F.P.A.: Manhattan erudition with a human face. Admiring the view from `The Conning Tower'

F.P.A.: The Life and Times of Franklin Pierce Adams, by Sally Ashley. New York: Beaufort Books, Publishers. $18.95. FRANKLIN P. Adams. Who he? I borrow the famous query that Harold Ross scribbled beside names when he was editing manuscripts for The New Yorker magazine he had founded. But it's borrowed only on behalf of the three or four generations today who may have to ask who Adams was - a question that this book jauntily addresses. It would not have to be asked by those who go back 40 or 50 years to ``Information Please'' on the radio, where Adams was a pixie-professorial panelist. Or by those who go even further back to his long-running ``Conning Tower'' newspaper column, in which F.P.A. drew together light verse and prose by himself and many others. Certainly Ross would not have had to ``who he?'' F.P.A. For Adams served with Ross on the United States Army newspaper Stars and Stripes in World War I, steered him to financial backing for his new magazine in the 1920s, and provided an early newspaper showcase for James Thurber, Robert Benchley, E.B. White, and other writers who would become mainstays of The New Yorker.

After F.P.A.'s passing in 1960, White offered one of the particular reasons F.P.A. still calls on our attention: ``There are still plenty of writers alive today who will testify that the high point in their lives was not the first check in the mail from a publication but the first time at the top of the [Conning] Tower looking down in the morning at the whole city of New York.... Frank Adams gave a young writer three precious gifts: discipline, a sense of gaiety, a brief moment in the sun.''

Sally Ashley doesn't happen to quote these lines, but she brings together enough other information to convey the remarkable role played by F.P.A.'s column before its rather unengaged folksy/literate fun fell out of step with the times. By the late '70s, the column was being looked back on as ``pretentious chitchat'' by Jonathan Yardley, the biographer of Ring Lardner, one of the writers who had contributed to it.

Yet there remains something engaging, if not engaged, about echoes from ``The Conning Tower'' and its predecessor column ``Always in Good Humor'' (something of a misnomer). Engaging, at least, to a Midwesterner like me transplanted, as Adams was, to the East. (Author Asher confesses that she made the same move, which perhaps has something to do with the sympathetic touch of her Adams chronicle.) Listening to ``Information Please'' out in the sticks, we loved the Manhattan erudition with a human face (or voice, until segments began to appear as movie short subjects when we could actually see our celebrated friends).

Ms. Ashley succinctly suggests that Adams was part of a transition from the frontier humor tradition of storytelling and tall tales to the fleeting wit of word and intellect. The latter has remained prominent in American comedy right on up (or down) to the one-liners of today's stand-up comedians and talk-show guests. Humorists now may not risk assuming the classical knowledge on the part of readers and listeners that F.P.A. assumed in literary parodies mixing doggerel and antique puns. But even a Johnny Carson risks jokes that contain topical allusions, and audiences, like us boy Midwesterners of the past, enjoy the sense of ``getting it.''

As Ashley notes, Adams did bequeath to the language that ``Tinker to Evers to Chance'' line of verse. It has enshrined the names of the Chicago Cubs double-play experts more securely perhaps than their baseball record as a whole.

And she might have mentioned Adams's rejoinder to the line ``What this country needs is a good five-cent cigar'': ``What this country needs is a good five-cent nickel.'' Or what Adlai Stevenson attributed to Adams during Stevenson's presidential campaign in 1952: ``The average man is a great deal above the average.''

With the quoting of some bygone ethnic-stereotype humor the author hints at how far America has come - at least in the aboveground arena of the public prints. And there is interesting lore about some of F.P.A.'s friends and colleagues, such as how Benchley's hilarious ``Treasurer's Report'' evolved from high jinks among ``Conning Tower'' contributors.

But this book - for all the nostalgia, for all the bits that let us happily groan and remember ``You had to be there'' - would need something more to be wholly persuasive biography, especially in regard to the Adamses' private life, including F.P.A.'s mental decline in later years. The speculations on reasons for alcoholism among the smart set and for F.P.A.'s own gambling seem rather thin. And, though some information seems to have come from his children as well as the sources in the bibliography, there are no notes, and the author simply states some things that a reader would like to see attributed.

Adding in at least a small way to a sense of uncertainty is the irony that there is a misspelled word right opposite the delicious quotation from Adams on his theater reviewing: ``Maybe I don't know good acting from bad, but no commentator on matters of the theatre is a better speller than I am.'' Thus sensitized, a reader can't help noticing other misspellings as they come along, not to mention one complete paragraph repeated on a page.

Evidently the book did not have the meticulous editing of an F.P.A., following his column practically to the printing press to get things right. But such disappointments don't erase a Midwesterner's vicarious pleasure in the saga of Adams leaving Chicago, making it in New York, but never forgetting where he came from. As in this line from his column: ``It takes only 18 hours to get to Chicago. But what's the use?''

F.P.A. and the cronies gathered here give the lie to a line from Ambrose Bierce on the first page of Adams's last book, ``F.P.A.'s Book of Quotations'' (1952), a volume we still have in our office library: ``In the last analysis ability is commonly found to consist mainly in a high degree of solemnity.''

My desk is cleared of the litter of ages;

Before me glitter the fair white pages;

My fountain pen is cleared and filled,

And the noise of the office has long been stilled.

Roget's Thesaurus is at my hand

And I'm ready to do some work that's grand. . . .

All of the proud ingredients mine

To build, like Marlowe, the mighty line.

But never a line from my new-filled pen

That couldn't be done by a child of ten. F.P.A.

Roderick Nordell is the Monitor's feature editor.

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