RING LARDNER (1885-1933) was much admired by his contemporaries, including Virginia Woolf and Scott Fitzgerald (who used Lardner as a model for the tragic Abe North in Tender is the Night), but his satirical talent is not so well understood by later generations, particularly those outside America. Perhaps because his text is littered with the journalese of his time and place (charmingly so much of the time) and his subject matter was very American in aspect – American sports, baseball in particular, popular theatre and music (he collaborated on musicals with Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans and others); Mencken referred to his work as a “mine of authentic Americana.” Later generations find the problematic tension of presentism in his work also. Lardner is very much associated with early twentieth century America, its hope and progressive ideals, also the colloquial of the speakeasy and the roaring jazz age of the 1920s – and he had the early death so typical of many American writers of his generation, in 1933 aged only 48 (from a heart attack brought about by complications of tuberculosis, probably caused by alcohol). It is all but impossible to make sense of him in a United States beyond the age of prohibition. He is far more the literary ambassador for his era than, say, Edith Wharton, his almost exact contemporary.
Perhaps Lardner’s writing has not stood the test of time; today he may be known best as a peripheral part of the rich literary scene in America immediately after the First World War rather than inhabiting its centre stage. He is referred to in memoirs and biography, yet other than his bon mot humour (that still sparkles), he has had his day; his influence on other writers is regarded to be greater than his own literary abilities. But this is no mean feat and gets to the nub of Lardner and why he should be still of great interest. In the early decades of the twentieth century, America was being transformed into a superpower, a change that entailed mass upheaval, social displacement and all the societal pains of pubescence that this entailed. Lardner was a pivotal voice: there is something beautifully balanced and generous about his writing that managed to embrace both sides of most of the divides in this society. Old ways juxtaposed with modern trends, migrations from rural open space to high-rise urban landscape caused unease as a continent shuffled itself from hardship to new centres of industry; the wets of the liquor industry and gangster speakeasies were pitted against the social progressive drys and the pietism of spiritual revival; national newspapers took eyes nationwide; new forms of entertainment established themselves; and new etiquettes and social regards. This was a time when any man or woman could exchange extreme poverty for untold wealth (and back again) in the blink of an eye. Lardner gives an authentic account of the popular manifestations of this social flux, born out of his own experience. As sport became more commercial and nationwide, as it bent its rules to accommodate a more demanding audience, Lardner was there to capture it in a literary parody; music moved from the relatively rigid forms of Sousa’s military marches, the knitting machine syncopation of the ragtime piano roll and New Orleans marching bands to the swing and easy strains of early jazz, likewise vaudeville Lardner caught this in snapshot form; easy, mass entertainment took shape as Hollywood and early cinemas were built; newspapers
Lardner’s circle of friends was extensive: W. C. Fields, Florenz Ziegfield (for whom Lardner wrote burlesque sketches), many other showbiz stars, significant politicians and celebrated fellow journalists. Lardner kept also the best literary company. He was a personal friend of, and at one time the next-door neighbour to, F. Scott Fitzgerald; he was a great influence on the young Ernest Hemingway who when writing for his school magazine used the pseudonym Ring Lardner, Jr., although their eventual meeting in 1928 was a disappointment to both; Mencken championed him; Tarkington, Dreiser and many others of note were keen to associate themselves with him. Maxwell Perkins was his agent.
Lardner was admired as a wit and stylist, and, to his disbelief, for the observation in his writing. Yet he was a man often seen to sink his own ship, not caring for praise and encouragement. Scott Fitzgerald’s eulogy to Lardner is often taken as gospel, that “whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.” He resisted the novel form, but was well suited to the short story form (although as his grandson, James, noted perceptively, “so, perhaps, is a good deal of life as most people live it”). Lardner has been depicted since his death as the consummate newspaper hack who fell back on the familiar, the comfortable, who was content to not stretch his talent and rather too inclined to stay in the safe world of what he knew, to be taken up too readily with projects like his daily comic strip text (although in truth he was bored of that very quickly).
His negligent attitude may have been a form of play acting, may even have suggested serious character flaw, as did his cynicism that marred what might have been an apparently contented life – he had a good childhood and held his young family dear, yet neither could halt his heavy drinking, indolent malaise, into which he slid very easily, and perhaps despair. He was prone to a lack of effort from childhood. His parents were wealthy and wanted the best education for him, yet he failed them; even when sent to a technology college to study engineering, he flunked and failed to finish the course. His penchant was to hang out with fellow loafers; that he fell into sports journalism can have been no surprise. As for his published prose, Lardner delighted in leaving false clues. Edmund Wilson’s review of his 1924 collection, How to Write Short Stories (which contains many of his greatest short stories), chided Lardner for his throwaway, spoof introduction which belied his literary accomplishment; Wilson concluded that “one suspects him of a guilty conscience at attempting to disguise his talent for social observation and satire.” Lardner may have lacked the literary confidence to regard himself as anything other than a journalist who rose to the occasion when needed, but essentially he was inclined to a louche literary touch. At times he wrote prolifically: between 1913 and 1917 he wrote seven columns each week as well as a host of short stories and other pieces. It may be that there is little more to his writing than this typewriter temperament suggests. But if his humour has been seen as wisecrack and his dialogue (so admired by many for its authenticity) dismissed as the vernacular of the speakeasy rather than deft filigree, it hardly matters. You Can Call Me Al managed to bring together his sporting enthusiasm and reportage skills to produce a deeply observed, sardonic and exquisitely humorous masterpiece. It is almost unique in American literature. He was certainly a populist, and as proof he gravitated to the popular stage or vaudeville with ambition and ease (he wrote many plays although only one ran successfully – June Moon written with George S. Kaufman in 1929 – and the most consistent pleasure of his life was music and song writing). He may have treated his writing to be mere “copy” (Fitzgerald’s description of Lardner’s attitude, and interesting to note that Lardner never thought to file any of his short stories) and he may have contained his ambition (“However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond,” wrote Fitzgerald), but for twenty years, and despite himself, he managed to bring his literary camel not only to the water, but make it drink there.
You Know Me Al is Lardner’s best known collection of fiction and his most successful. His books never sold in significant numbers, partly because he churned out new material constantly and was therefore deemed to be topical before profound, and partly because his audience had read him already in magazine format. You Know Me Al had only one printing in book format, published by George H. Doran Company in 1916, until Scribner’s repackaged his writing in a more literary vein in 1925; The Saturday Evening Post, who had originally commissioned the six stories in 1914, and at that time had a circulation of over two million. You Can Call Me Al was, in fact, his only novel, if it can be truly called that. All together he wrote 26 stories featuring its hero, Jack Keefe, which spilled into three books altogether: three stories were published as Treat ‘Em Rough (1918), and six stories comprised The Real Dope (1919). The last of the Keefe stories was published just nine days after the infamous 1919 World Series was concluded, although Lardner knew already about the match fixing scandal (eight of the Chicago White Sox players had taken bribes from the underworld to lose the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds). The scandal is never even alluded to in the stories; their chronology ends before the World Series takes place. Occasionally in his other baseball stories, real characters and heroes of the time make appearances, though not in You Know Me Al.
Jack Keefe is a fictitious rookie pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. His undoubted talent for the game is blighted by his immense ego and hauteur, witnessed by his correspondence with Al Blanchard, his friend from home, Bedford, Illinois. We are treated to Keefe’s poor spelling, faulty grammar and slang. The jargon and language of the baseball world is present, yet no deep inside knowledge of the sport is needed to appreciate the tales. Keefe is a small-town, greenhorn coming to terms with life in major league baseball, and he reveals himself unwittingly to be both a simpleton and naive, shot full of hubris, and oblivious to the machinations of those who manipulate him. We get to see his downfall when, cursed by a disastrous love life accompanied by too much gambling and alcohol, he becomes “hog fat” and is dropped from the first team. It was a winning formula: Keefe’s ignorant buffoonery is the Hardy to Al’s offstage and silent Laurel, and the pairing certainly made their creator a household name. Among the many superlatives of praise Lardner received, H. L. Mencken’s was that he rivalled Mark Twain for wit and irony.
By the mid-1920s Lardner had reached the top of his tree, and he was well rewarded: his yearly income by 1922 approached $100,000. His newspaper column for The Chicago Tribune was syndicated throughout the United States in over a hundred newspapers, his potential readership numbered more than eight million. In particular, his text for his daily comic strip – he scripted over 700 until early 1925, drawn by Will B. Johnstone and Dick Dorgan – was devoured by his fan base. His language was feted for its demotic palette, referred to as ‘Lardner Ringlish’. If Lardner had a mission, it was to “Tell the reader what he already knows in terms with which he is already familiar,” which was a manifesto not only to ignore correct grammar and usage but, above all else, to communicate. This came easy and was very much a reflection of his personality. It was not just that he combined the use of popular script of the time with the tenor of being a serious, respected writer, it was that he was able to extend this quality of being all things to all men into his life away from the typewriter. He was extremely sociable, known to be a golfing partner to President Warren Harding but he was received well in any bar or in a crowd at a baseball game. He posted weekly baseball reports up until 1919 (he had started his career in South Bend, Indiana in 1905, but within two years had worked his way up to reporting for the major Chicago newspapers), but all that time he travelled on the same Pullman cars and stayed in the same hotels as the players, who, despite his roguish if not caustic criticism of them, accepted him socially and saw him for what he was – an out-and-out fan of the sport and one of them. (It is often said that Lardner became disillusioned with baseball after the 1919 scandal, this the reason why he wrote rarely of it again. His disillusionment was with the White Sox more than the sport itself, although he disapproved of trends to exalt hitters over pitchers, but the scandal was coincidental with his move to Long Island, New York and the new take on his career on the East Coast.)
Cruelty and bitterness punctuate Lardner’s short stories. Their subject matter – failure and dishonesty, blowhards and creeps – is delivered with panache and fluster, relayed at hectic pace, and is layered with a biting satire and humour. “He wrapped his dreadful events in comic language,” wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, “as you would put an insecticide in a bright can.”
Virginia Woolf was a big fan, too: Lardner “writes the best prose that has come our way,” she noted in her essay American Fiction, “often in a language which is not English.” It is not certain that Lardner ever took the time to read Woolf, but he would have made a better stab at conversation over high tea at Cliveden than Woolf would have as a pitcher in the Yankee Stadium.
“I can recall no character in the Lardner gallery, early or late, male or female, old or young, who was not loathsome… Lardner does not see situations; he sees people. And what people! They are all as revolting as so many Methodist evangelists, and they are all as thoroughly American.” – H. L. Mencken
“I doubt that anyone who has not given close and deliberate attention to the American vulgate will ever realize how magnificently Lardner handles it. He has had more imitators, I suppose, than any other living American writer, but has he any actual rivals? They all try to write the speech of the streets as adeptly and as amusingly as he writes it, and they all fall short of him… And they are all inferior in observation, in sense of character, in shrewdness and insight.” – H. L. Mencken
“Lardner’s language is the product of a philologist’s ear and a born writer’s relish for words.” – Edmund Wilson
“Ring Lardner is the idol of professional humorists and of plenty of other people, too.” – E. B. White
“What more are you going to say of a great thing than it is great? You could, I suppose, speak of Ring Lardner’s unparalleled ear and eye, his strange, bitter pity, his utter sureness of characterization, his unceasing investigation, his beautiful economy …. But it seems to me that Lardner’s qualities are not to be listed, but to be felt, as you read his work.” – Dorothy Parker reviewing Round Up
“He lets Jack Keefe the baseball player cut out his own outline, fill in his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. As he babbles out his mind on paper there rise up friends, sweethearts, the scenery, town, and country. . . . We gaze into the depths of a society which goes its ways intent on its own concerns.” – Virginia Woolf
Mencken on Lardner
from A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writings, 1949
H. L. Mencken
You know, I haven’t read much Ring Lardner. A piece here and there (some of them are anthologized in the various New Yorker collections that have come out), and of course F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a rather famous obituary for him (they had been friends). Fitzgerald, though, fell into the trap of thinking that because Ring Lardner wrote so much about sports he was somehow not serious, it wasn’t a topic worthy of him. He felt his friend could have done so much more. Virginia Woolf did not agree. She thought Ring Lardner was one of the best prose writers alive. A giant in his time, one of the most popular writers writing, and now suffering from near total obscurity, although he has his devoted following. I should remedy my own error in not knowing more about Lardner. I have read some of his baseball pieces and they are as incredible as you would imagine. There’s a Damon Runyon quality to some of the stories he wrote, and yet his focus wasn’t so much on the underworld as the regular old malooks who circulated the streets of New York, the boxers, the butchers, the cab drivers. Ring Lardner died in 1933. The following piece, by Mencken, a huge Ring Lardner admirer, came out in 1924. Mencken went about (in other essays) destroying many of the beloved giants of the day. His essay on Theodore Dreiser is pretty devastating. He recognizes the skill but says most of it is “bilge”, and that of the many words in An American Tragedy, about 250,000 of them “are unnecessary”. Hahaha. Mean. Now I’m not an enormous Dreiser fan (haven’t read much of his work, in other words), but Mencken felt he overdid it, he wrote sloppily, he didn’t know what was important, he had no idea how to zoom in. His themes were big and important and he over-wrote compulsively. This is Mencken’s take. Ring Lardner, on the other hand, wrote spare perfect little pieces that absolutely captured individual characters in a way that had the breath of spontaneous life.
Oscar Wilde wrote, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.” In Mencken’s essay, he praises Lardner’s mastery of the visible. We’ve covered this before but writers who fancy themselves to be Serious Commentators on the Zeitgeist sometimes are horrible at describing “the visible”. They can’t create characters, they can’t describe a damn room and make it pop into the reader’s mind in 3-D. Now, some writers aren’t “about” those things, it’s true. Some writers are not character-driven, they are more language-driven. I would put Jeanette Winterson into that grouping, but she’s a genius (in my opinion), and her stuff can’t be imitated. And when she imitates herself, she veers into self-conscious pretension. But when she’s “on”? She can’t be touched!
I am just putting this together from what I have read: Mencken was annoyed at the big serious writers like Dreiser who were over-praised by a gullible critical establishment who were in love with his “themes”, while superb popular writers like Ring Lardner didn’t get the laurels they deserved. So in this essay he tries to right some of those wrongs.
His stories, it seems to me, are superbly adroit and amusing; no other American of his generation, sober or gay, wrote better. But I doubt that they last: our grandchildren will wonder what they are about. It is not only, or even mainly, that the dialect that fills them will pass, though that fact is obviously a serious handicap in itself. It is principally that the people they depict will pass, that Lardner’s incomparable baseball players, pugs, song-writers, Elks, small-town Rotarians, and golf caddies were flittering figures of a transient civilization, and are doomed to be as puzzling and soporific, in the year 2000, as Haliburton’s Yankee clock peddler is today.
The fact – if I may assume it to be a fact – is certain not to be set against Lardner’s account; on the contrary, it is, in its way, highly complimentary to him. For he deliberately applied himself, not to the anatomizing of the general human soul, but to the meticulous histological study of a few salient individuals of his time and nation, and he did it with such subtle and penetrating skills that one must belong to his time and nation to follow him. I doubt that anyone who is not familiar with professional ball players, intimately and at first hand, will ever comprehend the full merit of the amazing sketches in “You Know Me, Al”; I doubt that anyone who has not given close and deliberate attention to the American vulgate will ever realize how magnificently Lardner handled it. He had more imitators, I suppose, than any other American writer of the first third of the century, but had he any actual rivals? If so, I have yet to hear of them. They all tried to write the speech of the streets as adeptly and as amusingly as he wrote it, and they all fell short of him; the next best was miles and miles behind him. And they were all inferior in observation, in sense of character, in shrewdness and insight. His studies, to be sure, are never very profound; he made no attempt to get at the primary springs of human motive; all his people share the same amiable stupidity, the same transparent vanity, the same shallow swinishness; they are all human Fords in bad repair, and alike at bottom. But if he thus confined himself to the surface, it yet remains a fact that his investigations of that surface were extraordinarily alert, ingenious and brilliant – that the character he finally set before us, however roughly articulated as to bones, was so astoundingly realistic as to epidermis that the effect is indistinguishable from that of life itself. The old man in “The Golden Honeymoon” is not merely well done: he is perfect. And so is the girl in “Some Like Them Cold.” And so, even, is the idiotic Frank X. Farrell in “Alibi Ike” – an extravagant grotesque and yet quite real from glabella to calcaneus.
Lardner knew more about the management of the short story than all of its professors. His stories are built very carefully, and yet they seem to be wholly spontaneous, and even formless. He grasped the primary fact that no conceivable ingenuity can save a story that fails to show a recognizable and interesting character; he knew that a good character sketch is always a good story, no matter what its structure. Perhaps he got less attention than he ought to have got, even among the anti-academic critics, because his people were all lowly boors. For your reviewer of books, like every other sort of American is always vastly impressed by fashionable pretensions. He belongs to the white collar class of labor, and shares its prejudices. He can’t rid himself of the feeling that Edith Wharton, whose people have butlers, was a better novelist than Willa Cather, whose people, in the main, dine in their kitchens.
Fitzgerald on Lardner
from The New Republic, 1933
F. Scott Fitzgerald
For a year and a half the writer of this appreciation was Ring Lardner’s most familiar companion; after that, geography made separations and our contacts were rare. When my wife and I last saw him in 1931, he looked already like a man on his deathbed—it was terribly sad to see that six feet three inches of kindness stretched out ineffectual in the hospital room. His fingers trembled with a match, the tight skin on his handsome skull was marked as a mask of misery and nervous pain.
He gave a very different impression when we first saw him in 1921—he seemed to have an abundance of quiet vitality that would enable him to outlast anyone, to take himself for long spurts of work or play that would ruin any ordinary constitution. He had recently convulsed the country with the famous kitten-and-coat saga (it had to do with a world’s series bet and with the impending conversion of some kittens into fur), and the evidence of the betting, a beautiful sable, was worn by his wife at the time. In those days he was interested in people, sports, bridge, music, the stage, the newspapers, the magazines, the books. But though I did not know it, the change in him had already begun—the impenetrable despair that dogged him for a dozen years to his death.
He had practically given up sleeping, save on short vacations deliberately consecrated to simple pleasures, most frequently golf with his friends, Grantland Rice or John Wheeler. Many a night we talked over a case of Canadian ale until bright dawn, when Ring would rise and yawn: “Well, I guess the children have left for school by this time—I might as well go home.”
The woes of many people haunted him—for example, the doctor’s death sentence pronounced upon Tad, the cartoonist (who, in fact, nearly outlived Ring)—it was as if he believed he could and ought to do something about such things. And as he struggled to fulfil his contracts, one of which, a comic strip based on the character of “the busher”, was a terror, indeed, it was obvious that he felt his work to be directionless, merely “copy”. So he was inclined to turn his cosmic sense of responsibility into the channel of solving other people’s problems—finding someone an introduction to a theatrical manager, placing a friend in a job, manoeuvring a man into a good club. The effort made was often out of proportion to the situation; the truth back of it was that Ring was getting off—he was a faithful and conscientious workman to the end, but he had stopped finding any fun in his work ten years before he died.
About that time (1922) a publisher undertook to reissue his old books and collect his recent stories and this gave him a sense of existing in the literary world as well as with the public, and he got some satisfaction from the reiterated statements of Mencken and F.P.A. as to his true stature as a writer. But I don’t think he cared then—it is hard to understand, but I don’t think he really gave a damn about anything except his personal relations with a few people. A case in point was his attitude to those imitators who lifted everything except the shirt off his back—only Hemingway has been so thoroughly frisked—it worried the imitators more than it worried Ring. His attitude was that if they got stuck in the process he’d help them over any tough place.
Throughout this period of huge earnings and an increasingly solid reputation on top and beneath, there were two ambitions more important to Ring than the work by which he will be remembered; he wanted to be a musician—sometimes he dramatized himself ironically as a thwarted composer—and he wanted to write shows. His dealings with managers would make a whole story: they were always commissioning him to do work which they promptly forgot they had ordered, and accepting librettos that they never produced. (Ring left a short ironic record of Ziegfeld.) Only with the aid of the practical George Kaufman did he achieve his ambition, and by then he was too far gone in illness to get a proper satisfaction from it.
The point of these paragraphs is that, whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude towards his work. How far back did that attitude go?—back to his youth in a Michigan village? Certainly back to his days with the Cubs. During those years, when most men of promise achieve an adult education, if only in the school of war, Ring moved in the company of a few dozen illiterates playing a boy’s game. A boy’s game, with no more possibilities in it than a boy could master, a game bounded by walls which kept out novelty or danger, change or adventure. This material, the observation of it under such circumstances, was the text of Ring’s schooling during the most formative period of the mind. A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five. However deeply Ring might cut into it, his cake had exactly the diameter of Frank Chance’s diamond.
Here was his artistic problem, and it promised future trouble. So long as he wrote within that enclosure the result was magnificent: within it he heard and recorded the voice of a continent. But when, inevitably, he outgrew his interest in it, what was Ring left with?
He was left with his fine ethymological technique—and he was left rather helpless in those few acres. He had been formed by the very world on which his hilarious irony had released itself. He had fought his way through to knowing what people’s motives are and what means they are likely to resort to in order to attain their goals. But now he had a new problem—what to do about it. He went on seeing, and the sights travelled back to the optic nerve, but no longer to be thrown off in fiction, because they were no longer sights that could be weighed and valued by the old criteria. It was never that he was completely sold on athletic virtuosity as the be-all and end-all of problems; the trouble was that he could find nothing finer. Imagine life conceived as a business of beautiful muscular organization—an arising, an effort, a good break, a sweat, a bath, a meal, a love, a sleep—imagine it achieved; then imagine trying to apply that standard to the horribly complicated mess of living, where nothing, even the greatest conceptions and workings and achievements, is else but messy, spotty, tortuous—and then one can imagine the confusion that Ring faced on coming out of the ball park.
He kept on recording but he no longer projected, and this accumulation, which he has taken with him to the grave, crippled his spirit in the latter years. It was not the fear of Niles, Michigan, that hampered him—it was the habit of silence, formed in the presence of the “ivory” with which he lived and worked. Remember it was not humble ivory—Ring has demonstrated that—it was arrogant, imperative, often megalomaniacal ivory. He got the habit of silence, then the habit of repression that finally took the form of his odd little crusade in “The New Yorker” against pornographic songs. He had agreed with himself to speak only a small portion of his mind.
The present writer once suggested to him that he organize some cadre within which he could adequately display his talents, suggesting that it should be something deeply personal, and something on which Ring could take his time, but he dismissed the idea lightly; he was a disillusioned idealist but he had served his Fates well, and no other ones could be casually created for him—“This is something that can be printed,” he reasoned. “This, however, must join that accumulated mass of reflections that can never be written.”
He covered himself in such cases with protests of his inability to bring off anything big, but this was specious, for he was a proud man and had no reason to rate his abilities cheaply. He refused to “tell all” because in a crucial period of his life he had formed the habit of not doing it—and this he had elevated gradually into a standard of taste. It never satisfied him by a damn sight.
So one is haunted not only by a sense of personal loss but by a conviction that Ring got less percentage of himself on paper than any other American of the first flight. There is “You Know Me, Al”, and there are about a dozen wonderful short stories (my God, he hadn’t even saved them—the material of “How to Write Short Stories” was obtained by photographing old issues in the public library!), and there is some of the most uproarious and inspired nonsense since Lewis Carroll. Most of the rest is mediocre stuff, with flashes, and I would do Ring a disservice to suggest it should be set upon an altar and worshipped, as have been the most casual relics of Mark Twain. Those three volumes should seem enough—to everyone who didn’t know Ring. But I venture that no one who knew him but will agree that the personality of the man overlapped it. Proud, shy, solemn, shrewd, polite, brave, kind, merciful, honourable—with the affection these qualities aroused he created in addition a certain awe in people. His intentions, his will, once in motion, were formidable factors in dealing with him—he always did every single thing he said he would do. Frequently he was the melancholy Jaques, and sad company indeed, but under any conditions a noble dignity flowed from him, so that time in his presence always seemed well spent.
On my desk, at the moment, I have the letters Ring wrote to us; here is a letter one thousand words long, here is one of two thousand words—theatrical gossip, literary shop talk, flashes of wit but not much wit, for he was feeling thin and saving the best of that for his work, anecdotes of his activities. I reprint the most typical one I can find:
“The Dutch Treat show was a week ago Friday night. Grant Rice and I had reserved a table, and a table holds ten people and no more. Well, I had invited, as one guest, Jerry Kern, but he telephoned at the last moment that he couldn’t come. I then consulted with Grant Rice, who said he had no substitute in mind, but that it was a shame to waste our extra ticket when tickets were at a premium. So I called up Jones, and Jones said yes, and would it be all right for him to bring along a former Senator who was a pal of his and had been good to him in Washington. I said I was sorry, but our table was filled and, besides, we didn’t have an extra ticket. “Maybe I could dig up another ticket somewhere,” said Jones. “I don’t believe so,” I said, “but anyway the point is that we haven’t room at our table.” “Well,” said Jones, “I could have the Senator eat somewhere else and join us in time for the show.” “Yes,” I said, “but we have no ticket for him.” “Well, I’ll think up something,” he said. Well, what he thought up was to bring himself and the Senator and I had a hell of a time getting an extra ticket and shoving the Senator in at another table where he wasn’t wanted, and later in the evening, the Senator thanked Jones and said he was the greatest fella in the world and all I got was goodnight.
“Well, I must close and nibble on a carrot. R.W.L.”
Even in a telegram Ring could compress a lot of himself. Here is one: WHEN ARE YOU COMING BACK AND WHY PLEASE ANSWER RING LARDNER.
This is not the moment to recollect Ring’s convivial aspects, especially as he had, long before his death, ceased to find amusement in dissipation, or indeed in the whole range of what is called entertainment—save for his perennial interest in songs. By grace of the radio and of the many musicians who, drawn by his enormous magnetism, made pilgrimages to his bedside, he had a consolation in the last days, and he made the most of it, hilariously rewriting Cole Porter’s lyrics in “The New Yorker”. But it would be an evasion for the present writer not to say that when he was Ring’s neighbour a decade ago, they tucked a lot under their belts in many weathers, and spent many words on many men and things. At no time did I feel that I had known him enough, or that anyone knew him—it was not the feeling that there was more stuff in him and that it should come out, it was rather a qualitative difference, it was rather as though, due to some inadequacy in one’s self, one had not penetrated to something unsolved, new and unsaid. That is why one wishes that Ring had written down a large proportion of what was in his mind and heart. It would have saved him longer for us, and that in itself would be something. But I would like to know what it was, and now I will go on wishing—what did Ring want, how did he want things to be, how did he think things were?
A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight.