The letter from His Eminence was timely. I had quit my job under the misapprehension that since I sold one screenplay the following one, a sequel, would be easier. But you can’t have a sequel if the original isn’t produced. My agent Sheila was hinting about dropping me. I was auctioning my comics collection on Ebay to pay the bills.
My history with His Eminence dated from a decade past when I was hired by an enterprise called The Wellbeing Foundation as a consultant to “position” the institution and create a brochure to facilitate fundraising. From what I gathered the main function of The Foundation was to host champagne parties at which rich stiffs inflated the ego of His Eminence. Such a noble institution, created single-handedly. Or, if they really wanted his attention, what a prophet he was.
The Board had hired me, which was unusual since the Board rarely made a move without his imprimatur. He was clearly threatened by me, and railed about what a colossal waste of money I represented, that I should be replaced by someone who knew The Foundation “from the ground up.” He was pleased with this witticism. That he lost this battle, a very rare loss, I attributed to two factors: I had an unbreakable contract and my likely replacement would be Clara, His Eminence’s bedraggled, overworked and under-appreciated secretary suffering from lifelong unrequited love.
He was far from accurate; I wasn’t a threat—what did I care about the old windbag and his Foundation?—although one of my recommendations was that the Board assume more control, that a distribution of power would be conducive to more creativity. Everybody of course knew that already. The fact that it was in the open made no difference whatsoever.
I am a believer in pissing the direction the wind is blowing. The brochure was one itty-bitty step from total parody in the way most hagiographies are. His Eminence was mentioned at least twice on every page: visionary, philanthropist, ideal husband, “early adopter.” I’m still embarrassed by those last two words, in vogue at the time. If the Board of Directors realized they had a dung pancake on their hands, they were powerless to do anything but chew. To everyone’s great astonishment, it brought in truckloads of dough, so much so that pride dusted my soul like yeast mold.
Now out of the fog of the past came the letter, impeccable on Foundation stationery. His Eminence wrote charmingly that now that he was in his late 80’s, he had an “inkling” he wasn’t going to live forever and he wanted me to ghostwrite his memoir. The world would be a poorer place without an account of his illustrious life. I agreed to meet him with the disclaimer, an escape hatch or a bargaining chip, that I was incredibly busy and the chances of being able to do the job were next to nil.
Other than jowl slippage and increasingly maniacal eyebrows, he hadn’t aged much. Nor had his self-absorption diminished a watt. After he made his proposal. I demurred, questioning whether there was enough material. I remained a pillar of skepticism until he said, “I know I’m going to have to pay to get a first rate product. I’m not a rich man but I do have a Matisse, not a large one and maybe not one his better works, but my Edith and I have gotten our pleasure from it, and it’s time to sell.” He wanted a topnotch product, not some tacky self-published knock-off. Hard cover, dust jacket, glossy reproductions. The works. The memoir would be his laurel crown.
I said I would think it over.
My ambivalence was disarmed by the generous salary I included in my proposal “When do we start? How about this afternoon?” he asked the moment he received it. I said I had a golf date, I who have not played a hole of golf in my life. He twitched, he hyperventilated. We were off on the right footing.
I met with him the next day. At that initial session I taped his ramblings about his childhood in Minnesota. He called me a few days after I sent him the transcription. I think even he saw how flat it was. “Why are you asking so many questions about my parents? They were good parents. They made their mistakes. They sent me away, they thought it was for my own good. We don’t have to spend a lot of time on my childhood. When are we meeting again? What are we waiting for?”
“We’re waiting for you to sign the contract and fed-ex it back to me.”
I had my nephew the lawyer look over the contract before I sent it over. He said it looked airtight. Three days later the signed contract came back with a check covering the first quarter of my salary. Matisse, nice knowing you. After the check cleared I called Clara, his secretary, and made a second appointment.
Unsurprisingly the boy growing up in the frozen vastness of Minnesota exhibited marks of greatness and election. At eight he was spirited away from his parents to live with a childless rabbi and his wife in St. Paul and attend a private boy’s academy for the gifted. The school was a fertile field for ambitious sociologists. The boys were prodded and measured and quizzed. He was desperately lonely. One midwinter evening he walked away from the rabbi’s house in his pajamas. They found his body, his heart stopped. When his body was warmed—after an hour or more had passed—his heart started up again, one two rest, one two rest. There was no brain damage. No deleterious effects at all. “But I never saw a blue light,” he said and laughed. He told me this story several times with the same punch line.
In the forge of his alienation he honed his mathematical gifts. Local newspapers—he showed me yellowed clippings—ran features on the boy able to do complex multiplications in seconds, to tell instantly what day of the week June 23, 1023 fell on, to reel off decimals of pi until you cried uncle.
In his telling, his was the arching life of the hero, tribulation followed by triumph. He got rejections from Yale, Columbia, and M.I.T. which he blamed on anti-Semitism although his overall academic performance was mediocre. He took a job in a small upstart lab in Boston. There he discovered/invented a chemical reaction that opened the gates of the world to even more plastic junk. Suddenly he was very rich and very young, a condition which, you won’t be surprised, counted as a tribulation (even though it came with a Matisse, not one of his biggest nor one of his best.) He was a celebrity in his field of chemical engineering. All the perks meant nothing to him. He embarked upon a period of recklessness and dissolution, of psychic exploration. (See the photo of him lounging with Timothy Leary.) Then he met Edith in a bar in Trieste and his life began anew.
The second quarterly payment arrived three days after its due date. I did not make an issue of it. Narrative-wise we were in the doldrums, the family years, the babies, the moving from city to city as his career rocketed upward. His kids were about to enter college. (He rarely gave either of them a thought if he could help it. That was his biggest mistake, he volunteered.) He became dean of the Engineering School. Despite his many national and international awards, despite his adorable wife, something was missing. He wasn’t fulfilling his life’s mission. He quit academia to become a leader in the Human Potential Movement. (An early adopter, you might say.) He became an Esalen sage.
Equanimity was one of the virtues he had outgrown. At that stage of our interviews he was almost violently irritated by the process. “What does it matter who else got the OBE? I told you what the Queen said to me. She said she was pleased to meet a scientist will a full head of hair.”
Ninety per cent of what he told me he told me before. We were too near the finish line to blow the whole thing up. I would have loved to slap him down but one of us had to be the adult.
He kept filibustering, especially when I went in the direction of intimate relationships, not a bad thing since I was stuck, in the first flush of panic. The past was advancing upon the present. How could I turn these secretions into silk? I needed to put something into his hands. My only solid strategy was to use the first person. I wouldn’t worry about accuracy. It was his story, not history.
My agent Sheila called. During one of the doldrums I had worked up a 5-page outline of a screenplay, an original, not a sequel, and sent it off to her without expectations. It was about a hyper-intelligent boy, a prodigy, torn from his family and sent to a proto-fascist academy that he eventually subverts. There is an incident of hypothermia and resuscitation that transforms his exceptional abilities into superpowers. I left the ending open because I hadn’t figured it out. I am bad at endings.
Sheila was over the moon. “This is fantastic. I’m going to New York next month and to LA after that. I want to show it around. Make the boy Episcopalian, and come up with a better ending. Give it the works. Get it to me by the end of the month. We’re in Fat City babe.”
My ending wasn’t entirely original, but it was edgy. It probably arose out of my frustrations around the memoir. The ending was bloodbath like at the end of If, the kid on the roof with a semi-automatic. Or not; I wasn’t going to be stubborn, if it was too controversial. Although some controversy is a good thing, a ticket to fame. I’d wait to hear what Sheila thought.
Getting back to the memoir I confronted the inertia that had settled its distortions over it. Boredom is the loam of the meta-narrative. The perceptive reader would peer below the surface and recognize me, the minion in his gilded cage, painting a grotesque portrait of a narcissist. This meta-narrative, I tried to convince myself, might make the memoir interesting but I failed, so I reverted to the strategy that worked so well back in the days of The Wellbeing Foundation: the flattery blitz. Flattery would paddle my canoe through the swamps. That’s what he was paying for, after all.
The first draft, even with all the pictures, came to 110 pages. Panic flared up again. I fingered through the verbiage to unearth wrigglers; the dominant mother and recessive father; the rare coin collection; the OBE. Who knew that one of the founders of the London School of Economics was George Bernard Shaw? Who knew that the son of Shah Jahan forbade the use of the coins his father minted because they bore Islamic phrases which infidel hands would defile? Shah Jahan, the emperor who built the Taj Majal as a monument to his own magnificence, was killed by his son. Were we uncovering historical parallels? Digressions became backwaters of extraneity. Eventually I had 189 pages, plus index.
I patched up the copy with the pictures into a prototype book. I was weirdly proud of what I created pretty much ex nihilo. When I gave it to him I let him know that my original cost estimate had been too low, that the project demanded many more hours of research than I had foreseen. He said, “You’re bleeding me to death. I am not a rich man,” forgetting, perhaps, that the month before I had been a guest in his house in Bel-Air, drunk Veuve Clicquot from his wine cellar, and admired the Bactrian gold piece a dealer had offered twenty thousand for. And seen the Matisse. He hadn’t sold it.
When the third check arrived it was for the same amount as the first two. Again I did not protest, choosing my battles. We were a yard from the finish line, the thing, the book itself. Seeing the proofs of the dust jacket that featured his own photoshopped, eyebrow-trimmed mug he was uncharacteristically pleased. I think a part of him had given up hope we’d get to this point.
The question arose; how many to print. He asked my opinion. I said two hundred and he was insulted. “Two thousand,” he said. He asked if I would accept delivery, that he would get his son to transport the boxes to his office in Pasadena. I sent him the final bill with the accumulated costs.
The books arrived; payment didn’t. I called his office and there was no answer. On the fourth attempt Clara picked up the phone. Before I knew it she was sobbing. “We buried him yesterday. Wednesday I went into his office. I thought he was sleeping, his head down on his arms. But he was gone.”
When I talked to his son about the books, about the plan for him to take them to Pasadena or wherever, he said he didn’t know a thing about the books and why would anyone want them? I called the widow. Her caretaker said she couldn’t talk to me.
There are forty books per box. Okay math genius: two thousand books, forty per box, equals how many boxes? They’re sitting outside on the deck. Rain is forecast.