Knowing S.J. Perelman

S. J. Perelman
S. J. Perelman; drawing by David Levine

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…

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