The New Yorker, 15 October 1960 (Posted 2004-04-12)
Geoffrey T. Hellman.
A man’s best friend is not his publisher. We got a letter from Simon &
Schuster the other day saying that P. G. Wodehouse was going to have his
eightieth birthday on October 15th; that on that date they were issuing a
large collection of his choicest pieces, “The Most of P. G. Wodehouse;” and
that, in further celebration, they planned to run a “salute” to him in the
Times, “with the signatures of some fifty well-known writers and theatre
people.” Jeeves, the perfect butler, and Bertie Wooster, his employer, have
been friends of ours since childhood, and besides we always like to get in
touch with a spry octogenarian, especially when he has long had the
reputation of being the funniest writer in the world, so we called Mr. W.
up at his home, in Remsenburg, on the South Shore of Long Island, and were
rewarded with an invitation to lunch. “My wife tells me to warn you that
the grounds are in a terrible mess, as Donna uprooted eighteen of our
trees, and I don’t suppose the debris will be cleared away by the time you
get here,” he said, so it was with no surprise, as we drove down a lane to
the Wodehouses’ house, the we found ourself in a dendrological jumble.
Fallen boughs and cut-off trunks abounded; workmen were sitting around
consuming beer and sandwiches; and the master, in a checked odd coat and
gray slacks, greeted us on a littered lawn with a rueful smile.
“About five or six thousand dollars’ worth of damage,” he said. “We’ve had
five workmen here every day for days. Every tree was dancing about. We were
without electricity and water for three days. We’d been warned of the
hurricane, so we filled the two bathtubs, but the water all leaked out in a
couple of hours. I took my morning bath in that birdbath in the garden.
Luckily, we have a gas stove, so we were able to have hot meals.”
“Congratulations on being about to be eighty,” we said.
“Save them,” Mr. Wodehouse said. “I’m going to be seventy-nine. Simon &
Schuster got it wrong, but I’m very fond of them as publishers. However, I
am working on my eightieth book. My first was published in 1902, when I was
twenty-one—it wasn’t anything much—and Jeeves started in 1916, so I suppose
he must be ninety-six. The critics often hold this time element against me.
In my latest Jeeves novel, published this year, I referred to something as
having happened ‘the previous summer’—it was, in point of fact, the
presentation of prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School by Gussie
Fink-Nottle—and a reviewer in the London Times Literary Supplement pointed
out that it had happened twenty-six years ago, but I never can see that
this matters; Perry Mason never gets any older. I’m very fond of my
characters, but I suppose the Jeeves series must be approaching its end.
You have to find some trouble for Bertie to get into, and it’s hard for a
man with a large private income to keep getting into trouble. It was very
difficult to know what to do with my characters after the war. I suppose a
fellow like Jeeves is unthinkable now, and yet life doesn’t seem so much
different to what it was—at least, in England. I think the upper classes
must be doing it on capital. My son-in-law, Peter Cazalet, who trains race
horses—my ex-stepson-in-law, to be precise—has a butler, a chef, a valet,
all that sort of thing. I think there’s more snobbishness in England now
than there ever was. To me, my books are sort of historical novels.”
We followed him to a sunny flagstone terrace overlooking the garden, and
Mrs. Wodehouse appeared from the house with a pitcher of Martinis. “We used
to have a penthouse at 1000 Park Avenue,” she said. “Then, a few years ago,
we moved out here on a year-round basis. I rarely leave the place except to
market in Westhampton, ten minutes away. I haven’t been to New York in four
years, I’m so busy feeding the birds. I got up at three this morning to
“Owls?” we asked.
“Blue jays and quail, mostly,” she said. “I didn’t want them to be
disappointed when they came in the early morning. I always see their point
of view. I throw bags of nuts all over the park for the squirrels, and we
have two cats and a dachshund to take care of.”
She indicated a dog that had curled up between the back of Mr. Wodehouse’s
neck and a canvas chair. “I always write in the morning, and then take the
hound for a three-mile walk after lunch,” its owner said. “I still touch my
toes fifty times every morning. The daily dozen. I’ve done those exercises
since 1919, when I read an article about them by Walter Camp in Collier’s.
You sort of twist your body about while standing up. They seem to be good,
but I suppose one of these days I’ll just come apart.”
After two Martinis apiece, we sat down in the dining room to an excellent
lunch, served by a pretty maid called Lynn. “We’ve given her a car,” Mrs.
Wodehouse said as Lynn went to the kitchen. “She and the cook, Gracie, come
by the day. We have to have dinner at six-fifteen. Gracie lives in
Riverhead, and her husband comes for her at night. Plummie and I will have
been married forty-six years next week. He’s such a darling that it’s
beyond all understanding. I call him Plummie for ‘Pelham;’ it’s Pelham
Grenville Wodehouse, you know. The head of the Wodehouse family is the Earl
“I’d love to have had a nom de plume, like ‘Tab Hunter’ or ‘Mark Twain,’“
Mr. Wodehouse said.
“Plummie is absolutely a creature of habit,” his wife said. “He’s never
missed his exercises.”
“I get up at eight and make my breakfast—toasted black bread, with honey,
and five cups of tea,” Mr. W. said.
“Then he brings my breakfast up,” Mrs. W. said. “After a morning’s writing,
he goes to the television just before noon and—bang—turns on ‘Love of
Life.’ He loves ‘Love of Life.’“
“A capital soap opera,” Mr. W. said. “In the afternoon, after walking the
dog, I try to do some more work.”
“At five-fifteen, he has a bath,” Mrs. W. said. “Then we have two
Martinis—we don’t ordinarily drink before lunch, though we did today, in
your honor—before our early dinner.”
“In the evening, we sort of mess about,” her husband said. “We may play
double-dummy bridge. We see one or two neighbors, but no parties. I
correspond a bit with Evelyn Waugh.”
Lunch over, we regained the terrace, by way of the living room, where Mrs.
Wodehouse paused to show us a photograph of Mr. Cazalet at the Grand
National, with the Queen Mother. “He married my daughter by my first
husband, who died in India in 1910,” Mrs. W. said. “I have two
grandchildren by Peter. My daughter died seventeen years ago, and Peter
remarried. He has a three-thousand-acre park, called Fairlawne, in Kent.”
Back on the terrace, our host advised us that both he and his wife have
become American citizens.
“They asked us some incredible questions,” she said. “They asked me if I
had ever been a prostitute. ‘You’re quite sure you’ve never been a
prostitute?’ they said. ‘I’m not attractive enough, honestly,’ I said.”
“It’s like being elected to a very good club,” her husband remarked.
“Plummie loves America,” Mrs. W. said. “He loves A. T. & T. He loves the
dividend. He gets five hundred dollars and I get five hundred dollars. We
used to send parcels to England but now they have everything there.”
“You know, I’m always very glad when the summer is over and everything
comes to life. For instance, the theatre,” Mr. Wodehouse said as he walked
with us to our car. “I suppose my work is pretty juvenile—some people seem
to want something more mature these days—and when you’ve written about
eighty books and they’re always exactly the same Edwardian stuff, it’s
sometimes difficult to churn it out, but I love to write, and enough people
still seem to like it. Now, Michael Arlen hated writing, and he gave it up,