Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On 20 years without Laurie Colwin

Photo by Nancy Crampton
 I still remember the day I found out.  I was living in Eugene, OR, then, in my last year in graduate school at the University of Oregon.  For some reason, a day or two earlier, I'd felt the need to re-read one of Laurie Colwin's books.  I can no longer remember which one.  Happy All The Time, perhaps, or The Lone Pilgrim?  All I know is that the book was sitting on the kitchen table, and I was eating lunch and reading the New York Times.  And there was Laurie Colwin's photograph.  I stared.  It didn't make sense.  This wasn't on the arts page or in the book review column.  It was an obituary.  Laurie Colwin dead of a heart attack at 48.  I was heartbroken.

It's been 20 years since Laurie Colwin died, and I still miss her.  I never met her.  This was not a personal loss, except that it was.  Colwin was my first favorite writer as an adult, the first one whose books I read over and over, the first one I turned to for comfort and sustenance, the first one I wanted to be like.  By the time she died, she'd published 4 novels, 2 books of short stories, one book of linked short stories and a book of food writing.  Posthumously, a fifth novel and a second collection of food writing were published.  She'd written for the New Yorker and Gourmet, for Mademoiselle and for Playboy.  She'd won prizes, received glowing reviews.  And yet she was not an intimidating writer at all. You suspected, if you met her, that you would just gab and gab, as if you were old friends.  At least you hoped you would.

Losing Colwin was like losing a friend, and I am certainly not the only one who felt that way.  Several months after her death, I read that there would be a memorial service at Symphony Space in New York City.  I would still be in Oregon--there was no way I could attend.  But my friend Bill--whose departure from Eugene the previous spring had briefly wrecked me--was in New York, and I was determined that he should go for me.  Alas, he didn't.  (And, it turns out, it was so packed that he may not have been able to get in!)  But a few months after that, the memorial service was played on WNYC radio, and Bill taped it for me and sent me the cassette.  (Yes, it was a different world 20 years ago.)  He said that listening to the service made him wish he had gone.  I didn't say, "I told you so." I just thanked him for the tape, which I listened to instantly.

Because this is now, and not 1992, I googled "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" to see what would turn up.  And what turned up was a special 2009 issue of the New Haven Review in which there was a Laurie Colwin tribute.  (The link opens a PDF file of it.)   A number of essays from the memorial service are reprinted, and I read them for the first time since I'd listened to them almost 20 years ago.  Deborah Eisenberg and Anna Quindlen both read excerpts of her work.  Willard Spiegelman, editor of The Southwest Review, spoke of winning the cha-cha contest with her at their 9th grade prom in Elkins Park, PA.  Colwin's friend, novelist Anna Shapiro, read excerpts of letters Colwin had written.  (Colwin died before the advent of email.  What would she have made of it?  Would she still have sent friends a series of canning labels pasted onto postcards, as one friend mentioned? I kind of hope she would have.)  But what I remembered most clearly was the contribution of Peter Smith, then dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.   Smith had not known Colwin personally, but he had loved her books, and he was given the task of reading a few of the letters written to Colwin's husband and daughter after her death.  Because, it turns out, they received hundreds and hundreds of letters of condolence from Colwin's devoted readers, one of them from me.  My letter was not read at the memorial service, but more than anything, I was both heartened and humbled that so many other people were as stricken by Colwin's death as I had been, that so many people felt her loss so deeply. (For a more recent tribute to her, see this blog post.)

The original hardcover, 1978
The newest edition, 2010

 What remains, these 20 years later, are her books, all of which, amazingly, are still in print. (In his Washington Post essay on Colwin published in 2003, Jonathan Yardley points out how rare this is--and it is still true almost ten years later.)  And publishers, it seems, are still looking for a fiction writer who can match her combination of snappy dialogue, seemingly effortless prose, quick wit, a big heart.  Multiple times in the past 20 years, I've seen a new novel--a domestic comedy, perhaps, written by a woman based in New York or Philadelphia--with Laurie Colwin hopefully mentioned on the back cover.  I almost always read these novels, but I am also almost always disappointed.  These writers, these novels, might be good, but they are not Laurie Colwin good.  The publishers are looking for another Laurie, and maybe I am looking for another Laurie, but we will almost certainly never find her.

 The one writer I've discovered who feels like a spiritual cousin to Colwin is Barbara Trapido.  Trapido is a South African living in Britain, but she and Colwin were born within a few years of each other and share a love of the domestic detail, among other things.  Trapido's books are denser and more whimsical than Colwin's, but there is--in my mind--an essence that they share.  Trapido's first novel, Brother of the More Famous Jack, was published in 1982 and highly praised on both sides of the Atlantic.  I wonder if Laurie Colwin, a self-admitted Anglophile, ever read it.   

I recently stumbled upon a blog (reached through the same "Laurie Colwin memorial Symphony Space" search) written by another fan of Colwin's (one who actually attended her memorial!).  He writes of how he wanted to write like Colwin and a grad school professor told him to be careful.  The danger for him was writing characters like Colwin's--upper middle class, urban WASPs or assimilated Jews with old money and lots of things.  This was interesting to me because when I think about my own desire to write like Colwin, it's not her characters I wish I could emulate--though I do enjoy it that she's particularly good at prickly, complicated  women (see Misty Berkowitz in Happy All the Time and Billy De Lielle in Another Marvelous Thing).  It's more her spirit, her optimism, her way with the perfectly chosen detail, her humor, her dialogue.  Colwin's prose reads so easily that it seems that it must have been easy for her to write that way, but of course, it probably wasn't.  

Two brief examples.  In Happy All the Time, Colwin is describing the dauntingly accomplished dilettante Holly Sturgis Morris:

Holly could cook, do needlework, play tennis, and fish.  She had studied the Italic hand, the Carolingian minuscule and the restoration of paintings and china.  She could balance her checkbook to forty-five cents, make a perfect pie crust, identify most wild flowers in the northeastern United States, and bandage simple wounds.  She could stand on her head, do a swan dive, repair lamps and knew the collections of most major museums.  Guido had once recited this list to Vincent, including the fact that Holly spoke French and Italian.

"Does she fly on commercial airlines?" Vincent had asked.

"Of course she does.  Why?"

"Anything short of a transport carrier would crash under the weight of those accomplishments," Vincent had said.
My favorite phrase in the whole thing--"bandage simple wounds." It's what still makes me laugh.

 And here's this brief bit from Another Marvelous Thing, a collection of linked stories that follows the love affair (and aftermath) of a pair of unlikely lovers, a gallant older man and a cranky younger woman.  From the first story, "My Mistress," originally published in Playboy.

In movies, men have mistresses who soothe and pet them, who are consoling, passionate, and ornamental.  But I have a mistress who is mostly grumpy.  Traditional things mean nothing to her.  She does not flirt, cajole, or wear fancy underwear.  She has taken to referring to me as her "little bit of fluff," or she calls me her mistress, as in the sentence: "Before you became my mistress I led a blameless life." 
A few pages later, we learn how they meet, in one of my favorite pickup lines in all of literature:

Billy and I met at a reception to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of one of the journals to which we are both contributors. We fell into a spirited conversation during which Billy asked me if this reception wasn't the most boring thing I had ever been to. I said it wasn't, by a long shot. Billy said: "I can't stand these things where you have to stand up and be civilized. People either yawn, itch, or drool when they get bored. Which do you do?"

I said I yawned.

"Huh," said Billy. "You don't look much like a drooler. Let's get out of here."

My fiction favorites remain Happy All the Time, Another Marvelous Thing and The Lone Pilgrim, though I also have a soft spot for her first novel, Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object.  (I alternate favorites, depending on my mood.)   Her two volumes of food writing (Home Cooking and More Home Cooking) have a cherished place on my kitchen bookshelf.  I still consult her for advice on gingerbread, chocolate cake, Ismail Merchant's creamed corn.  She is less strong on precise measurements and much, much stronger on perfect details.  I would love Home Cooking for no other reason than that it includes the essay "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir."  But even less good Colwin is still better than much else.  When I lived in Delhi in 1993-95, I took her novel Family Happiness out of the American Center library more than once.  It's probably my least favorite of her  novels, but it was the only one they had,  and even lesser Colwin was desirable when Colwin was what I needed.

A month or so ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Northampton League of Women Voters book sale.  It's held every year in late September in the vocational school cafeteria.  Hardcovers are $1 and paperbacks $.50.  No matter what promises of restraint I make to myself, I always fill a bag.  This year I spotted, in quick succession, copies of Happy All the Time and The Lone Pilgrim, donated by the same person (I knew this by the initials penciled in.)  I snatched them up, and I gave them to my friend Janna, whose birthday was approaching.  It felt right to give them to Janna because Janna was 7 when Laurie Colwin died, and it seemed that the best present I could give her (well, along with a tart pan) was an introduction to Laurie Colwin.  I envy her her first encounter with Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, with Holly Sturgis and Misty Berkowitz, lucky people who are lucky in love and can toast to a truly wonderful life without irony.

It's been 20 years without Laurie Colwin.  Her husband is now a novelist, her daughter grown. There is even an official Laurie Colwin website. And, the books are still in print.  There is some comfort in that.


Janna Rose said...

This is a lovely post, Sue, and one I am honored to make a cameo in. Amazingly, too lovely to be coincidentally, this morning I was still horizontal in bed, trying to force my eyes open, when I decided on a whim to reach out, grab Happy All the Time off the shelf, and read the first paragraph. Now I know I'm meant to read this next. Thank you for this fated gift!

Candace said...

And I thought it was just me who was a Colwinite.

I first found out about Laurie Colwin in a metaphysical book that mentioned "Happy All The Time", early '90s. Some years later, I picked up her books.

When I finished reading "HATT", I went right out and bought the rest of her body of work. I was so mad when I realized "this is really it for her, no more after these", I threw something across the room. Seriously.

I make Colwin's gingerbread cake every winter holiday. I tell people about her, and am still mad that she's not here. I read her like some people read the Bible.

Thank you for this wonderful post.

Sandy said...

I just found out about Laurie. I'm reading The Lone Pilgrim. I'm so sad and mad that there is so little of her work for me to become lost in. She will be heartfully recommended to my three daughters.
I don't know her but i miss her.

anneweid said...

I, too, am a Colwinite. I read her books a few years before she died and gobbled them up in succession, feasting on her talented prose. I was DEVASTATED when I read that she had died.
I told a friend, who had lived in New York City and a Colwin fan herself, that Laurie Colwin was the only author I'd ever seriously considered writing to.
Now that my two daughters are adults I really must introduce them to her (her books, that is). If they really want to know about me, then they need to read the books I connected with so deeply, and joyously, years ago.
Thank you for expressing what so many of us feel. This is a lovely tribute.

Anonymous said...

I found this after trolling the internet looking for references to Laurie Colwin, whom I still miss like an amputated limb. Thank you so much for writing about Barbara Trapido! I have now read three of her novels and am awaiting delivery of the rest. I have dutifully plowed my way through a great deal of Barbara Pym because as a Colwin fan I felt I must, but there was nothing dutiful about the delicious experience of reading Brother of the More Famous Jack, Temples of Delight, or Sex and Stravinsky.

BooLitt said...

Hi There, I first read "Happy All The Time" when I was 17, and that original copy is one of my 'go to' books in the case by my bed. I remember searching the internet years ago for something about Laurie Colwin, and coming up empty, so this morning when I searched and found so much, I was delighted. Unfortunately, I did not know she had died, so my delight is mixed with great sadness.

I'm so glad to read your knowledgeable enthusiasm and love for Colwin, and the comments from others. I wish I could write like her, and have been trying since I was 17! At least (and it's a great 'least') we have her writing as Laurie Colwin :)

Sue Dickman said...

This is a belated thanks for the comments from the various Colwin fans who have found your way here. I'm always happy to know other members of the tribe!

Sandi said...

I too miss Laurie Colwin. I found your piece searching 'Laurie Colwin's corn recipe' because we so love it and the fresh corn is just starting to come in. Guess I'll have to go flip through the books and find it. Some day, I AM going to make that Black Cake.

I never read anything but her food essays. I don't mind her vague measurements, that's how I cook too and I'd fiddle with them anyway. You have motivated me to find her fiction though. I looked at them at Powell's one time and the prices they had on them were nothing short of ridiculous ($46 on one of them, used, bullpucky!). Thank you for the nudge.

Deb said...

This is a WONDERFUL tribute. She influenced every aspect of my cooking. I bought all the English cookery writers she mentioned in her food books and never looked back. I'm going to revisit her fiction now and look up Barbara Trapido. Thank you! xx