Honor thy stepfather

ADAM BELLOW is executive editor at large for Doubleday and the author of "In Praise of Nepotism." His father was novelist Saul Bellow.

IN JUNE 2002, when my first book was about to come out, I traveled to my father’s house in Boston to present him with an autographed copy.

Ever since I was a child, people had been asking me with a hint of amused condescension whether I was a going to be a writer “like my dad.” Having failed to become a novelist in my 20s, I had now, finally, after many years of working as an editor on other people’s books, produced my own.

We embraced and kissed each other in the entry. He looked at me with fond, rheumy eyes, his old face wreathed in wrinkles like a tortoise.

“What have you got there?” he asked. I placed the white-jacketed tome in his hands. He immediately flipped it open to the dedication page. “To All My Fathers,” he read slowly, peering down his nose. “Well,” he said with a huff. “As far as I’m concerned, you only have one father.”

How wrong he was, I thought (but didn’t say). If I had learned one thing from my historical study of nepotism (yes, that was the subject of my book), it’s that a boy needs many fathers in his journey to manhood. In my acknowledgments, I had given recognition to two such men: my friend and teacher, Allan Bloom, and my boss and mentor, Erwin Glikes.

But there was another man in my life, one whose contributions were less obvious but to whom I owed perhaps the greater debt. That man was my stepfather, Joe.

Joe was very different from my father. Joe had grown up in the Bronx and spent his life running a series of small businesses. A product of his era, his masculine role model, I often thought, was Frank Sinatra. He carried his bills in a roll and peeled them off with a wink and a flourish.

Joe entered my life in a quiet, unobtrusive way, like an actor who steals on stage without permission and simply makes himself at home. When he started dating my mother, he wouldn’t even come upstairs. Instead, he pulled up in front of our apartment in his long black car and honked the horn. They used to drive around talking for hours, fetching up at an all-night diner at 2 or 3 a.m.

When he did begin to visit the house, he took to leaving a pile of steaks in the freezer, on the theory, apparently correct, that the teenage Cerberus who lived with my mother had to be appeased with hunks of meat. I would wake up in the morning and make steak and eggs, thinking to myself, “That guy’s all right.”

Joe never tried to take my father’s place or pressed himself on me in any way. But, over time, he got into my life, and into my heart. He did this basically just by being there in all the most important moments. It was Joe who attended my high school theater performances and graduation ceremonies. It was he who drove me out to college every fall and picked me up each spring, loading my bulky stereo and enormously heavy record collection into the family wagon.

It was Joe who taught me how to pack a car, order a drink and what to do on a first date. After he and my mother were married, I would come over for dinner once a week. As I left, he would tuck a $20 in my shirt and give me a pat on the back. It was Joe — not Saul — who was present at the birth of both my children, and it is he whom they consider their real grandfather. At a certain point, I began referring to Joe as my father.


MY WRITER/father formed my aspirations, some of them attainable, others ego-crushingly out of reach. He was the guy to ask if you wanted to know which novels of James or Conrad you should read. Joe was better at explaining how much to tip the super or how not to get ripped off by an auto mechanic. He was also better at the simple duties of fatherhood, duties he understood and carried out in a way my father never could.

Joe had two sons from his first marriage, and he took pains to establish them in suitable professions. I was a thornier problem. One day he took me aside and pitched me what he obviously thought was an immensely clever scheme. “I’ve got it all figured out,” he said. “Here’s what you do. You join the sanitation department.

“Now hear me out,” he said, raising a hand to block any objections. “You haul garbage two, three years, tops.” (Tops!) “Then you start taking civil service tests and get into management. In five years, you’re driving to work in a limousine. In 20 years, you retire at half pay and spend the rest of your life writing books.”

Was he kidding with this? I was a Princeton graduate. I had studied Dante and Shakespeare. I laughed and waved him off, thinking I knew better how to follow my father’s literary footsteps. Twenty years later, consumed by work and family obligations, without a moment to myself, I had occasion to recall his advice.

People talk about parental influence as though it’s the most natural thing in the world. Rarely does anyone explain how it actually works. If we are really the sum of our influences, then I have no doubt: I am not just my father’s son but also Joe’s.

My father wanted nothing to do with Father’s Day or any other such made-up occasions. But I used to call him anyway, and he was always grateful. So this year I would like to give a word of love and thanks to Papa Joe — and to stepfathers everywhere — because they matter, and they rarely get their due.