The following story about my great-aunt Alma was written for New York Press in December 1994—and rejected.
A few years before my Grandma Jessie died, my nine-year-old self sat across from her at a restaurant table, clutching some Pocket Books dream guide that I'd bought at a supermarket for 39 cents. "See if you can look up the meaning of this dream that I keep having," Jessie said. "I'm getting off of a train, when I realize I left my pocketbook on my seat. I try to get it back, but the train leaves, and it's too late..."
I don't recall now what the dream guide said about that—probably some fortune-cookie thing like, "You will meet a mysterious stranger"—but, looking back, I'm convinced that Grandma was thinking about her potential career as an actress and writer, something she lost when she got married, and never retrieved. What dreams she had of an independent, artistic life were fulfilled by her big sister Alma, the bohemian writer, sometime nudist, and encounter-group devotee.
Alma Denny turned 88 last week [December 1994]. With her deceptively sweet little-old-lady voice and subdued demeanor, she resembles nothing so much as Katie Johnson in the classic Ealing comedy "The Ladykillers"; fragile, yet indomitable. As I sit with the fashionably-dressed, delicately-featured woman in her midtown apartment, she proffers a stack of clippings that could make me cry—with envy. Only this year, a poem of hers appeared in the Reader's Digest, while over the years her work has appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times, not to mention, as she puts it, "many papers that are now dead." In the Seventies, under a pseudonym, she penned a piece for Penthouse Forum with oral sex tips for seniors. In 1991, at the age of 84, she published her first book of poetry, and she's currently pondering a sequel. Not bad for a woman who first got published only 70 years ago.
"I was not more than nine years old," Denny recalls, "and the [long-defunct NYC daily] World-Telegram had a contest, something to do with the War—World War I. I remember it said, 'Do it in India ink.' I made a picture of a helmet, because we were fighting Germany, and underneath it I wrote 'Hell Mit The Kaiser.'" She pauses while my photographer and I absorb the truly awful pun and burst into laughter. "And I won the prize," she smiles.
Denny was born Alma Denenholz, the first child of a Bronx lawyer. "My parents did a very reckless thing in that they married late in life," she recalls. "They were in their thirties. My mother decided it was good for my father's health to live a natural sex life, and so they just kept having babies. Of course, it killed my father!"
Were there any other writers in the family?
"No," Denny says, "I wish there were. I am just a trailblazer. I wish there had been a role model of some sort." Of her nine brothers and sisters, she says"They all can write well, but they won't risk rejection." Her face widens into a smile and her eyes light up. "I love rejection."
My photographer, Jim McCarthy, who also works in a profession where rejection is the norm, can't resist interrupting to ask her why. "It gives me a second chance to say, 'Why did they reject this?'" Denny explains. "And then I say, 'Well, the editor must have been constipated that day.'" She suppresses a laugh. "I mean, it doesn't floor me at all. Then I re-read it and say, 'Well, I could fix this up a little bit.' And so, when I get the piece back, I re-write, and—"
She takes a breath, and her features suddenly become serious. "I never give up. If I think I've written something good and no-one else does, I'll just keep sending it out, over and over, and eventually it gets accepted. Even to a junky place or places that pay one or two dollars." She pauses and adds, "I must say that my way is expensive!"
In light of the recent media interest in Dorothy Parker, it is tempting to say that Denny is one of the last, and best, exponents of the Parker wit, both in her poetry and in her verbal zingers. After McCarthy goes to use her bathroom, Denny realizes she forgot to tell him about the elaborately conceived rubber-band setup that she's put there so that men can make the rebellious toilet seat stay up. When he returns, she apologizes, noting, "The minute you put the seat up, the whole thing flops down. It's been put up at the wrong angle."
"I held it up by hand," McCarthy says.
"I know," replies Denny, breaking into a laugh, "but you're entitled to have your hands free!"
When Denny was little, she and her siblings had fun dressing up in the cast-off costumes of their cousin Ruth Roye, a vaudeville headliner. "She was the one who introduced the hit song 'Waiting For The Robert E. Lee,' and her picture was on the sheet music," Denny recalls. "My mother sent me to her home for Christmas vacation one year. She was performing at an Orpheum theater, and she took me with her. I stayed backstage during the show, and I did terrible things. I would copy down the jokes that the comedians told. One of them caught me and said, 'What are you writing?' I said, 'I'm writing down jokes.' He said, 'Get the hell out!' He thought I was there from the competition, to steal his material."
Alma Denny started her professional career in the 1940s, when she was married to a New York doctor. "I just couldn't stay in the house. My husband did not want me to work, because in those days it was a disgrace. It meant that your husband couldn't support you, and he couldn't face that. He said, 'Stay home. I'll do anything you want.' So he permitted me to send my mother a small check, because that's why I wanted to work. But I got stir-crazy. I just couldn't stay home."
"So," she says, "I did take a few part-time jobs with publishing companies." From the way Denny describes the jobs, it doesn't sound like much has changed in that industry. "Boring!" she exclaims. "Like, doing a directory, working on Who's Who In Railroading." As I crack up again, she adds, "One of my big jobs!"
What brought things to a head, she says, "is that I was so desperate to make some money and get out of the house is that I took a job as a waitress down in the Wall Street area." (This shows what a degree in French from Hunter College was good for back then.) "When I told my husband what the requirements were, that I had to wear a white uniform, a green apron, and a green cap, he said, 'What if my patients walk in and see you?' You just stay home. You can't do it."
She smiles. "That's when he gave me a little more money for my mother."
Stuck once more at home, caring for two small children, Denny began to send articles out, fashioning her pen name out of her maiden name. "I started to write at the opening of World War II," she explains, "and I didn't want to use my married name, Kaplan, because I didn't want the editors to say, 'Oh, this is just another Jew,' and I didn't want to use the name Denenholz because that's a German name, and so I shortened the Denenholz to Denny and I had no more trouble from there. I felt very anonymous." I nod, thinking of how little things have changed. For years, I've been using my middle name as a pen name, out of fear that people might otherwise judge me by my religious heritage rather than by my ability.
Early on, Denny developed a reputation for pun-laced wordplay, like the one-liner that she got into Playboy. "It was a typo that my brother found in an army magazine. it spoke of 'two colonels-who-retired,' but it was printed as, 'two colonels-whore-tired.'" At the same time that she got in between Playboy's covers, her poems penetrated Middle America's consciousness in Good Housekeeping. She proudly notes that she has been in the latter magazine eight times—an impressive achievement, considering that they only print one poem a month, at most.
Since the bulk of Denny's literary output consists of light verse, she has a more difficult time getting published than most writers and often uses inventive means to make herself known. "When I run out of markets, I create new markets," she explains. "I write to magazines that have never used poetry and I ask them why they can't say the same thing in verse; people would remember it more. I had a victory in a very important magazine put out by Cambridge University Press, a quarterly on language called English Today. I wrote the editor and said, 'How about a poem on word usage, which would say the same things that you say in prose?' He liked the idea, so for eight years I've been in nearly every issue." The most recent issue of that magazine has a poem by Denny on the transformative powers of the letter "i"; for example, how it can turn a rectal into a recital.
One of Denny's longest-running outlets is the New York Times' Metropolitan Diary column. Her poems and anecdotes have appeared there 25 times, earning her, back in the column's more generous days, bottle after bottle of champagne. "Lately," she notes, "I have not been getting in, because the editor likes things about the movies and theater, and I'm sort of a recluse by now." However, some of her anecdotes are timeless, like the one they printed that read, "I had a dream one night that I was writing all my checks with exclamation marks, and the bank told me, 'We are not a Letter to the Editor.' And I said, 'My exclamation mark represents a scream.'"
She has appeared in the Times as a writer of articles as well, including a 1985 Op-Ed piece, "An Ashley By Any Other Name," which lamented the current craze of giving girls boys' names. It was a line from that article which earned her a place in Simpson's Contemporary Quotations: "The feminist surge will crest when a lady named Arabella, flounces and ruffles and all, can rise to the top of a Fortune 500 corporation."
Although the Times described Denny in italics as "a former syndicated columnist living in Manhattan," it might as well have noted her other qualification for writing about children; a Columbia master's degree in child development and family education. The fact that the article made it into the Times at all was a testament to Denny's persistence, since it had already been rejected by at least one magazine. "When I first wrote the article, I sent it to McCalls," she says. "The article said, 'Don't name your child Morgan.' The editor wrote back, 'Sorry, my daughter is named Morgan.'"
In 1991, at her grown granddaughter Janina Lamb's insistence, Denny compiled around fifty of her light verses into her first book, Blinkies: Funny Poems To Read In A Blink. Published and illustrated by Janina's Lamb & Lion Studio, the book sold mainly to family and friends, but it did catch the eye of a few critics, most notably language expert Richard Lederer, author of Anguished English and Get Thee To A Punnery. Lederer was so taken by Blinkies that he devoted the entirety of one of his syndicated columns to the Denny, reprinting such gems as "The Hit-the-Ceiling Department":
Brotherly love within me dies
Whenever a bloke says "reco'nize."
I'm just a savage Paleolith
When I hear, "Meet me corner Fi'th."
Earlier this year, Denny saw a poem of hers sticking out on her desk, which had recently appeared in the quarterly Light and, on a whim, sent it off to Reader's Digest. She was shocked to receive notice that it was accepted, but nothing could prepare her for what came next: a contract with the amount of payment filled in. For the few lines which Light had taken gratis, Denny was getting enough moolah to feed an Ethiopian village for a month. While she naturally was thrilled, she had a sinking feeling when she broke the news to a meeting group of her fellow poets. "The other members of my poetry group were much better than I," she says flatly. "Real poets either get no pay for their poems or, at best, a free copy of the magazine. And here, this magazine gives you $375 for doggerel, absolute doggerel."
Here, I leave Denny so she can eat her lunch (courtesy of Meals on Wheels), giving her a hug and a copy of New York Press . (Familiar with the paper, she raves, "It's very well-written, well-edited too.") It seems only right to end with the Reader's Digest pick, the eleven-line wonder, "It Bagels The Mind!":
To butter a bagel
You need to finagle
Just to inveigle
The slithering spread
To the edge of the bread,
Avoiding the hole
Of this crisp Jewish roll
Lest globs of goo land
In the palm of your hand.
If you want to add extras
You'd better be dextrous
And nab the stray blocks
Of cream cheese and lox
That fall through the middle
Of this no-middle vittle.
Alma died in March 2002. Her obituary appeared in the New York Sun. I miss her very much.