In Hollywood, where he didn't do much memorable work but did make a considerable amount of money, he helped found the Hollywood Cricket Club, in 1931. Its members included Boris Karloff, Errol Flynn, and David Niven (who appears in the movie version of Thank You, Jeeves). To this we are indebted, clearly, for the marvelous opening scene of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One.
Jazz Age Wodehouse, as caught by McCrum, is out on Long Island with the Scott Fitzgeralds, staying at the Algonquin, sweeping up Broadway in triumph with Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, writing musical parts for William Randolph Hearst's future sweetie Marion Davies, hobnobbing with Flo Ziegfeld, and getting hot reviews from George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker. Frank Crowninshield, of Vanity Fair, paid him top dollar. But all the time, in this world saturated with money and glamour and sex, he remained, in McCrum's phrase, "the laureate of repression." And he was, when he got home to his desk, slowly evolving the primal innocence of Lord Emsworth and Bertie Wooster—an attainment that would bring him fame far beyond the Great White Way.
Attempting to explain this dissonance between the knowing and the guileless, and between the cynical world of gay-dominated musical comedy and the blameless universe of Bertie and the Earl, I once proposed that Wodehouse must have seen or read The Importance of Being Earnest and somehow sublimated it. The theory is pathetically simple once you start to test it: Oscar Wilde's play opens with some witty backchat between an idle young bachelor and his butler, proceeds to introduce a terrifying aunt in the shape of Lady Bracknell, and carries on with two intertwined and frivolous engagements, which are resolved in a country house with the help of a silly rural clergyman. With Wodehouse as with Wilde, nobody has any father or mother, only aunts and uncles. (I can go on about this at length if challenged, mentioning the dates when Wodehouse began going to the theater and not omitting the fact that his father was named Ernest.) McCrum even makes a bow in my direction, asserting that although Wodehouse undoubtedly knew of Reginald Bunthorne, the "fleshly poet" satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, he never included any Wildeisms in his widely scattered literary allusions.
Nor did he—by allusion, at any rate. But I've recently been unhorsed by Mark Grueter, a brilliant graduate student of mine, who came across the following in the story Pigs Have Wings. Set in Blandings Castle, as the title implies, it features the scapegrace Galahad Threepwood ("Gally") and the mettlesome American girl Penny Donaldson. The ambition of this dangerous young woman is to keep an appointment with her unsuitable suitor, Jerry Vail, in London. Lord Emsworth's forbidding sister Lady Constance, warns Galahad, will not hear of this.
"The expedition arrives in London tomorrow afternoon, so tomorrow night I shall be dining with my Jerry."
Gally gazed at her in amazement. Her childish optimism gave him a pang.
"With Connie keeping her fishy eye on you? Not a hope."
"Oh yes, because there's an old friend of Father's in London, and Father would never forgive me if I didn't take this opportunity of slapping her on the back and saying hello. So I shall dine with her."
"And she will bring your young man along?"
"Well, between us girls, Gally, she doesn't really exist. I'm like the poet in Shakespeare, I'm giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. Did you ever see The Importance of Being Earnest?"
"Don't wander from the point."
"I'm not wandering from the point. Do you remember Bunbury, the friend the hero invented? This is his mother, Mrs. Bunbury. You can always arrange these things with a little tact."
I devoutly wish, but not for the sake of my theory, that I had never had to read this passage. It does prove, after all, my original point that Wodehouse must have read or seen the play. But it makes the reference in such clunking, leaden tones that one would prefer to have been kept guessing. Most of Wodehouse's beautifully timed literary nudges do not give chapter and verse. (And Algernon as "the hero"?) So I sadly propose that we have here a fusion of the workaholic and the self-conscious: a grisly combination that doesn't recur until the groan-making moment, in Aunts Aren't Gentlemen (1974), when Bertie Wooster goes out for a stroll and runs into an anti-war demonstration. (That's what I mean by letting in daylight upon magic.)