November 16, 2013
I was looking through my shabby wardrobe today and came upon a sport coat. I have never worn it. It was given to me as a remembrance, by the son of the renowned literary critic and University of Chicago head of the Romance Languages department (his graduate students had to write their papers in French), Bruce Archer Morrissette.
Dr. Morrissette was best known for his scholarly writings on film and literature, from Paris, in the 1930’s. The people he knew intimately during that golden time of the French New Wave were a Who’s Who of the Twentieth Century’s American composers and writers: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas; the great novelist Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky); William Burroughs; the irascible composer Virgil Thompson; the American music god of composition, Aaron Copland. Add to the crowd the formidable Frenchwoman, Nadia Boulanger, the great musical genius and teacher of Copland, and later, Quincy Jones and Phillip Glass.
All my music professors at SIU Edwardsville were in awe of Boulanger. To say her name was to pray. Of all these luminaries, Paul Bowles and Bruce remained close friends until the latter’s death, in February, 2000.
Bruce’s son Jim and I worked at filmmaking together and at a summer camp for fifteen years. I sang at Jim and his wife’s wedding—the first time I met his famous father, who had been wheelchair bound for some time. He could only smile and say a few words. I was married back then, and my now ex-wife book editor and I used to visit them at Bruce’s lovely summer cottage (Bruce had assisted living, in Hyde Park), on the east side of Lake Michigan. Eventually, he was moved permanently to the Michigan cottage. A nurse and caretaker stayed with him, and Jim and his wife attended to him on weekends.
A weekend came where my wife and I were invited to the cottage after Bruce had moved in permanently. Those two days, for me, were to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. We two couples spent most of the time at the beach, Bruce sitting on his deck high above a sand dune and watching us. He napped a lot, and we saw him at mealtimes. He smiled continuously, an FDR-type wide, open-mouthed smile, and Jim told him about my wife and me, and Bruce would nod and we could tell he was engaged. He was to utter but a single sentence of five words the entire weekend. I would never see him alive again.
I had written and published my first short story, “Bachelors” (it went on to become Chapter 1 of my book of short stories, “Confluence”) back then, and the plan was for me to read it to the company in the evening, after Bruce had gone to bed.
That same day, after lunch, the telephone rang. Jim answered the call and immediately became effusive. He talked for a few moments then said, “Hang on, Paul. Dad? Paul Bowles is in New York and he’s calling.” I felt an electric chill; I was but eight feet away from the great man’s voice. As for Bruce, he became quite animated. The two old friends hadn’t spoken for some time.
Jim wheeled his dad to the phone. Bruce could only make grunting sounds; Bowles did all the talking. We could hear his slow and clipped words leaking from the earpiece of the phone. He knew Bruce couldn’t speak. He talked for ten or so minutes and asked questions, to which Bruce would nod and smile. Occasionally, Jim would take the phone and report to Bowles. And then the call ended. A happy Bruce was wheeled into his bedroom for a nap.
That night, after dinner, Jim turned and said to me, “Gene, it’s time for you to read your story.” I was slow on the uptake; Bruce was still awake and sitting with us. I took Jim by the arm into another room and said, “I can’t read my first short story in your father’s presence. He’s Paul Bowles’ friend, for god’s sake.” “Dad asked me if he could listen,” Jim said. “It is his idea. You know how you get.”
How I get. Jim and I made a short documentary film about a small Illinois town fighting to keep a nuclear waste dump out of the county. I was the researcher and script writer.
The man who invented plutonium—he manufactured the first teaspoonful in history for the Los Alamos bomb project—Dr. John Gofman, now an anti-nuke spokesman, was giving a lecture at Northwestern. Jim and I drove to the campus in hopes of filming Gofman. We were strolling and carrying equipment when we spotted the man standing outside, relaxing after his talk. “Go get him,” Jim said, and I literally ran up to Gofman, stuck out my hand and introduced myself, explaining that we were working on the dump site project. “May we ask you some questions?” I said. “Yes,” Dr. Gofman replied, his face enshrouded in a cloud of long white beard, “so long as you don’t ask a stupid one.”
I blushed and ran back to Jim and reiterated what the scientist had said, and what should I do? “Don’t ask a stupid question,” he said. “You know how you get.” Gofman talked to us for half an hour.
But that night in the Michigan cottage seemed even more daunting to me. We all sat in the living room. Bruce Morrissette smiled at me. And I read, even though my mind was on Bowles and Boulanger and Stein and Toklas. After I finished, Bruce, sitting perpendicular to me, turned his head and said the five words: “Read . . . the last . . . sentence . . . again.” We were all startled. I was walking on a cloud—I couldn’t swallow. I re-read the sentence. Bruce beamed, rotated his right hand and raised his thumb. Take me home, Jesus.
Bruce died that winter. After the funeral, Jim and I sat in his Chicago home, a large, ribbon-wrapped rectangular box in front of us. He undid the ribbon and opened the lid. Inside were yellowed black and white photographs. Bruce and Aaron Copland on the Rivera, pale and skinny, Copland wearing Coke-bottle eyeglasses, both clad in ballooning swim trunks, Bruce sitting between Copland’s spread legs; Bruce again in swim trunks sitting next to Virgil Thompson, Virgil standing, scowling and wearing a 30’s-style suit and vest; Bruce sitting between the fleshy, unsmiling mounds of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, ridiculously costumed in all-body swimwear; young Turks, Paul Bowles and Bruce, the artist and the critic, wearing short-sleeved shirts and khakis, standing outside a café, arms around each other’s shoulders, smiling jauntily.
The sport coat is brown on darker brown, a muted plaid, four buttons on each sleeve, a left coat pocket and wide lapels. The label reads, “Made in Columbia.” I have donned it, looked at myself in the mirror.
But I will never wear it.