The Last Laugh of S.J. Perelman

An iconoclast whose only rule was to be funny joins the Library of America

Sidney Joseph “S.J.” Perelman (1904-1979) had a unique comic flair, but not many people you run into on the street will have read his stories, sketches, plays, letters, essays, and screenplays. Some may have seen the Marx Brothers films that he co-wrote, Monkey Business (1931) and Horse Feathers (1932), but Perelman is one of those writers in our canon whose talent and renown today seem inversely proportionate to each other.

S.J. Perelman

Perelman is in the company of names like Carson McCullers, James Purdy, Weldon Kees, Sherwood Anderson, John Hawkes, Gary Indiana, Ian MacMillan, and others not widely read outside academia. Even among what is called the “reading public,” these moderns and contemporaries are barely a blip on the screen, with not half the fame of Joan Didion or Norman Mailer.

The Library of America has taken a step toward rectifying Perelman’s obscurity with the release of a volume of his writings, edited with an introduction by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, whose somberness does not preclude a glowing appreciation of his subject. The intro acknowledges the aim of raising Perelman’s stature in American letters, staking its claim on the literary merit of what Perelman turned out.

Gopnik casts Perelman not just as a funnyman who wrote (as opposed, say, to doing improv), but as a writer whose style, pacing, and ability to turn a phrase are the best argument for publishing this volume alongside the recent crop of O. Henry, Ray Bradbury, W.E.B. DuBois, and Joan Didion, not to mention all the canonical writers already in the series.

As someone who rarely agrees with Gopnik’s modish, self-important political pronouncements, this critic found the intro to be astute, save for a passage near the end where Gopnik calls Perelman’s brother-in-law, Nathanael West, the less talented of the two. That such a dismissive comment about a writer of West’s stature comes as an aside near the end of the intro makes you wonder if Gopnik was nodding off a bit at that point. Yes, Perelman writes well and is uproarious. But to call West, the author of The Day of the Locust, A Cool Million, The Dream Life of Balso Snell, and Miss Lonelyhearts the less talented is a curious judgment, to which we will return in a minute.

Nothing is sacred

Those who have heard of Perelman associate him with the Hollywood of a past age and its would-be stars, its screenwriters manqué, its predatory producers who treated other human beings horribly, and its endless, desperate wars over contracts, money, and photo-ops. Plus ça change. But Perelman’s scope is so much vaster.

During his heyday in the America of the 1930s and 1940s, there was no lack of things to satirize. One of the most cutting pieces in the volume is “Hell in the Gabardines,” whose target is the New Republic, which was then as it is now a myopic journal written by and for people dwelling in an intellectual bubble and presuming that stupidity can be the only reason why the American public isn’t tripping over itself to adopt the magazine’s cultural, social, economic, and political prescriptions.

Perelman has it in for the New Republic and especially for its film critic, Manny Farber. In Perelman’s words, Farber is an unrelenting foe of stereotypes who likes to quote The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari four or five times in a review. The hater of stereotypes is a quintessential poseur. (Perelman contrasts Farber with The Nation’s critic, James Agee, who can quote the expressionist masterpiece only once per review.)

He goes on to accuse Farber of endorsing the predecessor of reality-TV methods put to use by the makers of the 1945 classic The Lost Weekend, who brought Ray Milland to Third Avenue in order to capture the reactions of people on the street to Don Birnam’s drunken antics. Farber likes this technique, Perelman tells us, and thinks Hollywood should put it more widely to use.

Perelman then claims to have come into the possession of a diary kept by one Leonard Flemister, who used to be a clerk in the men’s clothing section of Wanamaker’s department store. Perelman and Flemister used to eat at the same café, where Perelman recalls seeing him read the New Republic over his pecan waffle. (Ouch!)

“Hell in the Gabardines” reproduces an entry from Flemister’s diary, which contains a passage about having read a Farber piece in the New Republic calling for the surreptitious placing of cameras in mannequins, in order to make clerks into unwitting actors. Whether or not Farber meant this seriously, the contempt for common people, the gulf between the New Republic’s editorial caste and the shlubs whom Farber proposes to catch on candid camera without their knowledge, is pretty believable for all who have read the New Republic’s rarified progressive maunderings in Perelman’s time or our own.

Sexual politics

In another story, “Sex and the Single Boy,” Perelman again makes use of the diary motif, this time in a tale making light of the follies and foibles of singles in an era poised awkwardly between tradition and revolution. This piece doesn’t fly in age of #MeToo. Here Perelman is as politically incorrect as ever.

In our time of heightened sensitivity to anything that people could read as an endorsement of voracious male appetites or callousness in the face of women’s aspirations, this story has the gall to invite the reader to care about a 25-year-old Yale grad and stockbroker named Phil, a single guy in New York who keeps a diary, or rather a black notebook, in which he comments on the attributes of the women in his life and breaks them down into categories, based on whether they are pretty, interesting to talk to, enjoyable company at parties, or potential candidates for a roll in the hay.

How dare Phil classify women in this manner? Worse, Phil doesn’t appreciate the humanity of the women he dates. He believes in pretending to get to know a woman as a person in order to improve his chances with her. But then Phil proves susceptible to the charms of a girl named Sondra who has just started as a receptionist at his office and has no small number of wiles to put to use on her own behalf.

Again and again, Sondra tries to trick her way past Phil’s defenses. She pleads with him, as a Yale grad who must undoubtedly have any number of unwashed pennants in his flat, to let her come over and help wash them, after which he will surely be ready to go out and have drinks with her. Sondra herself is guilty of a bit of vulgar stereotyping. Phil does not have any pennants that need washing. Next she uses a ruse about not having anyone else available to take her measurements as a way to maneuver Phil into a position where she can kiss him.

Phil’s view of Sondra, in the brazenness of her lust and her desperation to find a ruse to make love with him, as less than fully human will sound mean and offensive to some ears today. But those who think of trying to cancel Perelman are as deluded as anyone in his fictional universe. At the end of “Sex and the Single Boy,” almost all the young women who have been swarming around Phil everywhere he goes abruptly back off and he’s at a loss to understand why.

It emerges that Sondra (spoiler alert!), to whom he has been so insensitive with his notions about her subhuman lust, both fulfills and gives the lie to those same prejudices with her admission that she herself is a wily character who has gone to a ludicrous extreme. Sondra stole the notebook in which Phil jotted down his notes about the many other young women who were after him, and shared his scribblings with them in order to fuel their woke indignation and drive them away from Phil, leaving only one possible mate for him in all the world. Sondra is cleverer than he gave her credit for, yet every bit as lustful and shameless as he imagined.

Any woke objection to Perelman founders on the reality that he is an all-purpose cynic. The scope of his satire is broad and he freely admits the ruses that either sex will put to use, nowhere more candidly than in “The Love Decoy.” That story’s female protagonist contrives to lure both a professor who has given her a hard time in class and the dean of the college to her room at the same time, in order to make them fight and coerce an admission from the dean that he forged evidence that helped send her father off to jail.

Perelman knows about deception. He worked in Hollywood for so much of his career. You may wonder whether any writer has written more elegantly about squalor, about the contrast between pined-for greatness and quotidian misery, than Perelman does in “Moonstruck at Sunset,” which chronicles his arrival with his wife at a bungalow on Sunset Boulevard where everyone is poor and miserable. They then move to a villa, which you might take to be a step up in the world.

Reading about Perelman’s neighbors in the bungalow and then the villa will disabuse you of your fantasies. One of them is the former editor of a New York tabloid who never goes out except with a coat and collar hiding most of his body, not because he is a star whom throngs of fans want to meet, but rather because he is on the lam from process servers out to get the alimony he owns five women. At the villa, his neighbors include a character actor and the latter’s wife, who keeps getting black eyes from repeated collisions with a birdbath, or so the actor says. Perelman thinks of mentioning to the actor that he doesn’t recall having seen a birdbath anywhere in the villa, but then thinks better of it lest he himself might have an accident.

There’s also an aging poetess who strums a lyre but fails to attract an audience, an Englishman whose claim to fame is a vintage model Rolls Royce that slides out of its garage every evening like a haunted predecessor of Stephen King’s demonic 1958 Plymouth Fury, and a weird couple who make a point of dining under a flag every evening. The characters in “Moonstruck at Sunset” are lost souls. Also quite lost, in a different way, is Sherman Wurmser, a psychoanalyst from New York who’s come to town to act as an advisor for the studios on thrillers with psychological content, and who steps out of the Hollywood Plaza Hotel after brunch and gazes around in a daze at the scenic settings before running into a friend, also from out of town and just as much on the outer margins of success and fame.

Perelman and West

These are just a few of the many characters—sad, vain, failed, pathetic—who comprise the 99% of Hollywood’s population coexisting uneasily with the accomplished. No American writer captures them with more verisimilitude than Perelman, except one. Namely Nathanael West, née Weinstein, whom Perelman met when they were undergrads at Brown and whose sister Perelman married.

West is the subject of a lengthy portrait beginning on page 481 of this book, titled simply, “Nathanael West.” It details how Perelman used to frequent the Hotel Sutton on Fifty-Sixth Street, whose manager, in Perelman’s telling, was the polite, well-spoken writer whose sister Perelman had married. The hotel was a hangout for a literary set, whose most famous members included Lilian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett, but it also drew more than its share of alcoholics and deadbeats. For all his amiability, we learn, West had grown adept at the arts of keeping taps on those who were a flight risk and impounding their bags if they tried to duck the bill.

This portrait of a time and place in New York, and the many accounts of the Hollywood milieu that West also came to know well, raises avenues that Perelman, and, more egregiously, Gopnik, fail to pursue. In between his New Yorker duties, the diligent Gopnik has had plenty of time to read and assess both writers. Even as he admits West’s ability to produce not just sketches or stories but novels, Gopnik fails really to appreciate how West took certain themes in the milieus both he and Perelman knew and transposed them to a canvas vaster, more vivid, and more apocalyptic than anything Perelman turned out.

We see West’s subjects in embryonic form in Perelman’s sketches and in the account of West himself. Dr. Wurmser’s confused maunderings as he steps out of the hotel and looks up and down Vine Street adumbrate a scene in The Day of the Locust when the day is over and people are going back to their homes in the dulcet but faintly menacing evening. Homer Simpson, the character in the novel who has moved from Iowa to the Hollywood hills for his health and who dwells on the margins of fame, also used to worked at a hotel, back in Iowa, where he had to deal with one Ramola Martin, a derelict young woman who would not leave peaceably.

And the decadent and violent people in the bungalow and villa Perelman describes in “Moonstruck at Sunset” foreshadow Homer Simpson, Abe Kusich, Faye Greener, Harry Greener, Earle Shoop, Mrs. Jenning, and the other people bereft of hope whose lives West weaves together in a story culminating in a riot as apocalyptic as any event in California’s history.

Perelman and West are literary siblings with distinct talents. It seems fair to say that West presented, on the vaster canvas of the novel, the apocalyptic outcomes of the conflicts and struggles that Perelman had observed so finely. With the publication of this volume, the world can come at last to know Perelman’s gifts better and appreciate both writers more deeply.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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