I was extremely happy, and even more relieved, when the cab pulled up in front of the Hilton Hotel on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago and Bruce Jay Friedman stumbled out with his suitcase on wheels, a fedora slanted down over his forehead against the winter wind, and a mischievous smile showing his awareness of the comic possibilities surrounding the commonplace annoyances of the day to day.
We were in Chicago for the annual AWP Conference in February of 2009, where I was moderating a panel, “Bruce Jay Friedman and Friends on the Short Story.” Since Bruce was my headliner, and his photo was prominent in a full page ad in the conference program announcing our event, I was somewhat anxious that somehow he wouldn’t arrive. My initial plan was for us to fly from New York City together, but like most of my plans, adjustments and minor changes were necessary due to unexpected scheduling problems.
I had arrived the day before, and not being a frequent traveler, and never having been to Chicago, my anxiety lessened when I spotted what I thought was an approachable guy in a suit, the suit of a chauffeur, who indeed did have his own car service, and was more than willing to drive me to the hotel. The driver was rather a pudgy fellow, a non-stop talker, which I didn’t mind much, interjecting an appropriate “yes” and “really” while concentrating on the downtown of the city unfolding ahead. He did go on at length, though, how he started out driving one car, and now he owned and ran a service with three, and he gave me his card, which no cab driver in New York has ever done, at least to me, and encouraged me to call anytime I wanted to go anywhere during my stay.
Good intentions, that’s what I was thinking, when I told him I had a friend, meaning Bruce, flying in the next afternoon and wondered if he would meet him at the airport and make sure he got to the hotel okay. Once I was settled in my room, at the Palmer Hotel, I called Bruce, told him the arrangements, and then gave him the driver’s name and cell phone number. What could go wrong? It was a simple plan. Little did I know, after BJF had landed and gone through the preliminaries of registering and getting up to his room at the hotel, he started to recount his travel mishaps in vivid, humorous detail.
First, the driver, Mike, went to the wrong airport, and that’s where he was when Bruce was at O’Hare and diligently dialed the correct phone number. An aggressive debate ensued. Bruce was anxious to get to the hotel, but Mike wouldn’t accept a “thanks but no thanks” response and persisted in making the case that he should pick up Bruce, he didn’t mind at all, he had lived in Chicago all his life, knew the city intimately, and could get Bruce in forty-five minutes, an hour at the most. I can imagine the phone exchange, or the one-sided, out of touch soliloquy before Mike was soon talking to a dial tone, though I’m positive Bruce was polite, but firm, as he impatiently signed off.
I bought and read Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos, a collection of BJF’s best nonfiction, in which many an anecdote stayed with me, a compliment since much of what I read immediately slips away directly into my subconscious, somewhere, I suspect, or at least hope.
In an interview with Bruce Jay Friedman, he told me while he was the editor of four men’s adventure magazines in the fifties and early sixties, one of the better writers he hired was Mario Puzo, who was moonlighting and writing The Godfather at night, while BJF was completing his novels, Stern and A Mother’s Kisses during the long commute from Manhattan to Glen Cove, Long Island. Puzo, who became a lifelong friend, claimed reading Friedman’s short fiction was “Like a Twilight Zone with Charles Chaplin,” to which, Bruce said, “Puzo was generous with his quotes, although I never did understand that one.”
BJF, who has been hailed as a comic genius, was born in New York City in 1930 and started his versatile career as an editor and magazine and short story writer, going on to write eight novels and four story collections. Friedman attended DeWiit Clinton High School in the Bronx and then went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri. Following college, he served for two years as an officer in the United States Air Force, and then came to Manhattan where he became editorial director for four men’s action magazines, where Puzo became his star World War Two story writer.
A copy of Bruce Jay Friedman’s memoir, Lucky Bruce, published by Biblioasis, a respected publishing house based in Ontario, just arrived at my apartment. The book has received rave reviews, which came as no surprise to me, especially knowing BJF’s sense of humor. Kirkus Review noted, “Whether inadvertently snubbing Marlene Dietrich, chauffeuring Natalie Wood or fist-fighting with Norman Mailer, there are plenty of stories here to solidify Friedman’s ranking as a supreme satirist.”
Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties, republished by PIF Press/Greenpoint Press, who has been friends with BJF for close to 60 years, which is almost incompressible to me, since I’m not even friends today with anyone I knew in college, was the one who introduced me to Bruce. It was on another panel, this time at the AWP Conference in New York City in 2008. The panel, of course, was entitled “New York in the Fifties,” and Bruce was the only one on the panel I hadn’t met before it was show time.
I recognized him right away when he walked into the large room. He was taller than I expected, though I don’t know why I thought he would be shorter, but regardless of his height, his recognizable, trademark smile, one that immediately put you at ease due to what I thought was a conspiratorial acknowledgment that he accepted you were in on the joke, which, of course, most weren’t, and would never be, but it was nice to feel I was, whether I was right or not.
I came down off the stage to greet him, introducing myself and shaking his hand. He looked at me, and giving a quick, subtle shake of his head, said, “You don’t look at all like I expected.”
What could I say, I had no idea what he expected me to look like, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, but his comment was delivered in a friendly observational manner, and right away, I knew we’d get along.
I was amazed at those on the panel, all part of what I considered the post war landscape of New York’s literary history. Why I was there made me think it was an accident, but since the members of the panel — the historian and novelist, Thomas Fleming; composer/musician David Amram; writer and teacher, Stephen Koch, former head of the MFA writing program at Columbia University; and BJF and Wakefield — thought I was okay, so I forced myself to defer to their collective judgment.
Standing at the podium, the panelists were seated on the far side of tables on both sides. Amram was seated to my left, and Bruce was just to my right. Wakefield spoke first, followed by Amram, who played an amazing rendition of Amazing Grace on some sort of special flute, and then it was time to introduce Bruce Jay Friedman.
To this day, he won’t let me forget that introduction, calling it the most incongruous one he’d ever received. All I did was repeat an anecdote from his book Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos, one I liked, and one I actually remembered. It had to do with name-dropping in Hollywood. I embellished the story a bit, but basically credited BJF with giving the quintessential example of name-dropping, going on to say a friend of his was supposed to have lunch with Bruce, but was coughing over the phone, the type of couch one conjured up as a kid to get out school. The friend was a bit actor and told Bruce he was sorry to have to cancel lunch but he had “caught Pierce Brosnan’s cold.”
I got a good laugh from the audience but then there was an awkward moment as I waited for Bruce to get up and replace me at the podium. He didn’t move. I waited some more. Silence ensued. What I didn’t know was that Bruce wanted to remain seated while talking, apparently his back was bothering him, and he had asked Dan Wakefield if it would be okay, and of course, Dan said it would be, but somehow the message was never conveyed to me.
Everything worked out, I caught on and moved away from the podium, and Bruce, still seated, started talking, telling stories, and then with a look of almost surprised bewilderment, waited many times for the laughter to die down before he continued. One particularly memorable anecdote was about Mario Puzo coming to him to see what he thought of The Godfather as a possible title for the novel he had just finished. In all honesty and candor, with deadpan seriousness, Bruce said he responded, “You know, Mario, I’m not sure, but I think The Godfather sounds a bit too domestic.”
I’m pretty sure, being a true friend, Bruce didn’t minded Mario not taking his advice on that one. I was happy they got along so well, and at times, when Bruce has been talking to me one on one and mentions Mario Puzo, I can tell how much Bruce misses him, missing a friend he obviously trusted very much.
I wasn’t sure Bruce enjoyed being on the panel in New York, that is until I received an unexpected phone call and he said, “You know I wouldn’t mind being on another panel. How about one on the short story?” In a deft, flawless passing of the baton, I understood and took it from there, and lo and behold, we ended up in Chicago together for yet another panel.
Our panel had a great time slot, early afternoon on the first day of the conference, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the number of people who showed up. Every seat in the large ballroom was filled, there must have been about 450 people, but we had nothing to fear, once Bruce started talking the audience was prepared to listen to him for hours.
And why not? Bruce had the credentials, he was a successful novelist, short story writer, playwright, and Oscar-nominated screenwriter for the movie Splash. I remember seeing a production of his play, Steambath, in 1973 on Channel 13 (PBS), with Bill Bixby playing the role of Tandy, and featuring Valerie Perrine, who made television history as the first female to have her nipples displayed, intentionally and not accidentally, on American broadcast television.
We were finished with our obligations at the AWP Conference in Chicago after the first day, but Bruce stayed on through Saturday night, and we flew back to New York City together on Sunday afternoon. The reason he extended his stay was because the novelist and short story writer, Richard Bausch, was only coming in for one day and Bruce, who admires Bausch’s stories, wanted to see him. So, as an unexpected bonus, we ended up having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with Richard Bausch and his close friend, the writer Allen Wier, author of the epic novel Tehano.
Bruce was the one who insisted we must have Chinese food; in fact, every night during our stay he wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant but we failed to do so until Bausch arrived. From my interview with BJF, I knew his inspiration for Steambath came from “a bad experience with the food at a Chinese restaurant” where he admitted, he “thought that was it for me,” causing him to think of death and mortality. Fortunately, or unfortunately, no such experience happened at dinner with Bausch, whom BJF to this day says was the only one who ordered something good, shrimp, of which Bruce ate half the order.
It was a nice experience seeing writers who were so generous about each other’s work. Bausch and BJF also shared the experience of teaching in an extensive one-week writing program in July at Humber College in Toronto, where Bruce has been invited back for 18 consecutive years.
I should probably start winding this down before I go off on an extraneous tangent about my Canadian connections since both my parents were born and raised in Ontario, moving to New York City shortly after they were married. I would be remiss, though, or at least feel I would, if I didn’t say in addition to publishing Lucky Bruce, and Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella, also by Bruce Jay Friedman, Biblioasis has published such great Canadian writers as John Metcalf, Ray Smith, Leon Rooke, and Clark Blaise, who like me, was born in the United States of Canadian parents, though from different Provinces than mine, as well as talented younger writers Ray Roberston, Rebecca Rosenblum, and Claire Tacon, all of whom have forthcoming books coming out this fall.
In conclusion, all I can say is I feel lucky to know Bruce Jay Friedman and now it’s time to end this essay and begin reading Lucky Bruce, which I am positive I will finish in one sitting, two at the most.