08 September 2020

A Scarecrow in Wodehouse

“The Aunt and the Sluggard,” one of P. G. Wodehouse’s earliest stories about Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, turns out to have an Oz connection.

The plot revolves around an eccentric aunt who insists on her nephew taking in the thrills of 1916 New York City and relaying them to her so she can live vicariously. With Jeeves’s help, Bertie’s friend the nephew writes letters with passages like this:
We were quite a gay party. Georgie Cohan looked in about midnight and got off a good one about Willie Collier. Fred Stone could only stay a minute, but Doug. Fairbanks did all sorts of stunts and made us roar.
Fred Stone had become a huge Broadway star a bit over a decade earlier by playing the Scarecrow in the musical extravaganza The Wizard of Oz.

In reviewing the show Jack O’Lantern for Vanity Fair in 1917, Wodehouse wrote, “Fred Stone is unique. In a profession where the man who can dance can’t sing and the man who can sing can’t act he stands alone as one who can do everything.” So spotting him at one’s party would indeed be a big thrill.

To everyone’s surprise, the aunt shows up at Bertie’s apartment to enjoy New York herself.
“Good afternoon,” I managed to say.

“How do you do?” she said. “Mr. Cohan?”

“Er—no.”

“Mr. Fred Stone?”

“Not absolutely. As a matter of fact, my name’s Wooster—Bertie Wooster.”

She seemed disappointed. The fine old name of Wooster appeared to mean nothing in her life.
The nephew has to take the aunt out to nightclubs, and he gives Bertie this report by phone:
“She keeps asking me when Cohan and Stone are going to turn up; and it’s simply a question of time before she discovers that Stone is sitting two tables away.”
Fred Stone is thus an actual character in this story, not merely an allusion.

In contrast, Wodehouse named the rip-roaring evangelist who plays a role in the resolution as Jimmy Mundy, forbearing to import Billy Sunday into his version of New York. But to get the full power of theatrical celebrity, it seems, he had to use a real star.

Toward the end of this story, after the aunt and nephew have happily gone their separate ways, Bertie echoes Oz again: “Jeeves, there’s no place like home—what?”

To be sure, that’s a line Baum quoted from John Howard Payne’s 1823 song “Home, Sweet Home!” But Bertie gives it his own spin, what?

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