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.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Major Influences on Dad's Writing, 1976

In a 1976 letter to Chris Cannon who handled publicity for Friendly Fire at G P Putnam's Sons

J Bryan III

  I suppose the major teacher of the craft has been my father, J. ( Joseph) Bryan III, who was an associate editor of the Saturday Evening Post for years, has written several non-fiction books, a biography of Admiral William F. Halsey, P.T. Barnum, and many articles in the old Post, Colliers, Life, Esquire and more recently the old Holiday and now Travel & Leisure.

William Maxwell
The man who had has the most influence on my style of writing has been Bill Maxwell of the New Yorker and Seymour Glass who wrote his younger brother: "If only you'd remember before you ever sit down to write that you've been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart's choice. The next step is terrible but so simple I can barely believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself."( Salinger's Seymour: An Introduction).

    While I'm at it, let me throw in two more: the first was a quote passed across his desk to me at the New Yorker by Bill Maxwell, it's by W.B. Yeats: "Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not condescend, which does not explain is irresistible." I now have that framed and hanging on my roll top like an exhortation from Chairman Mao.
W B Yeats

    The other is from an interview with Anthony Powell in a recent NYTBR which helps to explain the why and how of writing: "The great thing about writing is its two stages: first trying to make yourself understand; then, putting it to other people. The first is the most difficult."
Anthony Powell

   There had to be some way to understand the Vietnam War, to contain it in a frame of reference I ( we) could deal with. The point of Friendly Fire, or certainly a point, is that there is no enemy, there is only war.

Monday, June 10, 2013

In Praise of Vonnegut, 1969

"Two messages recur through all of Vonnegut's writing. The first is Be Kind. The second is God doesn't care whether you are or not"
     C.D.B. Bryan, New York Times

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., the author of six novels and two short-story collections, live and writes in an old house in West Barnstable on Cape Cod with his wife, six children, a sheepdog, and a tidal wave of house guests. Vonnegut is over six feet tall, a rumpled and shaggy 46 year old fourth generation German-American with a drooping mustache, a brow chevroned like a sergeant-major's sleeve, and the eyes of a sacrificial alter-bound virgin caught in mid-shrug.
  Seated, Vonnegut disappears so deeply into cushions that he resembles a courdroy covered bat-wing chair that has been dropped 2,000 feet from a passing airplane.

So begins "Kurt Vonnegut, Head Bookonist", an article Dad wrote for the New York Times Book Review in 1969, the week Slaughter House-Five hit bookstores. It follows his 1966 Vonnegut profile in The New Republic, "Kurt Vonnegut on Target", in which he wrote Vonnegut "had not received the acceptance due him from the reading public" despite being "one of the most readable and amusing of the new humorists".

Dad's articles and Robert Scholes's The Fabulators were the first critical assessments of Vonnegut that treated him seriously. Joe David Bellamy goes so far as to say they were "the essential groundbreaking efforts" in his book Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium.

More from Dad's 1969 article:

   Among Vonnegut's earlier fans were Conrad Aiken, Nelson Algren, Marc Connelly, Jules Feiffer, Graham Greene and Terry Southern. But today whether because of, or in spite of, the fact that Vonnegut's novels are now being taught at universities, the under-30's are beginning to grant him a cultish attention which Vonnegut finds "very gratifying, it really is. It's charming." an attention that has long been overdue. And, happily, an increasing number of general readers are finding in Vonnegut's quiet, humorous, well-mannered and rational protests against man's inhumanity to man an articulate bridge across the generation chasm.

Vonnegut told Dad he deliberately keeps his books short because he wants them to be read by important people:

"I've worried some about why write books when Presidents and Senators and generals do not read them and the university experience taught me a very good reason: you catch people before they become generals and Senators and Presidents, and you poison their minds with humanity. Encourage them to make a better world."

Dad's signed copy of Cat's Cradle

Dad's 1976 take on his New Republic Article:

     I started doing book reviews in 1963 in The New Republic and did the first big, comprehensive review on Vonnegut which resulted, according to Vonnegut, in his receiving a Guggenheim grant for $10,000 and a three book $75,000 contract with DelaCorte. I then began reviewing for the Times book review, did the front page review on Tom Wolfe's Ken Kesey book and Pump House Gang, and the second front page on Amy Vanderbilt's Etiquette ( illustrated by Edward Gorey) and about 30/40 others/