Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen: A Memoir

Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen: A Memoir

by Sidney Offit
     
 

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"Sidney Offit has devised a marvelous mirror of his unique personality as well as a one of a kind tour of the New York literary world in the last half century. Anyone even faintly interested in books will find it impossible to put down."---Thomas Fleming, bestselling author of Liberty! The American Revolution

Sidney Offit's charming memoir of a

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Overview

"Sidney Offit has devised a marvelous mirror of his unique personality as well as a one of a kind tour of the New York literary world in the last half century. Anyone even faintly interested in books will find it impossible to put down."---Thomas Fleming, bestselling author of Liberty! The American Revolution

Sidney Offit's charming memoir of a writer's life ingeniously reflects some of the greatest (and most infamous) literary, political, and sports personalities of our century. His early days in Baltimore (where he met H. L. Mencken and entertained Robert Frost) are as engaging as his later encounters with Dylan Thomas, John Steinbeck, Pablo Neruda, Heinrich Böll, and some of the era's greatest ballplayers: Robinson, Mantle, Mays, and Williams.

Mixing with a remarkable and diverse crowd, led Sidney to run-ins and adventures with Truman Capote ("What kind of guy are you?"), Jackie Kennedy (in a corner), Kurt Vonnegut (who identified Sidney as his "best friend"), the incomparable Toni Morrison, and other bards, muses, and just plain folk. Their conversations are recalled with gentle humor and a keen eye for a New York where casual and spontaneous encounters may shape what the country reads or where a stroll around the corner can change a life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

It seems that Offit, former senior editor of Intellectual Digest and book editor of Politics Today, knew everyone who was worth knowing, as his new memoir is peopled with noted writers, lawmakers and sporting buddies. Realizing early that his passion was writing, Offit, who has now curated journalism's George Polk Awards for more than 25 years, becomes an astute observer on the New York celebrity scene, encountering H.L. Mencken, accused Communist spy Alger Hiss, studio head Dore Schary, Marlon Brando and poets Robert Frost and Frank O'Hara. Some of the meetings with celebrities, like politician Adlai Stevenson, CIA's Allen Dulles, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, are lightweight, revealing little beyond their patented image. He fares better in his descriptions of the no-nonsense Che Guevara offering him Cuban cigars; not-so-tall actor Errol Flynn; pugilist Mike Tyson with "his high pitched little boy-little girl voice that belied his speed, power, and rage." It's a memoir that lapses into name-dropping but is often wonderful in its remembrances. (July)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Second volume of recollections from Offit (Memoir of the Bookie's Son, 1995, etc.), this one an annotated roll call of the celebrities, literary and otherwise, he's met in his nearly 80 years. The disjointed text, loosely organized by theme and chronology, begins and ends with H.L. Mencken, who advised the undergraduate author to collect Willa Cather and never to relight a cigar. Offit starts emptying the celebrity container early-he also knew Russell Baker and John Barth back in Baltimore-and soon famous folks are spilling out like kernels of rice on the kitchen floor. Indeed, there are so many that they soon lose identity and significance. Still, the memoir has some notable moments. Offit credits Robert Frost for steering a desirable co-ed his way; he saw Dylan Thomas in a bar (no surprise there); he was upstaged by Moss Hart; he liked Adlai Stevenson and Betty Friedan and was surprised by the limp handshake of Mike Tyson. His long friendship with Kurt Vonnegut Jr. involved many regular tennis matches. He solicited advice on writing mysteries from half of the Ellery Queen team. Among the few folks with whom he did not get along was Saul Bellow, who pops up a few times to annoy. The author suspected Anatole Broyard was a Creole; he negotiated awkward moments with I.F. Stone and Pearl S. Buck. He saw both Buster Crabbe and a pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone working out at the gym. He chatted with Langston Hughes and thought John Steinbeck "looked more like a retired fullback than a recent recipient of the Nobel Prize." Kosinski, Malamud, Mailer, Ellison . . . on and on the names go, sometimes accompanied by an anecdote, sometimes not. Offit pauses occasionally to praise his wife and make surewe're privy to compliments he's received from reviewers and others. Like a summary of an intimate cocktail party someone held for his 1,001 closest friends.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429985956
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
06/24/2008
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
File size:
391 KB

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Friends, Writers, and Other Countrymen

I

Random Encounters from JHU to NYC: 1940s and 1950s

1

H. L. Mencken: Lessons in Smoking and First-Edition Best Bets

Circa 1946

I learned about smoking and collecting from H. L. Mencken by way of Ellen Glasgow. When I returned to Baltimore from Wayne, Pennsylvania, during the years I attended the Valley Forge Military Academy, 1942 to 1946, I had few friends and, with the exception of my kid brother Benson, no one with whom to share enthusiasms. One of my classmates had mentioned the novels of a Virginian friend of his family—Ellen Glasgow. John Copley Travis, whom I considered the most literary and sophisticated of my chums, spoke about his father's collection of first editions. These slight references were all the inspiration I needed at the age of sixteen to become a collector of Ellen Glasgow first editions.

This hobby mystified both my mother, who loved books but saw no particular virtue in the rarity of the edition, and my dad, whose reading was restricted to the racing form and the local papers. Nonetheless, my mother didn't discourage me and my father bankrolled my passion with a modest investment.

I would walk from our family's apartment on Lake Drive past the islands of grass on Park Avenue, across the busy intersection at North Avenue. Then I'd cut over the railroad bridge to Charles Street and continue on to the Peabody Book Shop, where it was not only possible to search through used books but also to sit in a pleasant atrium and feast on bratwurst, knockwurst, German potato salad, and a mug of local beer.

It was at Smith's Books on Howard Street, however, that I began my Glasgow collection and often encountered Henry L. Mencken. I recall a portly, shining face, hair parted in the middle, mouth engaged with a corncob pipe or cigar as he chatted with Mr. Smith.

I recognized Mr. Mencken from my childhood. In the thirties my father was one of Baltimore's most successful bookmakers. Although his professional talents were unknown to me at the time, I was aware that on our Sunday outings we visited the best restaurants and hotel dining rooms in town. My father seemed to be known by everyone. Bartenders, headwaiters, the best-dressed guests, and certainly every man smoking a cigar greeted him. Although there was little conversation, I detected an unmistakable respect, even reverence in their regards.

Not exactly so with Mr. Mencken. As we made our way to the main dining room of the Rennert Hotel, he would be sitting at the bar with a cigar over a drink and as we passed he would acknowledge my father with a vaguely amused nod of the head or a chipper "How do you do?" My mother always identified him: "That's H. L. Mencken. He's a newspaper man."

I had heard that my father sold newspapers on the streets of Baltimore when he was eight years old and made enough money to contribute to the support of his five brothers and sister. My dad, too, smoked cigars from time to time, so I assumed H. L. Mencken, like my dad, stood on street corners hustling papers.

That impression was so indelible it remained even after my mother later expressed admiration for the magazines Smart Set and American Mercury, or quoted two of the more famous wrap-ups to his "The Free Lance" columns in The Baltimore Sun—"Swat the fly ... Boil your drinking water."

I felt sufficiently comfortable with this vague but "historic" connection that I began to mimic the "Sage of Bawlamer" by plunking a cigar in my mouth when visiting Smith's. I'm not sure if Mr. Mencken was in the shop when I purchased my first edition of Glasgow's In This Our Life, but I do recall he celebrated my acquisition of Vein of Iron by passing along to me a free cigar and the advice, "Never relight a stogie once it dies on you, my boy. Read the message from above and treat yourself to another blessing from below."

That was not all I learned. After I lit up, he suggested with a voice that remains in my memory a blend of W. C. Fields and Winston Churchill, "You'd be better advised to collect Willa Cather."

FRIENDS, WRITERS, AND OTHER COUNTRYMEN. Copyright © 2008 by Sidney Offit. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Meet the Author

Sidney Offit has written two novels, ten books for young readers, and Memoir of a Bookie's Son. He was senior editor of Intellectual Digest, book editor of Politics Today, and contributing editor of Baseball Magazine. For more than three decades he has served on the boards of the Authors Guild and PEN, American Center as curator of the George Polk Journalism Awards. Mr. Offit and his wife, Avodah, a psychiatrist and writer, live in New York City, within walking distance of their five grandchildren's families.


Sidney Offit has written two novels, ten books for young readers, and Memoir of a Bookie’s Son. He was senior editor of Intellectual Digest, book editor of Politics Today, and contributing editor of Baseball Magazine. For more than three decades he has served on the boards of the Authors Guild and PEN, American Center as curator of the George Polk Journalism Awards. Mr. Offit and his wife, Avodah, a psychiatrist and writer, live in New York City, within walking distance of their five grandchildren’s families.

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