Monday, June 22, 2015

In Memoriam: James Salter

Saturday, June 20, 2015. I read in the Times that the writer James Salter has died at age 90. He was a month younger than I, and a schoolmate in my senior year at the Horace Mann School (in the Bronx, according to the Times, though we thought of it as Riverdale). We were friendly, if not quite friends.

But then, how was one to be friends with Jim? All through the years I tried, but he remained mostly aloof. On the other hand, he was very affable when we talked at a birthday party for Bill Becker of Criterion Films, perhaps in part because his second wife, Kay Eldredge (whomI knew and liked at New York magazine) had been my tablemate. She assured me that they would soon get together, as once before, with my wife and me, which, however, did not come about.

My earliest recollection of Jim, though surely not the first contact, was at Commencement at Horace Mann. I was going down to the basement to empty my locker; he was coming up the stairs having emptied his. Earlier, the headmaster had introduced him to the audience as “the schoolboy poet,” and me as the country’s top Latinist on that year’s college board exams.

Jim was one of the five or six members of the Poetry Society, to which I also belonged, but whose meetings I couldn’t attend because they conflicted with a chemistry class. We had both published poems in the annual poetry yearbook, which I have kept until recently when it got lost.

Anyway, on the staircase, Jim greeted me with “Hi, John, I didn’t know you were such a Latinist,” and I responded with, “Hi, Jim, I didn’t know you were a poet.” He was then known as Jimmy Horowitz, his real name, which he changed (eventually legally) to Salter, to avoid anti-Semitism, first at West Point, and later in the Air Force. I was told that Salter was his mother’s maiden name, though the obituary had it as Mildred Scheff.

I then lost track of Jim until George Plimpton’s publication party for his “A Sport and a Pastime,” attended by too many glitterati for Jim to have wasted much time on me. But I did acquire a copy of that novel, yet cannot now remember whether I read it or not, but must have at least skimmed it, given that it contained enough sex to be turned down by any number of publishers.

It tells the story, I gather, of a Yale graduate’s perambulations and wild sex in France with a young French working-class girl, as reported by a not entirely reliable third party. Here I must note that Jim was a tremendous ladies’ man, being very good-looking and doubtless a silken enough talker to melt many a maiden’s resistance if any there was—resistance, that is, not maiden.

I remained ignorant of much of his early writings (several with flying themes), as well as the dozen or so short film documentaries he created with his friend Lane Slate, such as “Team Team Team,” about football, which surprisingly carried off the relevant prize at the Venice Film Festival.

In the Air Force, he flew over a hundred missions and, in the Korean War, downed one MIG. He had worked his way up to colonel by the time he quit soldiering in 1957, never forgetting those precious years.

He made some features in Hollywood, notably “Downhill Racer” (1969), with Robert Redford, which garnered good reviews, including mine. I noted that the skiers “spoke in a kind of Hemingway of the slopes, which, however, does not lapse into parody.” I further opined that it “does not get beyond the level of competent, intelligent entertainment,” but also learned, possibly from Jim himself, “how much guff the scenarist had to take from Paramount,” and “to what extent the script had to be softened and watered down.”

So formidable had Jim become as a writer of fiction, travel, drama and even poetry, that a group of writers living like him on Long Island, who had their own club, never invited him to join, feeling that he was way too much above the rest of them. As the obituary stated, he had married Ann Altemus  in 1951, living with her for a quarter century  before their divorce, mostly in the Hudson Valley, a very genteel, gentile life, both spouses having affairs on the side. It is that divorce that inspired Jim’s masterpiece, “Light Years” (1976).

In it, Jim’s special talents became most manifest, eliciting praise from all sides, especially for his sentences. The editor and critic Michael Dirda wrote that “Salter is the contemporary writer most admired by other writers . . . He can, when he wants, break your heart with a sentence.” James Wolcott, who called him ostentatiously America’s “most underrated underrated author,” also mentioned that “even his verbless sentences remain sturdy.”

In reviewing Salter’s 1985 memoir, “Burning the Days,” for the Times, Richard Bernheim praised the “chiseled sentences and deft evocation of moods.” And the novelist Richard Ford wrote elsewhere, “It is an article of faith among readers of fiction that James Salter writes American sentences better than anybody writing today.” And when he received the Pen/Malamud Award, the citation stated that his writings show the readers “how to work with fire, flames, the laser, all the forces of life at the service of creating sentences that sparkle and make stories burn.”

So what are we to make of this recurring motif, the extolled sentence in Jim’s writing? I would say that it proclaims him preeminently as a stylist, with reference to the great attention paid to, and effect achieved with, every single sentence, so as to maximize that expressivity also known as beauty.

I am glad to learn that he was also lauded for what turned out to be his ultimate work, the novel “All That Is” (2013), a fitting coda, I gather (I haven’t read it), to a major literary life.

A life, be it said, not lacking in tragedy, as when one of his children, a grown daughter, took a shower in his unfinished house in Aspen, and was electrocuted, with him having to retrieve her dead, naked body. He remarked, “I have never been able to write the story. I reach a certain point and cannot go on. The death of kings can be recited, but not of one’s child.”

The obituary cites a number of notable honors, but also points out that he never achieved the wider popularity that he believed constituted true greatness, The most a book of his sold was 12,000 copies. There is something elliptical verging on ever so slightly cryptic about his writing, forcing the majority reader into doing something he wants to avoid: stop and think. A favorite device is skipping in a rendered conversation to specify who said which.

We once ran into each other in the men’s fashion department of Bloomingdale’s, and I recall his commenting with a certain amount of envy about how well I dressed, though I am sure that he did it just as well. Another time I got a phone call from him inquiring about how good a certain actor was who was interested in getting produced and starring in one of Kay Eldredge’s plays. I gave the actor an acceptable grade, but the play was never heard about again.

And then there was the single time when Jim, Kay (whom he married after many years of their living together), my wife and I were dining at a downtown Soba Noodle spot shortly after 9/11. At a nearby table sat Yoko Ono, whom I intercepted as she was leaving. In a brief conversation she recalled that I was the only critic to give a good notice to a musical she had written--New York Rock--which the WPA Theatre had mounted. This led to an acquaintanceship and her sponsoring my blog.

As concrete evidence I have only one 1994 typewritten picture postcard  from Jim, which I came across in my copy of his Pen-Prize-winning “Dusk and Other Stories,” one of which, “Cinema,” I discussed with my students at the Sarah Lawrence College Center for Continuing Education.

Anyway, the card is clearly a giveaway from a stay at New York’s Ritz-Carlton, and reads in full: “Dear John, what beautiful handwriting. If I did not know you I would say it shows an orderly mind of great intelligence [Note the irony in that statement]. I’m going to be away in Wyoming and Colorado, not for sport, for about 10 days. Will call you sometime after I get back.  Best, Jim   Salter, Sagaponack

The call, of course, never came. But the card is puzzling. On hard, cardboard-type paper, it had to have been run through a typewriter, yet, miraculously, shows no sign of any sort of mangling. Next, what did Jim need a hotel in New York for? And why is the return address Sagaponack, when he resided in Bridgehampton? And why does the postmark read Hicksville? The signature is handwritten, sort of like J i m—why the spaces?

As I said, there was something a bit mysterious about James Salter.