Today in Literary History – October 17, 1979 – S.J. Perelman dies

One of my favourite writers, S.J. Perelman, died on October 17, 1979, at the age of 75. He wrote short humorous sketches -mostly for The New Yorker – as well as plays, movies and travel books. He had an ornate, convoluted style that mixed high diction with slang and Yiddish phrases.

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Most of his pieces are absurdist or surreal, often satirizing various literary forms and usually featuring an exaggerated version of himself. Here is one of his self-descriptions:

“Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor is S.J. Perelman, whose tall, stooping figure is better known to the twilit half-world of five continents than to Publishers’ Row. That he possesses the power to become invisible to finance companies; that his laboratory is tooled up to manufacture Frankenstein-type monsters on an incredible scale; and that he owns one of the rare mouths in which butter has never melted are legends treasured by every schoolboy.”

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Of his playwriting career he once said that he listed his occupation on government forms as “poultry farmer,” explaining that “I raise turkeys, which I occasionally display on Broadway.”

Perelman also worked in Hollywood writing movie scripts. He won a screenwriting Oscar in 1956 for Around the World in 80 Days.

He wrote two of the early Marx Brothers movies, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. He and Groucho didn’t get along personally, each thinking that the other got too much credit for their work together. Groucho borrowed some of Perelman’s mannerisms for his screen persona.

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Perelman was a fan of both James Joyce and P.G. Wodehouse and his style was somewhere in between the two. Woody Allen in turn was a big Perelman fan and his own humorous New Yorker pieces are an homage to Perelman.

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