Today is the birthday of the great American humorist S.J. Perelman (1904-1979): see my original essay on him here.
One of the perks of having written a popular book is that you develop many pen pals who are kindred spirits. Through this method I’ve gotten to know Alice Mulconry of Battle Creek, Michigan who shared this story with me a few months ago. I asked her if I could share it with our readers on Sid’s birthday:
I needed a job in 1973, so I scanned the newspapers, called the phone numbers listed and was met with the usual responses of “sorry, the job has been filled” or “sorry, you don’t have the qualifications that we are looking for”. In desperation I registered at a job agency, where I was quickly sent out on interviews. At a Wall Street firm I was met by puzzled stares and ushered into a sleek office. The three piece suited interviewer sized me up by shaking his head and saying in a distinct Brooklyn accent “You don’t exactly have a front desk look!”. He was referring to the fact that I was under five feet tall , skinny and childlike in appearance. He said that he was looking for “a beautiful face and great body, ’cause after all ,the guys like ta see that !” Next came an opening at a large shoe store on 34th Street. I entered the place and saw crowds of women being waited on by dozens of harried store clerks. It was , I found out later, “on commission” employment; the workers depended on getting as many sales as they could to make a salary and keep their jobs. A smartly dressed clerk hissed that if I took the position I would have to watch my back. Not wanting to worry about my back and how many knives it could hold, I opted out of accepting the job.
My aunt told me of an opening at the office building where she was part of the cleaning staff. The building was located at 25 W .43rd Street in midtown Manhattan, the address of The New Yorker magazine. The New Yorker, the famed literary publication found in many a dentist or doctor’s waiting room (just kidding, I knew the place was a big deal, the incubator for smart cartoons, great writing and impeccable reporting.) The opening turned out to be a messenger position. Not an ordinary messenger, but an Editorial Messenger. After the initial interview, I was escorted to the messenger room on the 18th floor. Nestled behind the Coca-Cola machine , between the offices of writers and artists, was the room affectionately nicknamed “The Boy’s Room”. I would be the third female to become an editorial messenger. The work consisted of handing out copy, delivering packages, mail, picking up lunches, and other sundry. The sundry had me taking a writer’s pet poodle to be groomed, picking up a tuxedo from a locker in Grand Central Station in a blizzard , standing in the middle of the Knicks’ locker room (with my eyes closed tight) and taking a Monday morning train to the Hamptons to make sure a certain well known writer/celebrity/ bon vivant had enough money for bail.
In quick order I progressed to switchboard , mail desk and relief receptionist. When a full time position became available on the 19th floor, I jumped at the chance. The 19th floor was where editors , copy desk, make-up and the checking department were located, it was also where the Editor-in-Chief ,William Shawn had his office. My reception cubicle was lit like the bird house at the Bronx Zoo, but I quickly decorated it with books, a plant and large cork-board. The cork-board was decorated with my favorite doo-dads, sort of an early Pinterest look. My prize possession was a Marx Brothers movie still , the famous crowded state room scene from A Night At The Opera, which I gingerly hung up on the wall. A sliding glass window allowed me to accept the large deliveries for the make-up department where the magazine was put together. Every single day there would be a hoard of deliveries and visitors to the office. It was hard to meet and greet while juggling packages, phone calls and guests. I had earned a reputation for being an in house Jerry Lewis character, complete with tripping, and general goofiness. My naive faux pas were many. Whenever the elevator doors would open , I thought back on a witty phrase from New Yorker alum Dorothy Parker:“What fresh hell is this?”
One day a well dressed mustachioed gentleman got off the elevator and made a bee-line down the hallway. I was out of the cubicle in an instant and pursued the natty miscreant at full trot. My high pitched drone of “May I help you?”was met with a loud “Young lady, do you know who I am ?”…two beats later…”I am “THE” S.J. Perelman, the poor son of a bitch that had a nervous breakdown from those guys you have so prominently displayed!” I slunk back to the front desk, confident of my firing. Later there was a knock on my cubicle door. Mr. Perelman stepped in, introduced himself and asked my name. He laughingly apologized for yelling at me. Thus began a friendship that lasted until his death in 1979. Sid Perelman was a writer, humorist and literary giant. He was a legend in the office, rare sightings had been reported throughout the years, but here he was talking to me, a schnook from Brooklyn.
S.J. made it a ritual to stop by my desk anytime he was in the office. We’d chat, well mainly he’d speak and I would sit in raptured silence. He spoke of Hollywood, The Marx Brothers, early silent movies, New York City, vaudeville ….wish I had a tape recorder back then. He would always include wordplay, jokes and his take on a certain woman in the office that he knew had designs on him. These were all small glimpses into the man who could turn a simple phrase into a pop culture staple. He seemed to have a frenemy type relationship with Groucho Marx, you could feel the word jousting competitiveness, his take on Harpo was that of “Nature Boy”…a woodland nymph who would remove his clothes at the drop of a hat or poker chip. Chico was the hat pin handicapping track rat who could barely make it to a movie shoot if the horses were running. Zeppo, the face who took up space, and Gummo, the chubby accountant. He expressed remorse about his late wife, how they had gone to Hollywood by train leaving everything behind and mentioned only tiny snippets of a lost and blank childhood. He reveled in the funnily bizarre and obscure, mentioning a Monsieur Ptomaine and his musical prowess …the legend was not above liking a fart joke. He thought my name was too stiff and stuffy, that “Alice” reminded him too much of Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, so he called me “Kiddo”. As time passed the visits grew fewer, he’d call and ask me to join him on a walk or maybe meet him for lunch, but I always declined, I had a set hour for lunch and at the time the magazine had a caste system that rivaled the Hindu one…I knew my place. Here is the story of how I met S. J. Perelman.