In the latest issue of the New Criterion, WEEKLY STANDARD contributing editor Robert Messenger reviews a new collection of letters from British author and humorist P.G. Wodehouse. Here's an excerpt:
The desire to entertain which stood him so well at the typewriter could get him into trouble in the flesh, especially in his dealings with the press. In 1930, he went to Hollywood on a $2,000-a-week contract from MGM. He found the working habits of the studio peculiar—“The system is that A. gets the original idea, B. comes in to work with him on it, C. makes a scenario, D. does preliminary dialogue, and then they send for me to insert Class and what-not. Then E. and F., scenario writers, alter the plot and off we go again”—and easily kept up his own writing while fulfilling his studio commitments. Having agreed in May 1931 (at MGM’s request) to be profiled in the Los Angeles Times, he made some pre-interview remarks to fill the moments as the reporter, Alma Whitaker, got settled in his living room, about how much he liked Hollywood, etc. etc., but regretted that “he had been paid such an enormous amount of money without having done anything to earn it”—“$104,000 for loafing.” (Though his idea of loafing was writing “a novel and nine short stories, besides brushing up my golf, getting an attractive sun-tan and perfecting my Australian crawl in the swimming pool.”)
These comments, rather than the official interview, made the front page of the paper and were picked up around the country—it was a depression after all and he found himself “a sort of Ogre to the studio now.” Biographers have presented this incident in one of two lights: either as the innocent and unworldly Plum dropping a brick or as a calculated attempt to get back at his Hollywood masters. Yet he was really just employing a common type of prep-school bravado: claiming to have done no work while still achieving great success. It’s an old boy’s habit, and Wodehouse was the oldest of old boys—all his life he remembered his days at his boarding school, Dulwich College, as among his happiest.
He was always trying to make things a little bit easier for people. He would pre-write dialogue for radio interviews (and was not beyond cooking some up for the interviewers, too). He downplayed bad news and was almost apologetic when letting close friends know of any difficulty. There are only the tiniest asides in his letters about his being diagnosed with a brain tumor (mistakenly, as it turned out, after some anxious days) or when doctors feared he might be going blind. Wodehouse charmed by self-deprecation. Though he lived until 1975 and age 93, he never lost this insouciant version of the British stiff upper lip.
Read the whole thing here.