Feb 172017

Irna Phillips pictured dictating stories to her assistant, Rose Cooperman.

A few days before I was fired, my novel The Friend was published and released in Chicago. A small book party was held at a bookstore around the corner. The reviews in the Chicago papers had been good, but the attendance at the party was spotty: nobody from the radio station showed up. I had my family, a few friends and A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker critic who was writing a study of Chicago, The Second City. He could see I was disappointed at the small turnout. Liebling invited me to his apartment and fed me sardine sandwiches. He said something pertinent.

“Chicago is a great city to be from. Hemingway left, Hecht and McArthur left, and I’ll get out of here as quickly as I can. It’s not a town for writers.”

Tuulikki had been saying the same thing. When we were married I had promised to go to New York the following year. But it was approaching four years, and she was impatient.

At the time an old Army buddy, Arthur Peterson, was an actor in a soap opera The Guiding Light. He was indignant at the way I had been treated. He introduced me to Irna Phillips, the creator and sole writer of the serial.  By chance Miss Phillips wanted to try out a backup writer, and Art made much of my skills and my troubles with the Chicago police force.

Irna agreed to a paid tryout. She thought I should sit by for a week and watch her write. That way I could understand her writing style.

She didn’t write; she dictated. She was not a handsome woman, but she had fine, lanky legs. Dressed in a gauzy peignoir that reached only to her knees, she dictated all the parts to a gentle, understanding secretary who took shorthand notes.

Irna first played Meta, whose elegant accent was somewhere between Lake Forest, Illinois and three hundred miles west of England. Irna-Meta was elegant, impulsive, and too gentile for her German father.

“The Cherman Fahder had an eggscent dot was wery pronounced: aber he was kinly and gemüütlicht even to his elegant daughter,” she would say. Irna-Fadder was sad because Die Mutter of Irna-Meta had died, of course.

Irna played all the parts to the hilt, including the male suitor. And then, exactly on time just before the commercial, Irna imitated the announcer who breathlessly said, “Well!” or even “Well Well”. (Astonishment, required)


Irna’s secretary would say, “What got into Meta today? What a way to talk to her father!”

Irna said, “I don’t understand that girl. She’d better watch out, or she’ll have some serious trouble!” Irna-Meta was not Irna Phillips.

The secretary typed out the script and sent it to New York where The Guiding Light was produced. At 12:15 pm Central Standard Time, Monday through Friday, the live broadcast was heard in the writer’s apartment. While Miss Phillips was content with the actress playing Meta, despite the many, many German refugees in New York, she disliked their accents.

She wanted someone whose eggscent was exactly like hers — someone “kinly and gemüüütilicht even to his elegant daughter. Die Irna-Mutter had died two seasons back.”

Irna was kindly and elegant to me. She outlined the plot for the next two weeks and sent me off to write some episodes. She also paid in advance.

I sent the trial episodes to her by mail and was asked to visit her in her Lake Shore Drive apartment.

“I am sorry”, she said. “But it won’t work out.”

“Why not Miss Phillips?”

“Perry, you made one error that I could correct. You advanced the plot on Monday. The plot must never advance on a Monday. That’s the day you review all the events of the week before to remind the audience and prepare them for the surprise on Tuesday.

“As I said I could take care of that. But there is something in your writing style that I know I could never correct.”


“Perry, you rewrite. You are literary. You cannot dictate normal dialog because you rewrite and that is what makes it too literary.”

She continued. “I’ll tell you what I can do for you. There are going to be two deaths in the plot. (Two actors have quit for jobs in Hollywood.) You can write two funeral services for the Memorial Day programs.”

I did. An obituary for The Guiding Light for Mehta’s father. In real life, the actor had a profitable restaurant in Manhattan that gave him time to do the soap opera. The accented Mehta did a fifteen minute tribute to her fadder and cried very well. I don’t remember what other person character died or who read the second Guiding Light eulogy, but now I had enough money to go to New York and look for a job.



 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>