Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Stepfather: John O'Hara

"Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well."

That is the epitaph, enscribed on a tombstone in a Princeton cemetery, that John O'Hara wrote for himself.

The best selling author of dozens of novels and short story collections, including Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Pal Joey and Ten North Frederick, O'Hara was as gifted a writer as any of his generation.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley and John O'Hara at Billingsley's Stork Club

Ernest Hemingway said "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra."

But O'Hara, who grew up not in the posh country clubs of his characters but in Pennsylvania coal mining country, always had a chip on his shoulder. He developed a reputation as a terrible tempered "Champion of the Imagined Slight".

When The New Yorker's Brendan Gill offered to buy O'Hara a drink shortly after giving O'Hara's novel A Rage To Live a bad review, O'Hara said "I wouldn't sit down with a son of a bitch like you for anything in the world." There's a story of O'Hara getting into an argument with a midget sitting next to him and was about to punch him when a second midget showed up and the two together knocked O'Hara off his feet and began beating on him until the bartender broke it up.
O'Hara and Oma

But there is another O'Hara: My father's step-father. In a July 1985 article for Esquire, Dad remembered O'Hara as an "intensely shy, warm gentle man, a devoted father to his daughter, Wylie, patient, hospitable and affectionate with his visiting stepchildren and our spouses and children despite the obvious disruption we caused in his routine, and --especially in the case of my own fledgling writing career--generous with his asked-for advice."

Dad, Unknown, Me, O'Hara

The O'Hara routine meant we didn't see a lot of him when visiting Oma in Princeton. O'Hara wrote at night, usually from midnight until dawn. I remember visiting his study one morning and burning my fingers on lamps that had been on all night. I'd play with the mechanical banks and toy cars he'd lay down on the floor for me and stare at his collection of antique horns. (It's stunning to think that the entire study--with the toys, horns and those very same lamps can be visited at Penn State University.)

O'Hara's study at Penn State

O'Hara had at least two great loves in his life. The first was Belle, who gave birth to O'Hara's only daughter, Wylie, and died nine years later in 1954. The second, O'Hara often said, was the first person he saw when he entered Princeton's Trinity Church for the funeral: Belle's friend, my father's mother, Katharine Barnes Bryan. Friends called her "Sister", a childhood nickname.

After Oma's death, my dad and aunt came across a large brown bag filled with love letters O'Hara had written to our grandmother. They reveal a side of O'Hara no biographer or critic ever knew existed:

You are a lovely, splendid, dear, sensitive, knowing girl, and you are my wife and my life and I will be good to you and try to be good for you...Oh, my darling, you don't know the surpassing peace that your letters have given me. I wonder if it is so bad to be so dependent on another person as I am on you, you the symbol and cause, and , possibly, the real source of our love.

Do you know what? Not to make you self-conscious, but I think I can see how you look when you read this. Smile for John, Sister; these words are a kiss.

Oma and O'Hara

Although Appointment in Samarra did make The Modern Library's list of the best 100 English language novels of the Twentieth Century, I think the place to start is with "Do You Like It Here?" a short story about a new boy at a prep school who's accused by his corridor master of having stolen a watch.
Then you'll begin to understand why Brendan Gill ( yes, the very same Brendan Gill) ranks O'Hara "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story."


  1. Love this blog. Your family has had such fascinating connections with so many interesting people. Please continue posting.

  2. I have read all Mr. O'Hara's published work and just finished The Girl On The Baggage Truck, and obviously gone directly in We're Friends Again. Imagine Kissing Pete comes next. Also I've spent time with Matt Bruccoli but your stuff, which I've just happened on by accident, is the icing on this cake. Much appreciated. Oh, I know that is not the right sequence, but I wanted Pete to come last.