S. J. Perelman A Life, by Dorothy Herrmann. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. 337 pp. $18.95. The Roaring '20s. The Jazz Age. The decade syncopated to the talents of brilliant cartoonists, caricaturists, and writers gilding everything with zany irreverence, peppy put-ons, and practical jokes on everybody.
``Put an egg in your shoe and beat it'' was a college wisecrack made in 1924 by that preeminent creature of the '20s, S. J. Perelman. But the decade grew older, and Perelman grew up.
Ambitious to be a cartoonist, he first drew for his college magazine, The Brown Jug, at Brown University, then later for Judge magazine. His work was decorative, artistic, up-to-date, but soon not quite as funny as the captions.
His first cartoon for Judge was entitled ``The Flighty Pair.'' It has a rather surreal quality, with two men being tossed in the air through clouds: ``Don't breathe a word, Casper -- but I think Lord Percy is horribly fastidious.''
``You said it, Dalmatia. He even insists on being measured for his coat of arms.''
As his captions grew longer and better, the drawings disappeared, and he joined the company of writers such as Robert Benchley, James Thurber, and Dorothy Parker.
Dorothy Herrmann gives us an even-handed, on-the-mark study of the often-sad, often-angry, but well-tailored man behind the jester. Her book lays out the topography and sociology of Perelman's life, his marital and family problems, his infidelities and wandering ways, his difficulties with friendships.
Elegant Nathanael West, later famous for his novels ``Miss Lonelyhearts'' and ``The Day of the Locust,'' became one of Perelman's best friends at Brown, giving him an example of how to dress well. Later he became his brother-in-law when Perelman married West's sister Laura. The death of Mr. West in a car crash was a crucial tragedy in the Perelmans' lives.
Perelman wrote for all the popular arts: print (books and magazines, including The New Yorker); Broadway (he launched Mary Martin on her career with his hit ``One Touch of Venus''); Hollywood (he won an Oscar for his screenplay for ``Around the World in Eighty Days''). Later he wrote scripts for TV.
His first successful book, ``Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge,'' had been endorsed by none other than Groucho Marx, who quipped: ``From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.''
Thus encouraged, Perelman worked on two of the Marx brothers' films, ``Monkey Business'' and ``Horse Feathers.'' The manic Marxes and the literary Perelman were an explosive combination from the beginning, and it was an experience he would complain about for the rest of his life.
But he complained about most everything. Publishers, critics, whoever might dare try to edit his copy. He had a long list. He could not stand -- among many, many things -- the A. A. Milne stories. In a tale about a sea serpent that wanted to devour the creator of Winnie the Pooh, he versified: ``He wants to eat that A. A. Milne,/ Whose writings are so quaint,/ I'm glad of that because they fill me/ With a tendency to faint.''
Many projects and scripts foundered along the way. One outstanding failure was an effort to get rich on Broadway with a show he wrote with Ogden Nash and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Maybe this prompted the line ``A hush fell over the audience, and had to be removed by the ushers.''
Perelman's intricate use of words belongs to the printed page. But he eventually felt that the age of written satire, parody, and whimsy had passed him by.
Human folly, as he saw it through his steel-rimmed spectacles, was magnified to the point of absurdity, and his own humanity redeemed it with laughter.
Here he is, using some of that language in a piece taking off on inflation:
``As recently as 1918, it was possible for a housewife in Providence, where I grew up, to march into a store with a five-cent piece, purchase a firkin of cocoa butter, a good second-hand copy of Bowditch, a hundredweight of quahogs, a shagreen spectacle case and sufficient nainsook for a corset cover, and emerge with enough left over to buy a balcony admission to `The Masquerader' with Guy Bates Post, and a box of maxixe cherries.''
Humor writing is no joke, and if his humor darkened at the end, nevertheless he was still sketching some brilliant captions for the world around him. In fact, he wrote that ``Before they made Perelman, they broke the mold.''