That Old Feeling: Perelmania

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...But is anyone else lighting candles for his memorial cake? Am I alone these days in regarding S.J. Perelman as a formative font of 20th century wit? In earlier columns on the centenaries of writers (Ogden Nash, Cornell Woolrich), performers (Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope) and filmmakers (Leni Riefenstahl), my words were part of a general acknowledgment, generous or (in Riefenstahl’s case) grudging, of the honorees’ contributions to the culture.

Perelman would have been 100 this Sunday — if he hadn’t died in 1979 — and his work was, except for the cartoons, the chief claim of humor in The New Yorker for more than 30 years. Yet summon his name on Google, and you will find only about a third as many references for him as for his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, who published only four short novels in a six-year career, compared to 20-some volumes in Perelman’s public half-century. Ransacking the Internet, I could discover no Perelman parties, no memorial readings from the canon, no revivals of the Broadway shows he worked on, no retrospectives of the films he helped write. I think of the Perelman story, “Who Stole My Golden Metaphor?” and wonder: who buried my Perelman beyond price?

But, kids, before you consign one of my favorite comedy writers to Corliss’ mausoleum of lost causes, take a moment to roll naked in some Perelman prose. I choose, almost at random, a few verses from the “Acres and Pains,” his magnum opus — or minimum opus, for it consumes fewer than 40 pages when reprinted. The book is Perelman’s account of a city boy who, in 1932, acquired and tried to run a rural property in Bucks County, Pa.:


“A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bound by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.”

“I began my career as a country squire with nothing but a high heart, a flask of citronella, and a fork for toasting marshmallows in case supplies ran low. In a scant fifteen years I have acquired a superb library of mortgages, mostly first editions, and the finest case of sacroiliac known to science.... I also learned that to lock horns with Nature, the only equipment you really need is the constitution of Paul Bunyan and the basic training of a commando.”

“When I first settled down on a heap of shale in the Delaware Valley, I too had a romantic picture of myself. For about a month I was a spare, sinewy frontiersman in fringed buckskin, with crinkly little lines about the eyes and a slow laconic drawl.... After I almost blew off a toe cleaning an air rifle, though, I decided I was more the honest rural type. I started wearing patched blue jeans [and] mopped my forehead with a red banana (I found out later it should have been a red bandanna).... One day, while stretched out on the porch, I realized I needed only a mint julep to become a real dyed-in-the-wool, Seagram’s V.V.O. Southern planter.... I sent to New York for a broad-brimmed hat and a string tie, and at enormous expense trained the local idiot to fan me with a palmetto leaf.”

“Today, thanks to unremitting study, I can change a fuse so deftly that it plunges the entire county into darkness.... The power company has offered me as high as fifteen thousand dollars a year to stay out of my own cellar.”


If you’re not thoroughly beguiled by now, you are excused from class and may return to meditating on Janet Jackson’s steel-spangled nipple.



EL SID

Perelman’s oeuvre is a species of specious autobiography. He wrote about what he did, saw and read. He circumscribed the globe seven times, usually wringing a series of articles or a book out of the jaunt: “Westward Ha!” (illustrated by Al Hirschfeld) in the 40s, “Eastward Ha!” in the 70s. “Acres and Pains” is a searing indictment of the agricultural gentry, but he must not have hated his farm life too much; he lived there with Laura (Nathanael West’s sister, and Perelman’s occasional writing partner) until her death in 1969. A dustjacket blurb reads: “Retired today to peaceful Erwinna, Pa., Perelman raises turkeys which he occasionally displays on Broadway.”

In his 20s he was co-author of two prime Marx Brothers farces, “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers.” Among the Broadway turkeys were a couple of plays he wrote with Laura; a hit musical, “One Touch of Venus,” written with Ogden Nash; and a so-so comic play, “The Beauty Part,” in 1962. (The Perelmans may have passed their Broadway genes two generations down: last year, Perelman’s great-niece, Marissa Jared Winokur, won a Tony as Best Actress in a Musical for “Hairspray.”) But Perelman was essentially a miniaturist, distilling into lapidary prose a mood, a mode, an ode with as much pith as could be found in a whole rainforest of dicotyledenous plant stems.

In the 50s, when he first mesmerized me, Perelman was easy to find: in the pages of The New Yorker (and Holiday and the Saturday Evening Post), on the occasional TV panel show and on the big screen, as co-writer of the Best Picture-winning “Around the World in 80 Days” (for which he also took home an Oscar). The Late Show often ran “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers.”

Even a child of 10 could spot Perelmanic prose in Groucho quips (to Thelma Todd in “Monkey Business: “Oh, why can’t we break away from all this, just you and I, and lodge with my fleas in the hills — I mean, flee to my lodge in the hills”) and make the connection between Groucho’s monicker in “Horse Feathers” (Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff) and the goofy names Perelman gave his characters: Anonymous Bosch (screenwriter), Manuel Dexderides (Hollywood potentate), Dewey Naïveté (real estate agent). I purred at his blending of genres; a Raymond Chandler detective story would never appear in The New Yorker, but Perelman could parody and apotheosize Chandler in “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer.” (Actually, as with the movies that were the subjects of MAD comic book parodies at the same time, I read the parody before I caught up with the real thing.) And I reveled in his verbal style, dense as a black hole and twice as magnetic.

Long after my youth, I held on to a few Perelman relics. The “Around the World” hard-back program (cost: $1 — extortion!) remained a fond possession of mine till I misplaced it in the miasma of middle age. But I still have “The Most of S.J. Perelman,” the 1958 omnibus that gathers 96 of his short stories, plus two chapters of “Swiss Family Perelman” and all of “Acres and Pains” and “Westward Ha!” I took special pleasure in noting that the initials on the book’s cover, S.J.P., matched my Philadelphia high school, St. Joseph’s Prep. An anagram made us soulmates.

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