The Letters of S.N. Behrman

A brief plug for People in a Magazine, Joseph Goodrich’s new volume of the collected correspondence of S.N. Behrman (1893-1973) with his editors at The New Yorker. If you’re like me, you have principally thought of Behrman as a playwright and screenwriter, whose plays included Biography (1932), End of Summer (1936), Amphitryon 38 (1937), No Time for Comedy (1939) and Jacobowsky and the Colonel (1944) and the musical Fanny (1954) and whose screenplays included Liliom (1930), Lightnin’ (1930), The Sea Wolf (1930) Daddy Long Legs (1931), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932), Hallelujah I’m a Bum (1933), and many others.

But Behrman also wrote longform profiles for The New Yorker, on such eminences as Eddie Cantor, Max Beerbohm, George Gershwin, Robert Sherwood, and Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár (whom Behrman had also adapted). The title of the new book is a riff on Behrman’s People in a Diary. Section headings penned by Goodrich set the scene; the rest is Behrman and his correspondents between the years 1929 and 1973, people like Harold Ross, Katharine S. White, William Shawn, and others.

Beyond the delightful writing itself, there are illuminating takeaways. One is how long it took to turn an article around in those snail-mail days: weeks, months, years! One party asks a question; the answer may not arrive for ages. Naturally, there was also the telephone, but that’s not BUSINESS. The telephone was conversational and, worse, ephemeral. Letters leave a record, they are part of the professional understanding. But this long gestation period is one explanation for the fact that (forgive my prejudice) the writing was so much better back then. In this lightning-quick era we rush things out the door. I am the worst of offenders in that regard. Back then you could let a piece of writing stew and percolate. By the time of publication it would generally be pretty perfect.

Another takeaway from the book is more biographical, The correspondence conveys the evolution of relationships. Typically the initial tone in the byplay is formal and diplomatic. Over the decades as the writers become old friends, it grows warmer, more candid and heartfelt. Thus the book isn’t just factual and academic; it’s touching. In a way, it’s a drama, after all. Get it here.