Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jacksonby Alison Lurie
James Merrill and his longtime partner David Jackson were brilliant, rich, charming, generous, and sophisticated, and Merrill was a world-famous poet, known for the autobiographical element in his work. They were also, for over a quarter-century, deeply involved with ghosts, gods, and spirits, with whom they communicated through a Ouija board. Among the results of… See more details below
James Merrill and his longtime partner David Jackson were brilliant, rich, charming, generous, and sophisticated, and Merrill was a world-famous poet, known for the autobiographical element in his work. They were also, for over a quarter-century, deeply involved with ghosts, gods, and spirits, with whom they communicated through a Ouija board. Among the results of this intense preoccupation with the occult were a book-length poem, which some critics have called a masterpiece, and the possible destruction of several lives.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alison Lurie knew James Merrill and David Jackson for more than forty years. Now, in Familiar Spirits, she reveals both the worldly and otherworldly sources of Merrill's brilliant poem, The Changing Light at Sandover, which he called his "chronicles of love and loss." In her signature mix of comedy and analysis, she recalls Merrill and Jackson's life together in New York, Athens, and Key West, and speculates on the meaning of their adventures in both the real and unreal worlds. Her account of Merrill and Jackson's peculiar relationship with the supernatural and its tragic end will not only surprise many readers, it will also stand as a poignant memorial to her lost friends.
"Written with the poignancy of long affection." The Atlantic Monthly
"This memoir is Lurie's own Ouija board, through which she shares one final, intimate conversation with her much-missed familiar spirits." The Washington Post
- Viking Adult
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Read an Excerpt
When James Merrill and I first met we didn't take to each other. If someone had told me that day that we would be friends for forty years, I would have thought they were joking.
It was the hot summer of 1950; I and my first husband, Jonathan Bishop, were in Europe on a postponed honeymoon. We had come to Austria to stay with Lynn and Ted Hoffman, who were working at the Salzburg Seminar. An acquaintance from Harvard, Claude Fredericks, was in town, too, and they arranged for all of us to have lunch and go for a swim in a nearby lake. Both Lynn and I were fond of Claude, and hoped to find the friend he was traveling with, another young poet, equally likable.
But Jimmy Merrill was a disappointment. Compared to Claude he seemed both coolly detached and awkwardly self-conscious. He was thin and pale and shortsighted, with thick black-rimmed spectacles (later he would wear contact lenses). Though only twenty-four, he was clearly already an intellectual and an aesthete. He appeared to have read everything and, worse, to be surprised at our ignorance.
The lake turned out to be a large light-struck shiny pond, mainly surrounded by woods. Fallen tree trunks littered the steep, sandy margin, and more floated offshore. The water was a clear, dark brown, and very deep; a top layer had been warmed by the sun, but below it was icy, and choked with the rubbery yellow and green straps of water weeds.
Most of us splashed about briefly and then waded out, but Jimmy stayed longer; and in spite of his weedy appearance he turned out to be a skilled swimmer. Unlike professional athletes, who often seem to be fighting the water, attacking it with violent slapping assaults and throwing off sprays of liquid shrapnel, Jimmy hardly broke the surface as he swam. The dark wet element parted smoothly for him as it might have for some long, elegant pale fish. When he finally waded out, however, he again seemed chilly and ill at ease.
As his memoir of those years declares in its title, Jimmy was A Different Person then, in both senses of the phrase. He was different from most other persons, and he was different from the person he would become. Most of us change as we age, but Jimmy changed more than most. He not only became more confident and better-looking—eventually elegantly handsome—he also became kinder, more generous, and more sympathetic. He never quite became an ordinary person, but his instinctive scorn of fools, once only half-concealed by good manners, relaxed and gave way to a detached, affectionate amusement, such as a highly civilized visitor from another planet might feel. Perhaps that is why he eventually seemed so much at home with the otherworldly beings he and David Jackson contacted through the Ouija board.
Jimmy and I might never have met again if we hadn't both found ourselves in Amherst, Massachusetts, five years later. I came in September 1954, as part of the baggage of my first husband, an Amherst College instructor in English. Jimmy, who had graduated from the college in 1947, arrived the following fall as a visiting writer, accompanied by his new friend David Jackson.
In 1955 Jimmy, though less nervous, was still thin and pale, with flat dark hair and something of the air of a clever, inquisitive bird. Later, when I learned that the name "Merrill" could be traced back to the French merle, or "blackbird," this seemed appropriate. He no longer casually paraded his superior learning and sophistication; he had become more sensitive to social situations and able to employ the perfect good manners he had learned as a child from his mother and governess. These good manners were one of his most striking qualities, and they carried over into his work. As he told an interviewer in 1967:
Manners for me are the touch of nature,... Someone who does not take them seriously is making a serious mistake....
The real triumph of manners in Proust is the extreme courtesy towards the reader, the voice explaining at once formally and intimately.
By 1955 Jimmy had also become something of a dandy. Though he wore conventional suits and shirts and neckties to official academic occasions, his everyday clothes were elegant but odd, sometimes slightly comic. He had a subtle, rather Art Nouveau color sense: he liked mauve and purple and apricot and turquoise silk or Egyptian-cotton shirts, and bright flowered ties. At home he often cooked breakfast in a Japanese kimono and sandals. I remember especially some red straw and silk sandals and a gray-striped silk kimono with deep sleeves cuffed in black.
At this time Jimmy had not yet achieved the attentive, contained, charming manner of his later years. He fidgeted with things, and was sometimes awkward and uneasy with strangers. He misplaced ordinary objects, and did not know how to drive. He frequently became panicky when faced with a mechanical or practical problem: a broken window blind, frozen pipes, missing student papers, a canceled plane flight.
This, I felt then, was to be expected. I saw Jimmy as a kind of Martian: supernaturally brilliant, detached, quizzical, apart. Naturally he was someone with whom the invisible energies of this world would not cooperate, whom they would trick and confuse. In a sense I was wrong: but in another sense I was deeply right.
Whenever practical things failed, Jimmy's friend David would come to the rescue. He was at ease in the world: he calmed, he coped, he repaired and replaced and reassured. He understood electricity and plumbing and automobile engines. Later, with David's occasionally impatient encouragement, Jimmy would come to manage the practical side of life better. He would own a VW beetle with the license plate POET and drive it skillfully; he would learn to operate a computer, and become a brilliant, inventive cook.
But from the start Jimmy was in stunningly perfect control intellectually. His mind worked faster than that of anyone I'd known: he could answer most questions before you finished asking them. Words for him were like brilliant colored toys, and he could build with them the way gifted children build with Lego blocks, constructing and deconstructing elaborate, original architectural shapes and fantastic machines.
Jimmy also had a gift for making everything relevant. He shared E. M. Forster's belief that one must connect with other people—perhaps only some other people, in his case. If Jimmy liked someone, he would often try to find a bond between this person and himself, a coincidence: he was delighted, for instance, to discover that he and a new acquaintance had stayed in the same pension in Florence, or that I'd been born on September 3, exactly six months later than he.
But what Jimmy connected best wasn't people but words and ideas. He was keenly alert to ambiguity and multiple meanings, and scathingly and inventively alert to banality. Sometimes when I was with him, I would hear a cliché hop out of my mouth, like the frogs and toads that afflict the bad sister in the fairy tale. Usually he would only wince slightly; but now and then he would repeat the cliché in his characteristic drawl, half eastern upper class and half southern. He would play with it in a mild, devastating way, scrutinizing the words with a herpetologist's detachment.
For instance, when I described my six-year-old son's state of mind by saying that he was "as mad as a wet hen," the response was: "Yes. I wonder: would the juvenile equivalent be ‘as mad as a wet chicken'? Or perhaps you could use the masculine form, ‘as mad as a wet cock.'"
In his writing Jimmy would often casually rescue clichés from banality. In Sandover, for instance, he speaks of "this net of loose talk tightening to verse." He was able to give any word or phrase, even the most ordinary, double and triple meanings, connecting it with weather, music, interior decoration, art, literature, myth, history, or several of these at once. A kind of poetic, meaningful punning was one of his specialities. One famous early example is the double pun in "Three Sketches for Europa." The nymph Europa, kidnapped by Jupiter in the shape of a bull, eventually becomes Europe:
The god at last indifferent
And she no longer chaste but continent.
Jimmy could make puns in several languages at once: both he and David were fluent in French, German, Italian, and modern Greek, and Jimmy also knew classical Latin and Greek. Most readers and listeners were awed, but a few were made uneasy by the flow of wordplay. One of these dissenters, when I praised Jimmy's verbal wit and skill, remarked, "Uh-huh. A disconnected man, a man without a job or a family or a permanent home, no wonder he's fascinated by connections."
The English Department at that time had only ten members, and they and their wives saw each other often. Even so, Jimmy and I mightn't have become friends if it hadn't been for David Jackson. I liked David instantly—almost everyone did, while it was common back then for people to take time to warm to Jimmy. Because of our bad start in Salzburg, it probably took me longer than most; certainly it was David I loved first.
It's difficult to explain to anyone who only met him later what David Jackson was like in 1955. He was, to start with, wonderfully attractive: blond, tanned, strong. He had grown up in the West, and had the kind of casual, laid-back, wide-open-spaces manner and slow cowboy drawl characteristic of the region. Unlike Jimmy, whose initial reaction to most phenomena was complex and tentative, David seemed easily and warmly interested in everything and everyone. In spite of his down-home manner, he was sophisticated, widely traveled, and multiply talented: at UCLA he had studied music composition with Hindemith and Schoenberg. He wrote and drew and painted and played the piano expertly.
Most of all, David was an acute observer of human behavior. He could see two people glance at each other and guess that they were in love. He noticed when one of my husband's colleagues spoke quietly but unpleasantly to his wife at a party, and that she then rushed into the bathroom and reappeared later smudged with makeup and tears. He pointed out that a certain professor always blinked his eyes several times after he had made a rude remark, as if pretending not to have spoken, or not to have seen its effect.
Sometimes, I discovered later, David's interest in observation led him farther, into what anyone who wasn't a writer might call snooping. He was unashamed of this. "Why should we not exercise our curiosities as freely as other people do their ‘manners?'" he wrote me in 1956. "I have never hesitated eavesdropping, peering into letters & diaries—nor do I intend starting to."
In David's published short fiction, and the novels he never found a publisher for, his gifts of observation and deduction were fully in evidence. In real life he usually kept these skills under his hat (most often a worn canvas one with a wide floppy brim), displaying only the casual wit and affectionate concern that made him so popular.
Back then, when homosexuality was less widely accepted, it was to David's advantage that he didn't resemble the stereotype of, as even some enlightened people would have put it, a "pansy" or a "fairy." This was long before thousands of gay men came out of their closets wearing lumberjack mustaches and lumberjack shirts, and worked out in gyms to develop lumberjack muscles. David did not look like a lumberjack, but he looked like a man who had—as he had—been married and fought in Europe in World War II. He dressed casually, in faded khakis and corduroy jackets and white or blue shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and wore old tennis shoes or loafers.
In the 1950s, having been in the army was a source of pride and honor, and there was an invisible line between men who had and hadn't served in the armed forces. It was possible to escape the draft by declaring, in answer to the question, that no, you didn't "like girls"; but this was considered cowardly and shameful. Many young men who could honestly have used this excuse lied in order to serve, as both David and Jimmy did. The lie was always accepted, even when one might have thought it couldn't possibly have been.
Though I had made a few friends in Amherst, I was lonely. My husband, finding himself at twenty-seven the sole support of four people, two of them under the age of three, had become serious, distant, and preoccupied with the need to finish his Ph.D. thesis and hold on to his job. He left the house every weekday morning at 8:30 and returned at 5:30, expecting dinner to be ready and the children quiet and out of the way. In the evenings he read or corrected papers. He also usually spent most of Saturday and Sunday at his office or in the library.
I missed his company, but I also missed Cambridge and the people I'd known there, especially the members of the Poets' Theatre. This was an informal, somewhat disorganized collection of young writers committed to putting on plays in verse: both those of classic authors like Yeats, and ones they wrote themselves. Among them were John Ashbery, Edward Gorey, Frank O'Hara, Donald Hall, V. R. Lang, and Richard Wilbur. Today this list sounds impressive, but in the 1950s all these people were unknown, and the Poets' Theatre was a broken-shoestring operation, mocked in the Harvard Crimson, always running over budget and into crisis. Nevertheless it was full of casual excitement, fun, and drama.
Jimmy and David knew some of the members of the Poets' Theatre because by 1955 two of them, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, had moved to New York and helped to start another, similar organization called the Artists' Theatre. Jimmy's two verse plays, The Bait (1953) and The Immortal Husband (1955), had just been produced by the Artists' Theatre. That was one bond between us: the other was that we were all young, practically unknown writers. David and I had published a few short pieces, and we both had a rejected novel or two in our bottom drawer. Three slim collections of Jimmy's poems had appeared, but one was a vanity-press production paid for by his father. (It came out when Jimmy was sixteen and became a lifelong source of embarrassment.) Like the plays, his poetry had created only a shallow though pleasant ripple in the literary world. One of the gifts we gave one another was to read and praise—perhaps sometimes overpraise—one another's work. But overpraise has its uses as well as its dangers. It's possible that without David's and Jimmy's encouragement I might have given up during the ten years in which everything I wrote was rejected. They weren't the only friends who encouraged me to carry on—but they were the only friends who were also writers.
Like most faculty members at Amherst College, we were living in college housing: I and my husband and children in the bottom half of a big, cold white frame house on the Northampton Road, Jimmy and David in a picturesque farmhouse outside of town that belonged to Bill and Nancy Gibson, who were on sabbatical. It has not occurred to me until now that David and Jimmy were probably not only paying more rent than we were, but that they could easily afford it. It was a while, even then, before I realized that Jimmy hadn't come to teach at Amherst for the money, like my husband and his colleagues, but for the fun of it.
In a vague way I gradually gathered that both David's and Jimmy's families were rich, but at first I didn't know how rich they were. I remember the moment I began to understand. David was over at my house, and we were having coffee and cookies. My children, then aged one and three, were napping; and the late-winter sun shimmered through the long, lumpy green icicles that fringed the kitchen window. David was describing the extensive plans he and Jimmy had to travel when summer came, and I said it sounded exciting but awfully expensive. "No, it'll be all right," David reassured me. "We can manage.
"People always think Jimmy's keeping me," he said suddenly, shoving back the flop of dark-blond hair that fell over his square forehead.
Surprised, I said that I'd never thought so. In fact, the question hadn't occurred to me.
"I don't mean you. But I have my own money," David insisted. "People here don't realize. I have forty thousand a year."
"Wow," I said. In 1955 forty thousand seemed an immense sum—over ten times what my husband was currently paid by Amherst College. "That's great."
It was true, David admitted, that Jimmy's income was larger—well, maybe about nine or ten times larger. He didn't mention a figure, but I did the calculation in my head, and the result was off the map.
Jimmy was very rich, it turned out, because he was the son of the Wall Street tycoon Charles Merrill, co-founder of Merrill Lynch. David was moderately rich because his father was a successful southern California businessman. But a financially knowledgeable person, observing Jimmy and David's lifestyle at the time, would have estimated their combined yearly income as well under forty thousand. This suggests, as I believe was the case, that they split expenses, and both of them gave the rest of the money away. Over the many years they were together, they lived in attractive but in no way grand houses in Connecticut, Athens, and Key West. They traveled a lot; but they dressed simply, drove small, inexpensive cars, and did their own shopping and cooking. The only servant they ever had was a cleaning lady.
Throughout his life Jimmy spent only a fraction of his income. Much of it went to a nonprofit organization he had set up called the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the name of which reunited his divorced parents, Hellen Ingram and Charles Merrill. The foundation gave grants to writers, artists, and musicians; the choice of grantees was not made by Jimmy alone, but by a four-person board of which he was a member.
He and David also made many individual gifts. My guess is that no one will ever know the extent of their generosity, which tended to be secret—but which often changed lives, including mine. In 1959 they paid for the private printing of my first book, a memoir of one of the founders of the Poets' Theatre, V. R. Lang. A copy of this memoir eventually reached Al Hart, an editor at Macmillan, and he wrote to ask if I had ever written a novel. If there had been no copies of the memoir, it is quite possible that I would never have been published. Luck, and the fact that the computer and desktop printer had not yet been invented, was on my side. If I'd been able to produce the fifteen or twenty copies that friends of my subject wanted, Jimmy and David would never have ordered five hundred from a printer, and many fewer people would have seen the memoir.
As he became better-known, Jimmy was also generous with his time and his words. He signed and donated books, appeared at benefits, read manuscripts, judged contests, recommended other people's poetry. As far as I know, he never refused to comment on a manuscript or provide a blurb for an acquaintance, though some of his comments, read carefully, had a subtly concealed sting in their tail. Manuscripts he didn't wholly like, if he liked or at least tolerated the writer, would be described as "unique," "remarkable," or "an extraordinary achievement"—phrases that pleased the author and publisher but warned off those in the know. "No one but X could have written a book like this" was one of his happiest solutions to the blurb problem.
Occasionally, when I visited Jimmy and David, I would notice some new object that must have cost a good deal—a grand piano, or a wonderful large blurry landscape painting of trees and cows and clouds by their friend Larry Rivers, for instance. But these purchases were infrequent. Most gay men I knew also traveled and bought art, and this seemed reasonable; unlike heterosexual couples, they didn't have to support children and save to send them to college.
I realize now that this lifestyle, far more modest than necessary, must have been a deliberate choice. If they'd wanted to, Jimmy and David could have owned mansions and yachts, expensive cars and Impressionist paintings. They could have joined the international set of rich, famous homosexuals: designers, actors, producers, agents, investors, and men who lived on inherited wealth. That they did not do so was clearly deliberate. Eventually they knew a number of rich and famous gay men, but they saw far less of them than they did of people who were neither rich nor famous nor gay—people like my old tutor, Joe Summers, whom Jimmy had taught with at Bard College, and his wife; Grace Stone, a retired popular novelist, and her daughter Eleanor Perenyi, a journalist and dedicated gardener; and Isabel and Robert Morse, Stonington neighbors.
Amherst in the 1950s was a patriarchal, family-centered society. Men went to work, and women stayed home and took care of the house and children. There were no women on the faculty at Amherst College, and no women students. At faculty parties, the men tended to stand at one side of the room and talk shop, while the women sat at the other side, discussing domestic matters. (It occurs to me now that the reason the men stood up was that they sat down most of the day, reading and writing and having conferences. The women sat down because they had spent most of the day standing up, cooking and cleaning and washing and ironing and shopping and carrying babies and groceries.)
Most of the men at these parties didn't seem to have much to say to the wives of their colleagues, unless they went in for flirtation and seduction. Jimmy and David, by contrast, were happy to speak to us. They also seemed to have lots of free time; they could come to lunch and to tea as well as to dinner parties. And even at dinner they were more apt to talk to me and the other wives, and did not regard subjects like art, interior decoration, clothes, and films as unfit for serious discussion.
In contrast to David and Jimmy, most of the men I met in Amherst seemed solemn and heavy. They were interested in sports and politics, and though they read literature, it was for serious professional reasons, and their reading excluded whatever might seem light or ephemeral. (Most—in some cases all—living women writers, for example, were in this category.) Their recreational interests tended to involve competitive physical exertion, even when no competitor was in sight.
My husband, Jonathan Bishop, for instance, was at this time writing a Ph.D. thesis on Emerson, and was also deeply interested in Thoreau. He was not interested in going for short, slow walks with me or the children, but when not teaching or working on his thesis or correcting papers, he took long, exhausting Thoreau-type hikes in the woods, and up and down the hills around Amherst, where he identified trees, flowers, and birds from guidebooks.
I still vividly recall one warm spring afternoon when, cashing in my baby-sitting credits with another mother, I went to tea with Jimmy and David at their house in the country. They had set a tea table on the lawn, with an embroidered white tablecloth, a silver teapot, sugar bowl, and creamer, flowered china cups, and plates of shortbread cookies and—in honor of The Importance of Being Earnest—cucumber sandwiches. In the spirit of the occasion, I had on a flowery, ruffled frock, and David and Jimmy wore pale summery clothes—I especially remember Jimmy's lavender shirt.
Suddenly my husband appeared. He did not walk up the driveway, but smashed and stamped his way out of the thick woods and brush behind us, red-faced and sweaty, in stained khakis and a dark plaid wool shirt—and, as Jimmy put it later, recalling the event in a letter, "plastered with leaves, mud, welts."
No, he didn't want anything to eat, Jonathan insisted: what he wanted was for me to drive him home, now. I didn't want to go: I had hardly started to drink my tea. David and Jimmy, gracefully suppressing their evident amusement, persuaded Jonathan to sit down and join us, but only for a few minutes. For the first time in my marriage, I looked at my husband through their eyes, and found him both ridiculous and unattractive. The moment passed, but in a way it was the beginning of an end that came twenty years later.
When I left Amherst for Los Angeles in the summer of 1957, one of my special regrets was that I wouldn't see David and Jimmy so often. But we met when I came back for visits, and more often after I and my husband and children moved back East in 1961. Meanwhile, so as not to lose touch, I included Jimmy and David in my next novel. In the book, which was set in an academic small town much like Amherst, most of the characters were intensely involved with themselves and each other. The character based on David and Jimmy did not play any important part in the plot; instead he commented on the action in letters at the end of each chapter. To create him, I put my two friends into an imaginary bowl and stirred, and then divided the batter. What came out was a novelist called Allen Ingram, who was teaching at "Convers College" and writing letters to a painter friend in New York, Francis Noyes. (Allen was the name of the hero of David's current novel, and Ingram was Jimmy's middle name; while Noyes was David's middle name, and Francis the name of the hero of Jimmy's novel, The Seraglio.) Like my friends, Allen Ingram represented detachment, worldly sophistication, and ironic sympathy; he was in the book partly to remind the reader that there is a life outside adultery and academia. It occurred to me only recently that my merging of Jimmy and David into a character who contained parts of each was a crude version of the process that may have created the spirits of the Ouija board.
Reprinted from Familiar Spirits by Alison Lurie by permission of Viking Publisher, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2001 Alison Lurie . All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.