Chapter One MOTKE KAPLAN I met Motke on the waterfront in Greenpoint when I was working as a guard on the ocean-going freighters. While I was watching the boats, he watched me for certain business interests in Newark and Miami, but it wasn't always clear what he was protecting--me or the contraband arriving from abroad. Motke, or "Mutt" as we called him, a specialist in extortion and mayhem, was a short, round man with a bald pate circled by a fringe of light brown hair. His nose was wide with flaring nostrils, and his smile womanish. He worked only by referral, he told me, and called himself a contractor. "I have an uncle who does electrical contracting," I said. "Kiddo," he said, "you don't care to know the kind of contracting I do." He had very thick forearms and fists the size of pig's knuckles. He wore an old, yellow Cubavera jacket with the sleeves cut off at the elbows and carried a piece but never made a show of it. When he and I became friends he nicknamed me, "Junior." Motke was a member of the Bergen Street Boys Club of Newark on detached duty in Greenpoint. His CEO was Longy Zwillman whom he called "Abner," but he also was connected in some capacity to Meyer Lansky whom he called "Booky." "He keeps the books don't he?" Motke explained. He'd been arrested a score of times for theft, fraud, and violations of the Volstead Act during Prohibition. I never saw Motke being violent. He kept a handbook for the merchant seamen coming off the ships and gave good odds. Had a punchcard route in Port Newark. And he had a couple of Jewish women for whom he procured--Muriel and Lorna. Motke said the "nafkehs" were both hard-working girls with families who would "do anything for a guy within reason." He told me he'd gone to grade school in Brooklyn with Barbara Stanwyck and knew Rita Hayworth when she was "in the life at Hector's Cafeteria." "Are you sure?" I said. "She was a dancer." "Dance my ass," he said. I think Motke was probably celibate. He had a son in Greenwich Village named Roman. He said Roman had an Italian mother he hadn't seen in fifteen years. Seems she was also in the life, and Roman, who looked mulatto, played piano at the high yellow Village bar called the "Club Savannah." Motke called his son a "flic" and a "dickhead," and they hadn't spoken in a decade. "He uses his rear end irresponsibly" was all Motkey would say. He'd fought welterweight when he was younger and raced bikes, and had a summer place in Lake Hopatcong. He said he'd been "muscle" when Gertrude Stein spoke in Chicago and couldn't "make dick out of what she was saying." "Adolf Hitler," he said, "was my undoing as a bad guy. When I read about the camps I took care of business but started observing the Sabbath." One hot summer day I went to work, and there was Motke chatting it up with a bulky looking man in a Panama hat and a double-breasted suit the color of vanilla ice cream. The man wore lightly tinted shades. When Motke waved me over, he said, "Mr. Genovesee appreciates the way you look after things around here" and handed me a fifty dollar bill. I tried to return the money but Motke's companion said, "Think nothing of it. Just do your job." "Yes sir," I said. Afterward, Motke confided in me that his friend Vito had really liked my "Yes sir." "It's good you showed him that respect," he said. "A man like that requires respect." The local police knew all about Motke, but they never seemed to hassle him. He was just another member of the community and wasn't always looking over his shoulder. He told me that in Havana, Cuba, the police were allowed to accept "gratuities, a good cigar, a cocktail on a hot day, a shirt, a tie. The little things." "New York," Motke added, "is a two-faced whore. Everybody is on the take and pretends otherwise." One day Motke told me he was leaving town for a while, a trip to the coast. Business. I never saw him again. For a long time that didn't bother me until I read about him in a book about Florida. It seems Longy had made a deal with some West Coast people for Motke to be in on the skim in Las Vegas. Motke had allergies and didn't like Vegas. He was sent to Florida to manage a place I think called "Papa Bouchard's" in Key Biscayne which had back room gambling. Motke quarreled with a Cuban high roller named Perry Finger and was fed to some alligators off the Tamiami Trail; and then Longy had Finger reduced to blue fish chum and spread all over the beaches of the Florida Keys. The author of this account says Motke was a favorite in the rabbinical courts of Longy and Lansky. At a memorial service at the Shelburn Hotel in Atlantic City, an honorary Boy's Club member named Guzik said, "You could always count on Motke. He was the cockstand of stand up guys from our era." Motke had one gold tooth and a lot of inlays and used to sing a little Ira Gershwin song to himself whenever he got real agitated: La la so this is Venice la la you can tell by the smell and by the way they play no tennis... Whenever Motke started singing that song you knew you should watch out. ALEXANDER KERENSKY I met my old grad school housemate Alexander Kerensky once, more than twenty years ago, in front of the Columbia University School of Social Work at Fifth Avenue and Ninety-first Street. I was hopping out of a cab, it so happens, with a copy of the Menshevik New Leader in my hand. Kerensky was, I imagine, on his usual early morning constitutional. The former first provisional president of the Russian government had aged since the last time we met, nearly ten years before at Stanford University, but he still knew how to dandle his walking cane as if practicing with the epee; and he still had a way of staring at you with his head cocked slightly askew, as if wearing a monocle, which he was not. I said, "Dr. Kerensky, hello. Do you remember me?" Kerensky stopped, glared at me, glared again, his closecropped gray hair bristling. He ran the cane between his fingers like a pool cue. Finally he declared: "Certainly not!" No wonder his government was so easily overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Can you imagine the King of Consensus, Lyndon Baines Johnson, under such circumstances? Probably L. B. J. would have shaken the hoof of a cow if it suddenly said, "Lyndon baby, don't you remember me?" If a democratic politician doesn't have that much opportunism, what else can one expect of him? Not only the small d democrats! I can recall photographs of Comrade Ulbricht being embraced by Comrade Brezhnev, which must have been like putting your arms around Grant's Tomb. I can also remember seeing former Senator Barry Goldwater in Fresno, California, on a hand-shaking tour shortly before he received the GOP nomination in 1964. People were complaining that Goldwater was a racist, so his campaign managers had propped one of the local colored folk within shooting distance of the caravan of press photographers. As he passed by, Goldwater's chief aide gave the candidate a furious poke in the ribs. Barry doubled over but he recognized what he must do, went "Hi there," broke his stride, and ran to shake the prop hand. "Don't you remember me?" the candidate declared, pumping furiously. "You shined my shoes here at the hotel ten years ago." Which simply means that Alexander Kerensky was a man of uncompromising anticommunism. How would you feel if you had been chased out of the Winter Palace buttoning your trousers? But "the conscience of the democracy," as Lev Davidovich Trotsky called him sarcastically, was also a right social revolutionary--whatever that meant. When I was a leftist student, I thought it meant that Kerensky had bobbled the ball in the first quarter with first down and goal to go. Imagine the scene: two young Russians growing up in the same hometown; it's twenty years later, a Simbirsk field day in the capital--Lenin goes to the left; Kerensky is at center. It's squat formation with John Reed calling the signals. Oops! Fumble! The Bolsheviks take over the ball on the Cadets' forty yard line. I would be bitter, too. But whether or not I would want to spend the rest of my life waiting for punt formation is another matter. The men who were now ruling Russia were, in effect, the same gang of conspirators who had tackled him on the playing fields before the Winter Palace. It was only in character for such a Kerensky to greet Khrushchev's later overthrow with a statement to the effect that Russia's new emminence gris had not yet revealed himself. For such a Kerensky to give up believing in Bolshevik conspiracies would, I suspect, be like the pope renouncing the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Somebody, after all, has to continue to uphold revelation. But I am not trying to infer that the Alexander Kerensky who shared a bathroom with me in the home of Herbert Hoover's niece in Palo Alto, California, was a sore loser. Although he used to boast about how his two sons had refused to serve as Bulganin's and Khrushchev's interpreters during their visit to England in 1955, he was not unpleasant about it. Kerensky, as I remember him, was a charmer, a hand kisser, a well-oiled mechanical doll with a set of fine steel Swiss watch springs in his elbows and knees. Nothing other-worldly about this man; he would do his morning constitutional heel and toe fashion, as if taking part in the Coney Island marathon. Not once but twice I caught him peering down a sun-freckled bosom as he bent from hand to hand in my landlady's back garden at the wedding reception barbecue which she gave for my first wife and myself, shortly after we returned from our honeymoon. Having known the splendors of Petersburg society, Nicolai's court, the great world of the moneyed exiles, it was absolutely splendid of Kerensky to be trying so hard not to condescend at my wedding reception. He flitted from barbecue pit to beer case as if at an Imperial levee. Dazed by the heavy sweet scent of the lemon blossoms, rubbed bright red by the warm summer sun, perhaps a little bit tipsy from all the sherry, he was passing up his third hamburger in favor of a third frankfurter while Mrs. Maryk, my landlady--ever the well-brought-up widow of an India medical missionary--cooed: "Have another sausage Doctor.... un autre saucisson ... they're glat kosher in honor of the bride and groom." If this was a petty triumph for the Jews, it was a somewhat larger triumph for Kerensky. For Mrs. Maryk's Uncle Herbert had, after all, backed the Whites against the Bolsheviks, and the old Left-Right social revolutionary was forced to travel all the way out to Palo Alto to study his official papers, which Hoover had pirated for his Stanford library. But it must have seemed particularly bizarre (as well as hopelessly American) that he should have ended up lodging with Hoover's niece. I remember the day Mrs. Maryk got the phone call from the university asking her if she could rent a room to Alexander Kerensky. I happened to be writing a poem in my room overlooking the lemon garden, when I heard a general commotion down below. Presently, Mrs. Maryk appeared in my doorway, handsomely decked out as usual in a silk print dress, but with her lorgnette swinging freely, her lovely gray hair-do all awry, her face flushed, her lips slightly parted, her great bosoms heaving, quite out of breath. Since I knew she suffered from a weak heart, I invited her to sit in the only comfortable chair. "Shall I get you a glass of water?" I asked. "No, please, I couldn't ..." Mrs. Maryk struggled with her breathing, measuring me shrewdly all the while. "It's just too terrible," she declared then. "It isn't bad enough that I've had weight lifters and Arabs ... and ... homosexuals.... Now they want me to take in this Bolshevik. Mr. Elman, what shall I do?" I asked: "How do you know he is a Communist?" "Because," she gasped, "he was the president of Russia. They told me so." "But, Mrs. Maryk," I said, "there hasn't been a Russian president that I know of since Alexander Kerensky." "Yes. That's the man, Kerensky," she said ... "O what shall I do?"' After I explained to Mrs. Maryk that if, indeed, the gentleman was Kerensky he was anything but a Bolshevik, she grew calm again. I said: "He must be a very old man, for that matter." "An old Russian ... what shall I do?" Mrs. Maryk lamented. She prided herself on being a tolerant person, and she presently was agreeing with me that she would probably come to no harm. "I just hope he doesn't like to stare through keyholes like that Turkish agronomist they sent two years ago," she concluded. Moments later, Mrs. Maryk was calling the university: it would be all right now if the Russian gentleman cared to see his rooms, she announced, with considerable pluck. It was not until another week had gone by that I actually became aware that the man who left his teeth in a glass in my bathroom every morning was Kerensky. He seemed never to make any noises in his adjoining rooms. Perhaps he was poring over great sealed dossiers. I was too busy to care, still in the act of creating my poem which, as I recall, was quite long and rather symbolic, all about a peacock with glaucoma. I cart remember only one phrase: "Sprung rhythm of your stuck gore--O my big blind bird." Pacing back and forth in my room, I used to recite this to myself. There were peacocks near the Stanford campus. Late one afternoon, as I was walking home from a visit among them, I happened to run into Mrs. Maryk. She said she would give me a lift. It was a lovely early spring day in Palo Alto. The magnolias had just blossomed, strewing thick, waxy petals across the tarmack that actually crunched under the wheels of the car. When we turned down the Embarcadero, past the Municipal Bowling Green, the air was dizzyingly sweet. Mrs. Maryk said: "Lovely, isn't it? Makes one feel like a girl again." "I offered Dr. Kerensky a ride to the campus," she continued, all in the same breath, "and do you know what he said? He said: 'Thank you, no!' A man his age. 'It's better for the health to walk,' he said. Imagine," Mrs. Maryk declared with a high squeal, narrowly averting a head-on collision with another passing car, "a man his age..." "Just how old would that be?" I asked, knowing that Mrs. Maryk was also getting on in years. "O not so old as all that," she replied then, "but you know how some of us are ... we're very crotchety... I would say Mr. Kerensky is a very crotchety old gentleman. He doesn't look at all like a Russian. Haven't you seen him yet?" I confessed I hadn't. "Well, we shall have to get you two together," she said. Three days later I received an invitation to come to dinner to meet Dr. Kerensky on the following evening. Another lady friend of Mrs. Maryk's would also be present, she explained, and perhaps her daughter. Mrs. Maryk said she was planning on fixing one of her special Indian curries. "Lamb, I think," she said. "I make my own chutneys ... and my own fresh mango ice cream... I think you'll like it.... Sherry at 6:00, dinner at 6:30 sharp. Try to be prompt, won't you?" she declared. "The maid has to babysit for her daughter so she can go to her high school prom." My landlady's late husband had been distantly related to the great illustrator Frederick Remington. Life-sized portraits of fierce frontiersmen, army officers, Indian chiefs were the only works of art gracing her walls. She had been a child bride, she once explained, and these were among her many fabulous wedding presents. But it always came as a shock to me, after standing among the verbena in her front doorway, to be greeted by this lovely old matron and then to be ushered past chintz upholstery, fine teak tables with Indian brass pots of mimosa, along carpets from Persia, into the library with its barbarous collection of Remingtonia. When I arrived at precisely 5:59 on the specified evening, I was girding myself for my dual encounter with the Wild West and Kerensky by recalling what a dimly Trotskyite but mostly Stalinoid relative had once declared over pot cheese and sour cream at my grandmother's house in Newark, New Jersey. "Kerensky," this old harridan from Minskgobernya announced during a lull in the battle for Stalingrad, "was to the revolutionary movement like an ingrown hair to a colossal boil." I rang the front doorbell. Moments later, this slim little runt in a dark suit appeared at the entranceway. "Who is it?" "Dr. Kerensky?" "And who are you?" he replied, rolling his r . "I'm the student from upstairs ... Mrs. Maryk asked down. Are you Dr. Kerensky?" "Yes, of course I am," he declared, "and you are ... Mr. Ermine, isn't it?" "Elman," I corrected him. "So? Like the violinist." "A distant relative," I lied. "I hear your machine ... your typewriter sometimes," Kerensky said then. "Does it bother you?" I asked, oversolicitous. "Certainly not," the former provisional president declared. He ushered me past him into the Remington room. "So ... you are Mischa Elman's nephew." "Actually," I cut in, "the relationship is quite distant. Something like fifth cousins twice removed. Mrs. Maryk is Herbert Hoover's niece, but Mischa and I are not too close." "Mrs. Maryk and her lady friend are in the kitchen," Kerensky explained then, without changing expression, "and there is only sherry ... will you help yourself?" "Don't mind if I do," I said, filling a pony glass so that it overflowed the brim. We were sitting now in opposite chairs alongside the mantelpiece. I was struggling manfully to begin a conversation. Kerensky stared at the little puddle I had made on Mrs. Maryk's teak table: "So ... you are related to Mischa Elman." "Strange that I should be meeting you in person," I cut in, "because I was just reading about you in Trotsky's History of the Revolution ..." It was, of course, just the wrong thing to say. "How interesting!" Kerensky said. Moments later, Mrs. Maryk tinkled her little bell for dinner. Throughout the rest of the evening Kerensky was like a statue. The only kind words he had were for Mrs. Maryk's fresh mango ice cream. He took seconds. But, although the curry was superb, the ladies gabby and charming, I had very little appetite. Suppose he were to ask me again about Mischa Elman? Could I tell him the bitter truth--that our suits had once been mixed up at the dry cleaners? Over dinner, Mrs. Maryk talked about the flies in Cairo where another of her relatives had been curator of the Egyptology museum. My chair was facing a giant Remington panorama of a battle on the plains. I found myself totaling up the casualties. Still another of Mrs. Maryk's numerous relations were the Lees of Philadelphia of whom the great historian Charles Henry Lee was perhaps the most celebrated figure. Early the following morning, I found myself glancing through Lee's marvelous History of the Inquisition with vague thoughts of making my peacock into a symbol of post-Siglo De Oro Spanish Jewry, when Kerensky appeared at the head of the stairwell in the small library which Mrs. Maryk kept for her tenants. "Young scholars start the day early," he declared. "I'm not really much of a scholar," I said, a bit startled. "What are you doing in school?" he asked. "I want to be a poet," I explained. "Do you know Pushkin and Lermontov?" he asked. "Only in English translation," I lied. "Then you don't really know them at all," Kerensky announced, commencing to take his leave of me with a spin of his cane. Two days later we passed beneath a eucalyptus grove on the way to campus. I was on my bicycle. Kerensky was walking. "Good day, "I said. "Why do you say that?" he asked, pointing with his cane at the storm clouds which were already glowering over the peninsula. It was about a month later that I flew to New York to get married. Upon our return, Mrs. Maryk announced that she wanted to throw me a small party. "I'll invite Dr. Kerensky," she said. I was up most of the night before worrying over what new faux pas I might commit in the presence of the former provisional president. It was truly a Dostoyevskyan evening. My bride slept chastely while I groaned and chattered my teeth like Prince Mishkin. Should I let on that I knew the secret of Simbirsk? Did I dare to say more about my alleged ties to Mischa Elman? Whatever I did, I expected that Kerensky would take his cold revenge by pulling me across the garden by the ear. But, as it turned out, he was gay and debonair, and I managed to keep my distance. Once, in passing, he wished me luck with my lovely bride. The second time we spoke was over coffee when we were all seated in garden chairs listening to Mrs. Maryk expound upon a plague of dysentery she had once witnessed in Mysore. "I have never seen such a bunch of uncomfortable tourists," she was saying. "I doubt if any of those men will ever again promise their wives to take them to the Taj Mahal." Suddenly I felt the pressure of a hand on my arm. " You in the West are in for a big surprise ," Kerensky was saying sotto voce . "Marvelous," I told him. "There cannot be any doubt about Soviet intentions," he went on. "Stalin once said..." I nodded in agreement. Someone interrupted me. "What?" I asked. "Darling, I think we should get home early," my wife whispered in my other ear. I waved her away. "What did Stalin say?" I asked. "Sometimes," Kerensky said, "bitter experience is the only teacher." "Yes. But what did Stalin say?" I was merely trying to hold up my end of conversation. I heard my wife say: "Please Dick..." "What did Stalin say?" I demanded. Mrs. Maryk paused in her interminable narration. I felt Kerensky relinquish his grip. "Did somebody mention Stalin?" Mrs. Maryk asked. "I believe," Kerensky said, rising from his chair, "it is time for my evening stroll." He went over to Mrs. Maryk, took her hand, and kissed it lightly. Then he turned toward the rest of the company again. "So," he said, narrowing his eyes on me until they seemed to give off sparks, "you and Mischa Elman are related ..." "... and Mrs. Maryk is related to Hoover and Frederick Remington and I don't know who else ..." " You and Mischa Elman ..." " What about Stalin? " I asked. "If the West isn't careful, it will be in for a tragic surprise ... a surprise to nobody except the West," Kerensky added. "... And what about Stalin?" "The innocent learn from bitter experience," he said. "Don't you think it's time to say good-night?" my wife added then. When we were thanking Mrs. Maryk for her hospitality, I saw Kerensky scamper behind the lemon bushes toward the back stairs. My landlady said: "I'm so pleased Dr. Kerensky had somebody he could talk to." I said: "I wonder why he never finished telling me about Stalin?" "Probably," put in one of the other ladies, "it's one of those top secret affairs of state." "Just the same," Mrs. Maryk said then, "I think he was right ... whatever he was saying." She turned to my wife: "I don't know how I shall replace your husband now that you're going to be living elsewhere. Who will I find to amuse Dr. Kerensky?" "Why not try Pushkin and Lermontov?" I volunteered. "Oh," said Mrs. Maryk, "I don't think I'd like a house full of Russians." That day, in front of Columbia, I asked Dr. Kerensky if he remembered Mrs. Maryk. "Certainly," he said, "she died ..." So did Stalin! And Kerensky, much later on. YVOR WINTERS, THOM GUNN, AND OTHERS The other day in the small north shore Long Island town where I live, I ran into a former member of Yvor Winters' Stanford poetry workshop. He is now a retired New York City high school teacher, this chunky, gentle, sad, slow-talking New York Jew who has only just gotten back to writing poems again of some beauty and passion after his encounters with Winters in the workshop thirty-seven years ago. Oddly, Winters invited this fellow to come all the way from Brooklyn College to Stanford on a full poetry fellowship and then proceeded to savage every poem he ever submitted to the workshop with arguments that ranged from close textual criticism to the ad hominem. It was a brutal spectacle to watch this Coney Island Keatsian subjected to Winters' unrelenting persiflage. Even though Winters was as often accurate as not, Martin flayed was painful to observe. I have somewhere read of a kind of Oriental demon who gained power over one only as one recognized and feared him. So convinced was Winters of the rightness of his prescriptions that by his overbearing manner he seemed to be trying to discourage my friend from wanting to write anything, even a business letter, ever again; and he almost succeeded. But why? He might just have saved a lot of time and money by sending Martin a letter of rejection when he'd first applied for the fellowship, saying he preferred his Delmore Schwartz sliced thin on rye with a slather of mustard. At times I was grateful to my Brooklyn friend for being in the class; when he became the target, some of Winters' ire was deflected that might have been directed at me. Toward my own poetry, "Arthur," as his wife, Janet Lewis, called him, was alternately condescending, with restrained praise for my earnestness and critical of my "Brooklyn ear" and general ignorance of the traditions of English and American poetry, and my absence of reading knowledge in foreign languages, and up to a point he was on the money. If I wanted to be Rimbaud, what was I doing in graduate school? Trying to stay out of the army, of course. Graduate study gave me a draft deferment. But I also knew I lacked erudition and polish and was often sunk in forlorn reveries. I needed to reach beyond myself through craft and thought and, after reading some of Winter's critical essays and the poems he admired, I believed this powerful and eminent "new critic" could teach me. Winters was not uncharitable: he thought I was probably capable of becoming educated and would make a decent critic, especially whenever I collaborated with him in attacking his pet scapegoats. It was a small workshop which met in Winters' dingy office, in an atmosphere of fear softened only by his constant production of pipe smoke and methane gas. The walls, as I recall, were empty of decorations except for some old black and white prints, and the atmosphere was gray; Winters wore old gray suits and was heavy, flaccid, sort of grayish. When he was calm, Winters could resemble a large lovable old hound you wished to pet a lot except that you knew he sometimes bit. He was a great admirer of the poetry of plain speech. He despised mere feckless adornments of language or thought. He maintained that a well-argued shorter lyric of under a hundred lines was superior even to Hamlet or King Lear , and certainly most novels, as formal expression. He upheld the expository over the dramatic forms, but was himself a bit of a ham, reading even the poets whose works he claimed to despise with a deep vibrato, a monotone. In the class was a very brilliant young society woman whom Winters much admired; her poems were full of morbidity, religious sentiments, and pain, in latinate blank verse. She later became a nun and to my knowledge stopped writing. The expatriate British poet Thom Gunn was also a member of that class, and the poet Alan Stephens from Arizona, a tall, dry, extremely reasonable man. Winters admired the writings of both these poets, especially Gunn. This was Thom's second trip to Stanford. A few years earlier, after military service and study with Leavis at Cambridge, Gunn had been a poetry fellow, like my friend from Brooklyn. (Increasingly sullen most of the time in the workshop, the Brooklyn poet after a while stopped arguing with Winters and stopped producing poems. I bought my first jalopy of a car at a bargain price of seventy dollars from him when he finally had taken all he could bear from Winters and left the university to go back East.) Like Winters once had been, Gunn was also, I believe, a motorcyclist. Winters truly admired Thom's intelligence and talent with conventional meters and his immense knowledge of English and American poetry. With his reputation as a poet growing here and in the U.K. through the success of The Sense of Movement , Thom was invited back by Winters, and he wrote some very fine syllabic poems, some of which appeared in his collection, My Sad Captains . Winters was very gentle in his criticism of Gunn's work. He sometimes deplored obscurantism and romanticism, but he liked Gunn's classical imitations, his feeling for historical subject matter in his poems, his sense of form, and the clarity of his diction. I admired the contemporaneity of poems about motorcycle gangs, his hipness to the vernacular, his Ray-Bans and black, silverstudded motorcycle jackets, and cowboy boots. Gunn's style was restrained flamboyance. We were both very masked about such things in those days. I was just married to a beautiful woman and would have been shocked to admit I was attracted in any way to a man; Gunn was still not yet out of the closet. If he presented himself at parties, he usually brought along female dates or came alone. When he introduced me to his roommate, Mike, I was naive enough to think they were just simply roommates, not lovers, as I later discovered. Gunn was slim and tall, with a sharp, handsome, pockmarked face and inky black hair, long sideburns. He was generous in his criticisms of my work and usually kind, and he participated in the workshop as just another member, never put on airs. He'd served in the Royal Air Force in the north of England and had earlier been to private grammar schools and was pretty much in exile from the decadent English literary scene, having acquired, at times, an American lingo and an American twist smile. He told me once his father was the editor of the Daily Sketch , a lurid and sleazily dishonest London tabloid, and he had a younger brother who was a photographer. He seemed in those days to be interested in a courtly romantic way in the young debutante who became a nun, but, when I asked him if indeed that was the case, Thom quickly changed the subject. There was little that Thom showed in public you could interpret as swish or faggy. He swaggered a little in his movieland leather togs and boots; so did straight poseurs in their rough trade garments. My wife, Emily, also had a crush on Thom, and he never seemed to give her the time of day, I noticed, while seeming courtly. Once Emily and I were driving through the Mojave Desert in bloom to L.A. and were hoping to take a tour of the Fox Studio lot. Thom happened to be there that day, too, as a guest of the writer Christopher Isherwood, who was also easy with us and outgoing, and in public not so very campy, though with the longest auburn eyelashes I've ever observed on a man. Isherwood had been hired on as a writer for a Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant movie about a shipboard romance, An Affair to Remember . We were invited by Isherwood to lunch in the commissary and then to watch some of the takes. Thom and Isherwood seemed very close. They sat side by side. I thought that was because they were both English. When I left Stanford, Thom gave me an inscribed copy of Fighting Terms . At the time of my divorce this disappeared from my collection and later was listed in the catalogue of a well-known dealer for a good sum of money. Needless to say, Gunn was very hurt that I'd been compelled to sell off his gift to me. I'm not sure that I ever did. Though I occasionally would sell off items from my library, including correspondence which wasn't very personal, to dealers in order to make ends meet, I don't ever recall selling any of Thom Gunn's books. In fact, I have always purchased every new book of his when it appears and quickly read the poems from cover to cover, more than once, in part a matter of brand loyalty, and because I really like to own my friends' books. We write to each other now and then, but live entirely different lives. When he published his collected essays after the AIDS plague began, I was alarmed to read that Thom had participated with apparently great joy in the San Francisco orgy scenes of the sixties and seventies. His most recent poems in a volume called Night Sweats memorialize some of his friends who were victims of AIDS, and, inferentially, make reference in the title and elsewhere to the terrible trepidations of one who, luckily, so far has not yet been infected with HIV. Yvor Winters was a moralist. He liked poets whose work illustrated his critical exhortations, and they were entered into his lists of bests and worsts. He always ranked his students among the other poets who were publishing as though handicapping horses: Don Stanford, Achilles Holt, Ann Stanford--these Wintersian products seemed to have much better bloodlines than my own. You were praised a lot for agreeing with Winters. Nobody I had previously encountered had been so evaluative. It wasn't very long before I began to feel that every impulse that had impelled me to write poems was counterfeit. I had managed to use graduate school to avoid basic infantry training: Now here I was plop in the mud in the middle of the infiltration course with Winters firing live ammo. He had been a Hart Crane enthusiast until Crane's behavior as a poet and a person became so problematical. Some say his harsh review of Hart Crane's epic poem The Bridge drove the poet into that melancholy which culminated in suicide. I've never really believed this, though perhaps Winters did, for, if he knew of Gunn's sexual orientation, he was truly careful never to be ad hominem in criticizing Thom's work. Once Gunn and my wife and I were invited to the Winters' house in Los Altos for a steak barbecue. There was good food and a lot to drink. Everybody got a little high, and, after the meal, Winters entertained the guests by acting out on his tiptoes some of the great prizefights of recent years: Louis-Schmelling, Sugar Ray Robinson versus La Motta. He toedanced and swung at imaginary opponents as this contender or that and would stop and thoughtfully indicate just what had been the crucial blow to end the fight and where and with what velocity it had landed on the face or body of his opponent. I thought he looked a little silly, and so did Winters' wife, Janet, who kept saying, "Arthur, it's getting late. Let's call it a night." Gunn said very little. He just watched the spectacle of Winters up on his toes with his distending large Johnsonian belly, acting out those bearish fantasies. Were they so very different really from Gunn's gangs of hogbikers riding out into the open countryside in search of speed and grace? I would have to say I never detected much humor in Winters. He did seem to find it amusing if you made a face after eating one of his home-brined olives or if you had car trouble. He also could be generous in rewarding hardworking students if they accepted certain quid pro quos. Just before I volunteered to do my army service and get it over with, Winters recommended me for the Royal Victor graduate fellowship at Stanford, which was a great honor and quite lucrative, though it meant I would have to take an ordinary Ph.D. in English literature. Half a year later I wrote Stanford that I wouldn't be coming back. I really didn't want to be one of Winters' epigones. I'd discovered prose and wanted to learn how to write it with vivid efficiency. This was probably a bad error of judgment on my part. If I'd stayed under Winters' protection I might have made a living at some college or university without all the dislocations and stresses I've undergone. But I was always much too frightened of Winters and knew I lacked Gunn's international reputation, which sometimes protected him from the old man's savagery. I didn't think I'd be able to hold my head above the water. Come back, memory! What did he do and say that was so intimidating? Was it his claim that he'd sparred a couple of rounds with Jack Dempsey? My own father used to boast to me of biting off a man's ear in a street fight. Winters had lived a solitary existence before coming to Stanford. He'd done exemplary things like teach Navaho school children, and, apparently, driven himself quite mad at one point. When in his cups he would blabber about the corrupt East Coast literary establishment and how he would never teach at Harvard even if he was invited. His patriarchy often seemed lugubrious; he would often have tears in his eyes when elucidating all my failings. He never quite said he was infallible, but I can't recall him disclaiming otherwise. This made me all the more stubbornly ignorant and ornery; I kept looking for exceptions to his pronouncements, flaws in his reasoning, my constant rejoinders to his critical remarks being "Yes, but ..." which is how students say, "Go to hell!" politely. If you constantly disagreed with Winters, he wrote you out of his cabal, his conspiracy against the poetry establishment. You became one of "them." Winters was actually able to make you feel your inept poems were high crimes and misdemeanors, treasonable acts. He would raise his voice in anger and tremble and attack you where he knew you to feel weakest and most insecure. In his thrall we were stripped of the necessary autonomy of error. Hardly the way to encourage creative experimentation, such as one might expect from a workshop. When I got to know Winters' publisher, Allen Swallow, he seemed brave about riding around on motorcycles but just as fearful of Winters as I was. Once, some years later, I reviewed a book of poems by Winters' protege, J. V. Cunningham, the epigramist and scholar. Cunningham was a big drinker and an avid horseplayer, and he came to New York and made an appointment to see me because he was very pleased with what I had written about his poignant book of poems To What Strangers, What Welcome? Cunningham seemed very friendly and agreeable, although he was not pleased to drink slivovitz, which was all I had to serve him. I'd read the essays Winters had written about his former student, and it was hard to recognize him in person or in his latest poems as the scholar-poet-wit celebrated by Winters' hyperboles. He seemed quite modest about himself, and observant, and careful. I inquired if he thought his old friend's hyping of his poems accurate. "Oh, that's just Arthur," Cunningham said. "That's not really the way it was. When Arthur would get an idea about you, you more or less were stuck with being like that. I never thought of myself as a Wintersian. I've always been in too much personal disarray." When Malcolm Cowley was at Stanford, Winters refused to hear him read his poems because of some antique literary quarrel of forty years' provenance. He was perhaps justifiably frightened of Robert Lowell when he came to visit and threatened to pitch a tent on Winters' property in Los Altos. (I bumped into Gunn on the streets of New York about ten years ago. He was leaving the offices of Farrar Straus off Union Square at lunchtime. I don't think Thom recognized me at first, which was appropriate, since I had never really recognized who he was when we were at Stanford together. Then, after a moment, he acknowledged in the presence of his companions that we did indeed know each other and greeted me with shy warmth. Some weeks later I wrote to his Cole Street address in San Francisco that it made me happy to know he was alive and well.) When he was old and sick, Winters wrote to tell me he thought I was a fool for not having continued in graduate school. I never sent him any of my novels to read because he told me he no longer cared to read novels. He lacked the time. Once I asked him if he admired Dostoyevsky. Winters said he would not read any more translations, so he didn't really know what he thought of such books. Some years ago I found some early Winters poems in a quarterly in a used bookstore. These were the poems he later said were "associative twaddle" and repudiated, as he came to write contemporary imitations of Ben Jonson and Fulke Greville. They seemed to me very beautiful and very original evocations of certain mental states in fluent vers libre, similar to Cunningham's procedures in To What Strangers, What Welcome? When the poet Louise Bogan came to Stanford, Winters and Janet Lewis were her generous hosts. He confided to the class that he felt sorry for the life she was compelled to live as an exploited single woman in New York, but thought her poems "beautiful and not overly emotional." Yvor Winters seemed even more afraid of his emotions than I was, and he wrote himself out of the contemporary canon. This took courage at the start of a career and enabled him to survive as an academic. He seemed to wish the same for any student whom he could influence. He was often intimidating, usually insightful, and occasionally lucid, astute, intuitive, brilliant, and imposing. But who was he trying to persuade? Ignoramuses like me? Himself? Others? We were all enlisted in his campaign against the false coinages of modernism and literary madness, his tight quatrains sometimes arguing against his own moral exhortations: A poem is what stands when imperceptive hands, feeling, have gone astray; it is what one must say. I now know how dismaying it can be when what one must say leads one away from reasonable statements. "What one must say " has also influenced my writing, though I avoid quatrains and still admire what I think of as Dostoyevsky in translation. Here is a poem produced by my "Brooklyn ear" I call "Daybreak": In the morning under certain trees the light is orange and the smooth channel pinks the marsh in places where it is the lightest shade of blue, or purple. You sleeping on have never seen this just as I, perhaps, never have known how to sew the seam in my trousers when others could, or where to look for a grammar of nuances; if one can say in Old French I open the window in order to see the forest. But contradictories exist when, as it happens, we are both so very frail to judge what we cannot fail to know, but lovingly. But in the mornings trees also thread their lights on the grass and the channel warms under sunfires slowly like a ribbon of wet glass. ALDOUS HUXLEY He was tall and thin, and very pale, and handsome, with ravished good looks when I knew him, and, it seemed, very close to blind. He would peer at manuscripts, but it was not clear if he was reading them. In the classroom his voice was weak, though plummy at times, and did not carry very well. I seemed always to be leaning forward across the table in the Jones room to hear his words. Many years his junior, his pretty wife Laura, I was told, would be reading our manuscripts to him. But it was not clear whether this was a problem of eyesight or ennui. He told me once sad stories by young writers on the cusp of life depressed him. I remember him asking my friend William Wiegand repeatedly what he could find out about the sewage disposal system of San Francisco. How did it function? What did it produce and how? He seemed at that point in his life much more interested in ecology and the purification of waste products than in literature. He claimed to like something I wrote once and gave me some good practical advice: I should hire somebody to go over the spellings in my manuscripts. "Even as misspellings," he pointed out, "your versions are preposterous." At that period Huxley was interested in LSD. In the environment of Palo Alto so were a lot of others, friends of Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead, who hung out in the vicinity, and Richard Alpert (a.k.a. Baba Ram Das), the son of a former CEO of the New York Central Railroad, who, confronted with the bankruptcy and takeover of his railroad, committed suicide. Huxley seemed to shy away from encounters with such people. Whenever he was asked in class about his interest in hallucinogens he recommended to would-be experimenters that they have monitors present at all times. He would talk a lot about artificial intelligence, but also about De Sade and also faux naive poets such as the English romantic Clare, for whom he seemed to have a fondness. I once complimented him on his screenplay of Pride and Prejudice . "I tried to be civilized," he pointed out, "but it was done for money." I don't think he ever had much to say about student manuscripts except to wish the writers godspeed and good luck. He certainly never tried to discourage anybody. There was a gifted young woman in the class who looked a lot like a witch. Her stories were very strange, illogical, but moving. I don't think she ever had a career. Huxley admired her. But I don't think he really approved of the teaching of "creative writing," like so many English persons, and he always took a hands-off attitude toward her work and to critics in class who took her on for being vague or gnomic. He seemed to be very content presenting himself to us as a monument of seriousness and curiosity and probity. We were to learn through emulation of his qualities of mind, which he would occasionally expose in soliloquies. I found being in his presence inspiring. Though he wrote in a more or less traditional manner, he didn't seem to have any idea he wanted to impose on anybody how fiction should be written, what was taboo, and what not. With him as audience I found myself writing scenes which I would later work up as stories, and when I later read his Devils of Loudon , I became aware of the possibilities of historical writing and of his true erudition and humanity. I had a far different experience with Wallace Stegner. He was a very handsome, well-groomed, charming man, lived in comfortable affluence, rode horses, was usually gentle to his students, though all the time I sat in on his workshop I felt like a misfit. I was reading Dostoyevsky; he admired Scott Fitzgerald. I looked like a psycho; he tried to appear sunny. He could discourse on Percy Lubbock's distinction between round and flat characters; I was looking for a subject other than myself and my family, and I had nothing much good to say about either. Stegner treated me with the tolerance one usually bestows, albeit fearfully, on recently lobotomized child molesters. I jabbered too much in class about all the Russian writers whom I admired for being, among other things, uncouth, and somewhat humorously melodramatic, such as Gogol and Dostoyevsky, just as it was in my own household when I was growing up. Stegner seemed to demand a less intrusive authorial professionalism that I could only imagine myself achieving much later in life. Like Yvor Winters, he seemed hostile toward and suspicious of people from New York and found their interests lacked gentility, were sleazy and unappealing. He never was unkind to me, but I was aware that nothing I wrote could possibly please him, and when I had to submit a short novel, A Coat for the Tsar , for my master's thesis, and he was required to approve it, I had the distinct impression that he found the whole enterprise extremely distasteful, though he agreed to pass me with some distinction. Maybe my mistake was to write about Jews and without a hint of Christian charity. My characters were a loathsome bunch of self-haters and operators. Stegner was not wrong about A Coat for the Tsar . It was a cooked-up piece of Eastern European shtetl hokum I had put together in a few weeks with the sole intention of going from point A to point Z in a continuous third-person narrative. That it had all the authenticity of a Taco Bell comestible is one way of putting it, but quite another way would be to recognize that I had, indeed, gone from A to Z , without faltering, and along my route had managed to depict a few recognizable human interactions. Not too bad, really, for a novice at fiction! Copyright © 1998 Richard Elman. All rights reserved.