Ring Lardner was not unique among great writers in abusing his talent with drink. What made Lardner's case especially tragic, according to biographer Donald Elder, was his unwillingness to embrace his talent when sober.
Published in 1956, "Ring Lardner" is one of just two biographies on the early 20th century writer I know of, and the only one written while a large number of Lardner's contemporaries were alive. Elder's book at its best gives you a sense of what it was like to see Lardner in the flesh in the roaring 1920s, say bumping into him on Broadway or tripping over him in a bar. Lardner was not a chronic alcoholic, Elder points out, just a stubbornly persistent one until his health made him give it up for good.
"Ring spent long periods on the wagon and made heroic efforts to resist the compulsion to drink," Elder writes. "He drank for escape, and he needed it often and badly; when he got sober, he still faced the same world he had tried to escape from, with the same acute sensibility he had always had, and a little less physical stamina."
That Lardner lost more than he gained from drinking is easy to speak to now. He was the premier American short story writer of his day, perhaps of all time, employing the way people really spoke and a sense of humor so fine it allowed him to gallop over otherwise fragile sensibilities. Several of his shorts remain widely anthologized to this day, like "Haircut", "The Golden Honeymoon", and "Alibi Ike". Lardner's ability to capture the American voice both in his fiction and his earlier sports reporting made him a beacon of sorts for the "Lost Generation" of American writers; in high school Hemingway tried out the pen name "Ring Lardner Jr." decades before the real Ring Lardner Jr. won the first of two Oscars.
But Elder makes the point, again and again, that Lardner didn't care about literary fame. Even as he made a good career selling short stories to magazines, he craved another kind of success: musical theater. He toiled at songs and plays, but with the exception of one show, "June Moon", late in his life, it was not a requited love. "Fashions in popular songs had changed since he first became enamored of them, and the success of songs depended on factors he could not calculate," Elder writes.
Elder doesn't hold back on what he views as Lardner's failures even within his sphere of excellence. He loses me at some points, like when discussing the brilliantly brutal "Champion" as melodramatically overdone or "The Mayville Minstrel", which has for me one of the most memorable last lines in all fiction ("But even as he spoke, Stephen realized there was nothing he could do about it.") as "not a very good story" and "excessively sentimental". Elder likes Lardner only in his most coldly dispassionate state, it seems, and thus praises "Haircut" and "Some Like It Cold" as standouts, along with "You Know Me Al", Lardner's only novel featuring "busher" pitcher Jack Keefe.
A "two-bottle man" who looked down a bit on lesser drinkers, Lardner had the ability to move through crowds much easier when toasted. Yet he was not a carefree guy in either condition; a bit of a stiff in fact. In one instance, he spent three straight days at the Friar's Club sitting in a chair largely in silence. When he finally got up and left, someone walking in the room a few minutes later exclaimed: "My God, the statue's gone!"
That's a rare line in Elder's book, of someone else getting the laugh at Lardner's expense. Usually Lardner himself was faster on the draw. Elder tells one story of Lardner being bored by a Southern gentleman's windy account of his proud ancestry. When the gentleman asked Lardner about his ancestry, Lardner knew just what to say to make the man go away: "I was born in Niles, Michigan, of colored parents..."
Elder pours on a lot of secondary source material, including Lardner's sports articles and third-party accounts that sometimes run two or three full pages. It makes the book essential reading for anyone wanting to know about Lardner, even if it gives this biography a scrapbook-like flavor. Lardner was a rare, funny bird, distinctive and eminently worthwhile even if he was the last person to think so.