Saturday, March 2, 2019

Some Like Them Cold

Ring Lardner (1885–1933)
From Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings

“She Has Got No Use for the Boys But Treats Them Like Dirt.” Detail from an illustration for “Some Like Them Cold,” in the October 1, 1921, issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
Ring Lardner was keen to hit it big on the stage. Over the course of his career he wrote more than one hundred plays, sketches, and skits. His earliest attempt, a musical, dates from 1903, when the eighteen-year-old was dabbling in community theater productions in his hometown of Niles, Michigan. Yet, even after he became famous, his many attempts to see his work staged were often frustrated by producers, directors, and actors. After he created various sketches to be used in the annual Ziegfeld Follies revues, he published an essay complaining that the performers reworked the script in favor of their own crowd-pleasing one-liners. “Why is his name attached to them on the program?” the author mused about himself before declaring, “I wouldn’t cash the checks neither if it wasn’t for the wife and kiddies.”

Years later, Ring Lardner Jr. recalled when his father asked George M. Cohan how to become a success in show business. “You’ve been in the theatre business for twenty years,” Ring Sr. said. “You write songs and sing them. You dance. You write plays and produce them. You know everything there is to know about the theater. You’re the one man who can tell me what I want to know. Mr. Cohan, how the hell does a guy get on the water wagon?” Their conversation led to the 1928 collaboration Elmer the Great, a Broadway flop that cost Lardner $6,000 even though the play seen by audiences retained hardly anything he wrote for it. Before opening night of the trial run in Chicago, he jokingly (and nervously) wrote in his trademark dialect to his former colleagues at the Chicago Tribune. “I was invited to the first rehearsal which I listened all through it and then had to ask Sam Forrest the director if I hadn’t fell into the wrong theater by mistake.”

Elmer the Great closed on Broadway in October after forty performances, a source of embarrassment to its alleged cowriter. Nevertheless, a few weeks later George Kaufman invited Lardner to collaborate on an adaptation of his popular story “Some Like Them Cold,” which had been published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1921. Still smarting from his previous venture on Broadway, Lardner at first declined, but he soon changed his mind and by early 1929 the two writers were working together on the play. Lardner contributed the first draft, Kaufman revised it, and rehearsals began using a third draft from Lardner, who also provided the music and lyrics. Now titled June Moon, the show went through even more revisions at performances in four East Coast cities, leading up to the Broadway premiere on October 9, 1929. The reviews were excellent and the show ran for 273 performances before going on a national tour. Lardner finally had a bona fide Broadway hit.

As biographer Jonathan Yardley notes, however, “June Moon is a play about the songwriting business, a satire of Tin Pan Alley that has many funny moments but very little to do with the story upon which it is based.” The original version, “Some Like Them Cold,” is about a struggling songwriter in New York and a “working girl” in Chicago who, having briefly met at a train station, exchange a series of flirtatious letters. The story was much admired by Lardner’s contemporaries; Dorothy Parker declared it one of four great American short stories of the era, alongside selections by Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, and Wilbur Daniel Steele. Edmund Wilson, in his 1924 assessment of Lardner’s career to date, singled out the story as showcasing his literary strengths:
He has shown an unexcelled, a perhaps unrivalled, mastery of what, since the publication of Mencken’s book, has come to be known as the American language. . . . Lardner has marked the distinction between the baseball player’s and the prize-fighter’s slang, can speak the language of the Chicago songwriter of “Some Like Them Cold,” who has come to New York to make his fortune, and has equally at his command the whole vocabulary of adolescent clichés of the young girl who writes to the songwriter, and of the quite different set of clichés of the middle-aged man from New Jersey who goes to Florida for his golden honeymoon. . . . There is nothing artificial or forced about the use of slang in these stories; it is as natural as it is apt.
Wilson pushed Lardner hard to immortalize himself with a novel, and he insisted that Lardner was selling himself short by continuing to write humor pieces for magazines. “Will Ring Lardner, then, go on to his Huckleberry Finn? . . . What bell might not Lardner ring if he set out to give us the works?” F. Scott Fitzgerald also urged Lardner to write a longer work of fiction. “He was willing to settle for a novella,” wrote Ring Lardner Jr., “and he felt it should be about Great Neck,” the Long Island community where both men lived (and, infamously, drank). “I don't know exactly what Ring said to him, but when I asked my father if he would ever write a novel, he said that after one chapter he would be even more bored than the reader.”

So Lardner never did attempt to write the big book everyone seemed to expect from him—which many critics ever since have offered as the reason why Lardner is not as widely read as he deserves to be. Still, he left us a number of great stories, including “Haircut,” “The Golden Honeymoon,” and “Some Like Them Cold,” our current Story of the Week selection.

Notes: Levy’s and Goebel’s were leading music publishers of the period. Established in 1904, the Friars Club is a private association in New York for comedians and other show business personalities. Robert W. Service is an English-born Canadian poet (1874–1958) whose popular verses (such as “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”) are anything but "high-brow." The two lyricists to whom Charles compares his writing partner are Irving Berlin (“White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” etc.) and Benny Davis (“Baby Face,” “There Goes My Heart”). Made popular by Al Jolson, “My Mammy” is a song with music by Walter Donaldson and lyrics by Joe Young and Sam M. Lewis. Bbl was a common abbreviation for barrel. Georgie White is Charles’s overly familiar name for the Broadway producer known for the musical revue George White’s Scandals, of which there were sixteen editions from 1919 to 1939.

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Dear Miss Gillespie: How about our bet now as you bet me I would forget all about you the minute I hit the big town and would never write you a letter. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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