It Was Al All The Time
Chicago Literary Club
April 5, 2004
My first involvement in baseball occurred during the World Series of 1945. The Cubs were playing the Detroit Tigers. I was in the fifth grade in Forest Hills, NY, and because of the World Series, the boys spent the afternoons listening on the radio in Mr. Duffrin's classroom and the girls spent the afternoon - sewing. The girls did not protest. Apparently the faculty were unaware of the presence of Babe Didrickson, Pauline Betz and other female athletes of the time and the newly formed All American Girls Baseball League in the Midwest.
Over the crackling of the radio we heard the Tigers beating the Cubs in 7 games. There was considerable doubt about the outcome. When a Chicago sports reporter, Warren Brown, was asked about the possible winner at the beginning of the series he opined: "Neither team can win". It was arguably the worst World's Series ever played- this was just after the war and many of the veterans had not yet returned. Nonetheless, because the Tigers won, I became a Tiger fan. This was equivalent to getting into the stock market the day before Black Tuesday. Had I become a Cubs fan, it would have been equivalent to getting into the market the day after Black Tuesday.
For the next 5 years I was an avid sports fan and devotee of many of the sportswriters. However, since 1950 my interest in baseball and all sports has flagged. However, I am still devoted to sports writing and especially the techniques of injecting excitement into narratives of frequently dull sports events.
Tyrus Raymond Cobb once said, “Baseball is like a war”. The von Clausewitz of baseball, trained in the same school of diplomacy as the Borgias, was astutely describing the prevailing conditions that he fostered with enthusiasm. As with a war, there were the war correspondents, the sportswriters. Their background, interests, and styles have been many and varied.
For example, Heywood Broun, describing John McGraw’s loss to the Babe Ruth Yankees, in the New York World: October 12, 1923: “ His fame deserves to be recorded along with the men who said :'Lay on Mac Duff'', 'Sink me the ship, Master Gunner. Split her in twain' and 'I’ll fight it out on the line if it takes all summer'. For John McGraw also went down with eyes front and thumb on his nose”.
Grantland Rice reported on a Notre Dame victory in that same year in the New York Tribune: "Outlined against the blue-gray October sky, the four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Laydon. They formed the crest of the South Bend Cyclone…".
No, it is not these styles I am interested in but that of another. In his time, he was lauded by his critics and peers. Edmund Wilson: “[He] seems to have imitated nobody, and nobody else could produce his essence”. Virginia Woolf:” …he writes the best prose that comes our way. Hence we feel at last freely admitted to the society of our fellows” .
Another critic thought he had looked at American life “with perhaps a more luminous intelligence than perhaps any other writer of these times”, his prose “a magical garment…cleaned of… impurities and shining like a web in the sun”. At his death in 1933 at the young age of 48, Commonweal’s obituary noted that “… one of the really important figures in our contemporary literature passes”.
An example of his dialogue? In Alibi Ike a teammate is talking to a busher who just joined the White Sox “'What did you hit last year?' Carey ast him.
'I had malaria most o’ the season,' says Ike ''I wound up with .356'.
' Where do I have to go to get malaria?', says Carey, but Ike didn’t wise up”.
I am speaking about Ringgold Wilmer Lardner, of course, whom some remember vaguely as a Chicago sportswriter who went through the White Sox World Series train from Cincinnati singing “ I’m forever blowing ball games” when he suspected that the 1919 Series was being thrown. Although Ring is associated by many with Chicago, he spent most of his years after 1919 in New York out on Long Island.
Ring was a sportswriter, a columnist, a short story writer, playwright, humorist, satirist, parodist, composer, and critic of what HL Mencken called the “booboisie”. Mencken himself was an admirer of Lardner’s accurate rendering of the vernacular idiom. Mencken sent a copy of his second edition of the American Language to Lardner, inscribed " To my esteemed colleague the eminent philologist Ring W. Lardner, Esq" Mencken wrote in the preface " his writings are a mine of authentic American; his service to etymology is incomparable". Lardner was not a professional philologist - he had a good ear for Americanisms but did not attempt to become a linguistic scholar, unlike Mencken. However, he demonstrated his interest in philology once. In a review of a book of idiomatic poetry, Ring wrote: " [ He indicates that] we say everythin' and nothin'. We don't. We say somethin' and nothin' but we say anything and everything… It's a real effort to drop the g off this little word [thing], and, as a rule our language is not looking for trouble. His ear has gone wrong on the American for fellow, kind of and sort of. Only on stage or in 'comic strips' do we use feller, kinder and sorter. Kinda and sorta are what us common fellas say".
Ring was a neighbor of Scott Fitzgerald who some believe fashioned Gatsby’s manor after Lardner’s home in Great Neck, Long Island. Or perhaps it was the home of Ring's neighbor, Herbert Bayard Swope, the well- known editor of the New York World, who threw lavish parties. Scott and Ring would sit on the Lardner veranda fortified with bootleg liquor watching the doings, and occasionally crashing the parties. Fitzgerald tried to get him to write novels and felt he was wasting his talent writing stories for magazines… like the pot calling the kettle black!
Once asked to provide the 10 most beautiful words in the English language, Ring listed: gangrene, flit, scram, mange, wretch, smoot, guzzle, McNaboe, blute, crene. Blute is a smoker who doesn't inhale. Crene is a man who inhales but doesn't smoke. There was no indication that blut is generic for non-inhalation of non-tobacco products as well.
According to Ring’s nonsense and hyperbolic autobiography, The Story of a Wonder Man, that spoofed the popular success story of that era, he was born in Niles, Michigan in 1885, whereupon his parents hired Paavo Nurmi to notify distant relatives. He became a squirrel tender in San Francisco as a young adolescent, later scored 3 touchdowns for Yale to beat Harvard. The Associate Press wired: “Harvard was beaten in the parks of San Francisco”. Still later he organized a party for Jane Austen to visit Texas Guinan’s cabaret. The preface to this autobiography was written by a Sarah E. Spooldripper who regretted that he omitted from his memoirs an encounter with “Mussolini, the Tiger of France and Italy” whom he encountered "in the same compartment on the Dixie Flyer between Cannes and Mentone”. The autobiography also included encounters with Dolly Madison, Lily Langtry and Horace Greeley, among others. At various times he was at Yale, Princeton, the University of Illinois College of Medicine where he got 100 on the final examination: "Q: What would you do if somebody had a stroke? A Count it." After fame and fortune he recounted his declining years and provided a post-mortem message that his death occurred while fishing when he was “hit in the stomach by a hake. Autopsy note: Death by stomach hake."
At least the beginning was true. He was born in Niles in 1885, of wealthy parents, his father tracing his American ancestry back to 1740 when Lynford Lardner emigrated from England to Philadelphia. His mother was an Episcopal rector’s daughter. The family fortune had been made in land purchase. Ring had a comfortable childhood and adolescence in the elite section of Niles, with indulgent parents, nursemaids, tutors, and was the youngest of six surviving sisters and brothers out of nine. He was not a scholar, however, as he admitted about his high school days:" most of we boys done our studying at a 10 x 5 table with side pockets in it”. Ring was an expert at idiom by listening carefully to the conversations around him. His father wanted him to be a mechanical engineer, however, not a philologist or pool shark. Ring’s formal education ended after a year at the Armour Institute, where he did his studying at the theaters and bars, failing in most courses but passing in rhetoric.
The bearing of his life, after a few side turns in jobs that got him nowhere, turned him to the newspaper business. No, that isn’t entirely fair about those jobs. For 2 years, from 1904-1905, when he was entering his 20’s, he was an all purpose employee of the Niles Gas Company, where he learned flexible and otherwise employable traits such as mopping floors, collecting bad debts, reading meters but most of all, observing the expressions and conduct of a variety of persons that would be melded into his writing.
In the latter year he became a reporter for the South Bend Times by convincing an editor trying to offer the job to Ring’s older brother Rex, who was on a competing newspaper, that Rex was unavailable. Ring found out that the Times was paying 33 1/3% more than he was receiving from the gas company and convinced the editor to hire him instead. The 33 1/3% increase was from $8 to $12/week. Here also Ring was a jack of all trades including society reporter - (he knew a lot of the society in the Niles area but not South Bend) , dramatic critic, sporting editor and court-house reporter. As to his skills as a sportswriter, he would concentrate his focus on a single personality or a single play rather than a narrative inning by inning account, as was usual then. He remained a reporter in South Bend for 2 years during which he met his future wife Ellis Abbott of Goshen, Indiana, who was attending Smith College when they met. Ellis was also from a prominent family in her town.
By that time, Ring and Ellis were engaged after a courtship consisting mostly of hundreds of letters between Northampton and wherever Ring was traveling. Ring’s letters to Ellis were in standard English with controlled passion. These were post-Victorians, not Roaring Twenties hedonists. It took considerable time for Ring to convince Ellis’s father, who had made his fortune in lumber, that a sporting writer was not necessarily a member of the lower echelons of society and Ring had to further convince him that his intended bride would not be exposed to any baseball personnel lower than a manager. There is no evidence that Mr. Abbott’s lumber was used to manufacture baseball bats. They were married after 4 long years of courtship. They subsequently had 4 sons, John, James, Ring, Jr. and David. The eventful lives of his sons would encompass another essay. Like Ring, most died young.
Ring’s big break came in 1907, at age 22, when he was considering leaving South Bend for Chicago. An acquaintance knew Hugh Fullerton, then the outstanding baseball reporter of the Chicago Examiner. The baseball reporters in Chicago, as in New York, had a flair for the dramatic. Charles Van Loan, describing a Cub victory of that era, wrote ”Schulte came home with the winning run like Balaam entering Jerusalem”. Big Ed Walsh, a star pitcher for the White Sox- he won 40 games once, was described as “the only man who could strut while sitting down”.
After getting acquainted with Fullerton at one of the local saloons, and demonstrating to Fullerton's satisfaction his knowledge of baseball, Ring was directed to the Chicago Inter-Ocean. This newspaper was on the brink of insolvency and needed any reporter it could get. Ring served as Mr. Inside, working the desks and mostly reporting local Chicago sports stories. This included the Cubs and the White Sox. In those years the Cubs won the pennant regularly and even the Sox won – in fact , in the first 6 years of the American League, the Sox were tied for the most pennants in the league – 2.
At the time, one of the great pitchers of the Cubs was Mordecai Centennial “Three Finger” Brown. His middle name was Centennial because he was born in 1876. His 3 fingers nickname resulted from a threshing injury to his right hand as a child, leaving him with an almost missing finger and part of another finger, but allowing him to develop a devastating curve ball. Ring later recounted a tale about an untalented Cubs pitcher who spent most of the year in the bull pen, watching "Three Finger" serve up his masterful pitches. The unfortunate soul started complaining to his bull pen teammate that Mordecai was a lucky stiff. His bullpen teammate suggested to him that he cut off his whole right hand and “cultivate a wrist ball”, and as for luck, he had nothing to lose.
Ring left the Inter-Ocean office after only a few months just before the newspaper folded. He joined the Examiner, and traveled with the White Sox. At the time, the Sox were called the “Hitless Wonders”, an epithet that would plague them for years to come. Once a new reporter asked the manager to let him meet some ballplayers. “Try the other bench” was the response.
His sojourn with the White Sox was marked by taking on the role of secretary for an illiterate ballplayer, reading menus aloud to him, and writing to his wife. This became the basis for his magazine story series composed of letters from an imaginary rookie Sox pitcher named Jack Keefe to a friend named Al from his home town in Indiana. Keefe was talented but egotistical and finally spent some time in France during WWI as a corporal, where he attempted to learn French so that he could become a Colonel and win the war singlehandedly. Most of Ring's early protagonists radiated such optimism. The first series of letters was published in the Saturday Evening Post and collected under the title “You Know Me Al” in 1914.
"You Know Me Al" exemplifies the cadence of words that typified Lardner’s style- overcoming the shoals of bad grammar, misspellings and misusage of words that reflected accurately the type of individual portrayed. In all, a total of 26 Jack Keefe stories were published between 1914-1919, all in letters from Jack to Al all the time. Never a sample return letter from Al at all, but those replies were indicated in Jack’s further responses. The series describes Jack Keefe’s contact with real players on the White Sox and other teams and his misadventures with various young ladies that hung around ballparks known as “baseball Annies”.
“You Know Me Al” was widely read but the critics' response was mixed. A NY Times book reviewer huffed that: “… the author was for some time sporting writer on a Chicago newspaper [apparently remaining nameless], and so may be supposed to know his subject thoroughly, but for the honor of the ‘national game’ we trust that his ‘busher’ is not typical of the majority of his players…" and thought there was only the thinnest possible thread of a plot. However, Ring’s son John, who became a well known sports writer himself, defended his father’s accuracy for baseball in the introduction to a 1960 edition of the book: “ ….each detail is correct in relation to place, weather, time of year, and the hitting, pitching, or fielding idiosyncracies of a hundred players…”.
Writing in 1925 in the Dial, after she had read the book, for some unknown reason, Virginia Woolf, though perhaps injecting somewhat of a patronizing attitude toward the subject was amazed by her discovery: "…Mr. Lardner…is unaware that [English readers] exist..[he] does not waste a moment when he writes in thinking whether he is using American slang or Shakespeare’s English…; all his mind is on the story…Hence, incidentally, he writes the best prose that comes our way. … With extraordinary ease and aptitude…the sharpest insight, he lets Jack Keefe the baseball figure cut out his own outline, fill his own depths, until the figure of the foolish, boastful, innocent athlete lives before us. …Games give him what society gives his English brother ".
Jack Keefe has been confused at times with another Lardner character, Frank X [for excuse me] Farrell, another busher, in the short story Alibi Ike. Both had genuine talent, Keefe as a pitcher, Farrell as a good hitting outfielder [“I only hit .356. I had malaria]. Although Keefe used excuses for his errors [Jack: When Ty Cobb bunts in his direction “ I would of threw him out a block but I stubbed my toe in a rough place and fell down”]. Alibi Ike apologizes for everything, taking a cigar, eating, going to sleep, and writing a letter. When he crosses up his manager by hitting a home run instead of bunting [the manager asked him to "lay it down"], he thought he said “lay on it’”. As one of his teammates says,' he’ll be a good man, unless rheumatism keeps his batting average down to .400". "Rheumatism" and "malaria" were codes for venereal disease at the time.
By the time Ring had begun to write magazine stories, he was thoroughly acquainted with the vernacular of ballplayers and more widely, many of the idioms used by people of that era. He also had had considerable experience not only as a sports writer but editor. After a brief turn at the Chicago Tribune as a sports reporter in 1910, he was hired by Charles Spink , publisher of the Sporting News in St. Louis, known as the "Bible of Baseball", then a weekly exclusively reporting baseball from the majors to Class D, to be the sports editor. This stint only lasted 3 months. Spink was close with his money and there was at least one instance when Spink fired one of Ring’s office boys for being home one day because of illness. Ring finally had enough and words were exchanged including an opinion by Ring that he “would just as soon work for Jesse James”. Ironically, in 1963, when the Baseball Writers Association made their first selection for an annual meritorious service award for baseball writing, named after the Spink family, Ring Lardner was the first one honored. However, he had been dead for 30 years.
After St. Louis, Ring was hired as sports editor of the Boston American. This allowed him to hire his brother Rex to assist him. This position lasted one year, during which Ring and Ellis were married. The Boston job ended when the management fired Ring’s brother while Ring was in Florida following the Boston Rustlers, as the Braves were known then, in spring training. Ring quit.
After a brief reprise as a sports reporter for the Chicago Examiner in 1912, he took over the Chicago Tribune's prestigious column “In the Wake of the News". Ring and his family settled in Riverside. Some of these columns were in the form of novelettes attributed to the copy boy, or “unassisted” accounts of ball games by “a athlete”. Then as now, star athletes used ghost writers to refine their prose and possibly their trains of thought in elucidating for the public their unique reflections on sport. Ring did parodies of this practice frequently using the names of several prominent Cubs players, with their approval of course.
From the beginning, the column was filled with idiomatic collections of sports information and observations, humorous verse, and stories. During this period also, he began to publish a series in Redbook magazine about a stupid, near-illiterate , supremely confident assistant chief of detectives in the Chicago police department, whose main aims in life were to own his own home and once obtained, harass his next door neighbor whom he believed was damaging his property. He wasn't. It was his other next door neighbor.
Lardner typically derogated his own efforts with wit, sarcasm or hyperbole. When asked about the model for Jack Keefe he wrote: “ The original of Jack Keefe is not a ballplayer at all, but Jane Addams of Hull House, a former follies girl”.
Although Ring remained a columnist for the Tribune through 1919, he regularly covered the World Series, the last being the fateful Black Sox Series. For the non-baseball fans, 1920 was a season bracketed by two calamities affecting the Sox, the Red Sox and White Sox. In January 1920, Babe Ruth was sold by Harry Frazee, Red Sox owner, to the New York Yankees for hundreds of thousands of dollars so that Frazee, a Broadway producer, could keep his Broadway shows solvent. In Boston, it was stated that this was paralleled only by the exploits of Benedict Arnold. For the other Sox, the White Sox, the blow came just before the end of the pennant race in September when it was announced that 8 players had been in on a fix to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
It had been clear to Ring Lardner and other astute sports writers and probably to Charles Comiskey, the White Sox owner, that something was amiss during the Series, especially when Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, two Sox pitchers who had won between them 51 games that season, appeared to be floating the ball.
The Reds were supposed to be soft touches, but if you check the record books you will see that they won 96 games that season compared with 88 for the Sox. Well, even so, it appeared that some of the Sox fielders were acting as if the baseball was made of soap. Lardner had to pull his punches in reporting the Series game by game. For example ….” Mr. Larry Kopf (Cincinnati) popped one up between Messrs. Felsch and Jackson [both in on the fix] …and the next time I looked up Mr. Score Board had three runs….”, and, “Mr. Felsch popped up a fly to Mr. Roush [Cincinnati center fielder] while Mr. Weaver was loitering on Mr. Third Base…and Mr. Felsch could of scored three times, which would of tied up the game.” Weaver knew about the fix but played straight.
However, Ring let his feelings be known to the Sox players. After one loss in Cincinnati, the Sox were returning by train to Chicago and Lardner was drinking with some of his sportswriter colleagues in the club car. Appropriately lubricated, Ring sauntered into the Sox pullman. When he ventured into the White Sox car, this tall dark man with receding hairline, prominent semicircular eyebrows, hooded eyes, high cheekbones, broad thin lips and wooden face, drunk though he was, could have appeared as the avenging angel in the guise of the local preacher fighting demon rum.
He started singing- to the tune of “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’:
I’m forever blowing ball games
Pretty ball games in the air
I come from Chi
I hardly try
I go to bat and fade and die…
No one attempted to stop him.
There was a third calamity in 1920, for Ring and a few other people-prohibition. Ring was ordinarily a law-abiding drinker as so many others before 1920. While Ring was covering the Dempsey- Willard fight in Toledo in 1919, Ohio jumped the gun and declared prohibition 6 months before it became nationalized. He composed a song, the Prohibition Blues, which achieved some success as sheet music.
“I’ve had news that’s bad news about my best pal
His name is Old Man Alcohol but I call him Al
Goodbye forever to my old friend “Booze”
Doggone, I’ve got the Prohibition Blues”.
Ring wrote the lyrics and music but the music was attributed to Nora Bayes, a popular musical comedy singer of the time, for the publicity. Throughout his career, from childhood on, for that matter, Ring wrote lyrics, music and plays or brief parody plays. Earlier, he had teamed up with one Guy Harris “Doc” White, a talented White Sox pitcher, who had graduated from Georgetown as dental surgeon, and together they produced several popular songs. Ring wrote the lyrics of one entitled "Gee! It's a Wonderful Game." It sold well, had two choruses, and included comments about the two Christys, Columbus and Mathewson, and both Napoleons, Bonaparte and Lajoie, but unfortunately, something called "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written two years earlier. Anyway, it would be out of character for Ring to compose lyrics for a National Anthem, baseball of otherwise.
A weekly column for the national Bell syndicate freed him from Chicago. Ring by that time had become friendly with several top New York sportswriters, especially Grantland Rice, John Wheeler and Damon Runyon. Wheeler had originally formed the syndicate and Ring was asked to participate at the comfortable salary of $30,000. The column was widely circulated in 150 newspapers and reached eight million readers. Grantland Rice became Ring's best friend. Ring and his family moved temporarily to Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a memorable trip in a touring car with his wife and one of his 4 young sons. In The Young Immigrunts , he narrated the trip ostensibly in the words of his son , a parody of a widely publicized narrative presumably written by a 9 year old girl. When Ring lost direction his son, as he described it, asked " Are you lost daddy…?" Ring's response: "Shut up he explained.". This was probably Ring Lardner's most famous quip and became the title of a book of his short stories.
The move from Chicago broadened his horizons- his short stories and articles dealt less with sports and more with characterizations that some critics felt were cold satire, savage satire at that. These were all short stories- Lardner could never bring himself to write a full length novel- he did not feel that he had the capacity, the staying power to do so.
Ring was even reticent in releasing his collected short stories and did so after being pressured by Scott Fitzgerald. The title of the collection was “How to Write Short Stories”, published in 1924, and title and preface were parodies. The 10 stories in the collection were prefaced by a 6 page introduction ostensibly with advice related to the title. Such advice and reflections included information on short-story writing correspondence courses, the backgrounds of successful authors, how to write a title, dialogue, plot development, submissions. Sounds serious, doesn’t it?- Not for Ring. Advice and reflections under these categories included such helpful comments as: “…most of the successful authors of the short fiction of to-day never went to no kind of college, or if they did, they studied piano tuning or the barber trade”. An example of a catchy title was” Fun at the Incineration Plant”. For beginning a story:” Blasco Ibañez usually starts his stories with a Spanish word, Jack Dempsey with “I”. And so on.
Parenthetically, I was present last week at a writers workshop that my son was conducting and one of the participants handed out a list of do’s and don’ts about writing short stories – Don’t write about truck drivers or drunks, never start your stories with an alarm clock going off, or end them with a dream. Above all, never have the stories take place in a bar or the back of a VW bug. But this writer was serious.
The short stories in the collection were each prefaced by similar Lardner hyperbole and jocularity; “ This story was written on the top of a Fifth Avenue bus, and some of the sheets blew away…”
Introducing the story Champion, about one of his most vicious characterizations, he wrote:” An example of a mystery story. The mystery is how it came to be printed”. And so it went.
The collection was praised widely and Lardner had finally arrived as a writer- beyond sports subjects. Edmund Wilson, however, while praising the collection, scoffed at the self-mockery of the prefaces, wondered whether Lardner was timid about being considered a serious writer, especially since Wilson thought Lardner almost “equal in importance”in studies of American types to Sherwood Anderson or Sinclair Lewis. He felt that Ring was more prone to developing a study of his characters rather than “drawing up an indictment", as did Sinclair Lewis. Some other critics, however, thought the exact opposite. Wilson challenged Lardner: “If Ring Lardner has anything more to give us, the time has now come to deliver it…What bell might not Lardner ring if he set out to give us the works?” Given his future, the bell tolled for him rather than rang.
By 1924 Lardner and his family had been living in Great Neck on the North Shore of Long Island for 3 years- in the Mange. This was one of Lardner's 10 most beautiful English words. It's definition is any one of several chronic skin diseases of mammals caused by mites. The Mange was a three story rambling house on top of a two acre plot with a 3 car garage, holding, according to Lardner, “…a[n] unpaid touring car, the first D____e sedan and a cow with a Jersey license”. The plot also held vegetable and flower gardens, a tennis court, baseball diamond and outdoor gymnasium. Great Neck was to be the center of Ring’s social life during most of the twenties. The house was presumably the model for Gatsby’s house. The Fitzgeralds lived in Great Neck. So did George M. Cohan, Ed Wynn, Groucho Marx. The Herbert Bayard Swopes, he the prominent editor of the New York World were next door neighbors. Some distance away lived Vincent Astor, Walter P. Chrysler, the Sloans, the Belmonts and the Sinclairs, to name a few. A real melting pot. Ring knew them all.
According to Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner played no small part in the social ping pong of dashing from “ Syosset a town adjoining Great Neck, to Mamaroneck [on the other side of Long Island Sound] and back again", probably by boat since there were no bridges spanning the sound in those days in Western Long Island. These activities included charades, word games, pool splashings, gin rickeys, mint juleps and occasional tennis. Treasure hunts were conducted in search of “sapphire cuff links and gold-fitting dressing cases” –gifts to the finder , of course. Harpo Marx played clarinet and won all the card games. There is no evidence that Ring suspected that the card games were thrown.
Ring's social acquaintances also included the members of the Algonquin Round table, the group of wits that met in the Oak Room of the hotel- These included Robert E. Sherwood, George S. Kaufmann, Dorothy Parker and Franklin P. Adams. The Lardner family activities were frequently mentioned in Adams pretentious column “The Conning Tower" in the New York World. Sherwood later adapted his story “ The Love Nest’” for Broadway. Ring collaborated with Kaufmann on another story adaptation that achieved a moderately long run.
According to Edmund Wilson, the Algonquin Round Table held Ring in high regard, revered him but he could only stand them one or two at a time, keeping his distance and rarely if ever appearing at the Algonquin chattering sessions. Dorothy Parker, perhaps the most acerbic critic in the group, reviewing one of his newly published collections of his short stories , commented “ It is difficult to review these spare and beautiful stories; it would be difficult to review the Gettysburg address”.
At this point, it may be useful to place Ring Lardner’s physical appearance in perspective. Here was no wisecracking personality. As I indicated previously, he was tall, aloof, inscrutable. It was once said of a famous movie actress- [by Dorothy Parker, no less] – Her emotions run the gamut from A to B. Ring’s would run the gamut from A to A sharp. His face was a mask and it would not have been surprising had he been nicknamed "Old Stone Face". In all his photographs, except those where he is looking fondly at members of his family, he appears somber and magisterial, looking downward with apparent scorn at the viewer, or gazing forebodingly into the distance.
During this period in the mid 20’s Lardner was faced with financial pressures- his house was costly, and his social life needed refueling consistently. The Lardners, previously post-Victorians, were now high livers, and Ring's liver was expanding. Fortunately, in addition to his short stories, his weekly syndicated column provided him with enough income to surmount these financial challenges. The column included commentaries on contemporary events such as the Dempsey Firpo fight, yacht races, politics, disarmament conferences, and the behavior of men and women in society.
His comments about yachting were not based on any prior acquaintance with the activity. His only contact with water was when he was on the wagon. “ …Sir Thomas Lipton is a Man of Honor whose word is as good as his bond…Just the same, business is business , and it seems to me before the recent, hair-raising yachting contests off Newport are forgotten , it would be a sensible thing to get the old tea-tester to put in writing his verbal promise never to challenge for the [America's] Cup again. Otherwise there is a chance he will send another mash note to the Vanderbilts ten years from now and if they remind him that he had given his word to let us alone, he will say;'Yes, but that was when I was a kiddie and hadn’t learned the facts of life. ' " In other words as Lardner put it, “ They’s many a slipton between the cup and the Lipton”.
Ring had some difficulty in venturing to one Cup race off Sandy Hook, NJ. He had been drinking the night before, not unusual, and just about got onto a tugboat in Lower Manhattan. Unfortunately, the tugboat had to transfer him to a destroyer for the final part of the journey. This required his negotiating 8 feet of a swaying rope bridge. The race itself was somewhat of a loss. The sea was dead calm. He commented, “Someone must have shot an albatross”,.
On New York Society and Visiting Royalty, he wrote: “ Some hostesses has forgot their social standing to such an extent that they have included Indiana and Wisconsin born folks in their invitations”.
On Prohibition; “ … it should be under the auspices of the War Department instead of the Secretary of the Treasury…Electrically charged wire should guard the Canadian border from ocean to ocean and the Mexican border from the Pacific to the Gulf…Capt. Gertrude Ederle... would stand at the bottom of Niagara Falls and splash water back as fast as it came over.” Ring sounds like an ideal candidate for a Homeland Security czar.
When he reported on Harding's inauguration in 1921, he contrasted this event with a sports : "... in a auguration you generally always know how it's coming out, where as in a sporting event they's an element of uncertainty unlest it's a wrestling match or a White Sox world serious or a football game at Yale". He commented about the foreign diplomats at the inauguration: " one of them had 10 medals on his chest to show that he broke [all] the commandments at one time or the other…". As for the appearance of the Supreme Court justices: "You can't keep the kiddies home on circus day."
He continued to report on the World Series through 1927 for his weekly column. In 1920, a Cleveland second baseman named Wambsganss made an unassisted triple play- the first in a World Series. Ring remarked:…"it was the first time in world serious history that a man named Wambsganss had every made a triple play assisted by Consonants only".
By this time, many of the short stories were biting satire. Clifton Fadiman, writing in the Nation in 1929, commented that “ Lardner is the deadliest because the coldest of American writers. He really hates his characters, hates them so much that he has ceased to be indignant at them…. There is almost no emotion. His satire is negative; that is why it has never caused a revolution in American manners, as Main Street did…” Mencken , reviewing another volume, said that readers would find in it “satire of the most acid and appalling sort – satire wholly removed, like Swift’s before it, from the least weakness of amiability, or even pity”. On the other hand, Lardner’s biographer, Donald Elder indicated that Lardner’s close acquaintances regarded him as "an exceptionally magnanimous and loving man" who did not hate the human race " but only meanness, falseness, and pretentiousness ”. Considering the pervasiveness of these traits among the human race, it is not difficult to conclude that few would fall outside this range.
One example of this is the story “ Who Dealt” told in the first person by an unnamed woman describing a bridge game with her husband Tom as partner and another couple, Arthur and Helen. She describes her non-stop conversation and indicates the reactions of her husband and guests during the game, the conversation building up to a devastating denouement. Initially, she indicates that she and Tom have recently been married and have had no real friends, and she is meeting Arthur and Helen for the first time- but they have been good friends of Tom “ …Tom has talked about you so much and how he thought of you and how crazy he was to see you and everything…”
She says that Helen must have been a real pal to Tom since they were kids. It becomes apparent that she has had at least 2 drinks, that Arthur had eloped with Helen 4 years before , that husband Tom is the most secretive person she ever knew, that he played football at Yale [ he played on the Yale nine]. Her monologue continues throughout the game although she is constantly reminded by Tom to keep her mind on the game, and stop talking about his raise, their honeymoon, Tom’s drinking and other family matters. It becomes clear that Tom and the narrator are from different classes in society, and that her monologue crosses all the barriers of social propriety. This includes a critique of the “hideous clothes” of the wife of an upper class couple who were acquaintances of Tom’s who were playing bridge at their home. “ Why, that night she had on- honestly, you’d have sworn it was a maternity gown, and for no reason. ...and she’s a graduate of Bryn Mawr and one of the oldest families in Philadelphia. You’d never believe it!"
She continues, describing “ the little things that Tom and I don’t agree on” like food, music – “He adores Irving Berlin and Gershwin … and I want serious, classical things like Humoresque and Indian Love Lyrics”. Finally, she gets to the “saddest, mushiest poem” that he’d written when she was unpacking his old papers. He had written it four years before, "about some girl before we met”. She then describes a story Tom has written – a story about two men and a girl who were brought up together, "one like Arthur." The girl got tired of waiting for the man she was engaged to and eloped with the man like Arthur. –“What are you blushing about Tommie?” She then recites the poem. Tom goes off the wagon.
A more well known story, The Champion, is about a boxer, Midge Kelly “ who scored his first knockout when he was seventeen. The knockee was his brother, Connie, three years his junior and a cripple”. Midge is Lardner’s most savage characterization. His exploits include knocking his mother down, applying a crushing blow to his bride’s cheek, walking out on his wife and baby and not providing any money for them, walking out on his manager after reneging on his cut from a fight, stealing his new manager’s wife and walking out on him also. Finally, he becomes champion. A story is written about Midge Kelly’s life for a Sunday news magazine, aimed at boxing fans and excluding most of his real life exploits. Midge's newest manager, when asked about his real personality, remarks that it “would never have passed the sporting editor. The people don’t want to see him knocked. He’s champion”.
Ernest Hemingway, also a newspaper reporter at one time for the Toronto Star, was arguably the writer most influenced by Ring. They once lived within shouting distance of one another, Lardner in Riverside and Hemingway in Oak Park but didn't known each other then - Hemingway was a teenager. After In Our Time Was published in 1924 Hemingway commented: “ Some bright guy said that In Our Time was a series of thumbnail sketches showing a great deal of talent but obviously under the influence of Ring Lardner. …That kind of stuff is fine. It doesn’t bother [me]”. Ring was an admirer of Hemingway’s early work except for the obscenities and sexual activity. They met only once, in 1928. Fitzgerald wrote Hemingway, “Ring thought you were fine. He was uncharacteristically enthusiastic”. However, in a 1933 letter to an Esquire editor, Hemingway indicated that Ring had taught him nothing, that he was an ignorant man, and all he had except for a certain amount of experience in the world was a “good false ear for illiterate speech”. To be fair, by that time Hemingway sought to discredit the influence of all those who assisted him on his journey to success, once slugging Max Perkins, his editor.
The mid-20’s were a time of transition for Ring. He had achieved fame and was considered by many on a par with the newer American writers, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, at least in regard to short stories. From there on it was mostly downhill. He had always been a binge drinker and his health was declining. In 1926 tuberculosis was diagnosed and over the next few years he spent increasing time in sanatoriums and hospitals. He was getting tired of his syndicated column. He continued to write short stories for magazines but now more for the money. His interest in writing for the theater now took hold.
A short story he wrote in 1927, Hurry Cane, about a baseball player, attracted the attention of George M. Cohan and a play resulted – Elmer the Great, but it was unsuccessful. His only success on Broadway came in late 1929 with June Moon, an adaptation with George S. Kaufmann of Ring's story Some Like It Cold. The play lasted for 273 performances, quite good in those days, and Ring supplied the lyrics as well as collaborating in the dialogue. It was his last such venture. His only involvement in film was a scenario he wrote for the movie The New Klondike in 1925, for which he was paid for 4 days of effort on a plot involving baseball players and Florida real-estate swindlers. Fortunately, at the same time, Ring declined to invest in Florida real estate although the Lardners wintered there – the hurricane of 1926 wiped out not only trees.
Meanwhile the bills were piling up. His sons were at Andover, Princeton and Harvard and that cost money, or as Ring put it:
" … I am a fourfather,i.e. a patriarch of a male quartet of bambini, and three of them are senile enough to go away to school, so each year I have to
Four grand over
Ellis was redecorating the Mange in Great Neck, and the high life style that they followed continued to eat into Ring’s income. Ring's source of income from the syndicated column was replaced by pieces for Collier's magazine, among which was “Pluck and Luck”, a biography of Babe Ruth. Apparently Babe Ruth and Henry L. Mencken were boyhood pals in Baltimore. “ I would repeat some of their conversations, but Mencken’s words can’t be spelled and the Babe’s can’t be printed”. However, some of their conversation was provided:
While walking in the forest the Babe picked up a tree and slung it over his
Babe: You perhaps wonder…what I intend to do with it.
Mencken: No…But I do wonder whether you noticed that [George Jean] Nathan has taken a fancy to the word ‘presently’, using it to signify ‘at the present time, now, a definition called obsolete by Webster.
Babe: I thought you would. Well, I purpose biting off the roots, the branches and the bark and employing it as a bat”.
With Ring’s increasing physical decline, it was decided by Ellis and Ring to leave Great Neck, with its increasing urbanization and congestion, and move to a more salubrious climate. East Hampton, further out on the Island, was at that time a haven for the very wealthy but did include some newspaper friends including Irvin Cobb, a Kentuckian who was a noted newspaper humorist, and Percy Hammond, drama critic of the New York Herald Tribune. Grantland Rice joined him there as a neighbor.
Ring enjoyed golfing and Rice liked fishing off Montauk, so there was every opportunity for relaxation. However, the money issue was paramount and so when Ring got an offer to write a 4 day weekly column in the New York Telegraph for $50,000 a year, a very large salary in those years, he took it. The Telegraph had been primarily a racing newspaper but its new proprietor was interested in expanding it into a journal of the arts, politics as well as sports. Walter Winchell was hired to write about gossip under a pseudonym and Westbrook Pegler [ the pre-political Pegler] as a sports writer.
Lardner’s column was called “Ring’s Side “ and was introduced by Pegler himself: "We can imagine only one general topic more entertaining than Ring Lardner on ANYTHING; that is, Ring Lardner on NOTHING”. That can certainly be taken in several ways but let us assume that Pegler was not worried about the competition.
The New York Times now had a greater respect for Lardner than seen in that review long ago of You Know Me Al. : "Mr. Lardner’s return to newspaper work will be hailed with pleasure on all sides; he used to do a column like this in the Chicago Tribune before the Saturday Evening Post found, to its delight, that a baseball writer out of Chicago was raising its circulation by the thousands with stories of “You Know Me Al”. However, note that there was no direct comment on Ring’s skills as a writer. Nevertheless…
Unfortunately, the work was too difficult for Ring and the salary was too difficult for the newspaper. The column lasted only from December 1028 through early February 1929. Several new ventures eased the separation – the planning of a definitive collection of his short stories by Scribner's and the collaboration with George Kaufmann on June Moon.
Another venture that got underway was contributions to the New Yorker magazine. Ring and Harold Ross, the editor, had known each other for years, and the magazine became an outlet for his final non-fiction writing. These included pieces on Ring’s encounter with the New Jersey police while covering the Dempsey-Carpentier fight and a marathon drinking spree at the Friars Club, a New York Club of actors and sportsmen. Ring consumed many a strong drink at the Friars Club and the Lambs Club, also populated by actors. Once, an actor appeared in a rather flamboyant outfit, his hair a mass of flowing locks. Ring managed to hobble over and inquired: ” How do you look when I’m sober?”
Finances were becoming more strained. Ellis and Ring, while keeping up their home in East Hampton, took an apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan close to Doctors Hospital, a posh private facility where the wealthy and well-known were admitted to take the cure. For Ring, it was very serious since he was suffering from malnutrition [his appetite decreased except possibly for alcohol], tuberculosis, and severe liver disease.
He continued to write for magazines but the writing became more forced. One example, which uncharacteristically reflected his apprehension, was the story Insomnia, published by Cosmopolitan in May 1931.
It is a first person narrative of a writer who cannot sleep worrying about the writing he must do. This may be one of the few times that Lardner, normally quite reticent even with friends, indicated his private fears to the public.
“Just go to sleep and stay asleep till breakfast time. Then maybe I’ll feel like working…I wish I were as good as O. Henry and could get by with a thousand or twelve hundred words. I could write a thousand-word short-story every day… Just the same, plot or no plot, I’ll have to work tomorrow… What I should do is get up and make a few notes for my story. And smoke a cigarette, just one. After that, I’ll come back to bed and turn off the light and not think of anything. That’s the only way to sleep. Not thinking of anything at all.”
Ring’s articles in the New Yorker continued in 1932 and 1933 but he now turned to radio reviews. This was practically the only thing he could do since he was frequently confined to bed. He still had a conservative dislike of the new gadget and was especially incensed by the new invention. While most of his friends and acquaintances had welcomed or at least acquiesced to the changing morals of the 1920’s, Ring remained a Puritan in Babylon, possibly even more than Coolidge, who at least was known to smile occasionally. He heard much profanity but was not himself a user of profanity, not much anyway.
In early 1933, during one of his hospitalizations, he confided to one of his sons: "Small towns are fine to grow up in and a writer finds a lot of things in small towns he can't learn anywhere else. But it wouldn't be the same as you got older in a small town". In regard to his career, he probably felt the same way about Chicago - he had to go where the action was - the action being the theater, publishing, and the excitement of Broadway
He wrote 25 radio articles for the New Yorker between 1932 and 1933, entitling his home as “No Visitors, NY”, in reality either a hospital bed or his apartment in Manhattan. He railled against song titles and lyrics that suggested lascivious activity. Some examples included “I’ll Never Have to Dream Again”, I’m Yours Tonight”, “Please”, "Here Lies Love”, and so on.
Even Cole Porter (or especially Cole Porter) was a target. He took the couplet "Night and Day under the hide of me, there’s an Oh, such a hungry yearning, burning inside of me", and attempted to “improve” the lyrics. For example:
Night and day under my dermis dear
There’s a spot just as hot as coffee kept in a thermos, dear.
On the evening of September 24, 1933, Ring was wan and tired. He played bridge with Ellis and the Grantland Rices and retired to bed. He was found dead in bed, the following morning, apparently from a heart attack.
Perhaps Ring Lardner’s time had passed with the passing of the 20’s – his extra 4 years a long coda of reflection on the characteristics of the era he portrayed – an era of narcissistic revelry, bloviation, the big money, rotarianism, and eternal optimism. In many ways, Ring portrayed the era not only in the scorching light of his characterizations, but in his own life style – he may have been the real Jay Gatsby.
Now he was dead and over the airwaves could be heard a song of the remains of that optimistic era personified , perhaps by Jack Keefe’s old friend:
It’s refrain went:
Say, don’t you remember, you called me “Al”
It was “Al” all the time.
Say don’t you remember, I was your pal
Brother can you spare a dime?
Snyder LL, and Morris RB. A Treasury of Great Reporting. 1949 Simon and Schuster, New York.p. 415.
Angell, R. Late Innings. Fireside. Simon and Schuster, New York 1992. p. 102.
Patrick, WR. Ring Lardner. Twayne’s United States Author Series. College and University Press. New Haven, Conn 1963.
Lardner, R. The Story of a Wonder Man, New York. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1927.
Ring around the bases. Matthew J. Bruccoli ed. Maxwell Macmillan International. New York, 1992,
Yardley, J. Ring. A biography of Ring Lardner. Rowman & Littlefield . Lanham 1977.
Lardner, R.W. How to Write Short Stories. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York 1924.
Larner, R. First and Last. Charles Scribner’s Sons New York 1934.
Bruccoli MJ & Layman R, eds. Some Champions. Sketches and Fiction by Ring Lardner. Charles Scribner’s Sons New York 1976
Geismer M. Wriers in Crisis. The American Novel, 1925-1940. Houghton Mifflin Company. Boston 1947, 1961.