Two Unpublished Letters of Ring Lardner, With Comment
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Acquired 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.
19 Jan 1927
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Great Neck, New York(2)
January 19, 1927.
Dear Mr. Le Fevre: -
6 Dec 1932
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East End Ave. At 87th St.
December 6, 1932.
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)
Write again when you have time - It is good to hear from you.
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.
Back to Letter
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
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.
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
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.