Saturday, March 29, 2003

[3/29/2011] Prefaces to "The Love Nest" and "The Story of a Wonder Man" -- It was part of his charm (continued)


"I know it for truth that from fifty on he indulged to an alarming extent in the lesser opiates, eating aspirin as if it were so much mud and seldom laying aside the all-day sucker which he plopped into his mouth the instant he had finished his breakfast. Lardner always bolted his food. He was afraid the rats would get it. It was part of his charm."
-- Sarah E. Spooldripper, in the Preface
to The Love Nest and other stories

Preface to
The Love Nest and other stories

by Sarah E. Spooldripper*
*Miss Spooldripper lived with the Lardners for years and took care of their wolf. She knew all there was to know about Lardner, and her mind was virtually blank. It was part of her charm.

It is hoped that a careful reading of the stories collected in this book will dispel the general illusion that in his later years Ring Lardner was just a tiresome old man induced by financial calamity and a fondness for narcotics to harp constantly on the futility of life on a branch line of the Long Island Railroad. In these tales we see the old fellow as perhaps not lovable, but certainly irresistible. There was an impishness in him that fascinated. It was part of his charm.

I know it for truth that from fifty on he indulged to an alarming extent in the lesser opiates, eating aspirin as if it were so much mud and seldom laying aside the all-day sucker which he plopped into his mouth the instant he had finished his breakfast. Lardner always bolted his food. He was afraid the rats would get it. It was part of his charm.

Appearance of "The Love Nest," the short story from which the book takes its name, in Cosmopolitan Magazine, created a furore on the east bank of the Hudson, commuters of that neighborhood nearly coming to blows in arguments over the identity, in real life, of the tale's principal characters. Two old cronies who had played halma together night after night for nearly a week suddenly began making faces at one another, hiding each other's gloves, pinching each other's forearms, and altogether making a fiasco of the entire relationship. The author heard rumors of this feud and others and knew their cause, but kept his own counsel till the last day of his earthly career, when he confided to me that the Lou Gregg of the story was President Fillmore and the Mrs. Gregg, Mary Lewis.

It was in the middle of this work that the rivalry between Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Opie Reade for the love of Lily Langtry reached it height. During a dinner party at which the then raging beauty and her raging suitors were all present, the toastmaster, Gerald Chapman, asked Miss Langtry to rise and drink to "her favorite." The muscles of Fitzgerald and Reade were taut; Lardner's were very flabby.

After a pause that seemed to endure all night but really lasted only half that long, Miss Langtry got up, raised her glass and said: "I drink to Red Grange. Heston may have been his superior on defense and Coy, Thorpe, Eckersall, and Mahan more versatile, but as a common carrier I take off my hat to the Wheaton iceman."

Miss Langtry was deeply interested in college athletics and it was she who christened a certain New Jersey town Rahway because it was enroute to Rutgers, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Her response to the toastmaster's request affected her three swains variously. Reade arose and told the story of the two half-breeds, Seminole and Deminole. Lardner and Fitzgerald took up rotation pool, and weighed themselves once a week. Every so often they became maudlin, or, better still, inaudible.

An insight into Lardner's true character may be obtained from the correspondence which passed between him and Mrs. Patrick Campbell while he was writing the story "Haircut" at Atlantic City.

"Dear Ringlets," wrote Mrs. Campbell (it was a name she had for him), "don't forget 'Miss England' while playing around with 'Miss America.'"

"Dear Pat," was Lardner's reply, "am having a 'swill' time, but I do 'Miss England' and indeed I would walk a mile for a Campbell."

On the back of the card was a picture of Young's Million Dollar Pier.*
*This correspondence and other mash notes written by Lardner and his admirers were obtained from the street cleaners of East Shore Road, Great Neck, where the author threw all his mail, and are printed with the permission of Judge Landis.

"Haircut" was written under a severe strain, the writer having just engaged in a violent quarrel with John N. Wheeler, then editor of Liberty.

"Why didn't you lead me a spade?" demanded Wheeler.

"I was out of them," was the infuriating reply, and in a moment the two were rolling on the floor, with Wheeler's dice.

The character of the doctor in "Haircut" was a composite "photograph" of Mrs. Campbell and the Shuberts. It was Lardner's favorite among all his fictional characters, or, as he called them, "my puppets."

"Which is your favorite among all your 'puppets'?" I once asked him as we jointly gave the wolf a sitzbath.

"The doctor," he said.

The wolf was really the chief interest in Lardner's life. I have never elsewhere seen such a whole-souled comradeship as existed between the Master and this sinister pet. He was always hoping it would have a baby which he would have christened the Wolverine as a memorial to his native state.

Lardner's adoption of the beast was characteristic of the man. One afternoon in October while Mrs. Lardner (he always called her Junior as she was two or more years younger than he) was making out the May checks, she suddenly looked up from her work, sobbing, and said:


"Yes, Junior. What is it?"

"I am overdrawn."

"You stay indoors and brood too much," replied Lardner. "A little exercise and a few pleasures would restore the bloom to both those cheeks."

"I am not referring to anything physical," said the little woman. "I mean there is less than no money in the bank."

At that moment there was a scratching outside that could not have been the children, as they had all had their baths.

"What is that noise, Junior?" inquired the Master.

"I will go and see," said the Madam, sliding headforemost to the front door, as she was a great admirer of Frankie Frisch.

She returned in a moment, sobbing louder than ever, with the news that the wolf was at the door.

This was the beginning of a friendship that the less said about it the better. But I suppose I ought not to complain, for the wolf's advent into the home was responsible for mine, and it is not every spinster who spends the latter days of her life under such pleasant conditions as existed in the household of Ring Lardner, God bless him!

The story "Reunion" followed a visit paid the Lardners by the little woman's sisters and their husbands, all strict Swedenborgians and innately opposed to meat-eating and outdoor sports. Lardner was, of course, a devotee of golf and considered days spent indoors as days wasted. So it was torture to him, this prolonged sojourn of his in-laws, and "Reunion" was penned in a spirit of bitterness. The character of Mrs. Stu Johnston's brother is a composite of G. P. Torrence of Indianapolis, Robin Hendry of Detroit, H. W. Kitchell of Evanston, and F. R. Kitchell of Hingham, Mass., all of whom married sisters of Junior.

In re Lardner's golf, the following amusing anecdote is recounted:

Lardner was playing a mixed twosome with Mayor Walker of New York. They were both playing a Spalding mesh ball, which is how they got mixed. Coming to the fifteenth tee, they had halved the preceding three holes and Lardner could not remember whose turn it was to drive first.

"Your honor?" he said to the Mayor.

"Yes?" the Mayor replied. "What can I do for you?"

It is incidents like this that paint the man in his true colors. He was forever blowing bubbles. It amounted to a whim.

The romance of "Mr. and Mrs. Fix-It," without ranking with Lardner's best or with his most popular compositions, and betraying here and there a less persistent hold on character than is usual with him, is still a fascinating story, full of his peculiar sensuousness and pathos, with striking scenes vividly portrayed, and an advance on his previous farces as respects his constantly growing power of imaginative description.

Publication of this story in Liberty caused an estrangement between the Master and the Grantland Rices, who were unmistakably the parties inspiring it. So accurately were their characters and idiosyncrasies depicted that they recognized themselves and did not speak to Lardner for a week. This was considered a triumph by the Master.

"But the lesson was all lost," he told me afterwards, when a reconciliation had been effected. "They knew I was writing about them, and now they are right up to their old tricks again, dictating where we shall buy our shirts, how to discipline our kiddies, what road to take South, what to order for breakfast, when to bathe in what kind of bath salts, and even how often to visit the chiropodist. It is an intolerable example of maniacal Southern hospitality."

He proceeded to a fresh attack, turning out "Who Dealt?" Mrs. Rice is unquestionably the first person in this story, the one who tells it; either she or Ruth Hale or perhaps Mrs. S. B. Thorne.

There is an interesting fact connected with the story "Zone of Quiet." It was written outdoors during the equinoctial gales. Nearly every other sheet of copy was blown away or destroyed by stray dogs, and when the manuscript finally reached Ray Long, editor of Cosmopolitan, over two-thirds of it was missing. Mr. Long thought this all for the best as he was crowded that month. Mr. Long is related by marriage to Mr. O. O. Mclntyre, which is considered a horse on both of them.*
*Strangely enough, Mr. Long's favorite amusement is horseback riding, so the innuendo is not so far out of the way. He is known as a keen whip around Greenwich and, during the winters, when he lives in town, can be seen in Times Square almost any morning astride his imported hunter, "Black Oxen," directing the traffic and selling tickets to the Field Day at Jamaica.

Most of the stories making up this volume are noticeably shorter than those Lardner wrote in the early days of his tepid career. This is due to the invention and perfection of radio. Not content with purchasing one of the standard radios on the market, the Master, who, like Jane Cowl, was something of a mechanical genius, made his own set and installed it in the suit of pajamas which he habitually wore nights. At first he was unable to get any station at all, and this condition held good up to the day of his death. But he was always trying to tune in on Glens Falls, N. Y., and it was only in his last illness that he found out there was no broadcasting station at that place. His sense of humor came to his rescue in this dilemma.

"Junior," he said to his wife, "they tell me there is no broadcasting station at Glens Falls."

"Am I to blame for that?" retorted the little Nordic, quick to take umbrage.*
* Junior was an inveterate umbrage taker and frequently took more than was good for her.

"No," he answered. "It's Glens Falls."

Those of the tales in this book which have not already been mentioned were dashed off after the Master had contracted the cold that resulted in the fatal attack of conchoid, a disease which is superinduced by a rush of seashells to the auricle or outer ear. Present during the last hours were only myself and the wolf, Junior having chosen this time to get a shampoo and wave in preparation for the series of dinner dances that were bound to follow.

"Edna," whispered the Master as he lay there idly watching the doctor change a tire, "to-morrow I will be all right again and you and I will get in a taxi and be ourselves."

He called me Edna only when he was up to some devilment. It was his way.

The Master is gone* and the next question is who will succeed him? Perhaps some writer still unborn. Perhaps one who will never be born. That is what I hope.
* The joke is on Miss Spooldripper, for she is gone too. Two months ago she was found dead in the garage, her body covered with wolf bites left there by her former ward, who has probably forgotten where he left them.


It's not clear whether the following preface was already written at the time of Sarah E. Spooldripper's untimely demise, as described in the last footnote above, or whether perhaps the writer of the footnote -- presumably the Master himself -- was embroidering the truth. At any rate, since it's so short, here's an additional helping of Miss Spooldripper.

Preface to
The Story of a Wonder Man

by Sarah E. Spooldripper

The publication of this autobiography is entirely without the late Master's sanction. He wrote it as a pastime and burnt up each chapter as soon as it was written; the salvaging was accomplished by ghouls who haunted the Lardners' ash bbl. during my whole tenure of office as night nurse to their dromedary.

Some of the copy was so badly charred as to be illegible. The ghouls took the liberty of filling in these hiatuses with "stuff" of their own, which can be readily distinguished from the Master's as it is not nearly as good. Readers and critics are therefore asked to bear in mind that those portions of the book which they find entertaining are the work of the Master himself; those which bore them or sound forced are interpolations by milksops.

Another request which I know the Master would have wished me to make is that neither reader nor critic read the book through at one sitting (Cries of "Fat chance!" and "Hold 'em, Stanford!"). It was written a chapter at a time and should be perused the same way with, say, a rest of from seven weeks to two months between chapters. It might even be advisable to read one chapter and then take the book back to the exchange desk, saying you had made a mistake.

Mr. Lardner's friends will regret that he omitted from these memoirs reference to his encounter with Mussolini, the Tiger of France and Italy. The two happened to be occupying the same compartment on "The Dixie Flyer" between Cannes and Mentone.

"Great golf weather," remarked the Tiger.

"I beg your pardon," replied the writer. "Je ne parle pas le Wop."

I forget what else happened.




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