Lardner's work too great to be forgotten


AMERICA AT LARGE:Perhaps the most gifted of a talented family, John Lardner’s literary output is being revisited

A HINT of the reverence in which the paterfamilias was held can be gleaned from the pages of Oak Park High School’s Tabula, where, circa 1915, a young Ernest Hemingway published his first short stories under the somewhat enviously appropriated pseudonym “Ring Lardner, Jr.”

Himself barely 30 at the time, Ringgold Wilmer Lardner’s Chicago Tribunecolumn “ In the Wake of the News” was syndicated by more than 100 newspapers, making him among the most influential and highly paid journalists in America.

Ring would eventually abandon the newspaper dodge, moving to New York to become a writer of largely satirical short stories and plays, but his legacy would endure on at least two fronts: One is that to this day a particularly clever or adroit turn of phrase is sometimes described as “Lardneresque.” (Ring’s own most Lardneresque citation – “Shut up,” he explained – came in the pages of a novel called The Young Immigrants).

The other is that his four sons all went on to successful, if sometimes tragically brief, careers in the family business.

Unbeknownst to the teenaged Hemingway, there already was a Ring Lardner Jr. A one-time journalist recalled today as perhaps the most celebrated member of the “Hollywood Ten,” Ring Jr authored Oscar-winning screenplays both before ( Woman of the Year1942) and after ( M*A*S*H; 1970) his incarceration at the Danbury (Conn.) Federal Penitentiary and subsequent blacklisting for his refusal to name names before the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee.

Ring Jr. died at 85 ten years ago making him unique among two generations of writing Lardners in that he was the only one to live beyond his 49th birthday. Ring perehad been 48 when he died of tuberculosis in 1933. His son James was killed a few years later in Spain, where he had gone to fight with the International Brigade.

David Lardner, a 25 year-old correspondent for the New Yorker, was killed near Aachen in 1944 when his jeep, driving sans headlights by night, struck a land mine that had been cleared and then piled by the side of the road. (David left two children; following the war, Ring Jr., by then a divorced father of two, married David’s widow Frances, creating a convoluted provenance among the third generation of Lardners in which two sets of first cousins also became brothers and sisters).

John Lardner, by many accounts the most gifted of them all, was 46 when he died of a coronary occlusion.

In a conversation at Turnberry last year, Dan Jenkins, the eminence grisof American sportswriters, suggested that “When people today praise something as ‘Lardneresque’ half the time they mean John Lardner and not his father.

“If they read enough of either one of them they’d realise John was not only much funnier than Ring, he was a much better writer,” added Jenkins, who in his foreword to the just-published The John Lardner Readerdescribes its author as a “literary giant.”

Full disclosure here: I never met John Lardner, but I do know his daughters Susan, a former staffer for The New Yorker(and the former wife of folksinger Fred Hellerman of The Weavers), and Mary Jane, who is among the foremost handicappers on New York’s Upper West Side and who can be found most weekends at Belmont Park or Aqueduct.

And – fuller disclosure still – over the past 18 months I have collaborated in editing two books with John Schulian, the Chicago sports columnist/Hollywood screenwriter who edited and wrote the introduction for The John Lardner Reader, just released by the University of Nebraska Press’s Bison Books.

When the first of our joint ventures, The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song from Ali to Zevon, was published earlier this summer, Susan and Mary Jane Lardner were among the celebrants at the book launch at an Irish pub in Manhattan.

And from the outset in our meetings with The Library of America about our forthcoming anthology At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, Schulian and I made it clear that, its unwieldy 7,000-word length notwithstanding, we considered “ Down Great Purple Valleys,” John Lardner’s deconstruction of the mythic middleweight champion Stanley Ketchel, the very cornerstone of that book.

Written 40 years after Ketchel’s death, Lardner’s classic opening sentence may be the catchiest sports lead of all time: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.”

The late Red Smith called that “the greatest novel ever written in one sentence”.

That plunge into Down Great Purple Valleysremains the most oft-quoted Lardner lead.

Most everyone, including Dan Jenkins, has his own nominee as runner-up, but for me it’s still hard to top his introduction to the world of the old Ebbets Field folk hero Babe Herman: “Floyd Caves Herman, known as Babe, did not always catch fly balls on the top of his head, but he could do it in a pinch.”

In his foreword, Jenkins recalls that as young newspapermen at the old Fort Worth Press, he, Edwin Shrake, and Gary Cartwright used to dash to the corner newsstand for Lardner’s latest column in Newsweek, and that, as often as not, these would be clipped and affixed to the sports department bulletin board as part of a process he describes as “the finest creative writing class in the world”. The new anthology is subtitled “ A Press Box Legend’s Classic Sportswriting”.

By definition, then, it confines itself to the world of fun and games, but Lardner also wrote extensively, and well, in The New Yorkerand elsewhere, on everything from war (as a correspondent he was wounded in the Pacific), politics, and literature to New York saloon society. Those await yet another collection.

Even for one who believed himself to be reasonably conversant with the subject, at least a couple of revelations have been forthcoming from the reading of the new book. Given his residual fondness for the Newsweekcolumns, Jenkins might consider one of them heretical, but it seems apparent, to me, anyway, that Lardner could barely clear his throat in 800 words and was plainly uncomfortable with the strictures of that format.

It also strikes me that as wonderful as it is, trying to read it all at once can be like wolfing down a box of one’s favourite candy. Lardner is better savoured in smaller helpings.

Almost astonishingly, considering the esteem in which he is held, outside what reposed in public libraries, Lardner’s work had become almost inaccessible.

He wrote five books during his lifetime, but even The World of John Lardner, a posthumous collection edited by Roger Kahn, has been out of print for nearly half a century. Schulian, in his introduction to the new volume, confirms his rationale for The John Lardner Readercompiling : “He was too great to be put in a holding pattern, too great to be forgotten.”