Obituary: Jerome Weidman

JEROME WEIDMAN achieved what most young writers would cheerfully surrender their souls for: a literary sensation with his first book, and a literary scandal with his second.

Weidman's vision was an essentially bleak and jaundiced one, his debut novel, I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1937), a savage indictment of New York's notorious garment trade and what he saw as the human vermin that ran parts of it, and especially the book's villain - though "villain" in the context is far too soft and Victorian a word to use in conjunction with his predatory and grasping Harry Bogen, who would sacrifice anything to gain a buck. Though there was a comic bedrock to the novel, Weidman's concentration on the sheer nastiness of many of his characters disturbed the critics, particularly those from the Jewish community, who were angered by what they felt was Weidman's "treachery" to his race.

Weidman, only 24, hit back by pointing out that he had a responsibility as a writer to tell the truth as he had experienced it (he had, after all, grown up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and his first job after high school had actually been as an office-boy in the garment business itself). His stand was supported by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote him a letter which famously included the line "Don't let them get you down, kid . . ."

However, if certain of the critics were angered by I Can Get It For You Wholesale, they were infuriated by Weidman's follow-up What's In It For Me? (1938), an even harsher tale of amorality and greed set against the teeming backdrop of Manhattan's small-business quarter. Protests from the Jewish community in particular forced Weidman's publishers, Simon and Schuster, to agree to cease printing the book, though only at the end of the year - by which time the novel had in any case achieved runaway- bestseller status, and Weidman himself an interesting notoriety.

Jerome Weidman was born in New York City in 1913, the son of immigrant Jewish parents, Joseph Weidman and Anne (Falkovitz) Weid-man. His father was in the garment trade (a pocket-stitcher on suits) and pushed his son into a desk job after high school. Weidman's experiences were by no means happy ones and he pursued other forms of education, finally enrolling in the New York University Law School. He was admitted to the Bar but never practised, writing and the business of writing taking over his life.

He was a champion of the city's bustling and perilous inner heart - "I have never seen a sunset," he once wrote, "or a mountain top that can match the fascination of 14th Street between 2nd Avenue and Broadway on a Saturday night" - charting the lives of its denizens with scrupulous care but not with love. His "good guys" are essentially patsys who are invariably and inexorably (in the argot of today) shafted by their far more pitiless and vicious fellows, and "bad guys", who are certainly more sharply realised on the page and in the imagination by Weidman's scalpel- like pen. There was precious little hope of salvation - indeed, precious little hope - in his early novels and often dazzling and highly crafted short stories, many of which inevitably found their way into Harold Ross's New Yorker during its Golden Age of the late Thirties and early Forties.

During the Second World War Weidman worked for the Office of War Information, a government propaganda agency upon which he based his sharply comic 1946 satire Too Early To Tell (in the novel the OWI was transformed into the Bureau of Psychological Combat, peopled by any number of scoundrels and pompous buffoons). In The Price Is Right (1949, the cautionary tale of a brash and ambitious young newspaperman) he returned somewhat to the bitter and disgusted mood of his pre-war novels.

During the 1950s Weidman utilised his talent for speakable dialogue in a number of screenplays, which let to his partnering George Abbot in writing the book of the musical Fiorello!, in celebration of New York's best-loved mayor (1934-45), Fiorello Henry La Guardia. This won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Reviewers were often caustic about Weidman - "Weidman is clever about people without being really wise about them," Lee Rogow wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1949. An oft-repeated gibe was that he was "superficial". Nevertheless he had his champions, including Hemingway and (perhaps startlingly) Robert Graves. At the time of the suppression of What's In It For Me?, the influential literary critic (Esquire, Newsweek and the American Mercury) Burton Rascoe in particular bitterly inveighed against the suppressors, dubbing Weidman "a brilliant, sensitive, cultural and extraordinarily talented young man". (Rascoe himself was no respecter of sacred cows: he had been sacked from the Chicago Tribune for poking fun at the Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy.)

Despite his often bitter feelings about his fellow members of the human race, Jerome Weidman was a writer who cared about the craft of writing and cared about other writers, actively supporting their causes and serving as President of the Authors' League of America from 1969 to 1974.

Jack Adrian

Jerome Weidman, novelist, screenwriter and playwright: born New York 4 August 1913: married 1942 Peggy Wright (two sons); died New York 6 October 1998.