In 1974, Dr. P.N. Aruna, a young ENT specialist, moved to New Jersey. One morning, realising that her favourite author P.G. Wodehouse lived at Remsenburg, Long Island, New York, she set out by car. The Remsenburg post office staff suggested that she follow the postman on his regular delivery beat, but were doubtful if Wodehouse would meet her. Luckily for her, the author came out in person to collect his mail. He noticed Aruna and paused for a moment during which she told him that she was his fan and had travelled all the way from New Jersey to see him. He invited her in. A brief conversation ensued, during which he gave her a signed photograph and also promised to write about Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe and the prawns “if he lives long enough”. Wodehouse died the next year and Aruna was one of the few people who made it to the memorial service.
Last month when I was staying with Aruna for a day, she had lined up a visit to the Metropolitan Museum, New York, followed by a Broadway musical. Instead I suggested that we take a dekko at the Wodehouse tomb. And so we set off. To get to Remsenburg from New Jersey, you need to go by train to Penn Station, New York. From there you take the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to Patchogue, where you change to Speonk, from where you take a cab.
Wodehouse first came to Long Island in 1914 when, shortly after his marriage, his wife and he moved to the U.S. They rented a home at Bell Port, Long Island. Bell Port had a station but when he arrived one winter morning to take a train, Wodehouse found the place had been removed from the rail map! He walked four miles ‘under the hour’ to Patchogue to catch a train and, in the evening, walked back. Reaching home tired and exhausted, he found that “there was a fine dinner, a blazing fire and Ethel fussing over me and all sorts of good things. It was perfectly ripping.”
We should have taken Wodehouse more seriously, I thought, especially his experience with the vagaries of the LIRR. On the train to Patchogue, we were informed that there was no connecting train to Speonk for more than two hours. Our best hope, we were told, would be to take a cab from Patchogue itself. An angel in human form booked one with her cell phone and we were assured that a cab would be in waiting when we arrived.
A relic from the 1960s, the taxi made noises similar to that of the Market Blandings cab (Jno Banks Proprietor) when it took passengers to the Castle. Our driver was a leftover from the flower generation, with long flowing white locks and a disturbing habit of letting go of the wheel to turn around to talk to us on the joys of potato curries. I had strong visions of Jeeves’ story coming true — the one in which Nichols and Jackson riding a tandem bike collide with an omnibus. When it came to the burial, the pieces were so mixed that they were interred under the name of Nixon — until Aruna sternly indicated that the driver better focus on the road to avoid a sticky ending to the story.
Long Island was to exert a fascination over Wodehouse. Most of his American millionaires like James Schoonmaker who married Lady Constance Keeble and J. Chichester Clam who came to sign a contract with Bertie’s Uncle Percy and got locked up in a potting shed at Steeple Bumpleigh, lived at Long Island. The only exception was Sigsbee Horatio Waddington (The Small Bachelor). The Wodehouses returned here after World War II and lived at Basket Neck Lane, Remsenburg, till he died in 1975 and she in 1984.
Both are buried in the cemetery of the Remsenburg Community Church, a small white wooden structure. The yard is filled with the tombs of members of three families, the local nibs no doubt — the Tuttles, the Fordhams and the Rogers. Like the Kegley-Bassington clan in The Mating Season, they must have dominated the village concerts. The Wodehouse tomb is by far the biggest. Atop the large rectangular stone is carved an open book that bears the words Jeeves, Blandings Castle, Leave it to Psmith, Meet Mr. Mulliner. These, as any Wodehouse fan would tell you, were the words his wife wrote for the stone. Below it, on the slab proper, are the names and dates of birth and death of Wodehouse and his wife. She is also acknowledged as the mother of Leonora. This was Ethel’s daughter from an earlier marriage and Wodehouse doted on her, dedicating two of his books to her. Her early death was a great shock to the couple. The Wodehouses did not have any children from their marriage.
Standing at the grave, my heart was filled with a sense of gratitude for the happiness he had given me. And then my eye fell on the line carved at the bottom of the slab: He gave joy to countless people.
This article appeared in the Sunday magazine of The Hindu, on October 5, 2014