May 31, 2010

The Mensch Who Liked Egg Creams


Memories of Stuart Kaminsky

The first time I met Stuart Kaminsky was in Spain, about twenty years ago. I was new to the mystery game and basking in the warm greetings to my first novel when I was invited to attend the Semana Negra, that grand carnival held each year to celebrate the black or crime novel. Authors from around the world gathered in Madrid and got aboard the black train for the long ride to Gijon on the northern coast. The train was a special one, normally set aside for the king of Spain, with beautiful woodwork, linen-covered dining tables, and free-flowing wine.

Despite all the attention Stuart was drawing from the international writers and critics, as well as the Spanish press, Stuart seemed much more concerned with the comfort of his wife, Enid Perll, and their young daughter Natasha, whom I remember wearing a dress like Alice in Wonderland’s and charming even the most supercilious authors.

By J. Madison Davis for World Literature Today

Paco Ignacio Taibo II, the celebrated Mexican novelist and driving force behind the Semana Negra promised Stuart a special gift on his arrival at the festival grounds, and it turned out to be a big gift—literally. The gates to the festival grounds were built in the form of giant books, tall as the Gate of Ishtar, and one of them was Stuart's Never Cross a Vampire. If I remember correctly, there were only three other books: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, a novel by Spain's Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and, I think, The Maltese Falcon. Stuart seemed amused by the honor, but he had to be pleased. Annually for several years, thousands of people walked past an Oldenburg-sized Jamás te cruces con un vampiro, with Bela Lugosi staring out at them from the cover.

Of the hundreds of thousands of crime writers since Poe, the Semana Negra had placed Stuart in a special class. The division between high and low culture is a perennial issue of contention in European crime writing circles. Can a detective novel be considered literature? Many European crime writers push hard against the confinement of popular culture to a ghetto, and Stuart's Toby Peters novels represented the union of high and low, the creation of a new category—without borders, as Paco Taibo would say. Toby Peters, with the first names of Stuart's two sons, is a fictional detective who works Hollywood in the 1940s. Throughout the two dozen novels, he encounters the great movie stars from Joan Crawford to John Wayne to Bela Lugosi.

Because Stuart was a professor of film, many people wrongly assumed that his characterizations of the legends of Hollywood were authentic. However, Stuart made it clear at every opportunity that he based them upon the popular images of these stars. The dissonance between persons and their public personas can be enormous, as the current obsession with the Tiger Woods story proves. Even a celebrity can believe his own persona, which is why so many of them end up searching the cracks in the analyst's couch for the coins of their identities. Kirk Douglas once recounted reminding John Wayne (who had just criticized Douglas's choice to play the suicidal wimp Van Gogh), John, we're not tough guys. We play tough guys. There is a level of sophisticated postmodernism in Stuart's embracing the fictional identities of real people in a fictional context. It is easily underestimated by those who mistakenly insist that realism is the highest value in fiction.

The Toby Peters series was just one of the popular series by Stuart. In 1981, the same year in which Martin Cruz Smith roared through the best seller lists with Gorky Park, Stuart began the Inspector Rostnikov series, similarly set in the Soviet Union. Rostnikov continued through fifteen novels (the 16th will be published posthumously), and the 1989 installment, A Cold Red Sunrise, won an Edgar Allan Poe award for best novel. Stuart's Abe Lieberman, a Chicago policeman, appears in ten novels, and Lew Fonesca, a process server in Sarasota, Florida, in six. Stuart also wrote three CSI: New York novels, a couple of Rockford Files novels, a variety of non-fiction books, mostly about film, and several plays. Despite this great variety, he told me once that he could only work on one project at a time and greatly admired anyone capable of working on two or more projects simultaneously, as some writers, like Loren Estleman, can. As prolific as he was, Stuart said he had more ideas than he could handle. After I had once expressed my surprise at the quality of the writing in the original Charlie Chan novels by Earl Derr Biggers, Stuart confided that he had tried several times to persuade publishers to allow him to revive the series. Because of the many movies, however, Charlie Chan has become the catch word for the many racist depictions of Asians in popular culture, and no editor was interested in trying to counter that impression.

As a professor at Northwestern and Florida State's film school in Sarasota, Stuart was a major influence on future writers, filmmakers and film scholars. Sara Paretsky, author of the groundbreaking V. I. Warshawski series of detective novels, dedicated her first novel to Stuart. Stu was an important mentor for many writers, including me, she wrote. No one understood the history of the noir form better.

Ralph Beliveau, a professor of Broadcasting and Electronic Media at OU's Gaylord College took classes on media criticism from Stuart at Northwestern:

One of the greatest influences on my teaching was Stuart Kaminsky. Yes, I read his novels and his non-fiction, but he was also one of the great intellectual influences on my thinking, writing, and teaching.  To get to film, Stuart argued, you needed the foundation. So we read Freud. We read Jung. We read Arnheim, Bazin. We read about editing, time, and space.  Then he would show up to class and say, Can someone tell me what time it is? My kids threw my watch in the bathtub this morning.

Then we would talk about Totem and Taboo, or Film As Art. He taught me how criticism needed to not waste time on evaluations of good or bad, but instead get after the question of what was really going on. We watched M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, and one of his favorites at the time, Harry O. Later he taught a class in film authorship that studied three filmmakers. He said, We aren't watching these because they are good, we are watching them because I like them and like talking about them. Then we plundered the careers of Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, and Cornel Wilde. Every good education needs its moments with The Naked Prey. The discussions were inspiring. He taught me something I always try to teach my students; when you are trying to figure out meaning in culture, it really doesn't matter as much what you are looking at as it matters how you are looking at it.

And then, another day, he walked into class and said, Don't say anything about this sweater. It was a present and I have to wear it.

I don't have his delivery, but I try to use some of his ideas. He is always there in the background of my classes.

Stuart took a semester's leave from Northwestern to work with Sergio Leone on the dialog for Once Upon a Time in America, Leone's cradle-to-grave epic of American mobsters played by Robert de Niro and James Woods. A flock of Italian writers, including Leone, had worked on the script, basing it on a novel called The Hoods (1952) written in prison by Harry Grey, an ex-hood himself. They had produced almost nothing in the way of dialogue, however. Stuart had to write most of the approximately three hours of dialogue for the film. After many revisions, the project wasn't finished, and Stuart had to request his leave be extended. It wasn't unpleasant to spend so much time in Italy, but Leone was maddening. He was a crazy man, Stuart told me. He was genius, but he was crazy. Like Chaplin or Kubrick, Leone didn't care about anything but his film, and things like other people's job security rode in third class. Stuart stuck it out, however, and the end result was one of the best gangster movies ever made.

Later, Stuart wrote the screenplay for  Enemy Territory (1987, with Jan-Michael Vincent) and Woman in the Wind (1990, with Colleen Dewhurst). Stuart's novel When a Dark Man Calls (1983) was adapted for the screen twice, once in France, and he adapted his own novel Exercise in Terror (1985) into the screenplay for Hidden Fears (1993, with Meg Foster). Mostly, however, he concentrated on his fiction. At the time of his death last October ninth, he had published well over 50 novels. My father was certainly a great writer, Stuart's son Peter commented. I was always afraid he would earn the respect of his contemporaries posthumously. It took too many years before the Mystery Writers of America recognized Stuart in 2006 with their highest award by declaring him one of the Grandmasters.

The first time I met him in the bibulous atmosphere of the el Tren Negro, I noticed that he did not drink, but I only found out the reason later. In France during the time of the Korean War, Stuart had served as an Army medic and picked up the hepatitis that eventually caused his liver failure. Though he loved Sarasota, in March 2009, he and Enid moved to St. Louis to be nearer a transplant. He had only been there a couple of days when he suffered a stroke. This made him ineligible for a transplant, and the result was inevitable.

Being with Stuart was always a happy occasion, but my happiest memory of being in his company is an evening when I ran into Stuart, Enid, and Natasha at one of the Edgar events, the authors' and agents' reception, I think. He invited my wife Melissa and I to join him later for dinner at a legendary restaurant, Sammy's Famous Roumanian. A time was arranged, but our cab driver not only hadn't heard of the restaurant, but confused Chrystie Street with Christopher Street. Eventually, we pulled up in a dark and graffiti-filled block near Delancey and Bowery. There was a crude sign that said Sammy's in Hebraicized letters, but nothing looked like this was the site of any famous restaurant. Not even sure we should leave the safety of the cab, we took a deep breath and climbed down the stairs from the street into a warm place out of time, from when the neighborhood had been home to Jewish immigrants.

Yellowing photos of celebrities lined the walls. A grizzled clarinetist played the old songs and was soon joined by a woman on a trombone. Stuart told us to order the Romanian steak. It hung over the ends of the platter, like the side of a cow had been peeled. Stuart was anxious to have his 'Tasha try an egg cream, something he treasured from his childhood, and was disappointed she seemed unimpressed. Wearing a pimp's ransom of rings and gold chains, the manager strolled from table to table with a hefty goblet of wine quizzing his patrons with trivia questions. Stuart snagged them like Willie Mays catching pop flies. On one question, the original name of the Ed Sullivan show, I got lucky and managed to beat Stuart out. This so impressed the owner that he gave me a Sammy's baseball cap. I still treasure that cap as a reminder of the quantum-sized nanosecond I was smarter than Stuart Kaminsky. Evenings with a mensch like him remind you what life is for, and life was much richer when Stuart was with us.

Jim Madison Davis

Prof. Jim Madison Davis is the author of several crime novels and several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Van Gogh Conspiracy. A President Worldwide of the International Association of Crime Writers, he teaches novel and filmscript writing in the Professional Writing Program of the Gaylord College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.



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