Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dead Before Me

My son and I were reminiscing about Vonnegut last night, and he remembered when Kurt paid for the dinner we had together at Bobby Van's in the Hamptons, and passed his Visa to the waiter. Robert saw the Visa card with his name on it, and said it was "surreal," seeing 'Kurt Vonnegut' on a credit card. Then I said something about my once buddy Kesey, and Robert said I should write something about writers I knew-- a book was what he suggested, but I hope this will do-- called 'Dead Before me," and made sure I emphasized the 'before' when repeating the title, and not the 'me.'
So I started thinking about all the writers I have known, not as many as I would have liked, since I always fancied a literary life, really yearned for it, envied H.D., the poet, who went to Bryn Mawr, and ran off with Ezra Pound. Not that I would have chosen Ezra Pound, although Joan Fitzgerald, a sculptor who lives in Venice, is fierce in her defense of him, swears that he was none of the dark things he was accused of, took me to his grave on that little island near Venice on the Day of the Dead, put a rose on his headstone and said Hemingway would have been nothing without him, that he gave Pound a check for the work he had done that Ernest took credit for, and Pound just framed the check, never cashed it. I mean, I should have had some of that, I think, although H.D.ended up a lesbian and I haven't had any of that, either. I wonder if that was because of Ezra Pound.
Writer dead before me I have known from a distance: Saul Bellow, from whose Nobel Prize speech a definition of what a novel is and where it comes from was incorporated as part of my writ of certiorari to the the Supreme Court in my libel case. He said it was part experience, part imagination, part something else-- I can't remember exactly, sort of science-fiction-y or fantasy, but of course it was eloquent, as he doubtless was, until I called to ask for his support when Doubleday was suing me and he declined with aggressive gusto, had his secretary call me back twice to make sure I didn't use his name on the letterhead that writers of great worth, many of them strangers except to principle, joined in adding their names to, asking that Doubleday withdraw the suit against me, including Capote and Mailer, whom I didn't know either except I once argued politics with Mailer and got him really incensed when he was running for mayor and I suddenly realized I was standing by the balustrade of Peggy Hitchcock's marble mansion where his fund raiser was, it was many, many feet down to the floor below, and he had, after all, stabbed his wife, so I backed off and away. But there were wonderful men and women who stood behind me then and Bellow wasn't one of them. Nor was Philip Roth, whom I actually knew sort of as he had eviscerated one of my closest friends in not one but two novels, just as Bellow had vampired his women. And when I asked Philip's victim why both these men had refused to let their names be used, she said "Because they're both cowards." So I don't lament Bellow, in whose name Philip will be receiving an award. Perfect.
We did have one very literary evening early in my marriage, when Philip and his lover, my lovely, gentle friend came to dine with us and Jules Feiffer and his then wife Judy. Don described it afterwards as like sitting in the shallows of the ocean, getting hit with wave after wave, they were so brilliant and competetive, the wit tsunamied; none of us could catch our breath. I am glad Jules is still alive. The exact thing he said which I expurgated from my piece when Vonnegut died, when he asked why I wanted to be friends with writers, "they're terrible people," to my answer that Gay Talese was close friends with Vonnegut whom I so longed to know, was "How could anyone be close friends with Gay Talese?" I like Gay, so I left that out, but fair is fair, and since I spare no one in these things, and Jules repeated quite recently that he stood by both statements, what the hell.
Kay Boyle is doubtless known to almost none of you. She was one of those high, lofty writers, not in attitude, but esteem, elected to the American Academy, already old when I met her, after reading in Publisher's Weekly that she had cancelled her contract with Doubleday because they had sued me. I tracked her down and we became good friends for the rest of her life, when I would go up to Oregon and visit, or she would come down to San Francisco when I lived there after Don died and she would be honored by PEN for her political activism, which she never forgave me for not having in my work. Hope there's still time. She had lived in exactly the right era, wrote a book with another author called 'Being Geniuses Together," about their young times in Paris, which of course I would have liked to emulate, but then when it got to be my turn to expatriate I was singing in a night club, in another much later decade, and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, all those I would have liked to have hung out with, even if Ernest did badly use Ezra, were long gone. Kay had been married-- she was much married as I recall, three or maybe four times-- to a man who was hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the reason she so quickly stepped up to side with me, whom she didn't even know. As it turned out, the advance she returned when she canceled her contract with Doubleday, was $1000. That made me sick and sad. That great lady, and a lady she was, with such stature, and fine works behind her, and all they had given her that she gave back, which she could ill afford to do, was $1000.
Mario Puzo-- well, that's a whole saga. He was for several years our closest friend, Don's and mine, loving Don more than me which was easy to do, he was so genial and un-demanding. I gave Mario "The Pretenders" when it was one place behind The Godfather on the best-seller list, and he called me from the airport and said "You can't fool me: you wrote this for the same reason I wrote The Godfather; you wanted a bestseller. But the good writing is undisguisable." What could I do but love him? We gave him a dinner party consisting of all the dishes in The Fortunate Pilgrim, his earlier book that went un-noticed that he really loved, as he did the dishes, cooked by me--alongside "thigh-thick bread,"-- Mario wrote about food like I wrote about sex. We went everywhere with him and his Zelda-like mad mistress, only blonde, Nedra, she'd changed her name to, never telling him she was a lesbian, using her girlfriend at the Hollywood Reporter to get to him, because she wanted to play Kay in the movie, imagining, as the innocent do, even when they are corrupt, that a writer has anything to say when it comes to casting the movie. We made our front window on Rembert Lane into a bookstore, with floodlights and all, just for him, when they re-issued The Fortunate Pilgrim. We went everywhere together having "eating experiences," which Mario liked best until he found Nedra, and conceivably after. He went to Duke to try and lose weight and told us of a fellow inmate who'd had to be rushed to emergency after eating two gallons of Kosher pickles. We really loved him. Then he got mad at me for writing too many books. "Another book!" he raged, throwing The Motherland on the floor. He was having a really constipated time, creatively, and when Nedra, whose whole life was extreme fiction(run out of a Southern town for seducing the minister's son, which she turned into a Blanche DuBois reverie, re-making herself into a debutante in New Orleans) died young and still willowy dazzling, of an aneurism, he managed somehow to make it into a not interesting novel, Fools Die.
Still, when I got sued for libel by the charlatan who ran the nude encounter I'd gone to, and tried to transmute in my novel Touching into my Madame Bovary, I called Mario. He said "That's ridiculous. Anyone could come out of the woodwork and sue anyone-- writer they'd passed in a hall. Sinatra could sue me. You must call all the writers. You can't appeal to their morality, because they have none. You must appeal to their cowardice. You must say 'If I go, you go.'"
"Thank you, Mario," I said. When the Supreme Court refused to hear my case, and Doubleday, which had argued up to that point to the court that it would have "a chilling effect on Fiction," turned and sued me, I called Mario. He wouldn't take my call.
As Don was dying, the one gift I could give him besides being there in a really deep way, was getting everyone who had been important in his life to call him, he was so loving, so appreciated knowing people cared. I ran into the woman who had optioned Fools Die, and asked her to have Mario call, as I no longer had his contact. She phoned me the day before Don died and said Mario didn't want to talk to him. I'm afraid I lost whatever centeredness I had, and let out all the rage and frustration you feel about cancer, which you can't get your hands on, on her.
Some months later I went to a party at Scandia, where we had had many dinners with Mario. My dinner partner was, as good Serendipity would have it, Freud's Last Pupil. He was almost blind, but he could really see. I told him the whole story, weeping, and he said "What ego!" I rejoiced in my soul that he was really going to let Mario have it. "You knew from the first incident that the man was an asshole," he went on. "But you thought you could change him."
So there it was. The ego was Me.
Ah, but another year went by; I went to a book signing, and there was Mario's secretary. Yet again I burst into tears. I told her the last part of the story. "But Gwen," she demurred. "Mario loved Don. The woman never told him. He would have called. Call him tomorrow," she said, and gave me the number.
I did. He wouldn't take the call.
There are some I don't lament, going before me. Emphasis on the 'before.'