P.G. Wodehouse's secret life as a Yank.

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April 9 2002 8:02 PM

P.G. Wodehouse, American Author

The most British of writers turns out to have been a Yank.

Illustration by Amanda Duffy

Few 20th-century writers, it seems, could be more quintessentially English than P.G. Wodehouse. His name alone appears to guarantee a happy escape into a lost world of upper-class English frivolity: Mayfair lounge lizards; dreamy, pig-loving earls; inscrutable butlers; and, of course, the "mentally negligible" Bertie Wooster and his omniscient manservant, Jeeves. Yet the truth about Wodehouse is that, in his professional life, he was very much an American, too. And the more you look at his friends, his work, and even the places in which he lived, the more American he becomes.

Wodehouse first crossed the Atlantic almost a hundred years ago. He came to New York, traveling steerage, on the SS St Louis in the spring of 1904, age 22. Like many literary Englishmen, he had two jobs. In the mornings he was a columnist on a London evening paper, the Globe; for the rest of the working day, he was a free-lance writer. So he came to the New World in search of copy. And like many Englishmen released from the stultifying conventions of his background (his father was a colonial judge), Wodehouse fell in love with Manhattan at first sight. "To say that New York came up to its advance billing," he wrote later, "would be the baldest of understatements. Being there was like being in heaven, without going to all the bother and expense of dying."

If that's an emotion shared by many English visitors since those days, then the Manhattan that the young Wodehouse discovered with such enthusiasm is also, strangely, still available today. Greenwich Village is perhaps no longer a "rural paradise," but the Hotel Earle (now the Washington Square Hotel) on Waverly Place at the northwest corner of Washington Square has hardly changed externally in the 100 years since Wodehouse stayed there. Stand outside the hotel on MacDougal Street in 2002, and it's not difficult to picture the young journalist with literary aspirations, in heavy boots and tweed jacket, heading off uptown in search of material. He found it in the most unlikely quarter: the boxing ring. At home in England, Wodehouse had been an enthusiastic schoolboy boxer. In New York in 1904, he contrived to see his light-heavyweight heroes, James J. Corbett and Kid McCoy, first in training out at White Plains and then in action at Madison Square Garden.

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After about a month in New York, he returned to London, where he discovered that his newly acquired American savvy had overnight done wonders for his value as a struggling free-lancer. "After that trip to New York," he recalled, "I was a man who counted. ... My income rose like a rocketing pheasant." So, from 1904 until the day he died, Wodehouse perfected the art of selling a literary interpretation of America to British readers, and an affectionate caricature of Britain to an American audience, first as a journalist and later as a light novelist of genius. Both versions were refracted through the rosy filter of his imagination.

A close examination of his life reveals that his fiction was rather more deeply rooted in American and British reality than his readers might imagine. And viewed through the topsy-turvy kaleidoscope of his art, this reality becomes softer and more farcical. In Psmith Journalist (1915), a brutal street posse like the Five Pointers become the loquacious incompetents of the Groome Street Gang. And a grizzled hoodlum like the notorious Monk Eastman, habitué of the "police blotter," becomes the cat-loving softy, Bat Jarvis. And across the Atlantic, the countrified extravagance of the Edwardian aristocracy became the dotty obsessions of Lord Emsworth in Something Fresh (1915) and the vapid indolence of the Drones Club in My Man Jeeves (1919).

In fact, Jeeves, named after an English county cricketer and now synonymous with British sang-froid, actually made his first appearance in New York in 1915. The story, titled "Extricating Young Gussie," was first published in the Saturday Evening Post. That's an early and all too typical example of Wodehouse's talent for selling a version of Britishness to American readers, a skill that was emulated, decades later, by the makers of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.

Wodehouse had been living in Greenwich Village, on and off, for six years and was thoroughly acclimatized when he met his future wife, Ethel Newton, on a blind date in New York, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. He married her six weeks later in the Little Church Around the Corner on Madison Avenue. You can still inspect his marriage certificate, nervously smudged signature, inkblots and all. The bridegroom described himself as "author"; the bride, who was actually 29, discreetly shaved a year off her age but owned up to two previous husbands. (In later life, Ethel Wodehouse kept this detail rather dark.)

In their first years of married life, the Wodehouses lived in Bellport, Long Island, and then in an apartment on Central Park West. Soon, in another decisive step toward his Americanization, Wodehouse became theater critic for a chic new magazine, Vanity Fair, and a veteran of first nights. In December 1915, at the opening of Very Good Eddie, a Broadway musical, he bumped into an old acquaintance from his Edwardian London days, the composer Jerome Kern and his writing partner Guy Bolton. In no time at all, Wodehouse, Bolton, and Kern had formed, in Dorothy Parker's phrase, "the trio of musical fame." The three young men released the American musical from its central European straitjacket and transformed it into the form we know today with a succession of hit shows: Leave It to Jane; Oh, Lady ! Lady !; and Sally (to name three of the most successful).

If, by some mischance, P.G. Wodehouse had been run over by a bus in the early 1920s (he was in fact knocked down by a car on Long Island in the summer of 1923), his obituarists would have made more of his work as a lyricist on Broadway than of his fiction, which had yet to find the colossal audience it achieved in the '30s. In later years he liked to boast that he held the record: five Broadway shows in 1917 alone. He himself liked to characterize his work as "a sort of musical comedy without music."

Once the Great War was over, and the Doughboys had returned to the plains and the production lines, Wodehouse was already an unofficial American. He did not hurry back to England but set up home in Great Neck, Long Island, a neighbor of F. Scott Fitzgerald. During the next 20-odd years, he criss-crossed the Atlantic between London and New York on the Cunard and White Star lines as regularly as any business-class commuter. His work, though rooted in a largely English milieu of country houses and London clubs, also reflected Prohibition and the Jazz Age and became steadily infiltrated by American characters (senators, impresarios, and bootleggers) and American idioms ("ranygazoo," "hotsy-totsy," and "bum's rush"). No English writer of the 20th century became more adept at interpreting the two societies to each other.