Burning Bridges Brilliantly
Every year about this time, as winter edges into spring, I think about driving to Santa Barbara to visit my good friend John Sanford. Situated on a cliff, the cemetery where he rests is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
“This land’s-end place,” Sanford described it in some of the last words he ever wrote, “seems to be bounded only by sea and sky, and what sound can be heard there is the wind, the surf, and, if rain has fallen, the shrill of shore-birds come to drill the softened earth.”
I want to stand in the sun of that place and lay my hand on his simple headstone. I want to go, but for four years now I’ve found a dozen last-second reasons not to. And so March 5, the anniversary of his death, passes and I tell myself, “Maybe next year.” My discomfort with cemeteries might explain it--I’ve visited my father’s grave only a handful of times in 15 years--but it probably goes deeper than that. My wife wears a wedding ring that belonged to John’s wife, Marguerite Roberts; my daughter’s middle name is Marguerite in her honor. John Sanford helped shape my writing and my life, but the friendship was also complicated and deeply pained. Maybe I don’t go so I won’t be reminded. At the same time, how could I possibly forget?
I met Sanford a little more than 20 years ago, not long after I returned from a semester abroad in England reading Dickens and Wordsworth and Keats, my head swirling with fantasies of becoming an author myself. While abroad, I had also fallen in love with a girl whose father, Tom Andrews, was dean of our college, Westmont in Montecito. Over the years he had cultivated relationships with a number of writers in the Santa Barbara area and had recently become acquainted with Sanford.
I had no idea who Sanford was, and because I fancied myself a serious reader I assumed that he couldn’t be much. Andrews handed me Sanford’s “The Winters of That Country” so that I could judge for myself, and from page one I knew it was like nothing I’d ever read. Chillingly subtitled “Tales of the Man-Made Seasons,” the book was a 349-page recitation of American barbarity over 500 years, from the earliest settlers to the Vietnam War--a work of history, but of the most renegade sort. In scene after scene, Sanford spurned the detached air of the historian, and instead returned to the site of the transgression and recounted it in real time and in the very idiom of the perpetrator, witness or victim. Here was a voice as deep and harrowing as a prophet’s, and the more I got into it, the more I was convinced that “Winters” was a masterpiece. I also knew that the master lived a few miles away, just around the bend.
John Sanford was born Julian Shapiro in 1904. His father, an attorney, raised a family of four in an upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Harlem until the stock market crash of 1907 set him back. The defining event of his life was the death of his mother when he was only 10. That loss left him confused, embittered and emotionally orphaned, and his passage for the next several years was troubled. He floundered through high school and later enrolled at Fordham University to study law. He seemed to finally find a footing when, on the golf course one day, he ran into his boyhood friend Nathan Weinstein. Shapiro asked him what he’d been up to and Weinstein replied, “I’m writing a novel.” Those four words worked on Sanford like a spell. Try as he might, he couldn’t shake it. At the age of 25, he abandoned law and started writing stories.
Shapiro and Weinstein, concerned about prejudice against Jews, renamed themselves John Sanford and Nathanael West. They would eventually rent a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains for a summer of novel writing. “Pep” West was working on “Miss Lonelyhearts” and Sanford on his first novel, “The Water Wheel.” He would later describe the old cabin in the second volume of his autobiography:
There was no running water in the kitchen or anywhere else, and no power-lines ran to the cabin from North Creek or Lake George. When you needed light, you used a coal-oil lamp, a glass jar in which a wick lay coiled like a tapeworm in formaldehyde.
For all their remoteness that summer, these two young writers were manning the trenches of the literary avant-garde, dispatching stories to little magazines that were devoted to writing “in the American Grain,” as William Carlos Williams would call it.
One of those little magazines, Contact, was edited by Williams himself, along with Robert McAlmon and his friend Pep. Sanford was invited to contribute to the inaugural issue, but when he fired off the story “Once In a Sedan and Twice Standing Up,” Williams blushed at the sexual allusion and asked Sanford to change the title. Sanford refused, and a while later West broke the news to him: “By the way, Bill tells me your story will not be printed in No. 1.” The offhanded way West put it ate away at Sanford, and at a public dinner party he let his friend have it. “What you are, Pep, is a sheeny in Brooks’ clothing!” And then to finish off the friendship, he went right for West’s Ashkenazi heart: “I knew you when your name had two syllables.”
A few weeks after I finished “Winters,” Tom Andrews drove me and his daughter to Sanford’s house for a visit. As we pulled up his driveway, I saw him: an old man in chinos and a plaid shirt watering orchids on his front porch. Up close, he was short, a little pudgy, and he had a boyishly round face with impish brown eyes.
We gathered in his writing studio, a huge room with books hugging the walls, and above the shelves wood shades drawn over deeply set windows. Sanford was funny, playful and full of energy--with his hands he’d slice this way and that way to animate the conversation. But he hardly held court that day, as I imagined he had the right to. Rather, he was solicitous of my opinions, and whenever I’d let loose a rambunctious notion--I had plenty in those days--he’d kindly square up on it and consider it for a spell. I was 24, and he was 80. I was tenacious, and he was generous. I left his house that day vowing to myself that we would be friends.
Both of my grandfathers died well before I was born. Maybe this explains why I have always been so fond of old men. There were four or five in our neighborhood in Armenian town in Fresno, and I remember wondering about them as they strolled up and down our block flicking their strung-up marbles, what someone called worry beads. In college, when most students hovered around the young hotshots, I followed the old professors, often all the way across campus, with questions. In my early 30s, I roomed for three years with the great folklorist Albert Friedman, who was then 75. I suppose I like old people for the same reason I like wandering through ancient ruins or a rustic village off the beaten path. They are both openings out of the pandemonium, places that time has all but finished with and where I can take in the full measure of life.
For several years after I met Sanford, I made a monthly drive from Claremont, where I was now studying, to the hills of Montecito to spend an afternoon with him (always after 2 p.m., when his writing day was done). I came loaded with questions, and he always had a fair share of his own for me.
He wanted to hear about my struggles with school, writing and family, and when I’d lay them out for him I sometimes felt as if he was getting a second look at himself at my age. I was in a doctoral program in psychology (just as he had studied law), trying to write poetry on the side, and he told me, “Kid, to write well you’ll have to unlearn everything you’ve learned in the classroom.” For a while, I deliberated about dropping out and pursuing an MFA in creative writing. “Sounds like those places where they sanitize the sewage. Stay in head-shrinking if you have to.”
For the most part, the generation gap was absent, but when it did open up it was comically wide: “Now when you say rap music, kid, do you mean what you do to a sandwich?”
“A word processor? How does that work? You throw in a bunch of sentences and press a button.”
I’d laugh it up to the rafters when he poked fun at me, and he wasn’t above poking fun at himself. He’d lift fan letters off his desk, read out loud their high praise and then declare, “The man clearly has no taste in literature.”
We’d discuss anything and everything--his wife Maggie, Ronald Reagan, racehorses (he owned a few in his day), Israel, the McCarthy hearings, Pound versus Williams. As we’d walk out to his mailbox, he’d point to the woodpecker that was making a racket in his tree: Melanerpes formicivorus, he wanted me to know, not to show off, but rather, in summoning its scientific name, he hoped to protect it from a kind of cheapening.
And yet there were times when our conversation would come to a menacing standstill, and I could see the fireball that he had hurled at West flash from behind his eyes. Sanford brooked no foolishness, but he had a way of turning one’s most innocent remark into that or worse.
He would seize on something I’d said and grow quiet before warning: “I hope I didn’t hear you right, kid.” I would have to make a sudden decision about whether to back down or stand my ground.
Inch by inch our friendship grew, and as it did, my passion for his work, the scope and seriousness of it, grew in proportion.
I began to pitch his books to others with missionary zeal. I sent his books to famous writers and asked them to spread the word. I copied pages from “Winters” and posted them around the Claremont campus. The absence of his name in the critical literature, I swore to friends, amounted to conspiracy. There wasn’t a single mention of him in “American Writers,” a 13-volume production by Scribner; no Sanford in “Contemporary Novelists” or the “Oxford Companion to American Literature” or the “Readers Encyclopedia of American Literature” or “World Authors.” “Who’s Who in America” hadn’t even indexed him.
Not long after we met, I teamed up with a friend to interview Sanford. We submitted it to every literary magazine of any merit. Conjunctions, one of the better avant-garde journals of the ‘80s, rejected it, as did the Partisan Review. The Paris Review hadn’t heard of him, and neither had Grand Street. Even Zyzzyva, a West Coast operation, turned down the interview.
Undaunted, I approached Michael Silverblatt of KCRW-FM’s “Bookworm,” one of the best radio shows about fiction in the country. He said that he’d heard of Sanford, but, frankly, I doubted it. Most people, I’d come to realize, confused him with the suspense writer John Sandford. So I sent Silverblatt half a dozen of his books. Several months passed, and I was about to give up hope when Silverblatt contacted me.
He was bowled over and asked to do the interview. I called John with the good news. He said that he couldn’t make it to Los Angeles. I offered to schlep him there and back.
“Forget it, kid,” he told me, “I don’t see the point. If they want to know what I’ve got to say, let them read my books.”
Thankfully, Silverblatt wasn’t one to give up easily either. He had never done an interview outside the KCRW studio in Santa Monica, but he managed to secure the facilities at a sister station on the campus of UC Santa Barbara for this one.
John agreed, but when I called him a couple of days in advance to confirm the time, he changed his mind. “Forget it,” he said, “I don’t want to walk all that way.” He meant from the parking lot to the studio.
So Silverblatt offered to take the studio to John’s house. “You don’t let go, do you, kid? What the hell, then, since it means so much to you.”
The interview was aired in two segments in 1993. Silverblatt ended it with these words: “John Sanford writes some of the greatest prose that we’ve heard in America, and it really is American prose in that it is prose about the American conscience.”
I told John when it was being aired. “Don’t expect me to listen,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t care for how I sounded the first time around. I’d be a fool to put myself through that again.”
The stubbornness he exhibited with Silverblatt was the rule, and the salvo he had launched at West was just one of hundreds.
The sweet old man that I had befriended could be a real “prick,” as he’d often describe himself. Feeling slighted or put upon, he’d shoot off a letter--a tirade--to an acquaintance or friend. The results were usually devastating. John’s first literary executor, Paul Mariani, a world-class scholar who had written extensively on some of the giants in American literature, got hit with one. So did the gentleman who should have been his next executor, Tom Andrews.
Then one afternoon John asked me, “Do you believe that my work will get its due in the future?” I told him, “Yes, but I don’t think it will happen overnight.” My answer apparently sufficed. He asked me to be his literary executor. I was honored, though with most of his friendships dead, I recognized that the job was pretty much mine by default.
It was also a job laden with danger. I had known John long and well enough to realize that the closer you got to him, the more you were subject to preposterous tests of devotion. I had weathered several over the years, but there was one I barely survived. In the spring of 1995, the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara was doing a musical adaptation of Sanford’s masterpiece “To Feed Their Hopes,” dubbing its production “An American Cantata.”
John waffled about going, but then said, “What the hell.” When I asked him if he wanted me to take him, he told me he’d catch a ride with Elaine Kendall, the lyricist who’d also been badgering him to go. “See you there,” I said. But I never did. The next morning I called: “Hey, John, what happened to you last night?”
“You screwed me!” he hollered. “You screwed me!”
I had no idea how, and he didn’t want to say. Finally I dragged it out of him: He’d expected me to pick him up. Picturing him sitting there in his old suit, glancing at the clock, before turning bitterly to bed, I felt terrible, but not responsible. For weeks I tried to patch things up over the phone, only to have him hang up on me. I decided for a surprise showdown, face to face. It worked. “Forget about it,” he said, “I don’t want to talk about it anymore. The damage is done.”
There were certainly easier tasks in this world than promoting John Sanford. He had burned nearly every bridge I might have used to advance his reputation. He killed his relationship with his agent, inflamed editors and publishers, and one by one cut his connections to other writers. He begrudged promoting his books and did few signings, all local, no readings (“I’m a writer, not a carnival barker”) and led no writing workshops--the stock-in-trade of writers today.
Once I asked him if he’d like to do a stint at the famous Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. “Now what commerce would I have with a bunch of bakers?” was his answer. Way back when, John might have schmoozed with writers in Hollywood, but not now. “They like to sit around and talk about themselves, and they booze it up more than I care for.”
For all of John’s irascibility, his love for his wife, Marguerite, could not have been deeper or more even-keeled. The way John painted it, their life together was so paradisiacal that children were viewed as an intrusion. “We talked about it just once,” he told me, “and neither of us was interested. I suppose we didn’t want anything to get in the way of each other.” I met her once, and was moved by his affection toward her. She wore thick glasses, was old and frail and tiny, but he slung an arm around her and beamed like a teenager: “Aris, I’d like you to meet my girl, Maggie.”
The romance began in Hollywood shortly after he’d been called out from New York to write screenplays on the strength of his second book, “The Old Man’s Place.” Marguerite Roberts was a screenwriter herself, one of the best in the business. At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she wrote for Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck, and among her credits were “Honky Tonk” and “True Grit.”
They dined at Musso & Frank and strolled down Hollywood Boulevard when you could still smell orange blossoms in the air. Early in their relationship, she told John to quit writing screenplays, or he’d never get back to novels. When he asked her how the heck he was supposed to make a living and support his father, she said she’d take care of that. And for the rest of his life, she did.
It was in Hollywood that John also got involved with the Communist Party.
When the movement was still findings its legs, members met regularly, played cards and drove cars with bumper stickers that said “Join the Communist Party” as casually as ours might say “Vote Democrat” today. But by the 1950s they were driven deep underground, and then the campaign to root them out of Hollywood began. Sanford and Roberts (she had dabbled in the party but was not particularly political) were both called before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
They both pleaded the Fifth. She was blacklisted and lost her job at MGM. Not long afterward, they retreated to Montecito.
Their two-story house, with stone walls a foot thick, was a virtual fortress, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was a metaphor for John’s relationship with the world after those hearings. His extensive garden, where we often strolled, stood for other things. The tidy flower beds and perfectly trimmed trees, the meandering retaining walls that he’d cut from stone and stacked by hand, the tiny workshop out back where he spent hours carving intricate frames and jewelry boxes--they all spoke to a craftsman’s ethic and how to endure rejection and betrayal by turning ever more caringly to those things that are closest to you.
Of course, John cared for nothing more than Maggie, not even his writing. In 1989, she fell sick with a heart condition. They went back and forth for tests, in and out of the hospital, and eventually the doctors decided that she should get a pacemaker. But the stress of the surgery was too much, and she died just hours after the operation.
John was a man cut in half. He’d sit in his chair, and with teary old eyes talk to her picture on his desk, which he had arranged into a kind of shrine. He lost, he told me, his wife, his best friend and his mother all over again. He had quit writing, and was just short of quitting life itself, it seemed.
Maybe a year passed before I began to notice scraps of paper in his wastebasket. He decided that not writing would betray the “investment” she’d made in him. But when he started up again, it was all about her.
By this time, he was into the fifth volume of his monumental autobiography, and Maggie was everywhere. He wrote “Maggie: A Love Story” and a book titled “We Have a Little Sister,” which imagined her life before they met.
One day, John asked me come to his house with my Korean American fiancee, In Sun, whom he had grown to adore. As we sat at his kitchen table, he brought out several little boxes and handed them to us one by one. In John’s mind, his entire estate was Maggie’s and would pass to her relatives, so these were the few personal effects he had left to give away. There was a silver cup that he drank from as an infant, a brooch for In Sun and a watch for me.
Lastly, he handed me a small square box. Inside was a gold ring. “It’s Maggie’s wedding band,” he told us, his voice trembling with emotion. “I couldn’t let her take it with her.” In Sun slipped it on her finger, and went for a walk in his garden to give us some time alone. After about half an hour, she rushed back to the house.
“John,” she said, “Inside the band is an inscription. November 26.”
“We didn’t know exactly when we’d get married, but I wanted it inscribed right away, so I used Maggie’s birthday, November 26.”
“That’s my birthday, John.”
How could I help but feel that some invisible hand was blessing the exchange? Then, just before we left, I remember his asking me, “Now you wouldn’t abandon an old man like me, would you kid?”
I would have to. First, there was the wedding planning, then a monthlong honeymoon. In Sun and I had just begun to settle down as a couple when my mother was found to have cancer. We moved to Fresno to help care for her. The first night in our new house we had our first baby. We named her Valentine Marguerite.
John and I talked on the phone frequently to make up for the absence of visits. In March 1999, he called with some news:
“How you holding up, kid?”
“And little Valentine Marguerite?”
“Spunky as her namesake.”
“That a girl. Listen, kid, I just got a call from the L.A. Times. They told me that they want to present me with the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement at the Book Awards this year.”
“That’s great, Johnny.”
“I can’t get there, so as my literary executioner you’ll have to go for me. I like the L.A. Times. They’ve always been good to me, but at this point I wouldn’t cross the street to accept the Nobel.”
A month later, I sat in the front row of UCLA’s Royce Hall and listened to Jonathan Kirsch introduce Sanford and his work to a packed house. Previously, the Kirsch Award had been given to Ray Bradbury, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Czeslaw Milosz and other luminaries, and now I was accepting on behalf of a writer whom a vast majority of that bookish crowd had never heard of.
Not to worry, I assured them: Sanford was eminently worthy of the prize. But, alas, he could also “run a clinic on how not to become a famous writer.”
At 93, he was also desperately trying to find a publisher for a new book titled “A Palace of Silver.” He handed me a draft, and though there were flashes of brilliance, the prose drifted nostalgically for pages, and the subject, Maggie, was hardly fresh. Worse, his memory was turning against him. What he’d written on page 30 he’d written almost word for word on page 130, and this happened over and over again.
With as much finesse as I could muster, I pointed out the problems. He met my opinion with a withering silence, as if I’d betrayed him. I backed off, but maybe not soon enough.
One morning, while walking in the back part of his garden, John fell. No broken bones, but he was bruised pretty good, and it was a warning.
I broached the subject--delicately--of a retirement home. No chance. He agreed to a compromise: I found a young woman from Westmont College, my alma mater, to check on him every day. He charged me with making medical decisions for him should he become unable to make them for himself.
Marguerite had relatives who lived in Ojai, and apparently this did not sit well with them. John called and said he’d like them to be part of the decision-making process. I thought it was a good idea, especially because I was 300 miles away. But a week later, he called again. “Kid, I don’t think it’s right for you to get involved. This is a family matter, and Maggie’s family can handle it.”
I was still taking care of my mother, so in one way I was relieved. But in another way, I was hurt. Wasn’t I like kin? Why had he changed his mind twice in so many weeks? Had I insinuated myself into a role that he was reluctant to let me to play? In a letter, I conveyed my feelings. It was a gentle note, and I told him that I hoped I had done nothing to offend him.
Sanford’s response was a sneer. “Get off Mount Olympus!” he wrote, before proceeding to tell me how he owed everything to Maggie. The rejoinder was completely uncalled for, as brutal as it was insane. One minute I was confused, the next I was stomping around the house cursing him.
I might have replied, but I became severely ill, the sickest I’d ever been, as though our brawl had stepped into my body. (I found out later that Sanford fell deathly ill at exactly the same time.) Two months later, as I was recuperating, I caught another blow. This time he was writing to tell me that I was no longer his literary executor.
It had taken nearly two decades, but John Sanford had cut me down like all the rest. My parting missive left no doubt how I felt:
With my last letter, I left an opening for us, and I had hopes that your letter would convey something like, “Come over soon, kid, and let’s talk it out.” That’s all it would have taken. Instead, through that opening you slung the final arrow, your coup de grace, no doubt. Simple stuff for so expert a marksman. But how am I to take my wife’s hand that bears your wife’s ring? What am I to make of nearly two decades of the deepest admiration, and, yes, love for you? How am I supposed to explain my daughter’s name to her when she is old enough to ask? You haven’t lost a friend, you’ve killed a friendship.
Over the next several months my mother’s cancer went into remission, and I moved back to Los Angeles with my family, where I resumed my life and began working on my own novel, keeping in mind as best I could the lessons Sanford had taught me while simultaneously ignoring the wound. In 2002 “Bloodvine” was accepted for publication. When the editor called to ask if I wanted a dedication page, I sat down and wrote this: “To my parents, who never stood in the way.”
But it wasn’t enough. And so I added, “To John Sanford and Albert Friedman, who helped me find it.”
I hadn’t talked to John in nearly two years, but I’d come to recognize that our friendship had had an undeniable life of its own, however much we blocked it from memory.
I also suspected that Maggie’s relatives had exploited John’s senescence and reckless adoration of his wife. They had never had much to do with John and were afraid that I might sneak into his sizable estate through the backdoor, so they forced him to choose between me and them (as stand-ins for Maggie).
Then Christmas came, and I saw another opening. My wife was licking the last of the envelopes, when I said, “Sweetie, you might want to send a card off to John Sanford.”
Surprised, she looked up from her work.
“I’d be happy to. But are you sure?”
The Christmas card showed Valentine and her little sister sitting on our hardwood floors in the sweetest taffeta dresses. Sunlight was breaking on their faces, and below the picture my wife had penned in gold ink, “Peace.”
Just after Christmas I got a call. “Aris, this is John Sanford.” His voice was frail, but the tone was warm.
“Hello, Mr. Sanford.”
“The card moved me deeply, Aris. Seeing those two angels of yours. Look, I’m sorry it happened. It was all a misunderstanding. Won’t you come to Santa Barbara so we can talk about it?”
I drove up the next week.
After knocking twice, I let myself into his office. He was sitting in his writing chair, as usual, but there was hardly anything left to him, and the old Royal manual typewriter that he’d used to tap out his books wore a plastic cover. His vision had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer write. “After 24 books,” he told me, “I’ve said what I’ve wanted to say. In any case, it won’t be long now, kid.” And it wasn’t. Two months and two visits later, he died.
During our last time together, he told me he was happy that we’d made up. I asked him if he regretted not patching it up with other friends. “I shouldn’t have done that to Pep. I was a hothead, sure,” he said. “But for the others. . . .” Then he paused, as though to look it over one last time. “No, kid, I wouldn’t take back a word.”