“Yes?” I answered. It was Matt, my old college roommate, on the phone.
“Listen. Algren’s in trouble. He’s at a phone booth on the highway. He just got kicked out of his place in Southampton.”
“When did he move out here?”
“He took the train out a few weeks ago and rented rooms, but the thing just backfired and he’s scared to call you because he thinks you’re mad at him.”
“What for?” “That bad weekend. He wants me to feel you out before he asks you for favors.”
“Are you serious? Hang up and have him call me.”
“Stay by your phone.” In less than a minute Nelson Algren was talking to me, breathless, the sound of trucks whooshing by in the background.
“Matt told you…”
“Yes. Where are you?”
“I shouldn’t expect you’d want to help me.” He was on edge, his voice shaky.
“I’m most anxious to help you.”
“The confusion is not in me… .”
“Let’s just get you out of there.”
“Today my truck arrives with everything I own and the landlady decides to evict me. My desk is stuck on the front porch. It’s a riot. . . .” He laughed nervously.
“What do you see from where you’re calling?”
“Montauk Highway… Am I looking at a place that says Patio Royale? I dunno. . . .” Nelson was short of breath, hardly finishing sentences. “She ordered the movers not to move me in.” His voice rose to a falsetto, imitating the woman. ‘You cannot put . . . I’ll call the fire marshal. There’s no more room in my house for anything more.’ She says I’m a fire hazard. I made a deal with her a couple of weeks ago. I come out a thousand goddamn miles to settle down. I say yes, she says yes. I’m here! Everything’s fine. The van arrives and she has a fit. My stuff is all over the lawn.” He suddenly started to laugh as if he were telling a joke. “In effect, I’m evicted before I move in. . . . My manuscripts . . . I don’t know this place. I’d assumed the natives were friendly. Manuscripts, letters,’poems, Hemingway-are these fire hazards? That ‘junk’ is Colette and Melville. I say to her: a writer.’ He laughed. “She goes completely blank. ‘Oh, I know who you are. I want you out anyway.’ So here I am on the street.”
“Nelson . . . “ ‘Get the fire marshal,’ I say. ‘Get the police,’ I say.‘Let’s negotiate.’ I put my . . . my feet up on my desk on the porch waiting for reason to arrive and who does she send but this young stud. He hovers like he’s interested in messing up my face. Well, I’m not that young any more, so I say, ‘Excuse me, sir.’ Ha! I get up and Jesus, here I am.”
“I’m coming to get you. You can stay at my place.”
“Now, I don’t want to make you nervous.”
I ignored the statement and flipped through the phone book: “Got paper and pencil?” I gave him the number of a storage place. “Have them pick up your things. They’re inexpensive.”
“Perfect. Wonderful. Now, listen. Don’t come. I insist. I have a taxi number here.”
“OK. Tell the driver John Street, white house on the left, screened porch.” As soon as he’d hung up I dialed a real-estate agent and begged him to quickly find an inexpensive rental for a famous but unwealthy writer.
* * *
When Nelson and I first met in July of 1974, we didn’t hit it off. Matt was Nelson’s landlord in Hackensack. He had told Nelson of me and my place in Sag Harbor and Nelson said he’d like to meet me and visit the Hamptons, so one Saturday morning Matt and Nelson picked me up in Manhattan and the three of us drove out.
We stopped for lunch at a place called Dìllon’s, in Southampton, about a quarter of a mile from the Atlantic. Our table was shaded by ficus trees. It was one of those rare, violet-blue days. The ficus leaves were tinted with a silver sun-sheen and the wind was warm even as it cooled us. After a long, hot ride on the Long Island Expressway, we were grateful to lean back and watch the movement of air. Amid the sweeping greenery, we ordered wine, shrimp, salad, Perrier. Nelson quickly grew ecstatic, drunk on the ocean air. The light coming through the slim leaves of the trees splattered everything—our faces, the tablecloth—as if we were canvases and a painter were continuously transforming our identities. Algren poured glass after glass of wine and toasted the waitress, whom he had completely enchanted. He toasted everything: the people around us, the sun. “I’m not on Long Island.” Algren laughed like a boy on a roller coaster. “This is Cuba! The Virgin Islands!”
When the check came, Matt and I opened our wallets and Algren left for the men’s room.
“I’m surprised Nelson didn’t fight us for the tab. He always does,” Matt said. “I don’t have a hell of a lot of money with me.”
“Neither do I.” I had quit working on my first novel and taken a job as a copywriter that summer. I’d also rented out my house and was worried about bringing these two guests to the small apartment I shared with a woman friend.
“I hope he doesn’t expect some fancy Hamptons pad. Did you tell the guy he’s going to an attic apartment in Sag Harbor?”
“Why the hell did you rent out your house?”
“I needed the money.” “Oh, Nelson doesn’t care where he sleeps anyway. Is your roommate expecting us for dinner?”
“I just told her I’m bringing two overnight guests.”
“Don’t worry. Nelson’ll take us all out to dinner tonight.”
“Did he say he would?” I asked.
“No, but that’s Nelson’s way. He’s famous for treating people. He may be poor, but he’s not cheap.”
I was embarrassed as we drummed up the dark staircase to the hot apartment on Jermain Avenue in Sag Harbor. With four people in it, the place seemed even smaller and shabbier. In a glance it was obvious that sleeping conditions would be less than private. For some reason still unknown to me, Algren’s response to my roommate was surprisingly cool. Matt asked about dinner and she looked at me, saying she hadn’t planned il anything. Algren started fidgeting. He dropped into an armchair but in five minutes he was slapping the arms, signaling that he was ready to leave. Matt and Algren left for a tour of the Hamptons and my friend looked at me.
“Did I do anything wrong?” “Of course not. I’ll buy breakfast for tomorrow. Tonight he may take us to dinner. Let’s be patient.” I calmed her and went to the deli for juice, bacon, and eggs. That night the four of us dined at the American Hotel. Algren left Matt to select the wine. We had salads, appetizers, duck, veal, pasta. I took the posture of the novice seeking guidance from the sage and asked for Algren’s thoughts on splitting a career as both a novelist and a playwright. He cautioned me against it. “Oil and water,” he said. “Even reviewers just don’t add up a writer’s plays and his fiction. It’s like East and West Berlin. They’re separate professions. I wouldn’t try to win at both unless you can work as hard as two men. Maybe you can. You sure can talk as much.” He giggled madly. On the subject of the movies, Algren grew livid: “Do you ever hear them mention the guy who wrote the novel at the Oscars? It’s his story but you’d never know it. That slime Otto Preminger, he plastered billboards with OTTO PREMINGER’S MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM! Do you believe the ego of that sucker? Then they put me to work in Hollywood for a thousand a day. I lasted two days. Two thousand bucks for that movie. Hell I’d give my right arm to have my books unmovied. Algren railed against the corruption of the publishing industry, against the exploitation of writers by businesses that treat writers like children. He made it clear that he considered himself a prime victim. And he made writing seem like a senseless purgatory, a lifetime trap.
Having hoped for encouragement, I tried to hide my distress. I had always been in awe of Algren’s writing. His characters repelled and fascinated me. Algren had wrung poetry out of human degradation and made it glow with his strange benediction. Though Algren, the son of a Swedish father and a Jewish mother, was in no sense religious, I had always thought of him as a missionary of the underclass, had included him in my private gallery of French heroes: Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, Jean Genet, Peter Maurin. Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the Zeus and Hera of the existential mythos of my college days, had adored this man who was berating the writing profession between mouthfuls of fettuccine. De Beauvoir, in fact, had fallen in love with him and they had had a celebrated, passionate affair. I’d expected to meet the punk-expatriate of the photographs of Stephen Deutch. This Algren looked more like a wheezing, pot-bellied old jailbird.
It was clear to me that he didn’t like me. His negativity about writing produced an anxiety in me that was difficult to conceal. I felt he was deliberately psyching me, punishing me for playing the supplicant before the literary deity. After dessert and coffee, feeling guilty about his treating us, I spoke up: “How about if everyone pays for him or her self. OK?” But it turned out that Nelson had no intention of treating himself, let alone any one of us. When the check came he folded his arms pretending an infatuation with the ceiling. Matt spoke up.
“Nelson? How shall we split this?” Without moving a muscle, Algren gave him the cold eye.
“When I’m the guest, I don’t pay,” he said. Matt and I pulled the last dollars out of our wallets and my friend furiously searched her purse. If Nelson’s generosity was famous, somehow we must have failed him. His apparent dislike of us hurt and embarrassed me. But was it us, or was this world-famous writer simply broke and too proud to admit it? As it stood, not only had my efforts to befriend him failed but I had somehow made an enemy of a writer I had once worshiped.
Nelson leaned over and whispered something to Matt, and Matt announced, “We’re not staying. We’re driving back tonight.”
That night I lay awake recalling Algren’s tired face and his bitter words. I was a nineto-five copywriter who dreamed of being a novelist, someone for whom the mere publication of my first novel would have meant salvation, would have proved so much. In one day, just by being who he was, this man had turned my dream into a joke. At that moment I didn’t care whether I finished my novel or not.
* * *
It was June of 1980 when Nelson called me breathlessly from the highway. Six years had gone by since that night at the American Hotel. I had published my first novel and begun work on a second, giving up my job and my apartment in New York City and moving to my house in Sag Harbor to write full-time. During those six years the Hamptons hadn’t changed much. Writers, both famous and obscure, continued to use them as a retreat. Potato Beach was still wildly beautiful, a place one might expect to find on the coast of Scotland: farmlands sloping down toward dunes and the Atlantic. Dwellings were visible but what the eye took in was still mostly the breathtaking acres of winter wheat and corn that kept the roads hidden and cool all summer. Today, lawns and new oversize houses have replaced the fields. Fastbuck spec houses have popped up everywhere in the woodlands. The Hamptons are feeding on themselves, and the place is on the brink of becoming an overpriced, suburban cliché. But the day Nelson arrived at my house from the highway, things hadn’t yet gotten out of control.
My porch was a huge screened enclosure that jutted off the living room like the stern of a ship, floating in the shade of tall oaks and looking out to sea grass and a pond. The surrounding woods belonged to the birds-great white herons, great blue herons. Snowy egrets would sneak in and out of the reeds, and swallows from Brazil made the shores a rallying point after their migration. That summer Andrew Bolotowski, the flautist, was rehearsing nearby. His music would drift across the street, wafting up to the oaks till nightfall. On her way home from the post office, Elaine Steinbeck drove by each day, stopping to chat about day lilies or the past winter. In spite of a few glitterati, I thought Sag Harbor might still be real-folks enough of a place to turn Nelson on. That day the cove water was its bluest. Swans and a small sailboat made circles on it.
When Nelson arrived at my house, his face was the same gray color as his hair, except around the eyes where the skin took on an oily, N brownish hue. His pot belly forced the buttons of a soiled white shirt. His trousers were falling in spite of his belt. He greeted me with a brief handshake and a stiff smile. “Thanks.” He plopped down in a large wicker chair on the porch. “You saved me. All’s fixed.”
I handed him a drink and a newspaper. At that moment my rea1estate friend and his staff were scouring Sag Harbor for a place for him, and his things were going into storage. Relieved that he seemed calm and comfortable, I excused myself to make up the guest room. When I came down he threw the paper aside.
“Where’s your novel?” he asked.
“Don’t you want something to eat?” The last thing I wanted was for Nelson Algren to critique my writing.
“I want to read your novel.”
“How about a nap? You’ve had quite a . . .”
“Jesus, don’t you hear?” he practically yelled. “I want to read it. I like reading.” I fetched the book, gave it to him, and quickly excused myself. I had to shop for dinner. As I backed my car into the street I glanced at him on the porch, my book in his hands. Until then, the man had no reason to dislike me, but now he could find reasons in my work.
I hoped he’d read a few paragraphs, then fall exhausted into his bed. I didn’t envy the dreams that come after 71 years of his kind of life, especially on the day it had been reduced to a truckload.
My novel was not going to please him: a story of two male cousins who had rotten fathers and an obsessive attachment to each other; definitely not Nelson’s cup of tea, and it worried me.
The sun was low and dark orange when I returned. He hadn’t left the chair, it seemed, except to make a pot of coffee, which he screwed up. He’d put the grounds into the water compartment. When I showed him the correct way he insisted that was how he had done it, but there was a little boy’s fear in his face, of having misbehaved, and I felt bad for him. He was clearly a man who needed his privacy, his own things, his own way. At sunset it was cool. I offered him his choice of fine white shirts, all Saks Fifth Avenue, that I’d picked up at the Ladies’ Village Improvement Society store in East Hampton for 25 cents each, all laundered and ready to wear. He tried on the largest and it fit nicely. Then I remembered an oversize darkblue varsity sweater from the thirties that I had bought at a garage sale. It had belonged to Jake King of Hampton Street, a retired village cop who had died. Nelson took to it immediately. He snuggled into the sweater like a cold child under a blanket. It must have substantiated some idea he had of himself. He paced in it, jamming his hands in the pockets, stretching it close around him as if it had always been his.
“Keep it,” I said happily.
“No,” he growled. “It’s too big for me. I only paid a buck for it.”
“Well, let me give you the dollar,” he said. “Oh, kiss my ass.” We both laughed. Nelson’s color had returned.
* * *
Greg Therriault, a potter from across town whom I had invited for dinner, arrived. I made snacks as Nelson continued reading my novel in the afterglow of sunset. Finally he stood up and with a gentle voice said: “Well, I’m surprised, really, and delighted to see that you write extremely well. And you’re good to women. Very good to women. Quite enjoyable.” He asked a few questions and made complimentary comments about the book and when he was finished my shoulder muscles relaxed and my true voice returned. The old enmity dissolved. We were giving each other another chance.
“Let’s eat,” I said.
After dinner he dropped onto the red velvet couch looking content. My real-estate friend called; they’d found Nelson a nice studio apartment on Concord Street, available immediately. We celebrated, merrily drinking before the fire. He wasn’t ashamed to express his gratitude in a corny yet genuine way: “In my book you’ve passed every possible human test. I thank you deeply. I do.” Then he stared into the fire and, becoming relaxed and dignified, put up the collar of his sweater, leaned back, and began to speak of the past, of Paris and the “ordinary schoolteacher” he was in love with there, of Sartre, of Cuba and Hemingway. I listened, eyeing him as if he were an exotic wild creature that had somehow wandered into my living room.
“You met Hemingway?” “Oh, yes, in Cuba. Hemingway was there. We’d sit talking and drinking in all that island light, you know, beautiful. . . .”
“What was he like?”
“Hemingway? He was just an ordinary guy, spirited. The man loved writing, respected good writing. No slouch in that department. He knew the angles and he had that inner thing going for him. That was unmistakable.”
“What inner thing?”
“Primacy, you know? He wasn’t a secondary writer, vampiring other writers.”
“He wasn’t obnoxiously macho as some claim?”
“What do you mean?”
“Defensively male, you know. Papa Hemingway . . .”
“I found him quite gentlemanly. You know he didn’t go around admiring much writing other than his own, but he did make it clear to me that he liked mine. He liked me and I liked him. He was really in charge there in Cuba. He played the role to the hilt. I mean, here was a writer who’d experienced the approval of the whole literary world in his lifetime. He witnessed the full impact of himself on the scene, and it was a phenomenal impact. Which is rare. Now, Melville was crucified by the critics for Moby Dick. Banished. When he was over 80, he died working as a customs inspector in Brooklyn for less li than ten bucks a week. Melville’s son, though, got rich in New York City. He rang his father’s doorbell one night, and when the old man opened the door he shot himself in the head. Hemingway never had those problems. His worst shock was to discover his own mortality, and hell, nobody beats that rap, not even the literary darlings, though they can go to expensive dentists while they’re alive. But let’s face it. He was a peewee next to Faulkner. They all are.” Algren giggled gleefully.
“You know, John Steinbeck’s house is down the street,” I said, hoping to impress him.
“That so?” “And E. L. Doctorow lives across the street.”
That’s nice,” he said politely. I waited for more, but his gaze was lost in the fire. “No,” he said dreamily, “Hemingway treated me very well. We had a nice time.” He talked on about Chicago and his hitchhiking days through the boom towns of Texas, riding freight cars to New Orleans, about his days in Istanbul, Spain, Calcutta, Bombay, Korea.
Falling asleep that night, I pictured him and Hemingway sitting at a dockside table in Cuba, in straw hats and white shirts, belting down cervezas frías as the giant fishbone of the old man’s marlin rocked and swayed in tiny waves beneath them.
We were so different from each other, Nelson and I, unlikely friends or even acquaintances. Our points of reference, even our concepts of masculinity, were different. I was too cautious, overpolite, working hard to be liked, while he seemed confident, tough, unafraid to displease. I hoped to learn from him.
* * *
After his first night in the studio on Concord Street, he called me for lunch. We walked to the Bridgeview Diner, a big old building on the water facing the bridge. His eyes lit up as we passed through the dark hallway into the large glassed-in room, glowing with the light of the sky and water. He walked to where the view was best, a table close to the windows near a woodburning stove.
“Well”—he slapped the table—“I don’t care what the food is like. I’ll be chowing down here twice a week.”
When the check came, we fought nervously for it. Algren told me he was earning a little on the German publication of his works.
“My German publishers are coming to visit and I want you to meet them. Bring your book. They pay well. No. Don’t worry about the check. You’ll never pay when you eat with me.”
I answered. “I’ll get it next time.”
“No, you won’t,” he asserted, without a hint of sarcasm. It was as natural for Nelson to be open and kindhearted and spontaneously joyful as it was for him to be completely ornery, to come down hard on people. Nelson had no patience for the greedy, the self-absorbed, and the hypocritical, and you were either admitted to his family of friends—toward whom he was eternally faithful—or banished with a verbal lashing you would never forget.
Just after his first week in Sag Harbor I caught sight of him waiting in line at the post office.
“Nelson,” I called out. He spun around in ecstasy and grabbed my arm. “My name,” he sang. He was on stage. “Did
you hear my name?” he addressed the others. They smiled. “My first week in a new town, I’m standing here wondering where the hell I am and suddenly my name. I must belong here.”
“You came to a good place.” An old woman bowed to him. “Thank you. Thank you.” I offered him a ride and he took his large pack of mail and dragged me out into the sunlight, deliriously happy. On the way home I spotted Lanford Wilson, another one-time Chicagoan, and introduced them. Meeting a fellow Chicagoan in the streets seemed to brighten Nelson’s mood even more. Lanford, who will not own a car, assured Nelson that one was better off traveling by bike or by foot in the village.
Nelson became giddy, as if the gods of good fortune were at last paying attention to him. He seemed to feel absolutely right about being in Sag Harbor, for he kept thanking me bringing him there. For a time he literally became a child, seeing, as the Buddhists say, with eyes “of the first time.” He fell in love with a truly repulsive local deli dessert called ambrosia, a miicture of sour cream, whipped cream, orange gelatin, orange sherbet, canned mandarin oranges, flaked coconut, miniature marshmallows, and canned pineapple chunks, sold at Hans’s Deli.
A month or so after he moved to Concord Street, Nelson’s luck was still holding: The bargain jewel of Sag Harbor—a cedar-shingled salt box on Glover Street—came up for rent and my real-estate friend got it for Nelson. White on the inside, clean and well insulated, the house had a working fireplace in the living room. Nelson signed a two-year lease for $375 a month, a miracle even then.
That year a play of mine was at the Eugene O’Neill Conference and I was gone from Sag Harbor for a good part of the summer. I visited Nelson at his new house on my return and then I witnessed the fate the Southampton landlady had wisely avoided. Almost every inch of wall space was covered with heavy framed homemade collages consisting of old headlines, letters, clippings, and photos depicting the recent history of the world in terms of rape, war, sports, violence, literature, and art. Framed photographs, paintings, and documents hung from thick nails that bristled the walls. At the foot of the stairs was a huge blowup of the famous photograph of a Vietnamese girl, doused with napalm and running toward the camera screaming. Nearby, another blowup depicted a man from Bangladesh carrying his wife, who looked as if she had been beaten or raped. From the walls stared D. H. Lawrence, Marcel Proust, and Abraham Lincoln: “The family heirloom is that Lincoln—my grandmother saved that. It was from Lincoln’s assassination. She was in New York at the time. Oh, I’ve got stuffl don’t have room for,” he said in all innocence. “I’ve got almost all the wall space used up that I can.” Only the corner where he kept his desk and typewriter was spartan and clean.
Papers were strewn over the floors of the upstairs bedrooms. He had fixed precious preColumbian figures to a piece of scoting with plumbing brackets, then splashed the figures with bloodred paint. The fireplace was gagged with crumpled newspapers so tightly pressed up into the chimney that the black screen couldn’t stand in place. Clearly the small fireplace wouldn’t be able to handle the flames if a match were put to it. Knowing it might ruffle his feathers, I still couldn’t help becoming instructive with household hints.
“Nelson. You don’t intend to light those newspapers.”
“You’ll burn this place down.”
He looked at me as if I were a misinformed meddler.
“I know how to use a fireplace. You tend to yourself. You have that way about you that you think you’re assigned to take care of everybody.” He was right to chastise me. I had to stop playing the role of guardian angel. His period of adjustment was over and he let me know it.
But I was right about the fireplace. After the first frost I stopped by Nelson’s house and found a monstrous tongue of carbon blackening the mantel and running dramatically up the white wall to the ceiling. “Looks like you had a damn good fire.” I couldn’t resist.
“Do you see a red pencil around here?” he replied. As I handed him the pencil he caught my smile. “You really are the smart ass of fireplaces, aren’t you?” he said.
“I don’t know, Nelson. I guess I just don’t have the humility to get along with you.” He laughed, mocking both of us.
Little arguments between us would flare up but they fizzled out. We would meet again full of enthusiasm, full of trust, until the next disagreement. He listened but often acted as if he weren’t hearing. A sly remark months later would prove that he had heard only too well. I kept underestimating the fragility of his self-esteem. Relatively alone, impoverished and unacclaimed, he kept up a front of armor, often employing the device of anticipatory attack. But just as often, he’d handle real insults with a mysterious poise. I began to worry about him in the Hamptons. He would be vulnerable here. Suddenly I appreciated how Algren—the man who had claimed for himself the words of Whitman: “I feel I am of them—I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself”—could arouse the latent sadism of the kind of book reviewers who think fiction should abound in characters with whom they can identify, the kind of reviewers who really are defending themselves from existential insult. Ne1son’s discomfort among such literary types was the same discomfort he came to feel with the surrounding “Hamptons set.” When he was with any of these people his arrogance would intensify as he strained for deeper, more outrageous responses. One night, at a crowded dinner table, he took out his dental bridge, washed it in his glass of water, and put it back in his mouth. And when Jessie Porter, his elderly next-door neighbor, complained to Nelson about how he neglected his house, Nelson, who customarily roamed about the house in a bathrobe, responded by flashing her the next time he caught her peering in his window.
The Hamptons backed him, together with the whores and outcasts of his fiction, into an ideological corner.
Every day Nelson wore the same clothing: baggy trousers, high-top sneakers laced halfway, an occasional change of shirt -but in Sag Harbor this could be considered stylish. Often called the Un-Hampton, Sag Harbor is much like Key West, full of artists, writers, and editors, some with bluecollar incomes who blend in with the locals. Someone who fixes refrigerators might be a former executive of NBC, his customer a former executive of CBS. There are whalers’ descendants, too, people whose ancestors arrived in the 1600s.
Canio Pavone’s bookstore was just opening around the corner from Glover, a few yards from Nelson’s front door, and one Saturday morning he sloshed in there in slippers. Canio was sweeping ancient dust out of the place. Here was someone even newer than Nelson.
“What the hell you tryin’ achieve here?” Nelson asked.
Trying to open a bookstore.” Canio has the good looks of a tango dancer, smiles shyly, and is inexhaustibly polite.
“Bookstore?” Nelson roared. “Hell, I got more books on my damn bed table.”
Nelson returned with armloads of books for Canio. He visited the store every Saturday morning and it became the Nelson Algren Saturday Salon. Canio acquired an old sixties swivel armchair of green tweed from which Nelson loved to hold forth. A small group grew around that chair, which, to this day, remains the seat of honor at Canio’s readings. Nelson turned the place into a hangout in a matter of weeks. There the storyteller sharpened his powers, dousing his groupies with a waterfall of jokes, gossip, advice. The lizardy, brownish rubbery skin around Nelson’s eyes was blending with his deepening tan.
He got his old bike out of storage and though he and the bike made a clumsy couple, he managed to wave to friends as he weaved and bounced all around town.
By October, he was looking younger. In spite of his limited income, he insisted on picking up the tab for our regular lunches so vehemently sometimes that I’d be afraid it would end in a fistfight. We sat at “his” table next to the woodburning stove, where he could stare at the bay. “Jesus, was I wrong about Sag Harbor,” he said. “This is, finally, home. I would’ve hated Southampton. Here I eat and watch water.” He laughed softly. “For years I had this flash forward of myself eating and looking out at miles of water. Really. I swear.” There was resignation in his voice as he gazed beyond the stacked rowboats to the people fishing on the bridge.
He stood up and introduced me to Johnny Ward, who owned the Bridgeview Diner.
I had known John at a distance for more than 15 years. He ran for mayor a couple of times. But Nelson had, in less than a year, developed relationships with the working people of Sag Harbor that I hadn’t in 15. Nelson went beyond knowing them. He transformed them, magically, into more vocal, vivid versions of themselves, acting in a drama that was really Nelson’s own. He accomplished this by the intensely sophisticated art of listening. He shaped them by becoming their witness, and they knew he had the power to put them on the map.
“Did you see what Johnny has?” Nelson asked me. “No. What?” I asked. He signaled and Johnny came up with a box of old photos. He spread them out on the bar of that huge, failing restaurant and spoke proudly as he displayed his visions from the past: whaling photos, photos of old Sag Harbor. The town was barely recognizable. Nelson had seen and heard it all months before.
Algren had been consciously using Sag Harbor to frame an end for his career, a homey, low-budget retirement after a willfully lived, barely rewarded, though not unrecognized, life. Ironically for a man so closely identified with Chicago, Nelson Algren’s bitterness found its balm here in Sag Harbor. Algren once said: “You can belong to New Orleans. You can belong to Boston or San Francisco. You might conceivably—however clandestinely—belong to Philadelphia. But you can’t belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to a flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn’t so much a city as it is a drafty hustler’s junction in which to hustle a while and move on out of the draft.”
Throughout his career, Algren had been snubbed and underrated by the Chicago literary intelligentsia led by Saul Bellow. In Algren’s last years, the continuing failure of American publishers and critics to value his work, and his dedication to the lost cause of clearing the boxer Hurricane Carter from a murder rap, drained Nelson’s energy and emptied his pockets. The Hurricane Carter case turned into a quicksand of unresolvable complexities and Hurricane was never cleared. After years of effort, Algren finally converted his commitment into material for his novel The Devil’s Stocking, but by then he had grown old and tired.
* * *
In Paris in the late forties and early fifties Algren’s writing was being heralded. In Chicago, the critics were dumping on it. Algren headed for Europe, where he sojourned in Paris with Simone de Beauvoir while Sartre translated his Chicago: On the Make and Never Come Morning. There Nelson also met James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, and his wife, Gloria Mosolino. Years later, in the early seventies, Jim and Gloria gave up Paris and moved to a house on a hill in the Hamptons, complete with grape arbor and acres of potato fields. Jim died in May of 1977, but Gloria carried on their tradition of hospitality as the pre-eminent hostess to friends, writers, and artists, including Heller, Knowles, Styron, Shaw, and Puzo. Nelson hadn’t seen Gloria since Paris and he called her up.
Gloria introduced Nelson to a world that exemplifies but transcends the cliché of the Hamptons. He met old confreres like Kurt Vonnegut, whom he had known at the University of Iowa. Vonnegut took Nelson to dinner at the American Hotel and introduced him to John Irving. “But Nelson’s wisecracks to Irving that night make sense,” Vonnegut says. “The whole night Nelson thought he was with Clifford Irving.” Candida Donadio, Nelson’s agent, put him in touch with Peter Matthiessen. Peter and his wife, Maria, welcomed Nelson to dinners and Nelson returned the gesture. It was as if a nucleus of his past and the beginnings of a future had been waiting for him all along, here at the tip of Long Island. One day some 18 of us received this invitation:
DRINKS AFTER FIVE
DINNER AT SEVEN
THURSDAY, DECEMBER EIGHTEEN, 1980
HOME OF NELSON ALGREN
Nelson had pounded more nails into the walls and strung up old-fashioned outdoor Christmas lights. The ceilings radiated with bursts of red, yellow, and green. Walking inside the house was like penetrating cubicles of punk art in some awful East Village gallery. The extra-large Christmas lights had been in one of the boxes that had trailed after him all the years. Nelson kept things, from his old bike to his Christmas lights, carrying them with him his whole life, as if they were props and he were a kind of theatre. There was a high purpose to this junk that had repelled the would-be landlady in Southampton.
He introduced me to Canio first, then to his close friend Roy Finer, a detective who looked as if he had stepped out of a 1940s film noir. The small house seemed crowded with people who were delicately stepping around piles of books and unidentifiable artifacts, trying not to topple their glasses. For tablecloths, the small table in the living room was spread with the room curtains. Finally, as we drank his excellent Champagne, Nelson emerged from the kitchen with a sliced ham, aluminum trays of ziti, and huge plastic containers of ambrosia, all from Hans’s Deli, and directed everybody to fill his plate. At the same time he was flinging seating orders at his guests, separating us into two groups, one in the dining room and the other in the living room. In the confusion it appeared that he had forgotten about Gloria Jones, who floated between rooms. I stood up, lifting my chair.
“Gloria, sit here,” I called. Nelson froze and glared at me.
“Stay where the hell I put you.” He was hyperventilating.
“I think Gloria needs a chair,” I said.
“You don’t know everything. Now, just sit down. I said sit.”
Gloria threw me a cautionary glance and I sat, glowering and embarrassed, thinking my dish of ziti on his walls might complement the décor.
He pulled two chairs to the middle of the floor, dragged a gray metal typewriter table away from the wall, opened its flaps, and gestured gallantly for Gloria to sit down. She sat with a smile as he lifted a bottle of liquor. He turned to me.
“Now,” he said, taking a relaxed breath, “I want to toast a friend, who is present. Joe.” He winked at me and smiled. “This is in honor of you, the man who put an end to my losing streak.”
“Hear, hear!” they chanted. I swallowed my anger and drowned my misgivings in his wonderful Champagne.
* * *
Early that winter of 1981, Nelson had been notified of his election to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was to be inducted on May 20th. This exploded the cozy picture of his exile. He had received a literary award as early as 1947, but generally speaking, no greater literary distinction is available in the United States than to be elected and inducted into the academy. Sometime in the 1970s Kurt Vonnegut had put Nelson up for a medal of merit at the academy. “I read the citation,” Kurt explained, “but he never showed up. My first words that day were: ‘It’s very much in character for the recipient of this medal not to be here.’ I later telephoned him and said, ‘Come get your medal. I think it’s gold.’ You know what his response was? ‘Mail it to me.’ I was under the mistaken impression,” Vonnegut went on, “that these medals were made of gold, you know. worth $3,000 or so, and therefore highly hockable to say the least. But a medal from the academy is not election to the academy and I think it only insulted him. Sometime later I asked Nelson what had happened to the medal. ‘You know it’s worth money,‘ I said, ‘I dunno,’ he answered, ‘it must’ve rolled under the couch.’ ”
While Nelson publicly poohpoohed election to the academy, when it was offered in 1981 it satisfied him deeply, He stopped falling into those dark panics in which he would declaim, bitterly, as if addressing a jury seated somewhere above his head: “I’m on a blacklist. I don’t know who put me on it, but it’s American. The Germans read me and buy me. They can’t get enough of me. In my own country they treat me like shit.” Now he was saying: “This is the turnaround. Publishers notice. Money start coming in.”
Our lunches were no longer at the Bridgeview Diner. Now he was taking me to the fancy Cato’s in Brìdgehampton. He gave me a copy of The Last Carousel and inscribed it with the words of his toast: “For Joe, the man who put an end to my losing streak.”
Everything he had mourned as lost seemed on the brink of coming back to him. It was as if he had forgotten about luck, given up too soon on the goodness of the world and its possibilities. Now he was adjusting to his new good fortune, acting more irreverent than ever. but this time with great style. His energy and his confidence soared. Not only was he now a star; he realized that he had always been one. His habitual lowgrade depression was gone. and one could see through the old man, as through a newly cleaned window, to the hot-blooded hustler, the lean and hungry wolf, back on the make. Even Gloria had to hold him at arm’s length. When Matt came to visit us, we met Gloria for lunch at Bobby Van’s, and when Gloria went to the ladies’ room, Nelson leaned toward us and whispered that he had asked Gloria if she cared for him ”. . . And she said, ‘Of course. what the hell do you think? So l give her this kiss and try to stick my tongue in her mouth and she pushes me away. ‘Hold it right there,’ she says. ‘I care, but don’t . . . please. Not that, darling. None of that. Nelson, or else you’ll spoil everything.’ But Jesus doesn’t she have marvelous tits?”
Nelson suddenly became the dashing raconteur, a confident actor swinging both arms behind fancy couches like a bird folding, crossing his legs and bubbling cleverly forth at center stage with oversize gestures. The swaggering American in Paris had been resurrected. At parties he and Gloria were uninterruptible, hysterically funny together, spilling over with stories. Still, he kept faith with his cronies and worshipers at Canio’s on Saturdays.
As if Nelson had all along been someone else, the news broke that a literary giant had emerged from obscurity in the Hamptons. His telephone number was unlisted and people turned to me in search of him. Reporters for The New York Times and Newsday called unceasingly for help in arranging interviews. Betty Friedan, as well as several old Chicago acquaintances who had settled in East Hampton, was in desperate pursuit of Nelson, but he refused to allow me to give out his number, grumbling about the rich and famous. More than once Nelson asked me not to oblige any of them. I never questioned whether this resurgence of his celebrity was for the best. It satisfied him. But it was also agitating him.
After the high, his bitterness started to resurface. He wanted payment for those bad years. He lashed out at those who had scoffed, took his revenge for past injustices, as he reconstructed the earlier chapters of his life to fit this new twist in the plot.
At the same time he looked more kindly upon his neighbors, realizing that they were not uniformly snobs or gangs of rich. Betty Friedan drove a $100 wreck. Next time she called I simply told her: “Look out your window. He lives across the street from you.” Friedan reconnected Nelson to his old Chicago buddies, and he and Betty became good friends.
He asked Gloria to accompany him to his May 20th induction at the academy and started making plans for an elegant lawn party in honor of a Chicago journalist friend of his, to take place at Nelson’s house on May ninth. He asked me to come by early to help him greet people.
That morning I dressed in white and walked to Nelson’s house. As I approached, I saw a small man crouching and snapping off photos of the house. Yellow-faced and sweating, he lowered his camera as I came up to him.
“Do you know Nelson? What’s your name?” he panted.
“Who are you?” I asked indignantly. ‘Tm doing my job. I’m a reporter.” He fished for a press card. “May I take your picture?”
“No. If you don’t mind. Is anything wrong? What’s wrong?”
“He’s dead. Nelson is dead.” The man seemed terrified, poised with his camera.
“Wait a minute. . . .”
“Where does Betty Friedan live?” he asked breathlessly. “I understand she lives nearby.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of Nelson’s. l’m legit. Look, I’m a little nervous.” He was wildly distraught. “Sorry. It was for me, this party.”
“Who’s with Nelson? Where . . . ?”
“In the bathroom. On the floor. You know his friend Roy? Roy cut open the screen door and forced his way into the house. I’m a friend. . . . I just don’t know what else to do…. I’m a journalist. Where’s Friedan’s house?” he repeated. I pointed to it across the street. He ran toward it and I turned to see Roy coming out of the house, grayfaced, shaking his head.
“His heart,” Roy said. “He’s on the floor in the bathroom. It’s not pretty.”
“Are you sure he’s dead?”
“He’s dead. He’d had heart trouble before coming here, a heart attack a couple of years back.”
“He what?. . . He never told me that.”
“You don’t want to go in, Joe.”
“When did this happen?”
“His wrist watch smashed against the tub or something. The hands are stuck at 6:05, so I figure this morning at 6:05.”
“Roy . . . What do we do? Guests will be showing up.”
“Go home. I’ll wait for the police.” “But you don’t look well.” Roy had recently had an operation. He looked exhausted.
“You don’t look so good yourself,” he said. “Go home. Police’ll turn the guests away. hang around till they get here and catch up to you, unless maybe… I’ll just take the train back.”
Unknown to me, earlier in the week Nelson had had chest pains and had visited a doctor on Main Street. The doctor had urged him to go to Southampton Hospital’s emergency room, but Nelson, it seems, had left the doctor’s office with no intention of doing that. He had a party to pull off Saturday.
At home, waiting for Roy to call, I pictured the guests being turned away. Roy finally called to say that the local police were with Nelson’s body and that he was taking the train back. I assumed that I would hear about Nelson’s funeral arrangements before the end of the day, but by nightfall my phone hadn’t rung.
All that night the dogs in my house couldn’t sleep. They paced around my bed; then, about two in the morning, they sprang up and ran downstairs wagging their tails as if someone had come to the front door. I couldn’t shake the silly thought that Nelson’s ghost had walked into my house. So real was the feeling that mentally I greeted him, letting him know he was safe and welcome. As I lay in bed, I imagined Nelson in the wicker chair on the porch, enjoying the moonlight. For the rest of the night, the dogs slept downstairs.
* * *
The next morning, a dark, rainy Mother’s Day, I found out that Nelson’s body had been shipped, unclaimed, 50 miles up island from Sag Harbor, toward Manhattan, to Hauppauge. At Canio’s we discussed it in shock. Who let this happen? Who was in charge? People were looking at me as if to say: Well, you brought him here.
I went to the local undertaker, feeling a bit miscast, almost sure I was duplicating something that someone was doing somewhere else. I could just hear Nelson saying, “Now sit back and stop butting into everything.”
“A friend has died and I want to make arrangements for his burial.”
“Yes, in Sag Harbor.”
“I guess so.” When l got home my phone was ringing. Word had spread that I was the contact. Studs Terkel, calling from Chicago, had left a message on my tape, apologizing that he had to go to China the next day, offering every kind of help. I called back asking if he could contact a relative of Nelson’s to have the body released. He promised to work on it immediately. Gloria called, in shock, crying. Then Nelson’s literary agent, Candida Donadio, called from Connecticut, also in tears, but at the same time telling me what I had to do and how, precisely, to do it. At first I resented this. If she wants her way, I thought, why doesn’t she take the ferry across the Sound and do the work? She used the telephone artfully, projecting emotions and imperatives with such vivid power that I felt she was actually present in the room. She wanted the plainest pine box for Nelson, no embalming, and a quick burial. But terror was mixed with her efficiency. Sadness tugged at her voice, revealing a grief that was beyond my comprehension. It came across like a song in a language I couldn’t understand. It was that way with all his friends. I knew him the last and the least.
The undertaker called to say that I’d have to select a coffin and to meet him at the cemetery to pick a gravesite.
“Can’t we take care of the casket by phone?” I asked.
“They go from Chevy to Rolls-Royce.”
“Well . . . not the very cheapest. How about the third from cheapest?”
“Should be decent enough.”
“Then let that be the one.” Candida was upset when I advised her. Through tears she pleaded, “Those cheap coffins are worse than the pine boxes. Don’t you believe me? They’re horrid. You’ll be sorry. No. Just the morgue box, the plain pine thing. I’ve been through so many of these. You don’t understand.”
“Let me get back to the undertaker.” Her words chilled me: “I’ve been through so many of these.” How often could the literary agent of people like Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo have been through one of “these"? Did she have armies of unknown writers for whom this kind of burial was the norm, or was the morgue box an unspoken wish of Nelson’s? Was it a final statement to the literary Establishment whose esteem he simultaneously sought and spurned? Perhaps, like the incident at the American Hotel, it was merely a matter of his poverty.
“Go along with Candida,” Studs said after deliberation; “she knows him. If anything rubs you wrong, I’ll foot the bill for whatever you want. I can’t postpone my China trip. I have to leave in a matter of hours or I’d be on a plane to you right now. You understand? Just take care of him. He was a dear friend. Can you understand how helpless I feel? Take good care of him, whatever you do. I’m still working on getting that release.”
* * *
Early in Nelson’s career he had played one dramatic poker game with advance money on a contract for a yet unwritten book. He lost not only the advance but thousands beyond it. In spite of the trouble he was in, Candida had agreed to represent him. She saw to it that he fulfilled his obligation and paid off his debts.
In the long run, she may have done more for Nelson than for Puzo or Heller, and Nelson knew it. Up until the last few weeks of his life, he would say proudly: “I’ve got the best agent in the business. If she can’t sell a book, nobody can.” He had dedicated Never Come Morning to Candida. In his next call from Chicago, Studs’s voice had dropped to a rasp. “No niece yet.”
Gloria called next, suggesting I read the 24th Psalm at the burial.
“He’s half Jewish,” I reminded her.
“What the hell kind of Catholic are you?” she said indignantly. “The 24th Psalm is Jewish.”
“That’s right. Of course.”
But when I related these plans to Candida, she answered in her low throaty voice, “I’m fine about you reading, but none of that stuff, please. None of it. I’ll find you something from one of his poems. And, remember, don’t let anyone pay for anything. I’ll call the undertaker. Give me the number. It must be the morgue box. You understand?”
“Will you come across the Sound for the funeral?” I asked. She hesitated. “Yes. If I can.” At the moment it was dark, windy, and pouring rain.
I called the undertaker and said, “I want a pine box, a morgue box. You know . . .”
“I know. She just called. But what she doesn’t know is that they don’t make them of pine any more.” “Pressed stuff, composition. Six pieces nailed together.”
“Well, I guess that’s the one,” I said with difficulty.
Half an hour later there was a knock on my door. A well-dressed, beautiful woman entered and sat gracefully in the chair nearest the door. “l’m Carol Phillips,” she said. “I live in the area and I just heard about Nelson Algren. Quite straightforwardly, I’d like to offer help, a funeral, casket, plot, monument, anything you feel appropriate to his stature. You’re his friend. You can decide, and of course I’ll remain anonymous. J ust have the undertaker send the bills to me.” I called Candida with the news but she said, “You still don’t understand. Thank the woman, but tell her no, absolutely not.”
Studs called in a voice fresh and clear. “We’ve contacted the niece. A release is being called in to the undertaker in Sag Harbor, and Nelson’s body is on its way back to you.”
“Good work. We’re in business.” When my phone wasn’t ringing, I used it to call a few of Ne1son’s friends, asking them to pass the word on. All that remaìned was for me to grab my raincoat and meet the undertaker at the cemetery to select a gravesite. I dug out an old pair of Frye leather boots that I had kept in the back of the closet as a memento of the sixties. I put them on, thinking the perfect time for their end had come. Gloria called as I was going out the door. I told her that I had no idea how to pick out a gravesite and she answered tearfully as if not hearing: “Lilac time again, as when Jim died. It’s getting so that they frighten me. Lilacs are becoming scarier and scarier as the years go by.” (It was lilac time again three years later when her close friend Irwin Shaw died.) “But listen, Joe,” she added, “maybe you should look for a place under trees, a shady place where the earth doesn’t burn up from the sun. You know? That’s all I can think of.”
“OK,” I hung up. The phone rang. “Joe? Peter Matthiessen. How are you doing? Can I help?”
I told him I was on my way to Oakland. He reminded me that there were new wooded areas deep in the back of Oakland Cemetery, “very natural, pretty, back there.” Peter’s calm voice helped.
But as I was going out the door Candida called.
“Try not to put him in a low spot because the water drains and the earth there stays soggy. High. Always bury someone high, where the ground doesn’t flood.”
I felt I had to honor the wishes of his friends, but they all had different ideas. High, where the ground doesn’t flood? I imagined I was planting a clematis vine, or a hydrangea, a living thing that was to bloom by summer. But when it came to actually plunging my boots into the soaked, inorganic clay, I realized was just planting dead meat into dead mud.
We trekked about 400 yards toward the newly cleared wooded area and found it bulldozed, full of uncovered tree roots and gaping mud holes. It seemed sacrilegious to leave a friend there.
“No,” I said to the woods. “How about the older section?” “This way.” The undertaker led me to a grassy corner, but it consisted of several plots and that would be expensive. (Balanchine wound up there two years later.)
We walked on. “Do you have any nice singles where he wouldn’t seem squeezed in?” I asked, still wondering whether Nelson really would object to the grassy corner just because he couldn’t afford it himself, when first of all he was dead and, second, there were plenty of people willing to put up the money. Was it ultimately going to be important to do this thing on a shoestring? I kept pondering Candida’s reasoning. Was she simply trying to match an unrecognized death to an equally unrecognized life, to Algren’s own bitterness? Would he have appreciated some greater monument, or considered it a joke? Gradually I found my
* * *
One night Nelson had consented to read his poems at Canio’s, but he insisted that admission be charged. To Nelson it was a matter of principle that a writer be paid for his work. After the reading he held the admission money aloft and invited everyone to dinner. But what about his behavior at Dillon’s and the American Hotel in 1974 when he, Matt, and I drove out together? I recalled how passionately I had pumped him for advice before trying to get to know him. That was it, I decided. He wanted to be paid for the advice. That is why he had folded his arms and said: “I don’t pay when I’m a guest.” His reaction was similar when Southampton College asked him to lecture at the Annual Writers Conference. He had said: “They talk like they’re awfully hard up and the guy said we’ll pay you $300 and I said no way. He said, ‘Well, we got Kurt Vonnegut for $150, Edward Albee for $150, James Baldwin for $150. It’s more of a donation’ Well, what the hell has that got to do with me? Edward Albee is a millionaire, I mean not counting Broadway. He inherited wealth and Vonnegut has a million bucks. They could do it for a dollar and a half. I can’t. I have to hustle. I have to go and get money. They don’t have to get money, so what’s he telling me about all these famous guys for? He keeps calling and saying, ‘Three hundred? Three fifty?’ I go to the supermarket, I can’t show my Author’s Guild card. The book business is now in one of these stageseveryone is saying we’re so broke, we’re so terribly broke, we don’t have a nickel. But publishing people, anybody has a desk up there, they’re still making $60,000 a year. They’re very, very tight. ‘Well, we can give you $10,000.’ Well, I won’t even answer—that’s six years’ work. I don’t answer them.”
Candida knew. Nelson wouldn’t want a charity funeral. He was a gambler. His life was no accident. He took risks but he was willing to pay for them. He wouldn’t want someone to pay for his burial as if his death were not his own. This was one tab he would insist on picking up himself. As it turned out, the U.S. Army paid for much of it because he was a veteran.
His letters from Simone de Beauvoir were sold after his death for what would have been, to him, a staggering sum in his lifetime. In spite of Nelson’s frequent threats to sell out on their relationship, as he believed she had done, her letters to him, hundreds of them, were safely stored in a tin box in his house when he died. His book The Devil’s Stocking was published posthumously to good reviews. Because Nelson had no will, a nephew who worked for J. C. Penney in Chicago became heir to Nelson’s valuables, all future rights, royalties, and residuals.
* * *
The undertaker and I tramped in the mud past whalers’ gravestones: Babcock, Payne. No Italian names. No Polish, or Irish. This wasn’t Nelson’s crowd. I couldn’t make up my mind among the single plots. I remembered the red-and-gold Doubleday Doran University Library that filled the shelves of our secretary when I was a child. In volume nine one rainy afternoon I discovered a short story by Emile Zola that terrified and fascinated me, “The Death of Olivier Becaille.” The first paragraph read: “It was on a Saturday, at six o’clock in the morning, that I died. My poor wife was bending over a trunk in which she kept her linen. When she rose and saw I was rigid, with eyes wide open and had ceased to breathe, she ran to me, thinking that I had fainted. She felt my hands and face, and then, suddenly seized with terror, fell to sobbing: ‘My God, my God, he is deadl’ Olivier, in his breathless trance, was buried alive. Looking into the mud at Oakland, I feared that the best of Nelson was going to be buried alive, the`fruits of his conscience, his voice, his ideas, his poems, books, philosophy. It was as if all his characters from Frankie Machine to Dove were lined up behind the privet, chanting, pleading for their lives.
Meanwhile the undertaker was pointing out the “better” neighborhoods of the cemetery. “This young man killed himself. And here is a painter they say was famous.” Iwanted to be out of that cemetery. Candida was right about the morgue box. The “better” the coffin the more gruesome. But Candida was wrong about the water. Let water reach his body, I thought; let anything of life touch it, consume it, affect it, but don’t let it be too deep, too well sealed from the surface of the world.
My legs were beginning to feel wooden, as if they would splinter if I bent them at the knees. I needed to get out of there, to the road, beyond the spears of twiggy privet. I asked myself why I had assumed this chore. Did I like the man I was burying? Did I ever really feel for him or did I feign intimacy? Was it because of a sense of solidarity-writers thrown together? What of writing did we share? Had he meant what he said to me about my work, or had he felt obligated, trapped, forced to compliment it? Often he irritated me. Sometimes I deeply disliked him. Suddenly it was hard to believe that I had left my house on a depressingly dark Mother’s Day in heavy rain to do the dirty work of A1gren’s friends. Had I become one of them? He said I was the one who’d put an end to his losing streak. He had made it a point to know me and he certainly had my number.
We were much farther from the main gate than I had wanted to be. Though I was in good jogging shape, I felt breathless and I wanted to be back near the entrance. I was having a number-ten panic attack. My heart was pounding so I thought I’d die myself. I lied to the undertaker.
“It’s no good here. He’d want to be near the road.”
“Really?It’s peaceful here.”
“Near the road. Near the people. Near life.”
“You’re the boss.”
“There . . .” I pointed toward the privet and Jermain Street, toward the speeding pickup trucks and the cemetery entrance. I walked briskly ahead. I didn’t want him to see my face.
“There are even fewer plots up there.”
“We’ll find one.” I raced through the mud, keeping ahead of him. The heart beating peaked and my panic dipped to a nine, then to an eight, and I was calming. By seven, I realized what was troubling me. Roy knew about his heart. Why hadn’t Nelson told me? And when he complained about chest pains, wasn’t anyone sharp enough to check up on him, to alert his friends? He was on the brink of the notoriety and respect for which he had longed all his life. At 71, he had embarked upon yet another beginning, ineptly maneuvering that ridiculous old bike down Main Street into a strange world. He’d gotten a lifetime of kicks in the teeth from some critics because he refused to sidestep the ugliness of life, the gnarled, stringy underside of the tapestry, the part too many artists turn their backs on, the part even God seems not to have created. By rejecting Ne1son’s world, too many critics left him alone in it, a prophetic, raggedy, exiled king.
* * *
Nelson consciously directed himself to identify with society’s outcasts. He became blood brother to the loser, the addict, the outcast, because in those characters the possibility of transcendence and glory was rare and delicious. And when they didn’t make it, he honored their losses with tenderness. Nelson may not have given us characters with whom we all can identify, but they were never empty vessels. To him both winners and losers were heroes. Winners because they had won, and losers because they had taken the risk. The wasted souls were the cowards, those who never had to make a gambler’s choice, those born to privilege, those to whom it was given. That’s why he liked Goethe’s famous statement: “I have never heard of a crime of which I am not myself capable.”
Nelson hoped to win in the poor man’s way, as if pulled up by some inner force, not by selling his body as whores must, or sacrificing it as boxers do, but by immersing himself in this fascinating human pool and becoming one of them. Why else had he chosen to become a migrant worker in the South after college? Why ride boxcars, live as a hobo, and wind up in a Texas jail
for stealing, of all things, a typewriter? Algren deliberately ventured into the American abyss just like Jack London and others before him. He gambled in every sense of the word, pursuing the wild synchronicity of luck that would either exalt or destroy him. I believe it did both.
Long before Kerouac, Algren lived the road, mingling with stumblebums and people he called “the Coca-Cola Americans,” people of the thirties, hooked on sucking it down while Father Coughlin preached on the radio. Those were Depression days when many restless Americans had to choose between hunger and crime. It seems logical, coming from that experience, that Nelson would love card games, the fights, horse racing, and all sports, because in America, these are the prayer wheels of the underprivileged.
* * *
About 25 yards from the road, between two tall oaks, I came to a rise in the land where a fireengine-red azalea glowed. The shade trees for Gloria, the rise in the land for Candida, and the red azalea were all signs. Nelson loved outrageous, unabashed reds. Red and yellow were his favorite colors. “Yellow for the sun, red for blood,” he told me as he ordered a red-andyellow rug one day, and on his mailbox next to the red flag he painted ALGREN in bold yellow letters.
From that spot in the cemetery, there were houses close enough to see people in the windows. Nelson would remain near mashed potatoes and Sunday roast chicken. Besides, I could see that my car headlights, taking the curve at Suffolk Street, would glance his stone at night.
“We need a single plot somewhere in this area,” I said.
The undertaker opened his pad and nodded his head. “We could squeeze him in here.”
“Does he have a wife or anything who might later want to be buried here?”
“No. . . . He did once. Nothing now.”
The loneliness of a grave for a man who has never fathered a child or who has no mate is a scary consideration. Nelson had said: “I was married twice and it lasted about two years each. Oh, I’m always isolated. I prefer isolation. Yeah, of course I want to be isolated. I’m not gregarious at all. I do like a crowd of people, but not as a day-to-day thing, no.”
Where are his former wives at this moment? I asked myself. Nelson had held women to be almost divine creatures who, by their peculiar strength, could be a man’s only salvation. Has Simone de Beauvoir heard of his death yet? What does she feel, if anything? But what does that matter to Nelson now? He died convinced that she had betrayed their love. He called her a woman who invaded her own privacy. Only days before he died he described how she had sold him out in her book The Mandarins: “I didn’t think it was told well, and in fact, I don’t know what business she had doing that anyhow. I was embarrassed by it, you know. I mean, I have the same publisher and he said she wants to publish your letters. My letters to her . . . this is private correspondence. First I said no, no, of course not, then I said all right. I have about 300 letters of hers to me, so I said, These go up for sale as long as you’re selling my letters. I have no sentimental attachment to them at all. I mean, she destroyed . . . she really destroyed that relationship. Love letters are private. I’ve been in whorehouses all over the world and the women there always close the door.”
In Jack London’s Martin Eden an idealistic young writer is crushed by the savagery and crassness of a publishing world that made his eventual success just as unnatural as they’d made his years of obscurity. Even those closest to Martin Eden believed the critics instead of him, and then, when the critics changed their tune, the world rushed at him as if he were a god. In the novel, Eden commits suicide by slipping out of the porthole of a ship into the middle of an ocean. As the ship disappears into a starry night, the writer starts swimming as if there were a reachable shore, but he knows he is swimming toward death. Was Nelson’s move to Long Island his leap? He’d had a heart attack. He’d known he was in constant danger, especially in the last few days. Instead of going to the emergency room he gambled, going straight home to prepare for his party. He gave an intense interview by phone the night before he died, not failing to mention the “heaviness” in his chest. I’m sure Nelson didn’t want to die, yet I know, simply from the way the man ate and drank in the last year, that he was unafraid of the consequences. I’m willing to believe that, beyond the crushing pain of the moment, he might have calmly concurred, having known all along what a party crasher death could be, welcoming it wisely, rather than fighting. Still, when I think of Nelson’s wrist watch, smashed against the bathtub, the hands frozen at 6:05, I’m forced to remember London’s description of Eden’s death dive:
He compelled his arms and legs to drive him deeper, until his will snapped, and the air drove from his lungs in a great explosive rush. The bubbles rubbed and bounded like tiny balloons against his cheeks and eyes as they took their upward flight. Then came pain and strangulation. This hurt was not death, was the thought that oscillated through his reeling consciousness. Death did not hurt. It was life, the pangs of life, this awful suffocating feeling.
Nelson’s dive was years long, and in the last year he took the time to dance on the way.
* * *
The sun came out for the funeral the next day. Candida could not be there. We rehearsed our little service for Nelson over the phone. I read to Candida the stanza out of “Tricks Out of Times Long Gone” that would be his only eulogy: “Again that hour when taxis start deadheading home . . .”
“Yes,” she agreed, “those are the words.”
Friends from Chicago arrived, Stephen Deutch the photographer and his daughter. Steve was pale, travel weary, grateful, taking my hand with friendliness, smiling politely even as he wept. It would be an exhausting day for them. They would be in Sag Harbor less than a few hours before they would have to make the long drive to the airport to catch a plane back to Chicago. I hadn’t seen this kind of loyalty toward Nelson since I had known him. Steve turned out to be totally different from Nelson and from any of Nelson’s other friends. Feelings flowed from him without hesitation or distrust. He embraced me and said,
“You cannot know how much I loved this man. You cannot know the friends we were.” This gesture took a burden off me. I was glad there was someone there who loved Nelson that much.
* * *
As we left my house, all that was blooming seemed doubly colorful in the fresh light after the rain. We all started tearing at flowers—narcissus, lilacs, pear blossom branches—till we had armloads. I ran back inside and impulsively cut the tall staff of 11 white orchids that had shot up out of an old cimbidium. I carried it as a standard.
When we arrived at the cemetery it was clear that others had ravaged their dens. We all simply threw the branches first, then the lilacs, the daffodils, narcissus, and finally orchids. Lanford, who lives right there on Suffolk Street, simply walked over with a large, glowing red tulip. He placed it like a cherry atop the frothy pile.
A dizzying, intense odor of spring came up from the grave. If the morgue box had been a giant bronze sarcophagus it wou1dn’t have been seen anyway. Nelson lay beneath a thick blanket of spring flowers.
There were only a few of us, familiar faces. There would have been more if there had been time.
Like an apparition, a pale woman stepped into our group. Everyone stared. No one knew her. Her shockingly golden, cloudlike hair seemed alive in the spring light. She stood out not only because she was so beautiful, but because she was dressed so completely in black: black stockings, black lace dress, her body cocooned in a fringed black shawl big as a tablecloth. When one looked down, there was the surprise of golden shoes, radiant, metallic high-heeled sandals. She could have been Nelson’s death angel. She stepped closer and I whispered into the golden cloud.
“I didn’t know him,” she answered, offering her hand. “My name is Regina. I’m just a fan.”
I opened Nelson’s The Last Carousel and, waiting for everyone to quiet down, took out a piece of paper that had been left there as a bookmark. It was a note that Nelson had left on my counter his first week in Sag Harbor:
I am busing back to Southampton still wearing your heavy sweater. You’ve been more helpful than you know. Will phone you next week.
Beneath his signature, in large ink swirls, was his usual, mysterious drawing of a cat.
I looked up and was surprised to see all faces turned toward me. I was still picturing Nelson in Jake King’s old police sweater, zigzagging on the old bike on Main Street, and it caused me to shake and want to laugh with nervousness. I opened to “Tricks Out of Times Long Gone” and let my voice go free:
Again that hour when taxis start deadheading home
Before the trolley-buses start to run
And snowdreams in a lace of mist drift down
When from asylum, barrack, cell and cheap hotel
All those whose lives were lived by someone else
Come once again with palms outstretched to claim
What never rightly was their own.
Seven lines of poetry are lost fast in the wind. They were all looking at me, waiting for more. Kathy and Robert Parrish stepped forward and said, “Everyone come. Please. Come to our house and have a drink. All.” We formed a snake of cars over the bridge to their house in North Haven. There we laughed and told stories about Nelson: How Nelson’s check for $2,000 to the Southampton landlady bounced twice and this is what irked her more than his junk. How in Chicago Nelson would scout the streets for the best-decorated, discarded tree after Christmas, then set it up in his apartment, where it would remain for weeks. Gloria retold Nelson’s favorite story of his falling out of Betty Friedan’s car on a turn. “She was driving so slowly,” Nelson would say, “that I didn’t get hurt, just rolled over once or twice. So I got up, ran to the car, simply grabbed the car door, and jumped back in. ‘Betty, I just fell out of your damn car on that turn,’ I said, brushing myself off. Well, without taking her eyes off the road, she says to me, ‘Nelson, quit ribbing me. It’s hard enough to drive this heap without listening to your silly jokes.’”
A couple of weeks later Mary Reed, a realtor who had volunteered to help clean out the house Nelson had rented, telephoned me to say that some lawyers had come and taken all his letters, including one from Hemingway of which he was so proud. (“Mr. Algren, boy are you good—one of the two best authors in America.”) They took his pack of letters from Simone and a LeRoy Neiman painting of a jockey, a gift to Nelson from the artist. They took everything of value and left the rest for my real-estate friends to dispose of. Four pounds of nails were pulled out of the walls.
“Do you want any of this before it goes to charity?” Mary Reed asked on the phone. “There’s his desk.”
I pictured the big desk, the kind my teachers had in the New York public school system. Looking back, I wish I had borrowed a pickup and taken the desk. I’d also have loved his old bike, but that day I didn’t want to see the torn screen door.
“Let them have the desk,” I said, “but take a Magic Marker and write underneath THIS DESK BELONGED TO NELSON ALGREN.”
“There are also his lapel rosettes from the American Academy. One’s in his overcoat, another in the desk.”
“Hold them. Save them.”
“Hold them for whom?”
“I don’t know. Just hang on to them.”
“What about the overcoat?”
“Let them take it.”
“There’s a nice big blue sweater here.”
“Let them have it, Mary.”
“You don’t want any of it? You’re sure?”
The next day while I was out, she left the ribbon rosettes and some other things of his that I am now grateful to have. I gave one of the rosettes to Studs Terkel, who seemed reluctant, almost pained to accept it. I suppose I should return the other to the American Academy of Arts and Institute of Letters.
* * *
In the Emile Zola story, Olivier, buried in his grave, hears a new grave being dug next to his later that day and he starts to breathe. When the gravediggers leave, he kicks out the thin box in which he is buried, falls into the open grave next to his, and climbs out. “When I raised my head,” he says, “I saw the Luxembourg Gardens before me. I went and sat in the sun.”
Driving through Sag Harbor at night in my car, making the curve at Suffolk, when my headlights shine through the privet, I hit my brights. The strong ray barely glances his stone and I know I chose the right spot that rainy Mother’s Day of 1981. I offer some banal message. Hello? Here’s to you? It is so deep and mental that it doesn’t turn into words. Sometimes I find it hard to believe he is there at all. I imagine him sitting in the sun in the Luxembourg Gardens.
His stone is visible to anyone who walks down Jermain Street. I’ve seen it through lines of kids coming home from school-kids teasing, kids shouting, boys flirting with girls-and I’ve seen them playing tag near it. Often I see a squirrel atop it, and snow piled like cake icing. Other stones have managed to squeeze in near his. Sometimes from my house a few blocks away, I picture the people who slip through the privet to visit his stone, and I wonder how many realize that the words Candida chose to have inscribed there are not Nelson’s but Willa Cather’s. The words simply float beneath his name without identification:
THE END IS NOTHING
THE ROAD IS ALL
But the road goes on and everything moves forward. In the less than seven years since Nelson died, Simone herself has passed away. Bike riding on Main Street in the village of Sag Harbor has been prohibited. Johnny Ward sold the Bridgeview Diner and the place was turned into a professional building. Nelson’s table and the woodburning stove are gone. In that space there is now a psychotherapist’s office with a window on the bay. In the house where Nelson died a child was born named Ruby Patterson.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune Photo