Monday, March 7, 2011

S.J. Perelman, Humorist, Cardiology a Specialty

by Stephen J. Gertz

So, you wake up at 12:20 AM in a sweat, dizzy, pressure in your chest. You've been here before, twenty-one years ago, when you were thirty-eight: you don't panic; you wait for the angina to pass. It doesn't. There must be one but you can't find a carotid or radial pulse. When you finally wrap your head around here-we-go-again heart attack, you call EMT. It's progressing, and, unlike earlier periods in life, you don't want to die. Not now. You're  just getting started.

Your heart is in V-Tak, but not just plain ol' everyday simple ventricular tachycardia; noooooo,  because it's you and only the weird will do, you have to have wide-complex supraventricular tachycardia, 183 bpm, maximum heart rate for a guy your age is 161, plus/minus 20, so no matter how you calculate you're over the speed limit, the drug x2 to bring it under control is no-go, the morphine x3 is not putting a dent in the pain, you don't remember the paddles and - CLEAR! - shock to bring the beater under control but it does after close to forty-five minutes of runaway freight train any instant V-Fib, you're dead, and next  you're in the cath lab because this kind of ventricular misbehavior is often associated with a massive coronary but it wasn't an infarct yet the last of three major coronary arteries that still functions is 90% occluded so a stent is inserted to prevent the inevitable and you're lucky to have not dropped dead, heart dying for a deep breath.

Question: When the paramedics were supporting your feeble efforts to walk from the bedroom to the gurney because your arms and legs were numb, you were too dizzy to solo, and you weakly mumbled, "grab that book," what book was it?

In the above, all too real scenario, your now thankfully alive and, miraculously, heart-undamaged correspondent opted for an anthology of S. J. Perelman's comic essays. If I was extremely lucky and it was going to be a very long night with a need for something to read in the CCU afterward, I wanted something to make me feel alive. If I was going to die, I was going to die laughing.

I blame Lorne Bair, Tom Congalton and Dan Gregory, of Lorne Bair Rare Books and Between the Covers, respectively, who recently acquired the library of the great art director and graphic artist, Ben Shahn, within which was a cache of Perelman firsts inscribed to Shahn by his good friend. Thank you.

The Rising Gorge
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Dust jacket design by Ben Shahn.

I see the Perelmans in their catalog and I'm transported to Cloudland and broad brain smiles. This is the writer I began reading as a kid when I noticed his name as co-screenwriter on a couple of Marx Brothers pics, the Marx Bros. being my older siblings in spirit, and who, by reading every prose work he ever wrote, collected in twenty-one books, taught me how to write because he was one of the finest writers the U.S. has ever produced and the 20th century's wittiest in English though he never wrote prose longer than the comic essay; a writer's writer who awed others, an obsessive craftsman who would take a day to compose a sentence to his satisfaction, possessed an erudition and  vocabulary second to none, luxuriated in language, had a sense of satire, parody and the absurd above and beyond, played with words like a kid in a sandbox, and had a gift for brilliant non-sequitors. 

His awestruck fans included E.B. White, Robert Benchley (who deferentially referred to Perelman as dementia praecoxswain), E.E. Cummings, Eudora Welty, T.S. Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal; too many more to enumerate.  His literary brilliance was recognized by his peers. Oh, and Groucho, who blurbed of Dawn Ginsberg's Revenge (1929), Perelman's first collection, "From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it."

"A knock on the door aroused Dawn from her lethargy. She hastily slipped it off and donned an abstraction. This was Dawn, flitting lightly from lethargy to abstraction and back to precipice again,. Or from Beethoven to Bach and Bach to Bach again."

Swiss Family Perelman
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

For Ben,
Another vignette of tsouris, self-
induced by one who modestly con-
siders himself an
expert at self-destruction.
Tout à vous,

Without Perelman, no Woody Allen fiction. In fact, without Perelman there is no modern, short comic essay, period. Mark Leyner's minor masterpiece, Einstein on the Phone - purported FBI wiretap transcripts of conversations between Albert Einstein and actress Mary Astor (they're lovers and he's jealous of her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman), who complains that she's not getting the credit she deserves for key aspects of his work, and Einstein and Meyer Lansky discussing gambling, odds, relativity, whether the universe is a crap-shoot and God is really playing dice - would never have been written without Perelman's lead. Too many others to note here. Suffice it to say, anyone writing humor pieces today owes a debt of gratitude to Perelman. It's unavoidable.

"What happens to you when you read Perelman and you're a young writer is fatal because his style seeps into you. He's got such a pronounced, overwhelming  comic style that it's very hard not to be influenced by him" (Woody Allen).

Why use  'kiss" when "osculate" so chewably fills the mouth and sounds so obliquely and innocently obscene? Perelman was the most literate American humorist of the 20th century and presumed that you weren't afraid to consult a dictionary. He respected your intelligence and that you were a reader. He was, in fact, the reader's humorist.

"People who like my work have to understand words and their juxtaposition as well as the images they create. It's very hard to make a person laugh who doesn't have inside him the words I use. My humor is of the free association kind, and in order to enjoy it, you have to have a good background in reading. It's a heavy strain for people to haven't read much."

Westward Ha!
Around the World in 80 Cliches.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1948.
Drawings by [Al] Hirshfeld

For Ben,
this somber record of escapism and
peevish ululation, with homage

Not so by the way, Nathanael West (b. Nathan Weinstein) was his closest friend; they attended Brown together, and he later married West's sister, Laura. The overwhelming number of his comic pieces originally appeared in The New Yorker. He shared an Academy Award® in 1956 for his adapted screenplay of Around the World in 80 Days.

Significantly, Perelman was the first  writer in English to seamlessly integrate the language of high and low culture into his work, often gliding between the two within the same sentence deftly, with flair, easily without forcing it, a lesson lost on many of his heirs.

As for me, my 72-hour nightmare last week is summed-up by the title to one of Perelman's self-described feuilletons wherein reality and absurdity collide and  dine together over nice hot pastrami and delicate penne al pesto ala Pisa: Pulse Rapid, Respiration Lean, No Mustard.

Yet I was left with a condiment. Just prior to the tap into my right femoral artery at the groin to insert the catheter, a creative  prep nurse with razor and  wicked sense of humor shaved and left a landing strip where a  forest primeval once thrived.

Yes, it was a major, life-altering experience. I begin my new career as a male porn star next week.

Book images courtesy of Lorne Bair Rare Books, with our thanks.

Like my humorists, I prefer my heart docs to be hyphenates. And so, I highly recommend Dr. Steven J. Levine, Cardiologist who saved my life - Restaurateur, owner of Wilshire in Santa Monica, California. You'll dine in a casually elegant atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen, your host, Al Fresco. I figure order hearts of palm if on the menu, the healthiest in town, I'll bet.


  1. glad to hear you're still among us bookworms above ground as i've only begun reading you. It would have been a bit of a disappointment to have you run offstage while the curtain was still being raised!

  2. Wow! So glad you are ok. That must have been a terrifying experience, and I am impressed at your grace and sense of humor through it all. Get all better soon!

  3. My favorite line from SJP is something like this--
    "I'm just a bird of passage. Call me Rex Beeswanger, if you like"
    Did you know that my Dad's cousin I. J. Kapstein (a Brown professor of English)in Providence was a friend of SJP and they roomed together in NYC? More familial tidbits.
    Feel better and better soon.

  4. I read somewhere that when Woody Allen
    sent his first stories to the New Yorker they came back with the comment; " We already have an S.J. Perelman ." I'm only a 60 year old dude. But I re-read S.J. every day and
    laugh my ass off still. What a Genius !


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