S.J. PERELMAN: A Life by Dorothy Herrmann


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An extremely tidy, on-target biography. As Marshall Brickman wrote in eulogy to Perelman: ""His genius defies criticism. He was the maestro, nonpareil, incomparable, beyond interpretation. As he himself once said, 'Before they made Perelman, they broke the mold.'"" Herrmann never upstages her subject while allowing a truly well-balanced critical picture to emerge by quoting critics for-and-against each of SJP's volumes as they appear. Also, she lets him expose his own deep flaws as a husband, father, and social being. The son of immigrant Russian Jews, he seems never to have admired or thought them worthy of parenting such a gem as himself, While attending Brown, he found the best friend he ever had: brilliant, marvelously well-dressed Nathanael West, future author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, whose outfits gave Perelman his first real sense of sartorial style. Already shy, for the rest of his life SIP hid behind style, his sadness masked with stickpin prose and a dandy's elegance. He married West's sister Laura, an incipient, then full-blown alcoholic, who seems really to have loved her brother. She and SJP lived in a mÉnage à trois with West until his marriage (to Eileen McKenney, the famous My Sister Eileen) and death in an automobile accident. The loss of West was felt by the Perelmans for the rest of their lives. Both were victims of compulsive infidelity. SIP was a manic-depressive who later found some relief in new drugs; Laura had the deep self-pity of the alcoholic, found help in Alcoholics Anonymous, though she had her slips. SIP's emotional cocoon upset his children, drove his son Adam to street crimes, theft and attempted rape, to get some attention. In between work as a Hollywood scriptwriter and a New Yorker and travel essayist, SIP chased the wild goose of the big commercial hit on Broadway, was generally irritated with his publishers' failure to promote him, and for the last 15 years of his life settled into a somber bitterness which robbed his work of vivacity while draping it in excess ornament. In most ways, this is a sad book about Perelman the man, while the authorial sublimity of Perelman of the scarab-like phrase and glittering aside (""A hush fell over the audience, and had to be removed by the ushers"") shows through often enough to keep the reader well hooked. Fine work indeed.

Pub Date: Aug. 12th, 1986
Publisher: Putnam