Friday, December 4, 2009


A week and a bit ago, I spent eight days in New York and one in East Hampton, Long Island, where Craig (we're on first-name terms now) lived for most of his professional life. My mission was to interview some of the people who knew him best and who knew him as it were from different angles. It was an illuminating experience, and already, here only at the beginning of my research, I can see that he presented often dramatically varying versions of himself to different people. And so what is developing is, you might say, a sort of cubist portrait.

Just to mention three of the people I talked with:

Arthur Gelb, now 87, was for many years the managing editor of the New York Times, and if ever there was a Grand Old Man of that Great Gray Lady, he's it. He started from almost nothing, a poor kid from the streets of the Bronx, and rose to what is of course one of the most powerful positions of influence in the world. (He tells his own story with vigor and wit in his memoir, "City Room"--a wonderful book redolent of cigarette smoke, strong whiskey, fedoras, all the classic appurtenances of the good old days of reporterdom; his is a story also of courage and integrity.) Gelb was CC's protector and defender at the Times. He created a wall of safety around Craig that meant, effectively, that the food editor and restaurant critic didn't really have a boss. He was free to write as he chose, travel where he chose, make a culinary star of whatever clever home cook he chose, condemn a restaurant as he saw fit (and a Claiborne condemnation could be a restaurant's death sentence). It was Gelb who saw to it that CC and his columns were treated, at the Times, with a seriousness and respect equal to that accorded the paper's critics of books, art, film, and the theatre.

Gelb is still a strong-willed, strongly opinionated powerhouse. He and his wife, Barbara, wrote a biography of Eugene O'Neill when they were quite young, and now they're writing another one. "Covering the same ground?" I asked, a little mystified. "With the benefit of improved perspective," he said, from a height (both figurative and literal; he's very tall).

Ed Giobbi is as diminutive as Gelb is towering. An artist by trade, a very good one indeed, he is also widely known as a brilliant cook; and has published several cookbooks. He was a friend of Craig's from way back and all the way to the end. Unlike many of the others in CC's orbit, Giobbi never wanted anything from him--they were simply friends. Like the truest of true friends, he saw Craig whole, and did not shrink from criticizing him. He struggled with Craig's tragic weaknesses--especially his drinking, which grew worse and worse as Craig grew older and sicker. He also had many funny stories to tell about Craig's less troubling weaknesses, most of them harmless enough to call mere eccentricities. The more we talked--and we talked for hours--the more eccentric I realized Craig Claiborne truly was. And the more intriguing this project became.

The richest interview of all was with Diane Franey, the daughter of the late Pierre Franey, who shared a byline with Craig Claiborne for many years. Pierre was not really a co-writer--he was French, for one thing, with an imperfect command of English--but he was certainly a co-creator of the many joyous occasions that formed the basis for the best of CC's writing about food and food people. Craig discovered Pierre in 1960, when he was chef at what was then indisputably the best restaurant in the United States, Le Pavillon. When the tyrannical owner of the restaurant demanded concessions from the kitchen staff, Pierre led the whole staff out on strike, Craig got wind of this unprecedented scandal, and the story got major play in the New York Times. Suddenly a new category of star had been born: the star chef, an idea that had never before existed in America. And Craig and Pierre became friends for life, and, before long, collaborators--Pierre at the stove, Craig at the typewriter.

What I had not known till meeting Diane was how Pierre's wife and children became Craig's family. For years Pierre worked with Craig without compensation--he literally refused to take money--and so Craig, in gratitude, would shower the whole Franey family with gifts. They often went on vacation together, all on Craig's dime. They were so comfortable together that even though Pierre and his wife Betty knew that Craig was gay, they had no problem with little Diane being Craig's roommate aboard ship or in a hotel (the children were too young to know what it even meant). (It was a source of some irritation through the years that people who knew that Craig was gay but didn't really know him or Pierre just assumed that they were a couple.)

Diane's mother died just a year or so ago, and she now lives in the house she grew up in, a short distance from Craig's East Hampton house. She was just a kid through some of the most important years of Craig's and Pierre's collaboration, but she has a most remarkable memory. She went to nearly every dinner party, knew the regulars, knew the food, knew her father and Craig inside and out. She also has an extraordinary collection of memorabilia, which I didn't have nearly enough time to go through with her. I'll be going back and setting aside much more time for that. One of the real treats of that trip to East Hampton was going with Diane to Craig's first beach house, where many of her fondest memories are set. It has been remodeled, but the dazzling view across Gardiner's Bay remains the same, and she could re-create in her mind where every piece of furniture, every pot and pan used to be. It was the first time she had been there in over forty years, and she was clearly moved.

I had a number of other conversations and will have many more. It is fascinating to see a person taking shape this way. When I have finished writing this book, I believe I will be the one person in the world who knows Craig Claiborne best, because I'll have seen him through so many eyes. And what a gratifying opportunity, and honor, it will be to share that portrait.

Friday, November 6, 2009


I'm mapping this biography job out almost as thoroughly as a real grown-up writer would do. I've got a couple of dozen books on order--I will soon own everything Claiborne ever published. And I'm making a list of the interviews I need to do, and putting the names in order of priority. I leave for New York a week from tomorrow--November 14--and will be there for eight days, seeing as many people as I possibly can.

The most important interview of all, with Arthur Gelb, is already scheduled. Gelb was for many years managing editor of the New York Times, and he was Craig Claiborne's protector and defender par excellence. Apparently CC sort of didn't have a real boss--he was an independent power center at the Times--and that unique position was due to Gelb's indulgence. I don't want to spoil the story, but in later years Gelb played a critical role in what amounted to a plunge into darkness on CC's part. Gelb is a classic old newspaperman, with a growly voice and a get-it-done hurriedness. I'm reading his memoir now, "City Room," of the days when the newsroom was full of smoke and noise and characters.

I hope also to see Diane Franey out in East Hampton, Long Island, where CC lived for many years. Diane's father, Pierre, was considered probably the most brilliant chef in America when he resigned from the best French restaurant in America, Le Pavillon, and began to work with Craig Claiborne at the Times. Their partnership was extraordinary, and CC had a hard time getting Franey's contribution recognized by the paper. In fact he had to quit to persuade them. When he came back, thenceforward the byline would be "by Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey." It drove them both nuts that a lot of people thought they were a gay couple. CC was gay, and Franey was not. His daughter inherited a ton of memorabilia from their work together, and she remembers both of them vividly, so that's going to be an important interview too. Diane is expecting a grandchild, however, precisely on the day our interview is scheduled, and if that baby's not late, then we're going to have to get together later on in the winter. It looks as if I'm going to be in and out of New York a lot.

Because New York still feels more like home to me than any other place on earth, and because I have so many wonderful friends there, and because I just love that city and its people, I am very happy at the prospect of going there often over the coming months.

Monday, October 26, 2009


I'm serious, I'm getting back into the blogging business.

I've just made a deal with the Free Press to write a book about Craig Claiborne, the first food editor of the New York Times. He was kind of the father of everything in the food world--before him there wasn't much but gray roast beef and canned green beans and a few not very good French restaurants.

What I'm planning to do with the blog is not so much to publish samples of my manuscript as to document the process of researching and writing the book. Right now all I've done is write the proposal that was sent around to publishers. Well, I say "all." My ruthless agent, David McCormick, kept me writing and re-writing the damned thing all through the summer and well into the fall before he'd even show it to anybody. I am, in the end, grateful to him, but it was an exhausting experience.

I've also been blessed with a singular piece of luck, in the form of a thesis on Claiborne written by Georgeanna Milam Chapman for her master's degree at the University of Mississippi's Center for the Study of Southern Culture. She did an amazing amount of research, and she has made the whole thing available to me. She is also going to be helping me as I go along, as is her major professor, the redoubtable John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance as well as a notable food writer. Georgeanna and John T. know a great deal about Claiborne--he was a Mississippi Delta boy--and they have both been wonderfully generous to me with their knowledge and their time.

I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and met with my new editor, Emily Loose, and we talked a bunch about all the "non-writing" aspects that are so important to a book's success these days. Literary purists don't love to think about this stuff, and I'm not perfectly comfortable with it myself, but it's the real world, and I remind myself about how artists in the Renaissance had to butter up popes and cardinals and so forth. 'Twas ever so, in fact. Anyway, in the last few days I've been working on this non-writing business, making lists of all the people whom I want to know about the book before it comes out, events we might tie it too, places I might try to publish an excerpt, and so on. Now I start lining up interviews: I'm going back to New York in a couple of weeks for that purpose--that's where many of the most important surviving witnesses to Claiborne's life are. (He died in 2000, at the age of 79.)

When I was in New York I also had dinner at Claiborne's favorite restaurant, Le Veau d'Or, which astonishingly is still there and unchanged. Even M. Treboux, the owner and host, 85 years old, is still there every night, rising creakily from his chair to greet every arriving party, "Bonsoir, madame, bonsoir, monsieur." The whole place is beautifully old and old-fashioned, and I had a meal that Claiborne would have ordered (I know this from his not very good memoir, "A Feast Made for Laughter") (more on that some other time): a martini; a bowl of cool vichyssoise sprinkled with chives; veal kidneys in mustard sauce atop a really much too large mountain of rice (Claiborne detested overlarge portions); and--where else can you get this in New York?--floating island! Was it great? No. But it was fine, and it was a ride in a time machine. The crowd was elegant, civilized, and, so refreshingly, quiet. M. Treboux will be one of my first interviews.

Elegance. Civilization. Gentility. These are going to be some of the qualities Claiborne will evince in the narrative. He felt himself to be an antique in his lifetime, swept aside by waves of vulgarity. Was he...a fuddy-duddy? And in taking this on, and in espousing those values, am I, now, too, or becoming one? I'm not going to worry about it.

The popularity of Barack Obama, I believe, attests to the enduring appeal of elegance and gentility. But I digress.

Bye for now.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Birthday Story

Well, we're in Montana. I've been here since the first of June, and I've got quite a lot of material built up for this blog. The first thing I'm posting--below--dates back to the summer of 2007. It tells about one of the biggest events of my life, one forever linked to my experience of the mountain West. I would like to add up front that I have recovered completely from my injuries.


To celebrate my sixtieth birthday, Elizabeth and I and eight of our most beloved friends--Bob and Grace Anderson, Cheryl Bader, Doug and Roxie Hart, Bob Kiesling and Chris Nielson, and Lexi Rome--were taking a pack trip to Two Ocean Pass, in Wyoming. Two Ocean Pass is a place of deep significance for me, first in my imagination (in the long story “Desire” and my still unfinished novel of the same name), before I had ever seen it, and later as a destination of pilgrimage, the true Northwest Passage, and surely one of the most beautiful places on the earth.

I say the true Northwest Passage, because with the exception of the ice-choked Arctic and the artificial Panama Canal, it is the only water link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans: From the tiny Two Ocean Lake atop Two Ocean Plateau, some ten thousand feet above sea level, the rivulet Two Ocean Creek runs down to Two Ocean Pass, where, exactly astride the Continental Divide, it splits into Atlantic and Pacific creeks, the former a tributary of the Yellowstone River and flowing therefore to the Missouri and the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico and ultimately to the Atlantic Ocean, the latter a tributary of the Snake River, flowing to the Columbia and thence to the Pacific.

There were two particular landscapes I wanted to revisit and to show to Elizabeth and my friends: Two Ocean Plateau, a big mountain whose miles-wide top, comprising meadow and snowfield and krummholz, is so gentle that once achieved--steeply‑‑to explore it asks little more than a stroll; and the valley of the upper Yellowstone, where the wide smooth river winds through a miles-wide plain of willow and meadow and marsh ramparted by volcanic cliffs, like the plateau a wilderness landscape of amazing gentleness. How, I always wondered, had that valley not had a major road rammed through it?

We had booked our trip with an outfitter named John Winter, whom we knew only by his excellent references, because he had a semi-permanent camp near the Parting of the Waters. We were told he was an old-timey outfitter, gruff but good-tempered, a noted Christian, with a string of excellent horses. The morning of our departure, July 20, 2007, the day before my birthday, John sized each of us up briefly and assigned us to our horses. Because in the context of our group I was relatively experienced, he put me on a horse named Chub (the name due to his ample rump), who I immediately sensed would require some conscious application of effort to govern well.

Dude horses, more often than not, must bear loads consisting of people unaccustomed to riding, often big fat hunters, who, in the usual words of some wrangler on every trip, “just set there like a sack of potatoes.” The horses tend to laze along, daydreaming, then realize they’ve fallen behind and rush, trotting, to catch up. It makes for a very uncomfortable ride, from which at day’s end the dudes usually descend sore of butt and exhausted. Doug and Rox were by far our best equestrians, and John gave Doug a distinctly green and rambunctious paint horse, with whom Doug had to struggle all day. My horse had clearly been well trained, once upon a time, but it was also clear that he was not often well ridden. I determined immediately to communicate to Chub that today he was going to be well and consciously ridden. To get that across, I chose an exercise that our great young horsemanship teacher of former days, Buck Brannaman, liked to recommend for the purpose, namely, backing the horse carefully, first straight back, then in a leftward arc, then a rightward. I should also have worked with Chub on the ground, particularly to be sure that he would yield a soft neck, but everybody was in a hurry to get going, because it was already eleven o’clock, the day was going to be very hot, and we had some twenty-one miles to cover. We could, and doubtless should, have left much earlier in the day, but nobody had ever told us in advance where and when we were to gather; we found out only the previous night when John Winter came to Turpin Meadow Lodge and told somebody that we should meet at the outfitters’ trailhead; he was apparently not very specific about the time.

Chub was compliant, but reluctantly. When I rode behind Doug, who kept his horse walking out briskly, Chub was at first still inclined to fall into the old lag-and-trot routine, but he soon enough learned that I was not going to allow him to trot, period, and though I still felt the surge build in him pretty often, I nearly always manage to quell it before he put it into operation. When I rode behind Lexi, however, who was not really riding her horse at all, and was in fact letting him lag-and-trot at will, Chub was almost impossible to keep in line. It was particularly tough when he lost sight of the horse in front of him; then he was almost wild to catch up. For most of the day, therefore, I managed to stay behind either Doug or Roxie, and Chub behaved himself.

The staff did nothing to help us all day. A wrangler named Keith was at the head of our column, leading a long string of pack mules. They should have had another wrangler at the rear of the pack string to watch for tilting packs and accidental unhookings, but that task fell faute de mieux to Doug Hart, and indeed on numerous occasions he had to race forward and help Keith put the string back together. Keith was single-mindedly hell-bent on just getting to camp in good time; and he rarely looked back as he should have done to check on his mules. When Doug had to leave the line to help Keith, Chub would become jittery and skittish. Far at the rear of our procession, the cook, Mary Beth, followed along, out of sight and out of hearing of most of us. Our outfitter himself was a half mile or so farther behind, with a second mule string, and so it was that all day long we had no information about where we were, how much farther we had to go, when we might rest, or anything else. We had also not been provided with enough water, and all of us were dehydrated.

There were two occasions when I sensed trouble with my horse. On the first, when it had been much too long between waterings, Chub bullied his way very aggressively into the midst of the other drinking horses--so aggressively that one of them gave him a remonstrative kick, and Roxie rode her horse out of the traffic jam with a baleful eye on Chub, saying, “That horse bugs me, and I’m just getting out of his way.” The other occasion came when we had all to detour around a tangle of fallen trees. Only a few other horses had been through the deadfall, and the going was delicate and difficult, requiring our horses to step high over the crisscrossed trunks and into narrow spaces between. Where the detour returned to the main trail, it required a powerful bound forward and up, and unfortunately a broken limb was in such a position that it could easily have injured the riders passing through. The limb in fact jammed me in the chest, and I remember thinking that if I hadn’t seen it at the last instant and half-dodged it, it could easily have stabbed me in the chest. I later learned that Elizabeth had had to flatten herself against her horse’s back to avoid it. And Cheryl, who I believe at that time was the next in line after me, though some distance back, had a terrible experience there. Her horse, rather than picking his way carefully through the downfall, jumped each of the trunks, plunged into the narrow space between, jumped again, and finally regained the trail with a leap of such force that Cheryl’s body was whipped back and forth like a willow switch. Her back hurt very badly, and she cried out to me that she wanted to get off and stretch and check herself, but with the other horses, including mine, so far ahead now, her horse refused to stop. We should never have been allowed to spread out in such a fashion, and Keith surely should have stopped and led each of our horses through that dangerous passage.

When I turned Chub back toward Cheryl to help, he resisted fiercely. This, as far as he was concerned, was exactly the wrong direction, and he wasn’t having it. I equally fiercely wasn’t going to tolerate his disobedience, and I forced him to go back to Cheryl, where I got quickly off and held her horse still so she could dismount. After Cheryl had determined that she was uninjured, she remounted, and then I started to do the same, but by then Chub was dancing and wrenching himself away from me so vehemently that I couldn’t get into the saddle. When I finally got him stopped long enough to climb aboard, he whirled again and was ready to charge ahead to catch up with the others, now somewhere well ahead and out of sight. When I made clear that this wasn’t going to be allowed, Chub had the nerve to rear and whirl, almost knocking me off. I pulled him in and assured him that such behavior was not going to be tolerated, and eventually we caught up to the others; but Chub was still angry and restless.

It was getting late in the day--after five by now--and both people and horses were showing the strain. We had no idea where our camp was going to be. At last the Parting of the Waters came, and then it went, and on we rode. Finally we saw a big camp in a grove of trees, with white pyramidal tents scattered in the shadows. Doug and I also noted that there were several people there, and we concluded that it must not be our camp, which we expected to be empty.

For the last hour or so Doug had been leading Chris Nielson’s horse, after she had decided to walk along with Kez (he was nursing an injured leg), and at this moment the horse managed to pull away from him, and Doug dropped the halter rope. He and I then started “playing cowboy,” trying to pick up the lead without getting down from our own horses. I realized later that that horse had pulled away almost certainly because he knew, as we did not, that we had arrived at our camp. Finally Doug dismounted, and I grabbed the loose horse’s bridle. This brought that horse’s head into sudden close proximity to Chub’s head, and he reacted violently, wrenching himself away despite my message, via the reins, that I wanted him to hold still till Doug could come and pick up the other’s horse’s lead. I let go that bridle immediately, but now I found myself in a traffic jam: The rest of the party, their horses also all undoubtedly aware that their long day was over, were piling in behind me, and Chub, feeling crowded, was starting to get crazy.

I decided to try to back him out of the traffic jam, but he was having none of that. To my rein pressure he responded with a violent sawing of his head, and I reacted by increasing the pressure and insisting that he do as he was being told. I know now 1) that if I’d only been informed that we had arrived, none of this would have happened, I would simply have gotten off the horse and led him into camp; and 2) that once the traffic jam had begun, I should not have tried to wrestle Chub into obedience but should instead have relaxed the reins and let him find his own way out of the jam. In the event, however, when Chub couldn’t free himself from the rein pressure by violently tossing his head, he reared again, as though he would climb out of the traffic into the sky.

Instead of releasing the reins, as I now know I should have done, and grabbing Chub’s mane up near the top of his head and pushing him forward and down, I continued to pull on the reins as he rose. I guess this was a sort of panic, my unconscious and very fast reaction being to hold on tight so I wouldn’t slide off backwards. But of course that is precisely what Chub was trying to get me to do, and as he continued to climb the sky I had no choice, and fell backward, from I don’t know what height, hitting the ground hard with my whole back, with a terrible noise.

All of this took place, I believe, in less than a second. As I hit the ground, I looked up and could see the sky full of horse, falling backward on top of me. Somehow I managed to roll slightly to the right, and somehow Chub managed not to fall with his full weight on top of me. Obviously, if he had done that, I wouldn’t be writing this; I would be either paralyzed or dead. Lexi, Cheryl, Doug, Elizabeth, and Roxie all saw him fall, and all were convinced that I was going to die: They perceived that Chub had fallen on me with his full weight. I bore some responsibility for the accident: My having hung on to the reins had helped pull Chub off balance, and caused him to fall backward, flailing, out of his own control--himself, I imagine, in a panic.

I could tell that I was in pain, but I was not feeling the pain. My first reaction was a kind of exhilaration: I’m alive! The second was a determination to stand up and see if my legs and spine and hands were working. Lexi tried to keep me down; everybody wanted me to stay down--what if I had a head injury, a back injury. I didn’t care; I wanted to stand up; and I did. Ascertaining that I seemed to be mechanically functional, I obediently lay back down. Elizabeth was in a panic, squatting on the ground, trembling violently, beginning to sob, desperate for water, saying she felt she might have heart failure. I couldn’t believe it, but I ended up wandering around looking for water for her. Eventually somebody showed up with water for both of us, and I went horizontal again. Where were the staff--Keith and Mary Beth? Certainly not attending to me.

John Winter and his second pack string arrived within a few minutes, and he was obviously very upset. I don’t remember much about what happened in the first minutes after the accident, except that everybody came and had a look at me. Lexi and Cheryl were also crying, both thinking I was hurt much more badly than I was in fact. That was touching. At some point over the next day or so, each of them told me that she loved me. Elizabeth began to recover, and at some point she went up to our tent and set up our mattresses, sleeping bags, and so forth, and then she came and got me and led me up the hill. I remember how badly it hurt my sacrum to walk, especially to put weight on my left foot, and then when I stretched out inside the tent the pain washed over me at last in a great engulfing waves, and I was crying. I had also begun to let myself feel some fear--fear of all the terrible things that could have happened with the slightest change of angles. The saddle horn could have driven into my chest. I could have been crushed by the full weigh of the horse. I could have been paralyzed from the neck down--for life. I could have landed on a rock (there was a good sharp one nearby) and pierced my back, perhaps broken it. I could have had massive internal injuries, sufficient to kill me. I could have broken my skull. Well, the possibilities were endless, and I forced myself not to dwell on them. But how could I not think about the accident? It filled my mind to its remotest corners, and still does, ten weeks later to the day, as I write these few emendations.

And it didn’t have to happen. If only someone--someone on the staff--had said, simply, “We’re here!” I would have hopped down off that horse, led him to wherever he was to be debarrassed of his tack, and sat my butt on the ground with a bottle of cold creek water. Sure, I would have had more trouble with him in the coming days, but this was truly a freak accident, a sudden concatenation of circumstances that were extremely unlikely to occur again.

That night, whenever I changed position--which I needed to do often, because I seemed to be hurting everywhere--an involuntary groan, really quite a dreadful sound, would escape me. Grace, in the morning, thought I’d been having nightmares. She was right in a sense, but I wasn’t asleep at the time. All I had for pain was Ibuprofen. Cheryl had one pill of some sort of muscle relaxant, and Grace had some prescription anti-inflammatory that seemed to have no more effect than the high doses of Ibuprofen I had begun immediately to take.

In the morning--my sixtieth birthday, oh, boy--we had to discuss the option of getting a helicopter to take me to the hospital. Nobody knew what it would cost. Somebody said a thousand dollars, somebody else ten thousand. Nobody knew, of course, whether my insurance would cover it. What I did know was that if I left by helicopter, I would be ruining everybody else’s trip. I found it hard to imagine their enjoying the whole program--party, hikes, rides--while not knowing what sort of shape I was in. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine riding, and in fact at that point I could barely make it walking from our tent to the cook tent, a matter of about sixty feet. I decided to postpone the decision.

That night, before my birthday party began, John Winter offered to say a blessing, which turned out to be quite a prayer, invoking divine aid in my healing. His sincerity was real, and deep. It meant a great deal to me. The party that followed was a riot. Kez had brought funny hats for all, and there were Champagne and good red wine and steaks and even a German chocolate birthday cake that Mary Beth had made in an improvised oven comprising little more than a cardboard box lined with aluminum foil and set on the propane-heated griddle. It was good, too. I didn’t last long, but it was a lovely party, and I felt that if I had to be hurt like this, I couldn’t do it among finer friends. Elizabeth, too, was extraordinary. My present from her was a hand-written “menu” describing a January trip to Paris. She had the whole thing mapped out! Possibly the nicest present I’ve ever gotten.

The next morning, I felt considerably worse than I had yet felt, and it was time to talk helicopter. I tried riding a horse: Walking was barely tolerable, trotting beyond unbearable. John began to conclude that we should at least find out what the helicopter options were. He dispatched a wrangler to ride the ten miles to the Hawk’s Rest patrol cabin. The ranger there was an old acquaintance of mine from my days on the board of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, John Lounsbury; he had been a district ranger in Yellowstone Park. He had already paid our camp a visit, on the morning of my birthday, and had a look at me, and agreed that we might wait a couple of days to see how I did. But now that I was doing badly and thinking of trying to get out, the ranger with the radio was out on patrol, who knew where.

Meanwhile John Winter was trying in all his spare moments to tame Chub, whom the accident seemed rather to have deranged. Chub bucked and snorted and whirled, and, yes, reared. At one point John, on the ground, kicked the horse in the chin, hard. Doug and Rox watched John struggling with Chub, and they said, “Tom, they should never have put you on that horse. Nobody should have been riding that horse.”

I found myself strangely sympathizing with Chub--a sentiment nobody shared. I thought, He has two main flaws, both fixable: 1) He crowds other horses, as he had done when we watered, and yet he also can’t stand to be crowded, especially from behind; and 2) he’s so herdbound that he nearly panics when he loses sight of the other horses. And he had good qualities: He walked right out, though keeping him from breaking into a trot required constant supervision; he had a good strong gait, long steps; he had picked his way meticulously through the tangle of downfall, always steady and careful when it counted; he was relatively comfortable to sit, despite his rather grand girth; he was even affectionate and calm except when he was disturbed by isolation. I wondered also if the fact that he turned out to be missing a shoe could have added to his fatigue and frustration toward the end of the day. (He had huge, dinner-plate-sized, feet, evidently some draft-horse blood--which is so often, at least in other horses, a calming element.)

Our wrangler went back the next morning to see if John Lounsbury had returned, and he had. He said he would have to come to our camp to determine my condition before he could order a helicopter. He had seen me all bushy-tailed and cheerful in the false euphoria of my early shock, and now probably would doubt whether I warranted so dramatic and expensive a measure. So I decided to let it go a day and see how I was. I didn’t get much better, and after another night, in the dim pre-dawn of five o’clock, I heard people talking softly and saddling up a horse. Sure enough, it was John Winter and the wrangler, and they were heading to Hawk’s Rest to take the next steps toward getting the helicopter. I told them that I was feeling much better that morning‑‑and was I? I’m not sure. I asked them not to go, and they agreed, with some relief, I think, and unsaddled their horses.

And so I passed the week in camp, trying a walk only once. In the end we decided that Glenn [Winter?], John Winter’s uncle, a longtime backcountry horseman about eighty years old who had just come along for the ride, would lead me out on the quietest horse in the string, going very slowly so that my horse would never be tempted to trot. Elizabeth decided to come along. It worked very well--a long, slow day, and painful of course, but bearable.

We had a nice farewell diner at Turpin Meadow Lodge, and then I faced another long day, this time in the car, heading “home” to Melville, Montana, where we had rented a house for the months of June and July. (More on that to come.)

I couldn’t stand the thought of a long day in the emergency room in Bozeman or Billings--and I had only two days to prepare for the long drive home, with a great deal of packing and other work to do--so I contented myself with a visit to the Pioneer Medical Center in Big Timber. The doctor there was on loan from the Billings hospital, and had studied at the medical school of the University of California at San Francisco--one of the best--and I felt quite confident in him, but the young x-ray technician, who barely spoke English and seemed hardly to know where he was, inspired no confidence at all, and indeed when the eight films came back, seven of them were virtually opaque. The doctor said that their equipment was quite old, and that in the x-rays he could read only that my spine seemed to be okay. After pressing on me here and there, he said he thought I didn’t have any broken ribs, but I should go to a medical center as soon as I got home to San Francisco. The big thing was that he gave me a prescription for Vicodin, which made a major difference in the pain--a week, now, since the accident.

Cheryl and Elizabeth were both to be flying from Billings on Tuesday, August 7, to Memmphis and San Francisco, respectively, but Elizabeth left the closet door open that allowed our cat, Augusta, access to her hidey-hole, so when the time came for departure and there was apparently no way to get the cat out, Elizabeth decided that it would be better in any case if she were to drive me home. Well, yes, especially since driving on Vicodin wasn’t recommended. It was rather queer that it took this mistake for the right thing to come to pass, but I was still glad. Elizabeth took Cheryl to Billings, and Augusta soon reappeared.

We packed up and prepared to leave early in the morning of Thursday, August 9, but I had had so much pain on the night of the 7th that the doc had given me a new Rx, this one for oxycodone, a real narcotic. It was in fact more effective, but I seemed to have a paradoxical reaction to it: Far from making me sleepy, it kept me awake for hour after hour. At three o’clock in the morning I was still awake, and I left a note for Elizabeth begging that we not leave till noon. I still didn’t get a decent night’s sleep.

But we pressed on, and made it to Elko, Nevada, something like seven hundred miles, with four minutes to go before the great Star Hotel Basque steakhouse was to close. We left Augusta in the car because if we had taken the time to check in to our motel we’d have missed our good dinner. We were giddy with fatigue, but that superb steak and a bottle of Marqués de Murrieta Rioja were wonderfully refreshing.

We slept well. Augusta, for the first time in her long, miserable career of raising hell all night in motels, stayed quiet, and though she wasn’t easy to dislodge from under the bed in the morning, we were on the road by nine, and home before seven. Exhausted, and, in my case, hurting pretty badly.

I went the next day, a Saturday, to the urgent care unit at UCSF hospital on Parnassus, and waited about two hours till finally a “real” city doctor saw me. He ordered up some x-rays, which took a while longer. He said that the good news was that I had no broken bones, but that I should nevertheless see a back doctor as soon as possible because of my still-hurting sacroiliac. Back doctors seem to be scarce in San Francisco in August, but finally my primary doctor’s assistant found me one who could see me that coming Tuesday, August 14. He was not an orthopedist but an osteopath and an internist, but my doc Andereck’s partner, Jane Hightower, recommended him highly. Robert Minkowsky turned out to be very amusing, very thorough, and a perfect image of a Jewish New York doctor; which I found comforting even before he began practicing on me. He said that even though the UCSF doc had told me I had no broken bones, the radiology report made no mention of my ribs--despite the fact that that doc had told me that they also would be x-rayed. Well, so Minkowsky sent me in to the California Pacific Medical Center for what would be my third x-ray session. I didn’t see why I needed to see Dr. Jane Hightower after Minkowsky, but she had asked me to come in, so I did. She poked at me and spent most of the time bragging about her pioneering work on mercury contamination in fish; she assured me also that I had no broken bones.

But later that day Minkowsky called to say that the new x-ray report had come to him, and I had three broken ribs. This was now over two weeks after the accident. It didn’t really matter that much, however, since the treatment was to be nothing at all--just no lifting, please, no hiking, no strain of any kind. Hightower, to her credit, called to apologize and told me that I had very supple bones...for a man of my age....

I’m writing this September 1, 2007. The last couple of weeks have been mainly a time of idleness and of getting adjusted to the persistent core of the story, which is that I came very close to either dying or being paralyzed. When I told the whole story to my sometime psychotherapist, Cynthia Kessler, in greater detail than I had subjected anybody else to, she recommended that I write this. Well, I can’t see that it will ever have any commercial application, but, pace Dr. Johnson ("No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money"), I agreed that it was a good idea.

Well, basically I think I’ve done the job now and so will quit.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009's been a while. Apologies to all. I've been in ferment.

Like bread dough, or wine, I suppose. Anyhow: I've finally been persuaded by my literary agent, David McCormick, whose judgment I esteem highly, that now is not the time to try to sell my memoir. "Market conditions," doncha know. Plus there's what my non-soft-spoken publisher said to me when I first raised the idea to her: "Look, Tom, you're not famous and you're not a drug addict." Okay, okay.

What David has wanted me to do all along is either a food book or a biography--to take advantage of the success of my Alice Waters book. Well, what I've finally stumbled on is both: the life story of Craig Claiborne.

I know, I can hear the sound of heads being scratched from here. Who? Well, if you're from New York and you're old enough, or you're in any part of the food universe, of course you know who he was. For those of you outside those categories: He created the food universe as we know it. As the first food critic and food editor of the New York Times, he was all-powerful, and seemingly all-knowing. Actually, rather than belabor this, I think I'll just cut and paste a little short piece I wrote about him in 1999 for Saveur magazine:

"As food editor of The New York Times for over thirty years, Craig Claiborne famously did whatever the hell he wanted to do. In 1957, when he started, New York was tyrannized by a handful of stuffy French restaurants that really weren't very good, and on April 13, 1959, Claiborne socked them in their collective nose: ELEGANCE OF CUISINE IS ON WANE IN U.S., ran his headline--on the front page of the Sunday Times.

"One reason for that waning may well have been how few Americans really cared what they ate. It was the age of frozen TV dinners, tuna casseroles, miniature marshmallows, Jell-o. Claiborne was a natural esthete and a Swiss-trained chef, and he was appalled. But he was also thoroughly American. He did love the classic haute cuisine of Henri Soulé's legendarily snobbish Le Pavillon, but he also loved great Chinese cooking, and Italian, and Mexican, and Spanish, and Southern. He recognized that people who love good food are bound together across cultures and through time, and that the wildly various gene pool of America put us in a uniquely privileged position, if only we would seize the opportunity.
"Craig Claiborne embodied the equal opportunity of excellence wherever bred. He brought rigor to restaurant criticism, with the first use in this country of a rating system and a clear understanding of the techniques, the ingredients, and the artistry that must be combined in true culinary excellence. In The New York Times Cookbook Claiborne simply put the food that he liked best, and damn the distinctions of foreign and domestic, high and low.

"His writing for the Times came to embody a way of life, in which cooking and eating seemed always to take place in the context of friendship. Claiborne's kitchen on Long Island became a theatre of celebration, to which an invitation was both a command and a delight. Penelope Casas, Marcella Hazan, or Diana Kennedy might whip up a feast while Claiborne clattered away on his big IBM typewriter, laughing and sipping champagne. The great chefs of the world would answer the summons to East Hampton, and the event, as Claiborne would report it, was less a cooking lesson than a party. His friendship with the former chef of Le Pavillon, Pierre Franey, led to many years of collaboration; that friendship was so deep that when the Times, in 1972, declined to give Franey equal credit for the work he shared with Claiborne, Claiborne quit.

"When he returned to the paper two years later, the by-line would read, "By Craig Claiborne with Pierre Franey." When Claiborne, with a $300 bid in a charity auction, won a dinner for two anywhere in the world with no limit on the cost, it was Franey he took along. With intricate planning and a host of elderly wines, they managed to spend $4000 in a tiny Paris bistro. The meal made the front page and met with outrage and wonderment worldwide. It wasn't really all that good, Claiborne cattily confided. And the Times hadn't even known he was going until he filed his story.

"Craig Claiborne wanted America to become a good place to eat, and as usual he got his way. I wonder what he's having for dinner tonight."

Pretty sappy piece. Makes no mention of the darkness that haunted him from childhood on. Claiborne was gay when being out was out of the question, and it troubled him deeply. His last years were spent in misery, isolation, and an alcoholic fog (he died in 2000). He thrived on friendship, and then all of a sudden, after years, would inexplicably blow off a friend forever. The more I learn about him, the more complex and self-contradictory he becomes. He really does seem like a character from Shakespeare, heroic one moment, contemptible the next, blind to himself, then suddenly acutely self-knowing. It's going to be a doozy of a project.

Best of all, John T. Edge, the redoubtable head of the Southern Foodways Alliance--part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, based at Ole Miss--has introduced me to a former graduate student of his who spent two years researching her thesis on...Craig Claiborne. Georgeanna Milam Chapman grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, not far from Memphis, so we both know at least a later version of the world into which Claiborne was born. Morever, having been born in Sunflower, Mississippi, in 1920, he occupied precisely the social station and Delta culture that my father did, who was born only 35 miles away and seven years earlier.

There's going to be a big Claiborne powwow / celebration in New York on June 12, which John T. is piloting, and it seems as though everybody still alive who knew him is going to be there. Best of all, Georgeanna, despite having a baby just four months old, is coming too. (She's bringing her mama to help take care of the little girl.) It looks as though, assuming all goes well, Georgeanna's going to work with me on the book, and that will make the whole thing a great deal easier. And quicker. I should say less slow.

Meanwhile, I'm gearing up to head to Montana. I leave this coming Saturday, and about mid-morning as I near the Nevada line, my good ol' Techno-Violet 1996 BMW M3 will pass its hundred-thousandth mile. As I try do do every year, I will take at least part of the trip on obscure, winding roads--in this case a very obscure one north out of Elko, Nevada, to Mountain Home, Idaho, and then across central Idaho. That first leg from Elko is right at 200 miles and there's not even a gas station along the way. The M3 needs to breathe! at least once or twice a year.

Supposedly I was going to be there all of June and July in monklike seclusion, with Elizabeth joining me late in June. I was going to rise at dawn, or before, every day, and keep a journal as I did last year, except this year I was going to post it here. I'm still going to stick with that as well as I can, but now I've got to go to New York June 10-16 for the Claiborne powwow and associated stuff, and only a few days after I get back I'm off to Cleveland for my dear niece Dr. Kate Blumoff's wedding, and not long after that the Montana social whirl gets to whirling. All us summer folks catching up, dinner parties, picnics, etc.--you'd think it was the coast of Maine. And then we've got very welcome guests coming for a week in July: My best friend going all the way back to, I think, fifth grade, Bob Towery, and his wife, Patty. Somewhere in the midst of all that, I am determined to find some stillness, identify our daily-changing panoply of wildflowers, stand in the middle of Sweet Grass Creek and maybe catch a trout or two, climb into the Crazy Mountains and, this year, all the way to the top of Elephant Head Mountain, pick huckleberries and blueberries, get to know the sandhill cranes, whimbrels, godwits, curlews nesting out on the prairie....

Enough for now.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


(This is the eighth chapter of my memoir, and the last one so far that's fully written. I'm now involved in a couple of other projects, and it may be a while before I return to this one. But return I will. I have promised myself to finish this--that is, to bring it up to 1993. A sequel will pick the story up from there and take it--well, I don't know where.)

As my parents pulled away from the curb in their long green Buick Electra, I burst into tears. This made no sense. For the three days of the drive from Whitehaven to New Haven, we had mostly sat in grim silence, in the grip of an unnameable malaise. All three of us seemed to be angry, but I think none of us knew at what; I certainly didn’t. Looking back, I wonder if we were just unhappy that we weren’t going to be together, however miserable we made ourselves together.

Behind me, Bingham Hall rose in mock-Gothic grandeur, filling with my fellow freshmen. Bingham was one of the relatively nicer residence halls (Yale did not use the word dormitory) on the Old Campus, the city-block quadrangle where all but a few freshmen lived. There were to be four of us in suite 1092, which comprised two bedrooms and an unusually large living room with a bay window overlooking the Green. None of us knew one another. Joe Seiter was a swimmer from Ohio, even greener than me. Simon Whitney was an eccentric intellectual from New Jersey, scion of a great intellectual family many of whose men had gone to Yale. (One of them, Eli, was the inventor of the cotton gin, the technology that had made possible the cruel culture into which my father had been born.) And then there was Rick Platt, whose Yale heritage went back almost to its founding in 1701: In 1718 the college had moved to New Haven, and one of Rick’s forebears was among the donors of land for it; Rick’s family had been prominent at Yale and in New York ever since. He had graduated from Phillips Andover Academy and was rich and knew everything about Yale and wore his comprehensive advantages without false modesty, and I was scared to death of him. He knew I was, and didn’t seem to trouble himself about it. I would soon learn that his blithe disregard of my discomfort was a conscious act of decency: To have recognized my distress would have been to condescend to me. That was the first of his countless kindnesses.

That evening we trooped into the cavernous Commons, where all thousand freshmen and many graduate students were fed three times a day. Rick knew and greeted quite a few guys, for Andover as usual had provided more of the class of 1969 than any other school. Ours would be the last class in which public school boys were the minority, but minority we were, by definition new and ignorant and, most of us, less well heeled, and we would in Yale’s nature’s way be silently demeaned as such. At least I wasn’t a bursary boy (a scholarship student, with mandatory on-campus employment), collecting others’ dirty dishes and mopping the floors. Rick introduced his three ungainly new roommates around with deft aplomb.

We absorbed much social information in those first few days, most of it from watching Rick’s ilk taking their places in the ecosystem. They seemed to me to do it effortlessly. The cultivation of that appearance of perfect ease was one of the most striking behaviors we could learn, or not, or disdain. So it was, by this and a thousand other half-conscious fine distinctions, that the freshmen quickly sorted themselves into categories, little knowing that most of them would wear their archetypes, like turtles’ carapaces, unchangeable through the next four years.

The smell of Commons also never changed, from morning to night or season to season. It was, most saliently, of soup—tomatoes, beef, celery, carrots, and onions its relentless theme—but also of disinfectant, bacon grease, old leather, polished oak, male adolescence, and spilled milk.

Milk was dispensed from heavy plastic fifteen-gallon bladders controlled by a valve that nearly always leaked a bit. Later in freshman year, when water-balloon warfare had come to define the common ethos of the Old Campus, Joe Seiter stood atop Bingham’s nine-story tower, wedged into the battlement and lifting one of those bladders over his head. Filled with water now, it weighed ninety pounds. He looked like Hercules. Below him—for word of his great act of daring had traveled fast—several hundred freshmen raised our voices in a raw animal cheer. With awesome strength he heaved the world’s largest water balloon into the air. It fell, twisting, and fell, and fell, and exploded. Water shot a hundred feet in all directions. It was magnficent. Never again would a bursary boy—for Seiter was one—be seen as less than a possible hero.


We were the last all-male class of Yale College. We were the last class to wear coats and ties to every meal and therefore to most classes as well. We were the last to be graded with numbers, seventy to a hundred. We were the last to suffer under strict parietal hours—no girls in the rooms after midnight, their hotels locked down like high-security prisons. My teachers called me Mr. McNamee, and I addressed them as Mr., Mrs., or Miss; never were they referred to as or called professors. We smoked in class. Neither the liquor stores in the neighborhood nor the University itself observed the minimum drinking age of twenty-one. When our magnificent president, Kingman Brewster, rose to address us in his perfectly tailored double-breased suit and his deep patrician voice, he said his duty was to provide the nation with one thousand male leaders each year. Even the lowest of us were superior beings; the highest were like gods.

Tradition permeated life at Yale, and at least in the fall of 1965, conformity to it was largely taken for granted. We would buy a big wool banner to proclaim YALE on our living room walls. We would order Yale-crested stationery with our new Yale Station addresses. We would subscribe to the Yale laundry service (which may have sounded déclassé but made its student operators rich), the Banner (the yearbook), the Yale Daily News, The New York Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. In preparation for the mandatory Body Mechanics course at the gym, we were photographed nude with posture indicators sticking out of us like sparse porcupine quills; many years later I heard that there was a gay-underground trade in these images. We wore Bass Weejuns and Top-Siders and heavy wingtips, khaki or gray flannel trousers, oxford-cloth button-down-collared shirts, crew-neck sweaters, tweed jackets or navy blazers from J. Press, White’s, and Chipp in New Haven or Brooks Brothers in New York. In any of those stores we were waited on like royalty—you filled out a brief form, and could charge whatever you liked. We bought ties bearing the emblems of the schools where we prepped (Whitehaven High School of course didn’t have a tie) or our new residential colleges (there were twelve of these, where we would live after freshman year—we inmates of Bingham were already assigned to Silliman College). We went to Mory’s on Monday nights to drink Green Cups from old silver trophies and to hear the Whiffenpoofs sing old Yale songs.

To the tables down at Mory's,
To the place where Louis dwells,
To the dear old Temple Bar
We love so well,

Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high,
And the magic of their singing casts its spell.

Yes, the magic of their singing
Of the songs we love so well:
"Shall I, Wasting" and "Mavourneen" and the rest.
We will serenade our Louis
While life and voice shall last,
Then we'll pass and be forgotten with the rest.

We are poor little lambs
Who have lost our way.
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We are little black sheep
Who have gone astray.
Baa! Baa! Baa!

Gentlemen songsters off on a spree,
Damned from here to eternity--­­
God have mercy on such as we.
Baa! Baa! Baa!

At football games, we sang incessantly the idiotic fight song that Cole Porter had written when an undergraduate here:

Bulldog, bulldog, bow wow wow! EEE-liii-Yale!”

Entirely unconsciously, I aligned myself with a crowd whom I deemed to be Winners—not the geniuses or the great jocks but those who would be Winners in Life. They were mostly preppies, mostly rich, highly ironical in conversation, brutal in the putting-down of grinds, nerds, and losers. Nearly all of them had silly nicknames. From them I learned new slang: quiff for girl or girls; helmet for the brown helmet of shit on one’s head administered by an unwilling quiff; a-m-a-a-a-zing for anything above moderately good; flamer (short for flaming asshole), a blowhard or showoff; doon, a moron; weenie, a weakling, a nobody, a whiner; blip (short for psychedelic blippo), a longhair or dope smoker (in use until we all started smoking dope also). A few of these guys were pretty openly standoffish toward me, my background being so far below their standard, but many more took particular trouble to guide me in the mysterious folkways of their ilk. One of my best ciceroni was Jeff Wheelwright—“Wheels”—a walking encyclopedia of insulting argot and inside information.

“You should know,” Wheelwright recalls, “that I take credit for Garry Trudeau's ‘Doonesbury.’ The original doon was my St. Paul’s classmate Charlie Pillsbury (who later roomed with Trudeau and my brother Joe in Davenport College). But I was the one who affixed Doon to Pillsbury."

There were also formal organizations, seemingly hundreds of them—the Record (humor magazine), the Lit, the Political Union (every conceivable flavor of party, and much formal debate), WYBC radio, the Dramat, the Marching Band (proudly the most satirical in the nation—they would run onto the field in chaos before settling grumpily into formation), the Russian Chorus, the big whole-class teams in every sport, including some I’d never heard of, such as lacrosse, and quite a few others I’d never seen—polo, soccer, squash, rugby, and crew). Each residential college fielded its own team in all the usual sports plus fencing, sailing, wrestling, hockey, and bridge. Perhaps the topmost of all Yale traditions were the a capella singing groups. Everybody seemed to be joining something, or a number of somethings. Showing an early, inarticulable aversion to organization, I joined nothing.


I wrote long, passionate letters of love to Susan Love until she dumped me, by post, good and hard. My feelings were hurt plenty, but I had known it was coming. Now I could face the now. The quest for quiff obsessed us all; a great many of us were still virgins. As the days grew short and New Haven lapsed into its customary weeks on end of rain and fog, longing rose in the blood like rage. We piled into stuffy, smoky cars for mixers at Smith, Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, and farther. Girls came to our own dances by sassy busloads. Very few of us had girlfriends, and the preppies had very little experience of girls at all, so there was a lot of loitering at the edge of the dance floor silently pining, sucking down beer after rancid beer. The girls were fabulous, with long, straight, lustrous hair, short plaid skirts, pastel Capezio ballet slippers, silver laughs. I was a doon.

Eventually, despite all, a few connections were made, which led to others, à la “Your roommate should meet my roommate.” Through an old girlfriend of Rick Platt’s at Vassar I had my first actual date, with a girl a foot taller than me and the musculature of a fullback. I remember dancing with my nose between her breasts, which smelled rather nice. She was awarded a nickname, The Elk.

Then there was a very rich and very pretty girl from New York, who asked me to be her escort at her début. Deb party, deb party, I heard the term a hundred times a week. I had never been to one. This one was to be at the Plaza Hotel, and white tie. White tie, and I hadn’t even had a chance to wear my suave shawl-collared tuxedo. I took the train into town, found my way to the formalwear rental joint all Yalies used (well, those who didn’t already own a white tie), got suited up, and presented myself at the girl’s house’s door, in the East Fifties just off Sutton Place. Her little brothers’ and sisters’ toys littered the front hall, which was narrow and unprepossing; but then, as she came down the stairs in sparkling splendor, I realized that her family’s house was five stories high—like a real house turned on its end. My early years in New York had never introduced me to the concept of the brownstone townhouse.

In the next few minutes I learned how to hail a cab, how to pay, how much to tip, how a white-gloved arm rested ever so lightly inside one’s elbow as one mounted the stairs to the ballroom. My date had already rehearsed me on the promenade and presentation, and we got through that pretty painlessly. I saw a number of Yalies I recognized, but none I knew. She, however, knew nearly everyone, and much of my evening consisted of trailing along behind her, being introduced and then ignored in breathless conversations about wonderful people and divine places I’d never heard of.

The party turned out to be a charity ball, and therefore had a cash bar. This I had not been warned about. We drank a lot, and my exchequeur dwindled apace. Then there was the Brasserie, where we all went after the party, I thoroughly drunk but sober enough to be stunned at the price of the drinks, and how much everybody consumed. I believe there were a few in our group who splashed about in a fountain. By four in the morning I had just enough money left to get my date home in a taxi. Neither of us had had a very good time, and I never saw her again.

Rick Platt had arranged for me to lodge in the apartment of an old aunt of his at Fifth Avenue and Sixty-sixth Street. In the inkily empty city, with my return train ticket and not one dollar bill in my wallet, it was a very long walk from that brownstone. My only obligation to my hostess was to join her for breakfast at seven-thirty. I was still fairly drunk, and could not open my eyes properly.

“Where are you from?” demanded the grande dame, who clearly did not give a damn.

“Well, Memphis, but when I was a kid we lived in New---“

“Memphis. Ah,” she said, and rang a little silver bell.

A daintily uniformed maid—a white girl—served us a dainty little breakfast. I managed to choke down my eggs and drink my coffee and not be sick. I never saw her again either.

One bright Friday afternoon we hung a sheet from our bay window, crudely lettered PARTY—GIRLS WANTED—FREE DRINKS. We cranked up the Rolling Stones and faced the speakers out the window. Crude gesture though it was, we managed to harvest a few townies (there was a nice Yale word), in one of whom I saw a possible opportunity to dispose at last of my virginity. She was ugly, young, and dazzled by Yale. We went on several furtive, sordid dates, and grappled in the dark behind Sally’s Apizza (she pronounced it ah-beets), which she assured me was New Haven’s best (Yalies pronounced it New Hayven). She maintained possession of her treasure. I was not nearly as ashamed as I should have been.


In sexual foolishness and insensitivity I had lots of company. In academic matters, we all began with consultation and cooperation—a wise, kind graduate student ordained to be our counselor lived just next door, the gracious Dean of Silliman College enjoyed dispensing advice, and Rick Platt had the skinny on just about every course on offer—but once we had chosen our curriculum, we were each alone.

I have not yet forgiven Rick for urging me to get out of Rocks and Stars (a semester of geology followed by another of astronomy, a notorious “gut” heavily populated with jocks) and to sign up for physics, a full year’s worth of serious study. Three mornings a week, the class began at an ungodly hour (eight) in the faraway altitudes of Prospect Avenue. The book, the teacher, and his scribbled formulae on the blackboard were incomprehensible to me. The guy I sat behind had on the back of his neck a gigantic, red, and oozing carbuncle, at which he worked his fingers angrily throughout the classes I was attending less and less often. At year’s end, the teacher would call me in to explain that the only reason he had given me a passing grade was so that I might not be seen on Science Hill again.

On the other hand, our Bingham counselor wondered, considering my performance in high school, why I had not signed up for a course more advanced than English 15. How, he asked, had I scored on my English A.P.?

My what? Neither I nor my Whitehaven guidance counselors had ever heard of advanced placement tests, which virtually all my Yale classmates had taken several of.

Well, not to worry, he believed I would do well in English 25, a survey of English poetry, and he made a particular request on my behalf. I have forgotten his name, but never my gratitude to him, for English 25 under Mrs. Finkelstein was sheer esthetic delight. In the swirl and murk of family discord, girl troubles, social disorientation, and the nurturing of my self-regard, I had nearly forgotten beauty. Mrs. Finkelstein began our first class by braying out the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales in an accent composed of three equal parts of Russian, Oxonian, and Middle English, replete with trilled Rs (Whan that Ah-prrril) and back-of-throat unvoiced fricatives (the drrroughte of Marrrch)—it was gibberish, but it was beautiful. Soon enough it would no longer be gibberish but a symphony that plays in my mind to this day. How could this big, bluff Russian have so entirely mastered not only the matter but also the magic of all of English literature? Who knew, but she had, and every class revealed another facet of miracle. She transformed Spenser from irrelevant antiquity to shepherds’ songs of aching heart and sweet repose. We discovered that Pope could be a laugh riot. In Milton we flew and plunged and raged with Satan, imagining imagining [sic] all that with blind eyes. With spring would come Wordsworth, and what at Whitehaven had been a pompous thee or thou would become, through Mrs. Finkelstein’s passion and precision, a vividly particular, exquisitely observed object or person. This beauty, I came to believe, was what I was born for.

With the leaden exception of physics, I floated through the academic months like a hot-air balloon, aloft on pure residual ego and the hot air with which I filled my papers and exams. I loved my French course and its urbane Parisian teacher. I loved psychology, its Skinner boxes and penis envy. I loved the history of music, dissecting a Bach cantata, plumbing the ramifying depths of the sonata form. I loved navigating the labyrinth of the country’s second-biggest library (after Harvard’s, natch). I loved that I could drink bourbon with one hand and read Pound with the other. But I had no discipline; I had never learned to organize an extended essay or to look deep into the heart of a poem. Luckily I learned the high value much of Yale set on bullshit. If you could say it well, and I could; if you could spin out a wacky, hopelessly complex theory from fragments of philosophy, history, and the classics, and I could; if you could stay up all night till you lost all conscious control and some blue muse began to babble bullshit through your pen, and at times I did—then you could stay afloat. But only for so long. Sympathy was deeply ingrained in Yale’s academic culture, as was kindness, as was tolerance for personal woes and teenage angst, but eventually—after the old Whitehaven boy’s struggle to be the new Yale Man at Christmas at home, after the crush and exhaustion of Reading Period, and at last with the January-bitter blast of exams—bullshit started smelling like bullshit, my balloon ran out of hot air, and the only voice left speaking comprehensibly was that of the numbers. As a scholar, said my grades, Tom wasn’t doing so great.

And yet. What I was learning from my peers seemed just as important as what I was not quite living up to in the academic realm. It was hard sometimes to swallow my envy. So-and-so had been skiing at Gstaad last month. Another guy’s dad was ambassador to Japan. Somebody was going to spend the summer doing marine research in the Antarctic or making wine in Austria. They had read War and Peace in Russian. They played the harpsichor, they played the drums, they played golf at St. Andrew’s. Their family had a hundred million dollars and five houses. Their mother was a movie star. So they knew stuff, and I soaked it up thirstily.

Simon Whitney, another of my roommates, had made a perfect eight hundred on both the verbal and the math Scholastic Aptitude Tests. His I.Q., someone said, was beyond measurement. His uncle was one of the greatest mathematicians of the century. His father taught economics at Rutgers, and advised presidents. His mother played the cello. What I learned from Simon was that there was no limit to eccentricity. When his dirty clothes piled too high on his bed, he slept on the floor. In order not to be disturbed at his homework, he made a turban of a towel and wedged a buzzing electric toothbrush into its folds. One winter afternoon, when I had been reading alone in the living room for a couple of hours and it was time for dinner, I went to the closet to get my overcoat, and there stood Simon, staring at me blankly, saying nothing, only the faintest glimmer of amusement on his face. He had stood in the dark at least half the afternoon just waiting to weird the hell out of somebody.

Rick Platt and I stayed up late talking almost every night, till we were hungry enough for a second dinner at a greasy spoon somewhere off campus. He seemed to know everything. Or what he didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing. My envy of him and his tribe began to melt away. The snobbery and really quite nasty putdowns that figured so prominently in the behavior of so many Yalies of privilege came to seem weakly defensive. I hadn’t been able to imagine the competitiveness among them: To me they had seemed a bloc of uniform privilege. Now I was starting to understand that their swagger concealed that especially anxious insecurity which is born of the closest differences in rank. And they themselves, some anyhow, were discovering, with difficulty, that kindness begat kindness, and that unfeigned interest was more productive than the reflexive brushoffs of the unfamiliar that were their inheritance.

I also began to sense that the nonspecific longing that attached itself to sex or money or social power could also do work inside a poem, and yield a greater reward there.


So I told myself anyway, when the better angels of my nature paid me one of their occasional calls. I was writing poetry, and seeking beauty not only in it but everywhere—in a breeze, a tune, a turn of someone else’s phrase. I went to New York to visit a guy I knew from Whitehaven, a year older, who went to Columbia. Columbia was great—brainy, intense, cosmopolitan—and my old friend had become all that too. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul was just out, and we shared a passion for it; and now we shared a marijuana cigarette. As is often the case with first-time users, the effect was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize. The prescription for such neophytes is to smoke some more, which I did. Still not stoned? Torch up another one. Now I got it. Now I heard and heard into the depths of the depths of the soul of the soul of the strange new music of the Beatles, with its droning sitars and underwater voices. One day long thence, pot would turn around and bite me, but that winter night it brought me beauty on a filigreed tray, nestled in thistledown, scented with divinity.

All this intellectual and esthetic elevation was very nice, but it wasn’t getting me the thing I had most craved for at least the last three years, viz., laid. At the first surge of want—and these occurred about a dozen times a day—poetics, beauty, philosophy, and even the delights of getting high flew out the window. With both the townies and the Seven Sisters I had gotten nowhere. Now, along with virtually everybody else in my class, I invested three bucks in what I believe was the first computer-dating scheme, Operation Match. It had been invented at Harvard. Why hadn’t I applied there? They took only four courses to our five, and everybody, now including me, knew that Yale was much harder. Anyway, where was I, Operation Match. You assigned a value, one through five, to a list of your own qualities and then to a list of the qualities you desired in a match. Brains: self, five; girl, four. Looks: self, three; girl, five. Sex appeal: five, five! There were also yes-or-no questions: “Is extensive sexual activity (in) preparation for marriage part of ‘growing up’?” and “Do you believe in a God who answers prayer?’” After a very long wait (computers were slower then), I got a printout of six names, addresses, and phone numbers. Five of the girls being at Smith, I arranged to spend an entire Saturday in Northampton, meeting them one after another on the hour. Not one of them appealed, and I don’t think any of them liked me much either. The sixth name was that of a girl at Wheaton, a story for later. This was getting ridiculous. I had to make a plan.

It wasn’t really a plan, but based on careful consideration of the odds, I invited for the big spring weekend the music-loving girl from Whitehaven who had never quite been my girlfriend but whose intellectual bent would, I hoped, be impressed by this freshly minted Yalie. She was at Vanderbilt, no mean college itself though lacking, in my view, Yale’s je ne sais quoi of prestige. How Yale’s prestige would add to Tommy’s sexual allure I guess I hadn’t thought through. She flew up, she looked lovely, we danced, we laughed, we kissed, we drank, this was great. We were just plain comfortable together. Somewhere in a dark corner outside, we drank some more, kissed some more. A thin shell of fear I hadn’t known myself to have been wearing all these months shattered and fell away in a shower of ice, sublimated into air before it hit the ground. When we pretended to say good night in the lobby of the Taft Hotel, we agreed that I would sneak in, shortly.

It couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since our parting, but when she came to the door something had happened to the girl. Wobbling. Slurring her words. Eyes not quite matching in angle. She was just unbelievably shitfaced. This according to campus wisdom was to be considered a lucky break, if not indeed a necessary precondition. We lay down together, and I kissed her. When our lips parted, she was asleep. Well, unconscious. She began to talk, urgent nonsense, eyes still closed. She awoke, she looked at me, and a plume of vomit flew out of her mouth.

I put the ruined, stinking bedspread in the bathtub and filled it with hot water. I washed her face. I got her awake enough to drink a glass of water. I tried to kiss her, but she fell away, passed out again. This was not the plan.

She threw up again, all over her dress. Hm. Well, I had to take it off, didn’t I? And sent it also to the tub. I didn’t have to take off my own clothes, but I did. She put her head under my chin and resumed babbling nonsense, this time also crying—the only time I’ve ever seen somebody weep while unconscious. Did I consider fucking her while she was dead to the world? I did. But a Yale man would not stoop that low. So I told myself.

Sooner or later she was bound to sober up. The thing to do was for both of us to get some sleep. I took off her underwear, and then mine, so that we’d both be ready and randy when she returned to the planet bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and primed by half a night of naked contiguity.

I had no idea that she had eaten so much. By dawn the blankets, the sheets, and the pillowcases had joined the dress and the bedspread in the tub. I had found a rough extra blanket in the closet and wrapped us tightly in that. She half woke; I kissed her, ignoring her breath, which wasn’t easy. I guided her hand; it was limp, and so, soon, was I.

She had to make the Connecticut Limo to LaGuardia. “I’m sorry,” she said. She dressed foggily, and stuffed her clothes in a bag, leaving last night’s outfit behind in the vomit-soaked wreckage.

The student room rate was ten dollars for the two nights, which I had paid in advance. I now left ten dollars more on the bureau, with a one-word note for the poor maid: “Sorry.” Would I be hunted down and dunned a hundred, two hundred bucks? Which I did not have and could not ask my father for. Would I be expelled?

She left. Nothing happened.


I had been back home only a couple of days when, on June 5, 1966, the civil rights hero James Meredith, now a student at Columbia Law School, set out from Memphis on foot—carrying a Bible and an ebony cane, and accompanied by six friends—to march through Mississippi. His aim was both to calm his own fear, which still haunted him, and to encourage the nearly half-million Negroes of the state to register to vote, or try to. He made it one night and twenty-eight miles before he was shot.

His wounds were not fatal, and his assailant was swiftly caught. The next day, June 7, twenty marchers renewed Meredith’s March Against Fear. In a sort of miracle, dozens and soon hundreds of people showed up and joined in, marching two by two down Highway 51. I held hands with a black girl of about sixteen who was literally shivering with terror. As we passed, white people lined the highway, spewing verbal abuse. Scary-looking Mississippi Highway Patrolmen were posted every few yards to protect us—a big change from not long ago. One old woman shrieked from the porch of her rundown little house, “Buzzards! Food for buzzards, that’s all y’all are!”

When I came home that evening and reported on my day’s activity, my father and mother both sat mute in frozen fury; and so the domestic tone for the summer, indeed for years to come, was set.


Fortunately I had plenty to do to keep me elsewhere. I was working full time at the Whitehaven Press—Bob Towery’s parents’ business, you may recall—and all my old pals had come home from their various colleges with terrific ideas for revelry and deviltry. We roamed in packs from party to party, smoking, drinking, dancing, flirting. My parents left town for a weekend, and the horde descended. In my own childhood bed, the younger sister of my blonde bombshell of the summer of ’64 granted my life’s deepest wish. She was so drunk that by the next day she had no recollection of that glorious occasion.


The clenched dread that filled the air of my home stayed in me for decades, sometimes dormant but ever ready to wake. It kept me afraid of reaching, of touching, of risking honest emotion. It led to poetry of labyrinthine obscurity, daring the reader—the poet’s ultimate parental authority—to understand it. It could not be understood, in fact, because it revealed so little of its maker. I wasn’t alone in this situation by any means: The Modern Literature I was now learning to revere—Faulkner, Eliot, Joyce—blew smoke in the face of the reader’s innocent longing to “get it.” Soon I would come to know music and painting of the same unacknowledged hostility. What did the tone row say but Fuck You? I would in time be a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, whose music, because popular and accessible and even beautiful, I was taught to deem cheap and vulgar. I did not have the courage, or let’s say the knowledge, to dream of beauty as a physical entity, a substantial being, a thing that I could touch and could feel. Fear lay coiled in my heart like a snake in the cold, waiting for sunlight, not knowing, in its darkness, even that it was capable of striking, and also of crawling out of itself soft and transformed and vulnerable. I did not know that the opposite of fear is love.


And then, in July of 1966, a couple of my buddies from Knoxville—fellow veterans of that fateful convention—were coming for a visit, and I needed dates for them, and because they would be visiting probably only this once, it would be okay to ask out on their behalf a girl already going steady with one of my old neighborhood pals. I tried a couple of new possibilities for myself, struck out, and ended up stuck with my sweet New Jersey ex-girlfriend, by whom I now fancied myself bored stiff. So at the last second I made a switch: The Knoxville guy could go out with her, she was fine for him, and I could indulge my curiosity about Louise Rossett (pronounced “rosette”), whom I had more or less known since I was seven and she was five but who seemed always, though charming, rather remote.

When I showed up at her door and announced myself and not the Knoxville guy as her date, her face clouded, for to continue with me would be to violate the terms of going steady with my old friend. In the end, because we were really just a big group, not a group of couples, she thought it would be all right. Proximity crawled out of itself to emerge as intimacy, and intimacy metamorphosed in an hour into rapture. This was love, oh, love, oh, yes, and would be forever.

For our first real date, the evening of Monday, July 18, 1966, I asked Louise to join me at a Congressional campaign rally that I had to cover for the Whitehaven Press. The candidate was one Ray Blanton, an achingly bad speaker who, years later, would be a convicted felon. It was a notably poor choice of venue, but I was in a hurry. Afterwards I took her to Leonard’s Barbecue, and, on her front porch one minute before Whitehaven’s universally acknowledged deadline for girls to be home, I kissed her. She kissed me back, softly, seriously.


In the moonlit courtyard of the Brooks Art Gallery, the four marble Muses watched over us as we kissed and dreamed. I was certain that this was the girl I would marry. She was perhaps not quite so sure. I was certain that the recent loss of my virginity had at last made me a man, one worthy of Louise’s virginity. But she was sixteen—not yet an age when nice Whitehaven girls engaged in sexual intercourse—and though Louise was hot-blooded, she was not at all ready. We swirled around each other in an ecstasy of abstention, an ecstasy purer and probably more powerful than sexual congress itself might have been, unencumbered as it was with the complexities of bodies, timing, secrecy, fear, guilt, and ignorance that were to come. We peered into each others’ souls. I breathed the scent of her hair. She held me close, and we kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed.

We listened to the Memphis Symphony under the stars in Overton Park. To the Bitter Lemon Coffee House, Memphis’s most bohemian gathering-place, we went to hear the surpassingly strange and gifted guitarist John Fahey in his false identity as Blind Joe Death, wearing opaque round sunglasses and fumbling for his weirdly tuned guitar. We were thrilled when Fahey, now as himself, led our city’s own Furry Lewis onto that same stage, where, amply plied with whisky, the old man would flail at his slide guitar and caterwaul the rawest blues I’d ever heard. The Bitter Lemon served “cocktails” concocted of sweet juices in flamboyant parrot colors and served in brandy snifters. They were nonalcoholic, but nearby there was a pizzeria, run by an ancient Olympic bicycle champion—the walls were covered with photographs of his glory days—who, being Italian, found the American refusal to serve wine to minors an offense against civilization and who, therefore, with a gesture indicating his appreciation of our absolute discretion, would bring us with our pizzas little tumblers of harsh red wine he had made in the bassement.

As the summer was ending, and I soon to return to New Haven, not to see her again until Christmas, I decided to take Louise to dinner at Justine’s. Justine’s was a legend, a grand antebellum townhouse marooned in solitary splendor amidst warehouses in one of Memphis’s grimmest ghettoes, its façade unmarked by a sign. The idea was that if you didn’t know where and what Justine’s was, you shouldn’t try going there. It was expensive, and French, and most of the clientele came from the old Memphis gentry to whom Whitehaven, despite my mother’s social rise among them, was a backwater.

In those days, restaurants in Memphis were forbidden to serve liquor, wine, or beer; even to Justine’s you had to bring your own. The only place to obtain an alcoholic beverage legally was from a liquor store. I was under age in any case, but damn it, I wanted us to have a bottle of wine, and good wine too.

My friends and I had had some success in identifying ragged old men in parking lots who for a modest tip would acquire the vodka or bourbon or beer we desired, but hardly any of the liquor stores in Memphis carried much more wine than wino fuel. My research had now identified one store that had a wide selection of wines and would sell it to minors—only wine, and only if you seemed serious about it. I asked the man there to recommend a wine to take to Justine’s, and he asked me what we were going to eat and how much I wanted to spend. I said probably filet mignon, and five dollars. “If you’re willing to go to eight,” he said, “I can give you something you’ll never forget.” My love knew no limits, so I splurged.

The tall, starched, scowling maître d’hôtel at Justine’s slipped the bottle from its brown paper bag and started to hand it on to a waiter, but he paused a moment as his eyes fell on the label and his brows lifted. Justine’s invariable policy was to stick teenagers in a back room and serve them with icy distance, but now we were marched in state to a table in the old front parlor, beneath a crystal chandelier. The waiter replaced the regular wine glasses with huge glittering globes. When he poured me a taste of my wine, and its dark, sweet, soul-deep scent billowed into the room, I knew that this was going to be different from the screw-topped Lake Country Red which my friends and I swilled down at parties.

And oh, my. I had not known until that moment that anything could taste so good. I studied the label, telling myself to remember it. It was Château Lafite-Rothschild—a Bordeaux wine, I would later learn—of the 1961 vintage, one of the greatest wines ever made. Eight bucks.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


(The seventh chapter of my memoir.)

It was that time of night when the darkest gray gathers above the black of the earth and then a thread of gold parts them. Face down on Towery’s living room carpet, I smelled vomit and awoke. I made my way into the back yard to pee, and the gold was turning to flame, which was burning twin holes in my head, each optic nerve a wire of pain. Even in the autumn perfume of browning magnolia and dewy grass the stench persisted; it was my shirt.

We had discovered vodka. Towery’s parents were out of town, and his older sister, much amused, had bought us two fifths. Other guys were involved. There had been some acrobatics in the house—I seem to recall backward somersaults—and a broken glass tabletop. An older guy, with a driver’s license, had driven us around Whitehaven in Clyde, Towery’s father’s huge yellow Cadillac, so we could holler at people. With my head out the window I threw up, and the wind slurred the mess down the flank of the car to the taillights. We went to the Toddle House and had cheeseburgers and their famous Black Bottom pie. I think we tried to go to some girl’s party and were turned away. Towery and I had each gotten drunk, gotten sick, passed out, and sobered up three times.

The Towerys had wall-to-wall carpet throughout the house, and in said carpet there were now about a half-dozen Jackson Pollocks of agglutinated puke. His parents were due home that evening. It was Sunday, and the cleaning services we called all wanted to be paid double time—a hundred and fifty bucks was the lowest bid. Suppressing our gag reflexes with all that remained of our strength, we cleaned the whole house ourselves.


I had become a person who was not in touch with his own body: That drunken rout and others that succeeded it were a quest for sensation strong enough to feel. I ate for nourishment, not for pleasure. I played no sports. I no longer wandered the swamp: It was gone now, and with it the scratches and sprains and bites and stings—the touch—of wilderness adventure. That land of physical fear, populated by rattlesnakes, copperheads, and water moccasins, had been paved over; the swamp had been drained. I worked in the library and read mountains of books. I was in touch with one particular part of my body, but that did not constitute real consciousness. There were hands held at the movies, and kisses, to be sure, but most of the time my body was not a temple but a toxic waste site, thick with allergy’s excretions, virus on virus, acne, bad dreams, low cravings, and poisonous fear of the future.

Rarely, I told myself that I was mind and heart, sublime, ethereal, an emergent Man of passion and genius; a poet, transcending the bodily. Ha. Our dinner table had become a place of so much unspoken, so much concealed, such falsehood and spiritual absence, such about-to-snap tension, that our dogs lost their native gaiety and watched from a distance, trying to think about nothing but food. I had become, my mother said, sarcastic, and not seldom some sly word-arrow of mine would pierce her and she would snap, reeling off my lifetime’s-worth of crimes, misdemeanors, inconsiderateness, selfishness, and failure to take out the garbage. Her nose turned red, her brown eyes black. I froze inside. My father drank his coffee in mute support of the indictment. My sister cried and ran to her bedroom.

In less than a year, I would be free of all that. Columbia wrote to me inviting me to apply. New York! Yes! I felt it surge in my blood. Delicatessen, brilliant Jewish girls in berets, the dark perfume of the subway. The elder brother of one of my closest pals, however, insisted that the place for me was Yale. (He would be thrown out at the end of that same school year—a considerable accomplishment, for Yale felt that losing a student was a failure on its part. But no amount of counseling had been able to get the guy to class or keep him away from the bridge table.) Yes, Yale! Tweed jackets! Pipe smoking! Manly poetry, Goethe, Fitzgerald.

And so why not Princeton? And as for poetry, wasn’t there a place called Harvard crawling with poets? I have no idea. Maybe this was that second-place syndrome again, since Yale seemed to be second to Harvard in nearly everything. Boston University would be my easy fallback, and for no reason I can recall I also applied to William and Mary.

B.U. took me readily, Columbia wrote to me as “Chester T. McNamee III,” but it was a yes nonetheless, and William and Mary turned me down. Inconceivable! I was at my lifetime peak of egotism. I would sashay into the big grim room for the SATs, rush through the questions, and never check my answers, so that I could be the first to sashay out, leaving behind the ozone stink of fear, others’ fear; and I did very well on such tests. I didn’t even want to go to William and Mary, so how could they have turned me down? And now, worst: Yale put me on the waiting list. Was it twenty guys long, or five thousand? They weren’t saying.

Now I had to get in. Columbia had been too easy. Fuck William and Mary. I was going to go to Yale. My father, suddenly my hero, flew into action. There was an alumnus in Memphis who had given a tea for applicants and made quiet recommendations to the admissions department; my father called him and voluminously pleaded his case, my case. He wrote to old Met Life colleagues in New York who were Yale alumni (and well above him in rank at the company). In the most passionate language I had ever known to issue from his mouth or pen, he wrote to the dean of admissions, lauding to highest heaven this accomplished, hard-working, supremely disciplined son—I was of course none of the above except son—and, frankly, begging that I be taken. What other possible string might there have been to pull? None. No matter: After two weeks of dread, I was in after all.

And now my father would have to shoulder the financial burden of four years of Yale. This was going to be a genuine burden, but he didn’t want me to have a scholarship, or to work, or even to take a student loan. I have never been sufficiently grateful, I fear.

Now that grades no longer mattered, I gave myself over to the sheer joy of learning, led with the lightest of touch and the deepest of seriousness by the sort of teacher for whom so many sentimental tributes have been written. Whitehaven had a grand total of two “honors” courses: history (not much of a class) and English, the enchanted domain of David R. Davis. Maybe Yale would be like this, I thought. The scope of the class was all of English literature; Mr. Davis’s particular interest was in our understanding of it and our expression of that understanding. Although I had been writing stuff for years—pseudo-Romantic poems, eccentric little stories, my mock-bluster column in the school paper—this was the first time my heart ached with the urge to get it right, to be clear, to think ahead and organize, to seek felicity and grace of style. All these I fumbled at but kept striving after, and Mr. Davis rewarded my struggle with measured praise and stintless compassion. I began to unclench from the unconscious stoop that shrinking from unnameable dread had bent me to. I was a kid, who knew not much more than nothing about anything, and yet Mr. Davis was taking me seriously. I was opening up like a flower; I was happy.

My sense of smell seemed to be opening too. A good half the time in my younger years, my nose had been swollen shut by allergy, and when it wasn’t, the scent of any plant threatened burning mucosa, paroxysms of a hundred helpless sneezes in a row, the fifth hankerchief of the day soaked through. Twice a week I would be dragged to the allergist, jabbed with a couple of dozen allergens, then given a shot; eventually my mother, having practiced on oranges, gave me the shots, often painfully. They didn’t help much. A whiff of pollen or mold, and I’d be sneezing, stobbed ub, biserable. Now, though, all of a sudden, the privet along the roadside I walked to school, the wild onions in the lawn, the roses at dusk were glories. Shoe polish, our dogs’ ears, asphalt in the rain; Old Spice, Chanel No. 5, My Sin; smoke, of grass fire, Leonard’s barbecue pit, cigarettes (my mother’s, my father’s, my friends’, my own, for everybody seemed to smoke); a neighbor’s gift of still-warm bread, ribeye steak fat aflame on the grill, a just-cut orange; on dress-up dinner dates—my latest expression of coolth—the tarragon tang of sauce béarnaise, the long ago lost but now refound Boston-harbor scent of lobster, the unctuous voluptuousnes of real, fresh butter melting on the tongue—and, supremely, unconsciously but potently, girls’ pheromones: The burgeoning of my olfactory faculty, though I did not know it at the time, reinvigorated the evolution of my love of nature.

“What is love?” my mentor-to-be, Robert Penn Warren, would write. “One name for it is knowledge.”


The previous spring in Chattanooga, during my hour and a half of stumping for the vice presidency of the state high school press association, a pal and I had been handing out Vote-for-Tommy cards and chortling over the rustic dress and mien of the assorted yokels, hicks, rubes, and hayseeds of my potential constituency—“Didja see the cow shit on that one’s shoes?” etc.—when Whoa, Nelly! across the lobby came a phalanx of girls so good-looking, so beautifully turned out, so urbane that all we could do was stare and gibber. The political phase of my campaign was over; the interpersonal part had begun.

There was also one funny-looking, gimpy-footed guy, who would be one of my best friends from then on. One of the girls—tall, with wavy chestnut hair, wide-set dark eyes, and wide, full lips—would turn out to be for years the girl I would have married had I not married Louise. And another, small, with enormous blue eyes and a small, plush mouth that just said Kiss Me, was Susan Love. Oh, love, thy name was everywhere! Her surname was my command.

There was just one hitch. She was from Knoxville. Remember that Tennessee is a long east-west parallelogram, with Memphis in the lower left-hand corner—and Knoxville damn near the top right. Four hundred miles away.

I didn’t see Susan again till the next round of conventions, in the spring of 1965. After the humiliation of the summer before, I had found a less dangerous sort of girlfriend, quiet and intellectual, with pale, pale skin and truly black hair. She opened my ears—to Dvořák’s New World, Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, Rubinstein playing the Moonlight and Pathétique. Her voice was low and gentle, her manner calmly genteel. We talked and talked. And kissed, some, with moderate passion. We never went steady, indeed I was in permanent second place, because she also went out with one of my friends and academic competitors. A couple of years later I would learn that he had seen his father shoot his mother dead and that his dates with this soft, fine girl nearly always culminated in a brutal dry rape; and she never spoke a word.

And then came Nashville, the Andrew Jackson Hotel, and Susan, and kisses, kisses deep and soft, kisses again and again. We rode in a taxicab, her first time to do so. We ordered our first takeout Chinese food. We sat on my hotel room bed to eat it, and one of the Whitehaven chaperones busted in on us with a fusillade of reproach, and somehow I found the moxie to tell her off in return, and she steamed out defeated; Susan and I resumed learning to use chopsticks. We put price tags on the artwork in the hotel halls. In a junk store I bought a toilet. When I got it home, my mother’s reaction was surprisingly quiet. She now knew that I was nuts.

Graduation was approaching. Under my father’s proud guidance, I got my first tuxedo. There were parties at the country club, the University Club, churches, hotels, big houses with big lawns and shrub-shadows where couples embraced. There was the senior tea. There were the Key Club banquet, the Honor Banquet, a banquet for the top-ranking four percent of all the seniors in Shelby County. Mr. Davis gave a small, elegant party at his house for his best students—the proudest occasion of all, in all this whirl, for those of us so honored. And there was the Twirp Dance, a costume party to which the girls asked the boys. Much to my astonishment, my perfidious blonde inamorata of the summer before invited me, and proposed that we go as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. She procured overalls, a work shirt, and heavy boots, and with mascara she beautifully recreated the scraggy sideburns and wispy beard of the man himself. For me she found a long black wig, an A-line dress (short enough to make the most of my shapely, very hairy legs), and a pair of high-heeled sandals.

Susan took the train all the way from Knoxville to be my date at the Senior Prom. Here was an impossible romance if ever there was one: Come fall, I was going to be in New Haven, Connecticut, Susan in some Tennessee hill town. (She could easily have gone anywhere, had her benighted parents not insisted on imprisoning her in a little bible college close to home yet also essentially inescapable.) We would be eight hundred miles apart in physical distance, even farther in other ways. I was nonetheless rapturously in love, and certain of our glorious future together, which you may take as indicative of many delusions to come.

We danced, we kissed, I was the gladdest knight at the ball, she the most beautiful belle. We wrote impassioned letters all summer. I went to Knoxville in August; more kisses, more professions of permanence.

Towery gave me one of his looks—man of the world, my friend, my pitier—and said, We need to go to New Orleans.

Our first dinner was at Antoine’s, the city’s grandest, most overbearing restaurant. Generations of New Orleans’ crusty, insular upper crust had been coddled here, each family with its “own” waiter, dishes specially prepared only for them, and their own particular table in one of the many little back rooms reached by a labyrinth both physical and social. Tourists were herded with something less than ceremony into the big front dining room. I was wearing my first double-breasted suit—navy, “summer-weight” wool, so named by someone who had never been to New Orleans in August—and was drenched in sweat. The menu was entirely in French, which was fine with me. I’d had two good years of it, and moreover had been studying up on food words.

“Le Service ‘Chez Antoine’ Strictement à la Carte,” the menu began, threateningly. Meaning: no free vegetables, no fixed-price bargain meals, you pay for everything except salt, pepper, water, and maybe a toothpick. There seemed to be hundreds of dishes, many with names comprehensible only to the grandees of the labyrinth: Canapé Balthazar, Crevettes à la Richman, Les Busters Grillés, Oeuf Sardou, Filet de Boeuf Robespierre en Casserole, Pigeonneau Sauce Paradis, Tomate Frappée à la Jules Caesar.

The waiter actually had a thin black mustache and slicked-back hair; also the posture of a Marine at attention. “Bonsoir,” Towery and I greeted him gaily, in chorus.

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

Was he smiling? If so, was it in mockery? I gestured helplessly at the wilderness of the menu.

“You will allow me perhaps to suggest to you a few things?” The smile was real, and not even of amusement. He was being nice to us. We’d been warned not to expect anything of the sort. “Antoine’s, of course, is the originator of Oysters Rockefeller. I recommend you start with them. To follow, perfect would be our tournedos with sauce béarnaise. It is a type of small filet of beef. We are also famous for our pommes soufflés; you will see. Creamed spinach? Very good. And now, on the wine list—"

This was what was so utterly cool about New Orleans. The drinking age was universally disregarded.

“—We cannot go wrong with a fine red Bordeaux. Perhaps—“

Here he pointed, his index fingertip resting tactfully under the price. “Why not?” we said, bons vivants to the coeur. I can’t remember what château it was, but at that price it was surely one of the greats.

The wine arrived in a silver basket, reclining in the attitude of an ancient Roman banqueter. We watched transfixed the cutting of the capsule, the slow pulling of the cork, the meticulous pour of perhaps a tablespoon into a miniature wine glass. The waiter lifted it to the light, swirled it, stuck his big in as far as it would go, inhaled deeply, took a taste, chewed on it, smacked his lips once, smiled, bowed slightly, and poured, an inch each in our glasses with bowls four times that deep. We raised them to each other, and then to the waiter, and sipped. We actually had no idea whether it was delicious or not, but we were sure it was delicious because it was so expensive.

The oysters Rockefeller arrived steaming, nestled in blazing-hot rock salt and shrouded in a green glop tasting vaguely of licorice. “This is either the best or the weirdest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth,” said Towery. “And don’t try it yet. I just burned the shit out of my tongue.”

I waited, then tasted. “The weirdest and the best.”

The tournedos weren’t much bigger around than a silver dollar but a good inch thick. We each got two, atop a slick of some wine-dark sauce and topped in turn with an epiphany—comprising, I would learn one day ages thence, butter, egg yolk, shallots, vinegar, tarragon, and, at least chez Antoine, manna. The potatoes were crisp little pillows that burst with a crackle on the tongue, releasing some other divine essence in the form of a vapor that rose to the brain and blessed it. And: Wine, O Wine, for ever shall I love thee.

A junior waiter pushed a cart of polished wood and brass to our tableside. I was pretty sure we’d ordered the crêpes Suzette, or, that is, we’d accepted our savior’s suggestion. We had no idea what they were. He arrived, turned the little thin pancakes gently in a chafing dish, poured brandy over, and set them alight. I don’t need to tell you how good they were. Couldn’t anyway.

We floated to the door; our waiter bowed us solemnly out. New Orleans air engulfed us; sweat burst from our brows, ran down our inner arms, pooled in our shoes. We wandered, drunk, in bliss.

We remained drunk for the next several days. It was customary in New Orleans, we learned happily, to greet the morning with a strongly alcoholic eye-opener. Brennan’s Restaurant gave birth to this evil tradition, and it was there at the source that we conducted our explorations. The Absinthe Suissesse was nice, the Ramos Gin Fizz a knockout in more ways than one, but our favorite, hands down, was Milk Punch—brandy, light cream, powdered sugar, and a dash of vanilla, with fresh nutmeg grated on top. At Galatoire’s we had turtle soup, trout amandine, white Burgundy, and a stiff dose of New Orleans rudeness. We ate three or four dozen oysters at the Acme. We had beignets and chicory coffee at the Café du Monde. It was ninety degrees with ninety-percent humidity at midnight, but we prowled merrily on, profusely exuding ethanol, other toxins, and salt. We lurched through the streets drinking tall, red, vile Hurricanes, as did so many of our fellow-revelers, whom from time to time we would regale with old Boy Scout songs. We sat on the hard benches of Preservation Hall and listened to suspendered old men with leather skin play the best dixieland in the world. This was the greatest place in the world. And by the way, wasn’t the world a great place.

Our last night, drunker than ever by a considerable degree, I urinated on a fire hydrant in in Jackson Square in full view of the surging crowds and a horrified Towery. We both vomited in the gutter a couple of times. All good visitors to New Orleans, we reasoned, did that. Une tradition de plus, non?

There was still one thing we hadn’t done. We hailed a cab and asked the driver to take us to a whorehouse. We traveled down dark streets into the voodoo netherland of the real, tourist-averse French Quarter, where knives glinted in the summer air, where Stagger Lee left Billy bleeding on the barroom floor, where dice and drugs and wailing clarinets ruled the night.
The taxi pulled up at a lonesome corner. “Just down deah, haifway down de block,” growled the cabbie, in a voice of ten thousand reefers. “Wheh dem lights at.” We tipped the hell out of him and tottered toward the lights and glory. It was a police station.