Not 'Noodnick'Q: How would you describe the form you work in? You've called it "the sportive essay" in a previous interview.
A: I classify myself as a writer of what the French call feuilletons --- that is, a writer of little leaves. They're comic essays of a particular type.Q: Are there any devices you use to get yourself going on them?A: No, I don't think so. Just anguish. Just sitting and staring at the typewriter and avoiding the issue as long as possible. Raymond Chandler and I discussed this once, and he admitted to the most bitter reluctance to commit anything to paper. He evolved the following scheme: he had a tape recorder into which he spoke the utmost nonsense --- a stream of consciousness which was then transcribed by a secretary and which he then used as a basis for his first rough draft. Very laborious. He strongly advised me to do the same ... in fact became so excited that he kept plying me with information for months about the machine that helped him.Q: Hervey Allen, the author of Anthony Adverse, apparently had the voices of his ancestors to help him. All he had to do was lie on a bed, close his eyes, and they went to work for him.A: I fully believe it, judging from my memory of his work.
Q: How many drafts of a story do you do?
A: Thirty-seven. I once tried doing thirty-three, but something was lacking, a certain --- how shall I say? --- je ne sais quoi. On another occasion, I tried forty-two versions, but the final effect was too lapidary --- you know what I mean, Jack? What the hell are you trying to extort --- my trade secrets?
Q: ...merely to get some clue to the way you work.
A: With the grocer sitting on my shoulder. The only thing that matters is the end product, which must have brio --- or, as you Italians put it, vivacity.
Q: Speaking of vivacity, you have been quoted as saying that the Walpurgisnacht scene in Ulysses is the greatest single comic achievement in the language.
A: I was quoted accurately. And here's something else to quote. Joyce was probably one of the most careful writers who ever lived. I have been studying the work you mentioned for nigh on thirty-five years, and I still choke up with respect.
Q: Your writing --- like Joyce's, in fact --- presupposes a great deal of arcane knowledge on the part of your reader. There are references to cultural figures and styles long past, obsolete words, architectural oddities --- reverberations that not everybody will catch. Do you agree that you're writing for a particularly cultured audience?
A: Well, I don' t know if that grocer on my shoulder digs all the references, but other than him, I write pretty much for myself. If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I've written, I feel the day hasn't been totally wasted.
Q: Perhaps you would talk about the incongruity that turns up so often in your use of language.
A: And then perhaps I would not. Writers who pontificate about their own use of language drive me right up the wall. I've discovered that this is an occupational disease of those ladies with three-barreled names one meets at the Authors' League, the PEN Club, and so forth. In what spare time I have, I read the expert opinions of V. S. Pritchett and Edmund Wilson, who are to my mind the best-qualified authorities on the written English language. Vaporizing about one's own stylistic intricacies strikes me as being visceral, and, to be blunt, inexcusable.
Q: In your own writing, when you're at work, thinking hard, and a particularly felicitous expression or phrase comes to mind, do you laugh?
A: When I was young I used to literally roll over and over on the floor with delight, marveling at the intricacy of the mind that had wrought such gems. I've become much less supple in late middle age.
Q: It's often said --- or taught, anyway --- that what seems at first blush funny is usually not. Would that be a good maxim in writing humor?
A: In writing anything, sweetie. The old apothegm that easy writing makes hard reading is as succinct as ever. I used to know several eminent writers who were given to boasting of the speed with which they created. It's not a lovable attribute, to put it mildly, and I'm afraid our acquaintanceship has languished...
Q: I'd like to ask about the frequent use of Yiddish references and expressions throughout your writing. Words like "nudnick" and "schlep" and "tzimmes" come in frequently enough.
A: Your pronunciation of "nudnick," by the way, is appalling. It's "nudnick," not "noodnick." As to why I occasionally use the words you indicate, I like them for their invective content. There are nineteen words in Yiddish that convey gradations of disparagement, from a mild, fluttery helplessness to a state of downright, irreconcilable brutishness. All of them can be usefully employed to pinpoint the kind of individuals I write about.Q: Almost all the humorous writers of your period have worked in Hollywood. How do you look back on the time you served there?A: With revulsion. I worked there sporadically from 1931 to 1942, and I can say in all sincerity that I would have spent my time to better advantage on Tristan da Cunha.Q: Does that include your association with the Marx Brothers, for whom you worked on Monkey Business and Horse Feathers?A: I've dealt exhaustively with this particular phase of my life: to such a degree, in fact, that the mere mention of Hollywood induces a condition in me like breakbone fever. It was a hideous and untenable place when I dwelt there, populated with few exceptions by Yahoos, and now that it has become the chief citadel of television, it's unspeakable. Could we segue into some other subject?Q: Yes, but before we do, might we stimulate your memory of any colleagues of yours --- writers humorous or otherwise --- who functioned in Hollywood during the time you spent there?A: Well, of course everyone imaginable worked there at one time or another, and the closest analogy I can draw to describe the place is that it strikingly resembled the Sargasso Sea --- an immense, turgidly revolving whirlpool in which literary hulks encrusted with verdigris moldered until they sank. It was really quite startling, at those buffet dinners in Beverly Hills, to encounter some dramatist or short-story writer out of your boyhood, or some one-shot lady novelist who'd had a flash success, who was now grinding out screenplays about the Cisco Kid for Sol Wurtzel. I remember, one day on the back lot at MGM, that a pallid wraith of a man erupted from a row of ramshackle dressing rooms and embraced me as though we had encountered each other in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. He was a geezer I'd known twelve years before on Judge magazine, a fellow who ran some inconsequential column full of Prohibition jokes. When I asked him what he was doing, he replied that he had been writing a screenplay of Edwin Drood for the past two years. He confessed quite candidly that he hadn't been able as yet to devise a finish, which, of course, wasn't too surprising inasmuch as Charles Dickens couldn't do so either.
Q: Surely you must have drawn some comfort from the presence of writers like Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, and Donald Ogden Stewart?
A: It goes without saying, but since you've said it, I can only agree most emphatically. You happen to have mentioned a remarkable trio, all of them people who had no more connection with the screenwriting fraternity than if they'd been Martians. Benchley and Mrs. Parker differed from Stewart in the sense that neither of them ever made an accommodation with Hollywood. Stewart did; he was a highly paid screenwriter for many years, made a great deal of loot there, and managed to get it out. The last is quite a trick because that fairy money they paid you had a way of evaporating as you headed east through the Cajon Pass. But whereas Stewart was a consecrated scenarist, Mrs. Parker and Benchley viewed Hollywood with utter accuracy, is my belief.
Q: Which was what?
A: As a dreary industrial town controlled by hoodlums of enormous wealth, the ethical sense of a pack of jackals, and taste so degraded that it befouled everything it touched. I don't mean to sound like a boy Savonarola, but there were times, when I drove along the Sunset Strip and looked at those buildings, or when I watched the fashionable film colony arriving at some premiere at Grauman's Egyptian, that I fully expected God in his wrath to obliterate the whole shebang. It was --- if you'll allow me to use a hopelessly inexpressive word --- degoutant.
Q: Feeling as you assert Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley did, and as you plainly did, how could you manage to remain there for even limited periods?
A: We used to ask each other that with great frequency. The answer, of course, was geetus --- gelt --- scratch. We all badly needed the universal lubricant, we all had dependents and insurance policies and medical bills, and the characters who ran the celluloid factories were willing to lay it on the line. After all, it was no worse than playing the piano in a whorehouse.
Q: Do you feel that Hollywood evolved any writers of consequence, men and women who did important and memorable work in the medium?
A: Oh, certainly: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Robert Riskin, and one or two others. But actually, it was a director's medium rather than a writer's. Men like W. S. Van Dyke, Frank Capra, George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, William Wyler, and John Huston were the real filmmakers, just as their predecessors in the silent era had been. I always felt that the statement attributed to Irving Thalberg, the patron saint at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, beautifully summed up the situation: "The writer is a necessary evil." As a sometime employee of his, I consider that a misquotation. I suspect he said "weevil."
Q: Haven't there been writers who originated in films and then went on to make a contribution on Broadway?
A: Well, after scratching my woolly poll for half an hour, I can think of three --- Dore Schary, Norman Krasna, and Leonard Spigelgass --- but I believe I am in my legal rights in refusing to assess their contribution. We shall have to leave that to the verdict of history, and meanwhile permit me to soothe my agitated stomach with this Gelusil tablet.
Q: Do you ever revisit Hollywood?
A: Every few years, and never out of choice. The place has become pretty tawdry by now; there was a time, back in the early '30s, when all the stucco and the Georgian shop fronts were fresh, and, while the architecture was hair-raising, there was enough greenery to soften it. But they've let the place go down nowadays. Hollywood proper is cracked and crazed, the gilt's peeling, and the whole thing has a depressing bargain-basement air. Beverly Hills, except for a few streets, is a nightmare; the entrance to it, which used to be a field of poinsettias, now sports a bank that must be the single most horrendous structure in the world. Of course, I except the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue.
Q: In short, then, you experience almost no feelings of nostalgia when you return to southern California?
A: Sir, you are a master of understatement.
Q: Nathanael West lived in Hollywood, and wrote a remarkable book about it, The Day of the Locust. He was your brother-in-law. And you are his literary executor?
A: Whatever that implies. In my case it takes the form of being the recipient of a lot of slush mail from ambitious people working toward a degree, usually a doctorate. The curious thing is that every single one of them nurses the delusion that he has discovered Nathanael West, and that with his thesis West will receive the recognition he's entitled to. It keeps the incinerator going full time.
Q: You knew F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood?
A: Yes --- in a period of his life that must have been one of his most trying. The anxieties and pressures of his private life, combined with the decline of his reputation, had nearly overwhelmed him, and he was seeking to reëstablish himself as a writer for films. He didn't succeed, and I don't believe he ever would have. He was pathetically innocent about the kind of hypocrisy and the infighting one had to practice to exist in the industry.
Q: Did you ever see Faulkner out there?
A: Very infrequently. Sometimes, of a Sunday morning, he used to stroll by a house I occupied in Beverly Hills. I noticed him only because the sight of anybody walking in that environment stamped him as an eccentric, and indeed, it eventually got him into trouble. A prowl car picked him up and he had a rather sticky time of it. The police were convinced he was a finger man for some jewelry mob planning to knock over one of the fancy residences.--- From an interview with
S. J. Perelman
© 1963, William Cole
The Paris Review