Christmas with James Purdy
Author: Donald Weise
December 9, 2013
Christmas for me—and I’ll go out on a limb and venture that I’m alone on this one—means James Purdy. As the author of some of the most inventive and distinctive and surreal fiction anyone has ever written, he stands alone among gay novelists, even if he didn’t self-identify as such. At the time of his death at age ninety-four in 2009, I was his editor. Working together over four books (one new, three reissues) I developed a special fondness for him unlike any I’ve felt for another writer. So much so that on a few Christmas Eves I made the trek from my apartment on the Upper West Side out to his place in Brooklyn Heights to bring him groceries and say hello. Purdy had no family as far as I could tell and he lived alone, basically cooped up in his one-room apartment. He seldom left home, even if he ran out of food, which is why groceries were appreciated. I would sit with James, listening to his stories from fifty years of writing, until his devoted friend and all-around literary champion, John Uecker, would arrive to spend Christmas with him.
Despite my thinking of Purdy at Christmas (the rest of the year, too, actually), the New York Times said some months back, upon the posthumous publication of his collected short stories, James died “a forgotten man.” Most of his fiction was out of print, the article pointed out, and Purdy “made the transition from being underrated to unread.” His famous under-appreciation during his lifetime has been chalked up to everything from being a Southern gothic novelist (as a Midwestern native, he hated being called that) to writing “mean” and “unlikeable” characters, not to mention his books were sometimes considered too queer for straight people but not queer enough for gay people (or maybe too queer in the truest sense of the word for even gay people). Nor could his work be lumped neatly within a literary movement, such as the writing of the Beats, and I don’t think James ever went out of his way as a writer to endear himself to critics or anyone else.
Yet, Purdy once boasted an extraordinary fan base that included some of my favorite writers: Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood, Langston Hughes, Lillian Hellman, Susan Sontag, and Gore Vidal, not exactly an easy-to-please, bandwagon-riding bunch. I’m not going to argue that Purdy’s writing is for everyone—I don’t imagine James would have, either—but when Sontag wrote in the 1960s that he was “indisputably one of the half-dozen or so living American writers worth taking seriously,” she was on to something.
I was living in San Francisco when a young writer-friend came back from New York with the news that he had been taken to meet the esteemed (as far as the friend and I were concerned) James Purdy. I don’t remember how, precisely, he described this encounter except he said it was a “trip” and that if I was ever in Brooklyn I had to look Purdy up. “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” he said. When I moved to New York a few years later, I did just that. I was a fan of Eustace Chisholm and the Works and Malcolm in particular and wanted to meet the notoriously irascible author. As an editor, I also hoped that he might have something new that he’d allow me to publish. (He did, a story collection, Moe’s Villa and Other Stories.) It wasn’t every day the opportunity to work with a writer of his special gifts or literary credentials presented itself.
John Uecker was James’ conduit to the outside world, and he cared for his well-being as if Purdy were his own father. Better, probably. The friend from San Francisco had given me John’s phone number, so I called. John very graciously met with me, liked me apparently, and set up a date to take me to Brooklyn Heights to introduce me to James.
The old brick apartment house that Purdy lived in—replete with one of those big, old-fashioned gas burning jet lamps over the front door to the building—was not far from the Promenade and therefore quite an expensive area to live in. Purdy, however, had moved in years earlier, when Brooklyn Heights wasn’t a destination and was still affordable. Looking at the neighborhood that evening, I found it odd that the author of Narrow Rooms and The House of the Solitary Maggot living around the corner from all those boutique shops that lined the streets. Then again, James seldom left his apartment, so who knows if he was even aware how upscale his neighborhood had become.
James’ apartment was at the top of a long, winding staircase, and when I saw how frail he was, I understood why he almost never went out: getting back up those stairs in his shape would take real determination, if not the better part of an hour. Purdy met us at his door—and there stood the elderly literary outlaw-rebel with thinning white hair, welcoming us inside. I was surprised and impressed right away that a man whose writing could be so withering and caustic and dark could personally be so warm and inviting. Given that the apartment consisted of a single room, the meeting was by nature intimate. We sat in front of a fireplace hearth above which was a marble mantle with, among other mementos placed on it, a small black-and-white photo of writer and poet Edith Sitwell (who discovered Purdy in the ‘50s and helped launch his career) and on the wall above her was a framed poster of an old-time boxer, from back when boxers wore tights, had handlebar moustaches, and fought with their fists curled in front of them. There was something about these ancient personal items that made James feel even older, as if he were an emissary from a long-ago era, which I soon found out he was in a way.
That evening was the first in a series of evenings at Purdy’s place where he reminisced widely about his long, unconventional, and unlikely life. For example, James talked about the night he sat on Billie Holiday’s lap and she said, “Well, aren’t you the cutest little blond thing.” He recalled his first encounter with Dame Sitwell, how touched he was—still after all that time—by her staunch advocacy and praise of his work (“One of the greatest writers of fiction in our language”). Gore Vidal feted Purdy over lunch at the Plaza Hotel, calling James “an authentic American genius.” Christopher Isherwood telephoned out of the blue one afternoon during the ‘60s to tell Purdy, whom he’d never met, that he was so knocked out by Eustace Chisholm and the Works that he felt compelled to call and congratulate the author. James also spoke often of people he didn’t like; for one, Edward Albee, who adapted Malcolm into a play that James objected to for the liberties Albee had taken. Purdy also nursed a long-standing grudge against Edmund White for allegedly dismissing one of James’ novels as “Southern gothic” in the New York Times Book Review, thereby, James believed, sinking the book. But whatever Edmund had written, Purdy would still have had it in for him. James said again and again that he couldn’t understand how anyone would call themselves a gay novelist, even when the writer was in fact gay and a novelist who wrote prominently about gay subjects. For me, it didn’t matter whether Purdy adored or despised someone: He was such a fascinating raconteur—particularly if he did dislike someone—that I could’ve listened to him all night.
Purdy’s storytelling, however, was not universally appreciated. My partner at the time was a young writer who had never heard of James. Surprised and delighted by this opportunity, I said he not only had to read James, but he had to meet the legend himself. So I set up an appointment to drop by the apartment. We climbed all those stairs and once more there stood Purdy awaiting my arrival. He showed us inside to the same seats in front of that hearth and then launched right in. “What do you think of this whole AIDS thing? (Bear in mind this was 2005, not 1985.) I don’t believe a word of it,” he said dismissively with a wave of his hand. “Oh sure, if I went all around this building and licked every door knob, I’d come down with a virus, too.” Purdy continued on in this cantankerous, contrarian manner for about an hour, my partner silent all the while, and finally it was time to leave. We said our good-byes, I thanked James for granting us a visit, and after the door was closed behind us, I asked my partner, brightly, “Wasn’t that fun?” He turned to me and said, as if he’d just survived a plane crash, “I never want to see that man again.” I still don’t think he got it. James and his writing is so vivid and inimitable precisely because he was so cantankerous and contrarian. I imagine it’s one of the main reasons that people like John Waters and even Albee are admirers. I know it’s a big reason I like his work so much.
After I’d published a couple of James’ books, we found an unexpected admirer in Jonathan Franzen. I don’t think anyone, including Purdy, would have known this had Franzen not selected Eustace Chisholm and the Works for the Clifton Fadiman Medal for Excellence in Fiction, an annual award presented by the Mercantile Library at a lavish dinner reception in midtown Manhattan. The 1967 novel is probably Purdy’s best-known book, but some would argue that its explicit gay content and sadomasochism would marginalize James’ career for the rest of his life. Or as Purdy would say sarcastically of the novel’s dismissal in the press: “Since it was about faggots, it could have no meaning for any normal person because faggots aren’t human.” Franzen felt otherwise.
By pure coincidence I’d just reissued the novel, so Purdy asked me to be his escort at the gala affair. I wasn’t there to see James prepare for the evening but when I showed up at his place to wait with him for the car the Library was sending, I’d never seen him more dapper or dashing in a tie, tan coat, and hat. I’d never seen him outside his apartment, either, and couldn’t tell you the last time he’d left Brooklyn Heights, so the anticipation of the night ahead as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge into the City was almost out of Sunset Boulevard. Here was the elite New York literary establishment sending for one its old, “forgotten,” as the Times would have it, writers. Only in James’ case they really did want him and not his car.
The driver pulled up in front of the Century Club, and I got out first to help James onto the sidewalk. I don’t know whether it was because all of our encounters till then had taken place sitting in his apartment, but he somehow seemed taller than ever before. I led him into the club’s elegant foyer where we were met by Franzen and Adam Haslett, standing side by side, smiling expectantly. The pair made gracious welcoming remarks about how much they admired James’ work, what an honor it was to meet him, while James, for his part, just grinned and nodded his head. I worried that all this sudden attention was too much for an elderly recluse thrust into the spotlight, but Purdy seemed to bask in their praise. Finally Franzen and Haslett turned to leave, and as they made their way up the staircase leading to the dining room, James leaned in and asked me, childlike, “Do they write books?”
James and I took a seat at a table next to the exit. The reception hadn’t even started and already he seemed to be preparing a quick escape if the occasion called for it. Doubleday senior vice president Nan Talese was also being honored that night, with the Maxwell E. Anderson Award. That accounted for the presence of her husband, Gay Talese, as well as David Halberstam and Pat Conroy, among other celebrity authors. I can tell you it wasn’t to shake hands with the author of Eustace Chisholm and the Works. James barely touched the food he’d been served, focusing most of the meal on finishing a single dinner roll that he held in his hand and ate the way you would an apple. Soon it was time for Franzen to present James with his award. Purdy wasn’t brought onstage but for whatever reason Franzen came over to our table, crouched down next to James, and presented him with the medal to much applause. For once Purdy looked genuinely overcome, by being so honored but also, I imagine, by the photographers who descended as soon as he’d been handed the award. We didn’t stay for dessert or coffee, it was time for James’ bedtime (probably mine, too), so we headed back to Brooklyn.
The last time I saw Purdy—or rather, didn’t see Purdy—was appropriately enough on Christmas Eve. Whenever I’d make a trip out to his apartment, I’d call first to remind him that I’d be coming. Even though he was in his nineties and still quite sharp, he appreciated a call to remind him of dates we’d made. It wasn’t as if he wouldn’t be home otherwise; I just think he easily forgot this sort of thing. I stopped at the market around the corner from his place and, as was now tradition, I bought a couple bags of food to take to him. As I recall, his apartment building was so old it didn’t have an electronic entry system. I must have had a key to the building’s front door because James then wouldn’t have to come downstairs to let me in. When I got up to his apartment and stood outside his door knocking, Purdy wasn’t there. I could see a light on inside from under the door, but when I knocked, he didn’t answer. I could, however, hear the padding of his footsteps; when I called his name the footsteps approached the door, then as I waited for a reply I could hear them retreat. That happened repeatedly. After about ten minutes of this, I decided to set the groceries outside his door and leave. But I didn’t want some of the food to spoil, so I said in a voice loud enough for him to hear, “Well, it looks like Mr. Purdy isn’t home after all. I have all these groceries, which I’m going to leave at the door. Hopefully he gets back soon because I don’t want anything to go bad.” I said, “Merry Christmas,” to the door and went downstairs and back to Manhattan. When I called to check in on him the next day, he claimed to have fallen asleep and thanked me for the groceries, never explaining how he knew to open the door to find the food.
When I heard James had died, I felt surprised. Yes, surprised to hear even someone in his nineties had passed away. I knew he’d been in failing health, but in spite of his advanced years and declining condition, he seemed as if he might go on and on. Were he still with us, I’m sure he would have been thrilled to see that his incredible short stories had finally, after all these years, been collected and published by Liveright in one volume. He might even have gotten a kick out of the Times piece calling him a forgotten writer—in fact he would probably have agreed. But then to Purdy, I don’t think there was anything shameful in being forgotten. Just the opposite, actually. As James once said, “Reputations are made here, as in Russia, on political respectability or commercial acceptability. The worse the author, the more he is known.” If that’s true, James Purdy would rank as one of the most unknown authors we’ve ever been lucky enough to have had. For this he will be remembered.