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/

Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Three Letter Man

When True Grit screenwriter Marguerite Roberts died in 1989, her husband, author and screenwriter John Sanford, wrote a series of books about their 50 year marriage. They'd both been members of the Communist Party and were both blacklisted from Hollywood for nearly a decade.

   In Maggie : A Love Story, Sanford writes about an especially poor review dad gave his 1967 novel The $300 Man in The New York Times. If anyone can understand how a bad review can haunt a writer  twenty years later, it's dad. His 1983 novel, Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes, was savaged by Alice Adams in the New York Times Book Review.

"Those reviewers!" Maggie said. "They're a sorry lot. It's a shame what they've done to a  damn good book"
"What would you say of them if they liked it?"
"They'd still be a sorry lot. If they know so much, why don't they write books themselves?"
"Reviewing's the system, and so far, there's better that we know of."
"Reviewers!" she said. "I wouldn't pull one out if he was kicking in a ditch."
"That's where they belong. Reviewers, anyway."
"Without them, I'd have to sell my books from door to door."
"The system, you call it. All right, but why does it use guys like this self-righteous what's-his-name?" She took up a clipping from a pile on the table. "C.D.B. Bryan. Who the hell is C.D.B. Bryan?"
"A three letter man. As a matter of fact, someone told me he was a stepson of John O'Hara."
"What's that supposed to be--a recommendation?"
"Maybe the book isn't as good as we think."
"Don't ever dream it! You couldn't write a bad book if you try!"
"But, baby. sometimes they turn out bad even though you try to make them good."
"Not yours, my friend. They've never been popular, but they'll never be bad."
"I wish the three-letter man agreed with you."
" I don't care a damn about that, but don't you ever agree with him."

You can find this book online.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Extraordinary Art of Peter Hall 1972-1978

Spent the morning in the attic and discovered these postcards hand drawn by dad's friend, historian Peter Dobkin Hall, from the 1970's. An extraordinary gesture of friendship!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Selling of Friendly Fire, Part One

In late 1975, Dad asked agent Carl D. Brandt to send manuscripts of Friendly Fire to more than 80 opinion makers. His fear --as he put it--was "that because it deals with Vietnam no one will want to read it.". He was hoping for a blurb or at least some word of mouth.

Among the names on that list are reporters, politicians, intellectuals,  writers, musicians, actors and editorial cartoonists.

 In no particular order they were:

William F Buckley, Jr.
William Fulbright
James Reston
Arthur Schlesinger
Tom Wicker
Marquis Childs
Theodore White
Peter Farb
Dan Rather

John Gardner
Howard K Smith
Anthony Lewis
Evans and Novak
Barbara Jordon
Walter Cronkite

Bella Abzug

Bernstein and Woodward
Samuel Eliot Morrison
James J Kilpatrick
Iowa Gov. Harold Hughes
Frances Fitzgerald
Ben Bradlee
Joan Didion

Hunter Thompson

Clark Moellenoff ( of the Des Moines Register)
Gloria Steinem
I.F. Stone
Norman Podhoretz
Paul Harvey

Truman Capote

Jack Anderson
Shana Alexander
Joe Pultizer
Meg Greenfield
Hodding Carter III
Barbara Howard

Gregory Peck

Director, ACLU
Director, Amnesty International
Daniel Boorstein
Elizabeth Drew
Editor, Atlanta Constitution
William Sloane Coffin

John Kerry, VVAW

Shirley MacLaine
Annie Dillard
The Berrigan Brothers
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr
Tom Hayden
Gary Trudeau
Bernadette Dorn
John Leonard
John Blum
Robert S McNamara

Judy Collins

Arthur Schlesinger
Bill Moyers
Calif Gov Brown
James Michener
Bill Mauldin
Bernadette Dorn
Ramsey Clark
Commander, VFW
Commander, American Legion
Clarence Kelley
Elizbeth Hotzman
Elizabeth Janeway

Richard Nixon

Spiro Agnew

Edward M Kennedy
John V Tunney
Seymour Hersch
David Brinkley
Buckminster Fuller
Jean Jacques Servan- Schreiber
Robert Audrey
Carlos Fuentes
George S McGovern
Hubert H Humphrey
All Presidential Candidates

Dad followed up some of these people with letters, most notably Vonnegut, Capote, Michener and Shirley MacLaine. More on that effort in a later post.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Boat Love, 1986

Illustration by Gary Kelley for New England Monthly

   For the May 1986 issue of New England Monthly, eight writers were asked to write about eight terrific places. Tracy Kidder wrote about The Cape. Geoffrey Wolf wrote about Block Island and Dad wrote about the Connecticut Coast, what little he saw of it from his 23 foot World War 2 era Acadia-powered lifeboat originally called Krenie L. Dad was first drawn to the boat by the sound of its engine's sweeping piston toop!-toop!-toop! Red Norton sold Dad the boat with two bits of advice about that engine: "First, never be pointing at anything expensive when you try (backing this engine). Second, it will never go into reverse when you want it to."

The Godspeed Manatee

   Dad hauled her, scraped her, sanded her, painted her and renamed her Godspeed Manatee "after the lazy, sweet-natured hibiscus munching, bottom-sleeping mammal that has seduced so many sailors before me." The boat was hardly sweet natured. As Dad wrote,  it would always quit on him just across from Jacobs Beach.

The Acadia Engine. 

There I'd be, amid the lazy cries of canvas-deck-chaired mothers, who called to children wading out of reach. There I'd be, priming and cranking, with the rudder beginning to mire in the bottom muck. My hands would blister. My blisters would blister. Wise crackers would wade out to taunt me. Weekend fishermen, crowded into little five-horsepower Johnson outboards, boat bottoms filled with empty beer cans, would call out asking if I wanted a tow.

Charlie Roy and Dad

  My family hated her, got seasick, couldn't tolerated the fumes, would get covered with oil. Only my friend Charlie Roy would go out with me; Charlie was crazy about boats. "All engines ahead," he would sing out as he steered us into the channel. Top speed even with the tide behind us was never more than six knots. Boat owners, hearing us return, would rush panicked to their slips to fend us off as we came thumping, swearing, crunching back to the dock.

The Manatee spent a winter shored up on dry land so engineers could could dredge Guilford's harbor. Her seams never closed as tightly again. Dad spent more time bailing than sailing and eventually sold the boat.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Basking in the Reflection of Genius, 1958

Harold Bloom

     Dad says he was never much of a scholar but in his senior year he was one of 15 Yale University seniors accepted by Harold Bloom for his honors seminar. Bloom, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985, was already a well known scholar of immense insight and intelligence and it is safe to say the big man, "militantly out of shape , with a pale, pasty complexion and heavy, doughy jowls" intimidated every student in his classroom.

     Dad remembered his Bloom honors class in a 1997 contribution to The Yale Alumni Magazine:

      We had started off with Blake, and for two weeks Bloom had spoken to us, lectured us, cajoled us; he kept alluding to "Orc cycles" --something which, evidently, had great significance and which we needed to be well aware of if we were going to have any understanding of Blake at all. I was left with the feeling I had missed a critical class: the one in which he explained what an Orc cycle was. No one else seemed confused, so I didn't dare ask. 

    Finally, at the end of the second week of classes, he and another classmate took a poll and realized not one student had the faintest idea what Bloom has been talking about thus far that year. Dad was elected to break the news to Bloom at the next meeting.

"P-p-professor Bloom," I stammered. " The class has asked me ask you if you might tell us what, exactly, an 'Orc cycle' is." 
      Bloom's fingertips lifted to his face, his nails dug great creases in his jowls; and then like Star War's "Jabba the Hut, " he set about explaining. But even as he was telling us I knew I still didn't understand. That I would never understand!

    So instead, Dad did his senior thesis for Bloom on Wordsworth.

    ...something uninspiring about innocence as a literary device. But then, I had understood Wordsworth: all those lambs, daffodils, clouds, lakes, bridges without an Orc in view. My paper came back with a gentlemanly "C" and in Bloom's precise handwriting, his one simple straightforward declarative sentence: "Your style is frequently barbaric!"