August 19: On this day in 1915 Ring Lardner, Jr. was born. Though Lardner’s adult fame was earned—screenplay Oscars for Woman of the Year (1942) and M*A*S*H (1970); the novel, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir (1954); blacklisting as one of McCarthy’s “Hollywood Ten”—he met the public early and often in his father’s daily column. Ring Jr. was the third of four sons, and Dad had lobbied unsuccessfully to give him any other name:
When you are nicknamed Ringworm by the humorists and wits,
When people put about you till they drive you into fits,
When funny folk say, “Ring, ring off,” until they make you ill,
Remember that your poor old Dad tried hard to name you Bill.
So “Bill” he often was, and as portrayed in Ring Sr.’s running chronicle of life at the Lardner house, a force to be reckoned with. It was young Bill who inspired one of Ring Sr.’s most often-quoted lines, from The Young Immigrunts. This parody, purportedly written by Bill at the age of four, tells the misadventure of the family’s move East, from Chicago to “the Bureau of Manhattan.” Bill is observant and chatty, and more forgiving of his father’s poor sense of direction than his mother; by Chapter 10, the long car ride almost over, he has taken on both the conversing and co-piloting duties:
The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.
When being called different sorts of names at his HUAC hearing, Ring Jr. might have borrowed Dad’s famous line—Shut Up, He Explained is the title given one of Ring Sr.’s collections—but he didn’t do badly on his own. In response to the inevitable, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Lardner said, “I could answer it, but if I did, I’d hate myself in the morning.” This got him a 1-year sentence, and the title of his second book of memoirs, I’d Hate Myself in the Morning (2000), published just before his death.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.