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Two Unpublished Letters of Ring Lardner, With Comment

Kevin Grace
University of Cincinnati


Updated 18 February 2006

Introduction | Letter I | Letter II | Notes

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Introduction

 


A
cquired privately in the past year, these two letters of Ring Lardner are published here for the first time. The first one, written in 1927 at the height of Lardner's fame is of only marginal interest, but the second, a very personal one sent by Lardner in 1932, ten months before he died, contains remarks about both his private life and about the public reaction to the columns he had recently published in The New Yorker concerning popular radio music.

This second letter also contains a somewhat veiled comment about Jews in Tin Pan Alley and the music industry, a comment more reflective perhaps of a bias fostered by Lardner's small-town Midwestern Protestant upbringing rather than any actual prejudice. He had, after all, worked productively and pleasantly with many Jews in his journalism, literary and songwriting careers.(1)

It is also a letter in which Lardner displays the sense of cynical - and resigned - humor he maintained throughout the last few years of his life when it was fraught with serious illness.

The punctuation and spelling are Lardner's.

 

 

   
Letter I
19 Jan 1927
Great Neck

Click on the small letter above for a full-size version.

 

 

   
Text Ring Lardner
Great Neck, New York(2)

January 19, 1927.

Dear Mr. Le Fevre: -
I have searched this house over for a picture of me and have been unable to find any except a couple of framed ones which my wife, for some unaccountable reason, wants to keep. I am going south at the end of this week, to be gone two months or so, and usually snapshots are taken on a trip like that.(3) So if you will remind me later on, I'll try to make
good.

Sincerely,
Ring W. Lardner(4)

 

 

   
Letter II
6 Dec 1932
New York

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Text Doctors Hospital
East End Ave. At 87th St.
New York(5)

December 6, 1932.

Dear Quinn:-(6)
This will have to be short (Thank God! says you) because I have to save my strenith for the little commercial writing I'm able to get done. I'm glad you like my "crusade" - I'll admit I liked it, too, and would have started something of the kind long ago if I had known how much fun it was. At least ten thousand J-ws are after what's left of my scalp, but they can't get it so long as I stick to the truth, which is easy.(7) It is a joy to work for a publication that backs you up as The New Yorker does.

I think I have owed you a letter nearly a year and a half. The fact is that I was not told of Kathryn's death until three months after it happened and then - Well, I felt terribly over it and just didn't know what to say.(8)

I haven't seen Arthur since he got back from the Coast, but I understand that he is still out of a job.(9)

Ellis went out to Great Neck this morning, to stay at Rex's, the doctor having said yesterday that Dora couldn't live more than a few hours more.(10)

Write again when you have time - It is good to hear from you.

Ring(11)

 

 

   
NOTES 1. This facet of Lardner's personality is candidly discussed in Ring Lardner, Jr.'s memoir The Lardners: My Family Remembered, New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
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2. Printed letterhead. The Lardners lived in Great Neck on Long Island from 1921 to 1928. These years are well-covered in the three main Lardner biographies: Ring Lardner Jr.'s memoir, The Lardners: My Family Remembered, New York: Harper & Row, 1976; Donald Elder's Ring Lardner: A Biography, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956; and Jonathan Yardley's Ring: A Biography of Ring Lardner, New York: Random House, 1977.
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3. During the 1920s, the Lardners often wintered in the South, usually with their close friends, sportswriter Grantland Rice and his wife Kate.
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4. Autograph signature.
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5. Printed letterhead. During this time, Lardner was ensconced once again in a hospital room. He was first diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1926, and this, combined with his alcoholism and heavy smoking, frequently wore him down to the point where a hospital stay was necessary to restore some semblance of health. Often Ellis, his wife, would leave Great Neck and take a small hotel apartment to be near him. He was in the hospital from May to June, 1932, and by December, Lardner was able to work very little. However, he made an arrangement with Harold Ross and The New Yorker in May 1932 to contribute a regular column on radio, an entertainment medium that Lardner at least could listen to and review from a hospital bed. The first one, "Over the Waves," appeared in the June 18, 1932 issue. As part of the body of Lardner's work, these articles are well-noted for Lardner's concern about suggestive lyrics in popular music and his intolerance and disdain for insipid songwriting (see especially "We're All Sisters Under the Hide of Me," (May 6, 1933) a parody of Cole Porter's "Night and Day." Several of his reviews are reprinted in Babette Rosmond's and Henry Morgan's Shut Up, He Explained: A Ring Lardner Selection, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
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6. Quinn Martin. An old friend of Lardner's, Martin had been the dramatic and film critic of The New York World, part of a coterie of writers who had a significant impact on American journalism and letters in the 1920s: Heywood Broun, H.L. Mencken, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker and others. As Lardner Jr. says in his memoir, "The New York World held a special place among newspapers not only because of its superiority in so many respects but because we knew so many people connected with it." As the film industry completed its move from the East Coast to the West in the '20s, Martin followed it, becoming a story editor with Fox Film Company, and at the time of this letter, Fox's assistant head of the story department.
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7. In the weeks immediately previous to this letter, Lardner published in The New Yorker "Herb and Frank Panic 'Em (November 5), "Lyricists Strike Pay Dirt" (November 19) and "Announcer's Prep School" (December 3). Martin obviously had written a letter to Lardner and mentioned the radio review columns, but it is unknown whether Martin was referring to one of these recent pieces or earlier ones as far back as June 1932. No obvious anti-Semitic reference has been found, so presumably Lardner's comment about "J-ws" after his scalp is a general one he felt concerning the makeup of the popular song industry.
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8. Martin's wife, Kathryn, died of pneumonia on June 24, 1931 in Los Angeles. She was 34. See The New York Times, June 25, 1931, p. 25, col. 2.
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9. Arthur Jacks, lifelong friend of Lardner's from their childhood together in Niles, Michigan. He eventually followed Lardner east and lived on Long Island.
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10. Ellis had gone to be with Ring's brother Rex when his wife, Dora McCarley Lardner, died.
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11. Autograph signature.
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