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.