Gifts from Writers
This holiday season, I offer frivolity and folksy gifts from writers for friends, fans and first-time readers of this website. I also intend to stay within the borders of my nation where the writers are concerned, although I usually prefer to be a writer without borders.
Maximilian Shulman (March 14, 1919 – August 28, 1988), also known as Max Shulman, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. This son of a Russian-born painter of houses began scribbling stories and poems at the age of four. He went on to conquer the American written idiom in ways that are incomparable. His good humor and the fact that he was good at humor helped his writing to soar above the everyday lowness of life that can bring a person down, way down without the counterbalance of comedy.
He claimed that he was a talented humorist because “. . . life was bitter and I was not. . . All around me was poverty and sordidness. But I refused to see it that way. By turning it into jokes, I made it bearable.”
For the optimists among us, and maybe even the pessimists, Max Shulman offers the gifts of his humorist writing. His characters were . . . characters. He wrote about academia before it became a literary-contact sport. His academicians wore “tweeds . . . so luxurious that there was a covey of grouse in the back pleats.’’
Shulman is perhaps best known for his creation of the college student, “Dobie Gillis.” Mr. Gillis began life in a short story and then progressed (or, depending on your point of view, regressed) to a television character in a situation comedy, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
The tv show was hilarious in spurts. Maynard G. Krebs, the beatnik philosopher-type character was, and is, an archetype of American culture of the late 1950s/early 1960s. In fact, most of the characters are so archetypical that they can be remembered decades later; they still form the basis for routine ripoffs by current digital visual producers.
The rich depth of characters in the show can likely be attributed to the quality of the writing by Shulman. He was amazingly adept at many genres: scriptwriting (for the Gillis tv show); music (theme song for the show and a libretto); novels; and the short story. Shulman preferred to satirize college life way way back when, during a time when college life was meat for satire, not politically correct tofu for theatre of the boringly absurd or the absurdly boring.
I read “Love is a Fallacy” when I was about 12 years old and it had an enormous impact on me. The title alone is a reason to read this clever tale of irony. The following paragraphs comprise the opening to this short story. The first few lines are among the best written by any writer, anywhere, anytime. (And anyone who has watched “Dobie Gillis” will recognize the style, the voice, the humor.
was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute—I was all
of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, precise as a chemist’s scales,
as penetrating as a scalpel. And—think of it!—I only eighteen.
It is not often that one so young has such a giant intellect. Take, for example, Petey Bellows, my roommate at the university. Same age, same background, but dumb as an ox. A nice enough fellow, you understand, but nothing upstairs. Emotional type. Unstable. Impressionable. Worst of all, a faddist. Fads, I submit, are the very negation of reason. To be swept up in every new craze that comes along, to surrender oneself to idiocy just because everybody else is doing it—this, to me, is the acme of mindlessness. Not, however, to Petey."
From the basic illogic of love, we now venture forth into the basic logic of life in a heat wave. Once upon a summertime in Hollywood, California . . . (which is to say, any summer in California), there was a composer and a lyricist, dreaming of cooler days, wishing for the heat wave to break, hoping and praying the weather gods would . . . Let It Snow!
Sammy Cahn was the clever musician who wrote the lyrics to the ever-popular Christmas tune composed by Jule Styne: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Even in regions where snow has never appeared, this song rings jingle bells during that special time of year! For Mr. Cahn, the year this bell first jingled was 1945. Since then, this song has been sung and played every year by countless scores of people. Everyone has a favorite version. Mine is by Dean Martin who did not originate the song (Vaughn Monroe did); but Dean tended to make a song his own, even though he never sang any song the same way twice.
Lyricist Sammy Cahn (1913-1993) was born Samuel Cohen on the Lower East Side of New York City, an honest-to-goodness, real-life “neighborhood” where mostly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe lived and produced quiet geniuses like Sammy. He was not the only musical child in his family but he was the only son. His four sisters played piano. Samuel’s mother deemed the piano a woman’s instrument and so her son was given lessons for the violin. Perhaps Mrs. Cohen wished for her son to become a classical musician. Such wishes do not always come true.
Sammy opted for Dixieland and vaudeville and it was this second venue that made its mark early, during adolescence, and permanently on the future lyricist. He worked what is now called “odd jobs” (freight-elevator operator, restaurant cashier, usher at a motion-picture theater) while he dreamed of words to put to music. In later years, he stated:
“I think a sense of vaudeville is very strong in anything I do, anything I write. They even call it a ‘vaudeville finish,’ and it comes through in many of my songs. Just sing the end of ‘All the Way’ or ‘Three Coins in the Fountain,’ — ‘Make it mine, make it mine, MAKE IT MINE!’
If you let people know they should applaud, they will applaud.”
Before Samuel Cohen could make anything his in the professional sense of the word, he first had to make a name for himself in the professional sense of the word. It might have been creating the various permutations of his surname that led to yet another vaudeville finish: first he changed Cohen to Kahn to avoid being mistaken for Sammy Cohen, an MGM actor and comedian. He then changed Kahn to Cahn to prevent any confusion with Gus Kahn, a fellow lyricist.
The possibility of identity confusion was quickly jettisoned whenever a tune with romantic (and catchy) lyrics by Sammy Cahn was sung or played. Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Dinah Washington, Mario Lanza (“Be My Love” was written for him), Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, Peggy Lee, Perry Como, and many other vocal artists — they all scored with a musical score that contained lyrics by Sammy Cahn.
Professional honors, recognition, and awards to this lyricist were extensive (during a time when such acclaim was fiercely contested and highly merited): 26 Academy Award nominations, 4 Academy Awards, 5 Golden Globe Awards, 1 Emmy Award. Cahn also wrote lyrics for television theme songs and motion picture scores. To some degree, his talents and success were so vast and so memorable that today they are often forgotten.
So whenever you hear, “Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful . . .” Thank Sammy Cahn (and Jules Styne) and those infernal California heat waves that cause creative people to dream of winter in the middle of July!
The final gift from writers contains “the common touch” from a man who was far from common. Original, lively, honest and ingenious, Edgar Guest was born in 1881 in Birmingham, England. In 1891, he moved with his family to the United States; he became a naturalized citizen in 1902. His work was largely published in the Detroit Free Press, the newspaper where he worked first as a copy boy and then as a reporter.
The writing of Guest was home-spun with an optimism that we sorely miss today. His somewhat sentimental, always inspirational poems were popular, prolific and unobtrusively polished. They numbered approximately 11,000 and were syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. Guest lived and wrote during the era of the powerful press in the U.S., a time that has long since left this nation. There persists, nonetheless, in the U.S. the vital need for the virtuous, sound ideas; lofty ideals; common sense insight; stick-to-itiveness; honesty and the American way — that were expressed in his uplifting poetry.
Edgar Guest was honored by the State of Michigan as its Poet Laureate, the only one to date. From 1931-1942 he hosted a weekly radio show in Detroit, and then in 1951 a television series, “A Guest in Your Home.”
The People’s Poet died in 1959. Along with “Home,” “A Patriot,” “Secret of the Ages,” “The Common Joys,” “The Gold Star,” and so many others, the poems, “At Christmas” and “Hope” ensure the exceptional immortality of Edgar Albert Guest:
A man is at his finest towards the finish of the year;
He is almost what he should be when the Christmas season's here;
Then he's thinking more of others than he's thought the months before,
And the laughter of his children is a joy worth toiling for.
He is less a selfish creature than at any other time;
When the Christmas spirit rules him he comes close to the sublime.
When it's Christmas man is bigger and is better in his part;
He is keener for the service that is prompted by the heart.
All the petty thoughts and narrow seem to vanish for awhile
And the true reward he's seeking is the glory of a smile.
Then for others he is toiling and somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas he is almost what God wanted him to be.
If I had to paint a picture of a man I think I'd wait
Till he'd fought his selfish battles and had put aside his hate.
I'd not catch him at his labors when his thoughts are all of pelf,
On the long days and the dreary when he's striving for himself.
I'd not take him when he's sneering, when he's scornful or depressed,
But I'd look for him at Christmas when he's shining at his best.
Man is ever in a struggle and he's oft misunderstood;
There are days the worst that's in him is the master of the good,
But at Christmas kindness rules him and he puts himself aside
And his petty hates are vanquished and his heart is opened wide.
Oh, I don't know how to say it, but somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas man is almost what God sent him here to be.
Mine is a song of hope
For the days that lie before;
For the grander things
The morrow brings
When the struggle days are o'er.
Dark be the clouds to-day,
Bitter the winds that blow,
But falter nor fail,
Through the howling gale-
Comes peace in the afterglow.
Mine is the song of hope,
A song for the mother here,
Who lulls to rest
The babe at breast,
And hopes for a brighter year.
Hope is the song she sings,
Hope is the prayer she prays;
As she rocks her boy,
She dreams of the joy
He'll bring in the future days.
Mine is the song of hope,
A song for the father, too,
Whose right arm swings,
While his anvil sings
A song of the journey through.
Hope is the star that guides,
Hope is the father's sun;
Far ahead he sees,
Through the waving trees,
Sweet peace when his work is done.
Mine is the song of hope,
Of hope that sustains us all;
Be we young or old,
Be we weak or bold,
Do we falter or even fall,
Brightly the star of hope
From the distance is shining still;
And with courage new
We rise to do,
For hope is the God of Will.
It is my fervent hope that you savor these holidays with hope and cheer and goodwill to everyone you meet. May you grant thanksgiving to each day that comes your way.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!