On That Day So Still So Burning: The Poetry Of Nelson Algren

Book Review: Never A Lovely So Real—The Live and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher, W.W. Norton & Company 2019

By Ray Schultz

Nelson Algren was seen by some as the bard of the dispossessed and by others as the bard of the stumblebum. The operative word was bard. Algren was a poet who wrote novels, not a novelist who wrote poetry, one critic observed. And he penned several American classics, the very titles of which have entered our language, like A Walk On The Wild Side and The Man With The Golden Arm.

Algren died in 1981 at age 72. Since then, there have been three pretty good biographies of him. The latest, Never A Lovely So Real, by Colin Asher, has been hailed as the definitive treatment. But will it supplant Bettina Drew’s 1989 effort: Nelson Algren—A Life On The Wild Side?

Asher gives Algren his due in a robust book providing new visibility into Algren’s life and work. And he lets us in on at least a few things that were not widely known. One is the fact that Algren, a “gut radical,” as I heard a friend describe him, was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, and that the FBI’s surveillance of him and the cancellation of his passport hurt his morale and ability to write more than many people realized. Some friends may have thought that Algren was having a breakdown over gambling losses and his marital woes when he seemed to attempt suicide, falling into a frozen lake in Gary, Indiana.

The basic biographical details are, of course, known to Algren fans. The former Nelson Algren Abraham, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and bummed around the country in boxcars during the Depression, broke through in 1942 with his novel Never Come Morning.

Never Come Morning, tells the story of Bruno Lefty Bicek, a would-be boxer who allows the entire membership of the Baldheads Athletic Club to gang-rape his girlfriend Steffi in an alley under the El. Bruno kills a Greek youth who wants to join in, saying the fun Is “for whites only,” and in the end must pay for this crime. In telling this grim tale, Algren moved beyond the leftist clichés of the era and replaced them with prose so moody and powerful that the Nation identified Never Come Morning as the work of a depressed man.  Ernest Hemingway admired the novel, and wrote, “You should not read it if you cannot take a punch.” Never Come Morning went on to sell a million copies in paperback.

Algren served as an Army medic in Europe in World War II, but never did the war novel people expected. Instead, living in a $10-a-month flat at Wabansia and Bosworth in Chicago, he wrote a post-war novel–about a card dealer who comes home with a Purple Heart and a morphine habit: The Man With the Golden Arm. It is a vast artistic advance over his prior work, filed with pre-Beat argot, bedroom farce and stunning interior monologue.

The poetry and humor are present in the first two paragraphs, which Asher quotes in full:

The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightall in that smoke-colore season between Inian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken. He would hang his coat neatly over the back of his chair in the leaden station-house twilight, say he was beat from lack of sleep an lay his head across his arms upon the query-room desk.

Yet it wasn’t work that wearied him so and his sleep was harrassed by more than a smoke-colored rain. The city had filled him with the guilt of others; he was numbed by his charge sheet’s accuations. For twenty years, upon the same scarred desk, he had been recording larcency and arson, sodomy and simony, boosting, hijacking and shootings in sudden affray; blckmail and terrorism, incest and pauperism, embezzlement and horse theft, tampering and procuring, abduction and quackery, adultery and mackery. Till the finger of guilt, pointing so sternly for so long across the query-room blotter, had grown bored with it all at last and turned, capriciouly, to touc the ribers of the dark gray muscle behind the captan’s light gray eyes. So that though by daylight he remained the pursuer there had come nights, this windless first week of December, when he had dreamed he was being pursued.

Unfortunately, writers who quote this opening always leave out the paragraphs that follow:

Long ago some station-house stray had nicknamed him Record Head, to honor the retentiveness of his memory for forgotten misdemenors. Now drawing close to the pension years, he was referred to as Captain Bednar only officially.

The pair of strays standing before him had already been filed, beside their prints, in both his records and his head.

“Ain’t nothing on my record but drunk ‘n fightin’,” the smshednosed vet with the bufalo-colores eyes was reminding the captain. “All I do is deal, drink ‘n fight.”

The captain studied the faded suntans above the army brogans. “What kind of discharge you get, Dealer?” 

“The right kind. And the Purple Heart.”

“Who do you fight with?”

“My wife, that’s all.”

“Hell, that’s no crime.”

He turned from the wayward veteran to the wayward 4F, the tortoise-shell glsses separating the outthrust ears: “I ain’t seen you since the night you played cowboy at old man Gold’s, misfit. How come you can’t get along with Sargeant Kvorka? Don’t you like him?”

These paragraphs establish the friendship between the card dealer Frankie Machine and his half-Jewish mascot Sparrow Saltskin, known as the punk, and the continuing presence of the police in both their lives.

The novel was said to be the first to depict drug addiction, and the first to use the phrase that an addict has a monkey on his back. But its real strength is in is the cast of characters—Blind Pig (or Piggy-O), Molly (or Molly-O), Drunkie John,  Antek the Owner and the drug dealer Nifty Louie. “Algren makes his living grotesques so terribly human that their faces, voices, shames, follies, and deaths can linger in your mind with a strange midnight dignity,” Carl Sandburg wrote.

Thanks, in part, to these virtues, The Man with the Golden Arm was a bestseller, and it won for Algren the first National Book Award. Riding a wave of acclaim the successful author penned Chicago City on the Make, a prose poem that contained the line, Every day is D-Day under the El. The slim volume is now considered a classic.

Next, Algren wrote a book-length essay on being a writer in a time of the hydrogen bomb, originally to be titled A Walk On The Wild Side.. It showed that Algren saw himself as “a multifaceted writer of the old school—and axiomatically a social critic—rather than simply novelist,” Bettina Drew writes. But Doubleday, unwilling to be labeled a “Red” publishing house, refused to publish it. And the manuscript was lost for 40 years.

Meanwhile, Algren had started a novel called Entrapment, based on the story of his onetime lover Margo (identified by Asher as Paula Bays, in what he considers a scoop), a woman who kicks a heroin habit. He was prepared to spend years on it, working from the inside out, building it in layers. Then he made a wrong turn: To earn an advance, he started revising his first novel Somebody In Boots under contract to Doubleday, and it evolved into the semi-comic work we know as A Walk On The Wild Side, a book that reportedly has influenced everyone from Lou Reed to Dan Dellllo. But it was the wrong book: Algren should have been working on Entrapment.

Doubleday declined to publish A Walk On the Wild Side, seeing it as too salacious. Algren found another publisher, but while the novel sold well and was later made into a movie, it was ferociously reviewed and Algren was headed for a personal and professional decline. He stopped writing novels and morphed into the slightly clownish figure we later knew, who wrote travel books, lampooned other writers, lost money at the track and had his dentures broken while living for a time in Saigon.

Factual Errors

Asher recounts all of this with sympathy. But I have several issues with his reporting, some petty, some not.

For one, in describing Algren’s first meeting with the French author and feminist Simone de Bouvoir in 1947 (an acquaintance that instantly blossomed into a romance), Asher writes that Algren “boarded the El on a Friday evening and rode it toward the Loop—beneath Milwaukee Avenue, through the narrow tunnel under the Chicago River, and then south under State Street.”

Actually, the subway under Milwaukee Avenue didn’t open until 1951, and it runs under Dearborn Street in the Loop, not State Street. In 1947, Algren would have had to take the El (or “L,” as the system is branded) the long way around from his neighborhood.

Asher also writes that when living in Sag Harbor, Long Island at the end of his life, Algren “he slipped into the frigid Atlantic and swam a little, but not a lot.” Sag Harbor is located on a bay, not the ocean. And the writer Pete Hamill’s name is misspelled in the citations. The errors add up, and at some point it reads like a badly sourced Wikipedia entry.

Worse, Asher reports that St. Louis was seething when Algren arrived with some tough-guy friends in the autumn of 1955. “A six year-old boy named Bobby Greenlease had been kidnapped and murdered the month before by a man with mafia connections, and three people had been killed since.”

That is wildly inaccurate. Bobby Greenlease was kidnapped and murdered by Carl Austin Hall and Bonnie Heady in September 1953. The couple died in the Missouri state gas chamber exactly two months later.

Entrapment

Then there are a couple of serious omissions about Algren’s career. One is any real account of Entrapment, the novel Algren abandoned after his personal collapse. Asher mostly mentions this unfinished novel in passing, referring to it as “picaresque.”

Picaresque?

Going by the fragments published in the 2009 book “Entrapment And Other Stories,” the novel was gong to start like this: “Now remember this if you can,’ the ancient one-eyed jackal warned Real High Daddy, `you can always treat a woman too good. But you can never treat her too bad.”

From there, Entrapment would have moved into sections written in different voices, a technique Algren used to telling effect in the short story, The Lightless Room, about a boxer killed in the ring, and as Faulkner had done in As I Lay Dying. For example, there is Baby’s recollection of how Daddy got her onto “junk:” 

I was still that simple I didn’t know what he meant.

I found out in due course. In that same room right under the roof where you had to battle for every breath.

On that day so still so burning.

In his own meditations after the woman has left him, the male character thinks that Here in his own patch between billboard and trolley everyone tried, their whole lives long, to be somebody they never were. Somebody they’d read about, somebody they’d heard about, somebody they never could be. Somebody like George Raft, somebody like Frank Costello, someone like Myrna Loy. It was a world full of big shots, fake shots that fooled nobody except the big shots themselves.

Drew devoted an entire chapter of her book to Entrapment, saying that based on the portions available “this would have been a significant work.” Editor William Targ agreed Algren “seemed to reach the deep-down essence of the blackest lower depths: drugs, pimping, prostitution, at their most grim level…It would have been an extraordinary achievement…it could have been his magnum opus.”

Yet the National Book award winner and bestselling author couldn’t get a contract for it.

It’s our loss. Drew writes that “Entrapment, conceived in the spirit of Never Come Morning and The Man with the Golden Arm, would never be finished, and the naturalistic writer in the tradition of Wright and Sandburg and Dreiser was gone.”

I’ve always thought that Algren is trivialized by people who insist on quoting his line: Never eat a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc and never sleep with someone whose troubles are worse than your own. Algren was a serious artist, who deserves to be remembered for more than that.

Asher seems to agree. But then Asher does something similar, using perhaps the worst line in Chicago City on the Make, likening Chicago to a woman with a broken nose, for the title of his own book.

That’s not his only misstep. Asher also writes that Algren was not great at titles.

Huh? What about The Man With the Golden Arm, The Neon Wilderness, A Walk On The Wild Side, The Devil’s Stocking, Chicago: City On The Make and Native Son (the title he wanted for his first novel until someone stupidly changed it)? Algren’s sometime friend Richard Wright used Native Son, although it’s not clear who got it from whom.

Algren’s Posthumous Career

Finally, there’s Algren’s posthumous career. Algren published only nine proper books during his lifetime. After he died, Algren fans were treated to this quartet of significant works:

1983—The Devil’s Stocking

1994—The Texas Stories

1996 – Nonconformity (the essay formerly known as A Walk on The Wild Side).

2009— Entrapment and Other Stories

The Devil’s Stocking, Algren’s first novel in 25 years, was based on the murder case of boxer Ruben Hurricane Carter, with several characters and situations added, including vivid accounts of the houses of ill repute around Times Square.

Asher states that Algren’s prose had flattened out, and that the poetry was gone. I disagree. While it may not rival The Man With The Golden Arm, the Devil’s Stocking has its own rhythm and poetry. Take its description of the future prostitute Dovey Jean Dawkins:

Once a teacher, calling her by her first name with an accent of sympathy, wakened in the child a feeling of great love. For she had great love in her.

Nobody needed it. Nobody wanted it. Love was a drag on the market.

The man still had it, and Asher does correctly note that The Devil’s Stocking was Algren’s best book in years.

If only Algren had completed Entrapment and the proposed short story collection, Love In An Iron Rain. But as Studs Terkel said in a brief conversation I had with him in 1982, Algren did what he did. He made his statement.

So has Bettina Drew. Her biography is still the one to beat.

We Work At The Jollity Building

By Ray Schultz

Work recently took me to a WeWork facility in midtown Manhattan, where an upstart with no standing can rent a few feet of space and establish a New York presence. I waited in the shared space or Hot Desk area, where prices start at $450 a month; the coffee and wi-fi are thrown in. People lounged around with their laptops and smartphones, as they would in a Starbucks. Then there are the offices in back, which start at $450 but probably average out at around $2,500—my interview subject, from a foreign company, was located there. It made me wonder if the founders of this outfit ever read The Telephone Booth Indian, A.J. Liebling’s masterpiece on the Jollity Building, circa 1942. It seems to be built on the same business model.

Mostly occupied by hustlers who tried to make a buck or two by “promoting” people (i.e., swindling them), the Jollity Building had a similar sliding fee structure to We Work’s (in 1942 dollars). At the bottom rung were the Telephone Booth Indians, who simply hung out in in the lobby for free and used the telephone booths; often they could not afford the price of coffee and a pastrami sandwich, but they lived in perpetual hope of making a score.

Upstairs, there were spaces for rent on a monthly basis. But you had to see Morty, the rental agent, who refers to the renters as “heels.” Liebling writes:

Morty usually reserves the appellation heel for the people who rent the forty-eight cubicles, each furnished with a desk and two chairs, on the third floor of the Jollity Building. These cubicles are formed by partitions of wood and frosted glass which do not quite reach the ceiling. Sufficient air to maintain human life is supposed to circulate over the partitions. The offices rent for $10.00 and $12.00 a month, payable in advance. “Twelve and a half dollars with air, ten dollars without air,” Morty says facetiously. “Very often the heels who rent them take the air without telling me.” Sometimes a Telephone Booth Indian acquires enough capital to rent a cubicle. He thus rises in the social scale and becomes a heel. A cubicle has three advantages over a telephone booth. One is that you cannot get a desk into a telephone booth. Another is that you can play pinochle in a cubicle. Another is that a heel gets his name on the directory in the lobby, and the white letters have a bold, legitimate look.

The vertical social structure of the Jollity Building is subject to continual shifts. Not only do Indians become heels, but a heel occasionally accumulates forty or fifty dollars with which to pay a month’s rent on one of the larger offices, all of them unfurnished on the fourth, fifth, or sixth floor. He then becomes a tenant. Morty always views such progress with suspicion, because it involves signing a lease, and once a heel has signed a lease, you cannot put him out without serving a dispossess notice and waiting ten days. A tenant, in Morty’s opinion, is just a heel who is planning to get ten days’ free rent. “Any time a heel acts prosperous enough to rent an office,” Morty says, “you know he’s getting ready to take you.” A dispossessed tenant often reappears in the Jollity Building as an Indian. It is a life cycle.

One of the few legitimate tenants is Hy Sky, a sign painter who serves the heels in setting up their usually unsuccessful scams. He laughs when painting the signs because he knows he “will receive the only dollar that is likely to change hands in the transaction—the dollar he gets for painting the sign,” Liebling wrote. Often, Hy Sky would call Morty to say, ““Morty, pop up here and see the character I got here! He is the most phoniest character I seen in several years.”

The name Jollity Building was fictional, but it was based on a real place, or a composite of such places. Of course, two big differences between Jollity and We Work (beyond the clientele) is that you had to buy your own coffee at a counter in the old building’s basement, and We Work doesn’t have a dance palace on the bottom floor.

 

Sam Exits The Stage

By Ray Schultz

There were rumors months ago that Sam Shepard was ill. I suspected it was liver trouble caused by his reputed alcohol consumption. But it wasn’t: He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a malady caused by genetics. It was nothing he did to himself.

And I was saddened in several ways—for one, over the suffering he must have endured with that illness. As a Shepard character says of a deceased singer, “He was going out, and he knew it.” Then there was the loss of this figure who was on the cultural stage for over 50 years, whose work I and many other people enjoyed. Finally, it reminded me of the passing of time.

The first Sam Shepard play I saw was Forensic and the Navigators, at Theater Genesis, upstairs from Saint Mark’s Church on the Bowery. It was a snowy Saturday night in January 1968. The playwright Lanford Wilson showed up wearing jeans and sneakers.

The play started in darkness, with the cast singing a spiritual: “We’re gonna be born again, oh Lord.” Soon the two guys in the cast were being instructed on the proper way to prepare Rice Krispies—you could hear the cereal snapping, crackling and popping. Shepard’s future wife Olan Johnson gave a lively performance. It ended with exterminators arriving. The small room filled up with steam and colored lights flashing through it. .

I have no idea whether Shepard ever took LSD, but this play was trippy. And it was funny—all that blather about the myth of the west obscured just how funny he was. In this way, Forensic and the Navigators was in line with the other one-acters he seemed to jot off, like Chicago and Icarus’ Mother. 

You have to remember the time. The Fillmore East was a block or two down 2nd Ave., and the East Village Other had its office there. You could get the best Danishes in the city in Ratner’s, the old dairy restaurant.

Shepard was a figure in the neighborhood. You’d see him at the luncheonette on 10th, buying a container of tea to take a rehearsal. And he was at the acid-drenched party at St. Mark’s church on New Year’s Eve 1969, dressed in full hippie regalia.

The first Western-themed play that I recall was The Unseen Hand, which was presented on a double bill with Forensic and the Navigators downtown in the spring of 1970. It was a futuristic play in which some cowboys are projected into a bleak Mars-like landscape. A character plaintively asks, “There’s no more trains?”

It was a fine companion piece to Forensic and the Navigators. But the new Western direction wasn’t clear at the time. What was obvious was that Shepard wanted to be more than a playwright: There he was in the lobby, playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders.

I didn’t get it: would Pinter or Beckett do this? But I later realized that Shepard had a rock ‘n roll sensibility, not a trait I admired in a playwright. It came out in The Melodrama Play (a bad play), The Tooth of Crime (a great play) and Cowboy Mouth, the piece he wrote and performed in with Patti Smith.

And it emerged when he accompanied Bob Dylan on a tour. I wondered why a talent like Shepard had to cozy up to a rock star. But his onscreen presence in the resulting documentary led to his getting a role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, in which he was a quiet, haunting figure. And he was off on his movie career.

In between, Shepard wrote some of his best plays, like Buried Child and True West, for San Francisco’s Magic Theater. I can quote lines from memory (forgive me if I get them wrong). In Buried Child, a character says, “I was thrown out of Arizona. I don’t want to be thrown out of Illinois.”

In True West, in which two adult brothers battle it out, exchange roles and are pulled apart by their mother as they grapple on the floor, one rejects a dinner plate showing the capital of Montana. In effect, he says, “I don’t want to see Montana when I’m eating. When I’m eating, I’m here.”

We saw the original production of that classic, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinese.

Shepard had a certain integrity as a writer. But at some point, I feared that he had lost his sense of humor. He made a film with Wim Wenders called Paris, Texas, a slow-moving work that was symbolized for me by the guitar going, “boiiiinnng!”

Later, Shepard and Wenders made a movie called Don’t Come Knocking, in which he played a Western movie star who escapes the set. It was savaged by the critics, but I kind of liked it. His mother, portrayed by Eva Marie Saint, keeps a scrapbook of his DWI arrests. It had a little of that old anarchic spirit.

Contrary to reports that Shepard hated New York, he was often in the city. Andrea and I would go to a Moroccan place called Orlin on St. Mark’s Place at midnight to write headlines and eat pasta with potatoes and pesto.

Shepard would sometimes be there, eating by himself, reading a book. Maybe he’d have a drink with his meal Nobody treated him like a celebrity. He looked like a man who could survive and enjoy life on his own. Maybe that’s the Western spirit they’re always talking about.

Heartbreak Hotel

By Ray Schultz

The literary world rejoiced in November 1978 when The New Yorker published its first short story by Jean Stafford in a decade: An Influx of Poets. It meant Stafford was back. But it wasn’t what it seemed to be. The author, age 63, had suffered a stroke, and had only four months to live. The story had been extracted by editor Robert Giroux from Stafford’s unfinished novel, The Parliament of Women.

So ended the career of one of the premier fiction writers of 20th Century America. Today, you can’t even find most of Stafford’s books in print, and it’s unlikely that she’s taught much in college. But she left a magnificent body of work. And An Influx of Poets was a great one to go out on.

Though she resembled an Eastern intellectual and had the wit to go with it, Jean Stafford grew up in a dysfunctional family in the West, first in California, and later in Colorado. Her father wrote Western stories under the name Jack Wonder.

Stafford, unhappy young brainiac that she was, wanted out. She graduated from the University of Colorado, but not before a friend named Lucy McKee shot herself in the head right in front of her. “I am almost ready to write about it, although I have really written about nothing else ever,” Stafford later admitted, according to Mary Davidson Mcconahay. Stafford’s next stop was Nazi-era Heidelberg, where she studied philology for several months.

Returning to the States, Stafford hooked up with Robert Lowell, the mentally unbalanced Boston poet. One drunken night, he smashed his car into a retaining wall, and Stafford was badly injured, her beautiful face damaged for life. She got little sympathy from Lowell or his wealthy family.

Despite that poor start, Stafford married Lowell in 1940, and commenced her life as “the subservient spouse of an obsessive artist,” as Bruce Bawer put it. First, she had to support Lowell emotionally when he was jailed for conscientious objection during World War II. Then she had to deal with his mental illness and religious obsession.

Yet Stafford was a serious artist in her own right. Her first novel, Boston Adventure (circa 1944), about her experiences with the Boston Brahmins, was a best-seller, and with the money she earned she bought a house in Maine for Lowell and herself. That turned into a nightmare, too, though, as you can tell from the gorgeous opening paragraph of An Influx of Poets.

THAT AWFUL SUMMER! Every poet in America came to stay with us. It was the first summer after the war, when people once again had gasoline and could go where they liked, and all those poets came to our house in Maine and stayed for weeks at a stretch, bringing wives or mistresses with whom they quarreled, and complaining so vividly about the wives and mistresses they’d left, or had been left by, that the discards were real presences, swelling the ranks, stretching the house, my house (my very own, my first and very own), to its seams. At night, after supper, they’d read from their own works until four o’clock in the morning, drinking Cuba Libres. They never listened to one another; they were preoccupied with waiting for their turn. And I’d have to stay up and clear out the living room after they went soddenly to bed—sodden but not too far gone to lose their conceit. And then all day I’d cook and wash the dishes and chop the ice and weed the garden and type my husband’s poems and quarrel with him.

The year 1947 was a big one for both members of this duo. Lowell published Lord Weary’s Castle, the Pulitzer-prize winning poetry collection that made his reputation. And Stafford came out with her second novel, The Mountain Lion (published while she was in the Payne Whitney clinic, according to her biographer ). While not as big a seller as Boston Adventure, The Mountain Lion is her best.

It tells the story of Ralph and Molly, siblings brought up in a stultifying atmosphere in California. Both children suffer from nosebleeds, the result of scarlet fever, and both are weird. The adults in this book are insufferable, including their widowed mother Mrs. Fawcett, and the preacher Mr. Follansbee. Ralph and Molly have a habit of rattling these authority figures by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

In one encounter, Ralph suggests that his mother has murdered her father, Grandfather Bonney, who even in death is an intolerable personality to the children.

But suddenly a mocking bird, in this broad daylight, began to sing. Mrs. Fawcett clasped her hands together and said “Oh!” as if the sound hurt her. Her large diamond ring, in the gesture, came into a ray of sunlight and two green needles shot out from the stone. Then Mr. Follansbee was across the room in one stride, shaking Ralph’s shoulder. “You little cad,” he said between his teeth, “you get down on your knees and beg your mother’s pardon. On your knees.”

For a moment he defied the minister by remaining motionless, but the long bony hand on his shoulder propelled him off the hassock and at last he knelt, not feeling sorry, feeling nothing but rage, as painful as a deep cut. He could not utter a word, though this delay was agonizing, and they were all watching him and they were all waiting. He could hear Mr. Follansbee breathing heavily. Then Molly, half under her breath said “I wish you were a fairy, Mr. Follansbee.” Rachel giggled, but Mr. Folansbee did not think this was funny and he snarled, “Why do you wish I were a fairy, young lady?” And Molly whispered with deadly hatred, ‘So you’d vanish.’

They end up in Colorado, staying with a half-uncle, growing stranger and more apart by the day.

Critics have compared The Mountain Lion to The Catcher in the Rye. Dare I say it, I think it’s even stronger. For one thing, it portrays two young people, male and female, with their different inner lives and their very complex relationship, a far more daunting task. For another, it is funnier, less whiny, more of a novel and less of a tour de force. “The Mountain Lion is written more in the vernacular mode of Mark Twain than the Jamesian mode that Stafford had adopted for her first novel,” Charlotte Margolis Goodman observes in her biography: “Jean Stafford: The Savage Heart.” Finally, there is an event so shocking that few people will have the heart to read it twice.

But this triumph was lost in personal turmoil. Stafford and Lowell went through a bitter divorce, and Stafford hated him for years. Later, though, Lowell offered this hint of reconciliation, according to Goodman:

Poor ghost, old love, speak

With your old voice

Of flaming insight

That kept us awake all night.

In one bed and apart…

Children Are Bored On Sunday

Having gone through two marriages, Stafford spent much of the 1950s living in small apartments in Westport, Conn., dreadfully isolated and poverty stricken. She was hospitalized often, her physical and psychiatric ailments exacerbated by her alcoholism.

But she heroically pushed on. After a modest reaction to her third novel, The Catherine Wheel, she came out with a collection of short fiction: Children Are Bored on Sunday. A sensation in literary circles, it showed that Stafford was a master of the short story. She had long since become a regular in The New Yorker, working with the legendary fiction editor Katherine White. It was the era of O’Hara and Cheever, and Stafford ranked with any of them.

The title story, her first in The New Yorker, is an unusually happy one for Stafford. A female intellectual, recovering from an illness and a loss of confidence, visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art alone one Sunday. There she spies Alfred Eisenburg, an arrogant male intellectual of whom she is wary.

She feared that seeing him might very well divert her from the pictures, not only because she was reminded of her ignorance of painting by the presence of someone who was (she assumed) versed in it but because her eyesight was now bound to be impaired by memory and conjecture, by the irrelevant mind-portraits of innumerable people who belonged to Eisenburg’s milieu. And almost at once, as she had predicted, the air separating her from the schoolboys below was populated with the images of composers, of painters, of writers who pronounced judgments in their individual argot, on Hindemith, Ernst, Sartre, on Beethoven, Rubens, Baudelaire, on Stalin and Freud and Kierkegaard, on Toynbee, Frazer, Thoreau, Franco, Salazar, Roosevelt, Maimonides, Racine, Wallace, Picasso, Henry Luce, Monsignor Sheen, the Atomic Energy Commission, and the movie industry. And she saw herself moving, shaking with apprehensions and martinis, and with the belligerence of a child who feels himself laughed at, through the apartments of Alfred Eisenburg’s friends, where the shelves were filled with everyone from Aristophanes to Ring Lardner where the walls were hung with reproductions of Seurat, Titian, Vermeer, and Klee, and where the record cabinets began with Palestrina and ended with Copland.

Oh, what prose. But she then realizes that Eisenburg himself is a reduced figure, and that he, too, has seen some hard times. They connect, go out for drinks and decide that they can help each other. To mingle their pain, their handshake seemed to promise them, was to produce a separate entity, like a child that could shift for itself, and they scrambled hastily toward this profound and pastoral experience.

That last phrase always gets me.

Of course, few of Stafford’s stories were that positive (or pastoral). Take the harrowing piece titled A Summer Day. Jim, an eight year-old Native American growing up in Missouri, finds himself abandoned when his “grandmother,” the woman caring for him, dies. He is sent without ceremony to an orphanage in Oklahoma because Mr. Wilkins, the preacher, had said it would be nice out here with other Indian boys and girls.

He makes the long train journey barefoot. And there is nobody waiting for him when he arrives. At the orphanage, where many children are sick, the administrators try to engage him, if only to get him registered. Granted, the names given to these functionaries are regrettable, although one may infer that they are the names assigned them by the children.

Miss Dreadfulwater asked some more questions—whether his tonsils were out, who Mr. Wilkins was, whether Jim thought he was a full-blood or half-breed or what. She finished finally and put the card back in the drawer, and then Miss Hornet said to Jim, “What would you like to do now? You’re free to do whatever you like till suppertime. It’s perfectly clear that you have no unpacking to do.”

 “Did he come just like this?” said Miss Dreadfulwater, astonished. “Really?”

 Miss Hornet ignored her and said, “What would you like to do?

 “I don’t know,” Jm said.

 “Of course you do,” she said sharply. “Do you want to play on the slide? Or the swings? None of the other children are out, but I should think a boy of eight could find plenty of ways to amuse himself.”

“I can,” he said. “I’ll go outside.”

 “He ought to go to bed,” said Miss Dreadfulwater. “You ought to put him to bed right now if you don’t want him to come down with it.”

Ask yourself: How can a discarded child amuse himself or go to bed when he has lost every shred of comfort and dignity he ever had? Other readers may choose different Stafford stories as their favorites. But A Summer Day is one of mine.

‘The New Yorker Married Us’

Stafford’s output faltered as the ‘50s went on, and she had the occasional rejection from The New Yorker. But she had one piece of good fortune: At loose ends in London, she took Katherine White’s advice to seek out A.J. Liebling, the rotund New Yorker staff journalist, who had left the States to lessen his tax burden.

White could not have foreseen what she had unleashed, as Goodman wrote. Soon Stafford was traveling to horse races with Liebling in chauffeured Rolls Royce’s while guzzling champagne, and he was having tweed suits made for her by his Saville Row tailor.

The pair soon became an item. And when work by both of them appeared in the same issue of the New Yorker. Liebling wrote to her, “The New Yorker married us.”

Yes, it did, although the formal wedding didn’t take place until April 1959. Stafford joked that Liebling was her first “entirely Jewish” husband, Lowell having had only a slight Jewish line in his family.

The literary couple moved into a dream apartment at 11th St. and Fifth Ave. in Greenwich Village, in what’s now called the Gold Coast. Stafford performed a signal service: Her tales about Earl Long, the governor of Louisiana and brother of the late Huey Long (she had spent considerable time in Louisiana with Lowell), inspired Liebling and New Yorker editor William Shawn. It led to one of Lieblng’s best books: The Earl of Louisiana.

Stafford’s writing dried up totally at this point. (Liebling’s output declined, too). But she had a reason, as quoted by Goodman: “Perhaps it’s too simple an explanation, but I was happy for the first time in my life.”

Why wouldn’t she be? Liebling could be moody, but he was benign and considerate. But this period of felicity lasted only four years. Liebling, a chronic overeater and drinker, died in 1963 at age 59, muttering in French in his final delirium. The devastated Stafford was on her own again.

There was one bit of solace: Liebling had left her his farm in the Springs of East Hampton. Later, when ill, she was able to sell some of the acreage, yet keep the house.

Sadly, Stafford couldn’t finish her fourth novel, and her short story output slowed. Perhaps emulating Liebling, she wrote A Mother in History, a non-fiction book on Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother. It sold well, but drew mixed notices. She also wrote children’s books and book reviews. But money was tight.

Stafford became cranky, and intolerant of the hippie generation. In 1969, though, she published The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford, and dedicated it to her now-retired mentor Katherine White. The book drew rave reviews. And early in 1970, Stafford learned that it had won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Riding a wave of acclaim, she was offered speaking engagements and guest professorships, and recovered financially.

It was one of several grand moments Stafford had during her long career. But this, too, did not last long. Illness caught up with her, and her final decade was one of grinding struggle. In 1976, she had the stroke she’d always feared. One wonders what doctors thought when they saw this sickly woman in the emergency room: Could they have known what she had achieved?

Such is the life of a great writer. Only the strong and very talented need try it.

The Capote Papers

By  Ray Schultz

It’s hard to believe that a half century has passed since the appearance of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But today is the 50th anniversary of Newsweek magazine’s cover story on Capote and his “non-fiction novel.”

That article revealed that Capote had already taken in $500,000 for the paperback rights, $500,000 for the movie rights and another million in royalties. Newsweek, which was published by Katherine Graham (the honoree at Capote’s Black and White Ball that autumn), called it “an extraordinary book by an extraordinary man.”

Given this milestone, it seems like a good time to revisit Truman Capote. Was he an overrated fraud whose main genius was for self-promotion, or a truly innovative author?

He certainly remains a famous one. His chronological peers, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer, wrote dozens of books apiece. Yet a recent survey of Millennials shows that only a minority can identify these authors, whereas Capote, who had a much thinner output, is known because of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s onscreen portrayal of him.

And that’s part of the problem. The tiny Capote was an outsized celebrity and substance abuser. His work seemed to take a back seat at times.

So just how good was he?

Let’s start at the beginning: in 1948. Capote’s first published novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms is a dense account of how Joel, a boy like Truman, finds his identity in the Deep South. The prose is elegant, if slightly overdone in spots, but full of merciless insights like this one:

For long periods each day he studied his face in a hand mirror: a disappointing exercise, on the whole, for nothing he saw concretely affirmed his suspicions of emerging manhood, though about his face there were certain changes: baby-fat had given way to a true shape, the softness of his eyes had hardened: it was a face with a look of innocence but none of its charm, an alarming face, really, too shrewd for a child, too beautiful for a boy.

This moving and funny work  was followed by another fine childhood novel: The Grass Harp.  For me, though, Capote’s big leap forward  came in 1958, with his novella: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. From the Hamburg Heaven on Madison, to Joe Bell’s bar on Lexington, to the tiny studio apartment with its sofa and stuffed chairs upholstered in that itchy, particular red velvet that one associates with hot days on a train, Capote captured the Upper East Side of New York, and the people who lived there in 1943.

As others have observed, Holly Golightly, a sort of American geisha, is Capote’s version of Isherwood’s Sally Bowles. In some scenes, she talks candidly about lesbianism and her sex life; in others she dances around the pillars of the Third Ave. El with Australian Army officers. There’s a new sharpness to the prose: One character discovers that he’d feel safer in diapers than he would in a skirt, and another that gin to artifice bears the same relation as tears to mascara. Norman Mailer praised the writing. And Edward Albee, who unsuccessfully rewrote the script of a musical stage version, called it a “tough little book.”

Youth Meets Age

Capote also evoked that Upper East Side neighborhood in the sketch he was writing the day before he died in 1984: about an encounter at age 19 with an older woman dressed in a sable coat outside the Society Library on East 79th St.. He offers to escort her home in a snowstorm, and they stop in Longchamps. She orders tea, he requests a double martini.

Whereupon I told her all about myself, he recalled. My age. The fact I was born in New Orleans, and that I was an aspiring writer.

Really? What writers did I admire? (Obviously she was not a New Yorker: she had a Western accent.) ‘Flaubert. Turgenev. Proust. Charles Dickens. E. M. Forster. Conan Doyle. Maupassant—‘

She laughed. ‘Well. You certainly are varied. Except. Aren’t there any American writers you care for?’

 “Like who?”

 She didn’t hesitate. “Sarah Orne Jewett. Edith Wharton—”

“Miss Jewett wrote one good book: The Country of the Pointed Firs. And Edith Wharton wrote one good book: The House of Mirth. But. I like Henry James. Mark Twain. Melville. And I love Willa Cather. My Antonia. Death Comes for the Archbishop. Have you ever read her two marvelous novellas—A Lost Lady and My Mortal Enemy?”

“Yes.” She sipped her tea, and put the cup down with a slightly nervous gesture. She seemed to be turning something over in her mind. “I ought to tell you—” She paused; then, in a rushing voice, more or less whispered: “I wrote those books.”

It never fails to get me, this meeting between Cather, an American master who powerfully depicted life on the Great Plains, and the young urbanite Capote.

Was it true as written? That’s besides the point. The teenage litterateur may well have known who Cather was on sight. But I prefer this charming version, which ends just as Capote is about to go to a dinner party at Cather’s Park Ave. apartment. Sadly, that’s as far as he got with this piece before he died.

Have I Said Something Wrong?

For me, some of Capote’s best writing was in his vicious unfinished novel Answered Prayers. The narrator and protagonist, P.B. Jones, is a failed writer and “Hershey Bar Whore” who can service both men and women. That book may suffer now because the notables portrayed in it are forgotten. Will a Millennial appreciate the interplay between Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead about Montgomery Clift, the tortured actor who has passed out at a dinner party?

…Miss Parker did something so curious it attracted everyone’s attention; it even silenced Miss Bankhead. With tears in her eyes, Miss Parker was touching Clift’s hypnotized face, her stubby fingers tenderly brushing his brow, his cheekbones, his lips, chin.

Miss Bankhead said: “Damn it, Dottie. Who do you think you are? Helen Keller?”

“He’s so beautiful,” murmured Miss Parker. “Sensitive. So firmly made. The most beautiful man I’ve ever seen.” She used a crude expression to denote that Clift was off limits to women.

Then, sweetly wide-eyed wide eyed with little girl naiveté, she said: “Oh. Oh dear. Have I said something wrong?”

And while the import seems clear, what will the PC Generations make of this line? Both Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton had, in effect, paid a million dollars to find out if other ladies were lying when they praised that kinky-haired piece of trade His Excellency the Dominican Ambassador Porfirio Rubirosa…

Of course, the most infamous chapter was Le Cote Basque (1965). As they lunch on Cristal champagne and Souffle Furstenberg, a spinach-cheese-poached egg concoction, at the famed restaurant,  a 40ish swan named Lady Ida Coolbirth (Slim Keith, maybe?) tells Jonesy about a gross and mortifying sexual encounter between the magnate Sydney Dillon (William Paley?) and the governor’s wife who is sitting a few tables away (Happy Rockefeller?). “Dill’s in his sixties now; he could have any woman he wants, yet for years he yearned after yonder porco.”

Capote reportedly published these chapters because he believed they proved he could still write. But one thinly disguised character committed suicide after it came out. And his society friends dumped him, including the most beloved one of all: the dying swan Babe Paley, whose husband supposedly was the subject of the central anecdote of Le Cote Basque. This contributed to Capote’s unraveling.

Truman Capote bashers gleefully point to the fact that he never finished the novel, although he took his first advance for it in 1966. All we have are the three sections published in Esquire in 1975 and 1976 (and later collected in book form). Still missing, perhaps never written, is the chapter titled Father Flanagan’s All-Night Nigger Queen Kosher Café. It’s not a café, but a state, “the cool, green, restful as the grave rock bottom,” a character says in Unspoiled Monsters.

But Capote had obviously had written more. The first chapter published in Esquire, Mojave, was later moved out of Answered Prayers and included as a short story in his uneven 1980 collection Music for Chameleons. In effect, he had completed at least four chapters by 1976. And a fifth, less robust section turned up a few years ago: Of Yachts and Things, about a cruise with a woman who resembles Katherine Graham. First, they meet the captain, attired in  a crisply tailored white uniform. He was a handsome man but his wind-weathered face was solemn, for he had solemn news to report. Alas, there had been a sudden death in the family of our host, and the family was in mourning: our host regretted so much his inability to forewarn us in time.

“Oh, dear, sighed Mrs. Williams. “First Adlai. Now this. Perhaps they ought to rechristen this ship The Bewitchedcraft.”

And my heart sank as well, for of course we assumed the cruise had been cancelled. But not at all! The captain’s orders were to continue the cruise as planned.

“Now that,” said Mrs. Williams, “is what I call class.”

It’s enough to go on. The opening chapters, Unspoiled Monsters and Kate McCloud, together add up to 136 pages, more than Breakfast at Tiffany’s in its entirety, as Gerald Clarke has noted. Le Cote Basque (1965) brings the total to 180 pages.

Maybe it isn’t Proust (Capote had originally hoped to write a modern Remembrance of Things Past). And it suffers by being incomplete. For example, what happened to Kate McCloud after all the hints of the disaster that loomed for her and J.B.? But it’s savagely funny, far more vivid than Dominick Dunne’s clunky writings about the same social class (including at least one episode featured by Capote). And it holds up 40 years later.

One thread that runs through these books is how much fun it was being an author. In the apartment described in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator has books and “jars of pencils to sharpen, everything I needed, so I felt, to be the writer I wanted to be.” His perfect evening is sitting up in bed with a glass of bourbon and the new Simenon. In Unspoiled Monsters, P.B. Jones describes living in Europe on his “various swindles and savings.” In Venice, he writes every day until 3 p.m., then goes out to walk in the winter mist. Towards evening, he shows up at Harry’s Bar and spends “$9 or $10 for martinis and shrimp sandwiches and heaping bowls of green noodles with sauce Bolognese.”

True Crime

For all that, Capote’s reputation may rest on his two crime novels: In Cold Blood and Handcarved Coffins.

In Cold Blood, about the murder of an entire Kansas family, contains some of the best prose Capote ever wrote. (“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there,’” it starts). Here is how he describes one of the killers: Perry Smith:

Sitting, he had seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight lifter. Weight lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound.

Pretty damned good. But critics charge that Capote overplayed the role of detective Alvin Dewey, one of many alleged inaccuracies, and that he withheld the details of the crime until later in the book to drive suspense.

None of that diminishes In Cold Blood, in my view. Sure, Capote focused on Alvin Dewey. He had access to him, and Dewey helped him. I hate to disillusion anyone, but that’s how it’s often done in journalism. Many non-fiction books have that sort of skew. Why should Capote be singled out? Nor was there anything untoward about his friendship and identification with the killer Perry Smith. Capote functions strictly as an anonymous narrator in this book—he never mentions himself. But he did bring his obsessions to the story, producing an idiosyncratic classic.

Maybe Newsweek had it right, when it called the book “super contemporary,” and likened it to the work of the French anti-novelists of that time.

Finally, there’s the charge that Capote made up a scene—the last one at the cemetery. That’s a no-no these days. But it was hardly unknown in journalism at that time. Think of Joe Mitchell’s composite characters, or of A.J. Liebling’s purported embellishment of Colonel John R. Stingo’s personality.

We live in a time when even memoirs are expected to be 100% factual, without the “stretchers” resorted to by Mark Twain and H.L. Mencken. But I believe there’s room for a less stringent standard for some types of material—as long as you call it what it is.

An Open Coffin

That question is especially pertinent when it comes to Capote’s Handcarved Coffins. A mass killer murders several people in unusual ways—in one instance, by placing amphetamine-maddened rattlesnakes in their car. But before he kills them, he sends his victims photos of themselves and miniature hand-carved coffins.

A probe by journalists revealed that there was no such case, although a couple of elements had popped up—in some form—in other investigations. Capote apparently turned the detective Dewey into a fictional character, and inserted himself as a reporter. And if you believe him, he met and played chess with the suspected killer. Again, none of this ever happened.

Author Ron Rosenbaum, whose opinion I respect, says that the only problem with this work was in the labeling: It actually was an important Capote piece of fiction.

Yes. But I’d add that Capote should have published it separately as a novella, instead of burying it in Music for Chameleons. Made up of transcripts, daily updates and fast-moving episodes, it’s a stunning performance by a man who had only a few years left to live. He could have filled out the book with a few of the better pieces from Music for Chameleons—say, Mojave, the title story and Dazzle, in which the young boy Capote tells a fortune teller that he wants to be a girl. Breakfast for Tiffany’s had a similar format.

The prose style in Handcarved Coffins is more minimal than the one usually displayed by Capote. But there was a high polish to all of it. Take his description of the purported murderer, a wealthy ranch owner:

He sported expensive high-heel boots, but even without them the man measured over six feet, and if he had stood straight, instead of assuming a stooped, slope-shouldered posture, he would have presented a full fine figure. He had long simianlike arms, the hands dangled to his knees, and the fingers were long, capable, aristocratic. I recalled a Rachmaninoff concert. Rachmaninoff’s hands were like Quinn’s.

So how do I rate Truman Capote? Like many people, I, too, got tired of him at times. For years, he pontificated on talk shows on crime and capital punishment, and he seemed to support the latter despite having seen two men hanged. (I didn’t agree with that then, and I don’t now). And they were constantly recycling his holiday memories for TV specials and print edition (not that there was anything wrong with the stories themselves).

In the end, I see him as one of our best writers. He educated himself, and will never be mistaken for the more experimental authors of his generation (despite his labeling of In Cold Blood as the world’s first nonfiction novel). But he had his own niche: In various stories and formats, he plumbed the world of “Father Flanagan and his outcast of Thousands, him and all the other yids, nigs, spiks, fags, dykes, dope fiends and commies.”

In that sense, all his books are of a piece, even the Christmas stories. We come away understanding poverty, sex, cruelty and what it’s like to be the Other. And they’re wrapped in an exquisite style.

Indeed, you can enjoy Capote as I sometimes do, late at night, as literary comfort food. In that way, he’s on a par with F. Scott Fitzgerald: you sometimes want to read him only for the tone.

I suspect that Truman Capote would be perfectly happy with that.

Sex, Lies and Edward Albee

By Ray Schultz

In 1967, I bought a hardcover copy of Edward Albee’s play, A Delicate Balance in Boston, and with great anticipation started reading it on a train to Rhode Island. Unfortunately, my copy was misprinted and several pages transposed. I had to jump from page 4 to 48, double back to 16 and then move forward to page 28. But I did, and formed a lifelong admiration for the prose and humor. So what if it took a little work?

I mention this because A Delicate Balance is enjoying a revival on Broadway, featuring Glenn Close in the role of the matriarch Agnes. The play itself has gotten mostly good reviews, despite some misgivings about the production.

In 1966, critic Walter Kerr panned the play, complaining that hollowness is “offered to us on an elegantly lacquered empty platter the moment the curtain goes up.” Harry and Edna, best friends of the Agnes and Tobias, show up on their doorstep, suffering from an undefined terror: Kerr found it an unconvincing device. He was also put off by the ornate language.

But Kerr missed the comedy in the situation. Agnes’ and Tobias’ 36 year-old daughter also returns from her fourth marital debacle. People are crowding like they do in the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. How will the seemingly dominant Agnes and the ineffectual Tobias maintain their control (or balance, if you will)?

Yes, it’s talky, but the talk is bathed in acid. At one point, Tobias asks Agnes if she should apologize to her alcoholic sister Claire (who also lives there) for something she said to her.

AGNES:

 I have spent my adult life apologizing for her; I will not double my humiliation by apologizing to her.

Moments later, it’s Claire who seems contrite.

CLAIRE:

 I must apologize, Agnes; I’m…very sorry.

 AGNES:

 But what are you sorry for, Claire?

 CLAIRE:

 I apologize that my nature is such to bring out in you the full force of your brutality.

In the end, the play examines the rights and obligations of friends and family. And it is truly moving as the wealthy but clueless Wasp couple grapples with these issues and others.

Despite winning the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1967, A Delicate Balance never got its critical due until it was revived on Broadway in 1996 with Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch, and ran longer than it had in 1966-67. And this was all too typical for Albee.

Which is why I’ve long thought that the narrative of Albee’s career should be altered. Conventional wisdom has it that he lost his way after the early success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, that ferocious drama, and that his writing became self-conscious. Flop followed flop, until he couldn’t get arrested on Broadway. Then, as the story goes, he came back in his 60s with Three Tall Women, about his adoptive mother. It opened in Vienna, then snuck into New York for a long run. Honors were heaped on him, including his third Pulitzer.

It’s a nice myth, but based too much on box office success. In his heyday, Albee was dismissed by critics, and savaged by homophobes who argued that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, perhaps his most famous play, was written about four gay men, not two heterosexual couples.

Yet Albee was a protean author, coming out with roughly a play a year, maybe more. He wrote experimental plays like Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, chamber pieces like Counting the Ways, adaptations like The Ballad of the Sad Café (from the novel by Carson McCullers), and major dramas that should have been more celebrated in their time—and later were.

Take All Over, which lasted for only 40 performances in 1971 A powerful man is dying, and the family holds a death watch. The wife and the mistress establish a strange rapport, even as the wife spurns her son and daughter.

WIFE:

 You’ve neither of you had children, thank God, children that I’ve known of.

 I hope you never marry…either of you!

 Let the line end where it is…at its zenith.

Then there’s The Lady from Dubuque, an even more powerful look at the end of life, that ran for 12 performances in 1980. As Jo nears her demise from cancer, we realize what an impossible position her husband Sam is in, especially when Elizabeth, the Lady from Dubuque (the Angel of Death?) arrives to ease Jo’s way out.

SAM:

Do you want this? Hunh?

 Is this what you want!? Yes!?

 …Because if this is what you want, I’m not any part of it; you’ve locked me out. I…don’t exist. I…I don’t exist. Just…just tell me.

As you can see, I’ve long been a member of the Edward Albee fan club. It started at age 17 when I read his first play, The Zoo Story, in The Evergreen Review, and was stunned without really comprehending it.

Adopted when he was 18 days old by a rich but cold Larchmont family (“They bought me. They paid $113.33”), Albee left home at 18 and found his calling in Greenwich Village. He didn’t see his adoptive mother for 17 years.

That indeed led to one of his best and most personal plays: Three Tall Women. Critic Linda Winer called it “a devastating look at a certain kind of woman’s life to the end.”

In the second act, as the 92 year-old woman lays there dying, three versions of her younger self compare the stages of life. The youngest, C, age 26, learns more than she wants about her future. I’ll never become you—either of you. But she will. And she will find that Prince Charming has the morals of a sewer rat, and that their son has quit the family: He packed up his attitudes and he left! At some point, C. and B. discuss what they think are the happiest moments. A., the eldest, brings them up short.

You’re both such children. The happiest moment of all? Really? The happiest moment? Coming to the end of it, I think, when all the waves cause the greatest woes to subside, leaving breathing space, time to concentrate on the greatest woe of all—that blessed one—the end of it.

Yes, that’s the happiest moment: When it’s all done. When we stop. When we can stop.

Not that Edward Albee has: He’s still writing at 86.

 

Move Over, Ayn Rand

By Ray Schultz

Looking for a novel about a businessman unbound by the rules and fears of mortals? Here are three, and they’re not by that conservative icon Ayn Rand, but by the alleged one-time Communist Theodore Dreiser.

Yes, Dreiser wrote a somewhat admiring portrait of Frank A. Cowperwood, a thinly fictionalized version of the robber baron Charles T. Yerkes, in three monumental volumes: The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914) and The Stoic (1946). Later, they were repackaged as the Trilogy of Desire.

Granted, these aren’t the first books I’d recommend by Dreiser. His finest works are his first two novels: Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhardt (1911). In these heartbreaking tales, he described poverty, the kind he experienced as a child, and how Carrie and Jennie emerge from it (a lesson that drew fire from moralists of the time). He combined awe and compassion with a newsman’s eye for detail, as H.L. Mencken would observe. That said, anyone interested in finance would do well to work through their way through the Trilogy.

The Financier traces Cowperwood’s early success on the Philadelphia stock exchange—and an early failure. The city treasurer has been illegally floating loans to him, and Cowpoerwood is unable to cover them when the Chicago Fire of 1871 causes a panic.

Cowperwood exhorts the sniveling treasurer to hold on, that the run on the banks will be temporary. But it’s too late. Both are indicted, and sent to jail.

Don’t think Cowperwood is broken by it: As Dreiser depicts him, he is a sort of Nietzschean superman, utterly fearless (which may be the whole point, assuming it needs a point). Cowperwood emerges, and walks right in to the real panic—of 1873. And he recoups his fortune by buying and selling short while others lose everything.

The Titan follows him to Chicago, where he builds and runs part of the elevated train system (yes, public transit was built by private enterprise in those days). Some men he breaks, others he pulls in to share his success. And he makes enemies—many of them.

For example, the blue-chip bankers of Chicago, all of whom despise him, create a scheme to call in Cowperwood’s loans. Their goal? To save themselves from an impending corporate failure. Here’s the scene:

As he entered the home of Arneel, he was a picturesque and truly representative figure of his day. In a light summer suit of cream and gray twill, with a straw hat ornamented by a blue-and-white band, and wearing yellow quarter-shoes of the softest leather, he appeared very model of trig, well-groomed self-sufficiency. As he was ushered into the room he gazed about him in a brave, leonine way.

 “A fine night for a conference, gentlemen,” he said, walking toward a chair indicated by Mr. Arneel. “I must say I never saw so many straw hats at a funeral before. I understand that my obsequies are contemplated. What can I do?”

He beamed in a genial, sufficient way, which in any one else would have brought a smile to the faces of the company. In him it was an implication of basic power which secretly enraged and envenomed nearly all those present.

 The bankers lay it out. They need cash to avoid a calamity, and “your loans are the largest and the most available. Do you think you can find the means to pay them back in the morning?”

“I can meet my loans,” he replied easily. “But I would not advise you or any of the gentlemen present to call them.” His voice, for all its lightness, had an ominous ring.

 “Why not?” inquired Hand, grimly and heavily, turning squarely about and facing him. “It doesn’t appear that you have extended any particular courtesy to Hull or Stockpole.” [Men losing everything in the failure]. His face was red and scowling

 “Because,” replied Cowperwood, smiling…“I know why this meeting was called. I know that these gentlemen here, who are not saying a word, are mere catspaws and rubber stamps for you and Mr. Schryhart and Mr. Arneel and Mr. Merrill. I know how you four gentlemen have been gambling in this stock, and what your probable losses are, and that it is to save yourselves from further loss that you have decided to make me the scapegoat. I want to tell you here”—and he got up–“you can’t do it.”

The bankers are stunned by his confidence, and even more by what he says next:

 “If you open the day by calling a single one of my loans before I am ready to pay it, I’ll gut every bank from here to the river. You’ll have panic, all the panic you want. Good evening, gentlemen.”

I don’t know about you, but that scene always makes me want to cheer.

Running in tandem with his business exploits is Cowperwood’s womanizing (a pursuit enjoyed by Dreiser himself). He ignores conventional pieties in this area just as he does in commerce.

Having brought Cowperwood this far, Dreiser abandoned him to focus on novels like The Genius (1915) and An American Tragedy (1925). Finally, he took him up again in his old age. In the third volume, The Stoic, Cowperwood is in London, building part of the Underground. His health and powers are declining (as are Dreiser’s): Thus, The Stoic is not quite as robust as the earlier books. But published a year after Dreiser’s death, it was a fine ending to the series. As with Sister Carrie and Jennie Gerhardt, I reread the Trilogy every few years.

Thinking of curling up with an Ayn Rand book at the beach? Try the Trilogy of Desire. It covered some of the same ground in a much more powerful way.

How to Write Copy Like Damon Runyon

By Ray Schultz

If ever a writer was good at engaging readers, it was Damon Runyon. He held them from the first sentence to the last, in any format, and he would do that online if he were alive today.

Who’re we talking about? Damon Runyon, born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, died in 1946 on Manhattan Island. He was, to start with, a great reporter and columnist, as proven by his coverage—on deadline— from the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial in 1927. (The pair murdered Snyder’s husband).

“Right back to old Father Adam, the original, and perhaps the loudest ‘squawker’ among mankind against women, went Henry Judd Gray in telling how and why he lent his hand to the butchery of Albert Snyder.

“She-she-she-she-she-she-she-she. That was the burden of the bloody song of the little corset salesman as read out in the packed court room in Long Island City yesterday.

“She-she-she-she-she-she. ‘Twas an echo from across the ages and old familiar echo, at that. It was the same ‘squawk’ of Brother Man whenever and wherever he is in a jam, that was first framed in the words:

“’She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’”

Then there was his sportswriting. Many sportswriters wrote poems in those days, but it’s hard to top Runyon’s paean to the jockey Earl Sande:

Say, have they turned the pages
Back to the past once more?
Back to the racin’ ages
An’ a Derby out of the yore?
Say, don’t tell me I’m daffy
Ain’t that the same ol’ grin?
Why, it’s that handy
Guy named Sande,
Bootin’ a winner in!”

But it’s his fiction that has earned Runyon a small but real place in American literature. He wrote maybe 200 short stories, all in the present tense, creating memorable (if not admirable) characters like Big Jule, Nicely Nicely Jones, Harry the Horse and Sam the Gonoph.

The Snatching of Bookie Bob

Take his story, “The Snatching of Bookie Bob.” Bookie Bob is kidnapped by three thugs named  Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John. He agrees to book their horse racing bets to pass time, and they end up owing him double the amount of the ransom.

Yes, I know—it’s the same basic plot as O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” But “Bookie Bob” is darker—and funnier—in its tale of Depression-era betrayal.

Consider the way Runyon starts the story, and at the same time explains why snatching is in vogue:

“Now it comes on the spring of 1931, after a long hard winter, and times are very tough indeed, what with the stock market going all to pieces, and banks busting right and left, and the law getting very nasty about this and that, and one thing and another, and many citizens of this town are compelled to do the best they can.

“There is very little scratch anywhere and along Broadway many citizens are wearing their last year’s clothes and have practically nothing to bet on the races or anything else, and it is a condition that will touch anybody’s heart.”

So the three wiseguys start nabbing people for ransom, and “much fresh scratch comes into circulation, which is very good for the merchants,” the narrator writes. He notes, however, that “you cannot snatch just anybody”—you need a reliable finger.

“The finger guy must know the guy he fingers has plenty of ready scratch to begin with, and he must also know that this party is such a party as it not apt to make much disturbance about being snatched, such as telling the gendarmes.”

It also pays to know if the victim “does not care to have matches run up and down the bottom of his feet, which often happens to parties who are snatched and who do not seem to wish to settle their bill promptly, because many parties are very ticklish on the bottom of their feet, especially if the matches are lit.”

Now what is Runyon really doing here but describing a process? He could just as well be explaining a best practice in B2B.

Butch Minds the Baby

Then there’s “Butch Minds the Baby,” an even more perfect blending of style and content. Butch, a reformed hoodlum, is offered big money to break open a safe, but his wife is at a wake, so he has no choice but to take his infant son on the job.

The narrator, “a little dopey” from needled beer, tags along, although he feels that cracking a safe with a baby present is “very dishonorable.” (Who’s this narrator? As he says in another story, “Nobody pays any attention to me, because I am known to one and all as a guy who is just around.” This is the story, by the way, that opens with the memorable line: “One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John”).

The scenes follow with impeccable timing. Butch heats up milk in a saucepan next to the safe, Little Isadore muzzles the baby to keep him quiet, Butch blows the safe open and the police arrive on the scene.

By this time, young John Ignatius is “beating his own best record for squalling,” the narrator writes, “and as we go walking along Big Butch says to me like this:

“‘I dast not run,’ he says, ‘because if any coppers see me running they will start popping at me and maybe hit John Ignatius Junior, and besides running will joggle the milk up in him and make him sick. My old lady always warns me never to joggle John Ignatius Junior when he is full of milk.’

“‘Well, Butch,’ I say, ‘there is no milk in me, and I do not care if I am joggled up, so if you do not mind, I will start doing a piece of running at the next corner.’”

The story is based less on a plot than a premise. But the tone is pitch-perfect. And Runyon sustains it to the very end.

Mastery of His Language

I could go on. I could tell you about Blond Maurice, who in 1936 is placed in quicklime by “certain parties who do not wish him well.” (He shows up later eating cheese blintzes in Mindy’s). I could mention Rusty Charley, who is known to carry a gun “and sometimes to shoot people down as dead as door-nails with it if he does not like the way they wear their hats—and Rusty Charley is very critical of hats.”

But why bother? You can read about these characters—and many more—in a fairly recent Runyon collection from Penguin.

Runyon has been criticized for making hoodlums loveable. But he was the first to admit that he was a “hired Hessian on the typewriter.” He wrote to entertain people, and he succeeded, for at least a dozen of his stories were made into movies, and another couple used for the musical “Guys and Dolls.”

Were there better, more profound writers around? Sure. But as novelist William Kennedy wrote, “Far more serious writers than Runyon have fallen on their faces and other parts because they lacked what he had: a love and mastery of his language, a playful use of its idiosyncrasies.”