A sale I haven’t closed. The other day, I teased my wife about an author she hadn’t encountered, a Rhode Island Jew named S.J. Perelman who wrote a series of essays about the silent movies he had seen as a boy. “Cloudland Revisited” was about a middle-aged, sophisticated New Yorker writer who connived to see the movies of his youth in private museum screenings. The title I teased her with was “The Wickedest Woman in Larchmont.” She was entranced. But I couldn’t find the text for free, and she’s feeling burned by Kindle books we’ve bought and haven’t read. Stalemate.
So I gave up. NOT. Perelman was an extraordinary talent whose style seems more and more outstanding and relevant to me than it did when I first stumbled across his work. He doesn’t just play with words. He’s the Cirque du Soleil of words, tumbling acrobatics and high wire trapezery that leave you breathless. Amazingly, from a guy who went to Brown. Now that’s funny.
Humorists who are literate as opposed to toilet jokers are not a dying breed but a wholly extinct one. For example, a guy who used to be a literate funnyman published this the other day. I showed it to my wife who agreed with my review of “WTF.” If you can’t think or write or be funny anymore, for God’s sake STOP.
It happens to all humorists if they live long enough. It happened to Thurber. It happened to Mark Twain. And it happened to Perelman. The New Yorker stopped publishing his work when the darkness that always hovers descended.
But that was a long long time after his masterworks. Among which is a book I did manage to find online called Westward Ha! It was a curiously conceived project. Holiday magazine was the great travel periodical of its day. In the aftermath of World War 2, some editor got the odd idea that it would be fun to send two lugubrious middle aged Jews — one a sourpuss humor writer and the other the best caricature artist in Broadway history — on a trip around a world suddenly at peace. You know. Glamor. Sex. Sights. Boats and planes. Cool.
The result was a fiasco, obviously. Perelman in impoverished Asian dance halls tangoing morosely with teenagers in braces. Fueled by oceans of cheap liquor and worse food. It was, in short, one of the funniest things I have ever read. Here’s a taste of the first chapter from a source you can see more from.
Goodbye Broadway, Hello Mal-de-Mer
THE WHOLE sordid business began on a bleak November afternoon a couple of years ago in Philadelphia, a metropolis sometimes known as the City of Brotherly Love but more accurately as the City of Bleak November Afternoons. Actually, the whole business began sixteen years ago, as do so many complex ventures, with an unfavorable astrological conjunction, Virgo being in the house of Alcohol. Late one August day in 1932, I was seated at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris with my wife, a broth of a girl with a skin like damask and a waist you could span with an embroidery hoop. I had had three mild transfusions of a life-giving fluid called Chambéry Fraise and felt a reasonable degree of self-satisfaction. Halfway through my imitation of Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand, my wife wiped the tears of laughter from her eyes and arose.
“Look, Julian Eltinge,” she smiled, naming an actor who had achieved some transitory fame for his powers of mimicry, “descendez de cette table, salop, et dinons (come down off that there table, sweetheart, and let us feed the inner man).”
Ever the thrall of a pair of saucy blue eyes, I good-naturedly complied and sprang down with a graceful bound, sustaining a trifling fracture of the spleen. There then ensued a long, absurd debate as to which of us would pay the tab. An innate sense of gallantry prevented me from taking money from a woman, but I stifled it and soon we were bowling along the Boulevard St. Michel in a fiacre. In less time than it takes to build a fourteen-room house, we had crossed the Seine, got lost in Passy, and arrived at a quaint Javanese restaurant…
And that doesn’t take into account the Hirschfeld illustrations. Which are as great as his inspired renderings of the biggest stars of his day.
If you find yourself intrigued, go to Amazon and purchase a copy of “The Most of S. J. Perelman.” You won’t regret it. It might save your life for a few more months. All we can ask for these days.