Alphonse Allais

alphonse allais

I was avid to visit the town of Honfleur, up on the damp coast of Normandy, when Partner and I visited France in 2012, because one of my favorite composers – Erik Satie – was born there. (I should note that, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, Satie left Honfleur as soon as he realized where he was.)



Honfleur is a dour little fishing port with boggy streets and old sad-looking houses. Satie’s childhood home has been converted into a very neato little museum, good enough to be featured by Rick Steves on his excellent European travel TV show, but once you’ve seen the museum – as Partner and I quickly realized – you’ve seen the shank of the town, and the best thing you can do is bid Honfleur a modest au revoir.

Except that one little detail caught my attention: a life-sized plastic cow in the visitor center, with a bande dessinee painted on the side. (Two Rick Steves-type comments: Normandy is a farm region, so the cow motif is everywhere, and Partner begs me to remind everyone that the restroom in the Honfleur visitor center was the most toxically horrible he ever came across in Europe.) Anyway, the comic strip on the side of the cow depicted Erik Satie and Honfleur’s other favorite son, humorist Alphonse Allais, grabbing one another’s chin and singing a little children’s song. Then one slaps the other on the cheek, very hard (I have no idea if this is part of the children’s song or not) and runs away, leaving the other in tears. I was so baffled by this that I don’t even remember which one does the slapping and which one runs away.



This led me to Alphonse Allais, whose “oeuvres anthumes” I purchased on an appropriately soggy day in Paris about a week later. (“Anthumes” is meant to be a cute parallel to “posthumes,” meaning “posthumous” – see, I bought the stuff he published while he was still alive, get it?) It turns out that Allais was an essayist / journalist / humorist in a way that no longer really much exists. (If you can imagine the New York Times’s Gail Collins without the politics, or “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s Bill Geist without the peripatetic folksiness, you’ve almost got it.) Allais created characters and situations and wrote about them for a page or two. Generally there’s a punch line. If the characters or the situations amused Allais, he revisited them.




He was, in a word, a feuilletonist.


Do they exist in American literature? Did they ever? Most assuredly. It was a late 19th / early 20th-century thing to be and do. Mencken was a feuilletonist, as were Don Marquis and H. Allen Smith and Harry Golden. See? You haven’t been reading those guys recently, have you? But it’s not because they’re not entertaining or that they don’t write well; it’s only that the style has fallen out of fashion.



Allais had the famous dry Norman sense of humor, the “pince-sans-rire” (“pinch without laughing” – basically, “tell a joke all the way to the punch line, but tell it so seriously and drily that no one is sure if you’re joking or not.” Isn’t French neat to be able to put all of that in three words?) Satie used pince-sans-rire all the time in his music, writing pieces of fantaisiste music with titles like “Dried Embryos,” and ending them with long strings of Beethovian tonic-dominant-tonic chords.



Allais needs to be translated for a modern American readership.



Now who could do something like that?




The great Durante


I’ve written before about the ephemerality of fame. How many of you remember Jinx Falkenberg, who was such a big star in her time? And, worse yet, how many of the “celebrities” that she wrote about in her autobiography are still remembered? Almost none. Here’s a great line from her book:  “Tex [Jinx’s husband] asked a whole group over to ‘21’ for dinner – the Jack Strauses, Joanne Sayres and Tony Bliss, Carl Whitmore, the Howard Twins.”



To this day, I have no idea who any of these people are. I salute them, and their ephemeral celebrity.



But sometimes a celebrity has more – ahem – memorability.



I was strolling down the biography aisle in the library the other day when I saw H. Allen Smith’s “Low Man on a Totem Pole.” My heart leapt up. I think I may have a copy of this great classic somewhere in the house, but it’s probably buried under layers and layers of other books. So I checked it out, to give it a twentieth read.



It has all the wonderful stuff I remember. It has the interview with Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, like so: “I am a wild prize-fighting fan. I go all the time. One night the last fight is on, and I see it is just a couple palookas – that means bums, no goods – so I say to myself why should I sit there and look at these palookas playing waltz with each other and I leave and go to the Clover Club. After that someone comes to my table and says I should not have left the fight because they start throwing pop bottles and almost kill Ruby Keeler.”



(I don’t care if you know who Ruby Keeler is or not. This line almost killed me with laughter.)



Smith also interviewed John Grimek and Steve Stanko, early Mr. Americas, who insisted that they liked girls, and that they weren’t musclebound, and could scratch their backs as much as they want.



Also, best of all: Smith interviewed Jimmy Durante.



Jimmy was a vaudeville comedian, who became a stage comedian, who became a movie comedian, who became a radio comedian, who became a television comedian. He worked and worked. I remember an interview he did, probably in the 1970s, when he said he intended to work until he died. And so he did.



He was very funny, and he had a big nose and a comical way of speaking. Here he is:





Jimmy Durante is immortal. He is even more immortal than immortal, because he’s in a Cole Porter song:



You’re a rose,

You’re Inferno’s Dante;

You’re the nose

Of the great Durante.



Here’s the song.






Go watch “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” with Monty Woolley and Ann Sheridan. Wait for Durante. He comes into the movie about halfway through. You can’t miss him. He’s wonderful.



Unlike poor Jinx Falkenberg, the great Durante will live forever.

He wH

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