Ever see the movie? Well, do yourself a favor and don’t. You should pardon me for bringing this up right off the bat, but it’s so beyond being a mere stinkeroo that I get ahead of myself and must apologize. But you can trust me; I shall get back to it later.
It’s hard not to start sounding like Joey Evans after listening to him come up off the pages of John O’Hara’s novella. In fact, even if you’re holding paper and ink, Pal Joey is always an “audio book” in some other, fundamental sense of the term. The osmotic nature of Joey’s voice affects even the other characters. Vera—the rich older woman who O’Hara added to the theatrical adaptation—says, in a moment of amazed exasperation: “Good God, I’m getting to talk like you.”
Joey’s is an American voice from the second act of the American century, a time when the country’s wisecracks and slang, thanks to movies and even to books, wrapped themselves around the thoughts and vocal cords of half the world. O’Hara had the upwardly mobile luck to be in possession of the best ear anybody had for catching and transmitting the national lingo.
Frank MacShane, one of the author’s biographers, explains that the first Pal Joey story, published in The New Yorker on October 22, 1938, got written after O’Hara went off on “a two-day bender” instead of the stretch of work he’d pledged to his wife:
Then the remorse set in: He asked himself, “What kind of god damn heel am I? I must be worse’n anybody in the world.” Then he thought a minute: “No, there must be somebody worse than me—but who? Al Capone, maybe. Then I got it—maybe some nightclub masters of ceremony I know.”1
The New Yorker asked for additional Joey pieces, and these hit singles soon became an album, a book of what we’d now call “linked stories,” published in 1940.2
The stories’ usual subject is Joey’s current scheme—to make it with one “mouse” (girl) or another and to get to New York, away from these crummy clubs in Chicago where there’s “one old guy playing cornet that looked as if he was worried for fear that the Confederates wd catch him for being a deserter.” His chief tool, in business and pleasure, is the lie: telling a young woman that he went to “Princeton College” and an entertainment reporter that it was “Dartmouth University”—before, of course, his family lost its money in the crash. A minute after spotting a girl with a nice figure who’s looking into a pet-shop window, he’s snowing her with the story of a dog named Skippy that he never even owned.
The recipient of Joey’s letters is Ted, a bandleader friend whose replies we never see but who, unlike his correspondent, is actually going somewhere. We can feel Joey, amid his protestations of pleasure, choking on the news that Ted has been booked at the Paramount in Manhattan and written up in Down Beat. Joey himself is no further along at the end of the book than he was at the beginning, and O’Hara’s small fictional gem would be unbearable if it were twice as long as it is. The author knew when to stop—late in his career he wouldn’t exhibit such restraint—and Pal Joey remains one of the books that makes John O’Hara an even greater master of the novella than he was of the short story.
O’Hara’s restraint is writ small on each of the book’s hundred or so pages, which contain enough of Joey’s misspellings and malapropisms to make the reader marvel, but not so many as to make the text a chore, a thicket requiring a kind of line-by-line translation. The malapropisms, especially—more glaring in print than in speech—are rationed and perfect: “an establish band”; a “Mexican folks’ song.” The results had readers of the thirties and forties “beating their paws off” for the author, more loudly than nightclub patrons ever felt inclined to applaud the author’s antihero. The last piece (“Reminiss?”), in which O’Hara has Joey sound drunk while writing, is a tour de force that builds and builds within its very short space. Joey becomes more and more direct, more and more angry, until, in his disappointment and failure, he lets Ted have it. If he doesn’t tear up the letter, as he says he will, he’s going to hate himself in the morning—but we won’t see that, because O’Hara knew that this was the place to put the cover back on his typewriter.
The decision by this master of speech to write an epistolary novella may seem peculiar: Why work in a form that contains little or no dialogue? But then one realizes that the epistolary voice is really all speech, albeit as monologue rather than dialogue. One can imagine Pal Joey being staged not only as the musical comedy it became but also as an evening-length recitation, on the order of a performance by Ruth Draper, the great diseuse who remained at her peak while O’Hara was reaching his.
MacShane acknowledges that Joey “owed something” to the characters and techniques of Ring Lardner and Damon Runyon,3 and a reader will certainly hear Nathan Detroit’s strivings and stumblings toward refinement in some of Joey’s more self-righteous moments (“I do not know if you realize what has happen to me oweing to your lack of consideration”). But O’Hara does all of it, the vocals and emotions, with greater subtlety than Runyon. Joey’s third dimension may not go very deep, but it goes far enough that you sometimes wince for him, whereas Nathan never prompts anything but a chuckle. Fancying himself “a great student of human nature,” Joey is actually clueless; the truth is he needs more brass, not less, if he’s ever going to push ahead like other great literary and movie heels of his day—say, Sammy Glick and Sidney Falco. In Sweet Smell of Success, J. J. Hunsecker, the gossip columnist played by Burt Lancaster, tells Sidney, with momentary admiration, “You’re a cookie full of arsenic.” Joey is a cookie filled with cookie dough; he’s got a lumpy center that’ll never be more than half-baked.
If Joey rarely succeeds at parlaying one thing into another, his creator succeeded in turning Pal Joey into the biggest thing that ever happened to John O’Hara: the musical that opened on Broadway on Christmas Day 1940. O’Hara himself approached Richard Rodgers about an adaptation4; he wrote the show’s book, and you can hear him even in the bossy opening stage direction: “Cheap night club, South Side of Chicago. Not cheap in the whorehouse way, but strictly a neighborhood joint.” O’Hara “opened up” the novella, putting in more patter and stage business for the girls in the nightclub chorus, and adding the character of Vera—more formally, Mrs. Prentiss Simpson, surnamed no doubt for that other Mrs. Simpson, the era’s most famous adulteress.
Vera, who sets up Joey in an apartment and a nightclub, understands just what she wants from him and just how long she’s likely to keep getting it. Romance is never going to trump realism in her, and when blackmail enters the picture, Vera knows it’s time to call her friend, the deputy commissioner of police, to tell him she’s “been a bad girl again” and needs to be extracted from a jam. Joey remains oblivious to the impulses and feelings she’s so carefully been managing. In Sunset Boulevard, when Gloria Swanson buys William Holden a suit, Holden feels draped with her shame and his; Joey feels nothing but “the trousers that cling to him,” in Lorenz Hart’s famous line, part of Vera’s big number, the sexy and sagacious “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Dwight Macdonald, writing in 1960 about long-term developments in popular taste, complimented the lyricist in a devastating comparison: “Midcult is the transition from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein, from the gay tough lyrics of Pal Joey, a spontaneous expression of a real place called Broadway, to the folk-fakery of Oklahoma! and the orotund sentimentalities of South Pacific.”5
Pal Joey was a success in its original production and an even stronger one during a 1952 revival. Then, alas, came that movie (1957), in which Frank Sinatra is too old and always looks too smart to be playing the lead. One can imagine Vera addressing Gene Kelly, the original Broadway Joey, as “Beauty,” back in 1940, but it feels a little late for Rita Hayworth to be doing that with the Chairman of the Board. Even worse, Columbia Pictures had her sing a version of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” so bowdlerized it wouldn’t have offended Mamie Eisenhower’s ears: “Until I could sleep where I shouldn’t sleep” became “What would I do if I shouldn’t sleep,” and when it came time for “Horizontally speaking / He’s at his very best,” Hayworth was made to sing la-la syllables. The whole production is so anemic that it had to be supplemented with “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” two hits from an earlier Rodgers-and-Hart show, Babes in Arms (1937).
Worst of all? The picture makes Joey go off, happy-endingly, with Linda, the girl he tried to seduce with the story of his dog Skippy, here renamed Snuffy, just as pointlessly as the whole story has been moved from Chicago to San Francisco.
Twenty-five years ago I freelanced an appreciation of O’Hara to Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and in preparing the piece I talked to my friend Frances Kiernan, a fiction editor for many years at The New Yorker. She told me that
she used to read O’Hara thirty years ago , when she was a teenager, in order “to find out how the world worked.” But people don’t do that anymore . . . the information is too dated to be useful, not outdated enough to be exotic.6
What I didn’t know when I proposed the essay was that Art Cooper, GQ’s then–editor in chief, had grown up in Berwick, Pennsylvania (a town mentioned in the last pages of Pal Joey), and come to New York in the 1960s clutching O’Hara’s books as if they were exactly the how-to manuals Fran Kiernan described. O’Hara was and remained Cooper’s favorite writer, a fact that had more than a little to do with my being offered GQ’s literary editorship after my O’Hara piece ran. Art, a larger-than-life character (I loved him), made a tremendous success of the magazine during the 1980s and ’90s by somehow keeping it both up-to-the-minute and nostalgically devoted to the cocktail culture of his youth. He died in 2003, mid-martini, at his lunchtime banquette at the Four Seasons.
As Art recedes from my life, but not from my memory, and as Mad Men continues to draw big ratings, I sense that O’Hara’s moment for a really breakout revival—outdated enough to be exotic—may at last be upon us. Do the youngest readers with this book in their hands know who “Winchell,” let alone “Downey,” is? Did they ever sit at a lunch counter? Meet a stenographer? No? Good! The farawayness of all these obsolete cultural references may mean we’re nearing fulfillment of a prophecy I passed along in my 1990 essay: “It’ll be a few more decades, says Kiernan, before O’Hara comes back, the way Edith Wharton (a writer he admired) eventually did.”7
If that moment is here, Pal Joey is no less authentic, and no less dexterous, for having grown outré. And if this is your first encounter with John O’Hara, I can only say, in the words of Joey: “Low and behold.”
1. Frank MacShane, The Life of John O’Hara (New York: Dutton, 1980), 109.
2. Ibid., 109–10.
3. Ibid., 109.
4. Ibid., 110.
5. Dwight Macdonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain, ed. John Summers (New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2011), 36–37. The title essay was originally published in The Partisan Review (Spring 1960).
6. Thomas Mallon, In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (New York: Pantheon, 2001), 140. The essay quoted was originally published as “Appointment with O’Hara,” GQ (December 1990).
Dear Pal Ted:
Well at last I am getting around to knocking off a line or two to let you know how much I apprisiate it you sending me that wire on opening nite. Dont think because I didnt answer before I didnt apprisiate it because that is far from the case. But I guess you know that because if you knew when I was opening you surely must be aware how busy Ive been ever since opening nite. I figure you read in Variety what date I was opening in which case I figure you have seen the write ups since then telling how busy Ive been and believe me its no exagerton.
Well maybe it seems a long time since opening nite and in a way it does to me too. It will only be five weeks this coming Friday but it seems longer considering all that has happened to your old pal Joey. Its hard to believe that under two months ago Joey was strictly from hunger as they say but I was. The last time I saw you (August) remember the panic was on. I figured things would begin to break a little better around August but no. A couple spots where I figured I would fit in didnt open at all on acct of bankroll trouble and that was why I left town and came out this way. I figured you live in a small town in Michigan and you can stay away from the hot spots because there arent any and that way you save money. I was correct but I sure didnt figure the panic would stay on as long as it did. I finely sold the jalloppy and hocked my diamond ring the minute I heard there would be a chance down this way. I never was in Ohio before but maybe I will never be any place else. At least I like it enough to remain here the remainder of my life but of course if NBC is listening in Im only kidding.
Well I heard about this spot through a little mouse I got to know up in Michigan. She told me about this spot as it is her home town altho spending her vacation every year in Michigan. I was to a party one nite (private) and they finely got me to sing a few numbers for them and the mouse couldn’t take her eyes off me. She sat over in one corner of the room not paying any attention to the dope she was with until finely it got so even he noticed it and began making cracks but loud. I burned but went on singing and playing but he got too loud and I had to stop in the middle of a number and I said right at him if he didnt like it why didnt he try himself. Perhaps he could do better. The others at the party got sore at him and told him to pipe down but that only made him madder and the others told me to go ahead and not pay any attention to him. So I did. Then when I got finished with a few more numbers I looked around and the heel wasnt there but the mouse was. She didnt give me a hand but I could tell she was more impressed than some that were beating their paws off. So I went over to her and told her I was sorry if it embarrassed her me calling attenton to her dope boyfriend but she said he wasnt a boyfriend. I said well I figured that. I said she looked as if she could do better than him and she said “you for instance” and I said well yes. We laughed and got along fine and I took her home. She was staying with her grandmother and grandfather, two respectible old married people that lived there all their life. They were too damn respectible for me. They watched her like a hawk and one oclock was the latest she could be out. That to me is the dumbest way to treat that kind of a mouse. If its going to happen it can happen before nine oclock and if it isnt going to happen it isnt going to no matter if you stay out till nine oclock the next morning. But whats the use of being old if you cant be dumb? So anyway Nan told me about this spot down here and knew the asst mgr of the hotel where the spot is and she said she would give me a send in and if I didnt hold them up for too much of the ready she was sure I could get the job. I sing and play every afternoon in the cocktail bar and at night I relieve the band in the ballroom. Anyway I figured I would have to freshen up the old wardrobe so I had to get rid of the jalloppy and hock my diamond ring. I made the trip to Ohio with Nan in her own jalloppy which isn’t exactly a jalloppy I might add. Its a 37 Plymouth conv coop. It took us three days to go from Mich. to Ohio but Ill thank you not to ask any questions about my private life.
This asst mgr auditioned me when we finely arrived and I knew right away I was in because he asked me for a couple of old numbers like Everybody Step and Swanee and a Jerry Kern medley and he was a Carmichael fan. Everything he asked me for I gave him and of course I put up a nice appearance being sunburned and a white coat from the proseeds of selling the jalloppy and hocking the ring. I rehearsed with the band altho Collins the leader hates my guts and finely I talked this asst mgr into letting me do a single irregardless of the band and he did.
Well you might say I ran the opening nite. I m.c’d and they had a couple of kids from a local dancing school doing tap, one of them not bad altho no serious competition for Ginger Rogers. They were only on for the first week. They also had another mouse who was with the band, living with the drummer. She tried to be like Maxine. Well she wasnt even colored, thats how much like Maxine she was. The local 400 turned out for the opening nite and inside a week I was besieged with offers to entertain at private parties which I do nearly every Sunday as the bar and ballroom are not open Sunday or at least I do not work. In additon to the job at the hotel and the private parties you probably have read about the radio job. I went on sustaining the first week and by the end of the second week I got myself a nice little commercial. I am on just before the local staton hooks up with NBC Blue Network five nites a week but I dont think you can catch me in New York. Not yet! My sponsor is the Acme Credit Jewellery Compay but I only have eight more weeks to go with them then I am free to negosiate with a better sponsor. Still Im not complaining. Your old pal Joey is doing all right for himself. I get a due bill at the hotel and what they pay me in additon aint hay. I also have the radio spot and the private parties. I went for a second hand Lasalle coop and I am thinking of joining the country club. I go there all the time with some of the local 400 so I figure I might as well join but will wait till I make sure I am going to stay here. I get my picture in the paper and write ups so much that I dont even bother to put them in my scrap book any more. The crowd at the club are always ribbing me about it and accuse me of having the reporters on my payroll but I just tell them no, not the reporters, the editors. I am a little sore at one of the papers because the local Winchell links my name constantly with the name of a very sweet kid that I go to the club and play golf with. Not that it isnt true. We see each other all the time and she comes to the hotel practically every nite with a party and when Im through for the nite we usely take a ride out to a late spot out in the country. Her father is the president of the second largest bank. It is the oldest. The biggest bank was formally two banks but they merged. Her name is Jean Spencer and a sweeter kid never lived. I really go for her. But this local Winchell took a personal dislike to me and made a couple cracks about us. One was “That personality boy at a downtown hotel has aired the femme that got him the job and is now trying to move into society.” Me trying to move in to society! Society moved in on me is more like it. Jean was burned because she was afraid her father might see the item and when I meet her father I dont want him to have the wrong impression. I think the colyumist got the item from my ex-friend Nan. I didnt see much of her when I was rehearsing and the afternoon of opening nite she called up and said she wanted to come but what the hell could I do? Ask for a big table when they were getting $5 a head cover charge? I was glad enough to get the job without asking too many favors. Then a week or so later she called up and asked me could I let her have $50. I asked her what for and she hung up. Well if she didnt even want to do me the curtesy to tell me what for I wasnt going to follow her around begging her to take it. But I gave it a few days thought and decided to let her have it but when I phoned her they said she quit her job and left town. I understand from Schall the asst mgr that she sold her Plymouth and went to N.Y. Her name is Nan Hennessey so if you run into her anywhere youll know her. She could be worse, that is worse on the eye, a little dumb tho.
Well pally, they will be billing me for stealing all their writing paper if I dont quit this. Just to show you I dont forget I inclose $30. Ill let you have the rest as soon as possible. Any time I can help you out the same way just let me know and you can count on me. I guess you kissed that fifty goodbye but that isnt the way I do things. But I guess you know that, hey pal?
All the best from
Dear Friend Ted:
That is if I can call you friend after the last two weeks for it is a hard thing to do considering. I do not know if you realize what has happen to me oweing to your lack of consideraton. Maybe it is not lack of consideraton. Maybe it is on purpose. Well if it is on purpose all I have to say is maybe you are the one that will be the loser and not me as I was going to do certan things for you but now it does not look like I will be able to do them.
Let us rehearse the whole thing briefley. I wrote to you on the 26 or 7 of last month telling you how I was getting along and inclosing $30 and telling you all the news out here about me getting this radio job and singing in the hotel. Also telling you I was going around with a girl in the local 400 who had a father a banker et cetra. Then I also made the unfortunate error of telling you to look up a certan mouse if you happen to come across her. Which you did and mentoned my name. Well theres the rub. Oweing to your lack of consideraton (mentoning my name) there is hell to pay and I will tell you why. Maybe you know why. Maybe you knew damn well what you were doing and maybe not but anyhow I will tell you just in case.
The way I get it you meet this mouse and right off you shoot off your face about I wrote you and told you to look her up and she gets the wrong impression because as I understand it she thinks you think all you have to do is menton my name and you are in. Then she gets sore as hell and decides to get even with me. Well here I am 1000 miles from N. Y. and doing OK with my radio job and singing at the hotel and with this kid that has a father a banker and out of the blue everything goes haywire. You knew damn well the mouse I told you about was from this town because I remember distintly telling you all about her in my letter of the 26 or 7. I remember distintly telling you she was no tramp and you only drew your own conclusons and not from anything I told you. So here I am doing OK with a car and two good jobs and this society kid going for me and what happens. This is what happens. I do not know what because it is too earley to say.
First of all the asst mgr of the hotel where I am singing he comes to me and says “Joey I just rec’d informaton that is not doing you any good around this town and I want you to level with me and tell me if it is true.” What? I said. What informaton? “Well I do not exactly know how to put it man to man. We are both men of the world but this is what I have reference to, meaning that a certain mouse from this town had to leave town on acc’t of you and is now in N.Y. and instead of helping her you are writing letters to pals in N. Y. and shooting off your face about what a don Juan you are. That dont do you any good personally and I will state frankly that while we are highly pleased with your singing and drawing power as a personality here at the hotel however we have to look at it from all the angels and once it gets around that you are the kind of chap that writes letters to his pals in N. Y. mentoning his fatal attracton to the ladies why some nite some guy is just going to get his load on and you are singing and a guy will walk up and take a poke at you while you are singing. Think it over” he said. Well this asst mgr is a pal of mine and I have the deepest respect for him and I went on & did a couple numbers and after I went to him and got him to tell me all about it. In detail.
So you call yourself a pal. Well that mouse I told you to look up knew this asst mgr in fact I think I told you she introduce me to him. I can see it all clearly. You met her and moved in and then you told her I told you all about her and the little trip we took on the way down from Michigan. As if that wasnt enough the next thing you do you have to destroy the only fine decent thing that has happen to me since coming to this jerk town, namely Jean. Jean is the girl that has a father a banker and it was only a queston of time before I was to meet the family and from there it was only a queston of time before things came to the definitely serious stage, but boy you certanly louse that up. I was to accompany Jean to a private party last Tues. nite and she would pick me up at the hotel after I did a couple numbers and go to this party. Usully when she picks me up she is with another couple but last Tues. when the doorman sent in word she was there she was alone in her Packard conv coop. I thought nothing of it till I noticed she was not driving in the directon of this private party and also not opening her trap but just driving and I called her attenton to the fact. “No. We are not going to Dwight and Connie Reynolds party this evening” she said. I thought maybe it was called off and said so but she said no it was not called off but she wanted to talk with me. Then out it came. Thanks to you she gets this annonamous letter from that mouse I told you about saying to look out for me that I was a guy that would move in on her and then shoot off my face about it all over. I ask her if I could see the letter and she said she tore it up and I said did she look at the postmark. “Was it postmark N. Y.?” I said. She said no, here, but of course that mouse would send it to some girl friend here and get it postmark here. Well Jean & I had quite a scene much as I dislike scenes and no am’t of persuason on my part would convince her it was the work of a lousy bitch that all she was was jealous. “To think that I was on the vurge of inviting you to Sunday dinner next Sunday” she said. That shows how things stood between she & I, but so that is all loused up too.
Well I was frantic. I had come to care deeply for Jean. She lives in a very different world than you and I. Her father is this banker and very conservative and not use to having his daughter going around with chaps that sing in a hotel even if it is one of the principle hotels in the mid west. I go out with all the best people here the 400 but not the older crowd & just on the vurge of going to Jeans house for Sunday dinner she gets this annonamous letter sticking the shiv in my back. Thanks to you. Well I thought for a minute maybe the mouse came home & sent the letter herself and I gave her a buzz Wed. afternoon and a dame’s voice answered and when she said who was it I told her and it turned out to be the sister of the one that is causeing all the trouble. When I told her who I was she called me everything she could think of till I thought if anybody was listening in they would think they were overhearing some bag and that she probably is because you got to be a bag to know some of the things she called me. She also made threats and said one of these nites she was coming down to the hotel when I was doing a number and would personally spit in my eye and knock me the hell off the stand. Then I told her what I thought of her and her sister and if she ever showed her face around the hotel I would knock her teeth down her throat. Woman or no woman. I shut her up the bitch. I said she and her fine feathered sister. Well I said if she wanted to know anything about her sister ask anybody that was in Michigan last summer and she would find out what I meant. So if you see the mouse again you can tell her. I dont give a damn if I lose my job here at the hotel or the radio spot. I dont have to take that stuff from any mouse or her sister. As for you my ex-pal you know what you can do and also you can sing for the $20 I owe you. I am making a little trip to N.Y. in the near future and we will have a little talk and you can explain your positon, altho the way I feel now if I saw you now your positon would be horizontle. I might as well tell you I am going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week and not that I need it because I always could slap you around when ever I wanted to.
You know what you can do.
Your Ex-Pal Joey
HOW I AM NOW IN CHI