What did Agatha Christie, Bix Beiderbecke, Bertrand Russell, and Ogden Nash have in common? P. G. Wodehouse was their favorite humorist.
And he is also that to millions of people around the world. Despite this popularity, most don't know that the P. G. stands for Pelham Grenville. To his family and friends, however, he was always known as ''Plum,'' an abbreviated pronunciation of his first name. And, as he once noted on the back of an letter, ''P.S. - It's pronounced Wood-house!''
Wodehouse's comedy is genteel. His material rarely steps out of the Edwardian drawing rooms of his youth. Wodehousian farce characteristically revolves around broken engagements, unhappy butlers, imperious aunts, and perhaps a pinched creamer here and there. But suddenly the mundane shifts and ludicrous situations erupt. In '' Right Ho, Jeeves,'' Bertie Wooster describes lunch with Augustus Fink-Nottle, who studies newts: ''. . . he had put me right off my feed by bringing a couple of green things with legs to the luncheon table , crooning over them like a young mother and eventually losing one of them in the salad.''
To mark the centennial anniversary of Wodehouse's birth, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York is exhibiting a collection of Wodehouse memorabilia, including his manuscripts, books, articles, plays, and songs.
Evelyn Waugh, who referred to Wodehouse as ''The Master,'' considered him the best contemporary writer of English. Other fans included Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Asimov, Arthur James Balfour, Dorothy L. Sayers, George Orwell, and former New York Mayor John Lindsay, not to mention countless ''ordinary readers.'' His total readership has been estimated at 30 million.
What draws so many readers to him?
''He was the original good humor man,'' opines Donald Bensen, editor of the newly published anthology ''Wodehouse on Crime: A Dozen Tales of Fiendish Cunning'' (Tichnor & Fields. New Haven, Conn. $10.95). ''There was never any spite in his writings, even when he was at his most satirical. It's always pure good fun.''
The criticism is sometimes raised, perhaps because his works are so lighthearted, that he writes superficial fluff. But it is not that Wodehouse ignores evil.He rejects it. He reduces it to the level of the wrong dinner jacket - simply bad form. Wodehouse himself described his work most accurately: ''I write musical comedy without the music,'' he used to say.
The fun is still spritely. Although many of the situations, and certainly the upper-class life style Wodehouse often describes, are a bit old-fashioned nowadays, the humor is always fresh.
''It's true, no one lives this way now - if in fact they ever did,'' Bensen says. ''But Wodehouse writes in a timeless never-never land. The situations never stale.''
Fanny Neville-Rolfe, a young British woman employed in Sotheby's (New York) Books and Manuscripts department, agrees. ''I and many of my friends still read him. Apart from the period element which appeals to the nostalgic sense in all of us, he's really quite funny.''
On top of the farcical plots, Wodehouse twists the English language into hilariously jarring new forms, much as a carnival performer knots balloons into fanciful shapes. ''I don't know if you know the meaning of the word 'agley,' Kipper, but that, to put it in a nutshell, is how our plans have ganged'' (''How Right You Are, Jeeves''). Or the classic: ''He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled'' (''The Code of the Woosters'').
Wodehouse was tremendously productive, writing more than 100 novels, more than 300 articles and essays, and at least 500 short stories. He also worked on half a dozen films, 16 plays, and 23 musical comedies. His works were translated into 19 languages, and at least 70 of his books are still in print in English. A modest man Wodehouse considered his two greatest honors to be having a waxen likeness of himself placed in Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum and receiving a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1975.
Sadly, the life of the man who wrote so much sunshine was clouded by a scandal from which he is only now being cleared. In 1939, while Wodehouse and his wife, Ethel, were living in Le Touquet, France, he was interned by the Germans.
When he was released from the internment camp, he was approached by a journalist from the then neutral United States and asked to do some radio pieces about his experiences. He did five of them, intended for broadcast in America. They were short, humorous bits including such things as how he and his fellow prisoners were so tired of being counted and recounted that they proposed to buy a German soldier after the war, keep him in the garden, and count him six times a day. At no point did he encourage the enemy or attack England. But the Germans picked up the broadcasts for propaganda rebroadcast, and the outcry in war-ravaged Britain was intense. Libraries threw out his books, and he was branded a traitor in the English press. Though Lord Eden made a speech to Parliament in 1944 saying that there was no basis for charges against Wodehouse, it is only since the British MI5 intelligence reports were declassified earlier this year that he has been officially ''cleared'' of any treason. ''I may have been naive, but I was never a renegade,'' Wodehouse always maintained.
Despite occurrences which would have embittered a lesser man, Wodehouse was good-natured even when most provoked. After A. A. Milne, author of ''Winnie-the-Pooh,'' wrote an attack on Wodehouse's wartime broadcasts in the Daily Telegraph, Wodehouse wrote, in a page now on view at the Wodehouse Centenary Exhibition at New York's Morgan Library: ''I once founded the Try to Like Milne Club. It never really caught on. After a great deal of canvassing I could find only one man who was willing to join, and he wrote to me a week later saying, 'I'm sorry, I shall have to resign from the Try to Like Milne Club. I've just met him.' ''
Wodehouse had crossed out the passage. It was never published.
Although his war broadcasts were not ever considered to be the serious treason of a Lord Haw-Haw or an Ezra Pound, Wodehouse never again felt welcome in his native England. He and his wife moved to Remsenburg, Long Island, after the war. Wodehouse took out American citizenship and lived there as a quiet suburban gentleman. ''All my days are the same,'' he once remarked to an interviewer. ''I feel like Lord Emsworth. All he asks is to be left alone with his pigs.'' The simple life appealed to this simple man. A BBC correspondent who interviewed him on his 90th birthday relates: ''When I got there, his wife said, 'Shush! You'll have to wait.' He was watching his favorite soap opera and couldn't be disturbed.''
In January of 1975, he was made a Knight Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, in an act that was, many Britons felt, making up an old quarrel. It was an overdue tribute to the man who has enriched the lives of so many millions of readers, and who has made characters like Jeeves, Bertie Wooster, Mr. Mulliner, and Lord Emsworth live for generations of fans.