Sunday, March 20, 2022


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

“‘It didn’t get popular,’ said Hart, ‘because Verdi didn’t know rhythm.’” Illustration by American artist J. W. McGurk (1886–1939), published across a double-page spread over the beginning of Ring Lardner’s story “Rhythm” in the March 1926 issue of Cosmopolitan.
Readers of The New York Times are not accustomed to opening the Sunday Book Review section and learning about the death of a major American writer. Yet on April 4, 1926, Henry Logan Stuart revealed that Ring Lardner had died from “a fatal attack of conchoids, a disease which is superinduced by a rush of sea shells to the auricle or outer ear.” His demise was described by Miss Sarah E. Spooldripper in the “introductory eulogy” to The Love Nest and Other Stories. Stuart reviewed the collection, “the last that came from Lardner’s pen,” and concluded, “And now he has passed on, and it is not likely that we shall ever look upon his like again. Why don’t the research men bone up a little better on conchoids?” The reviewer conveyed the equally sad news that Miss Spooldripper herself had also passed away, as the book informed readers in a footnote:
Miss Spooldripper lived with the Lardners for years and took care of their wolf. She knew all there was to know about Lardner, and her mind was virtually blank. It was part of her charm.

. . . Two months ago she was found dead in the garage, her body covered with wolf bites left there by her former ward, who has probably forgotten where he left them.
Some readers didn’t get the joke. “I don’t know whether you’ve seen the book, but I had an introduction to it written as if I were dead,” Lardner wrote his friend Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. “The Sunday Times ran a long review and played up the introduction strong, saying it was too bad I died so young, etc., and the result was that Ellis [Lardner’s wife] was kept busy on the telephone all that Sunday assuring friend and reporters that I was alive and well.”

That year, Lardner was at the height of his fame as a short story writer. Ray Long, the editor of Cosmopolitan—at the time, one of the nation’s leading publishers of fiction—offered $3,000 for each of Lardner’s next six stories—or $3,500 a piece, if he agreed to twelve stories. Lardner ended up writing more than two dozen pieces over a four-year period for Cosmopolitan, receiving after two years as much as $4,500 for each story, an unheard-of amount for any writer during the 1920s. Lardner tried not to let it go to his head. He continued to decline to write the novel his friends and publisher urged from him (“after one chapter he would be even more bored than the reader,” he told his son), and he retained a reputation as a master of self-deprecation—as the kind of author who could joke that his wife wasn’t in attendance at his deathbed because she had “chosen this time to get a shampoo and wave in preparation for the series of dinner dances that were bound to follow.”

Not all his wit was directed at himself, of course. His friends F. Scott Fitzgerald and Grantland Rice, the sportswriter, get passing mentions in the faux obituary that prefaces The Love Nest, with Lardner (masquerading as Spooldripper) claiming tongue-in-cheek that Mr. and Mrs. Rice were “unmistakably” the couple who inspired “Mr. and Mrs. Fix-It,” one of the collection’s more farcical satires, about a couple who aggressively meddles in other people’s affairs. “They recognized themselves and did not speak to Lardner for a week,” he wrote, but soon the Rices were back to their old tricks, exhibiting their “intolerable example of maniacal Southern hospitality.”

Some of Lardner’s humor directed at fellow celebrities, however, was less whimsical and more acerbic. George Gershwin was one such acquaintance; although the author and the composer were not close, their social orbits occasionally brought them together. Ring Lardner, Jr., recalled sitting with his brothers in pajamas at the top of the stairs during parties hosted by his parents; “on two different occasions George Gershwin came and played what must have been just about everything he had written to date.” Yet, as Jonathan Yardley notes in his biography, the senior Lardner preferred the composer “when he wasn’t so Gershwinesque”—that is, before the celebrated debut in 1924 of Rhapsody in Blue, with its blend of classical and jazz influences. “Sophisticated as Ring was,” wrote Doubleday editor Donald Elder, “he had at bottom a naive distrust of highbrows, quite apart from his hatred of artistic or any other kind of pretentiousness.”

Lardner’s story “Rhythm,” published in the March 1926 issue of Cosmopolitan just before its appearance in The Love Nest collection, features Harry Hart, a composer of derivative popular tunes who decides to step up his act and compose a symphony; the increase in his airs is matched only by the decrease in his finances. In the story, Lardner makes the connection to Gershwin explicit; “Gershwin was ahead of me,” Hart muses after the devastating premiere of his first symphony. While it’s not known whether Gershwin ever read the story, much less what he may have thought of it, it’s tempting to imagine that, four years later, he composed “I Got Rhythm” as a response.

Notes: The fictional Broadway producer Conrad Green, a satirical figure based on Florenz Ziegfeld, appeared previously in Lardner’s story “A Day with Conrad Green.” In “Rhythm,” Lardner blends fictional characters with real-life celebrities of the 1920s cultural scene, many of whom he knew (and some of whom he poked fun at). Among them: Rudolf Friml was a Czech-born American composer of operettas and musicals popular in the 1910s and ’20s. Giulio Gatti-Casazza was manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1908 to 1935. Deems Taylor was an American composer and music critic. Alma Gluck, a soprano, was an opera singer and popular recording star. Walter Donaldson was a composer of many hit songs, including “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” and “My Blue Heaven.” A party in the story takes place at the home of Lardner’s good friend Heywood Broun, a columnist, sportswriter, and drama critic. Guy Bolton was a British-born librettist of Broadway musicals. Ernest Boyd was a critic and journalist. Conductor Leopold Stokowski was the longtime leader of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Gus Kahn was a lyricist of popular songs, including “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “Goofus.”

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This story is slightly immoral, but so, I guess, are all stories based on truth. . . . 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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