Character Studies

Overview

In these characteristically incisive essays, Mark Singer profiles eccentrics, monomaniacs, and other remarkable people he thinks we ought to meet. He takes us into the worlds of the sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay, the ardent bibliophile Michael Zinman, and better-known personalities such as the entrepreneur Donald Trump and the meticulous filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He interviews a devoted fan of the cowboy movie star Tom Mix and a group of Texans who are determined to recover the skull of Pancho Villa from ...

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Character Studies: Encounters With the Curiously Obsessed

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Overview

In these characteristically incisive essays, Mark Singer profiles eccentrics, monomaniacs, and other remarkable people he thinks we ought to meet. He takes us into the worlds of the sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay, the ardent bibliophile Michael Zinman, and better-known personalities such as the entrepreneur Donald Trump and the meticulous filmmaker Martin Scorsese. He interviews a devoted fan of the cowboy movie star Tom Mix and a group of Texans who are determined to recover the skull of Pancho Villa from Yale's Skull and Bones society, among others. A riveting tour of obsession, Character Studies reveals the passions that drive the ordinary, the quirky, and the truly, fanatically fixated.

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Editorial Reviews

Jeff MacGregor
In writing about small folks -- the stewbums and the dead-enders, the desperate pilgrims and the Bowery savants -- Mitchell found a way to write about us all. For more than 30 years, thread by thread, he wove an immense tapestry of New York. In his best work, which seemed to be the only work of which he was capable, the reader knew that some grand, elusive truth stood just around each corner. Most important, in all his subjects we found some resonant aspect of ourselves, because Mitchell's genius lay not in his painstaking devotion to craft, but in his subtle affection for the rest of us, in the astonishing wealth of his empathy.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Many, if not all, of the profiles in Singer's latest work (after Somewhere in America) are already lodged firmly in the memories of New Yorker readers, and not just because so many of his subjects-Donald Trump, Ricky Jay, Martin Scorsese-are so remarkable. In fact, it's often in the stories about lesser-known personalities, from a Japanese-American farming family that supplies California's hottest restaurants with their vegetables, to a convention of Tom Mix fans in Las Vegas, that Singer's talents, including his ability to seem at once sympathetic to and skeptical of his subjects, are most visible. While a remembrance of his colleague Joseph Mitchell, who famously spent his last three decades at the magazine without completing a new article, highlights Singer's more personal, introspective side, in most of these stories he's a semidetached observer: you never forget he's there, but your attention is never diverted from the main attraction. In an introduction, Singer describes his reporting as "sublimated voyeurism" and "cultural anthropology." The dual descriptions perfectly encapsulate his entertaining yet informative journalism, and the work itself places him at the head of the New Yorker's current team of staff writers. Agent, Jin Auh. (July 12) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Singer (Somewhere in America) here offers an entertaining mix of his portraits from The New Yorker, gathered in book form for the first time. In the essays he trains his skills on the likes of Martin Scorsese and Donald Trump; The Wednesday Group, the self-selected intelligentsia of El Paso; well-known bibliophile Michael Zinman; high-powered women who decide to quit the fast track; and Richard Seiverling, a Tom Mix fan determined to preserve the memory of the movie cowboy. It's quite a cast of characters, and Singer lavishly gives them all their due. Readers will chuckle at Singer's experiences with Trump-who was not pleased with the profile-and book lovers will enjoy Zinman's maneuvers through the ins and outs of the book business. Readers will certainly see a bit of themselves in the characters of this fascinating look at the many facets of American life. Recommended for all libraries.-Ron Ratliff, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Eclectic, long-winded and occasionally diverting portraits by New Yorker staff writer Singer (Somewhere in America, 2004, etc.). The quirkier the subject the better in this reporter's book, although Singer is clearly not interested in his subjects per se but rather in what he unearths about them that will give him insider cachet. In the case of his tediously detailed study of the family-run vegetable farm in Del Mar, Calif., that supplies Wolfgang Puck's Spago restaurant, Singer's well-connected attentions win him an invitation from the owners to attend their matriarch's funeral back in Japan. "Secrets of the Magus," a rather cloying profile of famous sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay, merits reading for his in-the-know look at the craft and its historic practitioners. "Trump Solo," written in 1997, ensures that the real-estate mogul comes off as a self-absorbed blowhard by nailing his "gaseous blather." Singer likes Martin Scorsese a lot better, recording in "The Man Who Forgets Nothing" how "convincingly" the director repudiates his most graphically bloody depictions by declaring, "I'm not interested in violence that way anymore." The most worthwhile pieces here are the portraits of less famous people involved in compelling pursuits, such as Richard Seiverling, organizer of the Tom Mix Festival, and international book collector Michael Zinman. "Mom Overboard!" offers 1996 cameos that now seem largely cliched of overtaxed professional women on the mommy track. Occasionally, Singer's recondite searches take him where few readers care to tread, as in "La Cabeza de Villa," which recounts the Skull and Bones Society's claim to have Pancho Villa's skull in its Yale home. "Joe Mitchell'sSecret" delightfully treats a subject closer to home: deceased fellow New Yorker reporter Mitchell, author of Joe Gould's Secret, whose "urban peregrinations . . . delineated a romantic quest, the trajectory of a polite but persistent intimate affection."Peregrinations of a curious, harmless sort that time has rendered largely irrelevant.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618773633
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/1/2006
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 268
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Singer has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1974. He is the author of Funny Money, Mr. Personality, Citizen K, and Somewhere in America. He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Joe Mitchell's Secret
Only the most mule-headed writer, or maybe only the luckiest and least
distractible, willingly pursues wire to wire a single theme. Joseph Mitchell
grew up a cotton and tobacco grower's son in Fairmont, a small town in
southeastern North Carolina. His father had hoped he'd join the family
enterprise but gave up when it became plain that his oldest child, though an
otherwise fine student, could never get the hang of multiplication and long
division. He arrived in New York in the fall of 1929, when he was twenty-one,
and found work as a newspaper reporter. A couple of years later, briefly "sick
of the whole business," he went to sea aboard a Russia-bound freighter, then
returned to reporting. For another sixty-five years he stayed at it, until the
spring of 1996, when he died and created an unfillable hole in the city and at
The New Yorker, where he'd joined the staff in 1938. Death meant
repatriation, figurative and literal — to a specific spot in the sandy soil
beneath a slight rise in a treeless field bordered on one side by a swamp, on
another by sweet gums, pines, and oaks, and on another by farmland planted
with rotating crops of soybeans, corn, and winter wheat. This was a
destination he'd contemplated since 1964, when his mother died and his
father invested in a family burial plot. Mitchell was a connoisseur of
graveyards, a pensive but not necessarily gloomy necropolitan tourist, and a
virtuoso of what he called "graveyard humor." In one of his most arresting
reporting pieces, "Mr. Hunter's Grave," he described thepleasure of
wandering with "a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my
pockets" among the old graveyards on the south shore of Staten Island. Such
constitutionals consistently had a tonic effect: "For some reason I don't know
and don't want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these
cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and
identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on
the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite
cheerful, and then I go for a long walk."

Staten Island, especially its faded oystering and truck-farming
settlements, must have reminded Mitchell of the Carolina coastal plains.
Leaving home, he shouldered the classic burden — a mixture of resolve and
regret — and this ambivalence was implicit in the elegiac rustle of his
prose. "The rats of New York are quicker-witted than those on farms, and
they can outthink any man who has not made a study of their habits," he
wrote in a 1944 story. "Even so, they spend most of their lives in a state of
extreme anxiety, the black rats dreading the brown and both species
dreading human beings. Away from their nests, they are usually on the edge
of hysteria." From "Obituary of a Gin Mill," which was published in
1939: "Dick's old place was dirty and it smelled like the zoo, but it was
genuine; his new place is as shiny and undistinguished as a two-dollar alarm
clock. The bar-equipment salesman was so relentless that Dick, who merely
wanted a bigger kitchen, ended up by keeping nothing but the big, greasy,
iron safe and a framed and fly-specked photograph of Gallant Fox. He even
threw away all his photographs of Lupe Velez, his favorite movie
actress. "Mitchell accepted New York City and its citizens as he found them.
Even when he witnessed human spectacles that saddened or disgusted him,
he maintained a compulsive curiosity and an evergreen sense of wonder. His
preferred reporting subjects, he once explained, were "visionaries,
obsessives, impostors, fanatics, lost souls, the-end-is-near street preachers,
old Gypsy kings and old Gypsy queens, and out-and-out freak-show freaks."
Without playing dumb, he had a country fellow's deadly ability to sniff out
pretentiousness three avenues away. And he possessed extraordinary
courtesy and patience as a listener, an aptitude nurtured during a childhood
spent among folk who never tired of telling stories about themselves.
His reward was that, to the end of his life, people wanted to talk to
him — a convenient bargain, given Mitchell's determination to render
precisely the contents and cadences of the variegated New York vernacular.
Of an encounter with the eponymous curator of Captain Charley's Private
Museum for Intelligent People, he observed, "The last time I went to see him I
took a notebook along, and while he rummaged through the museum — he
was searching for a bone which he said he hacked off an Arab around 9 p.m.
one full-moon night in 1907 after the Arab had been murdered for signing a
treaty — I wrote down everything he said." In all five boroughs, he
discovered "ear-benders" worthy of his perfectionism, but the greatest
concentrations materialized on the Bowery, in Times Square, Harlem, and
the Irish saloons of the East Side, and, above all, along the waterfront: "The
only people I do not care to listen to are society women, industrial leaders,
distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors (except W.
C. Fields and Stepin Fetchit), and any actress under the age of thirty- five."
Mitchell's urban peregrinations per se were not his theme. Rather,
they delineated a romantic quest, the trajectory of a polite but persistent
intimate affection. New York City wasn't exactly what he thought of when the
word "home" came to mind, but — in the same way that his avatar James
Joyce responded to Dublin — it provoked and inspired him to write in a style
no one previously had, and he loved it for what it was. There was, though, this
important distinction: Joyce's early memories were rooted in Dublin, and
Mitchell landed in New York already grown, so that it must have appeared to
him no less strange than Mars. With a novelist's eye, he quickly made it
familiar by mapping his own geography — transforming into landmarks an
ordinary Greek coffee shop or a "big, roomy, jukeboxy" diner.
He had plenty of soft spots, but he was tough to fool. He never
cheapened his stories with moist nostalgia or maudlin sentiment. Reporting
in and about New York — recounting its inhabitants' daily adventures and
dreamy follies, their resilience and their fragility — enabled Mitchell to
sustain and reiterate his overarching conviction that the past, marinated in
human memory and recollected in everyday speech, yields an elixir that can
fortify against all manner of indignities inflicted in the name of progress.

DEPENDING UPON who's remembering what, however, the past can also, of
course, haunt and shackle; this became an unintended theme of Mitchell's
later years. In 1938, he published his first book, My Ears Are Bent, a
collection of feature stories from the New York Herald Tribune and the World-
Telegram. His second book, McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), broadened
and solidified his reputation as a matchless chronicler of Gotham exotica.
The richly textured portraits include, among others, the owners and clientele
of the ancient Cooper Square alehouse of the title story; Mazie P. Gordon,
the brassy blond ticket seller at a dime movie theater who, when she wasn't
threatening obnoxious patrons ("Outa here on a stretcher! Knock your
eyeballs out! . . . Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!"),
doled out daily fistfuls of small change to Bowery vagrants; Arthur Samuel
Colborne, the founder and head of the Anti-Profanity League ("You start out
with 'hell,' 'devil take it,' 'Dad burn it,' 'Gee whizz,' and the like of that, and by
and by you won't be able to open your trap without letting loose an awful,
awful, blasphemous oath. It's like the cocaine dope habit"); and Joseph
Ferdinand Gould, AKA Professor Sea Gull, a homeless Harvard-graduate
Greenwich Village fixture, a mimic of seagulls who claimed to
have "translated a number of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poems into sea
gull," and the author of "An Oral History of Our Time," which Gould, in
expansive moments, would compare to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the
Roman Empire. During several early encounters, Mitchell stayed up half the
night with Gould, buying him drinks and recording his verbal incontinence.
But Gould wasn't a solo self-promoter; a number of serious writers — Ezra
Pound, E. E. Cummings, William Saroyan, Marianne Moore — took him
seriously. The "Oral History," then twenty-six years in the works, had grown
to an estimated nine million words, Mitchell wrote, and "may well be the
lengthiest unpublished work in existence."
The pace of Mitchell's own word output, meanwhile, decelerated.
Legging around town for newspapers, he had often reported and written three
stories a day, an enervating regimen that made an assignment to file a daily
dispatch from the trial of Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh kidnapper, feel like
a holiday. ("After a reporter has covered features for a while there is nothing
like a fast murder trial to get the lead out of his pants. It discourages him
from trying to make literature out of every little two by four news story.") In
1939, his most prolific year at The New Yorker, he had thirteen bylines, each
one appended to an artifact of literature. However, in 1942, when "Professor
Sea Gull" appeared, he published only one other piece, and the following year
but a single Profile. For the next two decades, a Joseph Mitchell story ran in
the magazine roughly every two years; almost all these small masterpieces
were collected in two books, Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor.
In the early sixties, Mitchell decided to revisit the life and legend
of Joe Gould — "an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who
came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he
could for over thirty-five years." The result was a more melancholy than funny,
full-of-surprises account of an elaborate but benign deception, as well as,
indirectly, a deft psychological study of both the author and his subject. In
the years after he first wrote about Gould, Mitchell gradually came to realize
that — apart from several autobiographical chapters that weren't really oral
history — "An Oral History of Our Time" didn't exist on paper. To tell the tale
of his unnerving discovery, he felt obliged to interject his feelings about a
reporter's duty to the people he writes about. Gould could be quite
entertaining, and for the most part he elicited Mitchell's sympathy. But he
was also an obsessive, an impostor, and a lost soul in one tidy bundle — not
to mention neurotic, alcoholic, narcissistic, opportunistic, and prone to
remind Mitchell, at critical moments, that he had, after all, invited himself into
Gould's life. "Joe Gould's Secret" was serialized in two consecutive issues of
The New Yorker in September 1964, seven years after Gould's death, at sixty-
eight, in a mental hospital. The following year, when Mitchell turned fifty-
seven, it was published as a book. Whereupon the bylines ceased.

MITCHELL WAS a creature of steadfast habits. Each year he bought four
Irish Sweepstakes tickets and displayed them on the mantelpiece in the
apartment on West Tenth Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, where he
and his wife, Therese, raised their daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. He lived
there fifty-six years — alone after Therese's death, in 1980. Every December
24, he delighted the family with his reading of "'Twas the Night Before
Christmas." Every summer, they spent about six weeks at the Mitchell
homestead in North Carolina. He rose early each day and gargled for a full
minute before his breakfast of orange juice, toast with marmalade or
strawberry jam, and eggs (until his eighties, when some salmonella-tainted
eggs made him sick). In New York, when he headed out the door he was
dressed in Brooks Brothers clothing down to his underwear, socks, and
wingtips. On the farm, he dressed in worn-out Brooks Brothers clothing. He
wore gabardine or flannel suits and a felt fedora in winter, seersucker or
poplin suits and a coconut-straw fedora in summer. In the seventies, when he
deviated and bought a tweed sports jacket, Nora asked, character studies &
86 "What's next, Daddy, muttonchop sideburns?" In his inside breast pocket
he always carried a sheet of plain 8½-by-11 typing paper, folded horizontally
in half and then in thirds, and a soft-leaded pencil. Throughout the day, he
wrote things down.
Which is to say he never stopped being a reporter. He filed his
daily jottings in folders, presumably because he felt they were relevant to
something — an article, a memoir — that he would someday publish. He
showed up for work at his New Yorker office — not every single day, but
regularly — and his neighbors often heard the sound of a typewriter from
behind his closed door. Visitors noticed that the desktop and other surfaces
were uncluttered; if he was accumulating a fat manuscript, he kept it hidden.
This endured for more than thirty years.
None of us — revering Mitchell and flattering ourselves in thinking
of him as a "colleague" — knew what to make of it. Calvin Trillin recalls that a
particularly bold and insouciant receptionist once asked Mitchell why he'd
stopped writing and he solicitously replied, "Well, they said that those people
I wrote about were crazy. And they might have been. But they weren't
dangerous-crazy, like the people who get written about now." I'm willing to
believe this anecdote up to a point, but who's to say that he in fact stopped
writing? Propriety inclined the rest of us to reciprocate Mitchell's silence by
avoiding the topic. Did his silence possess an eloquent majesty? Or did we
fear that it could happen to any of us, like being struck with a piece of falling
masonry? Anyway, there were so many other things to talk about with Joe
Mitchell, who easily became animated and who stammered with a marvelous
coherence, editing each sentence as he uttered it, so that it never quite got
completed before the next interesting thought tumbled from his brain. Was
his diction a manifestation of some transaction that occurred — or stopped
occurring — when he confronted a blank page? Was he constantly writing
and rewriting in his mind but nowhere else?
* * *

FOR DECADES, though his books had gone out of print and were selling at
steep premiums in secondhand bookstores, Mitchell resisted urgings from
readers and publishers to reissue them. He wasn't much impressed by a
revival of interest, during the seventies and eighties, in his soul mate A. J.
Liebling — in their prime at The New Yorker, Mitchell's only true peer as both
a reporter and a stylist. Several Liebling titles, including a two-volume
compendium, came out in paperback, but Mitchell felt that paperbacks were
ephemeral. A Mitchell omnibus, if he were to allow one, would have to be in
hardcover. With a diffident vagueness, he also explained that he was working
on "something else" — a major new piece of writing, it seemed — that he
would want to include.
In the mid-eighties, Dan Frank, then an editor at Viking, which
was the original publisher of Joe Gould's Secret, began gently and patiently
wooing him. Frank moved to Pantheon in early 1991, and soon thereafter
Mitchell agreed to the publication of Up in the Old Hotel, a single volume that
comprised McSorley's, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe
Gould's Secret, plus seven previously uncollected stories from the thirties,
forties, and fifties. Whatever became of the new piece of writing that Mitchell
had alluded to, Frank never laid eyes on it. With typical meticulousness,
Mitchell made microsurgical changes in his old pieces. One day, Sheila
McGrath, a former New Yorker office manager who was Mitchell's companion
during his final decade, asked him what he was up to as he scrutinized one
of his stories. A semicolon had found its way into the published version, and
he changed it back to a comma, as it had been in his original
manuscript. "Don't worry, honey," he explained. "I'm just taking out the
improvements." McGrath helped him proofread galleys and provided general
logistical assistance and encouragement, and he dedicated the book to her.
When Up in the Old Hotel was published, in the summer of 1992, it became
a unanimous critical success and, at eighty-four, Mitchell had his first
bestseller — three weeks on the Times hardcover nonfiction list. It still sells
about seven thousand copies a year in a not-so-ephemeral Vintage
paperback.
Up in the Old Hotel enabled a new generation of readers to
discover Mitchell — acolytes of the sort who turned the now departed Books
and Company, on upper Madison Avenue, into a highbrow mosh pit, spilling
out of the front door and onto the street, when, three months before his
death, he gave a reading to mark the Modern Library's publication of Joe
Gould's Secret. (A Modern Library edition of The Bottom of the Harbor had
come out in 1994.) It was inevitable that Hollywood — best possible
scenario: the Hollywood that actually reads books — would come knocking.
This indeed happened while Mitchell was still alive. Because it's a byzantine
show-biz story, I will skip the details, other than to say that its scariest
moment occurred when Joe Gould's Secret was pursued by Tom Cruise's
production company.
Instead, shooting begins next month on a movie version of Joe
Gould's Secret that will be directed by Stanley Tucci and will feature Tucci as
Mitchell, Ian Holm as Gould, Hope Davis as Therese Mitchell, Isabella
Rossellini as an art-gallery owner who befriended Gould, and Glenn Close as
the artist Alice Neel, whose drawings and paintings of Gould included a nude
portrait in which he was equipped with more than the usual allotment of male
genitalia. ("Anatomically, the painting was fanciful and grotesque but not
particularly shocking," Mitchell wrote. "Except for the plethora of sexual
organs, it was a strict and sober study of an undernourished middle-aged
man.")
Tucci — judging from his two previous directorial efforts, the
elegantly wistful comedies Big Night and The Impostors — seems poised to
eclipse Woody Allen as the filmmaker with the most unabashedly indulgent
romantic attachment to the New York cityscape. He plans to shoot in about
forty locations around town, and the result will be, he hopes, "a celebration of
New York in a lot of ways." One day recently, when I joined him during a
location scouting expedition in Manhattan and Queens, we started out at the
Minetta Tavern, near Washington Square, where caricatures of Gould have
been hanging on the walls for more than fifty years. After "Professor Sea Gull"
was published, Gould enjoyed a temporary surge of not quite respectability,
perhaps, but acceptability, and he secured a position as the Minetta
Tavern's "house bohemian." Mitchell used to track him down there to forward
letters, some of which included cash contributions to the "Joe Gould Fund,"
that had been sent care of The New Yorker. Gould's job was to occupy a
booth in the restaurant's front room and attract tourists, and in exchange he
was entitled to a nightly plate of spaghetti and whatever free drinks he could
cadge. As Tucci conferred with his production designer about possible
camera placements, he glimpsed through the MacDougal Street window a
spooky sight, one that gave us all pause: a wild-haired, gray-bearded
passerby, a specimen of old Greenwich Village fauna capable of causing a
busload of out-of-towners to gawk. The phrase "Joe Gould's ghost" crossed
my mind.
The screenplay for Joe Gould's Secret, which was originally
adapted by Howard A. Rodman, has been revised by Tucci. As the script
now reads, before the credits roll at the end of the movie a black screen will
appear with white letters saying:
JOE GOULD DIED IN 1957.
JOSEPH MITCHELL PUBLISHED "JOE GOULD'S SECRET" IN
1964.
FOR THE NEXT THIRTY-TWO YEARS OF HIS LIFE HE CAME
TO HIS OFFICE EVERY DAY . . .
. . . AND NEVER PUBLISHED ANOTHER WRITTEN WORD.
An evocative and "literary" coda, I suppose — but, to be
punctilious, a not precisely accurate statement. By my count, Mitchell
published close to two thousand words from 1992 to 1996 — the five-page
prefatory "Author's Note" in Up in the Old Hotel and, as Dan Frank pointed
out to me, the flap copy for that book's dust jacket and the biographical
notes and dust-jacket copy for the Modern Library reprints.
I've already mentioned Mitchell's scribbled notes to himself, the
equivalent of journal entries. Other unpublished material exists, in a variety of
forms. During the eighties, when his siblings and in-laws began dying off, he
wrote epitaphs for their gravestones. After his own death, the writer Marie
Winn, who had become a close friend during Mitchell's first years as a
widower, received from his daughters a file folder that contained drafts,
filigreed with corrections, of the many post cards and letters he had sent her.
Winn also showed me her copy of The Bottom of the Harbor, which bore an
inscription from Mitchell that ran to four pages — filling the blanks in the front
and back of the book — a single sentence, a syntactic high-wire walk, a flow
of blue ink with a mesmerizing rhythm reminiscent of Molly Bloom's
soliloquy. How many drafts must he have gone through to get to that?
Both Winn and McGrath say that Mitchell showed them pages
from a number of works in progress. Winn believes that some of the material
she read was "of a piece" with autobiographical passages that found their
way into the Up in the Old Hotel preface. McGrath, who is the literary
executor of Mitchell's estate, sat in my office one day not long ago and
spoke coyly of "a shopping bag with various sections of stories." With
Mitchell's consent, she said, she began transcribing these texts and storing
them on a computer disk. "And that's where they are," she said. "I haven't
been able to look at them since he died, so I couldn't say they're publishable
as they stand, or with a little minor editing . . ." She never completed this
sentence.
MITCHELL HAD no trouble finding ways to occupy himself that
didn't involve sitting in front of a typewriter. For thirty years, he attended
meetings of the James Joyce Society, at the Gotham Book Mart. He was
also a board member of the Gypsy Lore Society and helped found the South
Street Seaport Museum. A backcountry Baptist who in New York embraced
Episcopalianism and modernism, he became a vestryman of Grace Church.
(Mitchell's stories provide ample evidence that he strongly believed in Hell;
Heaven seems a more problematic and remote prospect.) During the
eighties, he spent five years as a commissioner of the New York City
Landmarks Preservation Commission. This public service enabled him, in an
official capacity, to do something to keep at bay the dark forces he lumped
under the general heading "goddamn sons of bitches" — bill collectors with
stupid computers, smug politicians and plutocrats, designers and promoters
of noisy or ugly machines and buildings. He walked all over the city, often
with binoculars, admiring architecture — he was a charter member of the
Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture — and he lavished special attention upon
ruins. When he came across an old building in the early stages of demolition,
he would wander inside — a natty gent in a well-pressed business suit,
usually carrying a shopping bag — and drag out whatever he could carry that
looked interesting: bricks, shards of marble cornices, elevator pulleys.
"My father would collect entire skyscrapers and stick them under
the bed," Nora Mitchell Sanborn told me when I paid her a visit not long ago.
Now widowed, she lives in central New Jersey, in a house brimming with her
father's odd treasures — glass bottlenecks, New York hotel spoons, brass
hinges. Two of Mitchell's siblings and a sister-in-law died within three months
of him, she said, "and my sister and I noticed that our cousins ended up
dividing diamonds and stock certificates, and we wondered how we had
ended up dividing doorknobs and drawer pulls."
At one point, she led me to an upstairs room where she kept
boxes filled with old jam and marmalade jars that now contained objects her
father had picked up or dug up as he walked the family fields in North
Carolina. For an hour, I opened jars and tried to puzzle out what I was looking
at: arrowheads, pottery fragments, quartzes, flints, pieces of rusty hardware.
Inside each was a dated scrap of paper, in Mitchell's scrawl, a hybrid prose-
poem catalog of the contents: "The large broken projectile point was found in
a rut in a gully in the road between our house and Miss Dinabel's that had
been filled with sand from a pit somewhere near Adam Davis's. I found the
purple bottle throat on the site of the Cephus blue house at the Butler place
between the road and the ditch — at the edge of the soybeans." As I sifted
through these relics — bits of the past that Mitchell had sifted from the soil of
his birthplace, a past that gave him far more comfort than the present — I
understood that an ordinary object, held up to the light in a certain way, could
possess for Mitchell the same fascination as a Gypsy king, a bearded lady,
or a street preacher with a "frantic voice." When Mitchell wrote, he made the
exotic seem companionable and the everyday seem strange. As long as he
stayed attached to these relics, it meant that he hadn't stopped trying.

NO DOUBT Mitchell was aware that, among other writers, his failure to
publish incited speculations about what he was up to, including the
speculation that he wasn't up to anything. Mitchell himself was probably the
source of the hypothesis that quitting smoking, when he turned fifty —
almost four decades before cancer caught up with him — made it more
difficult to concentrate. Another theory I've come across — one I don't give
much credence to — is that the death of Liebling, in 1963, deprived him of his
ideal reader. (When I ran this by the writer and editor William Maxwell, he
smiled and said, "If I had an ideal reader who died, I'd go and find another
ideal reader." My own guess is that Mitchell, in his bones, knew that he was
his own ideal reader.) Despite the reticence on this general topic that
prevailed within the precincts of The New Yorker, it seems that when
thoughtful inquisitors brought it up, Mitchell, with his characteristic
courtliness, tried to accommodate. Reviewing Up in the Old Hotel in The
American Scholar, William Zinsser — who, as it happens, introduced me to
Mitchell's work when he taught an undergraduate writing seminar at Yale,
during the seventies — postulated a fatal combination of Gould's endless
monologues and excessive neediness and Mitchell's excessive
forbearance: "Gould just plumb wore Mitchell out." In reply, Mitchell inscribed
a copy of The Bottom of the Harbor, thanking Zinsser "for your deeply
understanding review of 'Up in the Old Hotel.'"
I think Zinsser is half right: Mitchell's experience with Gould
deromanticized the reporter's life, at least the part that involved sitting up until
four in the morning in a smoky bar listening to the prattle of a long-winded
dipsomaniac. But there were other stories, conducive to more leisurely
approaches, that Mitchell wanted to write, and evidently tried to write, before,
for reasons known only to him, he abandoned them. He contemplated writing
about his family (but decided he couldn't proceed while certain people were
still alive); a sequel to "Mr. Hunter's Grave" (same inhibition); a memoir
centered upon Ann Honeycutt, a fellow southern exile, whom he'd befriended
during their early years in New York; another piece about the McSorley
family (which would have given him a convenient excuse to spend time in
Ireland, where he was happy to breathe the air on even the dreariest of days).
The pivotal passage in Joe Gould's Secret occurs when Mitchell,
thoroughly exasperated, confronts Gould with his knowledge that the "Oral
History" is a phantasm. "It exists in your mind, I guess," he says angrily. "But
you've always been too lazy to write it down." Gould replies so softly that
Mitchell can't quite make it out: "If I heard him right — and I have often
wondered if I did hear him right — he said, 'It's not a question of laziness.'
Then, evidently deciding not to say any more, he turned his back on me
again."
After Gould departs, Mitchell is immediately filled with remorse: "I
have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught
in a lie or caught red-handed doing anything, and now, with time to think
things over, I began to feel ashamed of myself for the way I had lost my
temper and pounced on Gould." After musing about how he thinks Gould got
himself into this fix, he writes of the "Oral History," "The oral part of it might
not exactly be down on paper, but he had it all in his head, and any day now
he was going to start getting it down."
When Robert Gottlieb was the editor of The New Yorker, from
1987 to 1992, every so often he would drop by Mitchell's office and they
would have, as Gottlieb recalls, "a very pleasant chat about the progress he
was making." Mitchell never mentioned the specifics of what he was writing
about and Gottlieb didn't press him to deliver. "He'd say, 'Oh, I hope to be
able to show you something within the year.' I liked him, liked his work, and I
wanted to be respectful without being demanding. I just showed, I hoped, a
continuing affectionate interest without being exigent. It quickly became
apparent to me that we were going through some ritual."
Tina Brown, who was the editor during the last four years of
Mitchell's life, tried a rather different approach: "When there was a big fire at
the Fulton Fish Market, I called and asked him to do a piece. He said he'd
try. The subtext of the conversation was he wished he could but he no longer
could. He was a newsman who had a certain energy level and, left to his own
devices, became more and more trapped by his own myth."
On the dust-jacket flap of Joe Gould's Secret, Mitchell, writing in
the third person, quotes himself: "When I found out Gould's secret . . . I was
appalled, but I soon regained my respect for him, and through the years my
respect has grown, though I must confess that he is still an enigma to me.
Nowadays, in fact, when his name comes into my mind, it is followed
instantly by another name — the name of Bartleby the Scrivener — and then
I invariably recall Bartleby's haunting, horrifyingly self-sufficient remark 'I
would prefer not to.'"
This allusion to Melville's antihero suggests that what bedeviled
Mitchell wasn't an excess of craftsmanship — the perfectionist writing
himself into a corner — but an existential unease. Instead of "I would prefer
not to," Mitchell routinely demurred, "It does not speak to my condition."
Still, I think — because he knew as well as anyone the stoic
beauty and mystique of the thing left unsaid — Mitchell deliberately and
misleadingly overplayed the parallel between Gould and himself. It was all
right to toy with the paradox that he was some sort of Joe Gould manqué —
to see, in effect, if he could make his shadow dance. But Mitchell was, in the
end, a wise, proud, fastidious Carolina gentleman who regularly used to
vacuum the rows and stacks of thousands of books that filled his apartment.
And Gould was a flea-bitten, lice-ridden, rheumy-eyed, toothless,
intermittently diverting flophouse denizen whose native Yankee pride had
been subverted by deep psychological wounds that never healed. What they
had in common, above all, was a fascination with the way people presented
themselves when they talked about what most mattered to them. For most of
his life, only Mitchell got it down on paper.
Philip Hamburger, who was a New Yorker contemporary and a
devoted friend of Mitchell's, told me recently that, in his estimation, questions
about Mitchell's long silence struck him as not merely gauche but
also "prurient."
"I equate them with questions about the president's sex life," he
said. "Joe and I had lunch together regularly for sixty years. During that entire
period, I can swear he never once asked me what I was doing and I never
asked him what he was doing. All these people are asking a sort of tabloid
question: Why didn't he write more? I've always felt it was a completely
unnecessary question. If Joe had died at seventy, nobody would have raised
it. Why didn't he write more? Well, he wrote enough."
On his deathbed, Mitchell said, "There was so much I still wanted
to do." Of course he wrote enough. Except that certain varieties of greed
aren't really sinful — they're an expression of sensual appetite. Rereading
him, we couldn't help ourselves. Like Joe Mitchell himself, thinking about
heading home one last time, we wanted more.

— 1999

Copyright © 2005 by Mark Singer. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Secrets of the Magus 5
Trump solo 48
Joe Mitchell's secret 81
La Cabeza de Villa 97
The Chinos' artful harvest 114
Keepers of the flame 154
Mom overboard! 191
The book eater 206
The man who forgets nothing 227
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