Monday, March 19, 2018

The business of writing

 The St. Patrick's Day Parade in full effect on Fifth Avenue and 76th Street. Saturday, 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, March 19, 2018. Vernal Equinox, first day of Spring arrives tomorrow morning. The forsythia in the park by the river are at the ready. Although this past weekend was on the cold side, even in the 20s at night. Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York. JH was at the ready with his camera as you can see. He also reported that it seemed like a quieter event this year.

I was out and about at that time and can report that I saw no evidence of the parade or people. But of course, I traveled over to the West Side and back via the 96th Street transverse. There was more traffic than usual for Saturday morning but it was moving right along.
Looking north along Fifth Avenue during the parade.
On the town. This past Thursday night, there were two major social events, one large The Young Fellows Ball at the Frick – black tie and a parade of fashion beautifully adorning the great rooms of the Frick – and a smaller dinner for 125 at Doubles, the private club in the Sherry Netherland, to celebrate the 8th Anniversary of The Writing Center at Hunter College.

I was at the latter. This was a very cozy, even with a hundred and twenty-five at the tables in the ballroom. There was a cocktail hour called for 6:30. I got there a little after 7 and it was still gathering. The evening is hosted by Lewis Frumkes, who’s head of the Writing Center. Under his direction, Lewis has built it into an important department at Hunter. He is one of those guys who “knows everyone” especially in the world of book publishing.

Among the 125 at this dinner were many writers as well as others in the business of creating books. Jennifer Raab, Hunter’s peripatetic President announced to the guests that the Writing Center is about to be remained the Lewis B. Frumkes Writing Center at Hunter College.

Gay Talese and DPC.
Among the guests: Lynn and Malachy McCourt, Rosalind Whitehead, Warren Adler, John Simon, Regina Peruggi, Chris Cerf, Bob and Barbara Taylor Bradford, Rich and Barbara Lustin, Barbara Hodes and Michael Gross, Mary Higgins Clark, Carol Higgins Clark, Warren Adler, Frank and Helen Handley Houghton, Jeannette Watson, Joanna and Dan Rose, Erica Jong, Lenore Skenazy, Sidney Offit, Miranda Goodwin Raab, Johanna and Dan Rose, Marcia and Richard Frances, Steve and Jane Cuozzo, Joan Jakobson, Richard Hine, Chistopher Lehmann-Haupt, Katherine Livingston, Molly Haskell,  as well as Nan (Mrs. Gay) Talese and daughter Catherine Talese, to name only a few.

These Writing Center dinners are intimate, (the dinner is delicious also). It’s almost like being at a big family affair where relationships are varied but link is in the genes. Not everybody gets to talk to (or even meet) everybody, but we’re all there for a reason that binds us — like a wedding or anniversary or a big birthday might. I had an almost sentimental sense of camaraderie where you’re grateful to be a member of that family.

Writers’ parties vary in New York. A major book signing by a big name — be it writer/actor/tycoon/politician is almost like going to a movie premiere —  lot of shiny faces many of whom know each other, or want to know each other, or hope to meet a know-each-other with a boldfaced name. That’s New York life which is commerce. Then there are authors’ parties in people’s apartments (de rigueur) for coffee table books — especially of interior designers). That brings out another kind of crowd, groups on their way to elsewhere but stop by “for a friend,” get a book, a glass of chardonnay and out the door. There is also the dinner that a social hostess might have for a very famous mega-bestselling celebrity-author with a “select” List of Very Selects around the table. All of these are important events when it comes to marketing a book. Today more than ever.

The Writing Center dinners is where they depart from the norm and take us back home to when you got together with a crowd you were related too. Writers in a group like this, no matter how celebrated or best-selling, leave their public charisma to their marketing people. Here they’re just folks.

So it was in keeping with that that they honored Gay Talese. Gay is a guy, a very successful author who’s been feted at all the types of parties outlined above. He has written fourteen books. His earliest bestsellers deal with the history and influence of the New York Times  (“The Kingdom and the Power”), the inside story of a Mafia family (“Honor Thy Father”), the changing moral values of America between WWII and the era before AIDS”); “The Neighbor’s Wife” Including an historical memoir about his family’s immigration to America from Italy (“Unto the Sons”).
Lewis Frumkes, Jennifer Raab, and Gay Talese.
But Gay’s charisma is in his words, his stories. From what I can tell he’s easy to get along with and loves conversation. What often sets him apart is his notable physical appearance. Gay is always turned out; days and nights on the town.  Suits, vests, perfectly tailoring; hats, shoes, all part of the ensemble. It’s distinctive representation of a self-image. You could call him a dandy — although not a banker — in this day and age. The costume is that of a serious man (who’s given to wit that’s quick and quiet).

I never knew the motivation for that image which is his, until Thursday night after he was introduced to speak by George Gibson, who is the Executive Editor of St. Martin’s Press and has been editor of several of Gay’s book.

Gibson was brief and admiring. He finished his introduction by adding that Gay “was the only man who has ever kissed me on the lips besides my father.” He told us how it had always embarrassed him when his father kissed him — especially in the presence of his (young) friends. But, he added that when Gay kissed him the first time on meeting, it surprised him, but he liked the gesture. The audience loved it too.

Gibson and Gay's friendly peck.
After Gibson’s introduction Gay approached the podium as Gibson was leaving, and he put his hands on his editor’s shoulders and gave him a brief, neat, clean kiss on the lips. Everyone in the room laughed and applauded.

In Gay’s “acceptance” speech, he told us about his background growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey, a very small beach town on Cape May. His father was a tailor (aha!) who had a small business among the wealthier members of the community. The business was small but prosperous because he gave his customers their money’s-worth in quality and workmanship.

When he was old enough Gay worked  for his father part time, after school. Gay’s mother had a dress shop with an older clientele whose youthful figures had given way to aging (and diet) factors. Gay’s mother did a very good business with these women because, like her husband, she gave her clientele what they needed and fit them with the best and most flattering. It was in those two businesses of his parents that Gay naturally developed what became one of his most important techniques as a writer: he listened. All of these people, especially the women, talked about their lives, told stories (about themselves and others) all the time. The boy was mesmerized, and he was learning about the world.

When he graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college. However, every college he applied to rejected him. One day, one of his father’s clients heard about it and said: “I can get him into Alabama.” Two or three days later, the man reported that indeed Gay was accepted at (the University of) Alabama. And so he went.

When he graduated in 1949, he had already decided that he wanted to go to New York and work as a journalist. Around the time of graduation, a college friend asked what he was going to do after graduation, and Gay told him his plans. The friend told him that he had a cousin in New York who was the editor of the New York Times, and that if he went to the Times he should stop in and say hello to his cousin — a man named Turner Catledge.

And so, as soon as Gay got home from Alabama, he made the trip by train up to the City to meet Turner Catledge. He had no note of introduction (hadn’t thought of it perhaps — he was a young kid from a small town), nor did he have a resume.

NY Times managing editor,  Turner Catledge.
When he arrived at the Times’ offices on 43rd Street, he told the receptionist — a man — at the main desk that he was there to see Turner Catledge. The man not recognizing him asked if he had an appointment. No. Then why was he stopping by?  Gay explained that he had just graduated from Alabama and a cousin of Turner Catledge whom he was in school with told him to stop by and say hello.

The reception got the picture and kindly called Catledge’s office and his executive assistant, and a man named Mr. Andre came down to meet him. Gay told the man why he was there. It was then explained to him that Mr. Catledge was a very busy man, etc., and that he had little time and that they weren’t looking for any new reporters, etc. Asked how long he was going to be in New York, Gay told Andre that he was only there to see Mr. Catledge and then he was going back to Ocean City.

Mr. Andre then after some kind considerations told Gay to come back at ten to four before Mr. Catledge had his editorial meeting and he would introduce him to his roommate’s cousin. Gay left and then returned on time and at that appointed hour was taken to Mr. Catledge’s large impressive office. When he entered Catledge was reclining in his chair with his feet on his desk.  He sat up to meet the young man. Catledge asked him the name of the cousin who told Gay to come to see him. Gay repeated his classmate’s name. It was a name Catledge had ever heard of!  (It was later realized that Southerners often have lots of cousins, many of whom are not entirely familiar.)

Then Catledge asked him what he wanted to do now that he was out of college. Gay told him he wanted to be a writer/journalist and that he wanted to work for the Times. He was immediately informed that he was not experienced enough.  Gay replied that he didn’t need to be a reporter, that he just wanted to work for the Times doing anything — working as a messenger or an edit boy running errands, etc. He left Turner Catledge’s office that afternoon having been told that they’d have a place for him then. A few weeks later he moved up from Ocean City and went to work for the New York Times as a messenger. Twenty years later, Gay published his best-selling history of the historic paper: “The Power and the Glory.”
A Happy Anniversary to the Tony Award-winning Broadway producers, Bonnie Comley and Stewart F. Lane, who recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of the 500 seat theater dedicated in their honor. The event included a reception on the theater’s stage with the couple and UMass Lowell VIPs and community arts leaders. 

Comley and Lane led a panel discussion on BroadwayHD and how to preserve the performing arts and create a community of engaged arts enthusiasts through digital capture and streaming technology. BroadwayHD.com which they founded is the online streaming service for theatre.
Stewart F. Lane, Virginia Comley, James F. Comley, and Bonnie Comley in front of the Comley – Lane Theatre.
Bonnie Comley, who has won three Tony Awards among numerous other honors, graduated from UMass Lowell and is a past recipient of UMass Lowell’s Distinguished Alumni Award and a recipient of the Beta Gamma Sigma Award for Business Achievement. Stewart Lane is a Broadway producer, playwright, director, actor and co-owner of the legendary Broadway Palace Theatre. The evening ended with a BroadwayHD screening.
Bonnie and Stewart inside the theatre.
 

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