January 16, 2018
At Home With the Ring Lardners
On this day in 1915 Ring Lardner Jr. was born. Though Lardner's adult fame was earned -- screenplay Oscars for Woman of the Year (1942) and M*A*S*H (1970); the novel, The Ecstasy of Owen Muir (1954); blacklisting as one of McCarthy's "Hollywood Ten" -- he met the public early and often in his father's daily column. Ring Jr. was the third of four sons, and Dad had lobbied unsuccessfully to give him any other name:
When you are nicknamed Ringworm by the humorists and wits,
When people put about you till they drive you into fits,
When funny folk say, "Ring, ring off," until they make you ill,
Remember that your poor old Dad tried hard to name you Bill.
So "Bill" he often was, and as portrayed in Ring Sr.'s running chronicle of life at the Lardner house, a force to be reckoned with:
|Bill:||But why didn't I get something?|
|Dad:||You did, you got a ball, but it isn't your birthday. It's John's and Jim's birthday.|
|Bill:||It is my birthday.|
|Jim:||It isn't your birthday, bees you're not anything old.|
|Bill:||I am as old as you are Mr. Jimmy.|
|Jim:||You're not, bees I'm five years old.|
|Bill:||I'm one billion and thirty-nine years old and that's old.|
|Jim:||But you're not even older than John bees he's seven.|
|Bill:||But I'm older than John because he's seven and I'm God. I'm older than anybody in the world. I'm the oldest man in the world, I think.|
|Jim:||Oh, think yourself.|
|John:||If he thinks he's old, let him think he's old. We're older.|
|Bill:||No, you're not, Mr. Johnny. Because I'm older than anybody.|
|Jim:||Oh, older yourself. Giants are older.|
|Bill:||I'm a giant myself. I'm God, I think.|
It was young Bill who inspired one of Ring Sr.'s most often-quoted lines, from The Young Immigrunts. This parody, purportedly written by Bill at the age of four, tells the misadventure of the family's move East, from Chicago to "the Bureau of Manhattan." A born writer, Bill's saga begins with character description:
My parents are both married and 1/2 of them are very good looking. The balance is tall and skiny and has a swarty complexion with moles but you hardily ever notice them on account of your gaze being rapped up in his feet which would be funny if brevity wasn't the soul of wit.
Bill is observant, and more forgiving of his father's poor sense of direction than his mother. Here, in Chapter 10, the long car ride is almost over:
The lease said about my and my fathers trip from the Bureau of Manhattan to our new home the soonest mended. In some way ether I or he got balled up on the grand concorpse and next thing you know we was thretning to swoop down on Pittsfield.
When being called different sorts of names at his H.U.A.C. hearing, Ring Jr. might have borrowed Dad's famous line -- Shut Up, He Explained is the title given one of Ring Sr.'s collections -- but he didn't do badly on his own. In response to the inevitable, "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" Lardner said, "I could answer it, but if I did, I'd hate myself in the morning." This got him a 1-year sentence, and the title of his second book of memoirs, I'd Hate Myself in the Morning (2000), published just before his death.
Are you lost daddy I arsked tenderly.
Shut up he explained.