Vanity Fair (UK), September 1, 1904
The Pitiable Position of a President.
(A man who was caught kissing his wife on the beach at Atlantic City, New Jersey, has been fined £2.—Daily Paper.)
I SUPPOSE Nature never endowed a man with all the qualities which spell success so lavishly as I. And what am I now? A tramp, a hobo, a bummer; that’s what I am. I, who have been President of the United States. Mind you, I’ve made just one error in my life; and I’m suffering for it. Things happened this way.
My wife, Susie, has always pestered me to take in the Times, and when she struck the new cheap rates, she was more set on the proposition than ever. Wanted to be in the push, or got her head turned by the scare line appetisers. “No,” I said, as I always have, “No, Susie, you can’t alter me. I’m not the extravagant bouncer who pays coin for a selection of stale British news. It’s a waste of money. You may have a 40-h.p. Mors or a silver-plated steam yacht, but not the Times.”
Susie raised the surrounding temperature some, and White House got warmer every hour the Times offer kept open, until I was worrying for the approach of the last day.
But when it did come, and she found I hadn’t ordered the journal, Susie went. Yes, she quitted me without a word. Hustled straight to the lawyers, she did, and they and she and the judge had jerked out a separation ticket for incompatibility of temper before you could say candy.
Of course I knew I was right, but somehow I didn’t enjoy it. Got savage with myself, recognised I’d been a fool, started working, kind of to pass time. The way I worked astonished folks.
I’ve told you I have an A1 collection of slap-up natural endowments. Well, I didn’t let them rust. I used them. I did my own work and everyone else’s. Blarneyed Senators, bullied Congress, fixed up half-a-dozen Black Bills, and smashed Tammany. How? By bribing officials to be incorruptible.
My biggest thing was the Anti-Public Affection Bill. Had that measure framed out of pique. Why should other citizens kiss their wives, let alone women not their wives, before the public, if I was not able to kiss my wife at all?
Sakes! I do wish you could have heard my speech. I began by giving an ice-cold audience credit for a degree of morality unusual in a Chicago grass-widow. Tears were in my voice as I adjured them by the sanctity of their hearths, by the virginity of a Young Country, to maintain the same unsullied.
By the time I’d done they were so full of propriety that they’d all buttoned up their frock-coats; and tough old sinners, after sneaking off to the telegraph depôt, went home decently to dine.
In the upshot the Anti-Public Affection Bill took a unanimous vote, though there was some feeling that the penalty for a first offence—$20,000,000, with option of transportation—was carrying leniency beyond its proper sphere.
You could guess I couldn’t stick the pace for ever, and it wasn’t long before I saw spots. My mental powers are what I’ve hinted, but my physique is human, so the doctor gave me the frog’s march off duty for a while. Coney Island to lounge in for mine, and I sort of perked up the moment I arrived there. I slept like a clam. Next morning, looking out of window, I thought to myself, “Silas, what’s wrong with a bathe?” I repeated this enquiry to the nigger on the stairs. “Bathing’s all right, sar,” was his answer, and I steered for the beach.
Just a lad again I seemed to be. “Sizz! boom! rah!” echoed the nucleus of my old college yell bellowing through the fogs of memory. In I plunged for a swell souse, came to the surface, and—saw Susie. There she was. Right there. Opposite. Same as I might be to you, sir. White bathing gown, plenty, but not a superfluity of it, and a cunning red cap.
“Susie!” I said.
“The Times is yours.”
“I’ve been just horrid.”
Like a streak I’d splashed towards her, like a streak I’d kissed her, like a streak I was clubbed.
They tell me it was a toss-up whether I was lynched or not.
When I came to it flashed across me I was in what you might call a delicate situation. To the detectives hanging around I explained who I was and guessed “it would be all right.” You should have seen their faces. “By the sanctity of our hearths, by the virginity of a Young Country, we hope to see you——” They were white with fury.
I paid the $20,000,000.
The penalty is changed now; but that don’t help to get a man a job.
P. G. W.
Signed P.G.W. in Vanity Fair; not entered by Wodehouse under this title in Money Received for Literary Work, but payment received from Vanity Fair for September 1904 suggests he was paid for one more item than was recorded in his account book.
This previously uncollected item has been “hiding in plain sight” for almost 110 years; it shares page 267 of Vol. LXXII of Vanity Fair with the “In the Stocks” column containing the poem “The Twilight of the Gods,” as noted in McIlvaine’s bibliography. Wodehouse was contributing to nearly every week’s issue of the journal at this time, with signed, unsigned, and pseudonymous items; an item signed P.G.W. must be his. [The “other P.G.W.” from 1920s New Yorker contributions, Philip Gordon Wylie, was born in 1902.]
Wodehouse’s first trip to America was in the spring of 1904, and he wrote later in life that the trip greatly raised his status in London as an expert on the United States and its varieties of the English language. This little tall tale, it seems to me, is greatly influenced by the Western American school of Mark Twain; John Dawson suggests an affinity with Josh Billings as well; Karen Shotting sees some influence of George Ade. And its American vernacular is a great deal more convincing than that of Wodehouse’s “The Prodigal” of the year before his American trip.
It seems that Wodehouse’s second and more prolonged stay in New York in 1909 gave him a chance to refine and particularize his knowledge of American speech (for instance the Wyoming dialect of Billy Windsor and Kid Brady in Psmith, Journalist contrasted with the New York East Side gang argot). So we rarely see anything quite as broad as this in later Wodehouse. And yet a few idioms in this item would be used later as markers of American speech: “for mine” in the sense of “for me; as my choice” is used later by Wodehouse only in the speech of his American characters.
John also points out the significant fact that this is Wodehouse’s first piece of fiction set in America, with an American narrator.
The anti-kissing crusade at Atlantic City, Philadelphia’s seaside resort, continues. One day recently several couples, who were caught kissing on the beach, were arrested and fined £2 each. One man, proving that he had kissed his wife, Mayor Stay replied that he should set a better public example, and imposed the usual fine. (Wellington, NZ, Evening Post, October 8, 1904)
scare line appetisers: advertisements with big headlines
Mors: French manufacturer of luxury and racing automobiles
separation ticket for incompatibility of temper: Though it was widely believed in England that Americans could separate or divorce on practically any grounds, this was possible but rare; from 1887 to 1906, of nearly a million divorces, only 389 were granted solely on grounds of incompatibility of temper. Even so, nearly all states tightened their statutes to eliminate this basis over the succeeding decade or so.
sneaking off to the telegraph depôt: presumably to let their mistresses know not to expect them that evening
nigger: Wodehouse lets his American characters use this vulgar term for African-Americans, but his British characters use it only for blackface minstrel entertainers; he noted “the American’s inherited dislike of the colored” in his writings as early as 1905. See my article on Wodehouse and Racist Epithets.