Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams

I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Williams several times on movie junkets and shared one of those rare couple of minutes when cameras aren't ready to roll. We talked about my son's imminent birth. Robin leaned in, that famous face widening in a grin you've seen a hundred times, saying "Aw, there's nothing greater in the world!"

     I told him we were having trouble coming up with a name. It was really between Cooper, a name that would work whether he was an actor, writer or baseball player. Or Tucker, a family name. I said my fear with the name Cooper is the other kids will wind up calling him Cooper the Pooper. Robin shook his head. "No, no they won't. They'll call him "Cooper the Super Duper Pooper". And there was hardly a beat before he added. " But that's a lot better than Tucker."

      So that's my Robin Williams story. The lightening fast wit and, above all, the generous humanity. What a sad day for me. And my son Cooper.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Bryan Boys

Upon the death of J. St. George Bryan, 66, in June, 1945 the Bryan-owned Richmond New Leader ran this editorial:

Sharply etched as was ST GEORGE BRYAN in personality, he seldom thought of himself, so far as we observed, otherwise than as a member of a family, the son of JOSEPH BRYAN and the grandson of JOHN STEWART, of Brook Hill. If he had ever analyzed the psychology of a name, he would have put the emphasis on BRYAN and not on ST. GEORGE.
    This was true, in varying degrees, of all five of the sons of JOSEPH and ISOBEL LAMONT STEWART BRYAN. They were brothers in spirit to a degree more marked even than that of their diversified individuality.

John Stewart Bryan surrounded by his newspapermen

 JOHN STEWART BRYAN was the senior in spirit as in birth, versatile, humane, captivating in manner and of eager intellectuality. 

DR. ROBERT C. BRYAN was unique in charm, skillful as a surgeon, profoundly interested in all his patients, and of a broad sympathy that made him the cherished counsellor of hundreds.
 JONATHAN BRYAN, the third son, much resembled his grandfather, JOHN STEWART, in person and in financial acumen. Singularly successful in business, he was far more than a businessman. He was socially irresistible, an intellect at once restless and philosophical, interested but always balanced, a MAECENAS whose full encouragement of promising men and noble enterprises will never be known.

 THOMAS PINCKNEY BRYAN, the youngest and the first to die, was regarded by his admiring brothers as socially the most captivating of them all. Wherever he went, he won hearts impulsively. Never did he enter a company that he did not seek to do kindness to every member of it. His brilliant law career was climbing to its shining crest when he succumbed to typhoid and pneumonia. No man of his day was more lamented.

   ST GEORGE BRYAN,  the fourth of the sons, and the survivor, had his special share of the family endowment.  His amazing wit, which had become a tradition in his lifetime, was one aspect only of a mind curiously intuitive. Those who worked with him in the newspaper business were accustomed to say of him that if he were asked for an instant answer to a question of business policy, he was almost inerrant. He might mistake if he pondered; he seldom did if he followed his intuitions. It was a remarkable quality and it helped to explain a fact in Richmond journalism that should not be overlooked: The years of his most active participation in the management of The Times Dispatch --roughly, 1909-13--were those in which its new foundations were made secure.

   It is a grievous duty to bid farewell to the last of the "BRYAN boys," as they affectionately were styled through a long generation. Seldom is a city blessed with so many sons of a single family who gave so much and in so many ways to the enrichment and enlivenment of life. In saying Ave et salve, there is comfort in the reflection that of the next generation , seven sons and four daughters carry on the fine tradition. Six of the sons of the "BRYAN boys"  are in the armed services. One had given his life. So widely have these grandsons of JOSEPH BRYAN scattered that few of them will walk tomorrow the gravel path to GOD's acre at Emmanuel Church; but many friends will follow--to remember the five, to thank GOD for them, and to sing reverently and gratefully, "The strife is o'er, the battle won...Allelujah!"

J St George Bryan in 1890

Another editorial, this was most likely from the Times-Dispatch:

No Richmonder of his generation was more sought after as a friend and companion than J. ST. GEORGE BRYAN, whose death occurred yesterday after a long period of failing health. His warm-heartedness and geniality, his capacity for friendship, inspired the same qualities in others. Tall and handsome, with a fine presence, he was a striking figure , and his gift for bon mots and repartee, his seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, made him the center of many gatherings.

    His quick wit was always in evidence, and as a mimic he was incomparable. Few dared to cross swords with him in a good-natured duel of words, for the intrepid one who did so was apt to be verbally skewered, albeit deftly and without the infliction of a wound. Among the few who were able to swap repartee with MR BRYAN on anything like evn terms were the late EGBERT G LEIGH and the late CHARLES COTEWSORTH PICKNEY . It was an unforgettable experience to sit in the old Westmoreland Club and listen to the scintillating, crackling conversation of those remarkable men.

   They are gone, and so are the four brothers of ST GEORGE BRYAN--JOHN STEWART, DR ROBERT C., JONATHAN and THOMAS P. BRYAN, who passed on before. Five such notable brothers would be hard to find in Richmond's more than two centuries of history. Of the charming gentleman who outlived all the others, and whose death occurred yesterday, it can truly be said that he was a man of unusual gifts and high integrity, worthy of his great heritage.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stashed Between The Pages

    I am still finding letters and photos sealed between pages of books in the attic. From Ancestors, a 1971 novel written by the legendary New Yorker editor William Maxwell, quite a few things had been stashed for years. The most interesting are a pair of letters written to dad's step-father John O'Hara. The first is an undated letter ( probably between 1965-1969) from Pulitizer Prize winning novelist James Michener:

Dear John, 

I had the pleasure last week of hearing your step-son handle himself rather well at the forum for critics and writers. He had a tart tongue, defended his work modestly yet with vigor, and showed a sense of humor to boot. You should be proud of him, because he gave every impression of being a long-time worker. It's good to see such fellows coming along. 
Sincerely, Jim Michener

Then from Maxwell to O'Hara in another undated letter but clearly before The New Yorker's 1962 publication of "So Much Unfairness In Things":

   Court seemed to me, both in what he showed me and in what he said, so close to the edge of becoming a writer that I am going to try and see if I can beat him into it. He is the first youngster I have talked to in I don't know how many years who seemed unafraid to commit himself and unafraid of the labor of writing. He has studied you, to considerable advantage- that is, he has learned how not to be boring. If I can find his rightful material he ought to turn out all right. He strikes me as the kind of person who would be happier as a writer than something else.

   There are also three more letters from Maxwell from 1969, 1974 and 1975. The first was sent to Rural Route #5 outside Iowa City where Dad was teaching at the Writer's Workshop, happily married to Sam, and slogging his way through novel number 2: The Great Dethriffe:

    The manuscript hasn't turned up yet, but it probably will this week, and I will write you as soon as I have read it. Meanwhile, you might write in pencil on the wall above your desk the motto of our family : " Leg over leg and the dog got to Dover." It applies to everything, but to novels most of all.

   That may be the most quoted motto in our family as well. We're using it today as we try to sell a house. The letter ends on an affectionate note.

   Not having sons, I find I can't begin to tell you how gratifying that you should choose me as the old block you are a chip off.
  Yours affectionately also, B.M.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Suburban View of the 1968 Washington Riots


   When my mom typed this letter on the evening after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, Washington DC was embroiled in a second night of rioting. Downtown buildings were on fire and 15 thousand extra troops had been sent into the city to control the crowds. Twelve people would be killed and  more than a thousand injured. More than six thousand people would be arrested.

    Seven miles to the south in Alexandria, VA, my mom watched the televised news bulletins while having "quite a few drinks"( as she would write the next morning).

 Dear Mary

   What a God-damned mess this country is. I am writing to you from war torn Washington DC, USA. Some pimply faced red neck decided to take a shot at Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis and, like the assassination  of our late president, it was another shot heard around the world.

    Two days ago everyone had some--not much but some-- hope of PEACE. What in the hell was that SOB thinking? Now violence has broken out in our Nation's capital and for the first 4 or 5 hours there wasn't a cop in sight. Now, of course, there is a curfew. The National Guard has been activated but from the last Special Report, the rioting and looting is still going on.


    Mary, there are children--some not more than six years old-- out there breaking into stores, stealing radios and clothes. You wonder what their mothers are doing or even if they know what their children are doing.

   Alexandria is quiet at the moment and we have no violence.  We can't even see the horrendous clouds of smoke from the District. Saint and Lansing are asleep, but my neighbors are alert and ready to take them across the back fences if we should have any trouble. There is an ammunition depot ( sounds like the last world war) right down the block from us. If the youths or even the adults of the negro population of Alexandria decided to invade this establishment we would all be in a very vulnerable position.

 I am not really worried now, there has been no indication that we will have any trouble, but I do have an old shotgun that Courty left with us in case. I don't have any ammunition but I do have gall when it comes to defending the children.

  The riots and the destruction stayed within the boundaries of the inner city, utterly devastating the community. Businesses were closed. Jobs were lost by the thousands. On some blocks, rubble would last for decades.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Who Played Me in a Movie?

   Everybody has a family mystery they would like to solve. Here's mine. In 1979, some uncredited kids played me and my sister in the ABC TV movie Friendly Fire. We know Sam Waterston played my dad and an actress named Jenny Sullivan played my step-mother Sam. But, in the scene below, who are the two children who race out to greet the Volkswagen Bus in front of the house? If anyone has any idea, please leave a comment. Thanks!!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Mexican Divorce in the Mad Men Age

On January 14th, 1986 Esquire Magazine's David Hirshey contracted Dad to write a short 500 word  piece on divorce due February 14th for $500. The article "Adios, Mi Esposa" was published in June 1986 in Esquire's special "The American Man 1946-1986" issue.

   Twenty years ago I was separated from my wife and living in a 14th Street studio apartment in New York City while she and our two small children were living in our Tuxedo Park house. We had been through counseling, lonely trial separations, tearful reconciliations, countless mean accusations and hurtful recriminations and we did not want to stay married to each other anymore.

   In the mid-60's, unless a spouse was imprisoned for three or more years, the only grounds for divorce in New York were adultery, cruel and inhuman treatment--which primarily means physical battery--or extended abandonment. Neither my wife nor I had abandoned each other or were in prison; and to file for divorce on either of the two remaining grounds seemed loathsome. We didn't want to punish each other further, we just wanted to be free; but obtaining a divorce based on fault we knew would be painful, time-consuming and --as it would involve New York lawyers and New York prices--expensive. So I went to Juarez where, I'd been instructed, I would appear in person before  a Mexican magistrate along with a lawyer representing my wife.

In order to qualify for Mexican residency I crossed over from El Paso and spent the night in a Juarez motel. The following morning my Mexican lawyer met me and took me to a wood-paneled courtroom where along with perhaps a dozen other American men and women--there presumably for the same reason-- I stood guilt-ridden before a raised judicial bench behind which sat a tired, exasperated gentleman in a dark wash and wear suit. Without looking at us he addressed us at length in Spanish. I could never understand a word he said. And since my lawyer was nowhere around, I became increasingly uneasy that I was in the wrong courtroom. Throughout he entire proceedings the only person who spoke to me directly was a small boy selling Chiclets. Eventually we were dismissed and i went outside into the bright, merciless sunlight -- my eyes watering and blinking. Only then did I see my lawyer again.

   "It is natural to be emotional at these times, " he said.

   "Am I divorced?" I asked.

   "The decree will be final in three days," he said. "You may return to New York."

   I took a taxi back to my motel and showered. I stood under the water thinking about my ex-wife, my two children and the terrible things I had done. I remained there for a long time scrubbing myself without ever feeling clean.

   I flew back from El Paso to New York that afternoon. By coincidence on my plane was the graduating class of the American Airlines Stewardess College. One of them, a pretty dark-haired Scot, had never been to New York before. By two the following morning she and I had ended up in a bar around the corner from my apartment. She was drinking Irish Coffee because, she insisted, it would sober her up. Suddenly she lurched forward and grabbed my crotch. "Tell me you love me a little," she said.

   "Or what?" I asked. "You'll rip it off?"?

    She pulled her hand away as if she'd been burned. "Need I remind you, " she said indignantly . "I am a stewderess!"

    I gave a cabdriver enough money to see her safely home. That night alone in bed I felt I might have done at least one right thing that day. I was not sure what.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Letter to Kurt Vonnegut Dec 3, 1975

It had been six years since Dad had praised Kurt Vonnegut in a  New York Times Book Review article entitled "Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bookinist", timed for the release of Slaughterhouse-Five. Nine years since he'd written a"ground breaking" retrospective of the author's works for The New Republic. Now, with the looming publication of Friendly Fire, Dad was seeking friendly blurbs from the kind of people who would make a difference. He thought Vonnegut owed him one so when the esteemed author declined, Dad was incensed enough to write Vonnegut a "snarler".

      Dear Kurt:

           Harvey Ginsberg at G.P. Putnam's told me you had declined to read the manuscript of my book Friendly Fire because everyone was asking you to read books these days. When I wrote you and said that if you were too busy I'd understand and promise not to sulk, I did not promise not to be angry and a little amazed. Back in 1966, you may remember, when you were still trying to make it big, I helped you out by doing that long retrospective review of your previous books for The New Republic suggesting people consider you  something more than a science fiction writer and that you be taken seriously. I later, out of friendship for you , did that "side-piece" on you to tie in with Bob Scholes' review of Slaughterhouse-Five for the NYTBR.

         In the copy of Mother Night you autographed for me in Iowa City in 1967 you wrote :
          "To Courtlandt Dixon Barnes Bryan, cousin of my fourth best student, main sponsor of me as a Guggenheim fellow--in short, a friend worth ten thousand dollars, three thousand of them tax free. Love, Kurt Vonnegut Jr."
          As I said, I understand that you are very busy. In turn, I trust you will understand that I figure you're a friend worth about two cents.


          C.D.B. Bryan

  I have no reason to believe the two ever spoke, or wrote,  to each other again.