West & Perelman

Nathanael West was born on this day in 1903, and S. J. Perelman, West’s brother-in-law, died on this day in 1979. In The Hindsight Saga, his uncompleted autobiography, Perelman tells of the period in the early thirties when West was a manager at New York’s Sutton Hotel, then a long-stay residence for the impoverished. More devoted to literature than hotel management, West spent a lot of his time writing Miss Lonelyhearts and offering a helping hand or a blind eye to his guests, a group that included a number of struggling young writers — Perelman, Lillian Hellman, and Dashiell Hammett among them:

[Hammett] had been living, prior to his arrival in our midst, at an opulent Fifth Avenue hotel where he had run up a whopping bill. Unable to pay it, he was forced, in English parlance, to “shoot the moon” and abscond with as many of his belongings as he could conceal. His knowledge of the mentality of house detectives provided the key. A tall, emaciated man easily identifiable in a crowd, Hammett decided to use fat as a subterfuge. He pulled on four shirts, three suits, innumerable socks, two lightweight ulsters, and an overcoat, cramming his pockets with assorted toiletries. Then he puffed out his cheeks, strode past the desk without a glimmer of suspicion, and headed for the Sutton…. West, a clotheshorse himself, recognized in Hammett a sartorial genius. He put him on the cuff and staked him to a typewriter and a bottle of beer a day.

Perelman’s “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” first printed in The New Yorker (and now collected in David Remnick’s 2000 anthology, Wonderful Town: New York Stories from “The New Yorker”), is regarded as a master parody of the hard-boiled style. The appetizer in question is tainted red herring, the lovely is a blonde bombshell holding an attractive life insurance policy on her husband — it pays triple if he dies by seafood — and the gumshoe is Mike Noonan, who finds himself attractive to even his secretary:

“Well, you certainly look like something the cat dragged in,” she said. She had a quick tongue. She also had eyes like dusty lapis lazuli, taffy hair, and a figure that did things to me. I kicked open the bottom drawer of her desk, let two inches of rye trickle down my craw, kissed Birdie on her lush, red mouth, and set fire to a cigarette.”

“I could go for you, sugar,” I said slowly. Her face was veiled, watchful. I stared at her ears, liking the way they were joined to her head. There was something complete about them; you knew they were there for keeps. When you’re a private eye, you want things to stay put.

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.