SIDNEY JOSEPH PERELMAN was one of the great comic writers of the century, in this or any other language, and his death in 1979 ended what Dorothy Herrmann calls "the golden age of American humor," yet the comedian himself was neither especially funny nor especially agreeable. The Perelman who emerges in Herrmann's admiring, intelligent but lifeless biography is, to borrow the title of one of his books, a vinegar puss: a sour, melancholy man who had something of a genius for unkindness in personal relationships, who fancied himself a ladykiller and humiliated his wife with real and pretended infidelities, who was prone to self-pitying depressions "so severe that they sometimes prevented him from writing for as long as a year," and whose snobbery toward the lower orders did not disguise his own origins in them.
His life, as Herrmann describes it, was devoted to the accumulation of "a long series of personas -- man about town, intrepid world traveler, dashing Lothario, elegant dandy -- that he tried to don in a search for self-identity, an adolescent dream of grandeur inevitably doomed to failure." A native of Rhode Island and the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he was an odd -- and uncomfortable -- mix of cultures: on the one hand "his Jewish ancestry, with its tradition of skepticism, learning and restless searching for identity," and on the other the "Yankee philosophy" that "believed in speaking one's mind, standing against the crowd and in pinching one's pennies, seldom squandering his money on cabs, gifts for friends or other luxuries." Add to this mix the insecurities inherent at being a poor boy in a rich boys' college (Brown), and you have all the ingredients for a severe identity crisis; it haunted and bedeviled Perelman all his life.
It was also, obviously, the mix out of which his humor grew. Himself a bundle of contrasts and contradictions, Perelman had a penetrating eye for them in other individuals and in society as a whole. He became best known for his play with words -- the mind-bending puns, the non sequiturs, the incongruities -- but his humor was more complex than that. More than a mere punster, he was a master of malice and ridicule; he was able to get away with directing it at others because he had the wisdom to direct it at himself as well. Even as Perelman himself played the boulevardier for all it was worth, in his impeccably tweedy clothes and neatly trimmed moustache, in his comic pieces he turned that boulevardier into a figure of fun, thus making himself seem less superior to the common lot of us than he actually thought himself to be.
Considering that his humor had so sharp an edge to it, the widespread affection with which he was regarded by his many readers is something of a mystery, one that Herrmann does not attempt to explore. But this is consistent with her biographical method, a genuine oddity of which is that although it analyzes Perelman the man at considerable length, it analyzes Perelman the humorist and writer scarcely at all. Surprisingly little of his work is directly quoted -- did his estate place her under restrictions that she does not mention in her acknowledgements? -- and even less of it is subjected to searching criticism. Considering that the only reason Perelman commands biographical attention is that he was a humorist and writer, this is a strange omission indeed.
On the purely biographical material, by contrast, Herrmann is diligent and often interesting, though she is inattentive to chronology and never manages to work up much narrative steam. Her discussion of Perelman's early years is thorough, especially his intimate friendship with an eccentric character named Nathan Weinstein, who changed his name to Nathanael West, wrote Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, and eventually became Perelman's brother-in-law. West was a major if somewhat elusive influence in Perelman's life long after his death in 1940 in a motor accident, and his sister Laura's emotional dependence on him contributed to the many difficulties and discomforts of her marriage to Perelman.
But on the evidence that Herrmann presents, it can only be concluded that the principal difficulty in that marriage was Perelman himself. He was inattentive, indifferent and unfaithful to Laura, and his treatment of his two children bordered on the cruel: "Like so many temperamental men of genius, he found children tiresome nuisances, which was perhaps the reason he preferred animals and birds. . . . Boisterous children and sulky adolescents were difficult to control, and he took revenge on their behavior in his humor -- exaggerating their faults to grotesque proportions." But he was madly in love with his mynah, Tong Cha, of whom one acquaintance said: "Tong Cha was a lot like Perelman. He made horrible noises and pecked at you constantly until he drew blood." PERELMAN'S LIFE, like the lives of most writers, was a constant struggle to pay the bills, one not really alleviated until he collaborated on a successful play, One Touch of Venus, and, later, won an Academy Award for his contributions to the screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. He spent a lot of time in Hollywood, which he hated, working on films of little or no distinction; he "divided his time between commercial writing and pieces of a literary nature, a pattern that would remain more or less set for the rest of his life." The best of the "literary" work, if that is the word for it, was done for The New Yorker in the '40s and '50s, when he was able to temper his bitterness with irreverence and self-mockery; the later work too often is that of "an angry, cantankerous man, condemning almost everyone and everything."
Perelman once wrote: "If I were to apply for a library card in Paris, I would subscribe myself as feuilletoniste, that is to say, a writer of little leaves. I may be in error, but the word seems to me to carry a hint of endearment rather than patronage. . . . In whatever case I should like to affirm my loyalty to it as a medium. The handful of chumps who still practice it are as lonely as the survivors of Fort Zinderneuf; a few more assaults by television and picture journalism and we might as well post their bodies on the ramparts, pray for togetherness, and kneel for the final annihilation. Until then, so long and don't take any wooden rhetoric." Perelman was a miniaturist and a caricaturist, and he knew that it was no mean thing to be either; to be both, and to raise both to the level of art, was a rare and enduring accomplishment.