Ring Lardner: Covered All Bases

Ringgold Wilmer “Ring” Lardner (1885-1933) may be the only sportswriter I’ll ever discuss here, and you know why he rates inclusion: he became even better known as a writer of Jazz Age humor, revue sketches, plays and movies.

Originally from Michigan, Lardner began covering sports for papers in midwestern cities (South Bend, St. Louis and Chicago) starting in 1905. His columns were often humorous and whimsical and this led naturally to other opportunities. Lardner had his first book published and broke into theatre and film all in the same year, 1915. Bib Ballads was a collaboration with cartoonist Fontaine Fox, best known for Toonerville Folks. Lardner’s first theatrical credits were some lyrics that were used in the Princess Theatre musical Very Good Eddie, by P.G. Wodehouse. And a film series Letters from Bugs to Gus starring Billy Mason and Jim Lynch, based on the same material that spawned his next book, also came out in 1915.

Lardner’s next book You Know Me, Al (1916), a faux correspondence between a pro baseball player and his pal, became Lardner’s most popular work. This was followed by Champion (1916), Gullible’s Travels (1917), Treat ‘Em Rough (1918), The Real Dope (1919), The Big Town (1921), My Four Weeks in France (1922, a serious book of his dispatches from the front during World War One), How to Write Short Stories (1924), Haircut (1925, containing the eponymous story, one of his best loved works), What of It? (1925) and Round Up (1929).

At the same time Lardner began to conquer the theatre. He contributed song lyrics to the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917; the book and lyrics for the Follies of 1922, and sketches to a 1922 revue called The ’49ers. In 1927, Robert Sherwood adapted his story The Love Nest for the stage. In 1928, his play Elmer the Great premiered, and in 1929 June Moon, co-written with George S. Kaufman debuted.

Lardner was such a well-known personality that he had a cameo in the 1929 film Glorifying the American Girl, “You know ME, Ring!” an announcer intones as he makes his entrance. And there were many films adapted from his writings. The first screen version of Elmer the Great was Fast Company (1929) with Jack Oakie and Skeets Gallagher. The better known 1933 remake starred Joe E. Brown. June Moon became a film in 1931, later remade as Blonde Trouble in 1937. Posthumous stuff included Alibi Ike (1935) again with Brown, and The Cowboy Quarterback (1939) with Bert Wheeler. So This is New York (1948) with Henry Morgan was based on Lardner’s book The Big Town. The 1949 boxing drama Champion with Kirk Douglas was based on the Lardner book of the same name.

Lardner was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald and lived in Great Neck during its heyday. My wife’s high school friend lived in his house for a number of years! Here it is:

By the time Lardner died in 1933 though he’d moved farther east, to the Hamptons. He’d contracted TB. A related heart attack is what killed him. He was only 48. I have no doubt more great things would have come out of his typewriter. Amazingly, all four of Lardner’s sons became writers. Three of them (John, James and David) became journalists. James died in the Spanish Civil War; David died in World War Two. The fourth son, Ring Lardner Jr was a screenwriter, best remembered as one of the Hollywood Ten, and as the screenwriter of Robert Altman’s MASH.