Thursday, November 13, 2014
Everybody knows Jimmy Fortune, but not everybody knows that Jimmy and I are both from Nelson county, Virginia. I have expressed my love for our home country through my writing, and Jimmy has paid tribute through his music What an honor to have him sing "Virginia Dreams" directly to me while some scenes from my documentary are illustrated.
All contributions welcome and appreciated. Please go to:
Earl Hamner, Story Teller. Documentary
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Monday, November 3, 2014
I’m sorry to have been out of touch, but I’ll take a stab at explaining my long silence. If you will check my last entry of a year ago it was an invitation to watch me and the other cast members of The Walton’s on ABC’s “Good Morning, America.” It was not a good morning for this American and I'll come to that later.One of the occasions that have taken up much of my time since then has been a life changing event. On my birthday, July, 10, I was operated on for the removal of my right kidney. It was an odd experience to endure while at the same time you folks were overwhelming me with birthday wishes. There was also a brief hospital stay for an emergency treatment for atrial fibrillation.
Since then most every minute has had me in the waiting rooms of an imaging center, my Internist, my surgeon, a kidney specialist, my cardiologist and a hematologist. The good news is that they have kept me alive and well and I have not felt better in years.One of the more pleasant experiences was celebrating sixty years of wedded bliss to Miss Jane, who is as beautiful and supportive as always. There has also been the constant love and care of and care from Caroline and Pepe. Scott will give them some relief when he comes out from Vermont in a few days for his mother’s birthday and for Thanksgiving. There has also been constant sympathetic concern of friends and loved ones who knew what I was going through.
There was one event I should mention. It was to have long lasting effect on my life. Last October, along with the rest of the cast of “The Walton's” I appeared on ABC’s early morning show “Good Morning America.” It turned out to be the most humiliating experience of my life.But even such a horrible experience can have a happy ending. I’ll let my friend Ray Castro tell how that came about.
Ray is a native of New Jersey, a very creative producer. We have been friends for over twenty years. Last October Ray watched a Walton cast reunion of “Good Morning, America” and noticed that I had been placed in the back, nearly out of sight of the actors.“I thought it was very disrespectful,” said Ray. “They didn’t mention his name or identify him at all. And knowing Earl, I thought this must have hurt. This was the Creator of the series, the Narrator, the Co-Executive Producer, The Executive Story Editor, the model for the role of John-Boy and a man who had contributed richly to the medium of television since its inception more than sixty years ago.”
A few days later, Ray met with Producer/Writer, Mike McGreevey, and Producer Tim McAbee. They decided to produce a filmed documentary about me and my life’s work called “Earl Hamner, Story Teller.”Today the film is almost completed. The Producers have traveled all over the country to interview the actors, writers, directors and crews that I have worked with and projects range from my television specials to my series as well as my feature films. There is just some editing to be done but there remains one hurdle to overcome. To illustrate my work requires extensive film footage from the movies and television specials or series. Most of this film is owned by various studios and they charge an arm and a leg for the use of every single foot of it.
Frankly, we need your help. The production team has enlisted a company to raise the needed sum. If you will see the website “Earl Hamner, Story Teller, Documentary” you will see that contributions have already started coming in. It would be a special favor to me if you would join us in this effort.The clip from “Good Morning, America” still turns up on television. Now when you watch the Documentary you will be able to identify and name the nice looking, unidentified old man hidden behind the rest of the cast.
Monday, October 14, 2013
When I was growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the highlight of the year was the gathering for the annual family reunion. Relatives arrived from everywhere and we spent the weekend reminiscing, hugging, feasting, catching up on the news, getting acquainted with new babies that had been born or an in-law that had been added since we were all last together. There were tears for those we had loved and lost, and one of the uncles might have a bit too much of the "recipe" but in the end everybody went home, happy, proud and enriched for having shared a very special event.
The Walton Family recently celebrated such an occasion. At the invitation of the great show business magazine ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY the actors gathered at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California. Richard Thomas flew out from New York. Ralph Waite came over from his home in the desert, and the others in the cast assembled from various towns up and down the California coast. There at the replica of the house made so famous on the television series, our host filmed not only a photographic essay for the magazine, but also a television film of the gathering.
No, there was no "recipe" served. The intoxication came from just being together, still a close and loving family who worked together forty years ago and became a family with a family’s enduring ties.
Read the story in ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY when it hits the newsstands this coming Friday, October 18th, and also on that same day, dial up ABC’S Morning Show "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" to visit one more time with our family.
Sunday, July 14, 2013
A Virginia By-Way
By Alice Urban
SCHUYLER, Va. - At the crossroads of Schuyler and Rockfish River roads there is a simple, white, two-story house.
A large tree in the front yard provides shade for the long porch that is furnished with a single white rocking chair.
During the Depression, the home was a gathering place for the children of Schuyler to meet, play ball and explore the countryside. It is the childhood home of Earl H. Hamner Jr., creator of the 1970s hit television show "The Waltons" and the inspiration for the TV family's iconic homestead.
Now, the home - and the small town surrounding the crossroads - is a different kind of gathering place. It's a location more than 15,000 tourists visit each year to experience a piece of Americana and to see the sites that provided the basis for the Emmy-winning show that ran for nine seasons from 1972 to 1981.
"It was a good place to grow up," Hamner said fondly in a telephone interview from his home near Los Angeles. "Many of the places mentioned on the series actually do exist in Schuyler."
While filmed on location in California, the fictional Walton family would have been at home in the tiny town of about 300 residents 40 minutes southwest of Charlottesville, Va., in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The draw for most visitors to Schuyler is the Walton's Mountain Museum, a quaint, community-run, seven-room exhibition of Walton memorabilia, set recreations and town ephemera housed in Schuyler's former elementary and high school, which also serves as the town's community center.
"A lot of people like the kitchen" said museum director Leona B. Roberts of the highlights of the nonprofit museum, which opened in 1992. "People who visit always say they can connect the kitchen with going to their grandma's," Roberts said, adding that the kitchen was an important meeting place for the Walton family.
"The show is something that has a lot of family value to it, and it's something we don't have on television in this day and time," she said. She thinks the strong family values portrayed in the show and feelings of nostalgia for a simpler time are what continue to draw visitors to the museum.
Inside the museum, visitors can wander through replicas of protagonist John-Boy's room, the family living room and kitchen in addition to Ike Godsey's store, which is half exhibition and half museum gift shop.
A moonshine distillery is another highlight, although museum staff joke that the moonshine itself may taste a bit like water. Visitors can also see a script room along with various displays of show and town history.
Much of the museum's collection was donated by collectors of Walton's memorabilia or Depression-era keepsakes. Be sure to ask museum staff about Schuyler's soapstone mine that once employed more than 1,000 workers but downsized considerably during the Depression.
Retired soapstone plant employee Talmadge "Junior" W. Tyler works as a greeter at the museum on weekends. President of the class of 1953, Tyler graduated from Schuyler High School - now the site of the museum - with Hamner's younger brother, James, the inspiration for "The Waltons" character Jim-Bob.
Tyler recalls the Hamner family as similar to those in the rest of the town. "To me, they were just like we were. We all come up the hard way - if you didn't raise it, you didn't eat it. But we just didn't have nobody smart enough to write about it," Tyler joked.
While no Hamners still live in Schuyler, Earl Hamner, 90, continues to visit his beloved town when he can. He was back in Virginia to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year. In addition to "The Waltons," Hamner is also known for his work on "Falcon Crest," "The Twilight Zone," "Heidi" and "Charlotte's Web," among others. He is the author of several books.
"I'm rather in awe that such a thing could happen," said Hamner of his town remaining a tourist destination decades after the show ended. He said that visitors with whom he's talked have found Schuyler attractive, interesting and quaint. "They weren't disappointed," he said, "because I hope I have not romanticized it too much on television."
However, it may be just such a wholesomeness that made "The Waltons" beloved to so many fans. "We chronicled a decade of these people's lives who were growing up in a very challenging time in our society, who had to weather the trials of a deep depression," Hamner said. "This was a grim time that forced us to be resourceful, self-reliant and brave."
He believes such values are still relevant for television today. "I would like the industry that I have spent my life in to do more to good; I would like it to ennoble mankind instead of providing only grotesque images," he said. "I feel that we in television are obliged to present some kind of affirmative image of mankind."
Such affirming messages can still be watched through "The Waltons," currently in reruns on the Inspiration Network, and experienced by visiting the small town that inspired the show.
A visit to Schuyler makes a pleasant afternoon drive from other sites in the Charlottesville area including the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier and several Civil War sites.
Other stops in Schuyler include "Ike Godsey's" convenience store - the site of the general store that inspired that of the show, the Hamner family's Baptist church, the Hamner home (open to the public with entrance fee) and Walton's Mountain Country Store.
Walton's Mountain Museum is open daily from the first Saturday in March to the first Sunday in December from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults and children 6 and up; children under 5 are free. Admission includes a 30-minute video about the show produced for the museum.
Reprinted with permission of Alice Urban and James S. Gleason, Library Services Manager The Republican/masslive.com, 1860 Main Street, Springfield, MA 01102
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Sunday, July 7, 2013
A Noble Writer
I was never to meet her face to face. I was never to hear her voice. She never knew if I lived or died, and only by a circuitous path did I even come to know her, but she was and remains the most important person in my career as a writer.
When I was a young man I was obsessed with the drive to write a novel. Where this ambition came from, why it was so compelling, I do not know. All I was sure of was the story I wanted to tell. I took notes, I wrote character descriptions, and I attempted to outline chapters but I wasn’t writing. The skills weren’t there. The novel was not taking shape. Something was lacking, something was holding me back and I was in despair.
I was making a living back in those days as a radio writer, and I was beginning to wonder if I might ever achieve my real ambition which was to become a novelist.
Following my return from overseas service in World War Two and graduation from the University of Cincinnati I had been fortunate enough to find a job as a radio writer at the legendary station WLWT. In its earliest years it had been so powerful that it could be heard all over the United States. Even after its range was reduced it had been the stepping off place for a good many talented people such as Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day, and Red Skelton. My job was writing radio scripts. I wrote documentary portraits of noteworthy people in the area, an occasional dramatic show and even continuity for a country western singer named Ernie Lee.
From WLWT I moved to New York and went to work as a staff writer at NBC.
One of my first assignments was to dramatize a book titled "The Time of Man" by Elizabeth Madox Roberts for NBC RADIO THEATER.
I looked up Miss Roberts and learned that she was born in Perryville, Kentucky, on October 30, 1881. She attended high school in Covington, Kentucky and briefly enrolled at the University of Kentucky, but was forced to drop out after one semester due to poor health. After teaching school for several years she enrolled at the University of Chicago, studying literature and philosophy and fulfilling a lifetime dream of acquiring a college education. Her writing was first printed in 1922 - A group of poems for young people titled "Under the Tree." The success of the book led her to write her first novel "The Time of Man" (1926) about the daughter of a Kentucky tenant farmer which garnered her an international reputation. She went on to write several more critically acclaimed novels. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease in 1936 she began spending her winters in Florida. She died in Orlando Florida in 194l and was returned home to Springfield for her burial.
In reading her biography one item that caught my attention was that at one point Roberts had moved to New York from Kentucky and had written that first novel in a basement apartment on East 96th Street. I, too, was a transplanted Southerner, living on 87th Street, practically in a basement, so I felt an immediate kinship with her.
When I began reading the novel, I discovered something wondrous and completely life changing. Roberts’ characters spoke in a way that was totally unique yet was exactly what I had heard as a boy in Virginia.
The book is told from the viewpoint of Ellen Chesser, the teenage daughter of an itinerant farmer. I was struck by Ellen’s marvelous imagination and sense of wonder. Ellen’s mother is a character of great strength and perseverance. "The Time of Man" simply delighted me. It embodied the nobility I had always perceived in so called "common" people and I was elated by the newfound style and connection with another Southern writer. Her characters spoke a language that was familiar to me. The sound of it was already in my ears. But it was language that had been elevated from the everyday spoken word to the level of literature.
After adapting "The Time of Man" as a radio play I began work again on my own novel. When I went to the typewriter the words came in a rush. It was as if they had been there all along and Elizabeth Madox Roberts had opened a floodgate. Not long after reading her book, I wrote and published my first novel.
If it had not been for Elizabeth Madox Roberts my novels, as well as the television series they inspired, might never have been written for she helped me portray Southern hill folk not as ignorant, thick-browed, shaggy haired, moonshine swilling rednecks, but as the courageous, self reliant, decent, honorable people I knew so well.
My association with this remarkable woman does not end there.
This past winter the Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society’s Honorary President, H. R. Stoneback proposed and the EMR Executive Committee approved the creation of The Elizabeth Madox Roberts Society Award for Southern and Appalachian Writing. The award carries with it Honorary Lifetime Membership in the Roberts Society and I am proud to say that I was the first recipient of that honor.
I hope that these notes will encourage you to read the works of this extraordinary writer. I would suggest that you start with her first novel that I love so well, "The Time of Man." If it is not in your local library you can request that they carry it. If there is no library in your area then you can obtain it from Amazon.com.
There is an excellent article about Roberts on a website called The University Bookman titled "The Time of Elizabeth Madox Roberts" by Katherine Dalton. There is also rich information on the Roberts Society website – www.emrsociety.com which I urge you to explore.
On the Society website you may click on "Buy EMR Books" and see what’s available, including studies of Roberts by H. R. Stoneback and others; also click on "Archives" and read the Roberts Society Newsletters, especially the 2012 edition where you will find many pieces on Roberts and other writers (including Earl Hamner!). You will also find information on the Roberts website about how to join the Roberts Society and support their good work.
And you may want to attend their annual April gatherings in Kentucky publicized on the website.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Tribute To A Friend
Happy New Year! 2013! Wow! What a fine feeling! All those sweet old Christmas songs packed away to mellow for another year. All the New Year’s bells have rung and that ball successfully made its traditional descent in Times Square. The tree ornaments are back on the shelf. The new Christmas corduroys have been tailored to fit. The fruit cake just a dream and the now empty champagne jug in the waste can. All the thank you notes are written, and we have almost visited the scales to see how much weight all that good food has added. Well, I won’t go that far, but we are giving it some thought.
I have special reason to be thankful to see 2013. In the first place it’s been quite a stretch from 1923 when I first came to this party. And secondly each year about this time I come down with the flu. This year was no exception and for three weeks my doctor was treating me with the elixirs and magic potions that traditionally got me well again.
This time it didn’t work so he ordered a cat scan and discovered that I had been walking around with raging pneumonia! The next thing I knew I was in Room 1408 in the North Tower at Cedars of Lebanon being stuffed with antibiotics and steroids, having blood drawn, my wheezing chest listened to just about every time I drifted off to sleep, my vitals taken every six hours, and round the clock attention by some of the most attentive and considerate nurses I could imagine.
I am home now, a little out of breath, dizzy in the head and weak in the knees and more flighty than usual in the brain, but I am definitely on the mend.
All this has brought me to a realization that is long overdue; one I suppose more rational folks already live with at this advanced age. All these years I have gone merrily along my way, whistling in the dark, living as if there were no tomorrow, always assured that I am young in spirit, destined to live forever, and not subject to the wear and tear that go with "the golden years."
There in Room 1408 in the North Tower of Cedars of Lebanon the awful realization dawned on me that I am mortal, that in spite of the lies I keep telling mysef, it’s December at the party, not April any more. The reminder came in a line from a poem that kept repeating itself over and over in my mind.
"Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain;
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again."
Listen to him! Carrying on like he is about to put on his funeral suit, order the casket and call Forest Lawn! Actually it was a good thing! Forced him to slow down. Smell the roses, and enjoy that extra glass of chardonnay even though you aren’t supposed to take it along with cumadin.
The refrain that kept repeating itself in my mind was a stanza from a poem written by my late friend the poet, Muriel Miller Dressler and she will be the subject of this blog if I ever get around to it.
In the meantime I introduce the following medical bulletin to your attention because it gives me an opportunity to boast.
As you know from my previous blogs, last year I received a very high honor from the Library of Virginia. This year their generosity has brought another very great honor. On the 17th of January I was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Virginia Legislature where a proclamation was to have been read saying that I was a proud Virginia boy and that my writing had brought pleasure and pride to my fellow Virginians. There was then to have been a lunch at the Governor’s mansion and a reception that evening!
Even though I was recovering from the pneumonia I was tempted to make the trip, but my doctor said it would be foolhardy to risk another respiratory event this early by getting on a plane and trying to attend all those fabulous functions that were planned in Richmond.
As close to tears as a tough old rooster should come, I let the folks at the Library know. What incredible people! Somehow they have been able to reschedule most of the events and my family and I are already anticipating a visit home to Virginia on April 3rd! Some of these April events will be open to the public so if any of you in the Richmond area would be interested I will let you know as soon as I have all the facts.
So finally we come to the end of this long winded introduction to my new blog. It tells of how I came to know a woman I still revere, the gifted West Virginia poet, Muriel Miller Dressler.
When I was growing up in the foothills of the Blue Ridge during the great Depression of the Twenties and Thirties, the possibility that I might someday meet a real poet seemed remote, if not impossible. We were people of the back woods, and our daily lives were taken up with the business of living through harsh and hostile times.
Yet, poetry was at hand. I recognized it first in the King James version of The Bible. Sometimes it was a passage I was obliged to memorize in Sunday school in order to receive a Gold
Star. Sometimes it was shouted at me by revival preachers set on persuading me to give up my sinful ways and to be saved. No matter how it was presented, I recognized the poetry in The Bible And I WAS saved.
Later, a dedicated teacher at our local school introduced me to Edgar Allen Poe, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Cullen Bryant, Steven Vincent Benet, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. We were required to memorize great hunks of "Thanatopsis," "The First Snowfall," and "Song of Myself," and I still remember them today.
While their words became a part of my being, the poets themselves seemed remote. I fancied them to be God-like creatures, removed from the human race, quite possibly living in Grecian temples close by the Mediterranean where they wrote when inspiration moved them and subsisted on a little fruit and a lot of wine.
But the Great Depression passed, and my life changed. I won a scholarship to the University of Richmond, I went to Europe and fought in a war, I came home to Virginia and then to the University of Cincinnati and finally to make a career and a new life in New York City.
It was there I met my first "real" poet. I had written a book called "Fifty Roads to Town," and I desperately needed permission from a poet named Muriel Rukeyser to use two lines from a remarkable poem of hers called "Effort at Speech Between Two People." But how did one get in touch with a poet? I asked my editor at Random House, Belle Becker, and Belle replied, "Why don’t you look in the phone book?" I did and to my astonishment Miss Rukeyser lived only two blocks from my apartment, and most graciously consented to my using the lines I needed. I learned that poets were not only considerate, but that not all of them were off there by the Mediterranean sipping wine.
Miss Rukeyser’s gift prepared me for generosity and graciousness. What I had not been prepared for was the knowledge that a poet could spring from the same earth I knew. And on a visit to Morris Harvey College (Now The University of Charleston) I met Muriel Miller Dressler, a fellow citizen of Appalachia.
Muriel Dressler was born in Kanawha County, West Virginia on July 4th. 1918. Her family went back several generations in the area. She did not finish high school and her love of literature came, as she was fond of saying, "at the heels of my mother as we planted or hoed the garden."
I met her in 1975 and with her permission used one of her poems as the theme for an episode of my series "Morning Star, Evening Star."
William Plumley, the professor who introduced us, describes her as "Short, curvy, vain and hyperactive." Dressler remained a popular speaker on the college circuit until the mid-1980’s when she suffered a massive heart attack. She spent much of the rest of her life away from the public spotlight.
Using the same clay some of us have shaped into novels, Muriel made poems.
Muriel spoke with first hand knowledge of the land of our birth. She knew and articulated the sounds of whippoorwills at night, the thud of earth coming to rest on a miner’s coffin, the restless love that calls a widow from her bed for dialogue at Midnight with spirits that are less dead than they seem.
This is not to suggest that Muriel wrote of the macabre. On the contrary she could be witty and gay, raucous and gossipy, but always filled with the exaltation of living. Sometimes she would be wicked, as in her wry appraisal of "Old Iry Pleasants" who decided he was "jest retard" after "he’s been out of work his entire life."
Much of Muriel Dressler’s work is in dialect, a dangerous form of expression. In unskilled hands it could reach a comic strip level, but Muriel knew what she was doing, and the sounds of Appalachian speech fell on her ear with accuracy and recognition. She’d been there. She knew what she was doing.
Her signature work is a collection of poems titled "Appalachia." You can track it down on the Intenet and I recommend you look for it.
What it all boils down to, I think, is that Muriel Dressler had heard the same sounds we all hear, known the same pain we each feel, watched the same sun cross the sky and set beyond some hilly horizon, but out of her own genius she produced work that while regional in character, is universal in its appeal and meaning.
I know because one of her poems haunts me still.
ELEGY FOR JODY
O, wear a crimson shawl, my child
Put on a scarlet hood,
And make a point of being brave
When you explore the wood.
But when harsh winds denude the trees,
Fall leaves on cryptic ground
Will write your childhood’s prophecy
In syllables of brown.
When dark clouds scud against the sky
And greening trees are gone,
I’ll weave for you an ebon rug
For you to walk upon.
Then child, don heavy armor
Against the heart’s wild pain,
Try as I may, I cannot bring
Fair April back again.
Poem published with permission of Jacob Wither, Executor of the Estate of William Plumley.
Posted by YOU ME AND THE LAMP POST at 7:30 PM 33 comments:
Labels: appalachia, earl hamner jr., Library of Virginia, muriel miller dressler, Nelson County, the waltons
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
A New York Memory
I had not thought of 44 West Twelfth Street in Greenwich Village in a very long time. It was an apartment we had lived in many years ago, and then last Sunday morning from the deck of our home in Laguna Beach, I was reading the Sunday Edition of The Los Angeles Times. The day was soft and the ocean was beautifully lit with that sunshine which illuminates the tip of every breaking wave. From the deck we can actually see Catalina, even on a not so clear day. The cerulean blue water stretched to the horizon, broken in the distance by a single sailing ship, while on the rocks below a seal was taking a sunbath. And then the item in the Calendar Section of The Los Angeles Times brought back a myriad of images of a long forgotten time and place.
The year was 1959. Jane and I had been married in 1954, parents now of a son and a daughter. We had lived in two other places, but there was an apartment we coveted. We knew the landlord and he had promised it was ours if it ever became available.
The apartment was located half way between Sixth Avenue and Fifth Avenue at 44 West 12th Street. The former occupant was a composer, a man named Harry Wood, and he told us that his song, “When the Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin Along” had been written in the apartment. It was a fact we mentioned to everyone who visited hoping they were as impressed as we were to be in touch with such greatness.
The apartment was on the ground floor. Once when one of Jane’s aunts from Davenport, Iowa, visited us, she said with ill-conceived pity, as she entered the vestibule, “Oh, you live in the basement!” Word probably went back to Davenport, Iowa that Jane had made an unfortunate marriage, but it didn’t matter to us. We loved the apartment and felt ourselves most fortunate.
Like most ground floor apartments the layout was typical. The bedroom faced West 12th Street. We assured ourselves that the racket that went on each morning when the garbage was collected was simply “The Manhattan Melody.” It was one of the many fibs we told ourselves in order to live there.
The bedroom was reached by a long hallway off the living room and past the bath and a closet. The living room was spacious, and boasted a fireplace. The first night we moved in we built an enormous fire only to find out that the flue was stopped up and that we had nearly asphyxiated all of our neighbors on the upper floors. The kitchen was miniscule but what made the apartment so unique was that beyond the living room was a room enclosed on all sides, top to bottom, by glass! In winter we would wake on mornings after a snowfall to find ourselves in a scene reminiscent of the dacha in Dr. Zhivago. And wonder of wonders, from that room you stepped out into a garden.
It was a rectangular space with raised flowerbeds, paved with flagstone, several shade trees, and a view of adjacent gardens. It was a safe place for the children to play. For the children we installed a jungle gym, a sand box and a swing. For the family we bought a charcold grill, and for me, ever the country boy, the opportunity to fill the flower beds with wild iris, trillium, ivy and impatiens, just a few of the trophies I found on hunting expeditions in upper Westchester County.
In his book “Here Is New York” E.B. White describes what it was like to live on the New York Island, in the same town with ”giants” and the excitation of the nearness of them. The giants he celebrates are the writers of his day such as Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Stephen Vincent Benet.
Many of my neighbors too were people of distinction. My editor at Random House, Belle Becker, lived right across the street with her husband, Abner Sideman, an editor at Look Magazine. The distinguished director Eve Legalienne and her companion, the legendary actress Margaret Webster, lived down the block. There was a plaque on the side of one of the brownstones marking where Edna St. Vincent Milay had lived. The actress Estelle Parsons and her twin daughters were just down the street, and it was not unusual to encounter humorist and writer S. J. Pearlman, on one of his strolls through the village. The cook and author, James Beard, was often seen hurrying along the street, trailed by his disciples, all wearing tall white chef’s hats and carrying trays of food or cooking utensils on their way to some event. I even spotted William Faulkner at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 12th Street and successfully managed to keep from engulfing him with the awe his very presence inspired in me. And only a few blocks away was The White Horse, the bar where writers such as Vance Bourjally, James Jones, Norman Mailer and Joe Heller congregated to drink and fight and boast.
I gradually became aware of another celebrity neighbor. Facing our garden from the next brownstone and on the third floor lived a man and a woman. From time to time they would engage in loud discussion which would eventually evolve into heated quarrels. In these encounters the woman would yell, “You may be America’s greatest living poet, but you are one vile son of a bitch!” He would respond with “Go ---- yourself, you stupid whore.”
Curious that “America’s greatest living poet” might be living in such close proximity, I stopped in the vestibule of the building and checked the register of the inhabitants. The occupant of that particular apartment was listed as a woman. There was no mention of a man, much less America’s Greatest Living Poet.
The closest I ever came to the contact with The Poet was one summer evening when I was grilling steaks in the garden. A sudden rainstorm came out of nowhere. The steaks were only half cooked so rather than serving them half done I decided to continue grilling. I ran inside, grabbed an umbrella and went back to my chore.
And that was when America’s Greatest Living Poet called to his lady friend and said, “Come see what this damn fool is doing now!”
I looked up at their widow, but they had withdrawn and had gone back to their quarrel. The steaks were delicious, but I carry grudges. How dare that son of a bitch call me a “damn fool” simply because I was keeping the rain off my steaks!
The relationship between the couple seemed to go from bad to worse. The name calling, the loud quarrels, the screams and sometimes the crashing of furniture or the breaking dishes would echo from their window down into our garden.
One morning soon thereafter I stepped out on 12th Street to walk our cocker spaniels, Clemmentine and Chloe. In front of the building next door was a stack of household effects: Furniture, notebooks, food containers, bookshelves, a desk, clothing on hangers, cardboard boxes marked photos, waste baskets. All evidence suggested that the owner of the stuff had been evicted. We learned later that it was The World’s Greatest Living Poet who had done the evicting. While his lady friend was out of town he had thrown her every possession into the street.
When I came back from walking the dogs, I spotted passersby stopping, examining the stuff, and almost every person picking up some item, an end table, some dishes, books, a drawer containing silver or clothing and taking off with it.
And by the time I left for work later that morning there was little left of the woman’s effects but scraps and a desk that must have been too heavy to steal. I can only imagine her dismay when she returned.
In time I encountered a neighbor we met while walking the dogs, we knew her as Miss Horty. She lived on the ground floor of the next door brownstone and I asked her if she knew either of her upstairs neighbors who had moved out.
“I never met the girl,” she said, “But the man who lived with her was Delmore Schwartz, the poet.” “She used to call him America’s Greatest Living Poet,” I said. “Oh, he was,” said Horty “He’s in all the anthologies.”
I always meant to look up Mr. Schwartz and read his work, but somehow I never got around to it. In time we moved away from New York to follow the television industry to Los Angeles. I had hardly ever thought of him until last Sunday when I was reading the Los Angeles Times down at the beach house.
The article was about a singer, and guitar player who had been a student at Syracuse University where he had been a disciple of Delmore Schwartz’. There was that name again after all those many years. I had never really read any of his work so I looked up the man and found that he was indeed a genius. He was the earliest recipient of the esteemed Bollengen Prize awarded by Yale University for excellence in poetry, and he was praised by such literary figures as T.S.Eliot and Ezra Pound.
I learned too that as time went by drugs and alcohol took their toll and he died insane in a seedy Times Square hotel, but when I read his poems, in view of the violent rants that had spilled from his window down into my garden, I was surprised at the tenderness and depth of feeling he had celebrated in his work.
Still, even after all these years I can’t forgive him for calling me a damn fool just because I wanted my steak well done and wouldn’t let a little rain stop me.
Posted by YOU ME AND THE LAMP POST at 11:53 AM 15 comments:
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