Meeting fetes a remarkable humorist
"To be a humorist," warned Englishman P.G. Wodehouse, possibly the finest and most prolific in history, "one must see the world out of focus. You must, in other words, be slightly cock-eyed."
He specialized, Wodehouse liked to say, in "jolly nonsense."
Over the weekend, as the Wodehouse (pronounced "Woodhouse") Society took over the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel for an international convention, the wizard of droll humor and farce seemed to be scripting events behind the scenes.
One sign was the hotel's endlessly sounding fire alarm - a zany mood-enhancer once its temperamental tic became clear, driving people fond of plastic black top hats to venture out for evacuation breaks.
Even more Wodehousian was the big lottery drawing. It threatened the kind of insoluble problem that normally calls for the author's unflappable Jeeves, the ingenious valet who routinely gets his master, Bertie Wooster, out of jams.
Norman Murphy, eccentric head of the 800-member P.G. Wodehouse Society of England, was antically drawing tickets from one of the black hats. Uncannily, Murphy managed þ three times in a row þ to pull a ticket belonging to the same person: Jean Cillfon, a longtime member from Boston.
"Are there any numbers you didn't buy?" groaned local member Herb Westbrook.
"Sit down," ordered amused master of ceremonies David McDonough, a Philadelphia writer, as Cillfon headed back to the podium for the third time.
"I bought five tickets," Cillfon explained afterwards, unapologetically. "They obviously didn't stir them up very well."
Wodehouseans like that kind of whimsy, as they like wry asides, Edwardian scenes, sculpted sentences, laugh-out-loud metaphors and quick wit. Conducting "The Great Wodehouse Quiz" on Saturday, McDonough listened as people called out the names of sisters of Lord Emsworth. At the mention of one, he remarked, "Is that your final Anne, sir?"
So naturally they adore the inexhaustible playfulness of their man. The Master, as they call Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, was born in 1881 in Guildford, England, and raised mainly by aunts. He began by writing short stories for boys' magazines. He ended by producing 96 books. Half his novels from 1915 to 1945 were first published in Philadelphia in the Saturday Evening Post.
His fictional universe features not just Jeeves and Wooster, but enduring characters such as Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge. Wodehouse Society members use characters' names in e-mail chat, so their name tags carried their "nom de Plum" (Wodehouse's nickname was "Plum.")
Wodehouse also flourished in musical theater. (An Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, By Jeeves, is headed to Broadway this month.) After World War II, Wodehouse moved to the United States, where some of his novels and stories take place, and lived here until his death in 1975 at age 93.
Standing over his display table of Wodehouse-iana, Tony Ring, editor of the United Kingdom Wodehouse Society's newsletter, said people turn to the work because they know there's nothing in it "that's going to make you think deeply or tragically."
"We're sort of Trekkies in an older and, I think, far better form," said Daniel Cohen, 65, a prolific author himself and "gofer" at the convention for wife Susan, also a writer. As the incoming president of the American Wodehouse Society (whose first chapter began in Philadelphia in the early 1980s), she brought the convention here.
Is Wodehouse's escapism OK at a time of crisis? No one knows better than the Cohens, longtime fans who live in Cape May Court House, N.J. Last year, they published a different sort of book: Pan Am 103. Their 20-year-old daughter, Theodora, was on the flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people.
Afterward, said Susan Cohen, sitting outside the hotel ballroom, Wodehouse's work became more important to her: "I began to read it as I had never read it before. I played the tapes at night when I couldn't sleep."
It was not, she said, a matter "of things going back to normal. My life will never be normal again." Rather, she said, "I found that I could laugh at Wodehouse when I was depressed and couldn't laugh at anything else. . . . He is the best medicine."
In Wodehouse, Daniel Cohen said, "you find a certain gentleness. It's not a cruel humor."
That spirit energized the convention's dramatic hit, "The Mirth of a Nation," which mixed American history and Wodehousian characters. It ended on a rousing chorus, sung to "Yankee Doodle Dandy":
Philadelphia, keep it up,
Mind your music and your step,
And keep your Wodehouse handy!