Unearthing O'Hara: In Search Of Pal Joey
By Levi Asher February 21, 2006
For decades, I've been wanting to read John O'Hara's original "Pal Joey" series from the New Yorker in the late 30's. These short humor pieces by the celebrated novelist became the basis for a classic jazz-age Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical, Pal Joey, which opened in 1940 with a then-unknown Gene Kelly in the title role. It wasn't a huge hit, perhaps because its storyline was too gritty. Joey is a charming but selfish young singer and nightclub habitue, intensely ambitious but unable to hold onto a dollar or resist a pretty face. He shows up in Chicago, gets a singing job, seduces several women, flirts with success for the first time in his life, and then blows the whole deal.
Like many musicals from the great age of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart, Pal Joey is not a masterpiece because of the plot but because of the songs. The best way to enjoy it might be to listen to the original cast recording of the show's 1950 revival, a nearly perfect album full of hot, slick numbers like "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", "You Mustn't Kick It Around" and "Plant Ya Now, Dig Ya Later". Forget Rent and Phantom of the Opera; if you're looking for good showtunes, this is the stuff.
I've read and enjoyed many John O'Hara novels and short stories, but I've never been able to find a single one of the numerous New Yorker "Pal Joey" pieces that inspired this play. The stories were once collected in book form to coincide with the release of the awful 1957 film version of Pal Joey, which is one of the worst things Frank Sinatra ever did (he completely failed to inhabit the character, and the film cut most of the best songs). This book went quickly out of print, and while a few used copies can be found, I get the feeling from the looks of these descriptions that they'd arrive with crackly yellow pages and a weird smell, so I never bought one.
I also could have gone to a library and dug up the original New Yorkers, but I never did, and this is where the situation was stuck for many years, until I suddenly got the Complete New Yorker eight-DVD set for Hanukkah. I felt a great thrill of anticipation as I fired up Disk 7 (1937-1947) and entered "John O'Hara" into the author box.
First thing I noticed: John O'Hara wrote a lot of New Yorker stories. A real lot. I click and click, one story after another (I quickly gave up trying to read them all; it's a lifetime's worth) but there's no nightclub crooner named Joey to be found. Then I reach Oct 22, 1938, a modest issue with a cover illustration of a fox hunt observed by two carloads of tourists. And there it is on page 23, sitting quietly across a full-page cartoon featuring a tuxedo'd gentleman seated next to a hooker in a courtroom who asks "Just visiting the city?" The title is Pal Joey.
I dig in and immediately start enjoying the fast pace. O'Hara is a master of slang and dialogue, always expressing himself best when letting his characters do the talking. Here, Joey is the talker, and a glance at the first Pal Joey story quickly explains the odd title phrase, which I've always wondered about. It turns out the stories are all written in the form of letters from one roving young jazz singer to another, and they're addressed to "Pal Ted" from "Pal Joey".
I'm also amused to see that O'Hara is using the quaint technique of showing us all his character's spelling errors, which combined with all the slang makes the stories come off something like Flowers For Algernon filtered through Damon Runyon. The vocabulary is fascinating; a girl Joey's pursuing is a "mouse", a business idea is an "angle", and, more than a half century before MTV began taking us into the homes of Missy Elliot and DMX, a home is a "crib".
Due to the Complete New Yorker's crappy excuse for a search engine (they really should have hired me to design this DVD package; I would have done a better job and probably charged less), I am not completely sure that the twelve Pal Joey pieces I found represent all the pieces O'Hara ever published in the magazine. But these are the only ones I could find. It's interesting that the series ends abruptly in 1940, which is the year the Broadway play opened.
Let's take it from the top:
Oct 22, 1938: Pal Joey
"DEAR PAL TED: Well at last I am getting around to knocking off a line or two to let you know how much I apprsiate it you sending me that wire on opening nite." It's a self-contained piece, and it's easy to imagine that O'Hara intended to be done with this Joey character after this one appearance. Joey fills Ted in on his travels from Michigan to Ohio, where he meets a new mouse with a rich father and also finds a new nightclub to work in. "Well you might say I ran the opening nite. I m.c.'d and they had a couple kids from a local dancing school doing tap, one of them not bad altho no serious competition for Ginger Rogers." Joey proudly encloses $30 towards a $50 loan from Ted, which he guesses Ted didn't expect: "I guess you kissed that fifty goodbye but that isn't the way I do things."
Nov 26, 1938: Ex-Pal
The developing plot takes a disturbing early turn when Joey accuses his Pal Ted of violating an important confidence. Joey told Ted to look up a certain girl, and Ted did, but then Ted told the girl what Joey said about her, and it got all over town and now Joey's in big trouble. "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 mention my name and you are in." Ted's indiscretion costs Joey his new job, and at the end of this piece Joey is heading for New York City.
April 1, 1939: How I Am Now In Chi
I still haven't located the storyline from the play, but we seem to be getting closer. All the action in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey takes place in Chicago, so I am glad Joey didn't spend too long in New York. The story of how Joey is now in Chi starts in Michigan again, in fact, and it involves the same mouse from the October and November installments who he is still fooling around with. But her high society friends and relatives close ranks against the slick newcomer, and Joey ends up being personally escorted to the local train station where he is put on a train to Chi-town somewhat against his will, though he manages to get some free chewing-gum and magazines out of the deal. This is the best Joey piece so far, and contains many amusing observations about high society customs. "Then around the end of January they were having this ball in honor of the President (Roosevelt) to get up a fund that they would give for this infantile paralasys. Very white of them as they sit around all year and say what a heel he is, and on his birthday they give him this ball ..."
May 13, 1939: Bow Wow
Score! This is the story that shows up in the first act of the play, and it's also a solid piece. Joey meets a sweet-looking mouse peering into a pet shop window, and to make an impression on the young woman he pretends to be a dog-lover. "Then she said why didnt I buy this puppy and I said for the same reason why I didnt buy a Dusenburg, money. Well the effect it had on her was wonderful. I could see tears in her eyes ... I began telling her about Skippy the airdale that I didn't have when I was a kid and pretty soon got to believing it myself, all about how my heart was broken when poor little Skippy was crushed beneath the wheels of a 10 ton truck." In the mus ical, of course, this is the point where Joey starts singing 'I Could Write A Book', and I can almost hear the orchestra cueing up. In lieu of music, the text version provides added detail such as the girl's name (Betty Hardiman) and how long it took Joey to score with her (at least a month).
Oct 7, 1939:Avast and Belay
Nazi Germany has invaded Poland, and Joey is getting patriotic. He urges Ted (who appears to be considerably more successful than Joey at this point) to consider a scheme wherein they both join the Navy and start a Navy jazz band. "Charley said a band like this no doubt would be booked for liberty bond engagements when they start selling liberty bonds to the people. I tho't of an angle there and asked Charley, 'Suppose we are booked into a town to sell these liberty bonds for the government do we get our percent of the gross' but Charley said not with Mr. Whiskers at the gate, nobody cuts in on Mr. Whiskers."
November 25, 1939: Joey on Herta
The DVD copy of this issue (digitized from paper, and stored in PDF facsimile format) contains two charming electronic coffee stains right on the sixth Pal Joey piece. For real. Anyway, our hero has now become a mentor and manager to a young female vocalist, but has no taste for the excruciating details of the music promotion business. "So I entered into the situation and informed them that i would take care of the clothes dept. and out of my own pocket advanced her $9.50 so she could pour herself into a $39.50 no. that showed everything but her scar where she had the appendisetis if she ever had it (some spelling I admit)."
December 23, 1939: Joey on the Cake Line
Joey's down on his luck at Christmastime. "Well Merry Christmas, as the saying goes. Guess I will have to go to bed for 24 hrs so I dont have to stop hating my fellow men."
February 3, 1940: The Erloff
I'm not sure I fully get this piece, and I'm also starting to despair of ever finding the second storyline from the musical, in which an older, married society lady meets Joey at the club, falls in love with him, sings "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered", agrees to fund him in starting his own nightclub, Chez Joey, and then pulls out of the deal when he fails to keep up his side of the gigolo act. I haven't run into this lady yet, and I know there aren't many stories left. This is a typically funny one, but I really don't get the title joke, in which a rich old man refers to everything as "the erloff". Is there a meaning in there somewhere? I always need jokes explained to me, especially jokes from 1940. Anyway, I like the way Joey describes nightclub ambience, as when he describes a singer he does not enjoy: "The old dame got up again and began horse-whipping The Lamp is Low."
March 2, 1940: Even The Greeks
This is a pleasant anecdote about a greek coffee shop in wintertime Chi ("I mean weather that is so cold that the other day this pan handler came up to me and braced me and said I look as if I had a warm heart and I gave him a two-bit piece because if it wasn't for him would not of known if i was alive or frozen to death"). The coffee shop story is also heartwarming, though Joey is not the lead character in the tale and there's less Joey here than usual. Also: three pieces left and still no sign of the elegant society lady.
March 30, 1940: Joey and the Calcutta Club
Another anecdote. O'Hara's getting lazy with these pieces. But the tall tale is a good one, involving a pretty woman with a British accent and a good sob story. Joey picks her up (he thinks) but she ends up scamming him out of some pocket cash. The next day he learns she's played the same game with several other men around the club. They then decide to partner up with her when a new target arrives in town. "You have to admire a girl like that from Buffalo, N.Y. where she is from. That is how English she is."
May 4, 1940: Joey and Mavis
I can't tell for sure, but maybe this is the society dame story I've been waiting for. Except it's quite different from the version in the musical. Her name is Mavis (she's Vera in the play), and she's not married but rather a wealthy widow. And she doesn't fund his dream nightclub, Chez Joey, but instead simply talks of hiring him for a new nightclub she might open. I'm not even sure if this piece is the origin of the musical's female lead, but she's the only rich broad who comes into the club with an entourage while he's performing, so I think this is as close as we'll get. "I do not know how I happen to miss Mavis but I did not see her until I had to go in again and polish off some more dittys and they had a table ringside, and I went over and asked them if they had any request nos. and Mavis asked for two requests but did not have both of them only the Beguin no. The other was an oldy like My Buddy which they were singing during the civil war. I know it but forgot the lyics. She looked around 32 or 33, inclined to take on a little weight but I also like them zoftick as some goose in the band says."
July 13, 1940: A New Career
Is this the last Joey story ever? I don't know for sure, but it's the last one I found amongst hundreds more O'Hara New Yorker pieces. It's a funny little piece in which Joey overhears some compelling music, plunks it out on a piano, and decides he now has a future as a songwriter. Here's his farewell to the increasingly successful Ted, who now has a secretary, and to us:
"I know there is no larceny in you Ted boy so what I am going to do is go to a music store and get one of those recording machines and play the tune and cut a wax of it. I will cut a couple and send one to you so that if you lose it or anything I will still have one and anyway that will show that it was my idea. Then when I send it to you you play it over and see if you think it has possibilities and if so maybe you can get Johnny Mercer or somebody to write some lyrics for it. I will guarantee to let you play it first over the air and who knows but perhaps that is not a new career for me, that of song writer. I have a lot of ideas along this line and only need a little encouragement. My tune can be played as either a rumba or conga, fox trot or waltz. If I could get a good Ascap rating this year I would quit this business in a minute and stop worrying about Harry the explorer. So look in the mail any day now for a record. Be sure and tell your secretary that anything from me is to go to you without opening it.
Digital I: Pal Joey
Labels: The New Yorker