A Bally Happy Birthday to P. G. Wodehouse!

The wonderfully talented and impossibly prolific P. G. Wodehouse was born 134 years ago today in Guildford, 27 miles southwest of central London. He was educated at Dulwich College (as was Raymond Chandler, as it happens) and after a short stint working at a bank, he turned to writing humorous fiction, a change in direction for which readers around the world should be eternally grateful.

P. G. Wodehouse’s best-remembered characters are the affable but dim upper-cruster Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, but he created many other memorable and recurring characters, among them Psmith, Lord Emsworth and Mr Mulliner.

P. G. Wodehouse quote

In the early 1900s, he composed lyrics for songs Jerome Kern was writing for shows at London’s Aldwych Theatre. A decade later, he achieved success on Broadway in collaboration with writer Guy Bolton and a number of composers, including Kern.

The 1930s saw Wodehouse achieve his greatest success as a writer, but because he was splitting his time between England and the United States, he had tax troubles, which he solved by moving to a house near Le Touquet, France. As the Germans advanced through northern France the spring of 1940, Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, tried to drive to Portugal, from which they intended to fly to the United States, but they experienced car trouble and had to return to their home.

Wodehouse was imprisoned by the Nazis, first in a prison near Lille, and later in Tost (then in Germany, now known as Toszek in Poland). Public pressure was put on the Nazis to release Wodehouse but to no avail. His internment lasted until June 21 1941, not long before his sixtieth birthday, when he was sent to the Hotel Adlon in Berlin. Soon thereafter, Wodehouse perhaps unwisely took part in five broadcasts to the United States via German radio, along with the the Berlin-based correspondent of the Columbia Broadcast System. Wodehouse seems to have seen these broadcasts as something of a lark—they were humorous commentaries entitled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training—but many in England and elsewhere saw Wodehouse as collaborating with the enemy and the broadcasts created quite an uproar.

Wodehouse tried to return to England to repair the damage and explain his participation in the broadcasts, but he was not allowed to leave Berlin. He later wrote, “Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn’t. I suppose prison life saps the intellect.”

The Wodehouses didn’t manage to leave German until September 1943, when they were allowed to go to Nazi-occupied Paris. They were residing there when the city was liberated on August 25, 1944. Finally, in April 1947, they sailed for New York. They felt oddly uncomfortable in New York City, a town that had suited them well in earlier decades, and eventually made their home in Southhampton on Long Island. Though Ethel returned at least once to England, in 1948, P. G. remained in the U.S. after 1947 and he never again set foot in England.

In 1975, it was announced that Wodehouse was to be awarded knighthood, in the same honours list as Charlie Chaplin. All was finally forgiven.

Thankfully, P. G. Wodehouse is remembered today for his wonderful work, not his wartime missteps. He wrote upwards of ninety books, forty plays, two hundred short stories and other works between 1902 and 1974. He died of a heart attack on Valentine’s Day, 1975, in a Southhampton hospital.

Happy birthday, Mr. Wodehouse, wherever you may be, and what ho!

We’ll be loving you, always

Today marks the 124nd anniversary of the birth of the great Irving Berlin. One of history’s great tunesmiths, Berlin wrote more than hundreds of songs, 19 musicals and the scores of 18 movies over the course of his lengthy career.

“[Berlin is] the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”George Gershwin

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”Jerome Kern

Here are some of our favorite Irving Berlin songs:

“What’ll I Do?”The Nat “King” Cole Trio

“Say It Isn’t So”Annette Hanshaw

“Marie”Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra

“Puttin’ on the Ritz”Leo Reisman and His Orchestra

A tip o’ the top hat to Fred Astaire

“As a dancer he stands alone, and no singer knows his way around a song like Fred Astaire.”—Irving Berlin

Today marks Fred Astaire‘s 113th birthday. He’s been gone nearly 25 years (he died on June 22, 1987), and if you wanted to make a list of the things that are wrong with the world today, the fact that Mr. Astaire no longer walks—nay, glides—among us would be on that list.

Astaire had a down-to-earth elegance that is all too rare, and, in addition to his legendary talents as a hoofer, he was an icon of classic style, a darned good singer, and, from all accounts, a fine gentleman, to boot.

This world’s just a little poorer for the 25 years we’ve been muddling through without Fred Astaire, but his film work reminds us of what we once had.

The clip below finds our Fred paired with the lovely (to put it mildly) Rita Hayworth in 1942’s You Were Never Lovelier, performing a Jerome KernJohnny Mercer song that could well serve as the Cladrite Radio theme song, “I’m Old-Fashioned.”

Happy birthday, Fred, wherever you are. And say hello to Ginger for us.

For more on Astaire, we recommend Trav S. D.’s overview of his life and career.

Times Square Tintypes: Irving Berlin

In this chapter from his 1932 book, Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles perhaps the greatest of American songwriters, Irving Berlin.
 

THE BIRTH OF THE BLUES

HE has a name that will live forever and he bought it for a song. IRIVING BERLIN.
Came to this country at the age of four, the youngest of eight children. In Russia his father was a cantor. Here a kosher butcher.
He has yet to find a hat to fit him.
He eats a lot for one of his size.
Plays the piano by ear. And only in F sharp. Has a specially constructed piano with a sliding keyboard. When the music calls for another key he merely moves the lever.
He is not a one finger player. Uses all his fingers badly.
Has a scar on his forehead. It was received on a Washington’s Birthday in Cherry Street, trying to start a bonfire.
Thinks he is a good stud poker player. His friends say he’s lucky.
His pet aversions are riveters and second verses.
Ran away from home at the age of fourteen. His first stop was Callahan’s saloon. Here he sang “The Mansion of Aching Hearts” until enough coins were tossed at him to pay for a night’s lodging. Later became a singing waiter at Nigger Mike’s place, 12 Pell Street. The barker on the trip to Chinatown bus now points out the place.
He wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” credited with starting the jazz vogue, at the age of twenty-three.
Crowds frighten him. So do certain individuals.
His idea of a great achievement is writing a song that reaches the million copy mark.
Maintains a home in West Forty-sixth Street. But lives elsewhere. The first of every month generally finds him moving.
His square moniker is Israel Baline. For a time, he went under the name of Cooney. Became Berlin because that was the way the Bowery pronounced Baline.
As a singing waiter he kicked a hoofer named George White out of the place for being a pest, and he served Al Smith.
Is always chewing gum. This can be observed by merely watching the funny way his hat moves on his head.
His favorite biographer is Alexander Woollcott.
He composes in this fashion: First playing the song on the piano. Then singing it to Arthur Johnson, his right and left hand man, who records upon paper what he hears. Then Johnson plays the written manuscript. This is the first draft. From this Berlin works on to the final version. Often after a song has been published he changes it.
His bill for flowers for the Mrs. is $1,000 a month.
His patent leather dinner shoes have more cracks than his hair has waves.
Of all the songs he has written, a figure exceeding four hundred, his favorite is “The Song Is Ended But the Melody Lingers On.”
Is very restless. Can’t sit or stand still. Always paces the floor. He walks miles in any room he is in. It is the only exercise he gets.
As far as playwrights go, his taste begins and ends with George S. Kaufman. As for music, he’ll whistle anything by Jerome Kern. For lyrics he hands first prize to B. G. De Sylva. And if asked to name the swellest guy in the theatrical game, he’d shout Sam Harris.
He has had to change his entire working schedule since he became a father.
He has never worn a diamond. The only jewelry he wears is, occasionally, a pearl tie pin.
Never eats the crust of bread or rolls. Always plucks the filling. This can be seen circled about his plate.
After finishing a song he sings it to the first person he meets. A bell boy at Palm Beach was the first person to hear “Lazy.” A Broadway taxi driver was the first to hear “All Alone.” A bewildered stranger, occupation unknown, was the first to hear “Say It With Music.”
He never writes anything in longhand but his signature on a check. Everything else he prints.
The one thing in life he is looking forward to is walking into a restaurant with his daughter, Mary Ellen.
Of all the songs ever written the one he’d love to be the author of is “The Rosary.”
On the fly leaf of a book containing every song he wrote there is this ditty which he believes sums up everything:

Let Me Be a Troubadour,
And I Will For Nothing More
Than One Short Hour Or So
To Sing My Song And Go.

He has a form-fitting couch which was especially designed for him.

Times Square Tintypes: George Gershwin

In this chapter from Times Square Tintypes, Broadway columnist Sidney Skolsky profiles George Gershwin, who then cast one of the longest shadows over Broadway.
By 1932, when this book was published, Gershwin had written most of the orchestral works that remain so celebrated today, including Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Piano Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), and The Second Rhapsody (1931), and had experienced great success on Broadway with such shows as “Oh, Kay!” (1926), “Strike Up the Band” (1927), “Funny Face” (1927), “Girl Crazy” (1930), and “Of Thee I Sing” (1931).
 
 

“STRIKE UP THE BAND”

 
A man of note. George Gershwin.
He loves to go shopping. Is always buying presents for friends.
Suffers from indigestion. Every night before retiring he takes agar-agar, a new medicine.
Was born in Brooklyn, September 16, 1898, and came to this country at the age of six weeks. Has two brothers, Ira and Arthur, and one sister, Frances. As a youngster he was the champion roller skater of his neighborhood.
Smokes a cigar out of the side of his mouth and wears a high hat gracefully. He didn’t start to smoke until he was twenty.
His father, Morris, because of his unconscious humor, is the life of his Gershwin parties. Morris has been designer of fancy uppers for women’s shoes, owned several cigar stores, owned a billiard parlor, owned a Turkish bath place and was a bookie. Morris also entertains by imitating a trumpet.
Took his first piano lesson when he was thirteen. At sixteen he was working for Remick’s. His boyhood idols were Jerome Kern and irving Berlin.
The thing he values most is an autographed photograph of King George of England. It bears this inscription: “From George to George.”
He wrote his first song when he was fourteen. It was a nameless tango. His second composition (now he had learned to title them) was “Since I Found You.” It was never published. His first published song, “When You Want Them You Can’t Get Them And When You’ve Got Them You Don’t Want Them,” he sold to Harry Von Tilzer for five dollars.
Twice a week he visits an osteopath.
Hates cards. His favorite game is backgammon. Occasionally he shoot craps.
He once worked as relief pianist at Fox’s City Theatre. Was fired because an author complained that he didn’t know how to play the piano.
An English publisher sends him copies of rare and first edition of such authors as Galsworthy, Shaw and Barrie in return for an occasional song.
His first piano teacher, whose memory he cherished, was Charles Hambitzer. His present teacher is Mme. Boulanger in Paris. The first time he went to Paris to study he came back with a trunkful of shirts and ties. On his last trip he returned with a $10,000 organ which he has yet to unpack.
Hard liquor doesn’t appeal to him. He likes a glass of real beer. After more than one cocktail his eyes begin to shine.
The first long piece he ever wrote was not “The Rhapsody in Blue.” But one called “135th Street.” It was performed by Paul Whiteman in the Scandals of 1921 for one performance only. It was taken out because it was too sad.
He is very particular about his clothes which are made to order. Even when he made only $25 a week he spent $22 for a pair of shoes.
Writes whenever the mood seizes him. He may have just returned home after a party and still attired in his evening clothes he will sit down at the piano. Or he may compose wearing pajamas, or a bathrobe—or even nude.
He is physically very strong. Especially his arms which are powerful. He is a swell wrestler.
His brother Ira writes the lyrics for his songs. Before, Irving Caesar and Buddy De Sylva had the honor.
“The Rhapsody in Blue” was played for the first time, February 12, 1924, at Aeolian Hall. It took him three months to write it. It took him eight months to write “An American in Paris.” His first real popular hit was “Swanee.” This was written for the revue that opened the Capitol Theatre.
Is bashful about playing the piano at parties. He has to be coaxed. Once he starts, however, you can stop him. He says, “You see the trouble is, when I don’t play I don’t have a good time.”
In the volume called Great Composers As Children he is the only living composer listed.
One evening the family discussing the new Einstein paper. George expressed his surprise at the compactness of the scientific vocabulary. He said: “Imagine working for twenty years and putting your results into three pages?” “Well,” said Papa Gershwin, “It was probably very small print.”

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