“John grew up in the shadow of a father who was a great writer,” said A. J. Liebling. “This is a handicap shared by only an infinitesimal portion of any given generation, but it did not intimidate him.”
When John Lardner was ten-years old, he wrote a short verse that appeared in a F.P.A column:
Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey,
Both sultans of the swat.
One hits where other people are,
The other where they’re not.
John Lardner was born in Chicago but raised mostly on the east coast. He went to the Phillips Academy in Andover (his three brothers would follow), spent a year at Harvard and another at the Sorbonne, before he returned to New York and got a job at the New York Herald Tribune in 1931. He was nineteen-years-old. His father, Ring, who was already ill with the tuberculosis and heart diesee that would kill him a few years later, sent a note to Stanley Walker, a Texan who’d made the Tribune into the best writer’s paper in New York.
“You will find him a little reticent at times, but personally I never felt this was a handicap.” Walker later said that John “came close to being the perfect all-around journalist.”
John worked at the Tribune until 1933, the year his father died. The two men were close in Ring’s final years and the old man was proud of his son’s early achievements. “We are all swollen up like my ankles,” Ring wrote in a letter to his nephew, Richard Tobin. John was offered a syndicated sports column when he was twenty-one for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Carried locally by the N.Y. Post, Lardner wrote about sports, and then the war, for NANA until 1948.
A week after John got married in 1938, his brother Jim was killed in Spain, the last American volunteer to die in the Spanish Civil War. The following year, John published his first freelance magazine piece, an essay on the 1919 World Series, for the Saturday Evening Post. He also started a weekly sports column in Newsweek where he would remain for more than twenty years.
At one point, Stanley Woodward, the legendary sports editor, tried to lure Lardner back to the Tribune—alongside Red Smith, he would have had the greatest one-two-punch in history—but could not come up with the money to pay him.
Beginning in 1942 and for the next three years, Lardner spent most of his time covering the war from Australia, Italy, North Africa and the Pacific for the NANA, Newsweek and the New Yorker. “John was naturally brave,” wrote Libeling, “when he saw blinding bomb flashes by night, he used to was TOWARD them to see better.” Lardner’s accounts of Iwo Jima and Okinawa for the New Yorker were, in Liebling’s opinion, “were as good as J.W. De Forest’s reporting of combat in the Civil War, which in our opinion is almost perfect.”
But tragedy continued to haunt the talented Lardner boys. The youngest Lardner brother, David was killed by a land mine in Germany, in October 1944. John’s final year covering the war in the South Pacific was under the shadow of the death of his brothers. Ring Jr. won an Oscar for his screenplay for Women of the Year when he was twenty-seven. But he a member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers and directors who refused to cooperate with the HUAC witchhunts. As a result, Ring Jr was blacklisted for close to twenty years though he did make money writing for tv under a suedonym. And he had the last laugh when he came back to Hollywood and wrote The Cincinnati Kid and then won his second Oscar for M*A*S*H. Ring Jr was the only Lardner brother to live a long life—he died just before his eighty-fifth birthday in 2000.
Yet in spite of his poor health, John Lardner was productive. He gave up his syndicated newspaper column after the War and concentrated exclusively on magazine work. He published in three volumes: Strong Cigars and Lovely Women, White Hopes and Other Tigers, and It Beats Working. Before he died, Lardner was working on a social history of Drinking in America (seven chapters of which are featured in the posthumous collection, The World of John Lardner).
John and his wife Hazel did not have a close marriage, though they had three children, including a daughter, Susan, who went on to write for The New Yorker. Susan remembers her father typing in a room all day and then maybe coming out to eat or to go to Bleeck’s, pronounced “Blake’s,” a famous hangout for the Herald Tribune staff. John O’Hara drank there and so did James Thurber. Walt Kelly, the creator of the famous Pogo comic strip, was there and he happened to be Lardner’s best friend.
“As a man and as a writer,” wrote A.J. Libeling, “Lardner was reserved. His humor was direct without being blunt, his use of understatement graceful without being soft. He was as easy to like as he was hard to know.”
“The quiet of the man’s presence was like the silence of a forest,” Kelly said later, “where the lack of noise does not indicate a lack of life.”
“Though all the years we knew him,” wrote Liebling, “John remained outwardly the same; handsome, grave, and equable, only the corners of his mouth, and of the eyes behind the thick lenses, betraying occasionally his private amusement with what he though about.”
[Drawing by Walt Kelly]