“Before they made Perelman, they broke the mold.” —S. J. Perelman
He called them feuilletons—“little leaves”—but when those little leaves began to fall into magazines such as The New Yorker, Holiday, and The Saturday Evening Post, S. J. Perelman quickly gained a reputation, in the words of Gore Vidal, as “the funniest writer since—himself.”
The New Yorker editor William Shawn noted that American readers were “so enormously entertained by him that they sometimes overlooked his great originality and his literary brilliance.” Kurt Vonnegut saw that American humor had been “tremendously influenced” by the Marx Brothers films, which bore Perelman’s “highly literate frenzy.” Woody Allen testified that “among all the comedy writers I’ve worked with or spoken to over the years, Perelman was always the most revered icon, the most widely-imitated comic genius.”
Perelman also wrote a handful of screenplays, most notably for the early Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. Despite hating Hollywood for all the right and obvious reasons, he won an Academy Award in 1957 for his adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, written for the impresario Mike Todd, its producer.
But his stock-in-trade was the sly, parodistic short piece mixing slang with baroque and foreign words, to wit, terms such as rebarbative and divertissement. Like W. C. Fields, he delighted in preposterous names, such as Roland Portfolio, Strobe Fischbyne, President Butterfoss of Nossiter College, Lord Burrwash, Luba Pneumatic, Mrs. Forepaugh, Bianca Fangl (“Not that Bianca Fangl!”), the French grammarian Moe Juste, and Inspector Marcel Riboflavin (in “The Saucier’s Apprentice”).
In addition to The Times of London, a copy of which he had airmailed to him every day, Perelman would mine for inspiration obscure trade journals such as the American Bee Journal, Cleaning and Dyeing World, and The Corset and Underwear Review.
Another of his treasured sources was The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man, a study of underworld slang by linguist David Maurer. (He recommended the book to lofty literary figures such as T. S. Eliot and V. S. Pritchett.) In “Swing Out, Sweet Chariot,” Perelman dropped such phrases as “a big gazabo like me” and “We did the Suzy-Q” and “We shagged and pecked” throughout his elegant prose, as if planning a dinner party in which a grifter is seated next to an Oxford don.
Earlier this year, the Library of America finally brought out a collection of Perelman’s writings, edited by Adam Gopnik—a reunion of sorts for Perelman with his brother-in-law and kindred spirit, Nathanael West, whose collected works were published by the imprint in 1997. (West’s death in a car accident in 1940, after a hunting trip in Mexico, deeply grieved Perelman, leaving him with the task of preserving and promoting his friend’s neglected masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Day of the Locust, and A Cool Million.)
American readers were “so enormously entertained by him that they sometimes overlooked his great originality and his literary brilliance.”
Included in the volume are four chapters of the autobiography Perelman was planning, which he took to calling The Hindsight Saga. It was originally collected in The Last Laugh in 1981, with an introduction by Paul Theroux. In a review for The New York Times, Tom Wolfe described those bits of memoir as “the best thing Perelman ever wrote.” They “deal rather superficially with West, Dorothy Parker, the Marx Brothers, and with his career as a screenwriter in Hollywood,” wrote Dorothy Herrmann in her 1986 biography, S. J. Perelman: A Life. “They are lighthearted, entertaining, but in no way deep or personally revealing. To the day of his death … S. J. Perelman remained an immensely private man.”
Another gem is the full text of Perelman’s 1962 play, The Beauty Part, a satiric take on America’s obsession with acquiring culture. Bert Lahr played five different roles, including (in drag) Hyacinth Beddoes Laffoon, the tough female publisher of Spicy Mortician, based on legendary Look editor Fleur Cowles.
Perelman had dreamed of reprising his early success on Broadway, but The Beauty Part was doomed by a printers’ union strike, which shut down all nine of New York’s newspapers for 114 days. While the play had a very short run, we know now that the unpublished reviews were ecstatic. (“Lahr and Perelman make happy music together,” wrote Howard Taubman for The New York Times.)
It’s all here: Perelman’s parodies of movies and books, his social satire and witticisms, his profiles of the Marx Brothers, the best of his feuilletons, and letters to Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West, Paul Theroux, and Groucho Marx. At a time in our history when we could all use a good laugh, “El Sid,” as he was known to his admirers, has come back to us.
Lower Middle Bourgeois
Born in Brooklyn on February 1, 1904, Sidney Joseph Perelman was an only child who loved to draw and make cartoons, a hint of the unique career that was to come. The family relocated to Providence, Rhode Island, where his Russian-immigrant father, Joseph, opened a dry-goods store.
It rained quite often in Providence, and the shop was neither dry nor good. Things failed to improve with Joseph’s next enterprise, poultry farming. “Lower middle bourgeois” is how Perelman later described his family’s condition.
In 1921, Perelman entered Brown University, where he met Nathanael “Pep” West (formerly Weinstein). They became the closest of friends, and in 1929 he married West’s 18-year-old sister, Lorraine Weinstein, known as Laura, a gifted humorist in her own right. In a 1930 copy of Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge inscribed to Laura, Perelman wrote, “To Laura who is even funnier than Jimmy Durante.”
In his senior year, Perelman was anointed editor of The Brown Jug, the school’s humor magazine. But in 1924, he moved to Greenwich Village, leaving the college without graduating. (He’d failed the math requirement, despite his later quip that he “had the soul of a bookkeeper.”) In the Village, he became a cartoonist for Judge (a weekly humor magazine, now lost to the sands of time). A characteristic cartoon of Perelman’s depicted a fellow dragging a friend into a doctor’s office, declaring, “I’ve got Bright’s disease, and he has mine.”
The captions he wrote became more and more prolix and soon replaced the drawings, turning El Sid into “a well-advanced parodist and dementia praecoxswain,” in the words of his good friend and compatriot at The New Yorker, Robert Benchley.
It was a theatrical debacle that led Perelman to travel writing. His first Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus (written with Ogden Nash, with music by Kurt Weill, and Mary Martin starring as Venus), was a smash hit, running for 567 performances. But his 1946 musical comedy, Sweet Bye and Bye, closed “with a sound like a rat trap” in Philadelphia.
It was on that occasion that he ran into Ted Patrick, the newly minted editor of Holiday magazine. Patrick suggested that Perelman travel to France and write about that country in the two years following the peace declaration. His travels—including a trip around the world with the New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld—became the source of many of his comic pieces, such as “Westward, Ha!” and, later, “Eastward, Ha!”; “The Swiss Family Perelman”; and “Naked in Piccadilly, W.1.” But another favorite location was New York City itself. In “Whereas, the Former Premises Being Kaput,” he describes the residents of the Aragon apartment house as “the usual complement of walking dead that one meets in any New York apartment elevator.”
Perelman sometimes liked to write his own flap copy, as he did for his 1944 collection, Crazy Like a Fox. In the book’s introduction, someone suspiciously named Sidney Namlerep (“Perelman” backwards) describes the author thusly: “Denied every advantage, beset and plagued by ill fortune and a disposition so crabbed as to make Alexander Pope and Dr. Johnson seem sunny by contrast, he has nevertheless managed to belt out a series of books each less distinguished than its predecessor, each a milestone of bombast, conceit, pedantry, and strutting pomposity.”
No friend or writer was safe from Perelman’s typewriter. “Farewell My Lovely Appetizer,” a flawless send-up of Raymond Chandler’s tough-guy prose, appeared in Keep It Crisp, his 1946 collection: “‘I could go for you, sugar,’ I said slowly. Her face was veiled, watchful. I stared at her ears, liking the way they were joined to her head. There was something complete about them; you knew they were there for keeps. When you’re a private eye, you want things to stay put.”
Luckily, no one loved Perelman’s parody more than Chandler himself, and it sparked a friendship between these two difficult men; they would often lunch together when Perelman was slaving in Hollywood.
Graduating into Serfdom
In 1929, his first book, Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, was published by Horace Liveright—with Perelman’s name missing from the title page. When asked about that years later by George Plimpton in an interview for The Paris Review, Perelman said, “It was really an oversight of my own. I was so exalted at being collected for the first time that, in correcting the galleys, I completely overlooked the fact that there was no author’s name on the title page. Unless one happened to look at the spine of the book, there would be every implication that it was written by … Horace Liveright.”
The book’s many admirers included Groucho Marx, who soon hired Perelman as a collaborator on Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932). Perelman’s relationship with the Marx Brothers was something of a mixed blessing, as he came to loathe Hollywood, with its “ethical sense of a pack of jackals” and producers who “had foreheads only by dint of electrolysis.”
Perelman later recounted an exchange with Herman Mankiewicz, who produced Horse Feathers. After a swanky lunch, Perelman and a writing partner approached Mank to ask him about the psychology of the Marx Brothers. “I mean, who are they? We—we wondered if you could analyze or define them for us.” Mankiewicz replied: “O.K., I’ll tell you in a word. One of them is a (expletive for Italian), another a mute who picks up spit, and the third an old (expletive for Jew) with a cigar. Is that all clear, Beaumont and Fletcher? Fine. Now get back to your hutch, and at teatime I’ll send over a lettuce leaf for the two of you to chew on. Beat it!”
He came to loathe Hollywood, with its “ethical sense of a pack of jackals” and producers who “had foreheads only by dint of electrolysis.”
From 1931 to 1942, Perelman and his wife worked in Hollywood, collaborating on two plays and a handful of movie scripts, toiling their way through Paramount, MGM, Columbia Pictures, and Twentieth Century Fox. Though he characterized it as “graduating into true serfdom,” the money was good—they earned a dual salary of $1,000 a week, a fortune in the 1930s.
Once he began working for the Marx Brothers, Sid abandoned cartooning altogether, despite the entreaties of friends who admired his work. Sid was a writer now, though still an insecure one. “He had little faith in his ability,” wrote his biographer Dorothy Herrmann, relying early in his career on imitating several of his favorite humorists.
First among them was Stephen Leacock, born in England in 1869 and raised in Canada. Another footfall padding lightly through Perelman’s work was the Indiana newspaper columnist George Ade, whose daily column, “Stories of the Streets and of the Town,” and his fables, written in the popular slang of the day, earned him the nickname “the Aesop of Indiana.”
After the appearance of Ulysses in 1922, Perelman would soon become devoted to James Joyce. “I’ve been reading Ulysses ever since,” he told an NET television interviewer in 1966, “and constantly discovering new things in it. I regard it as one of the very greatest books ever written.”
Perelman wasn’t just a fan of high modernism; he counted among his friends W. Somerset Maugham, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom he knew best of all. He recalled when “Scott was working at MGM during the mid-thirties … he used to come to the writers’ table at the commissary where a group of us used to foregather for our three-hour lunches. Scott on the other hand never stayed more than a half an hour … with a face strained with anxiety, drinking innumerable bottles of 7 Up.
“The poor man was under great, great pressure … he was trying to … reestablish himself as a writer. Odd though it sounds, his celebrity had passed … many of the younger people had no idea who this was.”
The Kissing Bandit
Perelman and Laura had two children, Abby and Adam. In a touching letter to Abby, Perelman commiserates with how distraught she felt after reading Crime and Punishment. He wrote: “It’s a great book, but you must realize life isn’t necessarily that bleak.... You only have to look around you to see that people can enjoy themselves and laugh and rise above their adversities. I think that if you’ll switch over to Booth Tarkington … and Mark Twain, you will agree with me that life needn’t be as heavy-hearted an affair as C & P suggests. I told you once, I think, about how people start betraying all the symptoms of T.B. after they read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.... This should illustrate the power of suggestion that words have when they are used by experts.... When George Ade is at his best, or Don Marquis, or any really good comic writer, you can be as deeply moved by laughter as you can by misery.”
But there were, in fact, heavy hearts in the Perelman household. The tabloids were just about the last place S. J. Perelman ever expected to see his name in print, particularly as the father of “the kissing bandit.” In 1954, 17-year-old Adam Perelman, identified by police as “the son of the author-humorist S. J. Perelman,” was arrested in Greenwich Village on charges of robbing two young women at knifepoint. A photo showed a detective holding the seven-inch hunting knife found on Adam at the time of his arrest.
Four years later, Adam was again arrested, at his New York apartment at 606 East Ninth Street, and charged with the “assault, robbery and attempted rape of two women in separate attacks.” One of the women was an editor at McCall’s magazine, and the other was a graduate student at Hunter College and a social worker. Both women resisted their attacker, and Adam quickly ran off. He was arrested and eventually released on $5,000 bail. While Adam was in jail awaiting his hearing, his father was being inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Adam Perelman had once confided to a friend that he’d attacked the women to “embarrass” his father. Sid couldn’t bring himself to talk about any of it and would not allow his friends or colleagues to discuss Adam’s troubles, refusing offers of help or sympathy. But father and son would eventually reconcile, and Sid left his estate of $400,000 as well as a modest English property to be divided equally between Adam and Abby (after Sid’s debts were paid).
Around the World in 76 Days
In 1932, Perelman and West purchased a 91-acre farm in Erwinna, Pennsylvania, in Bucks County. (They named it Eight Ball Farm, and the Perelmans later bought out West’s share.) In addition to their country house and an apartment in Greenwich Village, Perelman kept a “no-nonsense, one-room office” nearby. Plimpton described it as “furnished like a slightly luxuriant monk’s cell: a few simple chairs, a desk, a cot. On the walls are a Stuart Davis watercolor and photographs of James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, and the late New Yorker editor and close friend Gus Lobrano.... The only bizarre touch is David Niven’s hat from Around the World in 80 Days, mounted on a pedestal.”
In 1970, after the death of Laura at the age of 58, Perelman found it impossible to work. They had long ago stopped writing together, but Laura, known for her wit, still influenced her husband’s work. He never fully recovered from his wife’s death and, within a year, sold the Bucks County farm, auctioned off his possessions, and moved to England.
But his love of travel lured him from his new home, and he took off for a trip around the world, repeating Phileas Fogg’s circumnavigation in Around the World in 80 Days. He beat Fogg’s record by four days, relying on the transportation available to Fogg at the time: railroad, steamer, elephant. But he flew home.
Perelman, lonely and homesick, only lasted a few years in England. He increasingly felt like a gefilte fish out of water, missing the idioms that had nourished him, not to mention the pastrami on rye. As he told Israel Shenker of The New York Times, “My style is mélange—a mixture of all the sludge I read as a child, all the clichés, liberal doses of Yiddish, criminal slang.... I feel it’s a great mistake for any writer to cut himself off from his roots. One’s work suffers by trying to transplant it to another milieu.”
Three years later, Perelman returned to New York City, moving into the Gramercy Park Hotel, then in its shabby-chic days.
The writer and New York Review of Books editor Prudence Crowther got to know Sid in the last year or so of his life. In her marvelous introduction to Don’t Tread on Me: The Selected Letters of S. J. Perelman, a collection of Perelman’s letters that she edited, Crowther described Perelman as “a small man, beautifully dressed. He had freckled skin, and light blue walleyes, large and expressive behind gold wire-rim glasses.” The two became an item, and their blossoming romance put a roseate bloom back into his cheeks.
Perelman wasn’t just a fan of high modernism; he counted among his friends W. Somerset Maugham, T. S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom he knew best of all.
Crowther recounted how Perelman, toward the end of his life, would still make the rounds to his “essential haunts.... Within a mile-and-a-half’s walk were The New Yorker, the Mercantile Library, 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.... 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.”
By the end of the 1970s, Perelman’s era had passed. He had outlived Laura and his trusted editor and close friend Gus Lobrano. A new generation of editors baffled him and was baffled by him. The New Yorker was beginning to stockpile his feuilletons, and his last set of galleys seemed to have been edited by an unrecognized hand. His brand of satiric, outrageous humor was disappearing in a world where the incongruous, the banal, and the disingenuous had become too commonplace for parody.
On September 2, 1979, The New Yorker published Perelman’s last piece, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Cat’s Paw.” Four weeks later, on October 17, Perelman died at the age of 75, shortly before noon, in one of the two rooms he rented on the 15th floor of the Gramercy Park Hotel. His biographer, Dorothy Herrmann, wrote, “After Sid’s death, a rumor circulated among many of his friends that he had died in flagrante delicto. He would have loved the rumor. But it was not true.”
Perelman had died alone of a massive heart attack, still clad in pajamas and robe, 39 years to the day after the sudden death of his dearest friend, Nathanael West. As Herrmann noted, West “still cast a mysterious shadow across his life.”
The New York Times, in a front-page obituary, lauded his “spectacular command of language, and the ability to transform the common cliché or figure of speech into an exploding cigar.”
In her review of the 1970 Perelman collection Baby, It’s Cold Inside, Eudora Welty wrote, “What I predict now could really be put in the form of a nomination: that S. J. Perelman be declared a living national treasure.” Fifty years later, the Library of America has done the next best thing. That it took this long is nothing less than rebarbative!
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for Air Mail. He is the co-author of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends