Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage against the dying of the light with a well-mixed martini in your hand.
In a recent post about a Vox spoken-poetry performance, Art Scatter mentioned in passing “the magician’s drone of listening to the likes of W.H. Auden reciting his own work.” That phrase caught the attention of playwright, novelist and filmmaker Charles Deemer, who passed along the following memory of the great gimlet-eyed poet. (And, yes, we know it was Dylan Thomas who advised against going gentle into that good night. Thomas was known to pack away a brew or two, himself.)
Since you mention Auden …” Deemer writes, “his magical readings were more magical than meets the eye.
In 1963 I had the honor of hosting Auden, who was giving a reading at a community college I attended at the time. There was a dinner and reception before the reading, during which he drank, by my own nervous count, a dozen martinis! And seemed drunk. We didn’t know what to do, and when approached he assured us all was fine, no, he didn’t want any coffee …. so off we went to the reading, nervous as hell. He still seemed drunk to me when he went to the podium. Then somehow he didn’t. He gave a brilliant, flawless reading. Then he stepped away, seemed drunk again, and wanted to know when he could have a drink.
Remembering Auden’s feat got Deemer going, and he passed along another couple of encounters.
My other favorite “famous writer” story happened in the mid 70s.
At a university dinner party in Maryland I was seated next to the visiting and very old Katherine Anne Porter. She was a remarkable woman, telling me story after story about Paris in the 20s. Anyway, dinner ended, the drinking began (it was an English Dept party known for its drinking), but we stayed at the table, she talking, me listening. After an hour or so, some faculty member with too much to drink stumbled and knocked down a lamp behind us. Porter grabbed my arm, leaned close, and said, “Why are people throwing things?” I’ll never forget it!
So I might as well add my Ken Kesey story and conclude the deal.
In the 80s (aha, a famous writer story for each decade!) I was performing my Woody Guthrie one-man show at a camp ground on the coast at night. Some asshole was singing along out of key. He intro’d himself after the show, yep, Ken Kesey, looking the part dressed like a logger, boots, plaid shirt and suspenders etc. He invited me for a drink, we drove down the coast in his convertible and stopped at a bar. In which Ken Kesey drank … MAI TAIs! The picture of this rugged logger guy drinking these dainty drinks with little umbrellas in them … another unforgettable moment.
That got me thinking about my own college-days encounter with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., who was something of a reluctant god in university circles in the late 1960s. He made the circuit, got paid a lot of money for giving 20-minute readings, and of course was obligated to show up at cocktail parties littered with the needy souls of those few and lonely locals who could truly appreciate the genius of the literary man of the moment.
The party took place in a swaybacked Craftsman-style flat gone to pot in more ways than one, and Vonnegut, Einstein hair crackling under the bare light bulb, clearly wasn’t in a party mood. He kept edging into corners, which were mostly stacked with yellowed copies of the New York Review of Books, and one particularly eager faculty member kept edging in on him, like a yawping poodle, begging for attention. The closer he got the farther Vonnegut retreated, but the space was narrowing. Then the faculty member tripped — and spilled his red wine all over the front of Vonnegut’s rumpled corduroy sport jacket. Vonnegut and the poodle froze, one in anger, the other in acute embarrassment. I happened to be standing nearby, and Vonnegut looked at me. “Do you have a car?” he asked coolly. Yes, I said, I did. “I have a headache,” Vonnegut said. “Would you mind delivering me to my hotel?” So I did. The great man was ruthlessly quiet on the drive. “Thank you,” he said when we reached the hotel. He opened the door and got out, and that was the last time I saw Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. I returned to the party, which had thinned out considerably. The academic literati who remained seemed thoroughly depressed. The potheads didn’t seem to notice. They just kept partying on.
Maybe you have your own stories about great figures behaving badly, or just humanly. Let’s gather them here. Hit that comment button.
ILLUSTRATIONS, from top:
— W.H. Auden, Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons
— Dirty little martini/Wikimedia Commons
— United States postage stamp, Katherine Anne Porter and the ship of fools
— Statue of Ken Kesey in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: Cacophany/2007, Wikimedia Commons
— The book “Conversations with Kurt Vonnegut.” Evidently, some lasted longer than Mr. Scatter’s.