"A Good Man Is Hard to Keep: The Correspondence of Flannery O'Connor and S.J. Perelman"

By Veronica Geng and Garrison Keillor
The New York Times Book Review
April 2, 1995

These imaginary letters were read at the Authors Guild Foundation's benefit dinner, "Literary Affairs," on Feb. 27 at the Metropolitan Club in New York. Veronica Geng played Flannery O'Connor and Garrison Keillor played S.J. Perelman.

Dear Sid,
   Gone and got me a new dress. Black satin and it has what I hear tell they call a "plunging neckline." The lady in the fitting room at the Milledgeville store took a good hard look and then she said, "That idn't you." I said, "It is now."
   Well, I reckon I sound most highly pleased with mysef and for that I do thank you very kindly. "Plunging" is the word all right and I guess that is a fact.
   Were they-all a bunch of geniuses in our panel discussion or was it near on to about the dopiest panel discussion ever? What I got out of it was a vision of yr starched white shirt front, blinding white like a nice new sheet of paper. What a lousy comparison, a sheet of paper hasn't got seven pearl buttons down the middle.
   My mother is skeptical on this one point of your having ordered us up the room service at that Ritz. She says there is no Ritz in Iowa City. I have been telling her the juicy details so she won't want a television.
   Anyhow, I was much taken with you and figure on putting you in a story. Have one going where this family on a car trip has an accident and goes into a ditch, and I need a man who comes along in a car and what all. He has blue eyes like yrs and a clean white shirt on and he has got him a picnic hamper with Champagne in it and sandwiches and a portable Victrola and some jazz records.
   Yrs truly,

My little Peach Cobbler,
   When I was a schoolboy in Providence, I spent my Saturdays sitting dazed and feverish in the balcony of the Pantages watching Mary Pickford in "Hearts Adrift" over and over until the manager pried my shoes from the floor and sent me home, and now I am in the same fever over you, but without the licorice whips. I do remember that it was the Hilton, not the Ritz, but passion is sweet no matter what the marquee, and I can't wait to make a fool of myself again as soon as possible. You are my ideal of Southern womanhood, and you have crept into my heart like kudzu. As for putting me in a story, O.K., but be careful not to use the terms "rapier wit" or "dark flashing eyes" lest our secret be revealed and our names dragged into the gossip columns and our love cheapened. And please let me know when I can come to Milledgeville and see you. Do you have a refrigerator, by the way?
   El Sid

Dear Sid,
   Oh my.
   Well, I thought I best ask my mama to see will it be all right putting up a nice New Yorker gent in the spare room. There is a nice rug in there and all. She says she don't mind but has yet to lay eyes on a man worth getting a new refrigerator for. Can you cope with an icebox which it is pretty full up with peacock feed? Don't wear those nice shoes, we are awful muddy hereabouts.
   As I recollect, the newspapers have a limited interest in my affairs and are blind dumb to boot, so if I was you I wouldn't get mysef in a lather about publicity.
   Now on this story. Yr character is seen from an omniscient pt of view. Not one living soul would reckanize you, human nature being suchlike that you don't even reckanize your own sef. Anyways, the details are all changed around now. The dark side of you has got to emerge and the sooner the better. He has got himsef a pearl-handled gun of some kind and is inclined to push these country people to the limit just on the pure meanness of it. I don't see fit to alter my method of working to your say-so.
   Yrs truly,

Mon amour,
   I was stitching a plume on my chapeau, all in a flush over my upcoming trip to Georgia, when the mailman dropped your letter in my lap, and I must say it gave me a violent tic and I had to smell salts when I came to the part about the gun. Gallantry, my little chickabiddy, has its limits. First, you say you are going to portray me in a story as a snappy dresser with a Victrola and blue eyes and then I become a sullen thug who terrorizes innocent people at the point of a pistol. What do you say we segue back to the love scene, fade out on my dark side, fade in to a violet mist  of perfume and ambrosia, you and me in close-up, our lips intertwined? Why not sell the mules, send your mother to a Bible camp, come north and cohabit with me at the Plaza while we write a hit musical — you supply the colorful characters, the robust scenes of peasant life, etc., and I'll provide the verbs and prepositions — and we'll retire off the royalties to a Pre-Raphaelite snuggery in the Cotswolds and recline in a bower and adore each other? Meanwhile, could you reserve me a suite at a hotel near your farm where you and I could reconnoiter when you are done with chores?
   Your Sid

Dear Sid,

   Well, your plan is a real horror. To my mind the bidnis of living off of royalties is downright sinful, and I would as leave be strangled in my nightdress as do any such thing.
   So I do thank you most profoundly as this is the exact feeling I was after and have been all day at the typewriter banging out the truth and getting the entire family gunned down in the woods excepting the old lady. Now she is face to face with the Misfit which is what I call him as you will surely agree is the word for him if you are able to take a good clean look into yoursef. He has got the pearly-handle gun pointed right at her heart. MY HE IS AS BAD AS THEY COME. She looks into his pale blue eyes and then she says, "I'd like to kiss you but I just washed my hair."
   Yrs truly

My little rosebud,
   I must confess that surrealism is, to me, a powerful aphrodisiac and that I am thrilled by attractive women who say bizarre things. The dashing, sloe-eyed, silken-skinned Sid you know from the Sunday rotogravure was once a bohemian too, my sweet. Back when Edna St. Vincent Millay and I used to dip candles in her loft in the Village, I swapped symbolism with the best of them, wrote sonnets on mutability and decay, wore black silk shirts, read Rilke, drank espresso, the whole megillah, so believe me, kid, I can be as Gothic as the next guy. Kafka, let me remind you, was not a Southern Baptist, and if you enjoy spooky stories, I have a snootful — but why be obsessed with darkness when the bright lights beckon? My ticket to Georgia is purchased and sits atop the bureau, my shoes are polished, my hosiery is folded and wrapped in tissue, my white flannels are pressed, my heart is pounding like a triphammer, my palms are clammy with anticipation, but of course I won't come if I am only going to serve as the model for a psychopath. At the risk of sounding like Norman St. Vincent Peale, why not lighten up a little? If you want to wash your hair, come up to New York. We have hair dryers here.

Dear Sid,

   Well, we have us a disaster here with our icebox, which is of a mind to go crazy every oncet in a while. The only one who can fix it is a convict who comes down from the Atlanta pen, so I am waiting on him and can't travel. Besides my mother says there is not a man on the face of this earth who she would allow to visit without a good supply of ice to hand.
   Please give my very kindest regards to Miss Edna whoever that may be.
   Yrs truly,

Dear Flannery,
   Do you recall a woman named Danielle who attended that same panel discussion in Iowa City where I met you? She was the one in the black leather miniskirt and the red satin blouse who crept up afterward with a few thousand pages of her novel in hand and asked me if I'd read it and give her an honest opinion. Well, my honest opinion is: It needs a lot of work, and I'm the one to do it, so she and I are heading off to Hawaii in a few hours, and thence to Singapore, Rangoon, Delhi, Istanbul, Budapest, Paris and home, a trip at Cond
é Nast's expense for which I shall pen a few thousand words on the subject of luxury hotels and loose living. Danielle is a girl who cottons to that sort of life. Her novel is full of men and women having a wonderful time with each other, and all it needs is a little more detail, which I'll do my best to provide. Hope the story about the killer works out for you. Sounds like a nice vehicle for George Raft.

Veronica Geng is the author of "Love Trouble Is My Business," a collection of humor pieces. Garrison Keillor is the author, most recently, of "The Book of Guys," a collection of stories.