Monday, November 29, 2010

Awakening the Warriors Within: Box 15

The music of Scotland has long been an inspiration to the highland warrior. The skirl of the bagpipes has accompanied brave men into the din of battle in all corners of the earth. There are few who would deny that the wild cry of pipes and the strong beat of the drums quicken the heart and stir the blood.

--liner notes to The Black Watch R.H.R. of Canada

Dad would often use the music of military bands to wake us up on lazy mornings, figuring the sounds from the glens of Scotland would jar even the sleepiest of schoolkids awake.
It worked.
To hear a sample of what would stir our warring clan awake
simply press play

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Editor, 1908-2000

“Perhaps a body of work isn't necessary for a short story writer. If you do one story that survives in an anthology, that's enough.”
William Maxwell,

It was Dad's step-father, John O'Hara, who set up the meeting with the legendary William Maxwell. For 40 years Bill Maxwell edited fiction writing at The New Yorker. He made other writers (Nabokov, O'Hara, Salinger etc.) better at the expense, perhaps, of his own fame. John Updike said Maxwell's writing voice was "one of the wisest and kindest in American fiction".

Dad had already written a few short stories but none of them were right for The New Yorker. ( Nor were they right for Gent or Dude who sent him nothing but rejection slips.)
Maxwell said Dad had talent. He asked him what had happened in the past that really turned him around. It couldn't be anything in the last six months. But it must be something that made him so angry, so sad , so happy, so embarrassed or humiliated.
Dad said getting kicked out of school in Virginia for cheating.
And Maxwell said "Write it."
Dad wrote 17 typewritten pages. About 5,000 words.
Maxwell said "Not even God could have written that story in so few pages. Do it again, and this time put down everything you can remember about what happened".
And Dad did.
The next draft was 52 pages, about 16,000 words. The New Yorker cut maybe 500 words and bought it. "So Much Unfairness of Things" was, at that time, one of the longest short stories to ever appear in The New Yorker. In effect what Maxwell taught Dad was to write fat.

On his desk, Maxwell kept a framed quote from William Butler Yeats. Dad would frame the very same quote above his writing desk:

"Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not condescend, which does not explain, is irresistible."

Dad though the part about condescending was important.
As he told a writing class at St. Paul's School, where my step brother Derek went, "Too often the young writer adopts a sneering tone toward his characters. He patronizes them, he is condescending.He writes about the 'typical' prep school kid, the LL Bean costume, the Patagonia jacket, etc. Cut it out! Instead of impressing the reader with how perceptive you are, you make him loathe you on the spot."

The New Yorker link

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Today Our Son is Born! November 22-23, 1963

Family lore is often more powerful than the truth. The one surrounding my birth is that when the Kennedy assassination sent violent shock waves through the country, Mom's reaction was to go into early labor with me.

I was born in New York City the day after the assassination. One of the few baby boys born in Sloane Hospital NOT named "John Fitzgerald" in honor of the slain president.
No, I got named after my uncle and his grandfather: Joseph St. George Bryan III.
Hospitals were not so quick to discharge new mothers so I didn't get home to Tuxedo Park until the 28th.

There is a photograph of me taken within the next couple of weeks. Over my shoulder is a copy of the Saturday Evening Post with Kennedy on the cover.
Now I'll let Dad tell us how he felt that day, excerpted from a letter that was actually a bit of a snarler.

Dad wrote me in 1975:
You were the most extraordinarily beautiful baby--the most beautiful I have ever seen. Oh, I've seen a Japanese baby and a Chinese baby who were extraordinarily beautiful, but that was because they had such a lovely peach complexion. But you, of all the babies I have seen--and I have seen a lot, each time a friend's wife or the wife who was a friend had a baby, I'd always go see him or her. But you ( and I DON'T mean this just because you were my son) were the most handsome. You had the most incredibly fine features, so fixed and mature and all the bone structure was there which would turn you into a handsome man. I was terribly proud of you.

It would be well over twenty years before he'd refer to me as "mature" again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Other Saint in the Family 1967-1975

Lansing, Magoo. CDB, Me Iowa, 1968

In a letter to Uncle Saint from January 22, 1968

Sam wanted a dog for Christmas and we now own a St. Bernard. Thank God she didn't want a car. The mind boggles. Well, this dog, Hannibal Sidney Greenstreet Magoo (H.S.G. Magoo) is now 10 weeks old, weighs about 25 lbs. His father at 19 months weighed 270 pounds. Fuck, I don't know what we're going to do with it, but by that time we'll work it out. He is a delight. Chunky, lambswool, panda bear that he is. All teeth and jowls. At 6 months they can pick up a football, I'm told. God knows he can already close his mouth around my calf and I can hear his teeth lock.

Magoo grew to be the size of a lion. A slobbering hairy mass of affection. When Dad would sing the Chet Baker standard "My Buddy" to him, Magoo's tail would wag so much leaves would flutter half way across the yard.
He truly was the Bryan family dog. But the winter Dad spent teaching at
The University of Wyoming, Magoo snapped. God knows why. But he bit my four year old sister in the face.
(Amanda said she didn't know what happened. "Suddenly it just got very dark."). He came to his senses immediately and released but Sam found Amanda covered with blood and crying. Magoo sitting quietly next to Babe the poodle.
Stuck in Wyoming, where he was teaching and finishing up Friendly Fire, Dad made a difficult decision that would certainly be hardest on Sam.

Magoo, Lansing, me and Babe the poodle
Home Movie still from 1974, Guilford, CT

January 18, 1975

I don't think we have any choice but to put him to sleep. I've thought about it and thought about it and I've felt that it is simply not a decision you should have to make. Magoo, whether it was intended or not, is my dog.
He may do it again, he may tear someone else's child up, he may kill someone and we have to be absolutely cold blooded about it. If it were someone else's dog we would, without hesitation, recommend that the dog be put down. The fact that he is our own and because of the circumstance of my being away and that being the cause of it, makes the decision all the more difficult because of our emotional involvement. But we must do it. And do it knowing that he has had a wonderful life, that it has been filled with love and joy and companionship, that probably no other St. Bernard has even been so indulged and pampered and loved and that he has had a full dog's life. He is getting old, obviously temperamental and I take full responsibility for the decision and leave you , to my dismay , and sense of inadequacy from afar, to do the ugly deed. But do it. I weep as I write it myself.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How Mom and Dad Met, early 1961

Children like to believe in fairy tales. Growing up, we thought the story of how Dad and Mom met on a Washington DC stage seemed magical. We've held on to those feelings all these years. Even though their marriage ended in separation before my second birthday. Before my sister's first birthday.
Phoebe Miller had been working in a bank when she won a singing and dancing role in a Hexagon Club production of "On the Rocks". Dad was one of the skit writers. Since 1956, The Hexagon Club has been producing satirical political musical and comedy revues. Dad and his writers had plenty of fresh material that spring. The Kennedy Administration had just taken office.

The writers of "On the Rocks" including Dad who was then one of the editors of the satirical Monocle Magazine. Said Dad upon seeing the photograph: "I was clearly more amusing then."

The dancers of On the Rocks. Mom is third from left.
March 1961 Washington DC

If Mom made an immediate impression it's not to be found in Dad's datebook. It's filled with "evenings of fun and frolic" with another woman. Dinner dates with yet another. In fact, he doesn't schedule mom's name in his datebook until October 3.
Mom made no mention of Courty that Summer when she visited her mother and sister in Colorado.
But they did fall in love with each other that autumn. In fewer than three months, they'd be married. But not before both his mother and father warned Dad it was a bad idea to make such a commitment so quickly.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Last Time I Saw Dad November 13, 2009

A buzzard flew over Lovers Lane on one of the last afternoons I visited Dad and Mairi. The leaves were just plummeting off trees. You could hear the snapping sounds as they hit the ground. Like "Rice Krispies" in milk turned up to 11.
Yes, I got it. No need for the symbolism.
Inside I could hear an oxygen machine wheezing day and night. With the help of a burly nurse named Martin, Dad was able to get washed up, dressed and pulled up to his feet so he could get his daily exercise. Walking from one room to the next. Then he would stop and catch his breath. My sister Amanda cheered him on. Dad looked at me with an expression that said "Can you believe this shit?"
There were seventeen bottles of medicine in various cupboards. Opium. Morphine. Lorazepam. Ondansetron HCL. Metoprolol. Diphenlatropine. Lerothyroxine.
Dad napped easily. His mouth open. The phone would ring. People wondering if they should visit.
At night, we'd all gather in "his" room, the living room where a bed had been set up, to watch Bones. Dad still getting a few hits off a cigarette and a very weak martini.
Dad was all "there". We talked ( I talked, he whispered) about work, about my family. I told him we would be OK but that he really should try to stick around for a good while longer.

My November 13 Journal entry

Well, I certainly wasn't going to let myself believe that I was saying my final goodbyes. Even as he lay on his bed with oxygen tubes attached around his ears and into his nose.
I said I'd be seeing him soon. Maybe next month. And that I loved him and I kissed him on the forehead, said "See you later". He nodded. Whispered "Bye Saint".
And I didn't linger. I walked out of the room.

I've learned there is such thing as The Last Conversation. There are four things that must be said: I love you. I will be alright. I forgive you. I hope you forgive me.
Dad and I did the first two.
Maybe this whole thing is about the last two.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Famous Family Friend May 10, 1974

My stepmother, Sam, once dated John Denver. At the time Peter Paul and Mary had recorded his "Leaving on a Jet Plane", John visited Sam and Dad in Iowa. We have home movies. He played some songs ( Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy", The Beatles's "When I'm 64", "Mr Bojangles" and an original or two). They had lunch. He rode his first horse --a shetland pony. It was 1967 and Dad was the more successful of Sam's men.
By 1974 that had all changed. Dad's latest novel, The Great Dethriffe, hadn't sold well and John Denver was at the peak of his fame. His 1974 tour would be recorded for the best selling "Evening With John Denver". John sent our family press box seats but only Sam went backstage to visit John.
With its comparisons to Nazi Germany, Dad's letter is a fun read. More fun, I think, with the back story filled in a little.

Dear John:
Your concert in New Haven was stupendous! My God, when you came on stage that first moment and the Coliseum must be an extraordinary sensation, rather frightening, rather pleasing, rather contemptible even. I mean how is it possible not to react with something approaching scorn at the animal that gets unleashed. There is that crowd aura, that same frenzied grip that politicians strive for, that Hitler achieved ( he, too, had at Nuremberg that astonishingly staged and managed show which created a crowd frenzy). I don't mean to compare you to Hitler, my friend, all I mean is you have achieved that same quality of having crowds react to you but that, unlike Hitler, of course you deserve it.

You gave the impression of being perfectly at ease, in control and professional all of which you are, but it came across. And I think your music--that is, the songs you write, are getting more and more beautiful and lyrical. I think "Sunshine on My Shoulder" (sic) is one of the loveliest songs I've heard in years. Very simple, very true like all good writing must be. And "Goodbye Again" is lovely too. Of course "Rocky Mountain High"--the title suddenly for the first time struck me as perfect for a high school in Denver. Wonderful idea, the little girl saying "I'm at Rocky Mountain High" and the other responding "I'll say..."--anyway , Rocky Mountain High is such a pleasing song and a nice thought.

I remember once being on acid at Vale (sic) and suddenly thinking I'd been dropped into a Nazi pre World War II training camp, getting nervous about it, knowing I was on acid, thinking if only I could piss it out of me I'd be all right. But every time I'd head for the can, I'd have to pass the wooden beamed staircase and all the ski boots clomping up and down would make me think I'd fallen into Gestapo Headquarters and I'd flee in a panic for the outside, terrified that someone would speak to me and find out I couldn't speak German. Which, of course, 50% of the people around me were speaking. It was German week or something. It was funny in retrospect and scary at the time.

The New Haven Coliseum->

Still, back to the concert, the children loved it. Little Amanda bobbed up and down, boogaloo'd, my 9 year old daughter, Lansing, ( who somehow managed to pass the word to her school that you were spending the weekend with us) is starstruck, smarmy with love for you and my 10 year old son thinks you sing okay.
Thank you for your kindness and especially for calling. As the man who led Sam back out to meet us said, "He's a star now." You earned it.

Can't say I ever heard the Vail story before reading this letter.The next year John came through town we all went backstage. I saw his ping pong table. He'd play before a show to work out all the nervous energy. We shook hands.

Twenty years later , as a reporter/ photographer in Colorado, I had to shoot John walking into court for a drunk driving trial. He stopped to pick up litter on the side of the street.
He had no idea who I was of course. I said I was sorry I had to shoot this and he said that I should then put my camera down. Which, of course, I couldn't do. You don't have to sell millions of records to live near Aspen but you do have earn some money.
I always thought he should have recorded an album like the ones Johnny Cash did at the end of his life. Just John and his guitar. His "Sisters of Mercy" is truly something worth hearing.

By the way, the home movie and John's version of "When I'm 64" can be seen in an April 1, 2011 post.
Posted April 1st, 2011.

Monday, November 8, 2010

315 E 56th Street October 1962 to September 1963

This past weekend, while on business in New York, I walked over to 315 E. 56th Street where Mom and Dad moved ( with three cats) after he was honorably discharged from the army on August 1, 1962.
In apartment 2B, with furniture from Bergdoff Goodman and bookcases from Bloomingdales, I was conceived. And so was Dad's first novel, P.S. Wilkinson.

It's a quiet, fairly leafy street for Manhattan. A block from Cathedral High School.
While living here, Dad worked on the narration for a Swedish/Japanese documentary called The Face of War. It is a grisly history of the horrors of war from World War I to the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It ends with pictures of victims of atomic radiation.

Dad also wrote and edited something a bit lighter. An off beat satirical magazine called The Monocle which published a piece by Godfrey Cambridge on the joys of being a black man trying to hail a New York City cab ( I have spent so much time on my knees, praying for a cab to stop for me, that I have been arrested three times for holding an outdoor religious meeting without a permit).

Dad wrote a J.D. Salinger-esque story for the magazine about the presidential couple called "A Perfect Day for Honeyfitz: Jack & Jackie" ("I'm sick and tired of all those phonies who say they could tell by the way he brushed his teeth at Choate, for Chrissake, that he would become President of the United States")

The New Yorker published his short story "Christmas on Charles Street" about P.S. spending an uncomfortable holiday weekend with his newly divorced father in Washington DC.
The story would appear in P.S. Wilkinson and that, as you can imagine, did not please my grandfather. ( see "You Have Sold My Pride")

When it became clear that a baby would be joining all those grey cats in the small apartment, Mom and Dad began house hunting. Where should they live? Yardley, PA across from Trenton? Connecticut? They settled on a Gatsby-ish titled locale to the Northwest of the city: Tuxedo Park, New York.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mistaken for Lennon 1980

With his round glasses and thin lips, Dad was stopped more than once walking around NYC and asked if he were John Lennon.
Nothing could have delighted him more except, perhaps, someone asking if he were the distinguished author himself.
By the time he was in his 40's Dad bought maybe one album a year.
In 1980 he bought Double Fantasy
CDB Bryan ->

John Lennon with Yoko Ono in the "Woman" video

All of which reminds me of another NYC story.
Dad walked into Elaine's with Monty Python's Eric Idle one night. ( "Wait a minute! What do you mean you were with Eric Idle?" we'd ask. Dad was never much of a name dropper. Instead it was like pulling teeth).

They were hailed over to a table by a bunch of long haired English guys with whom they spent the next hour sharing drinks, laughs and conversation.
When they left the bar, Dad asked Idle who they'd just met.
Idle gave him a long withering stare.
"The Rolling Stones" he said.