Ideas and Observations

Roger Starr
The Education of L*E*O R*O*S*T*E*N
Spring 1994

Readers of The New Yorker magazine of August 22, 1936, must have been startled to find it leading off with a “casual”—the New Yorker’s in-house term for fiction—by an unknown author who called himself Leonard Q. Ross. Even more unexpected was Ross’s exploitation of dialect as a source of humor and the development of character. The magazine’s humorist contributors, including S.J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, James Thurber, and Frank Sullivan, did not generally rely on dialect, practicing their art in the characteristic clarity of the magazine’s prose.

That first story to appear in The New Yorker was entitled “The Rather Baffling Case of Mr. K*A*P*L*A*N.” Its mise-en-scène, the fictional American Night Preparatory School for Adults, was the setting of all the subsequent Leonard Q. Ross stories, numbering in the end 29. The characters were the adult foreign students in the school’s beginners’ English class and their teacher, Mr. Parkhill. The recurrent theme underlying each narrative was the reluctant perception by Mr. Parkhill that there was one student who simply could not be forced, persuaded, or cajoled to accept his teacher’s linguistic dicta, based so logically on the premises that he, Mr. Parkhill, with equal care set forth. The exception, student H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, came first to the teacher’s attention because of the way he always wrote his name, each letter originally displayed in red crayon, then outlined in blue, and then separated from each neighboring letter by a green star. Kaplan’s mangling of the English tongue, that devilish medium of mispronunciation by those so unlucky as to have been raised in another language, was substantially sui generis; his variations on English syntax were nothing less than inspired.

The Kaplan stories captivated millions of readers, many of whom had never heard anyone speak in the gorgeous patois Ross rendered so precisely. It did not take them very long to unearth the fact that “Leonard Q. Ross” was actually a man named Leo Calvin Rosten, born in Chicago to an immigrant Jewish family from Poland. (When asked how the son of an immigrant Jewish sweater-maker came to be named after a dour Swiss Protestant divine, Rosten explains: “The Calvin is not for that man, but for Calvin Coolidge, who was president when I was ready for high school. Everyone else had a middle initial, and I wanted one, too.”) A graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, Rosten submitted the Kaplan stories to The New Yorker under a pseudonym because he was afraid that his dissertation would be rejected if it became known that while writing it he was also contributing humor to The New Yorker.

These days, Rosten is best known to the general public as the author of The Joys of Yiddish, but any one of his multiple careers as a fiction-writer, journalist, linguist, sociologist, war propagandist, and above all, conversationalist would have qualified him for being what he is today at 85: a martini-drinking, pool-swimming New York icon who is consulted on any number of subjects by friends in high and low places.

The Kaplan stories were written long before multiculturalism had come into vogue, and the students in Mr. Parkhill’s class unanimously assumed that a working mastery of English was essential to their new lives in America. This did not mean, however, that they tried to hide the culture they carried from their homelands. Miss Caravello, for example, could not resist praising Guiseppe Garibaldi every time Hyman Kaplan praised the American patriot he called “Judge Vashington.”

Far from having his ego diminished by his difficulties in mastering English, Mr. Kaplan was extraordinarily stimulated by them; challenged to outwit the grammarians, he was determined to find deep within this new language a logic all his own. In that first story, for example, asked to provide the plurals of common nouns, Kaplan turned in a paper with the following message:

Nuns   PL
house makes houses
dog dogies
libary Public libary
cat Katz

On the reverse side of the paper, the Kaplan logo appeared for the first time, adding a certain urgency to the question of whether Hyman Kaplan could ever learn to speak like other new immigrants.

Mr. Kaplan’s vigorous personality, his big, smiling face mottled after summer vacations with freckles that Mr. Parkhill found himself imagining to be star-shaped, his insistence on always being right, and his bland distortion of all logic and reason to retrieve what he deemed a correct English answer from one of his own outrageous mistakes—all these characteristics combined to embody in the classroom a Dionysian figure who sometimes energized Mr. Parkhill, making him feel newly alive and yet a trifle uncomfortable. Sometimes, contrarily, Mr. Kaplan made him feel that he, Parkhill, was being swept remorselessly away from all the signposts that had lined his life, and that he was doomed to spend the rest of his days with Mr. Kaplan, hopelessly searching for an excuse to release his problem into Miss Higby’s classroom for more advanced students.

The Kaplan stories established Rosten’s reputation as a writer of truly distinguished fiction. The formidable British savant Isaiah Berlin, not primarily noted for his lightheartedness, stated publicly that H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N, is “one of the great and enduring characters in English literature.” Rebecca West added her voice to the same effect. Evelyn Waugh, despite his reputation for never allowing himself to be quoted on anyone else’s writing, published a long and enthusiastic essay on the H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N stories in the esteemed British weekly, the Sunday Observer.

Although it was also Rosten’s habit to ignore reviews, he was so touched by Waugh’s interest in a work so foreign to everything that Waugh himself had written, that he wrote to thank him and invite Waugh and his wife to have tea with the Rostens in the flat they had taken temporarily in London. “I got back a postcard,” Rosten recently told this reporter. “The postcard read: ’From E.W. to L.R.: Alas, impossible. E.W.”’ I thought for a long time how one should answer so economical a communication. What I finally sent back to the man I consider one of the greatest writers of our time read like this: ’From L. R. to E. W. Quite. L. R.”’

Ultimately Evelyn Waugh and his wife came to the Rostens’ flat, had tea, and engaged in noncommittal conversation about anything except, Rosten explains, “what a writer hopes to hear from a true genius in his field. The most exciting moment in the afternoon came when Mr. Waugh told my wife, Zimi, that she had very beautiful legs. He then turned to Mrs. Waugh and instructed her to look at Zimi’s legs. She did, I guess, because she agreed that Zimi did have beautiful legs.”

Rosten’s career following the publication of the Kaplan stories reveals certain similarities between Kaplan and his creator: a larger than life quality, intense intellectual energy, and independence. When Katharine White, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, offered Rosten the staggering sum of one thousand dollars a month simply to get first refusal rights on anything he happened to write, Rosten—whose photos at that time reveal a young man with a broad face, long, straight dark hair, and an amused, confident smile—turned the offer down. He did not intend to spend the rest of his life writing funny stories for a magazine, however profound and complex the relations between the two principal characters might be.

A fundamental trait in Rosten’s character is the breadth of his interests, and his discomfort at the prospect of being tied down to any one of them for an indeterminate period of time. Upon finishing his dissertation, a study of Washington correspondents, Rosten embarked on a sociological study of Hollywood. Published just before the Second World War, it is as readable as a novel and was reviewed on the front pages of the New York Times and the Herald Tribune. It would, says Rosten today, “have made the Book of the Month Club if the reviews had not appeared on Sunday, December 7, 1941.” Nevertheless, the book is of lasting interest to those who care about the psyches of actors, producers, screen writers, and directors.

Beginning with his research on Hollywood, Rosten came into contact with people at the top of their fields, and found them, if anything, more interesting than the characters of his imagination. His subsequent writing—forty books in all—is mainly focused on language or on the experiences of real people. At the same time, the people he met in Hollywood found in Rosten—a doctor of philosophy, yet—not only a great interviewer, but a font of good ideas. After one interview, Walt Disney invited Rosten to several private restaurant lunches, personally driving his own car to pick him up. Louis B. Mayer, one of the movie industry’s wise men, told Rosten that he reminded him of Irving Thalberg, a young producer generally considered a genius. But Rosten turned down Mayer’s offer to stay on as an “idea man” at a handsome salary for the same reason he had rejected Katharine White’s offer at The New Yorker. However, he did stay in Hollywood long enough to collaborate with Leonard Spiegelgass on the script of All Through the Night, the industry’s first anti-Nazi film.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, Rosten received a telephone call asking him to come to Washington D.C. to serve in the agency that later became the Office of War Information. Ultimately Rosten became one of its deputy directors, serving in Washington and London for the rest of the war.

Rosten singles out two achievements in that period of which, in the Rosten style, he is modestly proud. One involved the British industrial effort after America had entered the war. “I was told,” Rosten says, “by a British opposite number that British war factories, staffed very largely by women, were failing to keep up with former levels of production. Could Deputy Director Rosten think of some way of stimulating them?”

“After visiting a number of the factories,” Rosten continued, “I noticed that the female workers were wearing their hair very long, either secured loosely by a ribbon on the back of the head, or hanging freely, often in curls. Some of them must have been afraid that their hair would get caught in the machines they were tending, and others were probably losing sleep by having to wear uncomfortable curlers at night. I got in touch with someone in Hollywood, and explained that it was their patriotic duty to bombard the British press with photographs of Ingrid Bergman with the short hair she had worn in For Whom the Bell Tolls, which made clear that Miss Bergman was continuing to wear her hair cut short because she liked it that way.” Rosten says now that the short-hair style spread to England and that war production increased in the aftermath.

In his role at the Office of War Information, Rosten also pushed the Air Corps to plan a particularly heavy raid on the tenth anniversary of the Nazi Party’s ascension to power in 1933. The Nazis had scheduled a special celebration in Berlin, an event to be broadcast in full over the state radio network. At a crucial point in the proceedings, the attack was launched, successfully breaking up the rally in chaos. When the war was over, Rosten remembers, “I talked to foreign slave workers in Germany who had been required to listen to the broadcast, and who decided, when they heard it broken up by Allied bombers, that there was hope; that, in fact, they now could believe that the Allies would win the war.”

Today, Rosten lives with his wife Zimi in a penthouse apartment (“an igloo in winter; a boiler room in summer”) on Sutton Place. It is catercorner from Sutton Square, a tiny cul-de-sac overlooking the East River, which figures prominently in King Silky, one of Rosten’s dazzling detective novels with frank appeals to every taste from the lexicographic to the pornographic. The long black hair has turned gray, but the body is erect, the eyes sharp and the smile still there. The typical Rosten posture places him on a street corner, wearing a guard officer’s greatcoat with a shawl collar and manipulating a cane like a chamberlain’s baton, surveying his city as though seeing it for the first time, which in fact he is, because he manages to find something in every landscape, however familiar, that has the freshness of novelty and the miracle of change.

His ego remains so sturdy that he has room for worshiping other heroes. Indeed, he has filled a book with profiles of them, a number of which originally appeared in Look Magazine, for which he served as editorial consultant and columnist. Collected in a volume entitled People I have Loved, Known or Admired, the subjects range from his father to Montaigne, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Winston Churchill, and from Sigmund Freud to Coby Clay, who was both a real person (under another name) in the Air Corps and a character in one of Rosten’s novels, Captain Newman, M.D. Coby earned the Croix de Guerre with palm leaves from Rosten as the only private soldier who never made his bed in the United States Army. Coby’s iron resistance was so strong, based on the fact that his mother had always, and properly, made his bed, that to keep order on the air base Sergeant Pulaski made Private Coby’s bed for him every day. After due consideration, Coby found it not incompatible with family tradition to make someone else’s bed. He thereafter made Sergeant Pulaski’s.

Although they are not celebrated in the book, a significant number of outstanding people are enshrined in what could be called the Rosten oral pantheon. Milton Friedman is one of them; so, also, are Allan Wallis, former president and chancellor of the University of Rochester and a noted economist, Fred Seitz, former president of Rockefeller University, Edward Teller, and Robert Jastrow, an astrophysicist, once of the Dartmouth College faculty and currently president of the Mount Wilson Observatory.

They and many more cerebral types who are yet capable of enjoying the Rosten humor have attended the monthly dinners of the now-nameless club that Rosten heads if they happen to be in New York on the right evening. Sixteen or so New Yorkers with congenial dispositions are monthly regulars. Rose Friedman, Milton Friedman’s wife and collaborator, holds the distinction of being the only woman ever to attend such a meeting. That was some years ago when the society was called the Chaos Club and forgathered at the Century Association. It now meets at the City Athletic Club, which seems a more appropriate place for the creator of Hyman Kaplan, inasmuch as the soup comes complete with an excellent, home-style matzoh ball, a confection that the Century Association, which features macaroons, never sought to match.

It is perfectly clear to any observer of the Rosten career that communication is his primary interest. Generally, that means language. Rosten points out in one of his books on language, Hurray for Yiddish, that the Gospel According to John starts with a proclamation: “In the beginning was the Word.” The Bible says nothing special about when the word ends, an omission that would sometimes have been welcome at the Chaos Club and its successor. On several occasions when a distinguished visitor has been invited to one of the dinner meetings to reveal incredibly significant secrets from whatever field he is in, the guest has discovered that Leo Rosten’s introduction is lasting somewhat longer than the remarks the invitee expected to make. Nonetheless, in his top form, Rosten makes a peerless interlocutor, with the rare skill of turning an ineffectual presentation into a near-stellar performance.

In addition to his novels, of which Captain Newman, M.D., based on the experiences of a military psychiatrist during World War II, is surely the most compelling, Rosten has increasingly devoted himself to writing books about language. All of them are about Yiddish and its influence on the English language. Rosten is particularly fascinated by how words acquire and change their meanings, the revelations they offer of the culture that formed them, and the way in which the inflection of a spoken word can change its meaning. Yiddish, as set forth by Rosten, seems a language with a fairly limited vocabulary, but a gargantuan ambit of expressiveness. To convey the message the speaker has in mind, Yiddish requires a mastery of possible inflections that calls forth the talents of an actor. This may explain why so many contemporary comedians are Jewish, and why so many Yiddish words have been absorbed from the performing arts into the general American vocabulary.

In a sense, Rosten’s oeuvre as a whole is a message. It tells us of the pleasure, indeed the happiness, in close observation of the people and world around us, of the delights in the examination of language, and the nuances of which people are capable in communicating with each other. Rosten and his books speak of the excitement of life itself: the joy of perceiving novelty, the value of discerning differences, and the need for a strong belief in a core of essential humanity underlying them.

SHARE
respondrespondTEXT SIZE
If you enjoyed
this article,
why not subscribe
to City Journal? subscribe Get the Free App on iTunes Or sign up for free online updates: