The Oldest Living Novelist Tells All

Kauffman is author of the novel "Every Man a King" (Soho Press)

Henry Clune, who will turn 101 years of age in February, has been chatting for two hours about old friends like Jack Johnson, Babe Ruth and Gypsy Rose Lee when talk turns to sales of his new book, "Souvenir and Other Stories" (James Brunner: $20; 218 pp.).

"It's lost all its momentum," he grouses. The first edition sold out of Rochester's largest store after a book-signing "that pretty near killed me," and a second printing is weeks away. "Very discouraging," he grumbles, and for a moment America's oldest working writer sounds like any neophyte novelist cursing his publisher.

For the better part of a century--from 1913 to 1969--Henry Clune wrote a popular column for his hometown paper, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle. In his spare and slack time he wrote six novels and seven books on regional subjects. "I am a provincial by instinct, by design and by practice," he boasts, and he stands on what he stands for: Clune has lived in Rochester and the neighboring village of Scottsville for all but a few wanderlust years.

Clune is in remarkable shape for . . . well, for a man his age. "My hearing is defective--like everything else," he says, but his left ear isn't bad, and he can read, just barely, with an array of magnifying glasses. He enjoys an occasional martini and he still writes, mostly letters but now and then an essay or short story. He walks unaided; until his 90th year, he ran 40-yard wind sprints barefoot across his lawn every morning.

"I indulged the illusion that I was moving with speed and grace," he chuckles. "Years ago, the village doctor came up and told my wife I shouldn't do that any more. The doctor died 20 years ago." (Clune's wife, the 1920 U.S. Olympic swimmer Charlotte Boyle, had died the week previous at the age of 91. He remains alert and curious, but wonders "if I'll ever get over the death of my wife.")

Henry Clune was born in 1890, on the cusp of the Lost Generation. He came before Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Hemingway and Wolfe. Expatriatism never tempted him; although he did report, for a time, from the killing fields of Europe, the magnet of home was too strong. He was capable of saying, deadpan, "I liked London . . . but it wasn't Rochester."

At home, Clune presided over Rochester's literary solstice. He edited a short-lived journal that launched the careers of playwright George S. Brooks and a young Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who covered boxing and burlesque under the Clune-supplied pen name Lady Alicia Thwaite.

Clune's early novels grazed the bottom of the best-seller list, but luck deserted him at a couple of critical junctures. "I had a lot of near misses," he sighs. "I'd be wearing diamonds if I had all the stuff they told me I'd have."

His first novel, "The Good Die Poor" (1937), a picaresque newspaper tale, was purchased by Warner Brothers as a Bette Davis-Edward G. Robinson vehicle. The movie never was made. His next novel, the prescient political satire "Monkey on a Stick" (1940), was an amusing exercise, praised by Dawn Powell but otherwise forgotten.

Then came Clune's magnum opus. For years he had worked on a massive novel about a ruthless, steel-willed industrialist whose genius enriches a city and destroys its fusty Victorian social hierarchy. Clune called the novel, which was loosely based on the life of Rochester's George Eastman, "The Stars Have Monstrous Eyes." His editor, Cecil Scott, renamed it "By His Own Hand," an awful title better hung on some ponderous paperback with lumpish prose and an embossed cover.

"When I signed the contract at the Grosvenor Hotel," he recalls, "George Brett, the president of Macmillan, said, 'Mr. Clune, if you'll sign this contact we believe we've got the most popular success since 'Gone With the Wind.' "

Clune readied himself for a fame that never came. Orville Prescott of the New York Times ridiculed the book as "vulgar petty gossip," and though it went on to win qualified praise and sell 55,000 copies, it fell far short of Brett's promise.

In best auctorial fashion, Clune still bears Prescott a grudge. "It was a hatchet job," Clune says, and he thinks he knows the reason why: "One minor character says she was bored with boys telling her about a Psi U house party at Williams. Mr. Prescott was a Psi U at Williams."

Fortune also frowned upon Clune's fourth novel, "The Big Fella" (1956), which charts the rise and fall of a rapscallion political boss in a Northeastern city. When editor Scott was invalided with an eye infection, the book's publication was delayed three months. In the interim, Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah" appeared, and "The Big Fella," one of the finer novels written about American politics, disappeared in O'Connor's shadow.

Clune's last two novels, "Six O'Clock Casual" (1960) and "O'Shaughnessy's Cafe" (1969), went virtually unnoticed. A Vietnam novel--sympathetic to the anti-war side, as befits this old American First isolationist--never found a publisher.

Back in print at 100, Henry Clune hasn't any grand illusions about "Souvenir" outselling "Gone With the Wind." "I don't care" about the public's inattention, he avers. "I have no interest in that. I like two or three of the stories and I'm pleased to see them in print."

The best of "Souvenir's" seven stories are portraits of people adrift in a world no longer theirs. The dowager queen of Rochester presides over an emptying salon; an octogenarian makes an eye-opening visit to a porno theater; an ex-con discovers that his daughter is irretrievably lost to him. Clune writes of the dowager: "It was the past in which she lived; the future had no meaning for her." Nor, for most of his characters, does the present.

When he tires of talking about his new book, Clune grabs a volume of Thomas Macaulay's essays from a table loaded high with Swift, Gilbert White and Hemingway. He asks a visitor to read a favorite essay ("Mirabeau") aloud. Clune huddles close, his good left ear cocked.

"Isn't that beautiful?" he marvels at one limpid sentence. "Old as I am, I try to learn to write from Macaulay."

We discuss cherished authors for a while, and when John P. Marquand's name comes up, Clune, a trifle embarrassed, makes a confession. "In recent times I reread Marquand's 'H. M. Pulham, Esquire,' and I dipped into 'By His Own Hand' to see if it has anything comparable." He halts, grins. "Maybe there was."

Clune was never much good at literary politicking. He doubts that "Souvenir" will lead to a reassessment of his oeuvre, and he is loath to trade on the novelty value of his Methuselahan age. When local admirers suggested a public tribute for his 100th birthday, Clune scotched the idea. "They want you on display like the bearded woman in the Ringling show or the two-headed calf on the carnival lot."

Silent-screen hedonist Louise Brooks, a sometime friend of the novelist, used to call Clune "a goddamn bourgeois." He does not demur; indeed, his work ethic is a source of pride.

"I never had any great gifts," he says, overly modest, "but I could work. I try. If I had 10 years more, I might do pretty well."

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