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December 26, 1986 - Image 26

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1986-12-26

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The Not-So-Nice
Life Of S. J. Perelman


Special to The Jewish News




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26 Friday, December 26, 1986 THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

you have been a life-long
devotee of S. J. Perelman's
sophisticated humor, as I
have been, and you want to
keep intact your memories of
the pleasures of his brilliant
satire, you'd best skip al-
together Dorothy Herrmann's
just released full-scale biog-
raphy entitled S. J. Perelman:
A Life (G.P. Putnam's Sons).
That's not the only reason for
not bothering to read this book,
but it will certainly do for
Why should one avoid this
biography? Because if you
have assumed that Perelman's
urbanity, wit and sophistica-
tion had their origins in his
being a decent, civilized per-
son, you can forget it. For
years, I had an image of him as
a nice little Jewish man, sensi-
tive, sweet-natured and funny,
another genius out of the east
European immigrant commu-
nity who had become a big suc-
cess we could all kuell over. But
he was neither nice nor
Cn the contrary, Perelman
was self-centured, emotionally
shallow, inordinately stingy,
cold, self-indulgent, cowardly,
cranky, a martinet and a
heartless creep. Examples
abound, the most telling one
being that after 42 years of
marriage, he asked his wife,
who was dying of cancer, for a
divorce. She died, saving him
the trouble of filing for it. He
was so ashamed of his foreign-
born, never successful parents
that after he became famous he
repeatedly turned down offers
to write his memoirs, feari'll of
calling attention to his humble
Perelman's private life was a
disgrace. From the very begin-
ning of his marriage to Laura
West (Lorraine Weinstein, sis-
ter of the famous author,
Nathaniel West) in 1929, he
chased other women to the ex-
tent that his infidelities be-
came legendary. This com-
pounded the difficulties of
Laura's life which was already
beset with problems: she had a
prolonged incestuous obses-
sion with her brother; his acci-
dental death in 1940 brought
an end to the physical aspects
of this relationship but her
emotional involvement per-
sisted. She found her solace in
alcohol. Perelman, a moody
manic-depressive — he once
underwent shock therapy and
was on lithium for a time —
was also peculiarly attracted to
Nathaniel West, although his
over-worked heterosexually
oriented libido precluded the
possibility that the family
triangle might turn into a
round-robin menage o trots.
For decades Perelman and
Laura lived their own misery-
laden version of Who's Afraid
of Virginia Woolf? although,
unlike the script for Edward
Albee's stage-play, they had a
real son (and a daughter, too),

S. J. Perelman: thinking
Yiddish while dressing

rather than an imaginary one.
But he, apparently repaying
his father's monumental neg-
lect, got himself charged when
he was 21 years old with "the
assault, robbery and at-
tempted rape of two women in
separate attacks." Herrmann
implies that the son was really
Nathaniel West's, not Perel-
man's. It was a real snake-pit.
Yet the world knew Perel-
man only as the consummate
satirist of The New Yorker, the
witty collaborator on two of the
Marx Brothers' most famous
films, the writer of the
screenplay for Mike Todd's

Around the World in Eighty
Days and the genius for the
Broadway smash hit One
Touch of Venus, a show that

made him rich. As his stories
were periodically collected, he
came to be regarded as "a na-
tional treasure."
One secret behind his enor-
mous popularity was that he
learned early in his career to
think Yiddish and dress
British. He has a real Yiddishe
hop! and he exploited it for all
it was worth, despite the fact
that, driven by his ethnic
shame, he worked incessantly
at assimilation. He would have
seized the opportunity to take
the Mayflower back to
England if it had been around
for a return trip.
Like its subject, Herrmann's
biography is seriously flawed.
Despite the fact that
Herrmann was obviously done
an impressive amount of re-
search she comes up short, fail-
ing to follow through on some
of her investigations or misin-
terpreting her findings.
The only saving grace to the
tragedy of Perelman's life is
that he gave a lot, of pleasure to
his readers over the years. He
worked an exceedingly narrow
vein of humor, but he did it ex-
ceedingly well. He died in97 .9
at the age of 75. Recalling his
accomplishments tends to
mitigate a bit his own offenses
and the poor craftsmanship of
this first biography.

Copyright 1986 Joseph Cohen

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