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A Lotus-Eater at the La-La Land Buffet
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Los Angeles Times, 14 September 2004

A Lotus-Eater at the La-La Land Buffet

Robert McCrum

P.G. Wodehouse found Hollywood life fat and easy.

Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Observer in London, is the author of "Wodehouse: A Life," which will be published by Norton in November.

The complex relationship that F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner had with Hollywood has been described on many occasions. Less well known is what happened when P.G. Wodehouse, the English humorist and creator of Jeeves, worked for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the days of Irving Thalberg.

From the first days of the "talkies," Wodehouse was always in the thick of the movie business. He was not alone in flirting with the studios.

The talkies had triggered a new gold rush. Herman Mankiewicz, after a visit to the West Coast, cabled his friend, Ben Hecht, that "millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around."

The moviemakers' desperate need for Broadway talent, for people who could supply dialogue and scenarios, inspired a westward literary stampede. On the musical side, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin would all come to live and work in Beverly Hills. After some nerve-racking negotiations, MGM agreed to pay Wodehouse $2,500 a week for six months, with an option for a further six. Approaching 50, world famous and on top of his form, Wodehouse was about to translate himself to yet another earthly paradise.

He arrived in Hollywood on May 8, 1930, stepping into the Californian sunshine at the Santa Fe depot. His movements were gossip now, and there were reporters there to greet him. "I've always wanted to spend more time in California," the "world's highest-paid short-story writer" told the Los Angeles Examiner.

Wodehouse arranged with the studio to work from home, and he quickly established a Californianized version of his writing routine. "I get up, swim, breakfast, work till two, swim again, work till seven, swim for the third time, then dinner and the day is over," he wrote.

"Add incessant sunshine, and it's really rather jolly. The actual work is negligible," he boasted.

Wodehouse's attitude toward Hollywood was ambivalent. At times, it was "the abode of the damned," at other times, he tried hard to persuade his school friend, Bill Townend, who had knocked about the American West as a young man, to come and join him as a scriptwriter. But in the same letter he wrote, "I think Californian scenery is the most loathsome on Earth  a cross between Coney Island and the Riviera, but by staying in one's garden and shutting one's eyes when one goes out, it's possible to get by."

Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, became well established in Hollywood proper. Their circle included Norma Shearer, Edward G. Robinson, Maureen O'Sullivan and W.C. Fields (whom Wodehouse described as "a louse"). They moved north of Sunset Boulevard to a one-story Spanish-style house with a lovely garden, swimming pool and tennis court.

Wodehouse was swimming three times a day. "The swim I enjoy most is before dinner," he confided to a friend. "I have a red-hot bath and get absolutely boiled, and then race down the back stairs with nothing on and plunge in." During the final months of his MGM contract, in the first half of 1931, he was preoccupied with "Hot Water," a novel he dedicated to O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan, newly arrived from Ireland, recalled that the first time she met him, she found it impossible to feel shy with Wodehouse. "He was large and affable, very English and rather vague, quietly amusing rather than frighteningly witty," she said.

"I can still picture him," she remembered, "floating motionless and happy in the pool, looking at his toes or at the deep blue Californian sky, while presumably working out the next bit of writing complexity."

When on May 9, 1931, MGM did not renew his contract, Wodehouse felt a curious sense of release. Still, shortly before leaving, he fired a parting shot at his erstwhile employers, in a newspaper interview that he later cited as an example of his innocent propensity for landing himself in the soup.

At that time, the film industry was undergoing one of its periodic crises. The crash of 1929 had been followed by a drop in movie attendances. Hollywood seemed to be on the skids. Wodehouse chose that moment to settle scores in an interview with Alma Whitaker of the Los Angeles Times, saying that he'd been paid "$104,000 for loafing" and adding: "I feel as if I have cheated them."

He told The Times: "They set me to work on a story called 'Rosalie.' No, it wasn't my story. But it was a pleasant, light little thing, and no one wanted me to hurry. When it was finished they thanked me politely and remarked that as musicals didn't seem to be going so well, they guessed they would not use it. That about sums up what I was called upon to do for my $104,000. Isn't it amazing?"

Wodehouse maintained that this interview had "the effect [in Hollywood] of the late assassination at Sarajevo," prompting an immediate reappraisal of the studios' spendthrift habits by their East Coast bankers. O'Sullivan confirms that there was substantial resentment after his comments (although Variety, the Motion Picture Herald and Film Daily hardly noticed the flap).

Wodehouse perpetuated the myth of his Hollywood year, later claiming that he had been required to do so little work that he was able "to write a novel and nine short stories, besides brushing up my golf, getting an attractive sun-tan and perfecting my Australian crawl."

He was almost boastful about his pariah status. "My career as a movie-writer has been killed dead by that interview. I am a sort of ogre to the studios now," he told a friend. "I don't care personally, as I don't think I could do picture-writing. It needs a definitely unoriginal mind."

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