PG Wodehouse Interview Jack Ellsworth

The Seasoned Citizen January 1999

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It was on a lovely spring afternoon in 1970 that I had the thrill of interviewing Mr. P.G. Wodehouse. We sat on his comfortable sun porch at his home in Remsenburg. Mr. Wodehouse enjoyed a long and illustrious career in music and literature. His contributions to the world of popular music included collaborations with Jerome Kern, Guy Bolton and Oscar Hammerstein. Mr. Wodehouse first worked with Jerome Kern in London, England in 1906. They wrote several songs together and later collaborated on various other shows including "Miss Springtime", an early Zeigfeld show and one called "Have a Heart" which ran for five years briefly in New York and then on the road. After that came "Oh Boy" in 1917, a show which was an enormous success.

Among the songs in "Oh Boy" were "Nesting Time in Flatbush", "A Pal Like You", "An Old Fashioned Wife" and the most memorable, "Til The Clouds Roll By". Another great success that same year was "Leave It To Jane". Again Jerome Kern wrote all the music and P.G. Wodehouse did the lyrics. "Leave It To Jane" enjoyed a three year off Broadway revival in the mid fifties. Mr. Wodehouse said he really loved that show.

I asked Mr. Wodehouse, "of all the songs you wrote with Kern, which were your favorites?" He replied, "well I'm very fond of "The Sirens Song" from Leave it to Jane, and, of course, "Bill" which is in Show Boat. We originally wrote "Bill" for an earlier show called "Oh Lady, Lady." That was about 1918. It was a farce starring Vivienne Segal, but Jerry felt "Bill" was too slow so the song lay dormant so to speak for about eight years. In 1927 while I was out in Hollywood, Jerry came to me one day and asked if he could use "Bill" for Show Boat... and I said, oh yes, of course you can... and it was a big success. I must say that of all the Jerry Kern melodies, "Bill" is my special favorite. Of course, all of his stuff was so good.

I asked Mr. Wodehouse "What kind of a man was Jerome Kern? You worked with him so often and knew him very well." "He was a very delightful fellow, very cheerful and full of pep. We got along awfully well. He was such a splendid fellow to work with. He used to work practically all night. Once while he was living in Bronxville, he called at 3:00 A.M. and woke me up to say, I've got the melody for the second act number; and then he played it for me over the phone. Then I wrote a dummy of it and then did the lyrics. Then he continued to work all night. I think that's what killed him. He wasn't strong at all.. not an awfully strong fellow and he never wanted to go to bed.

I asked Mr. Wodehouse if Kern was ever concerned about competition with other composers. "Not while I knew him. He was absolutely leading the field in those days. Then a little later George Gershwin became known. George was actually a protégé of Jerry's and if Jerry needed help on a show, he'd get George to assist him with the music. Later Richard Rodgers came along. I understand toward the end of his life Jerry was fairly gloomy about the younger generation knocking at the door. He was very sensitive about his position. He fretted if he couldn't sort of be the leader."

I told Mr. Wodehouse that one of Kern's loveliest songs was "I've Told Every Little Star" from 'Music in the Air.' Bing Crosby said it was his favorite and that the melody was inspired by the song of a finch singing outside his window one morning while he was vacationing in Quogue. I then whistled what could have been the bird's song. Mr. Wodehouse chuckled, "that's a delightful story, isn't it?" I then said, "I've been told that much of Jerome Kern's music was inspired by German folk songs. Is that true?" "I believe it was. I'm not sure but I think "Till The Clouds Roll By" was taken from a German folk melody--or based on one. The great thing about Jerry in those days was that he was so high spirited and he'd do the light numbers so very well. When we worked together Jerry generally wrote the music first, but if it was a comic song, then I did the lyrics first. But generally he'd do the music first and I'd fit the lyrics to it. I always preferred writing that way. I was awfully inclined to make a thing just like a set of light verse... you know too regular a meter. I remember a song in "Oh Boy", the chorus ran something like this... if every day you give her diamonds and pearls on a string... well I never would have thought of that. I mean the first beat came... if you give her diamonds and pearls on a string... to me it wouldn't have scanned properly. I mean my stuff when I wrote the lyrics first was always much too regular.

I asked Mr. Wodehouse what he thought about the then current musical "My Fair Lady"? He said, "That is such a wonderful show. The music was awfully good by Lerner & Loewe." He said he didn't care for Rock and Roll and Country music. His comment was, "Well I don't like it myself, but that may just be an old fashioned point of view. But before I forget, I haven't seen "Hello Dolly" as yet, but I understand the big number is a world beater."

I then asked Mr. Wodehouse about his present activities. Perhaps best known to many for his writing, particularly about the character "Jeeves," he said... I just finished a novel yesterday. It needs a little more work. My great trouble these days is getting a thing long enough. Publishers want 70,000 words and I'm very apt to write about 63,000 so I have to do a bit of lengthening.

I then asked about a movie he worked on. "In 1937 there was a Fred Astaire movie called "A Damsel in Distress." Wasn't that based on your book?" "Yes, I worked on that production. You'll remember Ginger Rogers stepped aside for that film. She wanted to do more dramatic roles, so Fred's leading lady was Joan Fontaine. Fred had to work with her on the dancing because she wasn't quite up to Ginger's talents, but she was a delightful, lovely leading lady. The Gershwins' wrote the music for "A Damsel in Distress" and there were some wonderful songs that have endured very well indeed. There was "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and "A Foggy Day."

"Well Mr. Wodehouse, this has been a very rewarding experience for me. I've wanted to meet you ever since my dear old dad introduced me to your work. He was a great admirer of Bolton, Wodehouse and Kern. And I hear that guy Bolton lives in this area and that you fellows still get together." "Yes indeed," Mr. Wodehouse replied. "He remains a very close friend. We worked awfully well together on over twenty shows. I said, "If only Jerome Kern were alive you could do another show." Mr. Wodehouse nodded and said, "Oh Yes!"

"In closing, Mr. Wodehouse, what advice would you give to young people who were interested in writing for the theatre or perhaps writing books and stories such as you have written?" "Well that's rather difficult. I'm very glad I'm not starting writing today because the market has practically disappeared. In the early days when I was living in Greenwich Village and trying to earn a living by writing, there were all those pulp magazines like Argosy, The Blue Book, The Peoples and dozens of them. If you wrote a story you could always land it somewhere ... and get about fifty dollars for it. Even the slick paper magazines, they've all disappeared. Colliers is gone, so is the American Magazine, The Delineator and so many others. Getting a story published today isn't easy."

After chatting briefly, our interview ended and I departed saying I hoped we'd meet again soon... unfortunately, we never did. Text © Jack Ellsworth
Layout © R.D. Collins 2004

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