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The novel that was Artie Shaw’s life

Times Staff Writer

So this is Artie Shaw’s garret, tucked up beneath the eaves of a Newbury Park tract home surrounded by some of the most benignly uninteresting architecture you’ll find anywhere. The neighborhood is basic California suburbia, circa 1966, with long sloping roofs that give Shaw’s cul-de-sac a sleepy feel, as though the energy of young families has seeped away.

Shaw, the jazz legend, moved here a quarter-century ago for the view, not the home styles. The back of the house overlooks his pool and on the other side the hill drops away to Ventura County’s Conejo Valley. Shaw lived in Spain for five years in the 1950s and the clear-day vista here of the distant San Gabriel Mountains reminded him of Catalonia, so he bought the place and settled in to work on what had become the consuming passion of his life.

A novel. About himself.

It was a long life -- Shaw died here last month at 94 -- so “The Education of Albie Snow” is a long manuscript, running 1,900 double-spaced pages over about 100 chapters. It was meant to be part of a trilogy, and Shaw kept at it longer than any of his eight marriages. So huge is the manuscript that even with Shaw’s celebrity the work has yet to entice a publisher, although Ida Giragossian, a member of Knopf’s editorial department, has been carving away at it on her own time for more than two years.

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She’s only half done.

“It’s time-consuming, but I think it’s eminently worth it,” Giragossian said, adding that she hopes Knopf or another Random House imprint eventually will publish it. “It covers from ages 15 to 24, with a couple of flashbacks to age 7 and the first anti-Semitism he encountered [growing up] in Connecticut. It’s wonderful because it has a coming-of-age quality to it, the young teenager and how he teaches himself to play the saxophone and clarinet.”

Others who have seen the manuscript were less enamored.

“He wasn’t a bad writer but he was an undisciplined writer,” said publisher Lyle Stuart, a friend of Shaw’s since the early 1970s who waited in vain for Shaw to write an autobiography. “I told Artie, you don’t do a 1,900-page novel.”

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But would Artie listen?

Not often.

Shaw was an irascible character. Even his friends use words like “feisty” and “difficult” to describe him. Shaw traced his gruffness to the hard emotional shell he formed at age 7 to blunt schoolyard threats and taunts, the lone Jew in a working-class Catholic neighborhood. He hid himself in books and music. His father walked out when Shaw was 13 and by age 15 Shaw left too, landing gigs in jazz bands in the Roaring ‘20s.

He was an exacting perfectionist, as hard on himself as on others. He had two sons whom he barely acknowledged and he burned through wives like candles. “All I got out of my marriages,” Ava Gardner said in 1954 of her time wedded to Shaw and then Frank Sinatra, “was the two years Artie Shaw made me spend on an analyst’s couch.”

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Shaw made his mark on the 20th century by weaving magic with a clarinet, expressing the inexpressible with a few quick exhales and a flourish of fingerings. Then he famously quit. An old friend was once quoted as saying Shaw gave up being a great musician to become a mediocre writer. Critics were less harsh but not by much.

Shaw published three books, a 1952 autobiography called “The Trouble With Cinderella: An Outline of Identity,” and two slim and idiosyncratic works of fiction -- “I Love You, I Hate You, Drop Dead! Variations on a Theme” in 1965, and the collection “The Best of Intentions and Other Stories” in 1989. The memoir was well received. The fiction found fewer enthusiasts.

As a musician, he explored themes and structures no one had touched before, an inventiveness that is largely absent from his fiction. Some of the plots in his published short stories, where the Albie Snow alter ego first appears, can be found in his 1952 autobiography, with only slight changes. And the unpublished manuscript covers some of the same years and some of the same themes.

Shaw wanted to write about his own experiences and styled the work as fiction to free himself from the constraints of time and details. Since the fiction is based on his life, the pool of experience is self-limiting. But as with the music that made him famous -- and earned enough royalties for Shaw to coast for half a century -- Shaw wrote to his own vision and satisfaction. Take it or leave it.

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“He said fiction allowed you to tell the truth,” said Larry Rose, 46, Shaw’s personal assistant for the last 11 years. “He said, ‘If I told the truth, I’d get sued.’ But that’s what Artie knew about. It’s not necessarily a biography. He said, ‘Some of the things that happened to Albie Snow might have happened to me, or to people I knew.’ The real purpose was to share with people life lessons. How to live. How to think.”

And writing his life as a fiction gave Shaw distance, Giragossian said.

“It took away that first-person self-consciousness that happens in straight autobiography,” she said. “It allowed him to set and develop scenes which he felt would reveal his life in a better way. It gave him a certain amount of objectivity.”

Shaw had tried to tell his life story before. Stuart sat down for two three-hour taped interviews with Shaw on his marriages to Gardner and Lana Turner, but nothing came of it. Author and playwright Aram Saroyan worked on a similar project around 1989 that withered on the vine after Shaw rejected a six-figure advance for still-murky reasons. With Shaw’s death, Saroyan said, he hopes to convert the project into a one-man play.

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Saroyan still doesn’t have a clear understanding of why the initial project died.

“With Artie, you got into a project and roadblocks happened,” said Saroyan, whose parents, the writer William Saroyan and Carol Marcus (who later married Walter Matthau), were introduced by Shaw. “He was a great raconteur and he had some real Hollywood parables.”

But Shaw also found his own life fascinating and in an excerpt from the Saroyan project that ran in The Times’ Sunday magazine in 2000, Shaw talked about the sense of distance he felt from himself as his fame grew.

“I was this little, insecure kid. Nothing I did could have been much, because I did it. I was the outlander who was suddenly let into the magic kingdom. It was an education. I had to learn what the world was. I was a naive little Lower East Side Jewish kid whose name became Artie Shaw. But I was Arthur Arshawsky living in there, and I didn’t know what I was doing.”

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Saroyan said Shaw’s fictional memoir sought to explore that cave.

“When he took up the novel he was just sort of inquiring into what happened, ‘How did I emerge into this extraordinary musical presence?’ ” Saroyan said. “He was enthralled by what he had discovered about himself as a musician.”

Shaw was a musician for 30 years and a writer for more than 50. His house is cluttered with some 10,000 books and he used to dip into three or four of them a day until macular degeneration, which began in the 1990s, robbed him of his vision about three years ago. Books are still stacked as though a research project on the history of the world was suddenly halted.

Shaw hated to have things moved and Rose said that made the housekeeper’s job nearly impossible. The place has a musty smell, and dust coats the baby grand piano in the living room because no one dared touch the short rack of ceremonial knives Shaw liked to keep on top.

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The bulk of Shaw’s books are upstairs, a massive room covering nearly the entire floor and lined with unvarnished shelves, like a rustic used bookstore. Volumes are grouped by type -- fiction, biography, etc. Eight gold records are hung above the stairway, along with two honorary doctorates -- which Rose said meant more to Shaw than the records. A stereo with a long row of old albums, mostly jazz and classical, stands as an island in the middle of the room. A small electric keyboard at the side has a flat board propped on top, a makeshift writing table for when Shaw felt like working on something musical instead of fictional.

“He would tell people when they were here that they were walking around in his mind,” said Rose, who is helping to inventory the estate with an eye toward a sale or finding a library to take Shaw’s music and writing archives.

Part of Rose’s job was to be the musician’s fingers on the computer keyboard. Shaw never did tumble to the logic of computers, never quite figured out that what you saw on the screen was ephemera until you hit the save button. On his own, Shaw lost a lot of work. Over time, Shaw and Rose worked out a system. Rose would print out the section that Shaw wanted to work on, then Shaw would mark his revisions in neat, small letters for Rose to enter into the computer -- more than 30 drafts of some chapters.

If good writing is rewriting, then Shaw was a writer’s writer.

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“He could never sit down and look at something and not change it,” Rose said. “He looked at it as water polishing a stone.” But eventually, the water reduces the stone to sand. “He told me he could get a little snow-blind, he’d read the thing so many times,” Rose said.

Shaw believed in the adage that a work of art is never finished, just abandoned. He didn’t desert his book until three years ago, when it became too hard to read. A mutual friend got him in touch with Giragossian, a former pianist, in New York and he sent her the first half of the book. Shaw knew the work needed severe pruning -- Rose said his approach was to put everything in on the assumption that he and an editor would work together to distill it into book form.

But like the water polishing the stone, age was catching up with Shaw. As his energy ebbed, so did his involvement in the book. “I was editing and cutting the first part and sending them to Artie, and he was really fine with the editing,” Giragossian said. “Then he sent me the second half and said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ ”


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