Saturday, December 15, 2018

Joey on the Cake Line

John O’Hara (1905–1970)
From John O’Hara: Four Novels of the 1930s

Cover artwork from the souvenir program for the 1952 Broadway revival of Pal Joey.
“That was the only good thing I ever got out of booze, but mind you, Wilson, I wasn’t on a bender at the time I wrote it. I was perfectly sober!”

When the novelist John O’Hara was interviewed by gossip columnist Earl Wilson in 1948, he revealed how his most famous character, Pal Joey, was born during a post-alcoholic haze in a Manhattan hotel. A decade earlier O’Hara and his wife had just returned from a summer in England and were staying with her parents on the Upper East Side. His third novel (Hope of Heaven) was a commercial flop, the Hollywood novel he had hoped to write remained unwritten, and he was, as he admitted to Wilson, “broke.” So he told his wife he was heading back to Philadelphia to pound out his next story for The New Yorker at the Ben Franklin Hotel, where he occasionally stayed to work on his writing.

He never made it. Instead he met up nearby with some companions and “got stiff.” The next day he checked into The Pierre, a hotel thirty-three blocks south of his in-laws’ apartment, and spent another two days drinking. He woke up early Saturday morning and asked a hotel attendant what day and time it was.
At that point remorse set in. I asked, ‘What kind of god damn heel am I? I must be worse ’n anybody in the world.’ Then I figured, ‘No, there must be somebody worse than me — but who?’ Al Capone, maybe. Then I got it — maybe some night club masters of ceremonies I know.
By noon O’Hara had finished a draft of the first Pal Joey story and was on his way back home, where he confessed his misdeeds to his wife yet had the story to show for them.

“Pal Joey” was immediately accepted by The New Yorker and appeared in its October 22, 1938, issue. Editor-in-chief Harold Ross was particularly enthusiastic about the story and requested additional pieces featuring the same character. By the time the first story had appeared in the magazine, O’Hara was in California working as a screenwriter for RKO Studios (and later for Twentieth-Century Fox). When New Yorker fiction editor William Maxwell rejected one of the follow-up episodes, O’Hara reminded him that Ross had promised “when both of us were sober, that if I wrote him ten Pal Joey pieces I could say the hell with Hollywood.” All told, twelve would appear in the magazine, and fourteen stories—all written as letters from Joey to the emcee’s far more successful “friend” and rival Ted—would be collected as a book in October 1940.

“I don’t know whether you happened to see any of a series of pieces I’ve been doing for The New Yorker in the past year or so,” O’Hara wrote in early 1940 to Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. “I got the idea that the pieces, or at least the character and the life in general could be made into a book show.” Rodgers and his partner, lyricist Lorenz Hart, liked the concept and agreed to score the musical, for which O’Hara would write the book. George Abbott, who was hired as director, remembered the original script as “a disorganized set of scenes without a good story line,” so the show was reworked before and during rehearsals and O’Hara approved the changes whenever he happened to show up at the theatre. Gene Kelly, who had just starred in The Time of Your Life, took on the role of Joey, while Vivienne Segal costarred as Vera, a character newly created by O’Hara for the show. The musical opened on Christmas Day 1940 and was a hit, running for 374 performances on Broadway despite (or, perhaps, because of) its risqué subject matter. Brook Atkinson, The New York Times critic, panned the show, finding much of the content inappropriate for a musical comedy: “If it is possible to make an entertaining musical out of an odious story, Pal Joey is it. . . . Although it is expertly done, can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”

In the late 1940s Doris Day had a Top Ten hit with the show’s most famous number, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” The song’s popularity led to the first studio recording of the show, which in turn led to a 1952 stage revival starring Harold Lang and Segal, reprising her role as Vera. O’Hara made a few changes to the second act and Rodgers revised several lyrics. (Hart had died in 1943.) The show proved even a bigger hit, enjoying a fifteen-month run of 540 performances—the longest of any revival of a musical in Broadway history to that date. This time Atkinson sang a different tune, praising “the tight organization of the production, the terseness of the writing, the liveliness and versatility of the score, and the easy perfection of the lyrics.” Recalling that he had not been “enchanted” the first time he saw the show, Atkinson now acknowledged that it “broke the old formula and brought the musical stage to maturity. . . . Pal Joey was a pioneer in the moving back of musical frontiers, for it tells an integrated story with a knowing point of view.”

“Joey’s is an American voice from the second act of the American century,” writes the novelist Thomas Mallon, “a time when the country’s wisecracks and slang, thanks to movies and even to books, wrapped themselves around the thoughts and vocal cords of half the world.” We present from The New Yorker’s 1939 Christmas issue one of John O’Hara’s original Pal Joey stories. In a mere four pages, it showcases the louche, tough-guy patter that would make its creator a rich man.

Note: Onawentsia Club, mentioned on the last page, is a country club in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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