Sidney Joseph Perelman’s prolific output of essays, plays, and film and screen credits attests to his extraordinary versatility as a writer who enjoyed the challenge of moving from one genre to another. Of all his works, however, his essays in the popular, sophisticated magazines of his day, including the New Yorker, Holiday, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post, gave him a wide and devoted audience of readers.
At age 13 he wrote an essay entitled “Grit” which won him first prize in a writing contest. Published in American Boy magazine, the essay extols the virtues of big-city taxi drivers. At Classical High School, his essay “Why I Am an Atheist” caused a stir because of its accomplished prose but the controversial topic deterred the judges from awarding him the Anthony Medal for first prize.
Entering Brown University in Providence, Perelman planned to pursue his artistry as a cartoonist, but could not resist sending in short humorous pieces to the Brown Daily Herald. He developed a column called the “Genial Cynic” and began signing his name S.J.P., the habit of using only his initials becoming his trademark. Eventually he wrote essays for the Brown literary magazine, Casements, and distinguished himself with “The Exquisite: A Divagation” (May 1924). From this experience he moved on to writing college humor essays, collected and published with Quentin Reynolds in Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath (1930). Then, in 1931, he began a lifelong association with the New Yorker.
Perelman’s genius for satire and his facility with language appeared early, and his admirers in the Algonquin Circle, which included Dorothy Parker, Heywood Broun, and Robert Benchley, placed him at the center of New York’s top magazine writers of the day. But his reputation did not stop there. F.Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Perelman’s work that “Sid had an exquisite tact in prose.” Such a comment would surely have pleased Perelman, who always thought of himself as a writer rather than a humorist.
Perelman’s first important collection of essays, Strictly from Hunger (1937), contains 24 New Yorker essays, including a parody of Constance Garnett’s translation of Dostoevskii entitled “A Farewell to Omsk.” Robert Benchley’s foreword reports that “Perelman took over the dementia praecox field and drove us all to writing articles on economics for the Commentator.”
Perelman also wrote essays for the Saturday Evening Post, producing a popular column, “A Child’s Garden of Curses, of the Bitter Tea of Mr. P.” A new collection of essays for Random House, The Dream Department (1943), earned him the title “the funniest man in America.” Another collection of 46 New Yorker essays appeared in Crazy like a Fox (1944), followed by Keep It Crisp (1946). This volume contains a parody of Raymond Chandler’s popular detective novels, “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” and captured the critics’ attention. No subject was sacred. Perelman even poked fun at Bennett Cerf, editor at Random House, with “No Dearth of Mirth—Fill Out the Coupon.” Time magazine (12 August 1940) reported that next to Edgar Allan Poe and “not excepting Henry Miller,” Perelman was “the most proficient surrealist in the United States.”
His commercial breakthrough came with the publication of Westward Ha! or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés (1948). The book sold 60,000 copies, twice any previous book’s sales, and featured work focusing on his new passion for travel and satirizing resorts of the rich and famous. Perelman began to emphasize travel satire as Holiday magazine sponsored his travels to Madagascar and Europe. Of his stay in London, he writes in “Call and I Follow, I Follow!” that “The clientele, picturesque without being intrusive, consists in the main of dehydrated colonials with saffron faces, bishops in gaiters, and elderly spinsters who still cling to ruching and avian headgear.” Every locale provided fodder for parody. Other essays feature adventures in St. Augustine, Hollywood, Las Vegas, and a dude ranch in Arizona. His travels netted him a tropical bird he named Cyrano, who became the subject of “Look, My Toucan” (1957), in which Perelman describes the bird’s raucous yelling and the effect on his Bucks County Farm neighbors.
Perelman’s Home Companion (1955) is a collection of earlier and out-of-print works, while The Road to Miltown (1957) features a review by Dorothy Parker in which she notes that Perelman stands alone as a humorist. The Most of S.J. Perelman (1958) provides the most comprehensive collection of his humorous essays, 96 in all covering a period of 38 years. The Rising Gorge (1961) includes Perelman’s New Yorker trip to the East Coast of Africa and several travel essays written for Redbook. He continued his adventures in the Balkans, recounting them in Chicken Inspector no. 23 (1966) and Baby, It’s Cold Inside (1970).
Perelman, like his Algonquin contemporaries, was a “screwball wit,” with a delightful sense of the cliché and the ability to use mimicry as an art. His mastery of language gave him the power to create satires and parodies that cut to and revealed the human heart.
Sidney Joseph Perelman. Born 1 February 1904 in Brooklyn, New York. Studied at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 1921–14, B.A., 1925. Contributor, Judge magazine, 1924–29, College Humor magazine, 1929–30, and the New Yorker, from 1931; also contributor to many other journals and magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, Life, McCall’s, Redbook, Holiday, and Travel and Leisure. Married Laura West, 1929 (died, 1970): one son and one daughter. Wrote plays for Broadway and screenplays, including two for the Marx Brothers. Lived in London, 1970–72.
Awards: New York Film Critics Award, 1956; Academy Award (Oscar), for screenplay, 1957; Writers Guild West Award, for screenplay, 1957; Special National Book Award, 1978; honorary degree from Brown University. Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Died in New York, 17 October 1979.
Essays and Related Prose
Dawn Ginsbergh’s Revenge, 1929
Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath, with Q.J.Reynolds, 1930
Strictly from Hunger, 1937
Look Who’s Talking!, 1940
The Dream Department, 1943
Crazy like a Fox, 1944
Keep It Crisp, 1946
Acres and Pains, 1947
The Best of S.J.Perelman, 1947
Westward Ha! or, Around the World in Eighty Clichés, 1948
Listen to the Mocking Bird, 1949
The Swiss Family Perelman, 1950
The Ill-Tempered Clavichord, 1952
Perelman’s Home Companion, 1955
The Road to Miltown; or, Under the Spreading Atrophy, 1957; as Bite on the Bullet, 1957
The Most of S.J.Perelman, 1958
The Rising Gorge, 1961
Chicken Inspector no. 23, 1966
Baby, It’s Cold Inside, 1970
Vinegar Puss, 1975
The Last Laugh, 1981
That Old Gang o’ Mine: The Early and Essential S.J.Perelman, edited by Richard Marschall, 1984
Other writings: several plays (including the musical One Touch of Venus, with Ogden Nash, 1943), screenplays (including Monkey Business, with Will.B.Johnstone, 1931;
Horse Feathers, 193z; Around the World in Eighty Days, with James Poe and John Farrow, 1956), and correspondence.
Gale, Steven H., S.J.Perelman: An Annotated Bibliography, New York: Garland, 1985
Toombs, Sarah, “S.J.Perelman: A Bibliography of Short Essays, 1932–1979,” Studies in American Humor 3, no. 1 (Spring 1984): 83–97
Fowler, Douglas, S.J.Perelman, Boston: Twayne, 1983
Gale, Steven H., S.J.Perelman: A Critical Study, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1987
Gale, Steven H., editor, S.J.Pereltnan: Critical Essays, New York: Garland, 1992
Herrmann, Dorothy, S.J.Perelman: A Life, New York: Putnam, 1986; London: Simon and Schuster, 1988
Pinsker, Sanford, “Perelman: A Portrait of the Artist as an Aging New Yorker Humorist,”
Studies in American Humor 3, no. 1 (Spring 1984):47–55
Teicholz, Tom, Conversations with S.J.Perelman, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995
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