“IT MUST BE IN YOUR DNA,” PEOPLE SOMETIMES TELL ME, ON LEARNING THAT I AM THE DAUGHTER OF WRITERS. BECAUSE THIS OVERLOOKS THE SOLITARY, INDIVIDUAL WORK I PUT INTO WHAT I DO, IT USED TO BUG ME.
YET HAVING A RELATIONSHIP THAT WAS AS COLLEGIAL AS IT WAS FAMILIAL WITH MY FATHER, INFLUENCED ME.
HOWEVER, ANY KIND OF FATHER INFLUENCES A WRITER. AND IF A DAUGHTER, MAYBE EVEN MORE SO.
TAKE COLETTE, ANN PATCHETT, ME — AND OUR RESPECTIVE FATHERS.
He died in 1991. Yet there he was again, just the other day, Maurice Zolotow.
It was a dream, of course.
I stood in an apartment building lobby, spacious but a little dingy, in front of the elevator, the button of which I was about to push. I knew Maurice was on another floor, several flights up. I was calling him – on a cell phone, an object that did not exist when he was alive – and I was very excited, wondering why on earth we’d been out of touch for so long, when we enjoyed each other so much.
I woke in this happy state of anticipation. Then, realizing exactly why we’d been out of touch — he’d died thirty freaking years earlier —there was the quick intense cruel summer shower of tears familiar to anyone who has had such a dream.
Everyone who writes on a professional and ongoing basis does it alone, for writing is finally, above all, a solitary activity.
But that doesn’t mean we build our lives as writers, learn our professional skills and craft and habits of mind and practice, on our own.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you my father, who to some extent made me what I am. A writer.
FROM HERE TO PATERNITY
Back in real-life 1982, I was talking one afternoon to Maurice, from a phone affixed to a wall in the small neat kitchen of a rental house in Atlanta. The kitchen was painted an inexplicable orange; the phone was faced a window looking out into a small backyard, framed, at the back, by a large wisteria bush.
As I talked to Maurice that afternoon, I remember looking at its haze of pale purple.
I could picture where he was talking to me from, too: his apartment in L.A. He would have been in his little office, because that was where the phone was. I could picture the filing cabinets, the desk and table filled with loose shuffled stacks of papers, some spilling out of file folders. I could see the old pewter Pimm’s Cup mug filled with pens and pencils, the scattered change and rubber bands. Over all this, a Selectric typewriter held court. It was messy, and appeared disorganized, but ask Maurice where something was and he could lay his hands on it.
There was a poster on his office wall, too. From the 1974 Los Angeles International Film Exposition.
That poster now hangs in our living room, above the 4-foot-by 2 foot screen on which Mark Graff and I watch films old and new, via Netflix and Hulu and YouTube.
The options of today’s multiplicitous entertainment technology would have filled Maurice with delight. He loved the movies, watched them, thought about them, was influenced by them. He taped favorites on VCR cassettes, and watched them again and again.
But most of all he wrote about them, and those who peopled them. He was a show business biographer.
At the time of my call from the orange kitchen in Atlanta, I was about 31; he, about age 68, with twelve years sobriety under his belt. I had never been a drinker, but in my teens had experimented with pot and psychedelics.
Maurice and I, after he sobered up, were as transparent with each other about our adventures in altering substances as we were about almost everything. We found, daughter to father and father to daughter, a genuinely curious, sympathetic, and non-judgmental ear and mind. I know such transparency and mutual interest is not the case with most fathers and daughters.
But I am glad down to a cellular level that it was true for us.
And I have to admit I feel sorry for anyone who was not thus privileged.
TWO GOOD LISTENERS
My father and I had both lived, were still living, lives most would call eccentric. And each of us were deeply interested in the other. We had long weird rambly back-and-forth conversations, regaling each other about our respective adventures, each asking questions and drawing out the other.
Maurice, though a hilarious storyteller, was also fantastically good listener. You might expect this of a biographer, who must worm insight and reflection from his subjects. But he asked penetrating, interesting questions of non-celebrities, too, for his curiosity was as big as the world.
He discussed life, not just “What’s good today” with waitresses, and informed them, sometimes, especially in L.A., that I was his daughter, not his girlfriend (he did not want to be mistaken for an old guy with a young trophy wife or girlfriend, something he found reprehensible). He asked gas-station service attendants (for they did not vanish until after his death) which part of Mexico or South America they were from, what brought them to the U.S., and did they like it. Although that was late in his life, after he had sobered up. I remember him showing that same curiosity throughout my childhood. Accompanying him tothe Ardsley, New York, Chicken Delight (a pre-KFC fried chicken franchise where you got fried chicken for take-out), I remember him asking the guy behind the counter at the if he was tired of chicken yet, and what the company supplied, and didn’t, to franchisees.
But me, his daughter? He asked me about almost everything. Always with curiosity, often with empathy and understanding, almost never with judgment.
I think the story I had just finished telling him that day, from the kitchen in Atlanta, may have been about the last acid trip I’d taken, back when I was an intrepid 18 or 19. I had also been in a short-lived phase of reading about witchcraft and wicca at that time.
But that story is not the centerpiece of this one.
What is, is Maurice’s own peculiar style of fatherhood.
He was never embodied those two conventional father-archetypes: “good provider” or “protector.” Certainly, in many ways, he was feckless and irresponsible. During my early formative years, he was an alcoholic who longed to be living a fancy-free bohemian life on the Left Bank, not stuck in the suburbs with a wife and two children. My mother was the main bread-winner. He had affairs. There were sudden outbursts of incomprehensible anger.
He sobered up the year I turned 16. I had already left home; he and my mother had recently divorced. But these two were formative years, and what they formed, gradually, was our new life and relationship began to form. Not only was this wondrous, it gave me a foundational belief that human beings could change.
And, Maurice turned out to be the perfect father for a writer. What I saw him do, what I observed of his habits of thought and work, was part of my long and ongoing apprenticeship to the craft, art, practice and profession of writing.
Now, going back to that Atlanta call … when you think about good, supportive fathering, you probably can’t imagine a dad hearing a tale that, however far back, involved his daughter, LSD and, let’s say, a flirtation with the dark side, and that father coming up with anything remotely positive to say about it. Other than maybe, “But thank heavens, at least you survived all that craziness.”
But no. Because Maurice responded not as a father, but as a fellow writer.
On listening to that story, my father said, in a voice almost salivating with admiration, “By God, Cres! You could spent the rest of your life in a nunnery and you’d still have plenty of material!”
FOLLOWING THE ECCENTRICS, WITH GUSTO
It’s not like my father’s own life was lacking in material.
A Hollywood biographer, he was working on a memoir to be called Famous People Who Have Known Me at the time of his death.
Although he is best known as Marilyn Monroe’s biographer, in his early career in New York, he wrote about not only celebrities but eccentrics, offbeats, and risques, of which there were many in the theatre world he then inhabited.
For he had started his career being, as one book reviewer called him, to his delight, “the Boswell of Broadway.” He followed such original characters with delight — to Tin Pan Alley, countless Broadway and off-Broadway backstages, to apartments and jazz clubs, hang-outs and gyms, up to Harlem, down to the Village.
And he wrote about them with gusto and verve, in books like Never Whistle in a Dressing Room and No People Like Show People.
One of them was the world’s then best-known stripper, Margie Hart.
A FORMER ECDYSIAST ATTENDS THE FUNERAL
After his Los Angeles funeral, a well-dressed, chic, trim woman came up to me and extended her hand, red nails impeccably manicured. She had excellent posture, and her hair — a jet-black that looked neither harsh nor unnatural — was styled in a short, flattering, expensive cut. Her age was hard to guess (I figured out later that she was 78 at the time).
“I’m Margie Ferraro, I used to be Margie Hart,” she said. “Your father used to… represent me.”
I remembered her name but couldn’t place her precisely. Maurice mentioned so many people, had so many stories. So many people were introducing themselves to me at the memorial. Some I knew of, some I didn’t. I was dazed: my father’s death, at 77, had been sudden. I missed him fiercely, was focused on giving him a good send-off. The whole was surreal to me, as memorials often are for mourners closest to the deceased. I shook her hand. I thanked her for coming.
And at that point I hadn’t seen this video yet, the one I’d find a few days later going through his apartment.
I highly recommend that you view it. It crackles with life. It is highly amusing.
But just in case you don’t, let me sum it up.
MY FATHER, THE STRIPPER’S PRESS AGENT
It was of a talk he gave at Mills College, in Oakland, California, around 1990. Titled “The Agony & Ecstacy of Being a Freelance Writer,” in it, he riffs, free-form, no notes, on his life in writing professionally over a fifty year period. He does this for about 30 highly entertaining minutes.
He starts in fourth grade: “Our teacher told us to write about a pet. We didn’t have a pet, so I made up a dog. I was dipping my pen in… only people who are very, very old, will remember dipping the pen in the ink to write. And the class stops, and I’m still writing… And my teacher picks up my pages and looks at them… I thought I was going to get in trouble for lying. She says, ‘You wrote this.’ I nod. She says, ‘You’re a writer.’ ”
In the video Maurice gives an exaggerated shrug. “That’s it. My destiny! I never had to see a guidance counselor… my vocation was just thrust upon me.”
He talks about his early job as a press agent. “And every time I got a few dollars together I’d quit to be a writer… And I had one client, the stripper, Margie Hart, the famous ecdysiast, now she’s married to Councilman Ferraro in Los Angeles. And she said, ‘Look, why don’t you give up your other clients and just work for me? I’ll pay you what the agency’s paying you, and you can have more time to write…’ ”
Maurice, in the video, raises his eyebrows suggestively here, and says, “I think she may have had other designs, but…”
I never saw Margie Hart Ferraro again, only that one time, at the memorial. I looked her up on Wikipedia just now, and discovered she died in 2000.
FOUND IN THE ATTIC
Twenty-three years after this, going through the papers of my late mother, the writer Charlotte Zolotow, after her death, I ran into Margie Hart again, in an article Maurice wrote (clipping only; no date, no magazine title; I’m guessing it was Collier’s or Saturday Evening Post, and in the early 1930’s).
Witty, salacious, and as sexist as the era he wrote it in, Maurice spun it from the warp and woof of chop-licking male fantasy: what would it be like to actually touch this burlesque goddess? His gambit, his angle, then, was to write about someone who was sanctioned to do so (yet was clean enough for a “family magazine”): he found it in her professional masseur, one Packey O’Gatty.
And suddenly there, in my late mother’s attic, she was — young Margie Hart, the “stripteuse, ” as he described her, “generally agreed to be one of the best undressed women in the United States, or for that matter, anywhere else. ”
AS CARL JUNG SAID…
Whether we loved our parents or were exasperated by them or just tried to stay out of the way; whether they loved us well, or as well as they could, or not at all; whether they abused us or adored us or both — after our parents die our relationship with them changes. In some ways they may become more mysterious to us; in some ways, as we ourselves age and face what they may have faced, we may grow compassion for them, find new understanding or admiration.
And almost universally, we discover questions we wish we’d asked them, and we regret not doing so.
Our relationship changes, but does not end. And as we experience that relationship after they are no longer here in form, often we cogitate on how they formed us, made us, in part, who we are.
Carl Jung said, famously, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on the children than the unlived life of the parent.” I ponder this as I follow the breadcrumb trail of my own life, that of a writer who is the daughter of two writers.
And I look to two other examples of women writers who also pondered this in written form; the French writer Colette (1873- 1954) and our own American present day novelist and memoirist, Ann Patchett.
FILLING HIS EMPTY PAGES
Colette adored her mother, Sido, and devoted a whole eponymous book to her. For her father, she found less admiration or interest.
In Sido, she gives just one chapter to her father, “The Captain,” Jules-Joseph Colette, a retired army officer … and would-be writer.
After his death, the adult children (Colette and her brother ) were going through the study in which their father used to hole up much of the time, supposedly to work on writing his memoirs.
What do they find?
A series of beautiful leather-bound books, with titles pertaining to different phases of his life imprinted on them: My Campaigns, The Lessons of ’70, From Village to Parliament. But there no author’s name below those titles. Within, other than a handwritten dedication in the volumes (each to Sido; the Captain, too, adored and revered her), the books themselves were empty.
Here is Colette’s contemptuous description: “beautiful, cream-laid paper, hundreds and hundreds of blank pages. Imaginary work, the mirage of a writer’s career. Proof of incapacity.”
Colette, fretting, ponders the effect of this “spiritual legacy” on her own work.
Of course she does not discard the luxurious, temptingly empty bound books of her father’s.
Rather, she uses them, covering “the invisible cursive script” that her father was never able to make material, with her own very visible handwriting. Literally, she leaves her mark on the world. The world her father failed to bring forth.
So there you go, Carl Jung. But what would Jung have made of Ann Patchett?
HER THREE FATHERS
Instead of a father, Ann Patchett, the memoirist and novelist, had fathers, plural: three. Her one biological father and two stepfathers, offered Ann Patchett a buffet of influences. In My Three Fathers, a marvel of an article which appeared in the New Yorker, she writes, “My problems were never ones of scarcity. I suffered from abundance.”
In essence: she had one stepfather, Mike, a seemingly bi-poplar surgeon, who, when it came to supporting Ann’s writing and believing in her, embodied an enthusiastic, admiring yes.
There was just one catch: Mike was himself an aspiring, prolific, but hopelessly mediocre writer.
Patchett knew this because, especially as she grew more successful, Mike kept forcing mediocre manuscripts on her for critique. “Mike believed in me completely and, in return, I read his novels.” She showed more patience than I think I would or could’ve.
“I cannot begin to calculate how much of my reading life was lost to those books, their world populated with big-breasted blondes and long-haired brunettes, men with guns and helicopters and piles of cash,” she writes, and you can almost hear her sigh. ” Over the years, I tried every tack: I did line edits. I did no line edits. I told him he couldn’t waste my time. I tried to be encouraging… For years, I refused to read them, and then I relented because he was so certain that the one he had just finished was different. It wasn’t different.”
This would have driven me around the bend, but Patchett makes her peace with it philosophically and professionally: “He taught me that to ask people to read my work was to ask them to give me their time, and so I resolved never to ask anyone to read anything until I had done every last thing I could to make it better. Eudora Welty can show you what perfection looks like, but twenty thousand pages of bad fiction read over the course of a life can teach you what not to do. What a time-saver that turned out to be! ”
Things were easier with her kindly second stepfather, Darrell (her mother’s third husband). Easygoing, accepting, he was a minister who enjoyed cooking and gardening. He offered Patchett a mere benign indifference to writing, including that of his by-then-successful stepdaughter. He extended her a neutrality on on writing as a career, craft, practice or art form. He simply had no particular interest in or opinion on it.
This, says Patchett, who was starting to be famous by that point, “…was a wonderful gift: he didn’t see me as my work… He let me be just one more person around a crowded table, a valued addition.”
PATCHETT’S IMPROBABLE SECRET SAUCE, FATHER-GIVEN
But before these two stepfathers was her first, Patchett’s biological father. She doesn’t offer us his first name in the article, he is just “my father.”
And his was the no, or even more challenging, the yes, but. And in this, perhaps, her greatest gift.
While himself a reader, Patchett pater kept sounding the cautious, careful Cassandra-like naysayer voice of the “something to fall back on” school to his daughter. In her growing up years he encouraged her athletics (in which she had no interest or ability, though she tried half-heartedly, on his account). He pushed her to be a joiner, to run for school and club elections. “He wanted me to audition, volunteer, be a part of something, submit,” writes Patchett.
While he loved books, loved to read, he felt adamantly that she should not be a writer, but, for instance, a nice sensible dental hygienist (!). “ ‘Someday you’ll get divorced,’ he said when I was in high school. ‘You’ll have a couple of kids to support. You’re not going to be able to do that writing.’ I stacked every egg I was ever given into a single basket. I can see how that would be unnerving for a parent. ”
But Patchett is almost pathologically positive about how each of her three fathers each helped her as a writer.
I found this statement of hers stunning, and to me, it rings with truth: “It turns out that having someone who believed in my failure more than in my success kept me alert. It made me fierce. Without ever meaning to, my father taught me at an early age to give up on the idea of approval. I wish I could bottle that freedom now and give it to every young writer I meet, with an extra bottle for the women.”
WRITERS WRITE, NO MATTER WHAT THEIR FATHERS SAY
I think those who have the itch, the yen, the need to write are going to write, with or without helpful encouragement, from their fathers or anyone else. These five different examples of unintentional fertilizer heaped on the three of us, Patchett, Colette, and myself, would seem to indicate this, yes?
Colette is long deceased, and of course, so is her father. Patchett is alive and well and writing in Nashville; she waited (as her stepfather Mike had guessed she would) until all three of her fathers had died before she tackled them in her memoir work.
And then there is me. And my father, long dead.
2021 marks my 30th fatherless Father’s Day. Yet not a day goes by that I do not think of him, and every few months, dream of him. In every one of those dreams, with slight variations, I call him, wondering why on earth I’ve let so much time pass without one of those delightful conversations.
But this last dream had a slight difference. I could feel it, but I didn’t know what it was. When I woke up it stayed with me. I puzzled over what that difference might be.
Then, suddenly, I knew.
The spacious but slightly dingy apartment building lobby where I was standing? Even in the dream I’d felt it could use some refurbishing, its decor a warn 1950-ish…
Oh, wait. I was born in 1952. That lobby was me. At age 68 I too am spacious, and could also use some refurbishing.
But what of Maurice, on another floor, several flights up? What of the elevator, the button of which I was about to push?
Ah, of course. Maurice was and is, dead. He is now, to use the overly familiar phrase some people employ to mean God, my personal “man upstairs.”
Although I wish I could believe that I would be reunited with him after my death, I can’t buy this, not and keep a shred of integrity. But oh how I’d love to believe it, and what a great comfort it must be to people who can!
But my unconscious knows this longing, to see Maurice again (as well as the other people I’ve loved and lost to whatever comes next, or doesn’t). And my conscious, at 68, is never unaware of mortality, of “time’s winged chariot hovering near,” as Andrew Marvell wrote in a poem called To His Coy Mistress, which Maurice loved to quote.
For the problem with extended longevity is that, if you have it, you lose more and more beloved people.
My hand hovers over the elevator button, in that funky 1950’s lobby. One of these days I’ll be going up too.
And I hope I’m wrong, and will get to see Maurice again, my dear father and colleague.