Sidney Joseph (S.J.) Perelman was born at 168 Seventh Ave. in Brooklyn on Feb. 1, 1904, to Joseph Perelman, who had immigrated to the U.S. 12 years before, and Sophia (Charra) Perelman. He grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where his father, an engineer, worked as a machinist and ran a dry goods store.
“My chief interest always was to be a cartoonist,” Perelman revealed in an interview for The New York Times Magazine in 1969, “and I began very early to draw cartoons in my father’s store on the long cardboard strips around which the bolts of Amoskeag cotton and ginghams were stored.” He had a reputation for sarcasm and rarely had a good word for anyone.
Perelman became one of America’s greatest humorists and satirists. He wrote 21 books, as well as plays. His screenplays included two hilarious early Marx Brothers comedies: Monkey Business (’31) and Horse Feathers (’32).
Perelman wrote several skits for the 1932 Broadway show Walk A Little Faster. Perelman and Ogden Nash collaborated in the writing of the 1943 Broadway hit One Touch of Venus, which played 567 performances before it went on tour.
He won an Oscar in 1956 for Best Adapted Screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. His co-writers were James Poe and John Farrow. Perelman had actually embarked on an 80-day world tour at one time, in deliberate emulation of Jules Verne’s fictitious traveler, Phileas Fogg.
The insouciant look of Perelman’s work is grossly deceptive. Believing that “easy writing makes hard reading,” he wrote draft after draft before he was satisfied with a manuscript, spending between two weeks and “a lot longer” than a month on a short piece, as he revealed in an interview for the New York Post in 1970.
Perelman once described himself as not “a happy laughing kid” but a “crank,” and that, “I’m highly irritable and my senses bruise easily, and when they are bruised I write.”
Perelman died in 1979.
This article was written by Vernon Parker (1923-2004)