Arse v Ass – Amusing John O’Hara Letters For Sale

Bonhams to sell amusing letters from “alcoholic crank” and author John O’Hara that examine the difference between “arse” and “ass;” of his work ‘BUtterfield 8’ Elizabeth Taylor once raged: “I think it stinks!”

Bonhams to sell amusing letters from “alcoholic crank” and author John O’Hara that examine the difference between “arse” and “ass;” of his work ‘BUtterfield 8’ Elizabeth Taylor once raged: “I think it stinks!”

“Bingeworthy” American short story author John O’Hara (1905 – 1970) was once described as “may not [having] been the best story writer of the twentieth century, but he [was] the most addictive.”


“Unfashionable in literary circles in the 1960s” and known for his “easily bruised ego, alcoholic crankiness, long-held resentments and politically conservative views,” an amusing letter from O’Hara – whose notable works included Appointment in Samarra and BUtterfield 8 – that was held in the collection of the Frasier screenwriter and producer David Lloyd (1934 – 2009) is to be auctioned by Bonhams in Los Angeles this month.


Written on 9th July 1938 to one Mr Mavrogordato and sent from 52 Chesil Court, Manor Street, Chelsea, London, SW3 – which was also for a time home to the “cheeky Cockney” actor Harry Fowler MBE (1926 – 2012) – the second of the letters points to the difference between the word “arse” in England and its counterpoint “ass” in America. It reads:


“In America the word is pronounced and spelled ass. In England, where I have had one book published, and another to be published in September, they spell it your way in my books. I happen to think it’s inconsistent to do that with a writer whose stuff is so completely American, but after a certain point has been reached, I always let publishers have their way.”


It comes with an earlier typed letter dated 4th July 1938 written to Fred J. Feldkamp (1914 – 1981), the editor of For Men, in which O’Hara submits an article (not present with the lot). The author informs that he will be “traveling through Europe for most of the summer” and complains:


“I admit that I was a little surprised at the small size of the cheque for the other piece, but we can take that up when I get home. Over here every little bit helps, and anyway it takes so God damn long to argue by mail.”


The letters – which come with an original transmittal envelope – will be sold as part of an online only sale that concludes on 10th August at 10:00 PDT. The lot has a guide of £247 to £411 ($300 to $500, €293 to €488 or درهم1,102 to درهم1,836) and the current bid is just £4.11 ($5, €4.89 or درهم18.36).


Whether this argumentative author subsequently made an “arse” or an “ass” of himself with his bosses remains unknown, but one thing is for sure, John O’Hara considered Americans above Brits to the end. In 1952, he concluded: “Sometimes I almost feel that I ought to apologize [sic] for having the ability to write good dialogue, and yet it’s the attribute most lacking in American writers and almost totally lacking in the British.”


Pictured top – One of the two letters that Bonhams are to sell on 10th August (left) and its “among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language” – according to his fellow ‘New Yorker’ contributor Brendan Gill (1914 – 1997) – author John O’Hara (right).


A July 2013 ‘Chicago Tribune’ tribute to the “floating from one newspaper job to another… generally fired in a matter of months” author by Rick Kogan began: “John O’Hara was not a nice man, but he was, for a while, one hell of a great writer.” It ends: “As you might have guess, he wrote his own epitaph: ‘Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.’ ‘Better than anyone else?’ C’mon. ‘Honestly and well’? I can’t argue that.”
Elizabeth Taylor starred in the 1960 drama film adaptation of O’Hara’s novel ‘BUttterfield 8” alongside her then husband Eddie Fisher. In spite of it being MGM’s biggest hit that year, Taylor “hated it” and cuttingly commented: “I still say in stinks.”
“Witty” and known for being passionate about the “relationship of a man and his typewriter” David Lloyd – pictured with his son Christopher in 1998 with Emmy awards for ‘Frasier’ and the longtime owner of the letters and other lots to be offered on 10th August – died in November 2009 of prostate cancer. He was the co-creator of ABC’s ‘Modern Family’ and known for “his enormous first edition collection (a stunning number of which he actually read) and travelling the world with his leading lady.” His favourite restaurant, La Dolce Vita, has a dish named ‘Lambchops Lloyd’ on its menu in his honour.
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