Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Love Song of Samuel Hoffenstein

The Siren likes screenwriters; she's said that before. But there's one screenwriter she never knew had anything to do with the movies until the wonders of the Internet told her so some years back: Samuel Hoffenstein. Hoffenstein was, to the Siren, a poet. A funny poet, which is an uncommon gift.

Long ago the Siren bought a thrift-store copy of Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing, copyright 1941, originally published in 1928. Right away, the Siren felt the lure of a kindred spirit.

I'd rather listen to a flute
In Gotham, than a band in Butte.

We understood each other, Mr. Hoffenstein and I.

Now, alas, it is too late
To buy Manhattan real estate,
But when my father came to town,
He could have bought for fifty down,
And I should not be where I am:
Yet does my father give-a-damn,
Or ever say, "I'm sorry, boy,"
Or looking at me, murmur, "Oy"?
He does not grieve for what I've missed,
And yet I'm called an Anarchist!

The poems are both louche and nerdy, a combination the Siren finds as irresistible in art as she does in life. Exhibit A is a section called "The Mimic Muse": parodies of other poets, executed with the kind of precision that comes only from knowing what you're mocking really, really damn well. Here we have a favorite, "Miss Millay Says Something Too":

I want to drown in good-salt water,
I want my body to bump the pier;
Neptune is calling his wayward daughter,
Crying 'Edna, come over here!'

It's not Keats, but all the same, the Siren loves this book dearly. It has that devil-may-care Jazz Age vibe, described so well by Raymond de Felitta as "a jangly, up and down and extremely kinky sense of reality."

Some years later, upon the advent of Google, the Siren looked up Hoffenstein and discovered his other career as a screenwriter. A darned impressive career, at that.

And so the Siren loped off to find out more about Hoffenstein and found...


All right, that's an exaggeration. The Siren found the filmography and several tributes to the man's poetry. She read his Wikipedia stub, which says that Hoffenstein was born in Russia in 1890, the child of Lithuanian parents. The Siren had long ago taken a flying deductive leap and decided that the name is Jewish, and one does not have to have an overly active imagination to come up with reasons why a brilliant young Jewish man would leave Russia in the first part of the 20th century to come to the U.S. He wrote for Vanity Fair, among other outlets. Wiki claims that in addition to co-writing the book, Hoffenstein helped compose the music for the Broadway version of The Gay Divorce, a claim of which the Siren is skeptical considering the credited composer is Cole Porter, but hey, maybe. He moved to Los Angeles in 1931, wrote many screenplays and was nominated for an Oscar for Laura and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No marriages mentioned, no kids recorded. Hoffenstein died much too soon, in 1947. The Siren can't tell you what killed him.

Any photos? Just this one, on this Website, date unknown, although the style and his evident age suggest early 1930s. If indeed this is Hoffenstein, he seems to have a bit of a self-dramatizing streak, as befits a poet. Oh no, wait; it's Maurice Chevalier. Would that amuse Hoffenstein, or annoy him no end?

The Siren went to her old friend City of Nets, and found this marvelous story about Hoffenstein's first screen credit, an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy.

Once the contracts were signed, Hoffenstein set to work writing a script, and Dreiser, who had discovered a new girl, set off with her for Cuba, leaving no forwarding address. When Hoffenstein finished his script and wanted to get Dreiser's approval, Dreiser could not be found. Paramount sent out official notices that filming would soon begin. Dreiser reappeared in New Orleans, and denounced all previous correspondence as 'the usual Hollywood swill and bunk.' He demanded the right to discuss Hoffenstein's script. With some trepidation, Hoffenstein sent his screenplay to New Orleans and asked if he could meet Dreiser there. 'IF YOU CAN DISCUSS THIS AMICABLY OTHERWISE NOT,' Dreiser wired back. Amicable as could be, Hoffenstein flew to New Orleans, to find at his hotel a note from Dreiser saying that the script was 'nothing less than an insult,' and that 'to avoid saying how deeply I feel this, I am leaving New Orleans now without seeing you. You will understand, I am sure.'

Hoffenstein understood. Paramount understood. The studio went ahead and started making the movie.

This told the Siren that Dreiser, whose Jennie Gerhardt she read in college convinced that the man wrote prose with the express intention of killing her, was at one point trying to kill his screenwriters too. But the anecdote told her little about Hoffenstein, other than that he must not have been the type to get discouraged about a little thing like a famous author throwing a hissy fit over your screenplay of his book.

The Siren combed through the rest of her film books. No luck.

The Siren ordered The Complete Poems of Samuel Hoffenstein online. When it arrived she tore into the padded envelope, convinced there'd be a magisterial introduction that would tell her about Russia and whether Edna St. Vincent Millay was p.o.'d about "The Mimic Muse" and which uncredited lines of The Wizard of Oz were Hoffenstein. The Siren cracked open the book to find--you guessed it--nothing. It's a Modern Library edition. They're wonderful books, those old Modern Library hardcovers, light and perfectly sized. But they're no-frills, and usually no intros, either.

The sensible approach was the library, of course, but the Siren isn't always sensible. Now in possession of a book that included two later poetry volumes, Year In, Year Out and Pencil in the Air, the Siren was more inclined to let biographical criticism run riot. The poems were so blatantly personal that it was more fun, and more romantic, to piece Hoffenstein together line by line. For example, he was definitely Jewish, and wrote several melancholy poems about life back in Russia and as an emigre.

A tree that walked, but never grew,
A living semblance, but a Jew,
Lost in the United States,
Lost behind the Ghetto gates,
No bird yet wingless, lost in air,
Alone and alien everywhere.

And he also (rather startling, this next bit) probably converted to Christianity.

Now I am a large and mellow,
Mild and philosophic fellow,
Of amiable thought and speech,
Sweetly disposed toward all and each,
A stanch disciple of Saint Paul,
A friend of sparrows as they fall...

He still got a kick out of teasing his poetic betters, with a 9-page, er, tribute to T.S. Eliot:

Hula, hula,
Hula, hula.
Old Mother Hubbard she made my bed.
But what good is it
Since Ivan the Terrible
The Brooklyn Bridge
And Staten Island
Fell on my head?

Hoffenstein has many poems devoted to liaisons with women, who drove him crazy

Lovely lady, who does so
All my waking haunt,
Tell me, tell me, do you know
What the hell you want?

and of whom he didn't have a terribly high opinion.

She walks in beauty, like the night
And so she should, the parasite!

By the time of Pencil in the Air, he's sadder and more serious. He writes a lot about insomnia

At night, when you should sleep, you can't sleep yet;
By day, when you shouldn't, you laugh at sheep yet...

and illness

I paid my taxes, I got sick.
The doctor said I was going quick
Of double multiple complications,
Confirmed by seven consultations.

and postwar despair.

Fear not the atom in fission;
The cradle will outwit the hearse;
Man on this earth has a mission--
To survive and go on getting worse.

Yet his filmography seems to show continuing success. And Hoffenstein was a practical sort, as poets go.

Tax me not in mournful numbers,
Come and make a total haul,
For the residue that slumbers
Is no good to me at all.

Pencil in the Air does find him finally commenting on his day job, as it were, and he felt as deeply appreciated as most screenwriters do. From "The Notebook of a Schnook":

So what happens? The usual factors--
The studio simply can't get actors,
Directors, cutters, stagehands, stages,
Or girls to type the extra pages:
The way it ends, to put it briefly,
Is what happens is nothing, briefly.

Unfortunately, none of this nailed down what the Siren wanted to know. Look at that filmography, studded with so many witty, sophisticated films: Desire. Tales of Manhattan. Lydia (the Siren adores that one). Cluny Brown.

But these are co-writing credits, and it's hard to find out which part of a screenplay came from which writer, even if it's as celebrated a duo as Brackett and Wilder. Maybe one wrote a line, and the other edited it, or flipped it, or gave it to another character. Maybe they passed the pencil back and forth a lot. Who could tell the Siren which part of a Hoffenstein screenplay was Hoffenstein? Did the man who wrote

Maid of Gotham, ere we part,
Have a hospitable heart.
Since our own delights must end,
Introduce me to your friend.

come up with this exchange in Love Me Tonight:

Jeanette MacDonald: What are you doing now?
Maurice Chevalier: I'm thinking. I'm thinking of you without these clothes.
Jeanette MacDonald: Open your eyes at once!
Maurice Chevalier: Oh no, pardon madam. With different clothes. Smart clothes.

Years after imagining A.E. Housman's doleful mien at the circus

I think of all the corpses
Worm-eaten in the shade
I cannot chew my peanuts
Or drink my lemonade.
Good God, I am afraid!

was Hoffenstein the one who had Charles Boyer tell Jennifer Jones, "In Hyde Park, some people like to feed nuts to the squirrels. But if it makes you happy to feed squirrels to the nuts, who am I to say nuts to the squirrels?"

At last the Siren checked out a database to which she has occasional access, and found a Toronto Star article from 1993, about Laura, Hoffenstein's second Oscar-nominated screenplay. The Siren knows some people don't like Laura, but as for her, it's the only Otto Preminger joint she'll drop everything to see once more. And no wonder.

Preminger remembered that Samuel Hoffenstein was imported to pep up the script. Hoffenstein practically invented the part of Waldo for Webb (adding lines like "sentiment comes easy at 50 cents a word!").

Hoffenstein was a contemporary wit of Alexander Woolcott's at the famous round table luncheons in the 1920s.

Aha! So if he wrote Waldo's part as we know it, that means Hoffenstein came up with most of the movie's best lines. And indeed, the Siren can hear it:

"I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbor's children devoured by wolves."

"Laura, dear, I cannot stand these morons any longer. If you don't come with me this instant I shall run amok."

"My dear, either you were born in a extremely rustic community, where good manners are unknown, or you suffer from a common feminine delusion that the mere fact of being a woman exempts you from the rules of civilized conduct."

"Ordinarily, I am not without a heart...Shall I produce X-ray pictures to prove it?"

And a key scene of Laura takes place at the Algonquin, the Siren's favorite place for a quiet drink these days. Hoffenstein at the Round Table? He must have fit right in.

A delighted Siren continued, but found only one other article that didn't discuss Hoffenstein as a talented purveyor of light verse and oh-yes-he-wrote-screenplays. Still, the article was a good one: The Los Angeles Times, from 2000. Sylvia Thompson discusses the dinners her mother made at the Garden of Allah villa complex in the early 1940s. Her mother was Gloria Stuart, her father was writer Arthur Sheekman, and the guests often included Groucho Marx, Julius Epstein and Humphrey Bogart. And one more:

Cooking for writers could bring special rewards. Samuel Hoffenstein, writing the screenplay for Laura with his true love, Betty Reinhardt, composed a poem to Ma's "Goose with Kirschwasser Aspic."

The Siren at last had a scene starring Hoffenstein the man, even if it was a cameo. Enjoying himself at a wartime dinner party, composing a poem for the hard-working hostess--Kirschwasser aspic, wonder how he rhymed that. Hoffenstein would only be alive for about three more years, but he and Betty Reinhardt created the Laura script together, and Hoffenstein put Waldo's best lines on the page, and they were in love.

Of course, Hoffenstein's poetry and Hoffenstein's screenplays--no matter which lines of the latter you attribute to him--are pretty cynical. He had a sophistication that said there's no such thing as happily ever after, kiddo, so happy right now better be good enough. Laura's a fleshly movie, there's depravity in the romance--all those heedless, dissolute people rattling around the penthouses.

And if you think finding out stuff about Samuel Hoffenstein is hard, just try looking up Betty Reinhardt. Who knows, thought the Siren, maybe that affair was over as soon as someone on the Laura set called, "that's a wrap."

No--she double-checked the filmographies--surely not. All of Hoffenstein's subsequent screenplays were written with Reinhardt. Together they wrote the adapted screenplay for Cluny Brown, with its exquisitely funny declarations of love: "I would build you the most beautiful mansion, with the most exquisite and complicated plumbing. I would hand you a hammer, and say 'Ladies and Gentlemen, Madame Cluny Belinski is about to put the pipes in their place.'"

By the time they wrote that movie, Betty was credited as "Elizabeth Reinhardt." The Siren pulled out her introduction-less Modern Library edition of The Complete Poetry of Samuel Hoffenstein, and turned to the title page for Pencil in the Air, published in 1947, just after he died.

There it was below the title: "To Elizabeth."


john_burke100 said...

This is absolutely lovely. Siren, many, many thanks.

X. Trapnel said...


When hunting literary ghosts c. 1910-1945 the first place to go is the indispensible Kunitz (yes, it's Stanley) and Haycraft, Twentieth Century Authors, a veritable haunted house of obscure and extinct reputations and careers. There you will find a photo of a more staid-looking, middle-aged Hoffenstein and some information about his pre-Hollywood career in journalism and theater, but precious little personal information. He also gets three pages in Alfred Kreymbourg's 1934 History of American Poetry where he is linked up unsurpringly with Dorothy Parker. Light verse doesn't get much respect in the U.S. and there's not a mention of Hoffenstein in David Perkins' ultra-exhaustive History of Modern Poetry.

I'm wondering if your photo actually is Hoffenstein (the two photos don't much resemble each other).

The Siren said...

XT, the site I got the photo from is...strange and I was surprised to see this glamour shot too. If isn't Hoffenstein that would be unsurprising although he's a strange person to put up a false photo for. It looks like a lot of other actors, actually. I'll alter to make it clearer that I am not sure it's him. If you can post the other photo it would help.

John, thank you!

The Siren said...

HA! Thank you XT. After your comment I looked again and thought why does Hoffenstein look like Chevalier, is it because I am sleepy? No, because poor Hoffenstein has a photo of Chevalier in his place on that site. Anyway, thank you...I suspected that photo was too good to be true.

Muscato said...

Dear Siren - I have long loved the "flute in Gotham" line; how marvelous to learn at least a little about its creator. What an interesting man he must have been, even having left such a slender trail behind. Perhaps there are papers buried in some library or archive?

Jeff Gee said...

He gets the most passing of passing mentions in Ben Hecht's Child of the Century, in Book Five, the section called "My Grotto on 14th Street": "Some New Yorkers also appeared on 14th Street, among them... the poet Sam Hoffenstein, a man full of eerie problems." That's it (according to the index, anyway), although they share writing credits on "Tales of Manhattan" and the imdb says Hoffenstein did uncredited work on the screenplay of "Design for Living." (Child is nearly 600pages long and yet half the book must be tantilizing throw-away lines like that. It's the most frustrating book I never threw across the room.)

Tony Dayoub said...

Having been steered here by Vadim's tweet that this post was about a LAURA screenwriter, I was delighted to find that--though your hard work researching this beautiful piece is greatly appreciated--simply reading the first few poems you posted do indeed confirm that Hoffenstein surely wrote Waldo's dialogue.

At the very least.

misospecial said...

Thank you for this, both for the info on the intriguing Hoffenstein and the account of the frustrating business of researching figures who one would expect to have left a more solid record. Not infrequently I note the name of a writer or lesser-known director (or cinematographer or...) and start searching, still under the peculiar reassuring assumption that in this age of technological wonders, the age of data, surely there will be something that will make the apparition a little more solid. And so often, not. These are the moments I miss living a mile from the Performing Arts branch of the NYPL...

Hoffenstein seems of that particular literary breed of worldly wit (sharp and charming but with the world always turning to ashes in his mouth) who flourished in his anxious, transitional era—an obvious companion for Hecht and the less reliable Mankiewicz brother and rest of that disaffected post-war crowd (Parker can't be the only female in the crowd, can she?).

Your conclusion is a comfort. I hope that Hoffenstein found in Elizabeth a professional and romantic partner who was too substantial to reduce to light verse.

X. Trapnel said...


I will try to send along the postage stamp-sized photo and text. This reminds me of my unsuccessful attempts (complete with unlikely picture) to track down any information on the novelist (City for Conquest) and screenwriter Aben Kandel who seems to have disappeared even more efficiently than Hoffenstein(not even listed in K&H).

Somewhere in my house is a copy of Pencil in the Air that once belonged to Alexander Scourby.

yojimboen said...

A swell piece, lady!

From my Hoffenstein file

David said...

Siren, you have dusted off
A name at which some churls might scoff,
But me, I eat this stuff for lunch
And I sure liked your post a bunch.

* With apologies to Samuel Hoffenstein

X. Trapnel said...


My picture of Hoffenstein was just blurry enough to hold out the possibility that our hostesses's was indeed of SH, perhaps taken at a masquerade party for which the guests were enjoined to come as their favorite privately morose/publically ebulliant chansonnier. Somehow the facial expression was just a little to arch, even for Chevalier.

yojimboen said...

I'm pretty sure I had a shot of Sam and Betty somewhere, I'll keep looking.

I too have always loved the "flute in Gotham" line. I suspect it was the inspiration for the best piece of dialog ever spoken by Gene Hackman; (my money's on Pete Hamill as the author): French Connection II, Popeye Doyle's in Marseille, arguing with Bernard Fresson, a local agent de police. Fresson insults New York.
Hackman takes a deep breath and delivers it: "I'd rather be a lamppost in New York than King of France..."

Vanwall said...

What an awesome piece of writing. As sprightly and jagged as the man himself. As I mentioned elsewhere on the intertubes, I had just read that piece about Dreiser in "City of Nets" earlier this week as I travelled, books in carry-on, and knowing the impossibility of transferring that particular writing affectation to the screen, I guessed he was a dialog demon they brought in to make it intelligle and sharp; you sure showed me that about him. This was a minor masterpiece, Siren, thanks for tip.

Vanwall said...

BTW, kudos to those bitten enough to go foraging for more, and M. X and M. Yo - you two, and only you two could add so much fun to the mix, amazing.

X. Trapnel said...

Praise indeed from Mr. V! Thank you!

I must add that I found my Scourby-inscribed Hoffenstein at the great Argosy Bookstore in Manhattan where the 20s/30s/40s atmosphere is so thick you can cut out a square foot of it sturdy enough to be mailed anywhere in the continental USA. You really do expect to see Waldo Lydecker poking (with the cane of course) around for "fine editions" of Dowson and Pater.

yojimboen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yojimboen said...

You stole my line, mofo!

Cheers, M VW.

A couple more from unsung Sam:

"My soul is dark with stormy riot:
directly traced over to diet."

When you're away, I'm restless, lonely,
Wretched, bored, dejected; only
here's the rub, my darling dear,
I feel the same when you're near.

The Siren said...

Muscato, I am still digging! I just need to get out of the house...without kids attached.

Jeff, "A man full of eerie problems." Cryptic. But perfect. That's Ben Hecht for you.

Tony, I thought so too, and lord knows I WANTED to believe that Hoffenstein wrote Waldo's dialogue, as well as my favorite line from Dana Andrews, "I must say, for a charming, intelligent girl, you certainly surrounded yourself with a remarkable collection of dopes." (If I had a dime for every time I muttered that one to myself...) However, if there's one thing I have learned blogging, it's that your educated guesses can still be way wrong.

The Siren said...

Misospecial, there are some lovely poems in Pencil in the Air that I like to think are about Betty: "I love my love because she's fair/And has a cold-wave in her hair;/Because her lips and handbags match/And she's considered quite a catch;/Because she has the winsome ways/Of waiters in the best cafes/Dependable as Holland gin,/I always know whose bed she's in..."

Y., a man who looks LESS like Chevalier would be hard to imagine. I am laughing so hard; that will teach me to take Internet photos from obscure sites at face value. XT to the rescue!! His picture really must have been blurry.

David, I LOVE it. That may be the first time I got an actual ode in comments. Thank you so much!

Vanwall, thank you so much. It's funny, when I was trudging through Jennie Gerhardt wishing I were doing something more fun, like darning socks, I would never have thought of Dreiser as the sort of dude who ran off with a new girl to New Orleans. Ya never know.

XT, it's been ages since I went to Argosy, quite deliberately since for me it's the equivalent of the roulette table--I lose my shirt. "Just one more!"

I might have known that Yojimboen would already be a Hoffenstein aficionado. One of many things I love about my patient readers is that I bring up someone like Hoffenstein and instead of "Who?" they start pulling books off the shelves.

X. Trapnel said...

My favorite Lydecker line: "There you are, my dear; at the moment of supreme disaster he's trite." What Shelby C. actually said was banal, but as Hoffenstein might have said, "trite" has more bite.

mas82730 said...

Your post got me so ginned up I ordered a copy of 'Pencil in the Air' and am now reading Donald Ogden ('South Bend? It sounds like dancing') Stewart's 'Etiquette of Engagements and Weddings.'
Thanks, Siren ~ 'La Sirene du Mississipi' (is it Mississippi or Alabama, I've forgotten)

Jeff Gee said...

Turns out a bunch of Hoffenstein books are available online at the Internet Archive.

Unknown said...

FWIW, since he was so elusive, I thought I would look him up on Not much there, but some New York locales in his history may make the Siren feel even a bit closer to him.

Ancestry has his June 1917 WW I draft registration card showing him, at the age of 26, employed in "theatrical publicity" and officing at the Eltinge Theater. (I looked it up. It was at 236 West 42nd Street and "now survives as the facade and lobby of the AMC 42nd Street Movie multiplex." Yes, just part of the theater was moved to a new location.)

His entry in the 1930 Census shows him living at an apartment house at 501 Lexington Ave. (now the Hotel Roger Smith) with a wife, Edith. Edith was roughly 7 years Samuel's junior and born in Oklahoma. One wonders how they met.

In the 1940 Census, the last before his death, he was living on Thayer Avenue in Los Angeles, alone with two servants.

What about Edith? The only other thing I found for her was a passenger list from 3/18/31 showing her as a Los Angeles resident traveling from Agua Caliente, Mexico to San Diego. A Mexican divorce, perhaps?

A nice mystery for Saturday evening.

Jeff Gee said...

Over at Shadowplay, David Cairns has a nice post this morning on P.G. Wodehouse adaptations in general and Piccadilly Jim in particular. Hoffenstein was a writer on Jim and gets some ink, but the best part is really DC’s speculation on the borrowing between Preston Sturges and Wodehouse. However, he’s got a Hoffenstein tag, and THAT will bring up more Hoffensteinia, including a piece on the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera. That one has this: ‘Screenwriter and memoirist Lenore Coffee quotes a couple nice lines by Hoffenstein, not from his scripts but from his conversation. In response to the Variety headline BABY LEROY’S CONTRACT UP FOR RENEWAL, the Hoff remarked “If they don’t meet his terms he’ll go straight back to the womb… a swell place to negotiate from!” And when the legal department asked for a progress report on his latest script, a slightly tipsy S.H. bellowed “How any department as sterile as a legal department could have the impertinence to inquire into the progress of any writer, however poor… What do you think I do? Drink ink and pee scripts?”’

(Blogger isn’t permitting HTML with the “http” today, so you can get there via the blogroll, or paste this— -- into your browser).

The Siren said...

Oh this is wonderful, crowdsourcing Sam H.! Thank you so much, Jeff and the mysterious T. Migratorius (welcome, sir). Married! That makes sense, marriage gets a number of drive-by insults in the poetry. And drinking is all over them, too. It was a boozy era Hoffenstein worked through. I should have known my old friend David Cairns would have something good.

Unknown said...

Dear Siren,
I'd not known of you before but this post has made me a fan forever.
I've loved Hoffenstein for years. I own a used bookstore and get his poetry books once in a while, but they sit on the shelves with all that wit and feeling contained inside only to be ignored while people ask for Charles Bukowski.
I am so glad to hear he is not forgotten!
Comparisons might be odious, but I've always thought him as being at least in the same league as Dorothy Parker.
Plus which, I didn't know anything about the screenwriting career.
Many thanks, O Siren!

The Siren said...

Well all right folks, if you want your very own copy of Samuel Hoffenstein (and why would you not) you should contact Jude Tingley, both to cheer him up about the state of public taste, and to (very important) support our independent booksellers. Thanks so much for the kind words. Onward with the Hoffenstein revival, we hope.

Jette said...

I love learning about new-to-me writers, especially the witty ones. The lines that popped into my head as I read part of this, though, were not Hoffenstein but one of his contemporaries:

"Theodore Dreiser
Should ought to write nicer."

I'm going to have to get one of Hoffenstein's books, they sound irresistable.

Samuel Wilson said...

Google News Archive sources indicate a 1938 divorce, Edith citing mental cruelty. A UPI article quoted a poem reportedly written after their honeymoon and dedicated to Edith:

When you're away I'm restless, lonely,

Wretched, bored, dejected.

Only here's the rub, my darling dear.

I feel the same when you're here.

Frank Butterfield said...

Hoffenstein and Self-Styled Siren
Dine at Beirut Mövenpic
Goose and spinach chock with iron
Dressed with Kirschwasser aspic

DavidEhrenstein said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidEhrenstein said...

REALLY great work, Siren, and
Isn't It Romantic?

D Cairns said...

I think I did quote the main bits of Hoffensteiniana cited in Lenore Coffee's Storyline, but hopefully that just conforms that you need to get a copy of that unique memoir.

Thanks to Jeff Gee for locating the relevant piece!

Casey said...


Thanks for rescuing this guy from obscurity. Until I read your piece, Hoffenstein was a name I only vaguely remembered from film credits. I'll have to check out his poetry. I wonder if you might find anything in Groucho's memoirs. Or if there's any way to access Franklin P. Adams' old columns, since FPA documented a lot of the Algonquin crowd's activities.

Jake said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jake said...

That Housman parody, which I read fifteen years ago or more in a Penguin anthology, floated back into my head just three days ago, after a visit from a friend with depression. Knew nothing about the author. Mind blown. Bring on the Hoffenstein revival.

poetcomic1 said...

Sam was a BIG guy. According to S.J. Perelman story in his last book. THE LAST LAUGH in a piece called WANTED: SHORT OR LONG RESPITE BY FORMER CINEASTE. Perelman describes e.e. cummings on a trip out to Hollywood and running into a familiar face he can't place, "Look on me cher maitre and have pity," he was sobbing, "You knew me when I was Sam Hoffenstein a bard, Cummings! I am a whore!" 15 years of screen writing didn't agree with him all though maybe it saved us from one more pompous poetic ass.

The New York Crank said...

Siren, I apologize for coming across this, quite by accident, almost a year late. I love you for loving Hoffenstein and his Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing. I once had a yellowed, dog-eared paperback copy of the book, which my ex-wife threw out in a pique of...being piqued. That's yet another reason why she will roast eternally in hell.

However, if you'll permit me one small cavil, you left out Hoffenstein's political poetry. I'm quoting this from memory, so it may be more than a bit inaccurate, but...

O Lord who made the sun to shine
Who taught the lowly birds to trill
Make the people vote for Biggs
And not for Jiggs, or Higgs, or Skiggs....

It goes on in that vein for quite a few stanzas, and could be applied to virtually any op ed piece or blog today.

Yours crankily,
The New York Crank

The Siren said...

Thank you, the not-so-cranky New York Crank! I am glad that people are still reading this post on an unjustly little-known man. It is one of my favorites. I do not like to pass judgment on domestic quarrels, even ex-domestic quarrels, but throwing out poetry? It's simply not done. Please do check out ABEbooks, where your Hoffenstein supply can be replenished for sums starting around $3.50 plus S&H. I like my Modern Library Complete Poetry edition very much; there's several listed for around $10 and under. I remember Biggs (and even Skiggs) but this post was written in a romantic mood; and Hoffenstein, despite his apparent cynicism, had romance in his soul. I wrote a follow-up to this post based on things that readers turned up, and that I turned up myself:

Unknown said...

Farran, I thought you should know that Samuel Hoffenstein probably worked on a famous lost film - I'm not sure if he is in the credits, but I have reason to believe that he did a "polish" job on the late silent,“The Mysteries of Udolpho." I think his style would have been a good match with a Gothic thriller, I'd love to see how it came out. Just another possible film credit to add to his overall mysterious legacy.