Sunday, December 30, 2012

Oh Dad, Great Dad

    I am pretending that Mark Twain was my father.
His autobiography lies on the footstool beside my bed, his fiercely dark gaze fixing mine, and I sort of hear him counseling me about what to do about my children, and what he says is "Fuck 'em." I think compassion was in all likelihood one of his short suits, so busy was he making the world a brighter place by being as sharp as he was, and dedicated to his own words. Warner Berthoff, my American Lit professor at Bryn Mawr, gave me an A+, many years after my graduation, for my "Mark Twain essay" in my novel, Kingdom Come, in which I have the great man cursing what he refuses to acknowledge are the Heavens in the Afterlife where he is consigned to the Other Place, the one for the Nonbelievers.
    I always believed Mark Twain would have been a friend of mine.  When Robert was in graduate school, coming to visit me as I was struggling to make a life for myself as a hard-working widow, renting an upmarket slum in the Hamptons, trying to write yet another novel, I said to him on the phone before he arrived: "I have a surprise for you." He said, dazzlingly on target, "We're having dinner with Kurt Vonnegut." Stunned, I asked, "How did you know that?" And Robert said, "Well I knew he was out there, and if anyone could smoke him out, it would be you."
    In fact, in Truth, I would rather say, Vonnegut, unknown to me personally but understandably a hero of mine as a deeply humanistic and gifted writer, had stood in a forum of writers and editors written about in The New York Times, and said "Today is a very sad day in literary history: a publisher has turned against a writer."  Doubleday had just sued me as a result of the libel suit against me by Paul Bindrim, the fraudulent, self-aggrandizing(I can call him now fearlessly, as he is dead) psychologist who conducted nude encounter marathons in Topanga Canyon at the end of the 60s, in one of which I had fictionally(I must hurry to say) placed my novel TOUCHING.  I had set out intending to make it my MADAME BOVARY, to prove I was a serious writer, after the sexy success of THE PRETENDERS.  Bindrim, when I attended his marathon had said "Well now that you've written the world's sexiest bestseller, what are you going to do next?" I told him I didn't know.  "I think you should write about what I'm doing here," he grandstanded.
    At the time I attended the marathon, he was bald and clean shaven, and had a Master's Degree.  When I wrote the novel I gave my protagonist a great white fox fur hat of hair and a white beard, so he looked like Santa Claus, and made him a doctor.  Bindrim sued me, saying I had ruined his nude encounter business by looking at it with a scathing eye, which I confess I did big time, as having experienced the haphazard and dangerous way he dealt with people in the pool, I was frightened for them.  The case took seven years to come to court, during which time Bindrim, in his determination to become more identifiable as the character in the novel, got a PhD from International College in Westwood,a mail-order school above the Bruin movie theater, grown a gigantic beard, let the fringe of his hair grow long, the years had turned it white, so he looked like Santa Claus.  Hr had, quite simply, become the character in the book. It was, as my attorney who didn't prepare because he regarded the whole thing as laughable, the dictionary definition of 'Fiasco,' sure it would be thrown out of court.  But it wasn't, and Tony Liebig, my lawyer, had a testy history with the judge, the Santa Monica jury was madder at me, a housewife, for going to a nude encounter than they were at Bindrim for giving it, and I lost.
    Doubleday, my then publisher,  had up to that time defended me, citing the 1st amendment,  But they then sued me on the basis of the indemnification clause that holds a publisher blameless. At that point we had to homestead our house so they couldn't take it away from us, and my daughter, still a little girl, asked if she would still be able to go to her school, if she would have to leave her friends behind, along with her room.  Robert, even younger, had a bicycle route to deliver the Herald-Examiner when I was on the front page.
Vonnegut, whom I did not know, having defended me publicly, becoming even more heroic in my eyes, and I later met at a party--it was always surprising to me at that point that there were any festive occasions. But I was kind of a shadowy literary celebrity at that point, so Gay Talese, a sort of friend, invited me to an evening where Jerzy Kozinski lolled on a couch, slicing a pear with a knife, as if in an outtake from REDS.  Vonnegut marveled over the accuracy of my recall-- Bindrim had tape recorded the marathon, and during the trial compared the dialogue from the novel on a blackboard with what had actually transpired, and it was eerily alike, as I did have great Recall. He asked me if I had had a tape recorder hidden under my blouse.
    "Kurt," I said.  "I didn't even have a blouse." With that, we became friends.
    When I moved to the Hamptons, part of my gypsying as I sought my meant-to-be nesting place after Don died, Vonnegut was kind to me.  Jill, his in-my-opinion crazy wife had left him for a good friend of his, so he was quite lost, and, it seemed frightened.  Although our relationship was tentative, he appeared grateful for it.    When I told him on the phone my son was coming to visit, he  said "Bring him around; we'll have dinner."
    So we did.  "I thought it was like being with Mark Twain," Robert said afterwards, respecting me as he never had before.
    If it was truly like that in fact, then Twain was not that communicative in person.  But you could tell he was a great guy.  Now he lies on the back of his autobiography, face up, glaring glance fixed on me.  And in the absence of God in whom he did not believe, I look to him for support and strength in this very difficult time. I am imagining him as my father, giving me the guts and tenacity you need in this life, if you are to survive, much less prevail.  
    Kurt and I stayed friends, though distant ones once Jill came back-- she told Rex Reed many years later after Kurt was gone "that woman tried to fuck my husband," which was as far from the truth as she was manipulative. Kurt was ready to tuck it in by the time we became sort of close, visibly intimidated by her,  grateful for her return, scared, I believe, that he would die alone.  I invited him to come be a guest for the big anniversary of the LA library that I was trying to be of some help putting together.  The lure they offered was the home, for his individual honoree dinner, of a society woman who collected Lincoln's tableware.  The very plates.  That didn't do it.  "I would be too sad," Kurt said.
    "Why?" I asked.
    "Because he's dead," said Kurt.
I pointed out to him that even had he not been assassinated, Lincoln would still be dead.  But that was no consolation, and he didn't come.
    Sometimes, in what is left of my life, I suffer over relationships I didn't work to the possible maximum, people I loved and admired with whom I had the luck-- grace it seems, even-- to become friends.  People like Cary Grant, a fantasy phone friendship-- he was a phone lover-- I mean he loved talking on the phone, not me-- and called me all the time, to read me good reviews of my work,("Do you mind?" he lilted, and then read it to me.) We would  talk about our daughters who were the same age, or just chat.  Then there was Stanley Kubrick, "29 year-old Stanley Kubrick" as Billy Wilder was to refer to him all through his life, though I met him he was really around 29, and at the beginning of his productive genius. when I was privileged and damned to be an unrealized, badly used part of what he was up to.  He and Kristiana, his beautiful wife, were at my wedding to Don.  My new husband at the time was the WOR producer televising the first season of the Jets.  Stanley took him aside on that occasion, telling him he should stop following the football and keep the camera on the line, insisting that was the most interesting part of the game.  And Don said to him; "Stanley, if you'll let me run a credit at the end, 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll put the camera anywhere you want." 
    All these exchanges, among other grand and special ones I am remembering.  But none impacts me more or makes me feel better than the spare words I had from Kurt, at our last lunch.   "Women are resourceful," he said to me.  "Look at you-- you're resourceful."  
    Oh God, I hope so.
    And I am sorry Mark Twain didn't believe in You.   Though I am sure You must have believed in him, or he wouldn't have been so talented.