Monday, October 15, 2018

Home, Jeeves

1940: The man on the left is American journalist Angus Thuermer, an obscure figure now and an obscure figure even then but one whose career choices allowed him to become a bemused witness to history on at least two occasions (he was later a CIA spokesman during the time of Watergate.) The man on the right is not so obscure. It's P.G. Wodehouse, the celebrated author who wrote humorous stories about the British upper-class, most notably those involving the young aristocratic halfwit Bertie Wooster and his supremely capable valet Jeeves, who earned much of his pay bailing his employer out of whatever trouble he had gotten himself into. Wodehouse had been a successful writer for going on three decades now, had earned himself a lot of money, so one might expect this interview to be taking place in some country estate, maybe a penthouse, or perhaps a posh hotel suite, but no, it instead took place in... a German-run prison for enemy nationals.

So how in the world did a man who wrote stuff like this:

“Oh, Jeeves," I said. "About that check suit."
"A trifle too bizarre, sir, in my opinion."
"But lots of fellows have asked me who my tailor is."
"Doubtless in order to avoid him, sir."
"He's supposed to be one of the best men in London."
"I am saying nothing against his moral character, sir.” 

...or this:

Besides, isn't there something in the book of rules about a man may not marry his cousin? Or am I thinking of grandmothers?

...or this:

I hadn't heard the door open, but the man was on the spot once more. My private belief, as I think I have mentioned before, is that Jeeves doesn't have to open doors. He's like one of those birds in India who bung their astral bodies about--the chaps, I mean, who having gone into thin air in Bombay, reassemble the parts and appear two minutes later in Calcutta. Only some such theory will account for the fact that he's not there one moment and is there the next. He just seems to float from Spot A to Spot B like some form of gas.

...or this:

 "Goodbye, Bertie," he said, rising.
I seemed to spot an error.
"You mean 'Hullo,' don't you?"
"No, I don't. I mean goodbye. I'm off."
"Off where?"
"To the kitchen garden. To drown myself."
"Don't be an ass."
"I'm not an ass...Am I an ass, Jeeves?"
"Possibly a little injudicious, sir."
"Drowning myself, you mean?"
"Yes, sir."
"You think, on the whole, not drown myself?"
"I should not advocate it, sir."
"Very well, Jeeves. I accept your ruling. After all, it would be unpleasant for Mrs. Travers to find a swollen body floating in her pond."

...or this:

 “What ho!" I said.
"What ho!" said Motty.
"What ho! What ho!"
"What ho! What ho! What ho!"
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.”

...or this

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
"The mood will pass, sir.” 

...end up under the thumb of somebody who wrote stuff like this?:

 The application of force alone, without support based on a spiritual concept, can never bring about the destruction of an idea or arrest the propagation of it, unless one is ready and able to ruthlessly to exterminate the last upholders of that idea even to a man, and also wipe out any tradition which it may tend to leave behind.

--Mein Kampf

The answer is taxation. As Wodehouse sold more and more books, and made more and more money, he despaired at seeing so much of it go to His Majesty's Government, and, as he worked on and off on Broadway and in Hollywood, the Internal Revenue Service. He thought it unfair that both the United Kingdom and the United States should claim him as a resident for tax purposes, so in 1934 he and his wife Ethel moved to Le Touquet in Northern France, and made that their permanent residence (though he remained a British subject). The two were still in Le Touquet in 1939 when France and Britain declared war on Germany. They were still there in Le Touquet in 1940 when the German army found that a shortcut through Belgium allowed them to go around that pesky Maginot Line. They were still there in Le Touquet when the British military skedaddled out of Dunkirk. And they were still there in Le Touquet when, in his own words, “I was strolling on the lawn with my wife, when she lowered her voice, and said, ‘Don’t look now, but here comes the German army.’”

For the first two months of occupation all Wodehouse and his wife had to do was report to German authorities. Then it was decided that all male enemy nationals under the age of 60 (Wodehouse was then 59) be rounded up and sent away. After short lockups in several places, Wodehouse ended up in an insane asylum-turned-prison in Tost in Upper Silesia, in what was then part of Germany (today it's in Poland.) Associated Press reporter Angus Thuermer, based in Berlin (the U.S. had not yet entered the war) got wind of all this, and, sensing a scoop, made his way to Upper Selisia. Since there had been some puzzlement outside of Nazi-occupied Europe as to what exactly had happened to the best-selling author, this was indeed a major story. Diplomatic pressure from the U.S. (where the writer had made a lot of influential friends) was put on Germany to release Wodehouse, or at least find him better accommodations. Hoping it might keep America out of the war, the Nazis chose the latter.

Wodehouse and wife Ethel (who had been allowed to stay behind in Le Touquet) were put up in one of the best hotels in Berlin, paid for through the German royalties of his book. He had been a best-selling author there, too. They also asked him to do them a little favor. Would he please do a few radio broadcasts for The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda (Goebbels' outfit) that would then be aired in the still-officially isolationist United States. Actually, I don't know if they were that polite about it, but Wodehouse agreed. The five broadcasts together were titled How to be an Internee Without Previous Training, and were made up of humorous anecdotes of POW life ("If this is Upper Silesia, I'd hate to see what Lower Silesia is like.") They were essentially non-political, and Wodehouse hardly endorsed the German war effort, but didn't denounced it either.

These didn't just end up getting broadcast in America, where everyone got a good giggle out of them, but also in Blitzed-out England, where Wodehouse's I'm-living-under-Nazi-occupation-LOL tone didn't go over very well at all. His books were removed from several libraries, and newspapers called him a "traitor, collaborator, Nazi propagandist and a coward" and he was said to have "lived luxuriously because Britain laughed with him, but when the laughter was out of his country's heart, ... [he] was not ready to share her suffering. He hadn't the guts ... even to stick it out in the internment camp." As Wodehouse himself conceded at a much later date, "Of course I ought to have had the sense to see that it was a loony thing to do to use the German radio for even the most harmless stuff, but I didn't. I suppose prison life saps the intellect."

The Wodehouses stayed in Germany until 1943, when, thanks to Allied bombing, they were allowed to move to Paris, which is where they were when that city was liberated in August of 1944. The noted British journalist Malcolm Muggerridge, who during the war worked as an intelligence officer with the M16 interrogated Wodehouse shortly thereafter, decided that he hadn't committed treason after all, and had been no more than a 60-year old Bertie Wooster, a rich kid who had gotten himself into trouble. Another intelligence officer gave a more formal interrogation that lasted four days, and came to the same conclusion. Wodehouse was free to go, but go where? To jail, because now the newly-liberated French had him arrested, possibly on the advice of those in Britain who did not agree with their own intelligence agencies' conclusions. He eventually was released in January of 1945, and allowed to leave France in June of 1946. Wodehouse didn't feel he could go back to Britain, where resentment against him still ran pretty high, so he and Ethel fled to the United States, to New York State, to Long Island, and finally, to...    


...The Hamptons (hey, a war refugee has to go somewhere.) Wodehouse became a U.S. citizen in 1955, and continued to have books published on a yearly basis until his death in 1975. Shortly before he died, the forgiving British decided to knight him, but the long trip to his native land (which he hadn't laid eyes on since the 1930s) would have been too much for a man in his 90s. In 1999, a newly released intelligence document revealed that British officials in 1946 had second thoughts about letting him go free, and it was recommended that if he ever return to the United Kingdom, he be tried for treason.

So what to make of all this? Was he secretly a Nazi sympathizer, as some have alleged, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Wodehouse wrote 71 books in his life, and gave numerous interviews, but thanks to his witty elusiveness, it's difficult to pin down how he felt about anything. He spent his life writing about the British upper-class, but the magistrate's son, despite the money he made, never actually was one of them. Did he like that upper-class, or despise it? His stories can be read either way. His work has been enjoyed by both liberals and conservatives (as well as fascists and communists.)

My best guess is that P.G. Wodehouse was both Wooster and Jeeves. He could get in trouble, but was supremely capable enough to get himself back out. 


  1. What ho. What ho. What ho. The Wallace and Grommet of their day. (Well, except for the Nazis.)

    1. Mitchell, if Wallace and Grommet's animator was caught by the Nazis, he'd probably be forced to come up with some stop-motion propaganda.

  2. Hi, Kirk!

    Excellent history lesson, good buddy! Mrs Shady loves British television and is currently watching either the original Jeeves and Wooster series of the early 90s or a modern remake. This post taught me a lot about P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of the famous characters, and his incarceration during WWII. With a little help from his friends Wodehouse managed to land on his feet. Imagine fleeing the problems back home, seeking asylum in the U.S. and finding safe haven in The Hamptons!

    Thank you for identifying the source of that excerpt as Mein Kampf. I assumed it was taken from The Art of the Deal.

    Have a great week, good buddy Kirk!

    1. Shady, I, too, am a fan of that '90s TV version, which played here in America on Masterpiece Theater (thank you, Mr. Cooke)and that made me seek out Wodehouse at the library.

  3. When I was in university a million years ago, I went on a major Wodehouse kick and read all his Jeeves and Wooster books and stories. He was a supremely talented humour writer, but the humour was in his writing style, his choice of words and means of expression, not necessarily in the plots of his stories. Every single work of his had more or less the exact same plot.

    I learned later he was thought to have been a Nazi collaborator but I didn't know the exact details, so this post was very interesting in filling in those blanks for me! Wodehouse may have been a master of wit but he was (at best) politically naive, as so many artists and artistic types are.

  4. Debra, what I find most remarkable about those stories (and that really can't be duplicated in movie or TV versions) is Wooster's first-person narration. We can laugh at Wooster, we can feel superior to Wooster, but we still depend on him to know what's going on.

  5. Quite an interesting story.

    1. Adam, it's one of several stories from that era concerning famous (or once-famous) people who found themselves stuck behind Nazi lines.

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