One is slowly led along to write a book and this looked good, no trouble with the cast at all and that’s half the battle when you can find your characters. The more far-out sex pieces I was just writing for my own amusement. I would put them away in an old attic trunk and leave them for a distant boy to find . . . “Why Ma this stuff is terrific–and I thought he was just an old book-of-the-month-club corn ball.”
Yes I was writing my bestseller . . . I finished it with a flourish, fading streets a distant sky, handed it to the publisher and stood there expectantly.
He averted his face . . . “I’ll let you know later, come around, in fact. Always like to see a writer’s digs.” He coughed, as if he found my presence suffocating.
A few nights later he visited me in my attic room, leaded glass windows under the slate roof. He did not remove his long black coat or his bowler hat. He dropped my manuscript on a table.
“What are you, a wise guy? We don’t have a license on this. The license alone costs more than we could clear.” His eyes darted around the room. “What’s that over there?” he demanded, pointing to a sea chest.
“It’s a sea chest.”
“I can see that. What’s in it?”
“Oh, nothing much, just some old things I wrote, not to show anybody, quite bad really. . .”
“Let’s see some of it.”
Now, to say that I never intended publication of these pieces would not be altogether honest. They were there, just in case my bestseller fell on the average reader like a bag of sour dough–I’ve seen it happen, we all have: a book’s got everything, topical my God, the scene is present-day Vietnam (Falkland Islands!) seen through a rich variety of characters . . . How can it miss? But it does. People just don’t buy it. Some say you can put a curse on a book so the reader hates to touch it, or your book simply vanishes in a little swirl of disinterest. So I had to cover myself in case somebody had the curse in; after all, I am a professional. I like cool remote Sunday gardens set against a slate-blue mist, and for that set you need the Yankee dollar.
As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.
I can divide my literary production into sets: where, when and under what circumstances produced. The first set is a street of red brick three-story houses with slate roofs, lawns in front and large back yards. In our back yard my father and the gardener, Otto Belue, tended a garden with roses, peonies, iris and a fish pond. The address is 4664 Pershing Avenue and the house is still there.
My first literary endeavor was called “The Autobiography of a Wolf,” written after reading The Biography of a Grizzly. In the end this poor old bear, his health failing, deserted by his mate, goes to a valley he knows is full of poison gas. I can see a picture from the book quite clearly, a sepia valley, animal skeletons, the old bear slouching in, all the old broken voices from the family album find that valley where they come at last to die. “They called me the Grey Ghost. . . . Spent most of my time shaking off the ranchers.” The Grey Ghost met death at the hands of a grizzly bear after seven pages, no doubt in revenge for plagiarism.
There was something called Carl Cranbury in Egypt that never got off the ground. . . . Carl Cranbury frozen back there on yellow lined paper, his hand an inch from his blue steel automatic. In this set I also wrote westerns, gangster stories, and haunted houses. I was quite sure that I wanted to be a writer.
When I was twelve we moved to a five-acre place on Price Road and I attended the John Burroughs School which is just down the road. This period was mostly crime and gangster stories. I was fascinated by gangsters and like most boys at that time I wanted to be one because I would feel so much safer with my loyal guns around me. I never quite found the sensitive old lady English teacher who molded my future career. I wrote at that time Edgar Allan Poe things, like old men in forgotten places, very flowery and sentimental too, that flavor of high school prose. I can taste it still, like chicken croquettes and canned peas in the school dining room. I wrote bloody westerns too, and would leave enigmatic skeletons lying around in barns for me to muse over . . .
“Tom was quick but Joe was quicker. He turned the gun on his unfaithful wife and then upon himself, fell dead in a pool of blood and lay there drawing flies. The vultures came later . . . especially the eyes were alike, a dead blue opaqueness.” I wrote a lot of hangings: “Hardened old sinner that he was, he still experienced a shudder as he looked back at the three bodies twisting on ropes, etched against the beautiful red sunset.” These stories were read aloud in class. I remember one story written by another boy who later lost his mind, dementia praecox they called it: “The captain tried to swim but the water was too deep and he went down screaming, “Help, help, I am drowning.””
And one story, oh very mysterious . . . an old man in his curtained nine-teen-twenties Spanish library chances on a forgotten volume and there written in letters of gold the single word “ATHENA.” . . . “That question will haunt him until the house shall crumble to ruins and his books shall moulder away.”
At the age of fourteen I read a book called you Can’t Win, being the life story of a second-story man. And I met the Johnson Family. A world of hobo jungles, usually by the river, where the bums and hobos and rod-riding pete men gathered to cook meals, drink canned heat, and shoot the snow . . . black smoke on the hip behind a Chink laundry in Montana. The Sanctimonious Kid: “This is a crooked game, kid, but you have to think straight. Be as positive yourself as you like, but no positive clothes. You dress like every John Citizen or we part company, kid.” He was hanged in Australia for the murder of a constable.
And Salt Chunk Mary: ‘mary had all the no’s and none of them ever meant yes. She received and did business in the kitchen. Mary kept an iron pot of salt chunk and a blue coffee pot always on the woodstove. You eat first and then you talk business, your gear slopped out on the kitchen table, her eyes old, unbluffed, unreadable. She named a price, heavy and cold as a cop’s blackjack on a winter night. She didn’t name another. She kept her money in a sugar bowl but nobody thought about that. Her cold grey eyes would have seen the thought and maybe something goes wrong on the next day, Johnny Law just happens by or Johnny Citizen comes up with a load of double-ought buckshot into your soft and tenders. It wouldn’t pay to get gay with Mary. She was a saint to the Johnson Family, always good for a plate of salt chunk. One time Gimpy Gates, an old rod-riding pete man, killed a bum in a jungle for calling Salt Chunk Mary an old fat cow. The old yegg looked at him across the fire, his eyes cold as gunmetal. . . “You were a good bum, but you’re dogmeat now.” He fired three times. The bum fell forward, his hands clutching coals, and his hair catching fire. Well, the bulls pick up Gates and show him the body: “There’s the poor devil you killed, and you’ll swing for it.” The old yegg looked at them coldly. He held out his hand, gnarled from years of safe-cracking, two fingers blown off by the ‘soup”. “If I killed him, there’s the finger pulled the trigger and there’s the tendon pulled the finger.” The old yegg had beaten them at their own game.”
This inspired me to write some crime stories . . . “”Here’s to crime!” he shouted and raised a glass of champagne, but he crumpled like a pricked balloon as the heavy hand of Detective Sergeant Murphy fell on his shoulder.”. . . “Joe Maguire regarded the flushed face of the dealer with disfavor. “A coke bird,” he decided. “Better cut him off the payroll; get coked up and shoot a good client.””
I did a short story too, with a trick ending about this gangster who goes to a fortune-teller . . .” “This man is a criminal,” she thought shrewdly, “a gangster, perhaps . . . he must have made enemies.” “I see danger,” she said. The man’s face twitched–he needed to snow. “I see a man approaching . . . he has a gun . . . he lifts the gun . . . he–” With an inarticulate cry the man leapt to his feet and whipped out an automatic, spitting death at the fortune-teller . . . blood on the crystal ball, and on the table, a severed human hand.”
After reading Eugene Aram’s Dream–which I committed to memory and recited to the class in sepulchral tones–I wrote a series about murderers who all died of brain fever in a screaming delirium of remorse, and one character in the desert who murdered all his companions–sitting there looking at the dead bodies and wondering why he did it. When the vultures came and ate them he got so much relief he called them “the vultures of gold” and that was the title of my story, The Vultures of Gold, which closed this rather nauseous period.
At fifteen I was sent to the Los Alamos Ranch School for my health, where they later made the first atom bomb. It seemed so right somehow, like the school song . . .
Far away and high on the mesa’s crest
Here’s the life that all of us love best
Far away and high on the mesa’s crest I was forced to become a Boy Scout, eat everything on my plate, exercise before breakfast, sleep on a porch in zero weather, stay outside all afternoon, ride a sullen, spiteful, recalcitrant horse twice a week and all day on Saturday. We all had to become Boy Scouts and do three hours a week of something called C.W.–Community Work–which was always something vaguely unpleasant and quite useless too, but A.J. said it was each boy’s cooperative contribution to the welfare and maintenance of the community. We had to stay outdoors, no matter what, all afternoon–they even timed you in the John. I was always cold, and hated my horse, a sulky strawberry roan. And the C.W. was always hanging over you. There were crewleaders, you understand, many of them drunk with power–who made life hell for the crew.
This man had conjured up a whole city there. The school was entirely self-sufficient, raised all the food, etcetera. There was a store, a post office, and one of the teachers was even a magistrate. I remember once he got a case which involved shooting a deer out of season and he made the most of it, went on for days. He had founded the school after he quit the Forest Service because some inspirational woman told him “Young man, there is a great constructive job waiting for you and if you don’t do it now you will only have to do it later under much more difficult circumstances.” So he rubbed a magic lamp of contributions . . . “I know what’s best for boys,” he said, and those Texas oilmen kicked in.
What I liked to do was get in my room against the radiator and play records and read the Little Blue Books put out by Haldeman-Julius, free-thinker and benevolent agnostic . . . Remy de Gourmont . . . Baudelaire . . . Guy de Maupassant . . . Anatole France . . . and I started writing allegories put in a vaguely Oriental setting, with dapper jewel thieves over the wine, engaged in philosophical discussions I prefer not to remember.
“To observe one’s actions with detachment while making them as amusing as possible seems to me . . .”
‘very interesting,” said the imperturbable detective popping up from behind a potted rubber plant. “You are all under arrest.”
I had a bad rep with the other boys . . . “burns incense in his room . . . reading French books . . .” Later at Harvard during summer trips to Europe I started satirical novels about the people I met; one of them begins “”But you see I don’t know much about love,” she said coyly, twisting an old-fashioned.”
Then I had an English period, gentlemen adventurers and all that. . .
‘my god, that poor old chief!” He broke down sobbing.
The other looked at him coldly and raised an eyebrow: “Well after all, Reggie, you didn’t expect him to give us the emeralds, did you?”
“I don’t know what I expected, but not that piranha fish!”
“It was much the easiest and most convenient method.”
“I can’t stick it, Humphreys. Give me my share. I’m clearing off.”
“Why certainly.” He took seven magnificent emeralds from the side pocket of his yellow silk suit and placed them on the table. With a quiet smile he pushed four stones to Reggie.
Reggie was touched. “I mean, hang it all, it was your idea, Humphreys, and you did most of the work.”
“Yes Reggie, you funked it.”
“I am thinking of Jane.”
Reggie made a hasty exit, “I can’t thank you enough” over his shoulder. Humphreys leaned forward, looking at the three emeralds quizzically.
“You’ll be missing your mates, won’t you now? . . . Ali!”
“A white man has just left. He is carrying four green stones. I want those stones, do you understand Ali?”
“Yes master I understand.”
Exit Ali, fingering his kris.
And then I read Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray and Lord Henry gave birth to Lord Cheshire, one of the most unsavory characters in fiction, a mawkishly sentimental Lord Henry . . . Seven English gentlemen there in the club, planning an expedition to the Pole:
“But which pole, Bradford?”
“Oh hang it all, who cares?”
“Why Reggie, you’re as excited as a child!”
“I am, and I glory in it–let’s forget we were ever gentlemen!”
“You seem to have done that already,” said Lord Cheshire acidly.
But it seems the cynical Lord Cheshire had more kindness in him than all the others put together when the supplies gave out . . . “Poor Reggie there, rotten with scurvy, I can’t bear to look at him, and Stanford is cracking, and there have been rumors about Cuthbert . . . Morgan drinks all day, and James is hitting the pipe . . .” So I leave him there on an ice floe, rotten with scurvy, giving his last lime juice to Reggie and lying bravely about it.
“Have you had yours?” the boy said softly.
“Yes,” said Lord Cheshire, “I’ve had mine.”
And I wrote a story for True Confessions, about a decent young man who gets on the dope. He was grieving the loss of a favorite dog, sitting on a park bench looking at the lake, smell of burning leaves . . .
“”Hello kid, mind if I sit down?” The man was thin and grey with pinpoint eyes, the prison shadow in them like something dead. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you look down in the dumps about something.””
In a burst of confidence the young man told him about the dog. “. . . he went back inside the burning house. You see, he thought I was in there.”
“Kid, I got a pinch of something here make you forget about that old dead dog. . .”
That’s how it started. Then he fell into the hands of a sinister hypnotist who plied him with injections of marijuana.
“Kill, kill, kill.” The words turned relentlessly in his brain, and he walked up to a young cop and said “If you don’t lock me up I shall kill you.” The cop sapped him without a word. But a wise old detective in the precinct takes a like to the boy, sets him straight and gets him off the snow. It was a hard fight but he made it. He now works in a hardware store in Ottawa, Illinois . . . the porch noise, home from work . . . “And if any kind stranger ever offers me some pills that will drive all my blues away, I will simply call a policeman.”
A story about four jolly murderers was conceived in the Hotel La Fonda on a rare trip to Santa Fe when I was feeling guilty about masturbating twice in one day. A middle-aged couple, very brash and jolly; the man says ‘sure and I’d kill my own grandmother for just a little kale . . .”
“We have regular rates of course,” the woman observed tartly.
I formed a romantic attachment for one of the boys at Los Alamos and kept a diary of this affair that was to put me off writing for many years. Even now I blush to remember its contents. During the Easter vacation of my second year I persuaded my family to let me stay in St. Louis, so my things were packed and sent to me from the school and I used to turn cold thinking maybe the boys are reading it aloud to each other.
When the box finally arrived I pried it open and threw everything out until I found the diary and destroyed it forthwith, without a glance at the appalling pages. This still happens from time to time. I will write something I think is good at the time and looking at it later I say, my God, tear it into very small pieces and put it into somebody else’s garbage can. I wonder how many writers have had similar experiences. An anthology of such writing would be interesting.
Fact is, I had gotten a real sickener–as Paul Lund, an English gangster I knew in Tangier, would put it . . . “A young thief thinks he has a license to steal and then he gets a real sickener like five years maybe.”
This lasted longer. The act of writing had become embarrassing, disgusting, and above all false. It was not the sex in the diary that embarrassed me, it was the terrible falsity of the emotions expressed. I guess Lord Cheshire and Reggie were too much for me–for years after that, the sight of my words written on a page hit me like the sharp smell of carrion when you turn over a dead dog with a stick, and this continued until 1938. I had written myself an eight-year sentence.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1938 . . . I was doing graduate work in anthropology at Harvard and at the same time Kells Elvins, an old school friend from John Burroughs, was doing graduate work in psychology. We shared a small frame house on a quiet tree-lined street beyond the Commodore Hotel. We had many talks about writing and started a detective story in the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler line. This picture of a ship captain putting on women’s clothes and rushing into the first lifeboat was suddenly there for both of us. We read all the material we could find in Widener’s Library on the Titanic, and a book based on the Morro Castle disaster called The Left-handed Passenger.
On a screened porch we started work on a story called Twilight’s Last Gleamings which was later used almost verbatim in Nova Express. I was trying to contact Kells to see if he had the original manuscript and to tell him that I was using the story under both our names when his mother wrote me that he had died in 1961.
I see now that the curse of the diary was broken temporarily by the act of collaboration. We acted out every scene and often got on laughing jags. I hadn’t laughed like that since my first tea-high at eighteen when I rolled around the floor and pissed all over myself. I remember the rejection note from Esquire: “Too screwy and not effectively so for us.”
I liked to feel that manuscript in my hands and read it over with slow shameless chuckles. The words seemed to come through us, not out of us. I have a recurrent writer’s dream of picking up a book and starting to read. I can never bring back more than a few sentences; still, I know that one day the book itself will hover over the typewriter as I copy the words already written there.
After that I lost interest again and the years from 1938 to 1943 were almost entirely unproductive. In 1943 I met Kerouac and Ginsberg. Kerouac and I collaborated on a novel based on the Carr-Kammerer case, which we decided not to publish, and again I lost interest in writing.
I can remember only one attempt between 1943 and 1949. I was living in Algiers, Louisiana, across the river from New Orleans. I was on heroin at the time and went over to New Orleans every day to score. One day I woke up sick and went across the river, and when I got back I tried to recapture the painful over-sensitivity of junk sickness, the oil slick on the river, the hastily-parked car.