May 18, 2017

“Never play cards with a man called Doc” — and other advice from Nelson Algren…

Nelson Algren (1909-1981)
copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, the copyright date is also a book’s initial publication date.

Algren’s novel might have been released sooner if not for a dispute he had with his publishing company, Doubleday.

Doubleday had published Algren’s breakthrough book of short stories, The Neon Wilderness, in 1947.

In 1949 it published his blockbuster novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1950 and was later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra.

The next novel Algren wrote was A Walk on the Wild Side.

After reviewing its story about a drifter from Texas who, among other things, rapes a woman, works in a condom factory and then in a whorehouse in New Orleans, the editorial powers that be at Doubleday decided it was a bit too risqué.

As noted by book news journalist Frederick Babcock in his column in the Chicago Tribune on February 26, 1956, they told Algren to tone it down.

Algren made a few minor token changes. Doubleday pushed for more. Algren took a walk, so to speak, and gave the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy to publish. 

Newsclip about Nelson Algren, 1956Given the eventual lasting fame of the book and its title, you could say the editors at Doubleday make a big mistake. But in 1956 the novel was panned by critics and initial sales were low. Algren was so devastated he tried to commit suicide.

He survived. He continued to write and he taught writing at several universities. But he didn’t publish another book until 1962.

He didn’t write another novel until 1974. Titled The Devil’s Stocking, it wasn’t published until 1983 — two years after Algren died from a heart attack.

A Walk on the Wild Side has lived on as a book that continues to be reprinted and is now more favorably viewed by critics.

In 1962, it was adapted into a film with a star-studded cast, including Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck.

The title song for the film, scored by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Mack David, was nominated for an Academy Award and is on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film music.

In 1972, Lou Reed released his catchy song “A Walk on the Wild Side” (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson).

By that time those words were already a common idiomatic expression meaning to do things that are risky or morally questionable.

Reed’s song made the phrase even more famous and familiar to new generations.

Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side also includes his best known quote. It’s some memorable advice about certain things you should never do that shows up in many books of famous quotations:

       “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

These rules are imparted to the novel’s central character, Dove Linkhorn, by a career criminal named “Cross-Country” Kline, while the two are spending time in jail together.

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren Ace edition 1960Kline also shares other life lessons he’d learned with Dove.

Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he recites them:

      “But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work.
       “Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Not long after A Walk on the Wild Side was published, the first three rules mentioned by Cross-Country Kline in that excerpt began to be cited as a famous quote by Algren.

With slight wording changes, Algren often cited them himself in speaking engagements and interviews. He also used them in an essay titled “What Every Young man Should Know.”

Quote mavens like Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have pointed out that Algren probably didn’t coin the three famous rules himself.

They have both noted that an actor friend of Algren named Dave Peltz claimed to have created the rules. He said he wrote them down in a letter he sent to Algren.

Algren told biographer H. E. F. Donohue he got them from “a nice old Negro lady.”

In the foreword to the 1964 book Conversations with Nelson Algren, Donohue wrote:

“He [Algren] shunts aside all rules regulations and dicta except for three laws he says a nice old Negro lady once taught him: Never play cards with any man named ‘Doc’. Never eat at any place called ‘Mom’s’. And never ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.”

Several years ago, in a post on his “Black Cracker” blog, writer and musician Josh Alan Friedman recorded an additional rule of life Algren once mentioned to him.

Josh is the son of the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of cartoonist Drew Friedman. (He’s also one of my co-editors on an anthology of vintage men’s adventure stories, titled Weasels Ripped My Flesh!)

In July of 1964, Nelson Algren spent a week with the Friedman family at their rented summer house on Fire Island.

Josh recalled:

“Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the ‘Mrs. O’Leary’ character in my book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour...Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over.”

So, there’s one more sensible Nelson Algren rule of life to remember — while you avoid playing cards with anyone named Doc, eating at a place called Mom’s and sleeping with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own. Never turn the pot handles outward on the stove.

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