perm_identity John Bowers: A versatile writer through the decades

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 148 ~ September, 2009

I wonder if I’ll ever get over the apprehension I feel before attending events, especially when the outcome is usually good, with so many such excursions leading to friendships or interesting encounters. And once out, and eventually free of being overly self-conscious, subsequent associations, links, and connections with others seem to naturally flow. But still, the apprehension and anxiety remains. And yet, many times I do things in spite of such anxiety, usually with no one aware of any inner torment swirling about within me.

I get invited to all kinds of literary events, not because I’m anyone special, but more because I’ve successfully landed on many, many mailing lists. Most of the time, I toss such unsolicited mail away without giving it a look. I usually don’t have the time or money to attend special writing conferences, even if I wanted, and as for workshops, I feel well beyond the structured, organized setting of a student, though, of course, there is always much more to learn.

I do vividly remember a teacher I took a course from one summer at the New School many years ago, more years ago than the age of many graduate school students today. I noticed his name on an attractive brochure, light blue, a brochure exactly the right size, pleasant to the eye, information just right, not too crowded or crammed together, announcing he was moderating a panel on memoir writing at the Marymount Manhattan Writing Center. The teacher was Sidney Offit, author of Memoir of the Bookie’s Son, and though I hadn’t seen or been in touch with him in over two decades, I actually remembered specific examples he provided about the craft of fiction writing during that workshop at the New School in what seemed like a former lifetime.

I was hooked, committed to attending, and then was even more surprised when I recognized other prominent writers who were going to be at the Marymount conference, organized by the Writing Center’s Director Lewis Frumkes. Bruce Jay Friedman of Stern fame, and more recently, Three Balconies: A Novella and Stories, was set to join Frumkes on a humor panel. I even ran into my friend, the poet Renee Ashley, and later became friends with Jamie Malanowski, author of the novel, The Coup, and at the time the managing editor of Playboy, who served as the keynote speaker at the conference.

What is really leading me to write this, though, is the writer John Bowers, whom, sorry to say, I had never heard of until I told a writer friend I was attending the Marymount conference and he told me about Bowers, what a great guy, and talented writer, he was. Little did I know that Bruce Jay Friedman had hired Bowers as a writer for a series of men’s magazines when John came to Manhattan in 1962 to pursue the trade of becoming a writer.

I entered the classroom, and after surprising Sidney Offit, I walked up to Bowers and introduced myself, and from the moment I heard his soft, friendly, Tennessee twang, I knew we would hit it off. He was a tall, handsome man, sort of rugged looking, but in a gentle, experienced way, and his eyes stayed focused on me as I talked, so I could immediately tell he was a good listener. He naturally put me at ease, and we chatted on and off as we ran into each other throughout the course of the day – in the elevator, the lunchroom, the corridors, and outside Marymount on East 71st Street between Second and Third Avenue. At the end of the conference, during the obligatory wine reception, we promised to keep in touch, and I knew I had a new friend.

I told Bowers if someone asked, I would probably describe him as a very wise, cosmopolitan, country boy, to which he replied, “That’s flattering and I won’t try to improve on it.”

He said he was born and bred in Johnson City, Tennessee, former frontier country in a mountainous region of East Tennessee. “It was where I was bred, for good or bad,” Bowers said. “My father was a telegrapher for the Southern Railway and it was the Great Depression. He read, I believe, every word that Charles Dickens ever wrote. He loved Dickens and he loved what used to be called detective magazines that recounted lurid crimes and murders. He hid the magazines under the sofa to ward off my mother’s displeasure, though he kept Dickens out in the open.”

Yes, Bowers was a country boy, but he developed into quite a versatile writer, publishing non-fiction books, celebrity profiles, novels, a Civil War book, Chickamauga and Chattanooga: The Battles that Doomed the Confederacy, and even a highly readable biography of General Stonewall Jackson. Still going strong at the age of 81, Bowers has a novel, Love in Tennessee, which was released this month to come out from Red Hen Press.

“We had three squares of comfort food a day, and I’m still looking for fried chicken and hot biscuits and gravy the way they used to be,” Bowers said about his early years. “We owned no car and walked wherever we needed to go. A taxi was taken only in an emergency. I never wanted for clothes. I did want for a car as most families in town had one and it was nearly impossible to date a girl without one.”

Bowers noted his aunt and mother provided an early literary influence, “My aunt, my mother’s sister, lived with us, and I must say, after being around many alleged literary salons and salons in later years, it was the most literary environment I was ever in.

“It was a literary home, I never knew it was unusual,” Bowers said. “Paint might be peeling off the house outside and the porch sagging, but we had books everywhere inside – Dickens for my father, everything else for my mother and aunt: novels by George Elliot, works by Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, and Christopher Morley. We subscribed to the Sunday edition of the New York Times and Blackwood magazine from England. I knew more about the Algonquin Table and Broadway than I did about Main Street.”

Soon after I met Bowers, I bought a number of his books, and luck of the draw, I read The Colony, published in 1971, up at a cottage on a lake in Ontario, far away from television, telephones, and pedestrian routine, much like the environment at the Handy Writers Colony, which the book was about, except there was no one around telling me what to do.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I had never heard of The Handy Colony in Marshall, Illinois, which existed on an informal basis from 1943 to 1951, when it was incorporated, and continued until 1964. I read Bowers book, which opens with a description of going through the gate and up the gravel road in a green 1951 Cambridge Plymouth when Bowers was twenty-three and truly beginning his journey to become a writer.

How did Bowers end up at the Colony? He happened to read an article in Life Magazine about “this bizarre writers’ colony in Illinois where an unusual woman named Lowney Handy had gathered a few misfit young male writers together,” including the famous James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, where they lived a Spartan life and wrote novels. It was 1952, and Bowers had previously served a stint in the U.S. Army, finding himself stationed in Korea during the occupation in ’46 and ’47; then graduated from the University of Tennessee, majoring in English; and perhaps most influential, fell in love with the girl of his dreams, all the while continuing to write short stories, and even a short novel and a play.

“The article was far from an accurate account,” Bowers observed, “but I wrote Lowney and she invited me to join the group. That changed my life just as much as falling in love. I was never the same again?”

Describing a day at the Colony, Bowers said, “We rose at dawn, didn’t speak at a breakfast of cinnamon toast and instant coffee in a common area dubbed the `Ramada’, and then went back to our tiny cell-like rooms and copied sections from other writers work – from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck.”

All I could think of, as Bowers spoke, was the bleary-eyed drudgery of such a task, especially if I had to copy the writing of an author I didn’t like.

Why? What was the method behind the madness? Bowers explained, “It was to get the juices flowing and we’d learn technique subconsciously. That was the idea. Lowney herself was no editor. She was an enthusiast. She also had these crackpot ideas which she pounded into our heads without mercy, a weird mixture of Far Eastern mythology, and interpretations from the Bible. She also had strange thoughts on American history, and she had a temper.

“Practically speaking, we had no contact with the outside world except for a monthly trip to Terre Haute for a wild evening of debauchery,” Bowers continued. “This colony was more a cult than a scholarly retreat. It was so cockamamie that you were in danger of losing whatever value system you brought there. For instance, `love’ became always a dirty word, not something ennobling. `Family’ was something to flee from, not something to hold dear. Women were there to fill their wombs and produce off-spring. Only that, nothing more. Artists were not householders.

“In retrospect, I think Lowney’s advocacy for an artist to live a monastic life was to keep her young lover, James Jones, from flying the coup,” Bowers added. “It was to keep him from marriage and leaving her. I must say, though, in all fairness, that she could be fiercely honest about certain things. And I must admit that I did write a book in the year and a half I was there, not a very good one but a book, and I got a New York agent.”

And he did, going on to write more than one, a copy of his novel No More Reunions in my apartment, a Pocket Book Edition in its second printing, with high praise from Mario Puzo, who stated it was “One of the most touching, truest books about growing up I’ve ever read. I really loved it. It’s funny and sad and there is not one false note in the whole book.”

I asked Bowers about his impressions of James Jones. “He was always a regular guy,” Bowers said. “He put on no airs and he could sniff out hypocrisy and pretense. He was devoted to craft and being a serious writer. We held him in awe at The Colony.”

And other Colony members, what about books or the writing by others that were there. “It’s my impression that they suffer from not presenting universal human situations in a way in which the characters work out their conflicts and dilemmas so we want to turn the page,” Bowers replied. “They just weren’t that interesting. The exception, of course, was Jones. He knew how to tell a story and his characters were interesting.”

While debating which Bowers book to read after The Colony, it was between The Land of NYX, a chronicle about night and its inhabitants in New York City in the early 1980s, or The Golden Bowers, a collection of profiles and interviews which originally appeared in such publications as Esquire, Playboy, New York Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post. Most of the celebrities in The Golden Bowers were well-known figures during my teenage years, but in truth, two jumped out in particular, making me wonder how Bowers must feel today, and I was unable to read one of them until the other night.

Here was Bowers hanging out with Joe Namath, despite being a New York Giants fan and never even having seen the Jets play at the time, and also before “Broadway Joe” made history with the famous Superbowl win in 1969 over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. And Bowers with Dionne Warwick, and Andy Warhol, and tracking down the writer James T. Farrell, but I was stopped when I read the title “All She Needs is Love” about Janis Joplin, age 27, in 1970, only months before she died. For that profile, Bowers traveled with Joplin to a concert in Ann Arbor, and on a plane flight the next day, landing at Newark Airport, so Janis could appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn’t just a profile, it was an adventure, with Bowers taking the reader on a ride with Janis Joplin, even getting thrown out of the Carnegie Hall Tavern into the cold and windy Manhattan night after disturbing patrons at the establishment and not heeding the bartender’s warning.

But the profile I couldn’t read from The Golden Bowers for over a year was the one on Sharon Tate, titled “The Birth of a Star.” Bowers spent time with Tate and Roman Polanski in London before they were married, leaving their apartment for one evening to go to Alvaros restaurant where Laurence Harvey strolled in with a redhead and joined George Hamilton and his blonde female companion at a nearby table. And then, Bowers was later with the doomed aspiring actress at a private discotheque in Beverly Hills, sitting near the dance floor, where other young actresses, such as Patty Duke and Suzanne Pleshette, were showing off the moves of the day.

The horrendous murder of a pregnant Sharon Tate by members of the Manson Family happened 40 years ago, and yet, I can remember the shock I felt, absorbing the coverage in Newsweek and Time Magazine when I had never been known to read a newspaper at the time. And the image of Charles Manson on television, later, after he’d been taken into custody, the personification of demonic insanity which many have classified as the human embodiment of pure evil.

And Bowers knew her, knew Sharon Tate, and spent time with her, writing an article about her before her career had really started, at a time when she had made three movies but none had been released yet. And her appearance in the film Valley of the Dolls still lay ahead, as did her marriage to Polanski, and then the horrifying night when she was brutally murdered with four others in her home on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon in California.

Bowers described Sharon Tate’s murder as his “personal 9/11” and left it at that. Perhaps a more eerie example of the unexpected that sometimes lies ahead are three quick sentences in Bowers’ profile about Tate back in Hollywood where he mentions “she took up with Jay Sebring, a men’s hair stylist,” a name I would never have remembered except that Sebring’s body was found in the living room next to Tate’s, both victims of multiple stab wounds, connected by ropes around their necks.

“A magazine writer perhaps uses only an eighth, if that, of what he takes down on a subject and then there are many things he remembers which he never puts down in his notes,” Bowers stated, “and which are meaningless – except that they never leave the mind.”

That’s how I feel about my time with John Bowers, and I only hope this article is at least half as a good as those in The Golden Bowers, and other places he’s been published.