The ukulele meets Mills and Boon?

The following extract from the story Hunting a Husband by Mary Douglas appeared in the Evening Public Ledger of 10 May 1918. [You’ll need a strong stomach past this point]

I was listening sadly to the sound of moving in the room below.

The room below. That had meant my sick man. The whimsical smile and the light in hollow eyes. The studio blurred before my vision.

“May I come in?” It was my ever-present Scotch neighbour with his chirruping ways.

“The Sara Lane is alone?” He settled himself on the couch with a ukulele. But I did not like the twang-twang tonight. I was not in the mood.

Bobby MacAllistair threw down the ukulele. He walked over to me.

“So!” he said.

He was sitting in a moment in his favourite attitude, at my feet. I felt something soft and heavy against my dress. But I did not notice. I put my hand down. It touched a thick head of shaggy hair.

“Just leave it so a minute,” he said. I was lonely, too. I did. Then I felt flexible fingers steal up and hold mine. Hold mine with a warm throbbing clasp.

Still I was silent. The hold of those warm fingers was comforting…

“Sara,” he said. “Sara, kiss me.”

“Bobby MacAllistair how can you be so silly?”

“Sara,” he said again, “just once.” He was kneeling now. He tried to catch my hands. But I clasped them behind my back.

A sudden resolve come to me.

“All right,” I said. “I will. Then we’ll be engaged.” I am afraid my tone was business like….

There must be something else a body could do with one’s evening back in May 1918… Let’s see. I could have gone to the Church Historical Society’s meeting ‘at the Episcopal Divinity School’ to hear an address on “The Books and Writings of Bishop White” by the Rev. Lucian Moore Robinson, or there was the Vaudeville presented by the members of the 315th Infantry. 

Decisions, decisions…

Published in: on April 6, 2010 at 8:19 am  Comments (1)  
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Ukulele not all joy — Jack London’s fiction

A story by Jack London, author of The Call of the Wild, appeared in The Evening Post (New Zealand) on Saturday, 22 June 1912, page 10. The story was called “Koolau the Leper”, and it’s not an overly happy one.

“Life is short, and the days are filled with pain,” said Koolau. “Let us drink and dance and be happy as we can.”

From one of the rocky lairs calabashes were produced and passed around. The calabashes were filled with the fierce distillation of the root of the ti-plant; and as the liquid fire coursed through them and mounted to their brains they thought themselves men and women once more. The woman who wept scalding tears from open eye-pits was indeed a woman apulse [sic] with life as she plucked the strings of an ukulele and lifted her voice in a barbaric love-call such as might have come from the dark forest depths of the primeval world. The air tingled with her cry, softly imperious and seductive. Upon a mat, timing his rhythm to the woman’s song, Kiloliana danced. It was unmistakable. Love danced in all his movements, and next, dancing with him on the mat, was a woman, whose heavy hips and generous breast gave the lie to her diseased-corroded face. It was a dance of the living dead, for in their disintegrating bodies life still loved and longed. Ever the woman whose sightless eyes ran scalding tears chanted her love-cry, ever the dancers danced of love in the warm night, and ever the calabashes went around till in all their brains were maggots crawling of memory and desire.


Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 5:16 pm  Leave a Comment  
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P G Wodehouse and the Ukulele

From a reading of Wodehouse on the topic of romance, one might believe that the ukulele player has an unfair advantage — but that would only be in the year 1919, when A Damsel in Distress first appeared.

Consider his [George’s] position, you faint-hearted and self-pitying young men who think you have a tough row to hoe just because, when you pay your evening visit with the pound box of candy under your arm, you see the handsome sophomore from Yale sitting beside her on the porch, playing the ukulele. If ever the world has turned black to you in such a situation and the moon gone in behind a cloud, think of George Bevan and what he was up against. You are at least on the spot. You can at least put up a fight. If there are ukuleles in the world, there are also guitars, and tomorrow it may be you and not he who sits on the moonlit porch; it may be he and not you who arrives late. Who knows? Tomorrow he may not show up till you have finished the Bedouin’s Love Song and are annoying the local birds, roosting in the trees, with Poor Butterfly.

But if you read Thank you, Jeeves (1934), written by the same author, a different attitude to the ukulele (or its cousin, the Banjolele) might be detected.

Those who know Bertram Wooster best are aware that he is a man of sudden, strong enthusiasms and that, when in the grip of one of these, he becomes a remorseless machine — tense, absorbed, single-minded. It was so in the matter of this banjolele-playing of mine. Since that night at the Alhambra when the supreme virtuosity of Ben Bloom and his Sixteen Baltimore Buddies had fired me to take up the study of the instrument, not a day had passed without its couple of hours assiduous practice. And I was twanging the strings like one inspired when the door opened and Jeeves shovelled in the foul strait-waistcoat specialist… [Sir Roderick, who said:]

‘You’re a public menace. For weeks, it appears, you have been making life a hell for all your neighbours with some hideous musical instrument. I see you have it now. How dare you play that thing in a respectable block of flats? Infernal din!’

Some people have no heart.

Published in: on November 13, 2009 at 5:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Yet more ukuleles in fiction

Stephen Leacock featured ukulele playing in some of his short stories, but not always in a positive context.

For example, in Short Circuits in Education (1938), he draws these unflattering character sketches:

The comic college man has a face cut square, like a strawberry box, a shoulder like a right angle, and a coat shaped like the fortyfifth proposition in Euclid. His face is drawn in a few lines, with the brains left out, and if he ever knew algebra, he gives no sign of it. In short, he is a nut.

When we see them, Nut No. 1, Gussie, is seated on the window-sill playing a ukulele, and Nut No. 2 has his ukulele ready to play as soon as Gussie runs out of ideas and jokes. The college man sleeps with his ukulele…

Consequently, when Gussie the Nut has finished his tune on the ukulele, he lays down the instrument and:

Gussie — “Have a cigarette, old man?”

Eddie — “What’s wrong with it?”

Then they take their flasks out of their hip pockets, have a drink, and hit up another tune on the ukulele. This is the way in which the comic college man prepares for his college day.

In an earlier work, Frenzied Fiction (1918), professional ukulele players are noted in a piece entitled, ‘Father Knickerbocker: A Fantasy’ — a dream about the changes that had overtaken New York since the days recounted in ‘Washington Irving’s immortal sketches of Father Knickerbocker’.

“Right,” he said. “We’re going to just the place now—nice quiet dinner, a good quiet orchestra, Hawaiian, but quiet, and lots of women.” Here he smacked his lips again, and nudged me with his elbow. “Lots of women, bunches of them. Do you like women?”

“Why, Mr. Knickerbocker,” I said hesitatingly, “I suppose — I —”

The old man sniggered as he poked me again in the ribs.

“You bet you do, you dog!” he chuckled. “We all do. For me, I confess it, sir, I can’t sit down to dinner without plenty of women, stacks of them, all round me.”

Meantime the taxi had stopped. I was about to open the door and get out.

“Wait, wait,” said Father Knickerbocker, his hand upon my arm, as he looked out of the window. “I’ll see somebody in a minute who’ll let us out for fifty cents. None of us here ever gets in or out of anything by ourselves. It’s bad form. Ah, here he is!”

A moment later we had passed through the portals of a great restaurant, and found ourselves surrounded with all the colour and tumult of a New York dinner a la mode. A burst of wild music, pounded and thrummed out on ukuleles by a group of yellow men in Hawaiian costume, filled the room, helping to drown or perhaps only serving to accentuate the babel of talk and the clatter of dishes that arose on every side. Men in evening dress and women in all the colours of the rainbow, decollete to a degree, were seated at little tables, blowing blue smoke into the air, and drinking green and yellow drinks from glasses with thin stems. A troupe of cabaret performers shouted and leaped on a little stage at the side of the room, unheeded by the crowd…

I began to realize that Father Knickerbocker, old as he was, had forgotten all the earlier times with which I associated his memory. There was nothing left but the cabarets, and the Gardens, the Palm Rooms, and the ukuleles of to-day. Behind that his mind refused to travel.

These were found among the collection of books at

Published in: on November 6, 2009 at 5:35 pm  Comments (3)  
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Another ukulele in fiction

A section of a tale, ‘There was one time: a story of spring’ by Jessie Fauset, appeared in The Crisis 14, 1 (1917), pp.11-15. Anna Ritter, a young teacher, meets a handsome stranger while out walking with her small cousin, Theophilus.  While Anna day-dreams about meeting the stranger again, Theophilus falls off an ice wagon and injures himself. Anna attempts to comfort him.

She rushed into the ‘front-room’ where Theophilus sat, his small head bandaged up, picking indefatigably at his banjo, and hugged him tumultuously.

He took her caress unmoved, having decided long ago that all women outside of aunts and mothers were crazy. “Look out, you’ll break my new strings,” he warned her. And she actually begged his pardon and proffered him fifteen cents toward the still visionary ukulele.

Later, after raising Anne’s hopes regarding the attractive stranger’s interest in her, Theophilus tries his luck …

“And will you get me the ukelele [sic], Anna?”

She would, she assured him, get him anything ….

You’ll have to find out how things turn out for Anna and the stranger for yourself.  I’d be more interested to know whether Theophilus will be able to ditch the banjo for the ukulele (or ukelele).

Published in: on November 5, 2009 at 10:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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Ukuleles in Fiction

Just thought I’d begin to look for examples of the ukulele as mentioned in fiction — novels. I don’t have many examples yet (just passing references), but I intend to kept an eye or two out for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) mentions the ukulele in at least two of his short stories.

Flappers and Philosophers (1920), ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’

Bernice hesitated. She felt that wit in some form was demanded of her, but under her cousin’s suddenly frigid eyes she was completely incapacitated.

“I don’t know,” she stalled.

“Splush!” said Marjorie. “Admit it!”

Bernice saw that Warren’s eyes had left a ukulele he had been tinkering with and were fixed on her questioningly.

“Oh, I don’t know!” she repeated steadily. Her cheeks were glowing.

“Splush!” remarked Marjorie again.

Tales of the Jazz Age (1921) [Blog note: Edith is at a party, and is attracting attention]

A dark man cut in with intense formality.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said gravely.

“I should say I do. Your name’s Harlan.”

“No-ope. Barlow.”

“Well, I knew there were two syllables anyway. You’re the boy that played the ukulele so well up at Howard Marshall’s house party.

“I played–but not–“

A man with prominent teeth cut in.

Another novelist who mentions the ukulele is Fanny Heaslip Lea (1884-1955). The Evening Independent (21 December 1926) in announcing Ms. Lea’s divorce on page 16, describes her novels in this way:

Oh, those stories! Ukuleles ‘neath the moon, passionately-red hibiscus, and maids that sat in grass skirts on a star-drenched beach and twanged and twanged at a uke.

So I went looking for her novels and the only reference I came across was in Sicily Anne: A Romance, Harper & Brothers, 1914. Disappointingly, page 64 provides this particularly unromantic exchange:

Mrs. Kennard, delicately fingering an ukelele,
called out to him at once.

“Jimmy-boy! Come, sing. We need you.”

“Nothing doing!” said Jimmy Fox, untruthfully
and impolitely. “I’ve got a cold.”

and a little further on …

Once he [Jimmy-boy] killed a mosquito, smearing it brutally upon the sleeve of his pajamas, but the bloody deed afforded him small relief. When the rest of the house-party ceased from troubling and the last ukelele tinkled into silence upon the last laughing good night, he breathed a prayer of gratitude, but it was two hours after that before his eyelids closed definitely and sleep came upon him unawares.

That’s it until something better comes along.

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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