Monday, March 30, 2020

My First Time: Elizabeth Kadetsky

My First In-Depth Encounter with an Actual Author

In 1990, the summer before I enrolled at Columbia Journalism School, a friend had passed along her job as amanuensis to a man whom I will call Harry Dewitt because, really, he was a very nice man, and I appreciate the exposure he gave me to an old-fashioned view of the publishing industry. It is not his real name.

Harry met me in his floor-through Park Avenue apartment, a grand if faded space adorned with dusty oriental carpets and rattan. I remember a French sculpture that resembled Rodin’s The Kiss. Harry appeared to be in his eighties, with pressed slacks belted too high, a stoop, and prominent eyebrows. He looked at me shyly and actually said, “You’ll do,” though his manner was less intimidating at first than bashful, almost like a boy on a first date.

“The new amanuensis,” he added, to himself. He spoke with an antiquated New York accent similar to the one I’d often heard in Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn movies, speaking to a sort of continental, American but not quite American persona. Or maybe it was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success that his accent evoked for me. Harry said he’d been working on his memoirs—memoihhss—but that until he had a better sense of my abilities we’d start with correspondence. They were putting on a new production of one of his plays in Bonn. He named the play by title. I’d heard of it, hadn’t I, he asked, and of him? I avoided the questions by saying that I’d been living in California, though I did tell him honestly that my friend had caught me up to date on his biography.

He set me up at an IBM Selectric typewriter and began dictating from a large oak desk with small pieces of primitive-style art that seemed mildly erotic in nature. “Verlag Straussberg, ” he began, adding an address with a multisyllabic German street name.

“Excuse me. One g or two in Verlag?” I interrupted.

He looked at me with contempt. “My dear. Where did you go to college? Verlag. Publisher, in German, of course. Excuse me,” he added. He walked to the end of the large room, probably the apartment’s fifth or sixth bedroom, then he walked back officiously and began pacing as he continued to dictate.

“Dear George. My fourth play, first produced on Broadway in 1934, is being restaged in Bonn this coming January. I trust you recall the extent of my oeuvre, which spans forty debut productions in cities including Dusseldorf, Bruges and Trieste.

“The production in Bonn marks the first staging of works by, and I quote, ‘distinguished American playwright Harry Dewitt, author of several powerful plays about men struggling in the vortex of history. They advocate ideas, suffer, often are executed, but eventually their ideas win.’”

“Do you want to add the citation?” I asked.

“Citation? Oh no, no. It’s from the New York T…” he said, trailing off—I later discovered it was from not the Times, but from a small weekly newspaper upstate. He walked up behind me. “My dear, you are an awfully slow typist.” He put on his reading glasses and peered at the page, which by now, it was true, had more correction fluid than type. “Comma!” he added. “My God! What are they teaching you in California? Don’t you know that the last item in a series always takes a comma!?”

This of course was not categorically true; even I knew that the Chicago Manual of Style offered caveats for the Oxford comma, but I added the comma as he wished, in the space between the words Bruges and Trieste.

“Oh no no!” he cried, watching. “A Space. A space!” He reached across me from behind so close I felt a wind at my ear. He tore the paper from the typewriter. “Start again.” He handed me a new piece of his stationery, from a full, double-ream-sized box. The page had his name and Upper East Side address embossed in raised, shiny letters.

I would have been offended at his maltreatment of me, but I did feel sorry for Harry Dewitt. It went on like this. He re-dictated the same letter fourteen times that first day, addressed to, I think, every German publisher whose address he’d been able to locate in a directory then useful, before Google, called the Gale Directory. The letter didn’t actually have a point, just to remind the reader that he existed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I could easily just copy it while he went back to his important work creating oeuvres treating the struggle of man against will, evil, and ignorance.

Later he introduced me to his wife, Daphne, also in her eighties, a sharply-dressed white-headed woman with sparkling pins in her hair who treated her husband with all the regard he’d come to expect given his stellar career. “Ah, the new amanuensis,” Daphne had said, upon meeting me, with no trace of humor or irony in her voice at all.

Later, once I enrolled at Columbia, I met several students who’d worked as assistants to actually famous writers, such as Mary Gordon, David Halberstam, and Gail Sheehy. None of these students had ever heard the word amanuensis.

I suppose one’s relative standing in the world of writers determines the relative length of the words they must use to describe their importance. Harry, I think, benefitted less from my actual typing and secretarial skills than from the mere fact I played a role that enhanced his own.

Today I see that Harry Dewitt is easily Wikipedi-able, and that his Wikipedia page was obviously written by himself. I’d typed its exact words many times. He was born in 1906 and lived to a hundred. Such stamina. But was he the real thing? Did his stamina, post-1940, when his fourth play was produced in Lausanne, ever get channeled to his work, or was it devoted for the next fifty years solely to the task of promoting the creations of his younger genius. Too bad for Harry he didn’t live to see Facebook. Okay, maybe he was a fraud. Maybe his labors with his revolving door of amanuenses provide just a cautionary tale. But working for Harry Drewitt showed me an old way of life. And it also showed me that in the Facebook and Twitter era, self-promotion has merely taken another form. Literature and the pursuit of status will always be intertwined. Sometimes I remember Harry as I read Facebook to myself. I put on his Cary Grant accent and read aloud, and I am possessed of a feeling I have gained a greater perspective on our literary times.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s memoir-in-essays, The Memory Eaters, explores family illness, addiction, inherited trauma, and the secrets of her inherited past. She is author of the memoir First There Is a Mountain, the short story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World. A professor of creative writing at Penn State and nonfiction editor at the New England Review, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell Colony, and Vermont Studio Center.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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