Perelman:, A Portrait of the Artist
S. J. Perelman is one of those hearty perennials that generations of new readers keep "discovering." In the early 1960s, some of the waves of interest generated by a Nathanael West revival spilled over to his brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman. Like many another writer down on his proverbials, Perelman partook of the aid-and-comfort that West, as manager, dispensed at New York City’s Hotel Sutton:
The Perelmans were, as they say, in good company: Lillian Heilman holed up at the Hotel Sutton, as did Dashiell Hammett, Norman Krasna and dozens of other talents, large, middle-sized and small. The result was less a "hotel" in the strictest, most cost-effective sense of the word and more an American version of the European salon.
To be sure, West was the initial focus of the fascination with such reissued novels as Miss Lonelyhearts and Day of the Locust, but a certain amount of biographical curiosity had also been piqued, and Perelman’s name began to figure importantly for those "serious" readers of serious novels who had somehow missed more than three decades of his New Yorker sketches.
Later, of course, Perelman was "discovered" by a generation more likely to spend its time inside movie theatres than libraries, as Marx Brothers films generally, and Groucho Marx specifically, enjoyed the adulation that only the young can bring to cult revivals. Perelman, of course, had contributed many of the outrageous puns that made Horse Feathers (1932) as successful when it first appeared as when it played at Groucho Festivals on every college campus worth its suds.
Not surprisingly, Perelman was underwhelmed by the newfound—and unsought—reputation that linked him with Groucho as he originally was with Groucho himself. Lest anyone mistake how demeaning, how frustrating, how downright infuriating it was to labor in the Marx Brothers’ vineyard, Perelman put it this way: "I did two films with them, which in its way is perhaps my greatest distinction in life, because anybody who ever worked on any picture for the Marx Brothers said he would rather be chained to a galley oar and lashed at ten-minute intervals until the blood spurted from his frame than ever work for those sons of bitches again."2
Perelman’s uncompleted memoirs—The Hindsight Saga: Fragments
of an Autobiography—suggest a slightly less vitriolic portrait of what has come to be regarded as a legendary Hollywood "relationship":
Evidently Groucho’s fabled "grouchiness" was as much an off-screen truth as it was an on-camera scream. Perelman’s penchant for allusions worried him, especially when it threatened to sail connections over the average movie-goer’s head. The comic novelist, Thomas Berger—who knew Perelman slightly during the days when they both lived at New York City’s Grammercy Park Hotel and who spent considerably more time with Groucho when he was camped out in London—puts it this way:
To the generation that met S. J. Perelman in the pages of The New Yorker—where he had been publishing his comic sketches, or as he preferred, his feuilletons, since 1931—agreeing with Groucho comes easily. Although Perelman was a successful writer in a variety of settings—for Hollywood, on Broadway—his most congenial turf was found inside The New Yorker’s pages. There the eye could operate at full, comic advantage: "Living almost entirely on cameo broaches and the few ptarmigan [grouse] which fell to the ptrigger of the pflowing piece" and Perelman’s pure delight in language could roam aimlessly, unconfined by either the camera or the proscenium: ". . . with a blow I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-picked grovels."
Perelman was a voracious, curious and—let us admit it freely—quirky reader. As Paul Theroux reports, Perelman was
If it is true that those who cannot savor the rhythm, the sheer sound, of exotic place names cannot truly be writers, the maxim is doubly so for humorists. The greatest of Perelman’s very considerable resources was his ear; he loved language above all else, and loved nothing more
than to force dictions—high and low, foreign and domestic—to share space in the same densely packed paragraph.
Small wonder, then, that James Joyce remained his strongest "influence," the high comic standard against which he measured his own work. As Douglas Fowler puts it,
Joyce was a writer on whom nothing printed was ever lost; he devoured everything from the classics to the pulps with relish—and found ways of weaving them into the comic by-play of an encyclopedic book like Ulysses.
Indeed, Joyce’s shadow falls across the entire length of the Perelman canon from Dawn Ginsberg’s Revenge (1929)—in which we learn that he has bartered a cartoon to Judge for "the last forty pages of Ulysses" (i.e., the infamous Molly Bloom soliloquy)—to his last sketch for The New Yorker, a piece entitled, significantly enough, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat’s Paw" (September 10, 1979).
American humorists have a nasty habit of aging badly. Mark Twain, for example, turned both bitter and sophomoric in his declining years, even more convinced that the unvarnished truth could be uttered only from the nether side of the grave. James Thurber haunted The New Yorker offices in the post-Ross years, stung by rejection slips from people he did not know and increasingly unable either to control his drinking or the outbursts of bad temper it tended to cause; E. B. White holed up in Maine, happy enough to be out of Manhattan’s eye shot and, in old age, to be well rid of writing’s painstaking demands. This is not to suggest that Perelman is a match for the boundless wit and good cheer that, say, a Benjamin Franklin could bring to eighteen-century American life, but there is something to be said for a life devoted to hard work and high standards. With Perelman, it is less true that his work "developed" over the long arc of his career than it is that he kept plugging away—in revision after revision—at what he did best.
In this sense, then, Perelman’s last piece has the look, the feel, and, most of all, the prose rhythms we associate with vintage Perelman. It begins with a title as memorable as it is off-the-wall, one that links the "high brow" allusion with low-life slang. "Portrait of the Artist" is, of course, a bow to Joyce’s kunstlerroman about the sensitive, endlessly "suffering" Stephen Dedalus, but, this time, offered up as a "young cat’s paw" —a dupe—rather than as an artist. The result is irony with a Perelmanian thumbprint; rather than the priggish, ironically undercut Stephen Dedalus, our mind soon conjures up affinities with the schlemielish Leopold Bloom.
To be sure, Bloom’s humor is inextricably tied to his averageness, while Perelman’s protagonist is a man distinguished by his dress, by his erudition
and, not least of all, by his sharp tongue:
And yet, for all his apparent sophistication, the Perelman persona is likely to be a man plagued by comic trials-and-tribulations, a man at a loss for an antique celluloid collar and still at odds with Mr. Davies’s book. The latter, an academic—and actual—account of Mr. Joyce’s life —is, of course, the "hook" on which Perelman’s comic essay sticks, especially the sole passage "arresting enough to make me cease—if only temporarily—flinging the book against the wall":
The passage is to Perelman what madeleine cakes are to Proust—a way of jogging remembrance of things past, of speaking memory. Not surprisingly, Perelman’s accounts of his 1927 travels to Europe are riddled with incongruity, with comic disaster, with great expectations unfulfilled. If prior experience is any measure, poor Perelman should have known better: a trip to Martha’s Vineyard ended abruptly once he laid eyes on "the salt-water taffy and that merry-go-round in Oak Bluffs—the Flying Horses—and the gingerbread houses in cottage city"; a trip to Fire Island produces enough poison ivy so that he is "snow-white with calamine lotion and more heavily bandaged than Claude Rains in The Invisible Man." Still, when Judge, the humor magazine for which he labored, ill-paid and largely unappreciated, finally went defunct and when he became so thin that a restauranteur "inadvertently stuck [him] in a jardiniere, mistaking [him] for an umbrella," it was high time for the struggling cartoonist to head toward Europe.
That he sails on the S.S. Leviathan should have been forewarning a plenty, but the Perelman persona is too much the naïf, the innocent, to pay darker realities the attention they deserve. No sooner is he on board and sketching his young, artistic heart out than he meets up with a couple of gold-diggers named Francesca Wild and Bunny Huggins. The latter asks him if he is, in fact, an artist and the following interchange is typical of the Perelman persona who joyfully ticks off the more exotic trees as he runs, unwittingly, into a forest of comic troubles:
Thus is the courtly lily gilded in Perelman’s most representative sketches. His would-be hero lays it on thick, superimposing the best he has read onto the experiences he finds. In the case of Wild and Huggins, the-ploy seems to work, although without either the hugging or the wildness he had hoped for:
At that point, Perelman’s hero strikes out on his own—in search of the fast lane Hemingway had immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. But, alas, literary Paris turns out to be as disillusioning as his trans-Atlantic tryst:
Unfortunately, though, not before he once again ran into Francesca, Bunny, and an elderly woman who could reel off stream-of-consciousness passages that look, and sound, suspiciously Joycean:
And, quicker than you could say "Iris cod," poor Perelman (alias Protheroe/alias Proskauer) has been suckered into hauling a bed through New York customs. When the agents take a pinch bar to the crate, by way of inspecting its "contents," Perelman’s artist finally realizes that he is the joke’s butt, the cat’s paw:
Perelman’s romantic expectations are wide by a mile—no opium, no Romanov baubles, no illegal coolies—but he’s on-target about the "blithering idiot" part. Unlike the Stephen Dedalus who flaps his young wings
toward Paris, Perelman’s youthful protagonist beats his way up the "vertiginous stairs" to his old studio—a sadder, but wiser cookie: "I was cartooning away as good as new. It was hardly an ideal occupation, but it was a damn sight easier than smuggling (p. 137)."
William Shawn, editor at The New Yorker during the post-Ross days, claims that Perelman tended to have troubles ending his pieces and, in large measures, that suspicion is confirmed by the Perelman manuscripts housed in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. If the opening paragraphs of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat’s Paw" are typical of what set Perelman’s best images into motion, its comparatively limp ending suggests that a piece brought full-circle does not always an Aristotelean virtue make. By that I mean, Perelman embellishes, and extends, the wackiness he stumbles across—in daily newspapers, from books, through travel. The method served Perelman well during a long career, but especially in the years after 1970, when his wife—Laura West Perelman—died and he sold the Buck County farm he had owned since 1932. Some of the contents—books, letters, assorted papers—went to his two children, some are now housed in the Berg Collection, but a great deal simply went the way of all extraneous flesh when Perelman moved to London.
As it turned out, Perelman liked the London Times a good deal more than London itself. The folks who collected around Punch magazine were one sort, as it were, but they were in a decided minority. The bulk of the country struck Perelman as stuffy. In a 1979 interview, he complained that England had "too much gentility, civility, couth," that he missed "the tension, the give and take" of New York, with its roughening of syntax, its bang-and-blab, its delicious vulgarity.8
The juxtaposition of literary symbol and New York City surfaces worked best in sketches like "One Order of Blintzes, and Hold the Flimflam." Generally speaking, Perelman speaks memory when he drops an allusion to a film or a film star (see nearly any example from the Cloud-land Revisited sequence), but there are times when he wrinkles a contemporary reference into the fabric of rarefied diction his men-about-town tend to speak:
To be sure, the odd juxtapositions started much earlier—with a title that yokes blintzes with flimflam and an opening sentence that brings elevated
diction to the lower East Side.
Reading a Simenon anthology over a bowl of borscht, Perelman’s protagonist settles down to what he had hoped would be a quiet, uneventful repast:
But a "good read" is not in Jud Kluckhorn’s cards. No sooner had he spread his paperback Maigret "against a hillock of seed rolls" than he is interrupted by J. Willis Wainwright, vice-president of the Gripfast Mucilage Company in Ashtabula, and a con-man of the first water. In less time than it takes Kluckhorn to explain what a "blintz" is, Wainwright has flashed a clipping from (where else?) the London Times about Akram Ojjeh, a fabulously wealthy Saudi businessman who plans to run The France as a floating hotel, added some inside dope about the shaky under-financing, and offered Kluckhorn a chance to buy into a big opportunity for a mere $175,000. After all, as Wainwright puts it, Ojjeh
Lest anyone imagine that Perelman and the outrageous pun had parted company when he crossed the 70 + line, they hadn’t. But in "One Order of Blintzes, and Hold the Flimflam," he had other, higher browed, aces up his comic sleeve. Kluckhorn, it turns out, is not only an erstwhile "Inspector," but he is also a semiotician, a man who could hold his own with the most ingenious folk of Yale’s English Department:
Kluckhorn, in short, is not the cat’s paw, the dupe, the patsy; ratiocination has made the difference. That, and lots of reading. Exposed as the flimfiammer he is, Wainwright is duly banished from the table, from Cooper’s Dairy Restaurant, from the lower East Side—all of which gives Kluckhorn a chance to see if Life, in fact, imitates Art:
It is worth pointing out that Joyce ended the "Cyclops" episode of Ulysses with the words "shot off a shovel," not only by way of strengthening
my case about Perelman and Joycean allusion, but, more important, to suggest that, with Perelman, drum rolls do not always accompany a literary echo. Rather, Perelman depends on a readership likely to share the deep reverence and good cheer he brings to that enterprise we know as parody. Small wonder, then, that he found his best readership in The New Yorker and that he found his literary idol in James Joyce. After all, among the many things that can be—and, indeed, have been—said about Ulysses, is that the book becomes an extended, serio-comic exercise in parody. To impose Homer’s epic onto the humdrum fabric of Dublin, 1904 is, I submit, not unlike what Perelman does when he jumbles together what he’s read with how he lives.
If "And Then the Whining Schoolboy, With His Satchel" is grounded in even a jot of truth, Perelman had a long history of confusing fiction with what travels under the name of "non-fiction." Apparently the first person to call the matter to his attention was Miss Cronjager, a boyhood teacher. She had requested a meeting at Gibson’s, a Providence, Rhode Island tearoom and soda shop renowned for its exotic, and ambrosial, concoctions. Let me hasten to add, however, that "tea-and-sympathy" were not on the agenda for that particular afternoon in 1919. Rather, Miss Cronjager felt that some aspects of his personal essay were more than a touch suspicious. For example,
As Miss Cronjager reads on, appropriations from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island merge with those from Riders of the Purple Sage and The Winning of Barbara Worth. But the "lesson" Miss Cronjager tries, in vain, to instill falls on deaf, innocent ears:
Later, of course, the high school boy with satchel discovered canvas, oil paint, and James Joyce. And even more to the humorous point, S. J.
Perelman discovered that these portraits of the artist as comic victim
could keep him "in business" at The New Yorker. For that, Miss Cronjager, literate readers everywhere are still glad.
Franklin and Marshall College
J. Perelman, "Nathanael West," included in The Last Laugh (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), p. 162.