I love well-written travel narratives from the past, and this summer I picked up two books by Jerome Weidman which I relished reading and thought I would share them with you. Jerome Weidman was an American playwright, novelist, and travel writer, born in New York City (1913-1998). He won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1960 through his collaboration with George Abbott on a book for the musical Fiorello! with music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.
I found his travel book Letter of Credit (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1940) to be engaging reading, particularly because his round- the-world journey took place just as World War II was about to break out. A month before he sailed from New York, Adolf Hitler marched into Czechoslovakia.
He set out on this trip despite warnings from family and friends that it was not a good time to be traveling the globe. The Germans were making their moves everywhere. But Weisman was a young man, free of any ties that bind, and had socked money away and looked forward to the trip for years; he was not about to be dissuaded. It was now or never. So he boarded an ocean liner bound for Plymouth, England. He spent weeks in London, then moved on to Edinburgh, Scotland and then to Paris and Marseilles; from there, aboard vessels large and small he traveled to Port Said, Egypt, and sailed through the Suez Canal; his travels encompassed Arabia, India, Ceylon, Penang, Singapore, Java, Australia, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, Hawaii and home to the California coast.
Each chapter heading is the date and place where he used his “Letter of Credit” to withdraw more cash to continue his journey. Example: “July 30, 1939 – National Bank of India, Ltd., Aden, Arabia – $30.00 – Thirty Dollars.” (It’s amazing how far thirty dollars would take you in those days).
In some ways Weidman is an early version of Bill Bryson as a travel writer; he’s not afraid to tell you of his misadventures, fears and foibles, and he sees wry humor in odd situations. He is an astute observer of his fellow travelers, and also gives us a real idea of what it feels like to be a lone traveler on a long journey in those days before cell phones and the internet.
He spoke of the importance of letters from loved ones waiting for you in a distant port, of homesickness, and the particular joy of meeting up with a friend after weeks or months of traveling alone.
“The next best thing to coming home is coming to a place where someone you know is waiting to meet you. The tight, painful excitement that grips you when the train rolls you for the first time into the station of a foreign city, the tingle of uncontrollable anticipation, very often liberally tinged with fright, that assails you when your ship docks at a new and exotic port, is lacking when you know a friend or a relative is on hand to meet you.”
In Ceylon he meets Daphne Charger, a vivacious young woman photographer who sweeps him into a perilous whirlwind of adventure.
“She owned a movie camera, a large and expensive wardrobe, a captivating face that caused you to wonder wistfully why it could not have belonged to a person with at least a modicum of common sense. And she had the endurance of a dray horse. She had been away from England for three months when I met her in Ceylon. During that time she had apparently subsisted entirely on a diet of vitamin tablets. There was not an ounce of fat on her figure, a rational thought in her head, or an inhibition in her system. Cool, slender, beautiful, and thoroughly composed at all times, she nevertheless had the unsettling ability to throw a room into a turmoil of nervous excitement by entering it and ordering a drink. She was a blonde.”
At one point she lures him into a jungle area infested by roguish monkeys where she takes much pleasure in snapping pictures while he is under attack.
It is a chronicle of a trip in perilous times that is informative, but also one that will make you empathize, chuckle, and even roll with laughter. It is humorous, poignant and entertaining…a joy to read.
The second Jerome Weidman book I read was Traveler’s Cheque (Doubleday, 1954), which is actually a collection of great travel writing from the past, being excerpts from the work of Charles Dickens, Sir Richard F. Burton, W. Somerset Maugham, Alexander Woolcott, and other great writers and travelers.
Each is selected and introduced in an entertaining and informative manner by Weidman. This book definitely inspires further reading of some of these authors’ timeless works and sent me off in search of more books by these fabulous writers.
Weidman wrote fourteen novels including I Can Get It for You Wholesale, which was also produced as a Broadway play that marked the debut of 19-year-old Barbara Streisand, and resulted in her being nominated for a Tony Award. He also wrote for film and television and many of his short stories were published in The New Yorker and Harper’s Magazine. A bibliography of Weidman’s work is available here on Wikipedia.
If you are interested in owning a copy of Letter of Credit or Traveler’s Cheque, we currently have one copy of each available at Old Scrolls Book Shop!