted him great latitude to wield a sword that cut both ways, slashing at the vulgar as if they were never sad, pinioning the crass as if they were never tragic. It was an older sensibility, a sophisticated upper-class sensibility, that gave him his freedom. And when vulgarity began to go out of style, so did he.
The picture of Perelman as forgotten --- getting older, not able to perform as gracefully as he had before --- is a sad one, and we want none of it. Rather, we want to remember him as the talented, randy writer of 1948, stuck with Hirschfield on some tramp steamer off the coast of Ceylon, sweating, getting taken for a ride by the tour-guide directors, appalled by the dress and jewelry and the language of his fellow passengers. Or, better, Perelman, in 1935, in Hollywood, viewing the whole improbable scam with a great twist of razor words, cutting into the flesh and the fat, so sweetly:
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.--- L. W. Milam