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Book Review : Casting About for the Real Perelman

August 29, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

S. J. Perelman: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann (Putnam's: $18.95)

Did You Once See Sidney Plain?: A Random Memoir of S. J. Perelman by Max Wilk, illustrated by Al Hirschfeld (Norton: $8.95)

If we don't see Sidney plain even after reading Dorothy Herrmann's full-scale biography or Max Wilk's haphazard but affectionate tribute, it's because S. J. Perelman thoroughly insulated himself against such attempts on his life. An entirely original satirist, a superb parodist, he would have delighted in making pate of any writer with the temerity to turn him into the dainty hors d'oeuvre whipped up by Wilk or the solid meat loaf painstakingly concocted by Herrmann.

He simply didn't want the job done at all, and when Simon & Schuster finally persuaded him to write an autobiography, he kept them waiting for 19 years, eventually producing four short chapters, published in a 1981 collection "The Last Laugh." Instead of the candid, intensely personal material his editors had hoped for, they got glib sketches of Perelman's friends--Dorothy Parker, Nathanael West and the Marx Brothers, loosely connected by anecdotal material about Perelman's sporadic stints as a Hollywood screenwriter.

Invented Himself

Perelman not only invented his antic literary style by introducing bits and pieces of nonsense into a matrix of substantial erudition, he invented himself by a similar process. Allen Saalberg, one of Herrmann's interviewees, said "I had the feeling he wasn't quite pleased with his parents. Either he didn't like them or perhaps they weren't his style." In either case, there are so few traces of his youth available that the material barely fills two short chapters, neither of which Perelman would have particularly cared for, because they show him as myopic, shy, timid and poor. He would spend the rest of his life attempting to correct these conditions, but the only one to improve with time was poverty, and even his prosperity was subject to frequent relapses.

Perelman did become financially secure after he wrote the screenplay for "Around the World in 80 Days," but that success was preceded and followed by personal and professional disasters. While the myopia was chronic, the shyness and timidity were eventually disguised under a veneer of sexual bravado and sarcasm. By middle age, Perelman had achieved a considerable reputation as a womanizer, managing to make his wife miserable without achieving any great happiness for himself.

Limited Resources

In 1929, he had married his best friend Nathanael West's sister Laura, a spirited young woman with literary ambitions of her own. Despite limited resources, they managed several long visits to Europe on the proceeds of his books, and in the mid 1930s, both Perelmans were contract writers at MGM. By then S. J. had also become a regular contributor to the New Yorker, where his pieces continued to appear until his death half a century later.

Though the marriage was precarious from the start, the Perelmans' mutual affection for West, who needed and depended upon them both, served as a stabilizing influence. When West was killed in an automobile accident in 1940, the Perelmans were devastated. Laura became alcoholic and Sid grew increasingly churlish, irascible and depressed; the wit surfacing only on print. "I don't regard myself as a happy laughing kid," he commented in a letter to Jane Howard. "What I really am, you see, is a crank."

The majority of his friends and colleagues agreed with this self-portrait, some extending and qualifying it considerably further. Robert Gottlieb, Perelman's editor and intimate, did find him "a wonderful raconteur . . . fun to be with, but also deeply self-involved, a selfish, and angry person, like many great humorists . . . He ran away from trouble . . . from real emotional or psychic engagement. He was impeccable, but he was not generous."

Wilk's little book restores only a few lost illusions. His S. J. Perelman, briskly sketched by Hirschfeld, is a compulsive globetrotter, a beleaguered Pennsylvania farmer, an intrepid adventurer, but never the merry prankster Perelman's hilarious essays suggest. The essential Perelman remains a fanciful and tamper-proof self-creation, best savored in his own meticulously chosen phrases. "Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor" he described himself in a parody of Time magazine's imitable biographical mode; "It is written."

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