The Time of Laughter
By Corey Ford (1967)
Foreword (by Frank Sullivan)
THE TIME OF LAUGHTER. It is a proper title for Corey Ford’s account of New York and Hollywood in the Twenties and early Thirties, that lively era before the storm clouds gathered. Ford himself was a cause of a good deal of the laughter of that time. I can think of no American humorist who excelled him in the subtle art of parody. The parodies of the then current best sellers he wrote for Vanity Fair under the name of John Riddell are still fresh in the memory of readers they delighted. (They did not usually amuse the authors of the books he impaled.) I wish he were in a mood to take on some of the stark novels of today, the output of the solemn, humor-less emancipators of the four-letter words, so like little boys chalking dirty words on sidewalks.
Ford has done an entertaining job of recalling the years he has chosen to chronicle; the fun-makers and humorists of those days, and the world they moved in. I cannot think of an ornament of the period he has not placed in the proper niche and to whom he has not given proper appreciation. It was a pleasant time on the whole, full of agreeable souls who had a lot of fun along with their share of cares, and were not unduly given to self-pity. I doubt if Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern, or Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds at the Mitre, had any more fun or any more good fellowship than Mr. Benchley, Harold Ross, Heywood Broun, Marc Connelly, and their friends had at the Algonquin, Bleeck’s, Moriarty’s, and “21.”
Ford enjoyed his white elephant for a number of years, then tired of it and sold it at a sacrifice, and with some difficulty. He moved to the livelier and more congenial Hanover, to which to date he has not imported any trees, nor, as far as I know, any snow in January.
The syndicated philosophers tell us of the geriatric bloc not to dwell upon the past. Live for today, they urge. Well, a hell of a today to live for is all I can say. I plan to dwell on the past anytime I choose, especially the past Corey Ford recounts here, and I thank him for reviving a charming era so vividly, and bringing to life so many lively and dear people, with whom I have laughed and drunk and argued and in general made the welkin ring.
The welkins you hear ringing today sound flat to me.
This Side of Parodies
Vanity Fair prided itself on being a pioneer. It was the earliest magazine to recognize Negro artists, portrayed in Steichen’s lovely camera studies of Paul Robeson and Florence Mills, the popular torch singer of Bye, Bye, Blackbird, or in his dramatic photograph of the March to the Promised Land in The Green Pastures. It introduced modern painters like Marie Laurencin and Raoul Dufy, causing its advertisers to protest about the “decadent and distorted” art in the magazine. There were cartoons by Punch’s George Belcher, wax figurines by Hidalgo (who described himself, with a straight face, as a half Aztec sculptor), and full-color caricatures by William Cotton and Miguel Covarrubias.
Its pages, as you look back over them today, are a faithful record of the era. Among the pictured or cartooned celebrities of the theater and politics and sport (and so many of them have already retreated into the shadows) were Nazimova, Tilly Losch, Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur, Lillian Gish, the Barrymores, the Lunts, the Astaires, the Sitwells; Katherine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Clarence Darrow, photographed by Steichen at the time of the Leopold-Loeb trial: George Bellows’s canvas of Dempsey being knocked out of the ring by Firpo; Henry Ford, Winston Churchill, Max Schmehng, William T. Tilden, Amelia Earhart, and Aimee Semple Mc- Pherson, who was nominated for Oblivion along with Chic Sale, Raymond Duncan, Ursula (Ex-Wife) Parrott, Lou Tellegen, Belle Livingston, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Queen Marie of Rumania.
My Ugly Roomer
Today Sullivan is the dean of living American humorists; his essays have been collected in half a dozen books (the title of one, Broccoli and Old Lace, was adapted by Lindsay and Crouse for their Broadway hit) and reprinted in countless anthologies; but never, for my taste, has he surpassed the dizzy heights of his “Interview with Lillian Gish,” written for the Sunday drama page of the World. Mr. Sullivan, it develops, has forced his way past the Gish butler by the ingenious device of tossing a wig of golden curls about his head and posing as Mary Pickford. He and Miss Gish embrace, and then she holds him at arm’s length, and studies him more closely. “But you’re not Mary Pickford,” she says after a moment of deliberation.
“I’m sorry,” Sullivan explains glibly. “I’m the President of the United States.’’
Miss Gish sneers. “Oh, you are, are you? Very well, then, perhaps you can explain who this gentleman is!” and she opens a curtain, and there in the conservatory stands President Coolidge.
“I made a mistake,” apologizes Sullivan. “I’m not the Presi- dent, of course. I’m really the Vice-President.”
“Is that so!” says the butler, and snatching off his side-whiskers he stands revealed as Vice-President Dawes.
Things are coming too fast for Sullivan. He decides to make a clean breast of it.
“My intentions were honest,” he tells them. “I was only trying to draw Miss Gish into an interview. I won’t lie to you anymore. I’m Frank Sullivan.”
They all start laughing, and President Coolidge says, “Is that so!” and opens a door, and there stands Frank Sullivan. . . .