Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The unfinished lives

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Yesterday, the New York Times published a long profile of Donald Knuth, the legendary author of The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth is eighty now, and the article by Siobhan Roberts offers an evocative look at an intellectual giant in twilight:

Dr. Knuth usually dresses like the youthful geek he was when he embarked on this odyssey: long-sleeved T-shirt under a short-sleeved T-shirt, with jeans, at least at this time of year…Dr. Knuth lives in Stanford, and allowed for a Sunday visitor. That he spared an entire day was exceptional—usually his availability is “modulo nap time,” a sacred daily ritual from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. He started early, at Palo Alto’s First Lutheran Church, where he delivered a Sunday school lesson to a standing-room-only crowd.

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Knuth’s most famous work, which is still incomplete. Knuth is busy writing the fourth installment, one fascicle at a time, although its most recent piece has been delayed “because he keeps finding more and more irresistible problems that he wants to present.” As Roberts writes: “Dr. Knuth’s exacting standards, literary and otherwise, may explain why his life’s work is nowhere near done. He has a wager with Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google and a former student…over whether Mr. Brin will finish his Ph.D. before Dr. Knuth concludes his opus…He figures it will take another twenty-five years to finish The Art of Computer Programming, although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.”

Knuth is a prominent example, although far from the most famous, of a literary and actuarial phenomenon that has grown increasingly familiar—an older author with a projected work of multiple volumes, published one book at a time, that seems increasingly unlikely to ever see completion. On the fiction side, the most noteworthy case has to be that of George R.R. Martin, who has been fielding anxious inquiries from fans for most of the last decade. (In an article that appeared seven long years ago in The New Yorker, Laura Miller quotes Martin, who was only sixty-three at the time: “I’m still getting e-mail from assholes who call me lazy for not finishing the book sooner. They say, ‘You better not pull a Jordan.’”) Robert A. Caro is still laboring over what he hopes will be the final volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, and mortality has become an issue not just for him, but for his longtime editor, as we read in Charles McGrath’s classic profile in the Times:

Robert Gottlieb, who signed up Caro to do The Years of Lyndon Johnson when he was editor in chief of Knopf, has continued to edit all of Caro’s books, even after officially leaving the company. Not long ago he said he told Caro: “Let’s look at this situation actuarially. I’m now eighty, and you are seventy-five. The actuarial odds are that if you take however many more years you’re going to take, I’m not going to be here.”

That was six years ago, and both men are still working hard. But sometimes a writer has no choice but to face the inevitable. When asked about the concluding fifth volume of his life of Picasso, with the fourth one still on the way, the biographer John Richardson said candidly: “Listen, I’m ninety-one—I don’t think I have time for that.”

I don’t have the numbers to back this up, but such cases—or at least the public attention that they inspire—seem to be growing more common these days, on account of some combination of lengthening lifespans, increased media coverage of writers at work, and a greater willingness from publishers to agree to multiple volumes in the first place. The subjects of such extended commitments tend to be monumental in themselves, in order to justify the total investment of the writer’s own lifetime, and expanding ambitions are often to blame for blown deadlines. Martin, Caro, and Knuth all increased the prospective number of volumes after their projects were already underway, or as Roberts puts it: “When Dr. Knuth started out, he intended to write a single work. Soon after, computer science underwent its Big Bang, so he reimagined and recast the project in seven volumes.” And this “recasting” seems particularly common in the world of biographies, as the author discovers more material that he can’t bear to cut. The first few volumes may have been produced with relative ease, but as the years pass and anticipation rises, the length of time it takes to write the next installment grows, until it becomes theoretically infinite. Such a radical change of plans, which can involve extending the writing process for decades, or even beyond the author’s natural lifespan, requires an indulgent publisher, university, or other benefactor. (John Richardson’s book has been underwritten by nothing less than the John Richardson Fund for Picasso Research, which reminds me of what Homer Simpson said after being informed that he suffered from Homer Simpson syndrome: “Oh, why me?”) And it may not be an accident that many of the examples that first come to mind are white men, who have the cultural position and privilege to take their time.

It isn’t hard to understand a writer’s reluctance to let go of a subject, the pressures on a book being written in plain sight, or the tempting prospect of working on the same project forever. And the image of such authors confronting their mortality in the face of an unfinished book is often deeply moving. One of the most touching examples is that of Joseph Needham, whose Science and Civilization in China may have undergone the most dramatic expansion of them all, from an intended single volume to twenty-seven and counting. As Kenneth Girdwood Robinson writes in a concluding posthumous volume:

The Duke of Edinburgh, Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, visited The Needham Research Institute, and interested himself in the progress of the project. “And how long will it take to finish it?” he enquired. On being given a rather conservative answer, “At least ten years,” he exclaimed, “Good God, man, Joseph will be dead before you’ve finished,” a very true appreciation of the situation…In his closing years, though his mind remained lucid and his memory astonishing, Needham had great difficulty even in moving from one chair to another, and even more difficulty in speaking and in making himself understood, due to the effect of the medicines he took to control Parkinsonism. But a secretary, working closely with him day by day, could often understand what he had said, and could read what he had written, when others were baffled.

Needham’s decline eventually became impossible to ignore by those who knew him best, as his biographer Simon Winchester writes in The Man Who Loved China: “It was suggested that, for the first time in memory, he take the day off. It was a Friday, after all: he could make it a long weekend. He could charge his batteries for the week ahead. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘I’ll stay at home.’” He died later that day, with his book still unfinished. But it had been a good life.

Quote of the Day

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I had often warned my students not to identify with their work. I told them, “If you want to achieve something, if you want to write a book, paint a picture, be sure that the center of your existence is somewhere else and that it’s solidly grounded; only then will you be able to keep your cool and laugh at the attacks that are bound to come.” I myself had followed this advice in the past, but now I was alone, sick with some unknown affliction; my private life was in a mess, and I was without a defense.

Paul Feyerabend, Killing Time

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December 18, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The greatest game never played

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When I was writing Astounding, I was constantly mindful of the need to cut down the manuscript as much as possible. I had contracted to write a book of a certain length, and it came in much longer than expected—the first draft was twice the length of what eventually saw print, which in itself was significantly larger than what my publisher had anticipated. As a result, I had to remove a lot of material that I would have loved to include. This was especially hard for the period after John W. Campbell’s death. Campbell was clearly my central figure, so I couldn’t continue the book for long after he was gone, but I also didn’t want to leave my other primary subjects hanging. This meant that I had to compress the final acts of three incredibly eventful lives into a relatively short epilogue, which led to certain compromises. In his memoirs, Isaac Asimov devotes hundreds of thousands of words to the last two decades of his life, and in my book, I cover them in about six pages. Much the same holds true for Robert A. Heinlein, whose authorized biographer spends a substantial chunk of the second of two huge volumes on the period that I recount in a brief summary. But perhaps the most regrettable case of all was that of L. Ron Hubbard. In the popular imagination, Hubbard is associated with the era of the Sea Org, in which he served as the commodore of a private navy that wandered the oceans for years. This is perhaps the most colorful, outwardly fascinating phase in Hubbard’s life, and it serves as the centerpiece of most treatments of his career. I had just a couple of pages to hit the hight points, and while this was the right choice for the book as a whole, I also regret the loss of a lot of interesting stories that I didn’t have room to discuss.

For instance, there’s the curious story of the touch football game that never happened between the Church of Scientology and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. (The details can be found in Hubbard’s FBI file, which is available in its entirety online.) On October 23, 1978, Jerry Velona, the minister of public affairs for the Church of Scientology of Boston, wrote under the church’s official letterhead to Richard Bates, the special agent in charge of the local branch of the FBI. The letter began: “The Church of Scientology of Boston puts together a touch football game each year with which to play various other teams and groups. We play the games in the Boston area and charge an admission fee which is then donated to charity.” Velona continued:

This year instead of playing local fraternities and colleges as we usually do, we decided it would be more fun to play teams comprised of groups with which we have dealings in other areas. This will afford us an opportunity to get to know you personally and will also be used as a gimmick to attract more attendance which will play off in turn toward the charity. The charity we have chosen this year is the Jimmy Fund.

The Jimmy Fund, which was founded in 1948, raises money for cancer care and research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and it was a surprising charity for the church to support, given Hubbard’s past statements on the subject. (“Cancer is not caused…It always requires a second-dynamic or sexual upset, such as the loose of children or some other mechanism to bring about a condition known as cancer. This is cancer at the outset.”) But that isn’t really the point.

Velona’s coy reference to groups “with which we have dealings in other areas” wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the letter’s recipients, as we’ll see shortly. But he was just coming to the point:

We hereby challenge you to a game to be played sometime over the next 4-6 weeks. We are currently putting together a schedule so we have some open time to play with. Our team is comprised solely of members of the Church but I must warn you that we are very good and have never lost. Our softball team played the New England Patriots a couple of years ago and beat them soundly.

It probably isn’t worth unpacking any of this too closely, but the last two sentences seem particularly typical of the language of Scientology, with its claim that the church has “never lost” bolstered by the irrelevant detail that it once beat a professional football team at softball, followed immediately by a line that contradicts the previous statement: “Please let me know as soon as you can if you’re game. We don’t practice much so don’t think you have to put together a professional team.” Velona seems to anticipate some of his correspondent’s potential objections, and he writes reassuringly: “There is no ulterior motive behind this. It is simply a way to get out from behind our desks and have some fun and raise some money for a worthy cause at the same time.” (The phrase “there is no ulterior motive behind this” would sound ominous coming from anyone, and especially when you consider the source.) And Velona closed cordially: “I look forward to hearing from you soon. If you accept our challenge I will contact you to make specific arrangements.”

The FBI’s only response was to forward the letter to Washington, D.C. with a note attached: “Boston will not acknowledge the enclosed letter in that due to investigative commitments, personnel of the Boston Division are not available for such frivolity.” That seems reasonable enough. And while this whole incident might seem like a sideshow, I think it gets at something meaningful about the culture of the church in the late seventies. Hubbard doesn’t seem to have been directly involved with this episode, but it reflects an important aspect of the mindset that he instilled in his followers, even in his absence. This was the decade of the Snow White Program, in which the church—acting on Hubbard’s orders—planted spies throughout the federal government, including the Internal Revenue Service. On July 8, 1977, FBI agents raided branches in three cities to seize documents pertaining to the case, as well as to the church’s plans to discredit or frame its critics. Two months before Velona’s invitation, eleven members of the church, including Hubbard’s wife Mary Sue, were indicted on conspiracy charges. And the letter is just one example of how the prankish side of Hubbard’s personality, as expressed through the institutions that he created, could insidiously shade into illegality and abuse, as well as the other way around. (Another good illustration is the practice of overboarding, in which offenders in the Sea Org were tossed without warning into the sea. From a distance, it might have seemed like fun and games. But some of them nearly drowned.) As we’ve all learned in the last few years, the line between mere trolling and outright criminality can be faint indeed, especially when such impulses are paradoxically driven by a stark sense of loyalty to an authoritarian leader. On some level, the invitation to the FBI may have been meant in earnest, but on another, it was the act of an unrepentant bunch of trolls. And like their successors in other areas of life, they had studied at the feet of the master.

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December 17, 2018 at 9:24 am

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Quote of the Day

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Educations are divided into splendid educations, thorough classical educations, and average educations. All very old men have splendid educations; all men who apparently know nothing else have thorough classical educations; nobody has an average education.

Stephen Leacock, Literary Lapses

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December 17, 2018 at 7:30 am

The man on the table

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The myth of the new scientific or technological man presents to us the image of the man in the white coat; the man who embodies the gnosis achieved by the new methods of inquiry. This man thus in modest actuality but also—and here is the first element of the mythical—in infinite potentiality knows the secrets of things, what their effective structures are, and therefore how they work…But if the man in the white coat is free to control, and as intentionally motivated by creative and moral purposes, as the mythical image proclaims—and otherwise there is little hope in the image—then the man on the table, the object of the inquiry of the same scientist, must also be in part free. Thus man as a free being, the object of inquiry, must in part be incomprehensible in terms of objective and universal laws, and even creative outside the bounds of those laws, and consequently potentially destructive of them as well. Any freedom in the object under control reduces inevitably the freedom of the controller to work his will. As Tillich was wisely wont to remark, man can always look back at his controller—and, we lesser mortals might add, cheat on an objective test.

Langdon Gilkey, Religion and the Scientific Future

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December 16, 2018 at 7:30 am

The asymmetry of history

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Wherever God or Christ are represented as symbols for everlasting truth or justice they are given in the symmetric frontal view, not in profile. Probably for similar reasons public buildings and houses of worship, whether they are Greek temples or Christian basilicas and cathedrals, are bilaterally symmetric. It is, however, true that not infrequently the two towers of Gothic cathedrals are different, as for instance in Chartres. But in practically every case this seems to be due to the history of the cathedral, namely to the fact that the towers were built in different periods. It is understandable that a later time was no longer satisfied with the design of an earlier period; hence one may speak here of historic asymmetry.

Hermann Weyl, Symmetry

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December 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Go set a playwright

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If you follow theatrical gossip as avidly as I do, you’re probably aware of the unexpected drama that briefly surrounded the new Broadway adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, which was written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin. In March, Lee’s estate sued producer Scott Rudin, claiming that the production was in breach of contract for straying drastically from the book. According to the original agreement, the new version wasn’t supposed to “depart in any manner from the spirit of the novel nor alter its characters,” which Sorkin’s interpretation unquestionably did. (Rudin says just as much on the record: “I can’t and won’t present a play that feels like it was written in the year the book was written in terms of its racial politics. It wouldn’t be of interest. The world has changed since then.”) But the question isn’t quite as straightforward as it seems. As a lawyer consulted by the New York Times explains:

Does “spirit” have a definite and precise meaning, or could there be a difference of opinion as to what is “the spirit” of the novel? I do not think that a dictionary definition of “spirit” will resolve that question. Similarly, the contract states that the characters should not be altered. In its pre-action letter, Harper Lee’s estate repeatedly states that the characters “would never have” and “would not have” done numerous things; unless as a matter of historical fact the characters would not have done something…who is to say what a creature of fiction “would never have” or “would not have” done?

Now that the suit has been settled and the play is finally on Broadway, this might all seem beside the point, but there’s one aspect of the story that I think deserves further exploration. Earlier this week, Sorkin spoke to Greg Evans of Deadline about his writing process, noting that he took the initial call from Rudin for good reasons: “The last three times Scott called me and said ‘I have something very exciting to talk to you about,’ I ended up writing Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs, so I was paying attention.” His first pass was a faithful version of the original story, which took him about six months to write: “I had just taken the greatest hits of the book, the most important themes, the most necessary themes. I stood them up and dramatized them. I turned them into dialogue.” When he was finished, he had a fateful meeting with Rudin:

He had two notes. The first was, “We’ve got to get to the trial sooner.” That’s a structural note. The second was the note that changed everything. He said, “Atticus can’t be Atticus for the whole play. He’s got to become Atticus,” and of course, he was right. A protagonist has to change. A protagonist has to be put through something and change as a result, and a protagonist has to have a flaw. And I wondered how Harper Lee had gotten away with having Atticus be Atticus for the whole book, and it’s because Atticus isn’t the protagonist in the book. Scout is. But in the play, Atticus was going to be the protagonist, and I threw out that first draft. I started all over again, but this time the goal wasn’t to be as much like the book as possible. The goal wasn’t to swaddle the book in bubble wrap and then gently transfer it to a stage. I was going to write a new play.

This is fascinating stuff, but it’s worth emphasizing that while Rudin’s first piece of feedback was “a structural note,” the second one was as well. The notions that “a protagonist has to change” and “a protagonist has to have a flaw” are narrative conventions that have evolved over time, and for good reason. Like the idea of building the action around a clear sequence of objectives, they’re basically artificial constructs that have little to do with the accurate representation of life. Some people never change for years, and while we’re all flawed in one way or another, our faults aren’t always reflected in dramatic terms in the situations in which we find ourselves. These rules are useful primarily for structuring the audience’s experience, which comes down to the ability to process and remember information delivered over time. (As Kurt Vonnegut, who otherwise might not seem to have much in common with Harper Lee, once said to The Paris Review: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”) Yet they aren’t essential, either, as the written and filmed versions of To Kill a Mockingbird make clear. The original novel, in particular, has a rock-solid plot and supporting characters who can change and surprise us in ways that Atticus can’t. Unfortunately, it’s hard for plot alone to carry a play, which is largely a form about character, and Atticus is obviously the star part. Sorkin doesn’t shy away from using the backbone that Lee provides—the play does indeed get to the jury trial, which is still the most reliable dramatic convention ever devised, more quickly than the book does—but he also grasped the need to turn the main character into someone who could give shape to the audience’s experience of watching the play. It was this consideration, and not the politics, that turned out to be crucial.

There are two morals to this story. One is how someone like Sorkin, who can fall into traps of his own as a writer, benefits from feedback from even stronger personalities. The other is how a note on structure, which Sorkin takes seriously, forced him to engage more deeply with the play’s real material. As all writers know, it’s harder than it looks to sequence a story as a series of objectives or to depict a change in the protagonist, but simply by thinking about such fundamental units of narrative, a writer will come up with new insights, not just about the hero, but about everyone else. As Sorkin says of his lead character in an interview with Vulture:

He becomes Atticus Finch by the end of the play, and while he’s going along, he has a kind of running argument with Calpurnia, the housekeeper, which is a much bigger role in the play I just wrote. He is in denial about his neighbors and his friends and the world around him, that it is as racist as it is, that a Maycomb County jury could possibly put Tom Robinson in jail when it’s so obvious what happened here. He becomes an apologist for these people.

In other words, Sorkin’s new perspective on Atticus also required him to rethink the roles of Calpurnia and Tom Robinson, which may turn out to be the most beneficial change of all. (This didn’t sit well with the Harper Lee estate, which protested in its complaint that black characters who “knew their place” wouldn’t behave this way at the time.) As Sorkin says of their lack of agency in the original novel: “It’s noticeable, it’s wrong, and it’s also a wasted opportunity.” That’s exactly right—and I like the last reason the best. In theater, as in any other form of narrative, the technical considerations of storytelling are more important than doing the right thing. But to any experienced writer, it’s also clear that they’re usually one and the same.

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December 14, 2018 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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December 14, 2018 at 7:30 am

The tip of the spear

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Over the last couple of days, mostly by coincidence, I’ve been thinking about two sidelong portraits of great directors. One is Notes on the Making of Apocalypse Now, the diary by Eleanor Coppola that was later adapted into the unforgettable movie Hearts of Darkness. The other is Filmworker, a documentary about Leon Vitali, who served for decades as the assistant to Stanley Kubrick. By approaching their more famous subjects from an angle, they end up telling us more about Francis Ford Coppola and Kubrick than a more direct engagement ever could, just as we arguably learn more about Sylvia Plath from Janet Malcolm’s oblique The Silent Woman than by reading volumes of the poet’s books and letters. Major artists, especially movie directors, can be overwhelming to contemplate, and they’re hard to view objectively, as Eleanor Coppola notes in her journal:

[Francis] started talking about how lonely he was. How essentially there are only two positions for most everybody to take with him. One is to kiss his ass, tell him he is great, and be paralyzed with admiration. The other is to resist him. That is, show him that no matter how rich and successful and talented he is, they are not impressed. Hardly anyone can just accept him, say, “That’s great, and so what?”

That’s equally true of biographers and critics, which is why it can be so valuable to listen to the memories of family members and associates who were close enough to see their subjects from all sides, if never quite to take them for granted.

Between Eleanor Coppola and Vitali, it’s hard to say who had the more difficult time of it. In Notes, Coppola hints at what it was like to be married to a director whose fame in the seventies exceeded that of any of his contemporaries: “When I am cashing a check or using a credit card, people often ask me if I am related to Francis Ford Coppola. Sometimes I say I am married to him. People change before my eyes. They start smiling nervously and forget to give me my package or change. I think I look fairly normal. I wear sweaters and skirts and boots. Maybe they are expecting a Playboy bunny.” But that level of recognition can also cause problems of its own. Coppola has a revealing passage about the aftermath of her husband’s birthday:

His gifts were unloaded onto the table in the hall. This morning I was straightening up. I couldn’t help reading some of the cards. “Thanks for letting me participate in your greatness. Love…” Some days I am tried and just want out. It seems hopeless. There will always be a fresh crop of adoring young protégées waiting in the wings. This current situation stated during Godfather II. I was on location with Francis, away from San Francisco, my friends and the things that stimulated and interested me at the time. I was so angry with myself, angry that I couldn’t just get totally happy focusing on Francis and the making of his film. Someone else did.

That last line is left hanging, but it speaks volumes about the difficulty of maintaining a marriage in the face of so much outside adoration.

In Kubrick’s case, much of this tension seems to have been unloaded onto Vitali, who was the director’s right arm for the last quarter century of his life. Vitali was a promising young actor who made a strong impression as Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, but he became fascinated by Kubrick, whom he approached with the offer to work for him in any capacity whatsoever. Kubrick took him up on it, and Vitali found himself testing five thousand children for the role of Danny in The Shining. For the next twenty years, they were inseparable, as Vitali saw after everything from casting and coaching actors to checking the foreign dubs and transfers for every film in the director’s back catalog. He was on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, and he was the perpetual object both of Kubrick’s unexpected tenderness and his sudden wrath. (Vitali also appeared on camera one last time, his face unseen, as the figure in the red cloak who asks Tom Cruise for the password for the house in Eyes Wide Shut.) Serving as a director’s personal assistant can be a hellish job in any case, and it was apparently even worse in the service of such a notorious perfectionist. Vitali lasted in that role for longer than seems humanly possible, and Kubrick had no compunction about using him for such unenviable tasks as informing the actor Tim Colceri, who had been cast eight months earlier as Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, that he had lost the role to R. Lee Ermey. And the work continued even after Kubrick’s death. Before the release of Eyes Wide Shut, Vitali personally checked one out of every five prints, or over five hundred in all, by screening them nonstop for thirty-six hours. Occasionally, he had to ask someone else to watch the screen for a few minutes so he could leave the room to throw up. Speaking of this period in the documentary, Vitali, who is otherwise so candid, says after a moment: “I don’t think I want to talk about it.”

But you also see why he stayed with Kubrick so long. As another interview subject in Filmworker notes, Vitali wasn’t just a spear carrier, but “the tip of the spear” in one of the most complex operations in the history of filmmaking, and that position can be very addictive. (You could compare it, perhaps, to the role of the White House chief of staff, an awful job that usually has people lining up for it, at least under most presidents.) Kubrick and Coppola were very different in their directorial styles, as well as in their personal lives, but few other filmmakers have ever managed the hat trick of being simultaneously brilliant, independent, and the beneficiary of massive studio resources. Coppola only managed to stay in that position for a few years—he was personally on the line for millions of dollars if Apocalypse Now was a failure, and after he miraculously pulled it off, he threw it all away on One From the Heart. Kubrick hung in there for decades, and he depended enormously on the presence of Vitali, who served as his intermediary to Warner Bros. According to the documentary, Kubrick would often sign his assistant’s name to scathing letters to the studio, and after his death, Vitali bore much of the repressed rage from people who had felt slighted or mistreated by the director during his lifetime. Eleanor Coppola’s position was obviously very different, and she shared in its material rewards in ways that Vitali, who was left in borderline poverty, never did. But if they ever meet, they might have a lot to say to each other. Coppola closes her book with an account of reading the journals of American pioneers during the westward expansion, of which she writes:

I particularly identified with one account in which a family in their journey reached the landmark Independence Rock. The husband described scaling the sides and the remarkable view from the top. The woman wrote about trying to find a patch of shade at the base where she could nurse the baby and cook lunch for the family.

Quote of the Day

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It is all too easy to make some plausible simplifying assumptions, do some elaborate mathematics that appear to give a rough fit with at least some experimental data, and think one has achieved something. The chance of such an approach doing anything useful, apart from soothing the theorist’s ego, is rather small.

Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit

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December 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

Two ways of looking at Nancy

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For the last month or so, I’ve been browsing with mingled amusement and wonder through the book How to Read Nancy by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden. It’s a witty manual on the art of the comic strip that takes the form of an obsessive commentary, extending for nearly a hundred pages, on a single installment of Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, pictured above, which ran on August 8, 1959. In the abstract, this sounds like the sort of activity that might be embraced by a background character in a Thomas Pynchon novel, but in Karasik and Newgarden’s hands, it makes a weird kind of sense. As the strip is broken down into its raw components—the horizon line, the word balloons, the panel gutters—it rises up again as something strangely monumental, and the insights that emerge can be surprisingly profound. For instance, here are the authors on Nancy’s garden hose:

Here the hose…is the prescribed problem-solving tool, a deus ex machina direct from the Sears lawn and garden center. Its most obvious function is routing pressurized water from the leaky spigot to Nancy’s itchy trigger finger. But that route has been detoured. Winding and curved like a black cobra in repose, out of the panel and then back in, the hose also diverts and achingly prolongs the proceedings…In the overall composition of this strip, the hose diagrams and embodies this quickening narrative tension. Functioning somewhat like a dining room table extension leaf, it sustains the tension created by the first two attacks on the left—as well as ensuring the inevitable release on the furthest right.

Your fondness for this book will probably depend on your patience for this sort of thing, but I mostly love it, and its annotations often lead in unexpected directions. The reference to Sears, for example, is no accident. According to Karasik and Newgarden, Bushmiller “routinely claimed the Sears, Roebuck catalog as a major inspiration,” and his use of common objects and props as a source for gags placed him in the same creative line as “Buster Keaton, Otto Mesmer, Jacques Tati, and other master craftsmen of the twentieth century’s visual humor.” They expand on this a few pages later:

Ernie Bushmiller discussed his process: “It is difficult to explain how an idea is born…I start with a blank piece of drawing paper and I just sweat and stew until I think of a subject that seems likely to produce a ludicrous situation.” Visual stimulation via Life magazine ads, the Sears, Roebuck catalog, and other printed ephemera often jump-started the procedure for him. “When I find an item that seems likely, I start to kick it around in my mind to see if I can work out a funny situation. If nothing jells after a reasonable time I discard it and try another item. Sooner or later my mind warms up and I get the nucleus of an idea…I keep a lot of notes on gags that haven’t quite materialized; I look these over from time to time and sometimes the solution comes to me and I am able to salvage some of these undeveloped ideas.”

Karasik and Newgarden note that the Sears, Roebuck fall catalog for the year in which the strip was drawn included illustrated ads for hoses, pistol grip nozzles, and gun and holster toys “for backyard lawmen.” And while it’s impossible to know for certain, they speculate that these pictures “passed right under Ernie’s nose and smelled ripe for a fresh twist on some reliable themes.”

It’s also impossible to close this book without a renewed appreciation for Nancy itself, which at its best was remarkably hilarious, weird, and poetic. Like Peanuts—or even Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus—it’s one of those strips that can seem inexplicable to readers who first encounter it decades after its golden years, and I confess that until recently, I’d never given it much thought. As it happens, however, Nancy has been back in the news for other reasons. After Bushmiller’s death, the strip fell into the hands of various caretakers, and in April, the role was assumed by a cartoonist who works under the pseudonym Olivia Jaimes. Overnight, its tone changed dramatically, as Nancy and Sluggo were ushered into the world of cell phones and social media, and the results are often startlingly funny. Much of the new incarnation’s appeal comes from how unceremoniously it seemed to depart from the conventions that the strip had established, but Jaimes is closer to Bushmiller than it might appear. As the normally reclusive artist explains in a recent interview with Vulture, she keeps her own notebook full of gags:

It’s just the Notes app on my phone. Everybody I’ve talked to, every cartoonist, or like, the vast majority of us, have some notes program with ideas, and maybe a third of them are comprehensible and the rest you’re like, What was I thinking when I wrote this down? Autocorrect is terrible for this. Autocorrect has probably killed hundreds of jokes for people, because they have a great idea and they write it down, but they spell it wrong, so it changes to something else, and then they’re like, What was this idea?

And just like Bushmiller, Jaimes is inspired by physical objects and the associations that they evoke. It’s one thing to put a cell phone in Nancy’s hand, but it’s quite another to consider how its presence would change her life, or to ask what the absence of other props might mean:

I realized that all of the nouns that Nancy used to have are being supplanted by a phone. Things that she would have lying around the house to make up a joke are gone. She uses megaphones for a ton of things in Bushmiller’s strips, and I don’t have megaphones lying around my house. So how, then, can Nancy solve problems, given that technology is advancing to the point where problems are being solved in really nonphysical ways? That’s why I’m making her learn robotics. It opens up a wider range of visual gags to make down the line.

The italics are mine. Nancy’s megaphone is gone, replaced by a new category of props that lead to gags and stories that are as organic, in their way, as Sluggo’s water pistol. (As Jaimes observes: “I’m basically cutting out a third of my life that people could relate to if I exclude phones.”) Not surprisingly, the results have been controversial among longtime Nancy fans, whom Jaimes seems happy to annoy—but the strip as it currently exists is a worthy successor to the version that Karasik and Newgarden thought was worth anatomizing for tens of thousands of words. As they write in the conclusion of their analysis of the garden hose: “Tension is a prerequisite of laughter.” And all that it took to restore this tension to Nancy was the addition of a few crucial objects.

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December 12, 2018 at 8:37 am

Quote of the Day

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Anthropology, abstractly conceived as the study of man, is actually the study of men in crisis by men in crisis. Anthropologists and their objects, the studied, despite opposing positions in the “scientific” equation have this much in common: if not equally, still they are each objects of contemporary imperial civilization. The anthropologist who treats the indigene as an object may define himself as relatively free, but that is an illusion…For the anthropologist is himself a victim, and his power of decision is a fiction.

Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive

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December 12, 2018 at 7:30 am

The Great Man and the WASP

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Last week, the New York Times opinion columnist Ross Douthat published a piece called “Why We Miss the WASPs.” Newspaper writers don’t get to choose their own headlines, and it’s possible that if the essay had run under a different title, it might not have attracted the same degree of attention, which was far from flattering. Douthat’s argument—which was inspired by the death of George H.W. Bush and his obvious contrast with the current occupant of the White House—can be summarized concisely:

Bush nostalgia [is] a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more—a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today. Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs—because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

Douthat ostentatiously concedes one point to his critics in advance: “The old ruling class was bigoted and exclusive and often cruel, it had failures aplenty, and as a Catholic I hold no brief for its theology.” But he immediately adds that “building a more democratic and inclusive ruling class is harder than it looks, and even perhaps a contradiction in terms,” and he suggests that one solution would be a renewed embrace of the idea that “a ruling class should acknowledge itself for what it really is, and act accordingly.”

Not surprisingly, Douthat’s assumptions about the desirable qualities of “a ruling class” were widely derided. He responded with a followup piece in which he lamented the “misreadings” of those who saw his column as “a paean to white privilege, even a brief for white supremacy,” while never acknowledging any flaws in his argument’s presentation. But what really sticks with me is the language of the first article, which is loaded with rhetorical devices that both skate lightly over its problems and make it difficult to deal honestly with the issues that it raises. One strategy, which may well have been unconscious, is a familiar kind of distancing. As Michael Harriot writes in The Root:

I must applaud opinion writer Ross Douthat for managing to put himself at an arms-length distance from the opinions he espoused. Douthat employed the oft-used Fox News, Trumpian “people are saying…” trick, essentially explaining that some white people think like this. Not him particularly—but some people.

It’s a form of evasiveness that resembles the mysterious “you” of other sorts of criticism, and it enables certain opinions to make it safely into print. Go back and rewrite the entire article in the first person, and it becomes all but unreadable. For instance, it’s hard to imagine Douthat writing a sentence like this: “I miss Bush because I miss the WASPs—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.”

But even as Douthat slips free from the implications of his argument on one end, he’s ensnared at the other by his own language. We can start with the term “ruling class” itself, which appears in the article no fewer than five times, along with a sixth instance in a quotation from the critic Helen Andrews. The word “establishment” appears seventeen times. If asked, Douthat might explain that he’s using both of these terms in a neutral sense, simply to signify the people who end up in political office or in other positions of power. But like the “great man” narrative of history or the “competent man” of science fiction, these words lock us into a certain set of assumptions, by evoking an established class that rules rather than represents, and they beg the rather important question of whether we need a ruling class at all. Even more insidiously, Douthat’s entire argument rests on the existence of the pesky but convenient word “WASP” itself. When the term appeared half a century ago, it was descriptive and slightly pejorative. (According to the political scientist Andrew Harris, who first used it in print, it originated in the “the cocktail party jargon of the sociologists,” and the initial letter initially stood for “wealthy.” As it stands, the term is slightly redundant, although it still describes exactly the same group of people, and foregrounding their whiteness isn’t necessarily a bad idea.) Ultimately, however, it turned into a tag that allows us to avoid spelling out everything that it includes, which makes it easier to let such attitudes slip by unexamined. Let’s rework that earlier sentence one more time: “I miss Bush because I miss the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants—because I feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.” And this version, at least, is much harder to “misread.”

At this point, I should probably confess that I take a personal interest in everything that Douthat writes. Not only are we both Ivy Leaguers, but we’re members of the same college class, although I don’t think we ever crossed paths. In most other respects, we don’t have a lot in common, but I can relate firsthand to the kind of educational experience—which John Stuart Mill describes in today’s quotation—that leads public intellectuals to become more limited in their views than they might realize. Inspired by a love of the great books and my summer at St. John’s College, I spent most of my undergraduate years reading an established canon of writers, in part because I was drawn to an idea of elitism in its most positive sense. What I didn’t see for a long time was that I was living in an echo chamber. It takes certain forms of privilege and status for granted, and it makes it hard to talk about these matters in the real world without a conscious effort of will. (In his original article, Douthat’s sense of the possible objections to his thesis is remarkably blinkered in itself. After acknowledging the old ruling class’s bigotry, exclusivity, and cruelty, he adds: “And don’t get me started on its Masonry.” That was fairly low down my list of concerns, but now I’m frankly curious.) I understand where Douthat is coming from, because I came from it, too. But that isn’t an excuse for looking at the WASPs, or a dynasty that made a fortune in the oil business, and feeling “nostalgic for their competence,” which falls apart the second we start to examine it. If they did rule us once, then they bear responsibility for the destruction of our planet and the perpetuation of attitudes that put democracy itself at risk. If they’ve managed to avoid much of the blame, it’s only because it took decades for us to see the full consequences of their actions, which have emerged more clearly in the generation that they raised in their image. It might well be true, as Douthat wrote, that they trained their children “for service, not just success.” But they also failed miserably.

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December 11, 2018 at 9:13 am

Quote of the Day

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My education, I thought, had failed to create [feelings of human sympathy] in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis, while the whole course of my intellectual cultivation had made precocious and premature analysis the inveterate habit of my mind. I was thus, as I said to myself, left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else.

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

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December 11, 2018 at 7:30 am

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The dark side of the limerick

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“As almost nothing that has been written about the limerick can be taken seriously—which is perhaps only fitting—a few words may not be out of place here,” the scholar Gershon Legman writes in his introduction to the definitive work on the subject. Legman was one of the first critics to see erotic and obscene folk forms, including the dirty joke, as a serious object of study, and The Limerick puts his singular intelligence—which is worthy of a good biography—on full display:

The limerick is, and was originally, an indecent verse form. The “clean” sort of limerick is an obvious palliation, its content insipid, its rhyming artificially ingenious, its whole pervaded with a frustrated nonsense that vents itself typically in explosive and aggressive violence. There are, certainly, aggressive bawdy limericks too, but they are not in the majority. Except as the maidenly delight and silly delectation of a few elderly gentlemen, such as the late Langford Reed, and several still living who might as well remain nameless, the clean limerick has never been of the slightest real interest to anyone, since the end of its brief fad in the 1860s.

Legman describes the work of Edward Lear, the supposed master of the form, as “very tepidly humorous,” which seems about right, and he apologizes in advance for the vast collection of dirty limericks that he has prepared for the reader’s edification: “The prejudices, cruelty, and humorless quality of many of the limericks included are deeply regretted.”

But a metrical form typified by prejudice, cruelty, and humorlessness may end up being perfectly suited for the modern age. Legman claims that “viable folk poetry and folk poetic forms,” aren’t easy to duplicate by design, but it isn’t an accident that two of the major American novels of the twentieth century indulge in limericks at length. One is Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which includes a remarkable sequence of limericks in which young men have sexual relations with the various parts of a rocket, such as the vane servomotor. The other is William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, which prints numerous limericks that all begin with the opening line “I once went to bed with a nun.” In his hands, the limerick becomes the ideal vehicle for his despairing notion of history, as a character in the novel explains:

The limerick is the unrefiner’s fire. It is as false and lifeless, as anonymous, as a rubber snake, a Dixie cup…No one ever found a thought in one. No one ever found a helpful hint concerning life, a consoling sense. The feelings it harbors are the cold, the bitter, dry ones: scorn, contempt, disdain, disgust. Yes. Yet for that reason. nothing is more civilized than this simple form. In that—in cultural sophistication—it is the equal of the heroic couplet…That’s the lesson of the limerick. You never know when a salacious meaning will break out of a trouser. It is all surface—a truly modern shape, a model’s body. There’s no inside however long or far you travel on it, no within, no deep.

Both authors seem to have been drawn to the form for this very reason. And while Gass’s notion of writing “a limrickal history of the human race” may have seemed like a joke twenty years ago, the form seems entirely appropriate to the era in which we’re all living now.

Another prolific author of limericks was Isaac Asimov, who clearly didn’t view the form as problematic. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, with typical precision, he writes that his first attempt took place on July 13, 1953. A friend challenged him to compose a limerick with the opening line “A priest with a prick of obsidian,” and after some thought, Asimov recited the following:

A priest with a prick of obsidian
Was a foe to the hosts of all Midian,
Instead of immersion
Within a young virgin
’Twas used as a bookmark in Gideon.

“I explained that the ‘hosts of Midian’ was a biblical synonym for evil and that ‘Gideon’ was a reference to a Gideon Bible, but no one thought much of it,” Asimov writes. “However, when I challenged anyone present to do better, no one could.” Asimov was encouraged by the experience, however, and he soon got into the habit of constructing limericks in his head “whenever I was trapped in company and bored.” Not surprisingly, it occurred to him that it would be a shame to let them go to waste, and he convinced the publishing house Walker & Company to let him put together a collection. Asimov continued to write limericks with “amazing speed,” and Lecherous Limericks appeared in 1975. It was followed by six more installments, including two collaborations with none other than the poet and translator John Ciardi.

And the uncomfortable fact about Asimov’s limericks is that most of them frankly aren’t very good, funny, or technically impressive. This isn’t a knock on Asimov himself, but really a reflection of the way in which the limerick resists being produced in such a casual fashion, despite what thousands of practitioners think to the contrary. (“Amateurs amble over everything like cows,” Gass writes in The Tunnel. “The A which follows so many limericks stands for Amateur, not for Anonymous.”) Asimov was drawn to the form for the same reason that so many others are—it’s apparently easy, superficially forgiving of laziness, and can be composed and retained without difficulty in one’s head. And it’s no surprise that he embraced it. Asimov didn’t become the most prolific author in American history by throwing anything away, and just as he sent the very first story that he ever wrote as a teenager to John W. Campbell, who rejected it, he didn’t have any compunction about sending his first batch of limericks to his publisher, who accepted the result. “One good limerick out of every ten written is a better average than most poets hit,” Legman accurately writes, and Asimov never would have dreamed of discarding even half of his attempts. He also wasn’t likely to appreciate the underlying darkness and nihilism, not to mention the misogyny, of the form in which women “generally figure both as villain and victim,” as Legman notes, while also calling it “the only kind of newly composed poetry in English, or song, which has the slightest chance whatever of survival.” Gass, and presumably Pynchon, understood this all too well, and the author of The Tunnel deserves the last word: “Language has to contain…emotions. It’s not enough just to arouse them. In a perverse way that’s why I use a lot of limericks, because the limerick is a flatterer, the limerick destroys emotion, perhaps it produces giggles, but it is a downer. It’s an interesting form for that reason.” And it might end up being the defining poetry of our time.

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December 10, 2018 at 8:26 am

Quote of the Day

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The way you people make movies is you start with character and build outward. I start with construction and then fill it in.

Brian De Palma, in the documentary De Palma

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December 10, 2018 at 7:30 am

The scientist in private

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The feeling of understanding is [as] private as the feeling of pain. The act of understanding is at the heart of all scientific activity; without it any ostensibly scientific activity is as sterile as that of a high school student substituting numbers into a formula. For this reason, science, when I push the analysis back as far as I can, must be private…The public level is tremendously important, and most of our individual and social living is done on this level. Our language is so constructed that we are almost forced to talk on this level…But always beyond the public level, waiting for a deeper analysis, is the private level. It is on the private level that I realize my essential isolation; here is my awful freedom that I can hardly face.

Percy Williams Bridgman, Reflections of a Physicist

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December 9, 2018 at 7:30 am

The threads of the mind

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Analogies, metaphors, and emblems are the threads by which the mind holds on to the world even when, absentmindedly, it has lost direct contact with it, and they guarantee the unity of human experience. Moreover, in the thinking process itself they serve as models to give us our bearings lest we stagger blindly among experiences that our bodily senses with their relative certainty of knowledge cannot guide us through. The simple fact that our mind is able to find such analogies, that the world of appearances reminds us of things non-apparent, may be seen as a kind of “proof” that mind and body, thinking and sense experience, the invisible and the visible, belong together, are “made” for each other, as it were…There is, finally, the fact of the irreversibility of the relationship expressed in metaphor; it indicates in its own manner the absolute primacy of the world of appearances and thus provides additional evidence of the extraordinary quality of thinking, of its being always out of order.

Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

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December 8, 2018 at 6:36 am

The long night

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Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

Quote of the Day

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Here is an example of what seems to be general practice in astronomy: when two alternatives are available, choose the more trivial. It was so with the discovery of pulsars—white dwarfs, everybody said they were, until confrontations with fact showed otherwise. And it is so today throughout cosmology. Astronomers seem to live in terror that someday they will discover something important.

Fred Hoyle, Home is Where the Wind Blows

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December 7, 2018 at 7:30 am

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