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Knowing S.J. Perelman

Sidney Joseph Perelman was born in Brooklyn on February 1, 1904, to Russian Jewish immigrants. He was an only child. The family soon moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where his father, Joseph, opened a dry-goods store, earning a parlous living that did not improve after a switch to poultry farming (“to this day I cringe at the sight of a gizzard,” Perelman wrote in a letter in 1966). He characterized his milieu as “lower middle bourgeois.” His parents were not religious; Joseph was a socialist. In 1959, Sid told a panel of BBC interviewers:

There was no particular persecution or pressure brought upon me because of my racial background. It just didn’t exist. We were an extremely polyglot crowd…. The circumstances of my boyhood were, in fact, quite enjoyable in every way…. I never had any sense of being alienated from my background or culture whatever.

He claimed to have had the normal boy’s ambitions but most wanted to become the rear driver on a hook and ladder fire truck. From an early age, he began drawing and cartooning. He received a solid public-school education and often worked after class.

In 1921 Perelman entered Brown University in Providence, where he met Nathanael (“Pep”) West of New York City. West became his closest friend and, in 1929, his brother-in-law, when he married Laura West, who was eighteen. Perelman was made editor of the college humor magazine, The Brown Jug, his senior year. He left Brown without graduating, having failed the math requirement, and moved to Greenwich Village in 1924.

There he joined the staff of Judge, a weekly humor magazine, and the captions for his drawings began to grow into the singular style that characterized his life’s work. Perelman also contributed to College Humor, until its demise in 1934. That Old Gang o’ Mine: The Early and Essential S. J. Perelman, edited by Richard Marschall (Morrow, 1984), offers substantial and delightful evidence of his skill as an artist in the school of Ralph Barton and John Held, Jr., and as a well-advanced parodist and dementia praecoxswain, to turn Robert Benchley’s phrase for the kinds of pieces they were both then writing.

Perelman went abroad for the first time in 1927 and again, on his honeymoon, in 1929, the year Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, a collection of his magazine pieces, was published by Horace Liveright. It was noticed by Groucho Marx, who soon latched onto Perelman as a writer. The movies Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), both written in collaboration, show his handiwork. In December of 1930, he began his nearly half-century association with The New Yorker.

Although working with the Marx brothers provided him with inexhaustible storytelling capital—written and oral—over the years, Perelman often felt that the glamour of the connection upstaged the value of his work. In a 1976 letter to Deborah Rogers, his British agent at the time, he responded to a publisher’s request to include extracts from his Marx Brothers scripts in his next book:

I am fucking sick and tired of my endless identification with these clowns. If it is not yet apparent after 50 years of writing for publication in the US, Britain, and elsewhere that my work is worth reading for its own sake; if illiterates and rock fans (synonymous) can only be led to purchase my work by dangling before them the fact that I once worked for the Marx brothers, then let us find some other publisher.

Over the next decade the Perelmans shuttled back and forth between coasts. In Hollywood they wrote as a couple for films; back East, for the stage. All Good Americans and The Night Before Christmas were both produced and made into films. By himself, Perelman wrote radio and theater sketches and continued to collect his magazine pieces: Strictly from Hunger appeared in 1937, Look Who’s Talking! in 1940. With their two young children, Adam and Abby, the Perelmans lived in the Village and on their farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—purchased in 1932 with West, whom they later bought out. West intended to settle there as well, but in December 1940, during one of his own screenwriting stays in Hollywood, he and his wife of eight months, Eileen McKenney, were killed in a car accident.

Hollywood, with its “ethical sense of a pack of jackals” and producers who “had foreheads only by dint of electrolysis,” was the place Perelman most loved to loathe. He did time there strictly for money, and as soon as he could afford to escape, he did. In 1943 he teamed up with Ogden Nash to write the musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill), a Broadway smash that enabled him to end his servitude in the studio system. Not that he was set up for long: between private-school tuition, support of his mother (his father died in 1926), periodic psychiatric help, his determination to travel, and the costs of two households and an office, staying solvent was a frequent anxiety.

Hoping for another big score, Perelman wrote the musical Sweet Bye and Bye with his friend Al Hirschfeld in 1946 (songs by Vernon Duke). In the wake of its closing out of town, the editor of Holiday magazine proposed that Perelman and Hirschfeld go around the world. The accounts of that trip, with illustrations by Hirschfeld, were collected in Westward Ha!, brought out in 1948 by Simon and Schuster (Perelman’s publisher from then until his death).

Perelman’s passion for travel soon became inseparable from his search for copy. “The humorist,” he said, “has to find himself in conflict with his environment…. He has to pretend that he’s sublimely unhappy in most places, but that’s a very small price for me to pay for the pleasure I derive from being in Africa or Asia.” The Swiss Family Perelman, also illustrated by Hirschfeld, describes a second global trip in 1949, this time undertaken by the whole clan.

In 1955, the producer Mike Todd—“an ulcer no larger than a man’s hand”—hired Perelman to write additional dialogue for his extravaganza Around the World in 80 Days. Much as Perelman professed to despise the job and the man, both together inspired him. At the point of maximum tension between his values and Todd’s, he wrote some of his most ecstatic letters.

Perelman won an Oscar for the picture and parlayed the acclaim into a series of writing assignments for television. For the cultural series Omnibus he wrote “The Big Wheel,” a tribute to burlesque starring Bert Lahr, and “Malice in Wonderland,” three sketches about Hollywood. In 1962 he again wrote for Lahr, this time a star turn in The Beauty Part, a well-received play that had the ill luck to open—and close—during a printers’ strike against the city’s newspapers.

Toward the end of 1969, the Perelmans went to England for three months. In January they returned to Bucks County with the flu. Laura, in fact, was also suffering from a recurrence of breast cancer; she died in April of 1970 at the age of fifty-eight. Unable to work and claiming to find the States intolerable, Perelman fell back on his habitual recourse with a vengeance. He sold the farm in Bucks County, auctioned off nearly all of his and Laura’s possessions, and announced his decision to move to England.

In an autobiographical reflection for The New Yorker that never ran, Perelman wrote:

I clearly envisioned myself ripening there in the afternoon of life, a mellow old philosopher with an endearing twinkle, a familiar and beloved figure in the neighborhood. (How this transformation would be accomplished, I wasn’t quite sure, but no matter.)

No sooner was he settled in than he again took off around the world, this time in imitation of Phileas Fogg’s journey in the original Jules Verne story. On his return to London, he was lionized a little while longer before beginning to experience a more normal life. By the second year, it had palled. He was lonely; he was out of touch with his idiom. He found English life both “too couth” and too boorish. He told Alan Brien of Punch:

I was talking in the street with a friend of mine, a real Cockney with a real Cockney accent. An upperclass Englishman I knew chanced by and I introduced them. I could see him looking at me and at my friend. He didn’t say anything, of course. But I could see him altering his attitude toward me and wondering why I was mixing with people of that sort. I couldn’t stand that. A barrier rang down.

By May of 1972, he was back in New York. He continued to travel and write. Vinegar Puss (his twentieth book) appeared in 1975; Eastward Ha!, an account of yet another global swing (his sixth), in 1977. The following year, when he was seventy-four, he proposed to the editor of the London Sunday Times the idea of recreating, in reverse, a famous 1907 road race.

In the fall of 1978, Perelman was driving his 1949 MG from Paris to Peking in company with an English friend, Eric Lister, and Sydney Beer, an MG specialist. He was looking for trouble for the last time, and finding more of it than he wanted. Although on the trip Beer bitterly accused him of being “a word man,” Perelman gave up writing about the trip after finishing only thirty-eight pages—the first and last assignment he ever failed to complete. By September 30, however, the drive was not yet the debacle it would become. From Pakistan he writes: “Thus far the high point of the trip (in every sense) was Afghanistan—the people are the nicest, most colorful, and filthiest.”

At the time I was also in a colorful and filthy place, or two of them: Manhattan and the production studio of The New York Review of Books, where I was setting type by day and by night working tentatively on my first piece of writing. After six years in New York, I was still burdened by naïveté and the feeling that my life was faintly absurd. Even so, I had a few preoccupations and thought that if I could express them, I would find some relief, if not a starting point. I was thirty.

One evening, an editor at the Review saw that I was working on something of my own and asked to see it. Since I wasn’t sure yet what I was up to, I hoped her remarks would be brief. She said simply, “I think you should send this to Perelman.”

As a teenager in Oklahoma City, my father, himself an exceedingly funny man, read Perelman’s early work in College Humor, reprinted from The Brown Jug. By the time Dad became editor of the MIT Voodoo, Perelman had published Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge. Dad’s recollection of “How to Fall out of a Hammock,” from that book, was nearly reverent. Lest he think he had any more influence over me than he already had, I’d never read it. Somehow I’d also never become aware of Perelman as a public figure. I was raised to think of him as living in the Pantheon, not in an apartment, much less fifteen blocks from where I lived.

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