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.
Of course you could write to him in care of The New Yorker. But what could you say that wouldn’t be a gross presumption? As he wrote E. B. White, the standard fan letter is so obnoxious it generally ends in a request for a small loan until Easter.
As a first exercise in sedulous aping, I paraphrased the youthful Heinrich Heine’s first letter to Goethe, then seventy-two. I identified my source and tried to allow for the fact that I was not one of Germany’s great lyric poets but instead probably one of the simpler people in town. I was pretty sure the letter would go straight into the wastebasket with the rest of that day’s pile of unsolicited piety.
After reaching Peking, minus his car and companions but with a case of pneumonia, an exhausted Perelman flew home to New York in December and settled back into his modest apartment in the Gramercy Park Hotel.
Nobody suffers from future shock around Gramercy Park. Michelin calls it “one of the spots in New York which most recall the past,” and indeed there are few signs of the present. The park is bounded by one of the city’s earliest apartment buildings and by nineteenth-century townhouses, pristine classical revivals in several styles. Number 16 to the south is the Players Club (Perelman was a member), founded by the actor Edwin Booth in 1888. Next door is the National Arts Club, the handsome old home of a former governor: bas-relief heads of Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and Dante surround that of Ben Franklin on the wall outside. To the west are three-story red brick homes framed by wisteria and black cast-iron balconies. Perelman had a writer friend at number 4 and also occasionally visited number 19, Ben Sonnenberg’s fine mansion to the southwest. Residents have keys to the kempt park, with its hearty trees and large black urns full of red geraniums. In the middle, an undefiled Edwin Booth rises from a throne chair as Hamlet, hand on heart.
From Room 1621 in the Gramercy Park Hotel, if Perelman stood at the window he could see just enough of the pretty parts to remind him of London. But the hotel is also on an axis that took him back to his earliest days in New York: two blocks north, at Twenty-third Street and Lexington Avenue, is the Kenmore Hall Hotel, where between 1927 and 1932 Perelman used to visit his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, the assistant manager. West was already practicing the largess that he became better known for later at the Sutton, uptown. From the Kenmore, they could wander to the Village, nearer Perelman’s digs, for a meal at Siegel’s on Sixth Avenue—dinner was eighty-five cents. Perelman introduced West to the columnist known as Susan Chester there one night; West used the letters she showed him as the basis for Miss Lonelyhearts.
In 1979 the Gramercy Park Hotel was also reasonably cheap, and convenient to Perelman’s essential haunts. Within a mile-and-a-half’s walk were The New Yorker, the Mercantile Library, where he subscribed, the Coffee House—in its day an offbeat club frequented by editors and writers, like his beloved Robert Benchley—and the Century Club, to which he also belonged. Even handier were the Second Avenue Deli on Tenth Street and Hammer’s Dairy Restaurant on Fourteenth. Right around the corner, at Walsh’s Chop House on Twenty-third, he could dine on one of his favorite standbys—a ham steak with raisin sauce and sweet potatoes. Shops were a block away on Third Avenue. The cost of a Danish at the Gramercy Pastry Shop (since 1932) served as Perelman’s consumer price index, and a jump seemed to alarm him more than a stock slide might. Three doors down was the Gramercy Park Flower Shop, where every Christmas he ordered a dozen yellow spider mums sent to “the two most angelic people in America,” his old screenwriting friends Frances and Albert Hackett. If he was visiting Al Hirschfeld on Ninety-fifth Street, he could hop on the Third Avenue bus. As he wrote a friend in England, “Where I’m living there’s an affable Chinese to whom I take the laundry; a discount store for drugs; and a bakery with seeds in the rye. What more do I need?”
The hotel itself gave no sign of its distinguished occupant, unless you thought to take Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cover, framed in the lobby, as a clue. Other than that, most of the color was provided by the rock ‘n’ roll clientele, putting up close to their gigs in the Village and nearby. If you’d asked them who wrote The Road to Miltown, they’d probably have guessed the Rolling Stones.
After catching up on his mail, Perelman answered my letter in January 1979. We wrote some more, and in the middle of March he invited me to meet for dinner. I was keen, of course, but also wary. As Perelman’s friend Raymond Chandler wrote: “Never Meet a Writer if You Liked His Book.” I girded myself for the possibility that fame had warped him, and spent the afternoon seeing the last of a silent film series as insurance against having nothing to say.
Perelman told me to meet him at Sal Anthony’s, a two-story family restaurant on Irving Place, south of Gramercy Park. Outside the entrance, on the second floor, is a plaque that says O. Henry once lived there and wrote “The Gift of the Magi” in “two feverish hours.” Perelman, who could spend a day on a paragraph, must have snorted at that.
Remembering a description of him from Time (and forgetting he’d written it himself as a parody of Time-ese), I expected a “tall, stooping figure,” suave and self-important. Instead I saw, stylishly but unself-consciously posed at the bar, a small man, quietly but beautifully dressed. He had freckled skin, cheeks mapped with spidery blood vessels, and light blue walleyes, large and expressive behind gold wire-rim glasses.
One eye found me, then the other followed; his stare was never quite dead-on. His hands were graceful, whether miming, smoothing his hair, or characteristically resting one finger across his mustache—a gesture both elegant and slightly protective. For a satirist he seemed fittingly, if barely, stigmatized: the index fingers curved gradually in opposite directions. His voice was pleasantly croaky, and his Rhode Island accent gained distinction as it stamped his precise and delightful speech.
Perelman was one of those people who make you feel as charming as they are. I talked about the Chaplin I’d just been watching; he knew Chaplin. I talked about Beerbohm; he’d once escorted Elizabeth Taylor to Oxford (she was consulting a doctor) and seen the under-graduates react just as violently as they had to Zuleika Dobson’s first visit. He was dazzling company and yet completely modest—naturally so, and never as a point of style.
After dinner we walked back to the hotel, and Perelman excused himself for a minute—“I have to go to the sandbox.” He never said anything in an ordinary fashion, but every spin was spontaneous. We had a nightcap in the bar, and I ordered an unusually stiff liqueur. Depression followed: the audience would shortly be over, and I’d probably live another forty years. He put me into a cab and said he hoped we’d become good friends.
I wrote Sid a follow-up note and included two articles from the Times, one concerning a snake heist, the other a university in Ohio that was giving college credit for delivering children by the Lamaze method. When I met him again for dinner he showed up with his own sheaf of clippings, plus a small present—a seam-ripper that doubles as the perfect tool for clipping items from a newspaper.
No longer Sid’s guest, I insisted on paying for myself. He protested (“I mean to speak to you about this conceit”), but we split the tab thereafter. That may be why I never saw evidence of his putative stinginess, although once when he was giving me change and I said, “Are you sure you’re not giving me too much?” he answered, “No, I have the soul of a bookkeeper.” To me he seemed generous. There was a marked appropriateness about his gifts or gestures that gave them their value. Clare Hollingworth once told me about the time Sid took her to have her first pizza. I laughed, and she said, “Oh, but it was a superior pizza.” No doubt it was.
His best gifts, of course, were his enthusiasms, and in spite of everything, one of them was still New York. Like a Kafka character, the New Yorker is “constantly on trial for something the nature of which he doesn’t understand,” he told Mary Shenker. The steady smell of garbage and the paucity of good slang were more recent complaints. But as he’d discovered in London, he needed New York for his work, and my own relative ignorance of the city may have served to resurrect some of his excitement about it. There was scarcely a block in the city, the Village especially, that didn’t speak to him.
One night early on I was walking home late from a ballet class—“twirling,” Sid called it—and swung by his hotel. I thought of phoning him from the lobby but hesitated, picturing him in the middle of a more or less permanent salon in his rooms, which I hadn’t yet seen. After circling the block once I finally dialed and asked him what he was doing. “I’m poised here looking like I’m about to make an epigram, and all I’ve got in my head is butterscotch.” I asked if he wanted to go have some dessert, and he sounded overjoyed to be sprung from his solitude. That was my first inkling that his life was not exactly the Olympian bower I’d imagined. He looked very sharp as usual, like an old artist, and wore a plaid shirt with a dark tie.
That night I borrowed a copy of Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, inscribed to his wife, Laura, “who is funnier than Jimmy Durante.” He spoke of her infrequently but easily, with deference and affection. We talked about other books as well—a natural way for cautious people to reveal themselves and begin catechizing each other. Was I right in assuming he was a polymath along the lines of Edmund Wilson? He gave an embarrassed laugh (he never pretended to the erudition critics attributed to him) and, by way of answering, said the most learned people he’d known were Wilson, Ogden Nash, and Aldous Huxley. He showed me his signed copies of The Waste Land (“Inscribed for Sid Perelman by T.S.Eliot in homage”) and On Poetry and Poets (“Some people think my books are funnier than yours”) and talked about Chandler, whom he was rereading at the time. He was in the middle of V. S. Pritchett’s The Living Novel, as well as Karl Menninger’s Love and Death. I also carted off Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and Hand-Made Fables by George Ade. Sid was particularly keen on “The Fable of the Waist-Band that was Taut up to the Moment it gave way” (it figures in a note to E. B. White). I got hooked on that, and sentences such as “Effie was just at the Age when a Girl has to be Deformed to prevent her from being a fairly Good Looker” and “Like all high-class Boarding Houses, it was infested by some Lovely People” (one Ring Lardner must have liked). The only passage Sid had marked, however, was from “The Civic Improver and the Customary Reward”:
The Plain People are worth dying for until you bunch them and give them the cold Once-Over, and then they impress the impartial Observer as being slightly Bovine, with a large Percentage of Vegetable Tissue.
He talked about his other favorites: Beerbohm’s Seven Men, Zola’s Au Bonheur des dames, which he loved for its mastery of department-store culture, and the Goncourt brothers’ journals. This last brought him to a sore point about his own work, in particular the autobiography he’d long since contracted to do—he’d already cannibalized his life more than anybody realized. He said the trouble with old writers was that they repeated themselves, and in trying to mine the past for something new he just couldn’t remember it right. The tediousness of having to dredge up period material—he was rereading the magazine Snappy Stories on microfilm in the public library—made him wish he’d kept even the skimpiest diary to jog his memory. The only advice he ever presumed to offer me about writing was that I keep a journal.
Sid read to feed his fancies, and even when he read more seriously he wasn’t systematic. If he saw himself as part of a tradition, he derived no solace from identifying with his peers in an earlier age. (I once asked him if it was reassuring to read his praises, and he said wryly, “Yes, every night.”) He told me his two unachieved goals were to speak perfect French and play jazz piano.
In mid-April we had dinner at Sweet’s on Fulton Street—another part of New York I’d never been to and a section Sid especially liked. In the cab downtown he said he’d had dinner the night before with Lillian Hellman and was finding her increasingly difficult to take. “Theirs was a very ambivalent relationship,” a friend of his told me: “He detested her and she detested him.” That night he said Lilly had once given him a play of hers to read and asked him to really lay it on the line. He demurred at first, but she insisted she could take it. When he went ahead, she didn’t speak to him for a year and a half. All the same, in old age they vacationed together in Florida with other friends, and a card from her inside his copy of The Hite Report reads: “A testament to how young I think you are.”
He mentioned that he’d agreed to have lunch with Dashiell Hammett’s biographer, Diane Johnson, and was in a quandary what to tell her. After all, he had his own autobiography to think of, or as he put it: “Macy’s doesn’t tell Gimbel’s.” He alluded darkly to a tale involving Nathanael West (it found its way to her book anyway, through another source), but his own buttoned-up memoir of West in The Last Laugh doesn’t mention it. West had saved Hammett by giving him free board at the Sutton Hotel while Hammett wrote The Thin Man and, as Sid told it, when West was on his uppers in Hollywood, the now-famous Hammett pointedly said that West could expect no financial help from him.
The story still galled Sid, as did another that concerned West. Sid claimed that within days of West’s death in a car crash, Bennett Cerf called to ask for the return of the advance on West’s next novel, a matter of about $150. When they next encountered each other, taking refuge under an awning during a rainstorm, Sid pounced on him. In Sid’s version, Cerf was wearing a white suit that ended up covered in mud.
As fresh as his indignation over an old insult could be, Sid was too good a storyteller to be merely sore. His outrage was vigorous and entertaining. He told a story about a war-bond tour in the Forties that took him and several other writers as far as Texas. After the bond pitch, Stanley Marcus guided him personally through Neiman-Marcus in Dallas. After showing off a fine jewelry display, Marcus said with an air of noblesse oblige, “Surely there’s something here your wife would like—earrings, a brooch…?” Sid considered. “Well, yes, I think she’d like these earrings here.” Marcus snapped his fingers at the saleswoman behind the counter, told her to wrap them up, and left. The woman said, “That’ll be $1,200.”
Sid had a highly polished repertoire of stories that he delivered as if they were brand-new, but even the new ones came out perfect the first time. When you realized how flawlessly he spoke and how slowly he wrote, you began to appreciate the standard he held himself to in his work.
At Sweet’s I talked about the seder I’d just been to, in particular about the plague of frogs. Sid said, in earnest (I say that for readers who assume such a writer must be a relentless put-on artist, which he wasn’t), that he’d read a book about the plague once and that in fact they were very tiny frogs. A short pause. “Blue points,” he added. “Delicious.”
Sid was a fanatic for dessert and ordered blueberry pie. The topping looked like spackling compound and a good bit of it somehow ended up plastered on his cuffs. Walking around the Village later, he said he wanted to find another restaurant so he could finish off the rest of his suit. Apropos the dry-cleaning problem, I mentioned having read that the curator Henry Geldzahler had once worn a porcelain bow tie to an art opening. Sid asked me if I’d be embarrassed if he wore a ceramic hat to the theater; I said fine, as long as it wasn’t earthenware. He said thoughtfully, “In that case, maybe I’ll wear my Spode vest.” Then his hat blew into the street, and although he occasionally betrayed his age by shuffling slightly, he streaked after it as nimbly as a stunt man. He said it was the seventh time it had happened that day.
It seemed proper that Sid should live in a hotel, where he stood a greater chance of being abused in a stimulating way than if he’d lived entirely by himself. He wasn’t a kvetch, as I knew him; his crotchets were comic, and while he was certainly capable of real rage, he could also feign an antic apoplexy. He complained that the morning maid (whom he calls Isosceles in a letter) was filching some special pencils he’d brought back from Japan and that she had stopped tucking in his bedclothes on the grounds that he was a “tousler.” One morning he called, ostensibly beside himself, to say that after shaving he’d headed for the living room in his shorts and bumped into a couple standing there with suitcases. They insisted it was their room and were unimpressed by his claim to have lived there six years. When he phoned the desk, the clerk said the couple must have taken the wrong key. As Sid was pleased to point out, from the registration counter to the room keys is a reach of about six feet.
Sid said happiness was “a brown paper bag of possessions and a room in the Mills Hotel” (or Dixie, sometimes), and for a cosmopolite he’d come close to his ideal. His apartment consisted of two moderate-size rooms and a kitchenette, equipped with a hot plate and a counter oven, restaurant-style stainless steel for two, a sweet potato, and a rubber fried egg from Japan. In the living room, among a small but very personal collection of art works, was Saul Steinberg’s Egypt Still Life, a collage whose focal motif is a wrapper of Chinese toilet paper with the happy brand name of Kapok. (Screenwriting, Sid wrote, was “an occupation akin to stuffing kapok in mattresses”; the air in New York was “like kapok twice-breathed.”) Steinberg hadn’t let him buy it but accepted in exchange Sid’s offer of a copy of Ulysses, inscribed by Joyce. The set and costume designer Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s mistress, had given it to him.
Except for a Victorian swivel chair, the furniture was largely the hotel’s, which made it all the more appropriate, somehow, that on his dresser were a number of Steinberg artifacts—a false matchbox, notebook, and fancifully labeled wine bottle, all gifts. Why so many tokens from the artist? Steinberg was indebted, he said, to anyone who saved him time, and when he arrived in America in 1942 and encountered Sid’s work, his first experience of “the popular native avantgarde,” it gave him an invaluable shortcut to the clichés of American culture.
At the time I met Sid, he was no longer so sure he had the inside track on those clichés. The New Yorker was hanging on to his pieces, and he said he’d recently got back a set of galleys edited by an unidentifiable hand. I asked him why he didn’t try to find out the reason, and he said that, unlike Thurber, he’d never been able to be pushy about his work. “You know me, Patient Griselda. Can’t you just see me in my pinafore?” He was anxious that his readers would think he’d stopped writing—they no longer sent him the oddball clippings that gave him ideas. I came over once just after he’d seen Robin Williams do a bit on a talk show, and he was both baffled and distressed. If people wanted to be bludgeoned to death by maniacs, where did that leave him?
In spite of such discouragement, Sid indulged himself very little in backward looks and not at all in self-pity—he had too much nerve and too much industry. He continued to examine his world as keenly as he knew how and, as far as I could tell, expected as much of himself as he ever had—that is, far more than most do. And reasonably or not, he still felt the financial necessity of working. If he occasionally thought he’d become an artifact—that literacy had outlived its day—his readers set him straight. Earlier in the day, he told me once, someone had called out to him as he was crossing the street in the middle of the block, “Be careful—we need you.” This astonished and moved him.
When I was still thinking that Sid was probably used to a diet of high culture, I got tickets to the New York City Ballet. It was performing Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, which Sid had said was the only classical music he knew, as well as Stravinsky’s Agon. In the cab to Lincoln Center I read him Lincoln Kirstein’s synopsis of the Stravinsky: “Behind its active physical presence there was inherent a philosophy; Agon was by no means ‘pure’ ballet ‘about’ dancing only. It was an existentialist metaphor for tension and anxiety.” Sid asked: “On the part of the audience?” He said the lights in the theater were the largest zircons he’d ever seen, and waited quietly for what he called “the resistance piece.” When “Spring” came, he asked if the corps was supposed to be corn.
The mockery of superstition has been a hallmark of the satirist, and you could say that insofar as Sid dealt with cultural superstitions—that wealth confers character, say—he was true to his métier. At the same time, his fascination with the occult had a serious side, not always concealed by his also genuine desire to exploit the subject for comic purposes. (In his letters, for instance, he interprets one particular séance three ways for three separate correspondents.) That evening, Sid brought the subject up for the first time, so casually that I felt free to say something dismissive. At that he claimed he didn’t put any credence in it either but simply liked to keep his hand “on the throttle of the future.” He said he thought I’d like the language of the tarot even so, and when I went to London that summer, he gave me three addresses: his bookseller (Heywood Hill), his favorite candy dealer, and his “psychic surgeon.” (I lost the note.)
Sid complained that our dining was getting too “Mimi-Sheratonesque.” I was content to give it up, since finding places quiet enough—that is, empty enough—for him to hear well was getting difficult. I proposed cooking at my place and asked my mother to send me a tablecloth. I don’t know why I thought that would help, but when the evening rolled around, Aunty Con’s double damask covered my unpainted trestle table clear to the floor. I seated Sid formally at one end, me at the other, and served a white fish with a white sauce that was hard to see on the plate. Some weeks later, I heard Sid express puzzlement that hostesses had stopped serving beef at parties and were now trying to fob off things like chicken as entrees. But that night, with a characteristic blend of shy grace and invention, he said only, “I feel like Marion Davies at San Simeon.”
Not long after that he introduced me to the Second Avenue Deli, a genial place where the maitre d’ treats you like family, barley counts as a second vegetable, and the waitresses call everyone “honey.” I once overheard one of them declare that there were fifty Hebrew words that were cognate in Gaelic, a claim Sid nearly made credible in Eastward Ha! (“Pechand-Schwebyll of that Ilk,” “Ichvaisnit Grange, the fief of Gornicht Kinhelfinn”). He admired the fact that you could actually buy a sandwich-and-a-half there, prorated.
My next and last attempt at mutual uplift was to get tickets for Happy Days at the Public Theater. I figured Beckett was close enough to Joyce, and we both liked the actress, Irene Worth. Sid said she had the décolletage of a young woman; he’d seen it once at a dinner party in London.
Unfortunately he didn’t hear much of the play, and to salvage the price of the tickets we took a window seat at Lady Astor’s across the street and ordered some cake. Sid forthrightly, but with no particular confidence, addressed the question of the gap in our ages, which he felt “was so great as to be ridiculous.” I said I didn’t see what the problem was, since he’d spent his whole life making the ridiculous into the sublime. It sounds too tidy now, but it seemed obvious, and he accepted it. As a friend of mine put it, “Yeah, too bad you couldn’t have met when you were twenty-six and he was seventy—or when he was thirty, and your parents hadn’t met yet.” He seemed to be generally preoccupied about what his future would bring and appeared to put stock in Yevtushenko’s prediction, made on Sid’s last trip to the Soviet Union, that he’d live eight more years.
A friend of his had recently told him about a psychic, and he suggested that for the fun of it we should go separately, not letting on that we were acquainted, and compare prophesies to see if we were slated to figure in each other’s lives. I think Sid liked to entertain the notion that some things were simply out of his hands, even while he was busy trying to influence them.
In May, then, I made an appointment with a character whose card identified him as a “humanistic astrologer” who read the tarot and practiced something called “TRANS formative counseling.” A bachelor who worked out of his apartment, he gave me a cup of coffee and from a series of casual questions established that I was going to London that summer and was trying to write.
Finally we turned to the tarot, and he began laying out the themes of my life as he saw them. The “humanistic” part seemed to mean that whenever my expression indicated a reading was farfetched he would change it—if necessary, to its opposite. As the session wore on, his desire to appear credible began to get the best of him, until he suggested, rather tentatively, that a trip to London might be in the offing, as well as some kind of creative work—writing, perhaps. More to the point, by the time we were done I was quite sure, from his detailed narrative, that Sid had inadvertently tipped him off: the King of Swords was all but identified as a seventy-five-year-old humorist with strabismus. He concluded by reading my palm and redeemed his integrity, after a fashion, by seeing in it a future completely unrelated to the one just foretold by the tarot, including a spell in a convent and the assurance that I would not have a hysterectomy. He was a harmless and well-meaning person and pretty clearly a psychotherapist manqué.
When Sid and I met to swap notes he was quite keyed up and showed a credulity that seemed odd in such a relentless student of scam; that it might have been a willful suspension only made it more intriguing. In any case, we had an occasion to talk about ourselves without getting too confessional, and with a good deal of amusement. (The astrologer had begun by asking Sid what his chief value was, to which he answered, “honesty.”) My debunking account bothered him not at all.
As the summer approached, Sid pressed on doggedly but futilely with his Paris-Peking saga. Even so, he got around quite a bit and was not so isolated or bereft as his sometimes woebegone expression could suggest. Bette Midler sought him out to see if they could work together on cabaret patter (he felt they couldn’t); he met London Sunday Times editor Harold Evans at the Century and turned down a proposal to revisit Hollywood, as a possible substitute for the China material. He scouted the charms of a new screen goddess, Laura Antonelli, and an old one, Louise Brooks in Pandora’s Box.
William Shawn called to have lunch at the Algonquin (“you know, where the guests have those special swiveling heads”), and Perry Howze, an aspiring cartoonist he’d met after she too had written him a fan letter, took him to tea. He trained his usual sharp eye on the latest advertising bilge (one enclosure reads: “Pru—If you were a girl, wouldn’t this be the man you’d most want to marry?”) and kept stirring what he called his “vats” full of marinating ideas—he had several files full. He hiked up four flights of a walk-up to have dinner with my friend Roslyn, five flights to visit his friend Irene Kemmer, and six flights to come to my birthday party. (He brought a clipping from The Observer on “the pinching Lord of Fowey,” who pleaded guilty to three cases of gross indecency—“Do you suppose there’s such a thing as a ‘net’ indecency?”)
In August we went to see “The Treasures of the Kremlin” at the Metropolitan, and after staring at the cases, Sid said he was going to have his boxer shorts sewn all over with tiny pearls. A trip to the Museum of Natural History was less stimulating—I think we saw a film about lava—but Sid got an idea for a book jacket, showing him typing inside either a mummy case or the black-bear diorama.
The September 10, 1979, issue of The New Yorker carried its last contribution by S. J. Perelman. “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat’s-Paw” describes his first trip to Europe in 1927 and how he got shanghaied into smuggling a conjugal bed from Paris back to the US. He’s captured himself at age twenty-three, before the evolution of his worldly and world-weary persona:
In the spring of 1927, I occupied a wee studio on West Ninth Street in the Village, where I drew cartoons that ultimately lowered the circulation of a weekly named Judge to the vanishing point…. It was on the sixth floor of a building equidistant from the Athens Chop House and a restaurant run by the Siegel brothers, and, what with my meagre sustenance and my constant toiling up those five flights, I became so thin that a Siegel brother inadvertently stuck me in a jardiniere, mistaking me for an umbrella.
I hadn’t known this piece was in the works and came upon it by surprise in the subway one morning on the way to work. It was the only piece of his that appeared while I knew him, and I was amazed to think he’d been able to confect anything so perfect without letting on. I called him from work and said his phone must be ringing off the hook. Rather wistfully he said no and suggested we each take a door-to-door canvass to find out what people thought. I said, “Then what?” “We could hold hands.”
Sid once advised the young Heywood Hale Broun, “No one ever laughed a girl into bed. What do you think they’re always talking about Gary Gooper for?” I don’t know if Sid ever took his own advice, but when I asked him once why his hands were so cold he said, “They’ve been insufficiently osculated.” Something Gary Cooper would never have said.
Sid was a boon companion to women for many reasons. One was his attractive lack of swagger and proprietariness. As his friend Israel Shenker put it, Sid was “a collection of modesties, lightly worn and easily displayed,” although when it came to flattering others, he never hung back. He favored the oblique (“Who does your burnishing?”) and the hyperbolic remark. Outrageousness only made his compliments more delightful: since they were patently false, you could enjoy them without having to dimple. He regarded women as another species altogether—a view that may have accounted for his conscientiousness and lack of presumption. For him, certainly, it heightened their exoticism. One evening I wore a thrift-shop dress that had a peplum (an overskirt at the waistline), and Sid was enchanted to be reacquainted with the word, one of the few he was no longer able to retrieve. He could be immensely playful, and I suspect he found it easier to be so with women.
Sid also had an instinctive and sharp sense of the underdog. Once when we were riding a bus back from Pennsylvania, a woman he knew slightly came to say hello and perched on the armrest of my seat. She said things like, “Sid, you old card you,” bragged about her how-to manual on tax evasion, and wound up by professing to find my work as a typesetter fascinating and enviable. After she’d returned to her seat, Sid rounded on me with a fuchsia face and said in a voice choked with indignation: “Did you see how she patronized you?”
As September came on, Sid heard the call of the foliage and began to get nostalgic about Bucks County, his home for forty-odd years. After Laura died in 1970, he said, his women friends told him not to “burn the wigwam” but to save something for when he recovered himself. He felt that he’d been impetuous in selling the farm—that grieving people ought to be locked up for a year to protect them from their mad behavior.
He suggested we take a bus out and pick up his old MG, which a mechanic in Pipersville was converting back to meet local inspection, and head southwest to see the Amish country. In the event, the mechanic was confounded by the English wiring, and we ultimately made the trip in a rented car. We saw Sid’s old house and visited his painter friend Allen Saalburg; saw fabled farmland, horses and buggies, a cloister, a kosher chicken farm. The absence of glamour didn’t seem to trouble Sid; he was content to ramble, and I saw no sign of the petulant persona from his work. The more bum the territory, the more inventive he became—his romanticism was sui generis.
In October, Morley Safer of 60 Minutes brought a crew to Sid’s apartment to do a segment focusing on his travels. (“Unlike Las Vegas, which I very much like, Hollywood has very little charm. I think that anybody who wants to wrap up a four-year course of sociology has only to walk from Vine Street to La Brea to get a swift kind of pastiche of the worst that has been thought and said in our century.”) Sid claimed the filming improved his status at the hotel immensely, although the program never ran.
On the first Saturday in October, Sid and I took the train up to Rhinebeck to see Clermont, a stately home on the Hudson open to the public. It was a spectacular day; Sid suspected the lawn had been professionally dappled. We toured the house and on the way out studied an objet decorated with a frieze of Apollo in a chariot drawn by butterflies. I said the motif might be another good one for a book jacket, Sid drawn by wasps—“yes,” he added, “or drawn and quartered by Anatole Broyard.” It was warm enough to eat lunch on the grass, overlooking the river, and as we heard a whistle in the distance, Sid said: “We need never leave here. We can steal vegetables from the passing trains.”
The travel section of the October 14 Sunday New York Times ran an article on cruise liners with an addendum on freighters, their itineraries, and the cost of passage. Sid had recently been talking about the wonders of Hong Kong and said the ideal, way to get there was by tramp steamer—twelve passengers maximum and no doctor on board. On his second global trip, in 1949, he wrote Leila Hadley: “I prefer the previous way I girdled this ocean, viz., a cargo ship which gave you some sense of accomplishment.” American President Lines had several vessels that sailed east every two weeks from Oakland, California. Sid and I hadn’t girdled much of anything, apart from each other, but so far the companionship looked promising. Undaunted by his last punishing venture, he clipped the schedule and began scheming how he could pay for the trip by writing.
The morning of October 17, a Wednesday, I was wandering down Madison Avenue and spotted in the window of a fancy hardware store a rather good-looking carryall—something I figured I ought now to have. I bought it and walked to work, wondering what winter in New York would be like knowing someone like Sid. An idle thought, but I remember it because that afternoon, as we were closing pages of the Review, the woman I worked with heard on the radio that S. J. Perelman was dead.
In collecting his letters, I was searching for a man I did not know well but was certain I wanted to know better. I’ve not been disappointed; I hope others will not be. His letters do not describe a happy life: “I alternate between violence and despair when I consider what faces anybody who wants to really write as well as he can.” How much more astonishing, then, the work it produced. “You can be as deeply moved by laughter as you can by misery,” Sid wrote Abby. Whether the collection bears him out, I’d like to dedicate my share of it to the memory of my father, with whom it really began.
Copyright © Prudence Crowther