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75 Years Of 'Pal Joey'


Joey Evans was a lowlife heel who bragged, charmed, cheated and lied his way into low-watt stardom. But as characters go, he sure lasted. It's been 75 years since Pal Joey, as he signed his letters, wrote to his pal Ted from Chicago, quote, "I am singing for coffee and cakes at a crib on Cottage Grove Avenue here. It isn't much of a spot, but they say it is lucky, as four or five singers and musicians who worked here went from here to big thing and I am hoping." He always did. Joey's letters were chapters in John O'Hara's novel "Pal Joey," which also became a Rodgers and Hart musical.


VIVIENNE SEGAL: (As Vera Simpson, singing) I'm wild again, beguiled again, a simpering, whimpering child again, bewitched, bothered and bewildered am I...

SIMON: Vivienne Segal, of course, from the original stage version. Penguin Classics has published a 75th anniversary presentation of the O'Hara novel and the libretto and lyrics of the musical. The book's foreword is by Thomas Mallon, the novelist and critic who joins us in our studios. Tom, thanks so much of being with us.

THOMAS MALLON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Tell us about Joey. I was going to call him a cad, and then I realized in many ways he's mostly an aspiring cad. He's not successful enough to be a cad.

MALLON: Yeah. In this introduction, I compare him to other figures of, you know, films and books at the time, like Sammy Glick or Sidney Falco, the press agent in "Sweet Smell Of Success." And he's actually - he's a lot softer. He's an operator, but there's a kind of softness to him, which is I think why he doesn't get any further than he does.

SIMON: Is part of his charm - if I might use that word - the way he fractures the language?

MALLON: Yes, and O'Hara is an absolute genius at this. O'Hara was probably the most gifted writer of dialogue in mid-20th century American fiction. And when he gets around to fracturing dialogue the way people do in real life, he's very funny. He doesn't overdo it. It bounces right up from the page at you. If you read the sentences out loud - and of course what he did was adapt his book for the stage so they could be read out loud - they just land on a dime, all of them.

SIMON: As you read through the book, which, by the way, I never had, so thank you for introducing me to it - certainly was familiar with the play and the film. His pal Ted is a band leader. His career is taking off. Joey seems to be stuck in middle gear in Chicago. Now, John O'Hara, by many standards, including sales, is one of the most successful writers in the English language. He wrote more stories, in fact, for The New Yorker than anyone else, including John Updike. But a little bit like Joey, did he yearn...

MALLON: Oh, sure, yeah. I mean, O'Hara came out of Pottsville, Penn., which turns up as Gibbsville in his books. He had not gotten the Ivy League education that he could have, but he was obsessively attracted to things like Brooks Brothers clothes. I said in an essay I wrote many years ago about him that he mentions Brooks Brothers so often that he should've been on commission all of those years. And he had a tremendous chip on his shoulder. He didn't think he was sufficiently appreciated by critics and so forth. So yes, he definitely identifies with the aspirational side of Joey.

SIMON: Yeah. And why don't we mention O'Hara in the same breath of some other novelists who are remembered from that time? Or maybe we should. You do.

MALLON: I describe him, I think, somewhere as being, you know, one of the light heavyweights of American fiction. Writers like him, writers like Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, they don't quite get up to that top rung of Parnassus with Hemingway and Faulkner and Fitzgerald.

He had tremendous flaws. He had much too much reverence for the idea of the great American novel, so his later books were enormously long, too long. And "Pal Joey" is modern in the sense that it's what we would call today a book of linked stories. It started as a single short story. He'd been on a bender for a few days. He was feeling, as he says, like the worst person, and he was in a hotel trying to write, feeling guilty toward his wife. And he sort of did penance by coming up with somebody he felt was as big a heel as he was. And he wrote this story and it was popular, and they asked for more. And so they became a kind of, you know, sequential series of stories, but it's not even strictly speaking a novel.

SIMON: Do you think we're poised to rediscover John O'Hara?

MALLON: You know, I thought about this writing this introduction 25 years after I wrote that essay. And that essay contains a quote from a friend of mine, Fran Kiernan, who was the editor at The New Yorker for many years, and she said in 1990, or around that time, that O'Hara was not ripe for revival because all that information in him that art craved, it was too dated to be useful but not old enough to be exotic, so she thought, you know, enough time had to pass. But I think maybe by now it has. I mean, I thought of all the things when I was writing this little intro for "Pal Joey." I thought of all the things that would require footnotes for some modern readers. You know, do they really know even what a stenographer is? Do they know the names of columnists? All of these things have receded far into the past, so maybe it's his time.

SIMON: Yeah. I made a note from Larry Hart's lyrics - he's a fool and don't I know it, but a fool can have his charms.

MALLON: And he did. He kind of was a writer who could overstay his welcome, but in small doses I think he is absolutely top-notch.


ELLA FITZGERALD: (Singing) He's a fool and don't I know it, but a fool can have his charms. I'm in love and don't I show it...

SIMON: Thomas Mallon, whose latest novel is "Finale: A Novel Of The Reagan Years." He's written the foreword to a special Penguin Classics edition of John's O'Hara's novel "Pal Joey" and the Rodgers and Hart musical it became. Tom, thanks so much.

MALLON: Thanks very much.


FITZGERALD: (Singing) Since this half-pint in imitation put me on the blink. I've sinned. I mean a lot. But I'm like sweet 17 a lot, bewitched...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News with Ella Fitzgerald and I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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