After just one night with native son and Ironweed author William Kennedy, you come to realize how he could put this city on the literary map.
By Bill Beuttler (American Way, January 1, 1993)
William Kennedy’s duck is getting cold. He has already sent it back once for microwaving, but it’s really no use. Not that it’s the fault of the people at L’Auberge, the splendid French restaurant in downtown Albany, New York, where Kennedy and his wife are celebrating (a day late) his 64th birthday and the completion of his screenplay about two sportswriters who take opposite sides in a New York News newspaper strike. No, the reason Kennedy’s dinner is getting cold is that Hollywood keeps ringing up every five minutes or so with questions about his other film script, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, which he adapted from his third novel.
So Kennedy — medium-tall, trim, bespectacled — keeps bobbing up from the table to answer telephone summonses, shaking his head with good-natured chagrin (ah, what he wouldn’t have given for this kind of attention a decade earlier, when nobody wanted to publish Ironweed) and leaving his wife, Dana, to field questions about his work habits and family life. A petite former dancer, Dana is used to helping Bill out when he’s busy, which lately seems to be all the time.
He took the script assignment, you see, as a fun change of pace from his just-completed novel Very Old Bones. Four years in the writing, the new book concludes the Phelan family saga begun in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed. It’s an important addition to his expanding circle of Albany novels, fleshing out the Phelans’ complicated history with his usual hallmarks — lush language, a rich mix of laughter and tragedy, and palpable evocations of Albany’s past. They began with The Ink Truck in 1969, and next came three novels set in the Thirties, the so-called Albany trilogy: Legs, a fictional account of real-life bootlegger Jack “Legs” Diamond’s life; Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game; and Ironweed, which earned the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize — and very nearly never got published.
Between forkfuls of duck and trips to the phone, Kennedy recounts how Saul Bellow helped get Ironweed into print when Viking was having second thoughts about the marketability of a novel about an Albany hobo. Bellow, about to be interviewed by Kennedy for a magazine profile, had read Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, liked it, and sent the editors at Viking a letter calling the Albany novels “a distinguished group of books.” Viking not only proceeded to publish Ironweed, it decided to reissue Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. All three have been in print ever since.
Suddenly, with the surprise success of Ironweed in 1983, Kennedy was a hot commodity. In short order he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant, founded the New York State Writers Institute, co-scripted The Cotton Club with director Francis Ford Coppola, wrote the screen version of Ironweed (filmed in Albany in 1987, starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep), and began plugging away at his 1988 novel, Quinn’s Book.
Lately, he’s kept every bit as busy. Besides Very Old Bones and the newspaper-strike script, Kennedy is assembling his second collection of nonfiction pieces, has just finished co-writing a second children’s book with his 22-year-old son, Brendan, and is collaborating with Brendan on a film proposal for Disney. This plus his usual duties as director of the New York State Writers Institute, which since its launch with Nobel laureate Bellow in 1984 has brought nearly 200 of the world’s best writers to the State University of New York-Albany campus for public readings, lectures, and seminars. And, oh yes, Kennedy has also already begun gestating yet another Albany novel.
Now, at last, comes some time to relax ... but he can’t quite manage to do so. There are all those pesky phone calls, for one thing, and he still seems to be downshifting from whatever creative gear he’d been working in this afternoon. He has also promised to conduct a quick tour of his hometown after dinner, a rare chance to explore with the author the real-life streets that have fueled his imagination and filled his books.
“Where were we?” he asks, returning from the house phone. The calls are coming so fast now that Dana fielded one at the table while he was away, this one from one of their daughters. Kennedy shrugs slightly and flashes an embarrassed but slightly pleased grin. Conversation will be better in the car, his look says, away from the baying of Hollywood.
In Kennedy’s green Jaguar after dinner, Dana drives while Kennedy narrates, the author transformed from distracted artist to a focused and knowledgeable historian the moment he hits his hometown streets.
The authority comes naturally. Kennedy has spent nearly his whole life in Albany, growing up on North Pearl Street (the house at 620 North Pearl is the model for where Francis Phelan visits his abandoned family in Ironweed) and graduating from Siena College just outside town. Kennedy swings past the Capital City Rescue Mission, the model for the flophouse where Helen and Francis meet up toward the beginning of Ironweed. The real-life mission is still in use, judging by the handful of transients outside it. From here, it’s a couple of more blocks to the corner of State and Pearl.
“State and Pearl was the center of the city,” Kennedy explains. “It’s a bunch of banks now — and that’s really what’s happened to Albany downtown. Banks, banks, banks. Lawyers, lawyers, lawyers.”
But it’s also a place loaded with submerged history, if, like Kennedy, you know where to look for it behind boarded-up or refurbished façades. “Right here, right where it says ‘space available,’ that’s where Keeler’s was,” he says excitedly. “Stop here for a minute.”
In its heyday, Kennedy says, Keeler’s Hotel took up half a city block, with entrances on Broadway and Maiden Lane. Inside were bowling lanes, billiards, and restaurants that were open to women. But Keeler’s was primarily a hotel for men, popular with salesmen and the sporting crowd. Legs Diamond stayed here occasionally, and this is where Kennedy has Francis and Billy pick up Peter Phelan in a rowboat to take him to Union Station during Albany’s famous flood of 1913. Keeler’s Hotel burned in 1917, but Keeler’s restaurant on nearby State Street remained Albany’s best restaurant for many years, until bust times downtown forced its closing in late 1969.
From Keeler’s, we continue north on Broadway through Billy Phelan’s old turf, the city’s old gambling district of the Twenties and Thirties between Maiden and Columbia streets. Little Harlem used to butt up against here, and white and black nightlife intermingled in the jazz clubs and speakeasies of the period. It was a wild, wide-open town then; now there is nothing but dingy storefronts. “This was the world,” Kennedy says wistfully, “and there’s nothing left. An incredibly vital time.”
A parking sign a bit farther north, near the old Traction Company, marks the spot where strikers stopped the trolley during the strike of 1901. Kennedy explains how bed-sheets were thrown onto the trolley wires so they’d combust and melt the metal. Federal troops fired into the crowd that day, killing two innocent bystanders. And, in Kennedy’s Ironweed embellishment of this real-life event, a teenaged Francis Phelan killed for the first time, busting the head of a scab trolley conductor by throwing a rock at him.
“You’re right in the middle of what from 1850 to 1880, 1890, was the center of money,” Kennedy says as we drive on through present-day Albany, which like so many small cities is struggling to bounce back from the suburban flight of the Sixties and Seventies. The old-time opulence of this neighborhood is gone, but Kennedy retains it in his imagination. “Right up the block is Colonie Street, where the family home was of the Phelans.”
He pauses a beat, worried that fact and fiction might be becoming blurred. “It really wasn’t the Phelans,” he explains, to be safe. “You understand that it was never a real thing. It’s just the basis for the imagination. I think that’s an important thing to say.”
When it was made into a movie, much of Ironweed was shot here, in or near Arbor Hill: Francis’ fictional boyhood home on Colonie; Finney’s car (where Helen spends a particularly unpleasant night), down where Colonie runs beneath the expressway near the Hudson River; St. Joseph’s church, where Helen goes to pray and finds a $10 bill (and the Kennedy family church when he was a boy). And 21 Ten Broeck Street figures heavily in the death, real and fictional, of Legs Diamond.
“Right here is where Kiki Roberts — Legs Diamond’s girlfriend — had her apartment on the third floor,” says Kennedy as we pull up at the three-story brownstone. “That was the end of Legs Diamond’s life. I mean, he left here, and he went home, and they shot him. He was in bed.”
“At our house,” adds Dana. She means the townhouse at 67 Dove Street that the Kennedy’s discovered for sale in 1985 while taking a guest on a tour similar to this one.
Other landmarks follow. The Palace Theater, one of the great movie palaces of the Thirties. The Melville House, where the author of Moby-Dick lived briefly. (“It’s now owned by my accountant,” says Kennedy, smiling.) One landmark, however, merits more than a quick drive-by. “Here’s the Kenmore Hotel,” he says, having Dana pull to the curb for another of Legs Diamond’s old haunts. “This was probably the most notorious and most powerful place for music in the Twenties and Thirties.” The hotel’s legendary Rain-Bo Room was “where big bands could make their reputation, and go over the Blue Network — WGY had a direct hookup — and so you could send your music out just because you were playing in beautiful downtown Albany.”
“Ah, so much!” Kennedy gushes as Dana aims the Jaguar west on Central Avenue. She is headed toward the Boulevard Cafe. In the movie version of Ironweed, it’s The Gilded Cage, where Francis, Helen, Rudy, and Pee Wee drop by to see fallen radio star Oscar Reo, the singing bartender with whom Francis and Pee Wee once shared an extended drunk.
Who can forget Meryl Streep belting out “He’s Me Pal” here: poor, doomed, idealistic Helen insisting in song that she’d rather have her man at $15 a week “than be some old millionaire’s gal.” But do moviegoers realize that the swell Helen kisses as she wanders through her imagined crowd is William Kennedy himself? Or that that’s Dana beside him in the cameo?
There’s no such crowd here tonight. A light snow and bitter wind are keeping people home. But there is music, even though the Kennedys and I are the only customers here to hear it. A tough night for Matt Daskalakis, the ex-minor-league baseball player who had bought the run-down building a few years earlier, and a couple of weeks afterward caught the lucky break of having Hollywood refurbish it for him free of charge.
The Boulevard is a favorite Kennedy hangout. It plays his kind of music: old-time jazz and pop tunes, especially Frank Sinatra. Kennedy wrote the album notes for Sinatra’s 81-song Reprise Collection, and the Boulevard — like Sinatra and Kennedy’s fiction — is a proud throwback to an earlier era. Tonight’s act, the Valentines, a pair of dark-haired, fortyish gents on drums and keyboard, have only a couple of Sinatra tunes in their repertoire. No matter. Kennedy steps into the breach with his own singing debut, taking a couple of solo verses of “She’s Funny That Way” solo from our table:
“Though she likes to work and slave for meeee every day/She’d be so much better off if IIIII went awaaay/But how could I leave her, how could I go?/She’d be unhappy without me I know/I got a woman crazy for me/She’s funny that way.”
“How ’bout ‘New York, New York’?” he asks the band when the tune ends. “You know that one?”
This could be trouble. Kennedy has bragged in The New York Times Magazine about playing the tune 60 times one night in 1983, staying up until 5 a.m. calling “friends in New York and San Juan and Aspen and permitting them to stop sleeping and get out of bed and listen along.”
A second round of drinks and several Sinatra songs later, en route to his Dove Street townhouse, Kennedy mentions an essay he’s writing for a baseball anthology. That brings up the story of Bandy Edmunds, from O Albany!, about a real-life local baseball player who had gone off to the big leagues, got homesick, and returned to Albany to spend his life working as a fireman. “He just came home and sat around Eightsies,” recalls Kennedy. “Eightsies was Engine 8. And his sister, Marie, used to take his lunch down to him every day in a basket. ...
“He’s going down in history after O Albany!, after that anecdote,” Kennedy says, laughing. “Bandy Edmunds was a great ballplayer. I mean, maybe he was; I don’t know. This is what people told me. This is how history is made. It’s how myth is made.”
It is also close to how Kennedy’s brand of fiction is made. Take a real time and place, and a real type of people, let the imagination go to work on them, and create your own complex, enduring myths. Myths not just of Albany, but America itself in microcosm. It’s an approach that demands a gut-thorough understanding of the history of one’s place, and Kennedy is fortunate to have had his seep in like it did.
He might never have left Albany at all after returning from his Army hitch in Germany if a dim-bulbed Times-Union editor hadn’t convinced him the city and its newspaper were terminally unhip by refusing to run a Louis Armstrong profile Kennedy had written. Kennedy left Albany for a newspaper job in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1956, and a few months later, Dana journeyed there from New York to visit some relatives. They met, and he proposed on their third date. After a brief stint at the Miami Herald, he and Dana moved back to San Juan, where in 1959 he joined two other editors in founding the San Juan Star.
Puerto Rico was wonderful to the Kennedys for the next six years. Daughters Dana and Katherine were born there, and lasting friendships were formed with other talented young expatriates such as Hunter S. Thompson, whom Kennedy initially rejected for a job at the Star. Thompson sent back a letter threatening to “ram a bronze plaque far into your small intestine and kick your teeth out,” among other such pleasantries. A couple of months later, Thompson moved to San Juan to take a different job, he and Kennedy met ... and they became instant good friends.
Meanwhile, Kennedy was at work on his first novel. He had been writing short stories in his spare time for years, and eventually gave up his managing-editor position at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Star for part-time weekend duties that would allow him more time for writing.
Kennedy found himself shifting away from the flat, lifeless expatriate’s fiction he’d been writing about Puerto Rico. His imagination kept turning back to Albany.
“Sense of place was the thing I valued,” he recalls, “and I attributed it in large measure to [William] Faulkner. Because I couldn’t get over reading The Sound and the Fury, what an extraordinary experience that was for me to read that book again and again and again. And those people became so real for me. And the place became so real. And I couldn’t do that in Puerto Rico. I didn’t know enough about where I came from. And so I’m sure that the unconscious was at work at that time to drive me back here just to do that. I used to say, ‘When I get home I’m gonna do some research on Albany.’”
He got his chance in 1963, when he returned to care for his ailing father, and took it as “a gift from the great literary editor in the sky” when a Times-Union editor took asked him to write a series on Albany’s neighborhoods. The series led to Kennedy’s nonfiction book O Albany! nearly 20 years later, but it also gave Kennedy’s fiction the rootedness it had been missing. The result: the richest continuing fictional evocation of an American place since Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.
“Something has to happen to transform you, to make you like your history, you know? I mean, once you like it, then you can go back and find it again, which is what happened to me,” he says. “That’s why I dedicated O Albany! to ‘people who used to think they hated the place where they grew up, and then took a second look.’ And loved it, whatever. That was a true thing.”
Not that Kennedy himself despised Albany when he went away. “Oh, I didn’t hate it,” he corrects. “I never hated Albany. I was just glad to be rid of it. I figured, ‘I’m out of there. I’ll do something else now.’ But I didn’t understand who I was or what I was doing or what I was really interested in. Because to be interested in a place is a gift. And once I understood the gift, it just became so significant in my whole life.”
Later, over a snifter of vodka, with recorded Sinatra warbling in the townhouse, he muses again on the theme of Albany’s change. “It’s such a legitimate town,” he says. “There’s no comparison between the old days and now.”
Kennedy greets me late the following afternoon at his Averill Park farmhouse, about 20 minutes east of Albany. The Kennedys have lived here since their return from Puerto Rico nearly 30 years ago, spending most of that time — until he started making decent money with Ironweed — in what Kennedy once called a state of “pleasant impecunity.”
He zips upstairs to his office to dash off a blurb for Gay Talese’s autobiographical history of Italian-Americans, Unto the Sons. Crammed bookshelves line three walls from floor to ceiling, and behind his desk — where he pecks away on his computer, as unself-conscious in my presence as a reporter in a crowded city room — hang favorite photos: Bill and Dana with Coppola; a young, mustached Bill frolicking with the baby Brendan; a famous portrait of novelist James Joyce; an especially treasured photo of Louis Armstrong, autographed by Satchmo the night of that spiked interview.
When he’s finished the blurb, he heads downstairs to the pool room built onto the house two years earlier. It’s a big room, but cozy, with wood paneling, bookcases, a bar, and a fireplace.
Kennedy pours himself a glass of Beaujolais, settles onto a big stuffed chair, and begins discussing Very Old Bones. He says the book had its genesis — like Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed before it — in an unpublished apprentice novel he had begun in San Juan, The Angels and the Sparrows. The new book took four years to complete, and includes characters that Kennedy has explored before.
“Francis comes back and Billy Phelan comes back,” Kennedy says. “So in a sense, it’s climactic work in the Albany novels — for the Phelan family. There’s still a lot of people hanging loose there.” He laughs. “The Quinns and the Daughertys ...”
Is he planning to go back to these other families (and perhaps Helen’s family, the Archers) in future novels? “I think so,” he says. “I’m not sure where I’m going. I’ve been trying to do that for a month now. I think I’m focusing, but I’m not sure. If I am, it’s a big book, because there’s an awful lot of people and events in it.”
This isn’t exactly a thrilling prospect for the man who will have to write it. “It don’t like big books, Kennedy admits. “I don’t want to write them, I don’t want to read them.”
Writing screenplays, on the other hand, can be fun for him. His latest, for example. “It was a perfect thing for me to do after finishing a novel,” says Kennedy. “It’s a total change of my head from the darkness of the novel into the lightness of this fun comedy — it’s a comedy, with serious overtones, about a strike. But it changed my head totally, it was perfect.
“And now I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.” He laughs again. “Now that I’ve finished both of these things. I have about 20 projects in the works, but I don’t know. What I know is gonna happen next is I’ve got a nonfiction book that I’m working on.” There is also that Disney collaboration, the newest version of which Brendan has been attempting to modem here while we speak.
“I work all day, every day,” he replies matter-of-factly, when asked how he keeps up with it all. No sadness or drudgery is implied in his answer — or bragging, for that matter. Kennedy simply enjoys his work. “That’s what I do,” he says. “I work. But I also have a good time. I see a lot of my friends, hang out, go dancing occasionally. But that’s in the evening usually. In the daytime, it’s work.”
Should a question remain about Kennedy’s love of his work, one only need turn to his novels for an answer, particularly to a passage near the end of Quinn’s Book. Substitute “William Kennedy” for “Daniel Quinn,” alter a few other details, and Kennedy could very easily be writing about himself:
Mine was clearly a life fulfilled by language, and I was coming to see that through that, and only that, could I in some unknown way gild the eccentric life of Magdalena, or the tragedy of Joshua, or my own thrumming symphony of mysteries. By devising a set of images that did not rot on me overnight, I might confront what was worth confronting, with no expectation of solving the mysteries, but content merely to stare at them until they became as beautiful and valuable as Magdalena had always been, and as Maud now was.
It was in this elated frame of mind that I picked up a pen and set down a handful of words that I hoped would begin the recovery not only of what had been lost but also of what I did not know had been lost, yet surely must have been. I was persuading myself that if I used the words well, the harmony that lurked beneath all contraries and cacophonies must be revealed. This was an act of faith, not reason.
And so, rather than writing Magdalena’s obituary, I began to write her story, taking facts not from her cuttings but from my imagination, where, like a jungle flower, she had long since taken root.
I, Daniel Quinn ... would, with the courage false or real that comes with an acute onset of hubris, create a world before which I could kneel with awe and reverence as I waited to be carried off into flights of tragic laughter.
There will be more time spent seeking flights of tragic laughter tomorrow, of course. Tonight, there’s a dinner party to go to in a half-hour. Dana is upstairs getting dressed for another weekend night out, and Kennedy turns his chair to face the fire while he waits.
“Okay,” he says, pouring himself another glass of Beaujolais, “let’s play a little Frank.”
Bill Beuttler is a Chicago-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to American Way.