October 3rd, 2014
Comments Off on Marking Photojournalist Ruth Gruber’s 103rd Birthday
October 2nd, 2014
As a book editor, I’ve had the privilege of working with dozens of talented authors. Amid all the superb writers one sub-group stands out: authors in their 80s, 90s, or even older, in their 100s. This group has included Edward Robb Ellis (1911-1998), author of A Diary of Century: Tales by American’s Greatest Diarist. Here is a collection of posts Ive written about him. Another of these remarkable authors is Ruth Gruber, also born in 1911, with whom I’ve published six books, including her memoir Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent, also the title of a documentary about her. Ruth turned 103 this week, and is still going strong. This is a collection of posts I’ve written about her. Please join me in celebrating her amazing life and career.
March 30th, 2014
I was stunned by the new documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier,” which Kyle and I saw yesterday. Below is the trailer, if you haven’t seen it yet, or the film, which was directed by John Maloof, and two of her photographs. He bought a box of her negatives at an auction in 2007. At the time, neither he, nor anyone, yet knew who Maier was, or that she’d been making a photographic record in Chicago where she lived since around 1949.
I continued thinking about the movie all day after walking out of the noon screening. Today, I’m still mulling some major points that struck me. Below is an attempt to corral what I’ve been thinking about the film.
Vivian Maier (1926-2009) embarked on and then sustained over many decades the production of what we can now see as a truly monumental visual and documentary legacy. It’s a microcosmic yet vast history of modern urban America and many Americans, seen through the sensitive eye, lens, and mind of one person, a woman whose work as a nanny somehow allowed her the means and opportunity to conduct this personal journalistic enterprise. Until Maloof’s discovery, the enterprise was completely unknown, yet it was hiding in what amounted to (somewhat plain) sight, in auction houses, storage lockers, and in the records of the families she had worked for over the years. Some of them were still paying storage fees on her property. With impressive industry and inspired sensitivity to Maier’s mission, Maloof has excavated the extant physical record. I’m very thankful to him for doing this, for his open-heartedness and his willingness to plunge in to Maier’s work. In bidding at the fateful auction, he went all the way up to $380 for the box of negatives,* not small change. He said on WNYC’s Leonard Lopate Show last Friday that when he bid on and won the box he hoped to be able to harvest images from it for a photographic history of Chicago he was organizing for Arcadia Books (the publisher that does city histories). Turned out the pictures weren’t good for the book, and he put them in a closet. But sometime later, he posted more than 100 images on his Flickr page, essentially blogging with them. The reaction was a palpable “Wow” from street photography lovers and has led ultimately to this amazing documentary, which I want to see again.
Thinking more about Maier’s dedication, I’m amazed at how pure her motivation was in producing it all. She created this legacy, even though she never, so far as is known, sought an audience for her work, and had no child, relation, friend, or agent–not a single person–to whom she could leave her work; I wonder if she even had a will. Nor does it seem Maier solicited the interest of another photographer or an institution that might have taken an interest in her archive. Perhaps Maier knew best, not wanting to broach rejection. In the film, Maloof reports on what became a futile attempt to interest MOMA in the work. Even with their storied photographic collection, curated for many years by Peter Galassi, who didn’t retire until 2011, they perfunctorily declined. There ought to be some embarrassment at the museum over this and I think it would be a good thing if an arts journalist with a source at MOMA would seek on-the-record comment from them about their refusal. I concede that everybody makes mistakes–like editors who turned down On the Road and Catcher in the Rye–but it’s best to own up to them when they occur. So, instead of falling in to the hands of a responsible party at the time of Maier’s death in 2009, the hundred thousand negatives, many 8 mm and 16 mm film reels, and cassettes of audio recordings she made with people she interviewed–making her a veritable podcaster, decades before the term was coined–were basically put out to sea, cast adrift, and headed perhaps for a destructive crack-up on the rocky shores of time. That they didn’t suffer shipwreck–or submersion in a landfill–borders on a secular miracle.
I’m also thinking of Maier’s lack of an audience in a personal way, in relation to my own creative output, my two blogs (to be sure, humble by comparison). Here and on Honourary Canadian, I write and share about what interests me, what compels me, and hope that readers will care about these things, too, and appreciate the way I express and present them. I do like knowing that readers are finding items of interest and mutual relevance, though I wouldn’t change what I’m writing about just to gain more readers. It doesn’t matter greatly to me if some pieces aren’t widely read, because I’m also writing for myself, for the clarity of mind that I derive from the effort and experience. Fortunately, I do have readers, and what amounts to my own printing press, the WordPress blogs themselves. Maier, in this regard, didn’t seek, or at any rate, didn’t have the opportunity to have her work seen by others. Yet, she seems to have hardly flagged or despaired over not having a speck of an audience or appreciation, and no way to get them. This makes what she did all the more singular and remarkable.
Readers who follow the books I’ve edited and published over the years may recall my author Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), whose A Diary of the Century was quite a popular book for me, published in 1995, republished in 2008, still easy to find, still highly recommended. I mention it here because Eddie, as friends knew him, is the writer in my experience with an enterprise most closely analogous to that of Vivian Maier, though interesting distinctions exist between them. He kept a diary longer than anyone in the history of American letters, beginning his enterprise at age 16 during the Christmas vacation of 1927, when he dared a few pals, and himself, to start keeping a diary, and then they’d see who among them could keep it the longest. In his 20s, he also became a newspaper reporter. Basically, Eddie never stopped writing until the year he died. As Pete Hamill observed in his Introduction, Eddie wrote in print for the public, yet also for himself in the diary, which years later he wrote helped him become a more mature, an even happier, person. But even with the diary’s private reflections on intensely personal matters, Eddie also showed an interest in writing for the sake of the future, for posterity; he ultimately wanted the diary to be read by others, in hopes it might enrich the future with useful knowledge and pertinent information on his times–his entries cover the quotidian; the cost of things; which songs were on the hit parade; what movies were shown on a weekend when he worked his part-time job as an usher at the local cinema; along with current events and historic incidents that shook the world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, which certified Ellis’s achievement in the early 1990s, his diary comprised more than 22,000,000 words, nearly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, a work with hundreds of contributors, while like Vivian Maier, Eddie created his work entirely on his own.
Ellis’s prodigious achievement was so well known among his fellow journalists that when Diary was published the week after Labor Day in ’95, Eddie scored a rare publicity hat trick: He was invited to appear, and went on all three network morning chat shows all within that week, interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Matt Lauer, and Harry Smith (on ABC, NBC, and CBS respectively) each network overlooking the usual policy they had against booking a guest who’s just been on a competing show. In the last decades of his life, the diary by then grown to many bound leather volumes and associated boxes, Eddie spent much anxious energy contemplating where his magnum opus might end up–he tried deeding it to a number of institutions, but even with the Guinness stamp of approval, there were few willing takers. Fortunately, as I wrote in a Preface to the 2008 paperback reissue of Diary, Eddie’s life work found “a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus.” I added that I hope to publish another volume of the Ellis Diary someday, for it had been “my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the diary…and I promise the reader that I found no dross there.”
While working with Eddie Ellis from 1993-98, bringing out three other books of his, including The Epic of New York City, I came upon Joseph Mitchell’s classic New Yorker profile, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In it, Mitchell chronicles for the reader his lamentable discovery that a longtime legendary denizen of lower Manhattan, Joe Gould, who for years had purported to be writing a magnum opus/History of the World was ultimately a bluffer, a failure, and a fraud. (In the pretty good movie version Ian Holm plays a grizzled Gould while Stanley Tucci takes on the role of Mitchell, a North Carolina writer working for the magazine.) Working with Eddie, I used to think how lucky I was to be working with a real-life Joe Gould-type, only Eddie was the real McCoy.
But now, thinking once more about Vivian Maier, I can see that unlike the others, she created her magnificent magnum opus without an audience, nor hope for one. By contrast, Gould hoped for adulation from others, though he did little to earn it, while Eddie Ellis, though not creating his work primarily for others, did enjoy praise, and came to see how his diary could be useful to others, and so arranged to share it with the world. But not only did Maier disclaim an audience for herself, she didn’t even claim posthumous credit for her achievement, like say with a “To Be Opened on the Occasion of My Death” letter, with information on where her affects could be found. She just died, and fortunately John Maloof was there to connect with her work. This is all a striking contrast to her male predecessors Gould and Ellis, the former phony, the latter authentic. It leaves me in greater awe of what she accomplished, and all the more appreciative of the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier.”
February 22nd, 2014
January 25th, 2014
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) January 24, 2014
From 1992-97, when I worked for Kodansha America, the US division of the major Japanese publisher, I had many interesting and talented colleagues, some of whom worked in New York, and others at the home office in Tokyo. My colleagues included both Westerners and Japanese. I didn’t often meet the ones who worked in Japan, but would occasionally see their names on inter-office memos and catalog materials. Among this group was Les Pockell, a lithe and witty fellow who after many years with the company in Tokyo came back to New York, working for Warner Books, later called Grand Central. He was also an anthologist of poetry and story collections. Sadly, Les died in 2010 at age 68. A Japanese colleague working in New York those years was my boss, Minato Asakawa, whose idea it was to publish Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years, the autobiography of two African-American sisters, Sadie and Elizabeth Delany, then both more than 100 years old. It became a huge bestseller in hardcover and paperback, and was adapted into a Broadway play. Under Asakawa, I had the opportunity to acquire and publish many terrific books, such as A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist by Edward Robb Ellis, and his one-volume hsitory, The Epic of New York City. Together, Asakawa and I published the Kodansha Globe series, which in many ways anticipated the fine list published nowadays by the New York Review of Books Classics imprint. Kodansha Globe combined titles in cross-cultural studies, anthropology, natural history, adventure, narrative travel and belle lettres. By the time I left Kodansha in 1997 we had published more than ninety Globe titles, including the first paperback edition of Barack Obama’s first book Dreams From My Father.
Another Westerner in the Tokyo contingent, though one I never met face-to-face was editor Barry Lancet. Last year, I read in PublishersMarketplace.com that Barry was going to debut as an author, publishing his first novel, a thriller. I made a mental note of that good news, and before I could get in touch with Barry to renew our old acquaintanceship, a mutual friend in the book business, publicity professional Jeff Rutherford, put Barry in touch with me. We exchanged personal and professional news and I congratulated him on publication of his first book. I was pleased then when in December I got a copy of Japantown from his editor at Simon & Schuster. After working through a lot of reading that piled up during the holidays, I started Japantown this week, and am totally engrossed by it. Here’s a rundown with no plot points you wouldn’t pick up in the first quarter of the novel.
The book is at first set in San Francisco where protagonist Jim Brodie works as a dealer in Asian antiquities** at the same time maintaining connection with the private detective agency his late father founded and ran in Tokyo, with many local employees. In the wake of the death of the younger Brodie’s wife Mieko in a mysterious and unsolved fire, Brodie’s a single dad living with his grade school age daughter, Jenny. Combining his two areas of expertise, Brodie is the new go-to-guy when the San Francisco Police Department find itself investigating a grisly mass murder with Japanese victims and characteristics: A Japanese family of five has been gunned down after dark in a public park. At the scene, Brodie finds only one clue, a paper artifact emblazoned with the same written character (kanji in Japanese) as was found at the scene of his wife’s death. Brodie doesn’t realize, though the reader knows, that even as he surveys the scene of the brutal killing he and Renna are being surveilled with lenses and cameras by unknown agents. Though not knowing the extent of the surveillance he’s under, he senses someone’s watching him, at his gallery and even at home with Jenny. With the obscure kanji in hand, Brodie undertakes an investigative trip to Japan, first putting Jenny in to the protective embrace of a police safe house. Once in Japan, the malign forces behind the killings begin taking aim at Brodie and one of his most trusted colleagues, Noda.
All the past work week I was looking for more time to read Japantown, and I’m glad it’s now the weekend, with some uninterrupted time for reading. Lancet’s writing is vivid and economical and the plotting assured. If you want to learn more about Lancet and his background, including some very good advice for aspiring writers, I suggest you visit his website or follow him on twitter @BarryLancet. I’ll post more about his book later, but for now I want to say I recommend it highly.
WEDNESDAY JAN 29 UPDATE I finished Japantown the other day and it was great to the last page! A totally gripping international thriller. I’ll post more about it later. Best thing is, I believe Barry Lancet’s already working on Book II.
** Antiquities dealer is a profession I’m partial to in mysteries, like the POT THIEF series for which I’m the agent, with J. Michael Orenduff’s six books which went on sale this week from Open Road. In the POT THIEF books, set in an Albuquerque, main character Hubie Schuze is a dealer in Native American ceramics, and a capable ceramicist himself. The books are memorably titled: The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras,The Pot Thief Who Studied Ptolemy,The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein,The Pot Thief Who Studied Escoffier,The Pot Thief Who Studied D. H. Lawrence, and The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid. As the titles suggest, Hubie’s reading and appreciation of classic texts by, and the venerable lives of scientists, writers, a chef and an outlaw, make for enjoyable mystery fiction.
November 4th, 2013
Love this color video of friends-artist Romare Bearden&writer Albert Murray talking art on a Harlem terrace in 1981. http://t.co/B4u3Zl5T4z
— Philip Turner (@philipsturner) November 4, 2013
The important African-American artist Romare Bearden was at one time good friends with my late author, Edward Robb Ellis, author of A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist (1995). Ellis wrote at length about their friendship in that book, which reflected on Bearden’s upbringing in Pittsburgh, and the life he lived that led to his distinctive style of collage-making and painting. In the years since I worked with Eddie, whenever I read about Bearden, I feel I almost know him, from Eddie’s fulsome recollections. When the writer and critic Albert Murray died last August, he was eulogized in many venues, most memorably for me by Paul Devlin in Slate, where I was delighted to be reminded that Bearden and Murray had also been very close, as friends, and indeed as frequent collaborators (when Bearden needed something written, Murray often wrote it). Typifying their relationship is the revealing video I tweeted out earlier tonight, and which I’m eager to share here, too.
February 22nd, 2013
[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]
Book business friends who’ve known me for some years may recall that I’ve been extremely fortunate in working with remarkable authors of advanced age. There’s the distinguished photojournalist Ruth Gruber, who turned 102 on her last birthday, with whom I’ve had the privilege of publishing six books over the past decade and a half, including Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman–a republication of Ruth’s 1931 seminal thesis on Woolf, the first feminist reading of the author, written before she’d become an international icon–and Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation and Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth’s still going strong, with a bio-documentary out on her, also called “Ahead of Time.”
Another author I began working with who was then in their eighties was Edward Robb Ellis, who like Ruth Gruber, was born in 1911. In 1985, Ellis was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific diarist in the history of American letters. By the time I met Eddie in the early 90s he had already published tremendously readable narrative histories, A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-39; Echoes of Distant Thunder: Life in the United States, 1914-1918; and one his adopted hometown, The Epic of New York City**. In 1995 I published his magnum opus, A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, based on the diary Eddie began keeping in 1927 at age sixteen, which he kept faithfully until the year of his death seventy-one years later. This is part of the flap copy I wrote for a 2008 reissue of the book:
When I published the book with Eddie on Labor Day in 1995, we scored a rare kind of hat trick, booking interviews on all three network morning shows. Matt Lauer interviewed him on the TODAY Show, Cokie Roberts on “Good Morning America,” and Harry Smith on CBS’s “Early Show.” It was clear that Eddie’s status as a reporter from journalism’s golden age–or at least what morning show hosts and producers believed had been a golden age–had endeared him to them. I have videos of those appearances, but unfortunately haven’t transferred them to the Web and they are not on youtube. Picture Eddie wearing a red neckerchief with a khaki safari jacket and looking very dashing on TV.
In the 2008 reissue of A Diary of the Century I included an Editor’s Note explaining that at even 200,000 words and more than 600 pages, the book had constituted less than 1% of the entire Ellis Diary. A reference book aficionado, Eddie was fond of saying that his whole diary clocked in at more than 20,000,000 words, or roughly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. My Note explained that in his later years Eddie arranged for the Ellis Diary to find
“a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes, were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus of NYU. . . . It was my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the Ellis Diary, and I promise the reader that I found no dross there. With this revival, on behalf of Eddie’s literary executor Peter Skinner and literary representative Rita Rosenkranz, I take this opportunity to state that it is our intention to revive interest in A Diary of the Century, and then go on to create new books drawn from the Ellis Diary.”
With the possibilities afforded by the Internet clearer than ever, the above goal remains high among my personal priorities. Though Eddie was suspicious of new technology, and the World Wide Web was still new when he died, A Diary of the Century, with every entry bearing the date he wrote it, will lend itself beautifully to blogging someday; in fact, it’d be fair to say that Eddie was a kind of proto-blogger before the term was known. In addition to this recollection of Eddie, I have posted a selection of readings from his diary, and here’s a link to a recent story I wrote about Eddie’s work with Letts of London, the diary publisher who’ve been selling blank journals since 1796.
February 22nd, 2013
[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]
Entries from A Diary of the Century by Edward Robb Ellis, about whom I blogged earlier today, on the occasion of what would have been his 102nd birthday, February 22.
Monday, October 5, 1931 This morning I got a letter from Mother saying that the First National Bank of Kewanee has closed. That’s the bank that has every cent I own. Mother also said that Grandpa Robb had all of his money there, and now Grandma is worried to death. Many of the people in Kewanee stood in front of the closed doors of the bank, weeping and cursing. One of Mother’s women friends ran up and down our street, bewailing the fact that her family has lost everything. . . . Here I am at age 20–absolutely penniless.
University of Missouri, Sunday, January 3, 1932 Today I saw my first bread line–200 starving men forming a gray line as they waited for food. The sight of them disturbed me.
Saturday, January 9. 1932 Nace Strickland is the best room mate one could have. Today he told me something that happened when he was a child. Raised in St. Louis, he didn’t know much about country life, so he was excited when two of his aunts took him for a drive on back roads. In one pasture he saw a bull mounting a cow, whereupon Nace exclaimed: “Hey, I didn’t know those things could milk themselves.”
Kewanee, Illinois, Saturday, June 11, 1932 Last night I dreamed I held my diary under a shower and was delighted when the words did not wash off. Does this mean I think my diary may make me “immortal?”
Monday, February 19, 1934 Some of my favorite songs: My Silent Love . . . Lullaby of the Leaves . . . I’ve Got the South in My Soul . . . Time on My Hands . . . Old Rockin’ Chair . . . Piccalo Pete . . . Harmonica Harry . . . I Kiss Your Hand, Madame . . . Somebody Loves Me . . . I Surrender, Dear . . . Body and Soul . . . All of Me . . . You’re My Everything . . . Mona Lisa . . . The Man I Love . . . What Wouldn’t I Do That for Man . . . Mood Indigo.
New Orleans, Tuesday, July 23, 1935 Last night I went to the Golden Dragon, a Negro nightclub on South Rampart St., to listen to Louie Armstrong. Not long ago he came back to New Orleans where he was born, came back in triumph because in England he had played a command performance for King George VI. This is his homecoming, so Louie lifted up his golden trumpet and blew his glad notes. . . . The rasping and gurgling of his voice made my spine feel like a xylophone. he slid from one note to a lower one and then careened down to a guttural bass note lower than my worst sin. As he sang he mopped his face and weaved back and forth, but he kept his black eyes on the mic under his nose, like a serpent hypnotizing a bird. . . . Not only were black people welcoming Satchelmouth home again, but white men and women were to be seen amidst the mob of happy people packed into the Golden Dragon. The waiters were having the times of their lives. They jigged and shuffled and bared their teeth in song as they wafted trays of drinks over the heads of the swaying hundreds. One waiter was busy lighting cigarets in his mouth and then handing them out with a flourish to the dusky damsels sitting at a nearby table. It was an adoring audience. Every time Louie picked up his trumpet, the folks settled into a trance of expectation, and Louie didn’t fail them. Like another Gabriel, he blew his horn and opened the gates to heaven.
New York City, Thursday, May 22, 1947 Today I arrived by train in New York City, which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!
At the World-Telegram Building I was interviewed by Lee Wood, executive editor, and B. O. McAnney, city editor. They hired me, told me to go back to Chicago to wind up my affairs there, then report for work here on June 2. I walked up Barclay Street toward Broadway and near City Hall saw something that astonished me. Crossing Broadway at Chambers Street was a horse-drawn wagon full of horse manure.
Wednesday, March 23, 1949 Once upon a time there was a man who was in love with a bridge. The time is now, the man is Fred Bronnenkant, and the bridge is the Brooklyn Bridge.
He waits on her hand and foot, for Fred is a bridgeman and riveter employed by New York City. She is a queen–perhaps the most photographed, most painted, most sketched, most ethced, most written-about, most movie-filmed bridge in the world.
Fred, now 74 years old, has been in love with the Brooklyn Bridge ever since he was assigned to her 30 years ago. It’s not that he’s in love with bridges–any old bridge. Not at all. Fred drove rivets into the Williamsburg Bridge, further up the East River, and he bossed a steel gang on Queensborough Bridge, still further north.
As he and I stood beneath the Brooklyn end, he gazed up at the gray Gothic pylon and mused aloud, “Never has been a bridge like this one, never will be.”
A tall sturdy man, he stropped his hands against his overalls as he spoke. A shadow of embarrassment filled his deep-set blue eyes, embarrassment such as many men feel when talking about the women they love, for Fred regards the Brooklyn Bridge as his woman, his mistress.
At home he has a wife who knows all about this love affair because the bridge is all he ever talks about. she’s jealous too. From time to time she will wail: “You think more of that bridge than you do of me!”
A man who quit school after the sixth grade, Fred paws for words as he tries to explain the great passion of his life. “I guess,” he mumbles, looking down at his shoes, “I guess I just love this here bridge more than any man ever has.” . . .
He tends her lovingly. with the help of seven other bridgemen and riveters, Fred sees to it that she is properly maintained. . . .
Why, she’s alive!” he’ll exclaim forgetting to be embarrassed. ” She has more life in her than anybody. . . . The way she shakes up and down when traffic passes over her! The give in her! And in winter she contracts like–” He pauses. Pulling a toothpick from the band of his hat, he stabs the air trying to pinpoint his meaning.
“It’s like–well, in the winter she contracts like a woman sort of shrugging into her fur. Know what I mean? Then, in the summer–”
His eyes roam his upper eyelids. Find the proper phrase, he lowers his gaze. “You might say, well, like in the summer she expands and it’s like a beautiful girl throwing her clothes open to the sun and air. . . . When I die, there’s just one thing: I want my hearse to drive across the bridge. The last time. You’ll see to this, won’t you. Please?”
© 1995 Edward Robb Ellis