Read A Tragic Honesty Online

Authors: Blake Bailey

A Tragic Honesty

 

The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author's copyright, please notify the publisher at:
us.macmillanusa.com/piracy
.

CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Epigraphs

Prologue

C
HAPTER
O
NE
The Caliche Road: 1926–1939

C
HAPTER
T
WO
A Good School: 1939–1944

C
HAPTER
T
HREE
The Canal: 1944–1947

C
HAPTER
F
OUR
Liars in Love: 1947–1951

C
HAPTER
F
IVE
The Getaway: 1951–1953

C
HAPTER
S
IX
A Cry of Prisoners: 1953–1959

C
HAPTER
S
EVEN
A Glutton for Punishment: 1959–1961

C
HAPTER
E
IGHT
The World on Fire: 1961–1962

C
HAPTER
N
INE
Uncertain Times: 1962–1964

C
HAPTER
T
EN
A New Yorker Discovers the Middle West: 1964–1966

C
HAPTER
E
LEVEN
A Natural Girl: 1966–1968

C
HAPTER
T
WELVE
A Special Providence: 1968–1969

C
HAPTER
T
HIRTEEN
Fun with a Stranger: 1970–1974

C
HAPTER
F
OURTEEN
Disturbing the Peace: 1974–1976

C
HAPTER
F
IFTEEN
Out with the Old: 1976–1978

C
HAPTER
S
IXTEEN
Young Hearts Crying: 1979–1984

C
HAPTER
S
EVENTEEN
No Pain Whatsoever: 1985–1988

C
HAPTER
E
IGHTEEN
A Cheer for Realized Men: 1988–1992

Epilogue

Notes

Index

Also by Blake Bailey

Additional Acclaim for Blake Bailey's
A Tragic Honesty

Copyright

 

For Mary

Acknowledgments

I am most indebted to Richard Yates's family; if any one of them had declined to cooperate, this book would have been greatly diminished. Monica Shapiro, Yates's daughter and executor, not only spent untold hours in conversation with me but granted absolute access to Yates's papers and encouraged others to assist me. The rest of the family was unfailingly patient, friendly, and helpful. I had many delightful talks with Yates's older daughter, Sharon Levine, who also went to the awful trouble (with her husband Richard) of arranging Yates's papers and shipping them to me in large installments. The youngest daughter, Gina, sent detailed e-mails from her home in Honduras, so that costly phone interviews could be somewhat curtailed. The forbearance of Yates's ex-wives was considerable. For the sake of this project, Sheila Yates overcame a profound reluctance to discuss her ex-husband, and I remain ineffably grateful. Martha Speer's kindness in any number of ways was among my greatest pleasures in working on this book.

I deeply appreciate the contribution of Yates's nephews and niece. Fred Rodgers and Ruth Ward were unflinchingly candid in discussing the details of their mother's tragic life, and I depended a great deal on the Reverend Peter Rodgers for information relating to the family's history—genealogical data as well as such priceless memorabilia as the love letters between Yates's maternal grandparents and what seems to be the only surviving photograph of Ruth and Richard Yates as small children. Equally indispensable was the testimony of Ruth's sister-in-law, Louise Rodgers, the last of her family generation and a very shrewd witness indeed.

When I first considered writing this book, I made a very fortunate phone call to Steven Goldleaf, coauthor (with David Castronovo) of an excellent monograph on Yates in the Twayne's United States Authors series. Professor Goldleaf was kind enough to send me his considerable research on Yates, which saved me enormous time and trouble and gave me momentum enough to persevere. Grace and Jerry Schulman were among my first interview subjects, and their generous assistance in every possible respect has stood me in good stead ever since. A number of people shared letters, photographs, and other Yatesiana: Stephen Benedict, Natalie Bowen, Susan Braudy, Michael Brodigan, Lothar Candels, the late R. V. Cassill and his wife Kay, Geoffrey Clark, Jim Conroy, Larry David, Frances Doel, Carolyn Gaiser, Tom Goldwasser, Wendy Sears Grassi, DeWitt Henry, Ann Wright Jones, J. R. Jones, Edward Kessler, Lyn Lacy, Merloyd Lawrence, Robert Lehrman, John Paul Lowens, Barbara Beury McCallum, Robin Metz, Joseph Mohbat, Peter Najarian, Robert Andrew Parker, E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., Loree Rackstraw, Peggy Rambach, Jim Stewart, John A. Williams, and Miller Williams. I am particularly grateful to Yates's longtime psychiatrist, Winthrop Burr, for agreeing to speak to me despite the conventional qualms of his profession; in the end he decided a greater good was served by candor, and I applaud his courage. Robert Riche elaborated on our interviews with many e-mails full of anecdotes, philosophical musings, helpful suggestions, and so forth, such that it was rather like having a witty, hectoring Greek chorus on hand. David Milch—the most spontaneously articulate human being I have ever encountered—told me more about Richard Yates in two hours than I otherwise learned in an average week, and he deserves to be commended for that.

A number of others were kind enough to grant interviews or provide written reminiscences: Judy Adelson, Ann Barker, Natalie Baturka, Richard Bausch, Robin Behn, Madison Smartt Bell, Marvin Bell, Russell Benedict, Anne Bernays, Doris Bialek, David Bigelow, Vance Bourjaily, Alexandra Broyard, Robin Cain, John Casey, Alan Cheuse, Julia Child, Dan Childress, Frank Conroy, Roger Corman, Mark Costello, Jim Crumley, Henry Daden, Peter Davison, Nancy Dibner, Mark Dintenfass, Kent Dixon, Robert Doherty, Mitch Douglas, Pat Dubus, Peter Kane Dufault, Tony Earley, Sandra Walcott Eckhardt, Leslie Epstein, Seymour Epstein, Lincoln Figart, Harry Flynn, John Frankenheimer, John Frasso, Richard Frede, Chet Frederick, Jon Garelick, George Garrett, Daniel Gates, Jennifer Hetzel Genest, John Gerber, Herbert Gold, Ivan Gold, Robert Gottlieb, Edwin O. Guthman, William Harrison, George Hecht, Marcie Herschman, Rust Hills, Edward Hoagland, Lee Jacobus, Irv Jennings, Frank Kastor, Bill Keough, Bill Kittredge, Janis Knorr, John Kowalsky, John Richard Lacy, Robert Lacy, Ned Leavitt, Don Lee, John Leggett, Ira Levin, Gordon Lish, Ann McGovern, Noreen McGuire, Lynn Meyer, Murray Moulding, Julia Munson, William Murray, Don Nickerson, Mary Nickerson, Shaun O'Connell, Sidney Offit, Gilman Ordway, Warren and Marjorie Owens, Dot Parker, Tim Parrish, Jayne Anne Phillips, Hugh Pratt, William Pritchard, James Ragan, Bruce Ricker, Betty Rollin, Ken Rosen, Jack Rosenthal, Franklin Russell, Booghie Salassi, Nikki Schmidt, Hugh Seidman, Harvey Shapiro, Sayre Sheldon, Pamela Vevers Sherin, April Smith, Theodore Solotaroff, Kathy Salter Starbuck, Ted Steeg, William Styron, Melanie Rae Thon, Gail Richards Tirana, Cynthia Vartan, Tony and Elspeth Vevers, Kurt Vonnegut, Dan Wakefield, Theodore Weesner, James Whitehead, Allen Wier, Galen Williams, and Joy Williams.

Librarians, I think, are ideal human beings—modest, bookish, selflessly helpful—or so was my impression in working with the following individuals: Howard Gotlieb, Sean Noël, and Nathaniel Parks (Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University); Andrew Gladman and Leigh McWhite (J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi); Alice Cotten (Special Collections, University of North Carolina); and particularly Mary Gilmore of the Seymour Library in Auburn, New York, who prepared a wonderful three-page typed memo about Horatio Yates and his family, based on what must have been hours of research for a total stranger. The following people and institutions were also helpful: Harriet Lane at Boston University, Robert Polito at the New School for Social Research, Robert Fleming at Emerson University, Robert Bykofsky at the Rockefeller Foundation, various people at Pen and Brush, the National Association of Women Artists, the Cincinnati Art Academy, and John Miskell, the former historian of Auburn Correctional Facility. I'd also like to thank my able research assistants, Emma Brinkmeyer and Leslie Jacobs.

The task would have been impossible without the help and encouragement of family, friends, and colleagues. Elizabeth Kaplan is a superb agent, and Joshua Kendall is a scrupulous, tactful editor. My friend Michael Ruhlman has helped me in so many ways that the mind reels to think about it. And finally I am blessed with a loving, supportive, and very tolerant family: Kay, Heidi, Chris, Eliza, Sandra, Kelli, Aaron, Bob, Debra, and of course my parents, Burck and Marlies, to whom I owe debts I can never repay. As for my wife, Mary, neither this book nor anything else would be possible without her.

 

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of its frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind, and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.

—
GEORGE ELIOT
,
Middlemarch

 

Americans have always assumed, subconsciously, that every story will have a happy ending.

—
ADLAI E. STEVENSON

Prologue

From the moment Richard Yates was taken off his plane in a wheelchair back in August 1990, his associates in Alabama expected him to die there. He looked all but dead already. Still an unrepentant four-pack-a-day smoker—despite his being diagnosed with “a touch of emphysema” some twenty years before—Yates had just learned the hard way that he could no longer fly without almost suffocating to death. Blue-lipped, ashen, and gasping, he was taken from the airport straight to the hospital. Members of the English department were already casting about for some other personage to fill the Coal Royalty Endowed Chair in Creative Writing, when Yates returned from his ordeal newly equipped with oxygen tanks—feeling better, or so he said. At any rate smoking as much as ever. Graduate student Tony Earley, head of what was furtively called the “Yates Task Force,” worried that the great author would burst into flames on his watch. “You can't smoke with oxygen tanks,” Yates's daughter Monica admonished him. “Media hype,” Yates replied.

Before Alabama, Yates had been living in Los Angeles, a place he hated in every conceivable particular—the people, the weather, the sprawl, the buildings, the “fucking film business” that lured him out there time and again with the promise of easy money, which for Yates meant more time to write. It hadn't worked out before, and it hadn't worked out this time. “Can you believe it?” Yates would say to the few friends who saw him out there. “Remember I said I'd never do this shit again? Yet here I am.”
Here I am
: a phrase to which Yates was much given—wherever he was—as in
How did this happen?
Bemused, stoical, a little sad, perhaps, but willing to find the humor that was somewhere, surely, in his present predicament:
How did I get here?
“Getting out of here is an appealing idea,” he told an interviewer from the
Los Angeles Times
. “But then, as long as I've lived, getting out of wherever I am has seemed an appealing idea.”

Other books
All About Sam by Lois Lowry
The Charm School by Nelson Demille
Serpent Mage by Margaret Weis
The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard
Stone Rising by Gareth K Pengelly
The Duke Conspiracy by Astraea Press
World of Warcraft: Chronicle Volume 1 by BLIZZARD ENTERTAINMENT