Authors: Jerome Weidman
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
For my sister Jean
When the sands were all dry,
He was gay as a lark,
And would speak in contemptuous
Tones of the shark.
But when the tide deepened,
And sharks were around,
His voice had a timid,
And tremulous sound.
An old friend of mine, an Englishman, was saying how close British English and American English have come together compared with the days, say, of my boyhood when nobody in Britain, except kings, statesmen, ambassadors and bankers had ever heard an American speak. I was 21 when sound (what we called ‘talking pictures’) came in, and I remember the shock to all of us when we heard the weird sounds coming out of the mouths of the people on the screen.
And of course, quite apart from becoming familiar with the odd pronunciations of Americans of all sorts, we began to notice differences in the usage of words; we became aware for the first time of the great changes and unknown additions to the language that had been made by Englishmen who had been settling in America for three hundred years. It occurred to most of us rather late that this was bound to happen when Englishmen arrived on a new continent, saw a new landscape which had to be described with different words (tidewater, creek), new foods, new habits of life and work, not to mention the adoption, first from the Dutch, of new words for objects new and old. Englishmen who’d eaten buns found themselves eating crullers, and sitting out on the stoops of their houses. If you want to follow the impress of Spanish, Russian, German, Italian, Hungarian, Czech, and the other European languages on the English of America, all you have to do is go to the library and take out the 2,400 finely printed pages of Mr H. L. Mencken’s massive work,
The American Language.
And that will take you only as far as 1950.
The point my old friend was making was that after almost seventy years of talking pictures, and with the radio and television now becoming universal media, nothing in American speech or writing surprises us any more and the two languages have rubbed together so closely for so long that they are practically indistinguishable.
Well, there’s much in this. But there are still little signs in any given piece of American prose playing a mischievous devil’s advocate. One time last year I wrote a piece of English prose, quite guileless stuff, a page of fiction about a single mild adventure of a young man in New York. I asked this same old Englishman to go over it and strike out words which proved that, though the locale of the story was New York City, and the presumption of the story and all the fixings was that it had been written by an American, there were lots of little signs which showed it could not have been written by anyone but an Englishman. I’ll just say two things: that my friend missed them, and that most Englishmen would have, too.
Just last week there was printed in the
magazine a phrase about Californian wines, proving that the writer or copy editor was English. No American talks or writes about Californian wines. California wines. ‘California’ is the adjective. ‘Californian’ is a noun: a native or resident of California. The other most gross and most frequent trick which not one Englishman in a thousand ever seems to notice is this: I say or write, ‘I have a friend in England called Alan Owen.’ That is an immediate giveaway. No American could say or write it unless they’d been corrupted by long close association with the Brits. Americans write and say, ‘I have a friend in England
Alan Owen.’ Maybe he’s
Al. ‘Called’ would refer to a nickname. ‘Named’ is used where the English use ‘called.’ In other words, a President named William Jefferson Clinton is called Bill Clinton. ‘Named’ always for the baptismal name … right?
We went on to discuss American words, phrases, usually slang, that are picked up in England (E. B. White said it usually took fifteen years) and there go wrong, quite often assuming an opposite meaning. A beauty close to home is the word ‘bomb’. When a book, a play, a movie flops with a sickly thud, it is said to have bombed. ‘It ran a year in London, but bombed in New York.’ Inexplicably, it got to England and took on the opposite meaning. I shall never, you’ll appreciate, forget a telephone call from my daughter in England when a book of mine, a history of America carrying the succinct title
had just come out. ‘Daddy,’ she shouted across the Atlantic, ‘your book is a bomb!’ I very much prayed it wasn’t so. Indeed, the fact it wasn’t is one reason why I’m sitting here talking to you at this late date – in comfort.
All this amiable light talk sprang from a darker happening: the passing of a great American writer, who received a large, worthy obituary in the
New York Times
but, to my surprise and dismay, did not rate a mention in the news magazines. I’m afraid it’s because the writers of literary obituaries are too young to have remembered the splendid prime and great popularity of the man. His name was Jerome Weidman, and, if we were living in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s and he had died, you would no more have been ignorant of his name than today you would say, Who is John Updike, Martin Amis? (Who, asked a contemporary of a grandson of mine, who was Ernest Hemingway?) There you have it, the frailty, the treachery, of fame. Jerome Weidman was not just a popular novelist, in the sense that James Michener or Dorothy Sayers were popular novelists. Jerome Weidman was a popular novelist who greatly impressed the literary world of New York with his first novel. He was 24 years old and earning $11 a week as an office boy and starting secretary, when in the spring of 1937, he published
I Can Get It for You Wholesale.
Here was a story mining a new vein by a young man who, even at that tender age, knew the subject, the terrain and the people inside out. It was about Manhattan’s garment centre – the hub and vortex of maybe half a million New Yorkers who whirled every day around the making of pants and coats; a mainly Jewish industry, because so many immigrant tailors originally had set it up.
Jerome Weidman’s mother was Hungarian, and his father a young Austrian who, like George Gershwin’s Russian father, was alerted to the prospect of America and the immigrant ships by hearing the sound of a bugle, the call to fight for the Austrian emperor, which didn’t mean a year or two of military service but a semi-life sentence. He hopped it to New York City and went at once, on the Lower East Side, back to his only trade: he made trousers, pants. His son Jerome maintained against all comers that his father’s unique genius was for making better pants pockets than any other tailor on earth.
Jerome was brought up on the Lower East Side, with the sights and sounds and idiom of the garment men and their families. That first book created a character, Harry Bogen, a shrewd, quicksilver scamp who in several disguises was to appear in his later books. All the best ones were about this life he knew as well as Dickens knew the East End of London. What was new and liberated the American novel from gentility (or the Hemingway flat protest against it) was the running talk, the exact sound and sense of the lowly characters – the first-generation immigrant sons striving to be free.
Now you’ll see why such a man, such a writer, prompted our whole talk about the American language. Jerome Weidman was the first American street-smart novelist. (There – there’s another one, turned in England often into ‘street-wise’; nobody’s wise on the streets, but Jerome Weidman and his swarming characters are nothing if not street-smart.) He never adopted this language, but it came so naturally that when he chose titles for his subsequent works he fell as naturally as Ira and George Gershwin did into simply taking over some prevailing bit of American idiom slang. After
I Can Get It for You Wholesale
What’s in It for Me?
The Price Is Right
– marvellously constructed short novels that made guessing the next turn of character as tense as tracking down a murderer. His last book, written in 1987, was a memoir, and the then senior book editor of the
magazine headed his review with the single, simple word: Pro. So he was, the complete professional, as Balzac was a pro, and Dickens. Indeed, it’s not reaching too far to say that Jerome Weidman was the Dickens of the Lower East Side (throw in the Bronx, too). He never started out with an ambition to be a writer. He was going into the garment business, and then, he thought, law school. Then he read Mark Twain and saw how he made literature out of the humblest material. All you needed was insight into character and an ear for the character’s speech. ‘Life for me on East Fourth Street’, Weidman once wrote, ‘when I was a boy was not unlike what life on the banks of the Mississippi had been for young Sam Clemens of Hannibal, Missouri. Guileless, untrained and unselfconscious, I put the stories down on paper the way I learned to walk.’
After a fine rollicking success as a novelist, he wrote a musical play about the incomparable, cocky, little Italianate reform Mayor of New York City, Fiorello La Guardia. It was called simply
The most prestigious theatre prize in this country (as also for fiction, history, whatever) is the Pulitzer Prize. On a spring day in 1960, in his forty-eighth year, Jerome Weidman was deliciously thunderstruck to hear he had won it with
I should tell you that if another famous novelist had lived on a year or two longer, you may be sure that one of the first calls of congratulation would have come from him: Jerome’s old friend, the late W. Somerset Maugham. As it was, the first call came from his mother. Neither Jerome’s father nor mother was comfortable with English. They were of that generation that was forever wary of the outside world they’d moved into – the world of America and Americans. Jerome Weidman recalled with pride, and typical exactness, what his mother said to him in that telephone call: ‘Mr Mawgham was right. That a college like Columbia University, when they decided to give you a price like this should go and pick a day to do it that it’s the twelfth anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel. If you listened to me and became a lawyer a wonderful thing like this could never have happened.’
He will be rediscovered, and revived, and read, when many, more famous and fashionable American writers, big guns today, are dead and gone for ever.
Jerome Weidman, born Lower East Side, New York City, 1913. Died Upper East Side, New York City, October 1998. RIP. Jerome, Harry Bogen, and Momma and Poppa Weidman.
From Alistair Cooke’s
Letter from America, 1946–2004
, originally published 2004
F YOU HAVE TO
go to Philadelphia for a reason you don’t want your wife to know about, the best way is to attend law school about thirty years before the time you have to be in the City of Brotherly Love. Being a lawyer is like being a bottle of ketchup in a restaurant that specializes in bad steaks. It covers a multitude of sins. This may not be a noteworthy comment to make on an ancient and occasionally honorable profession. But it is something I have come to value. I have been a lawyer for thirty years.
I have also been a husband for almost three decades, and a father for two. And I had to get to Philadelphia without allowing Elizabeth Ann or Jack to know why.
A grocer might have had some difficulty swinging it. Not Benny Kramer. I thanked you know who—God, of course—for my N.Y.U. law degree (evening session 1933-1937). I wrapped myself in the mantle of S. (for Shloymah) B. (for Berel) Schlisselberger, my most lucrative client. And I caught the 10:00
Metroliner for Philadelphia.