In the mid 90’s, I had an agent, Stewart Richardson. He’s dead now so all the big important facts are easy to verify: as editor in chief of Doubleday, he worked with James Dickey, John Updike and Robert F. Kennedy. Later he started his own press, got on a plane and signed Mikhail Gorbachev while in Russia. He brought back the Russian leader and they did the morning TV circuit together.
But back then before the internet, verifying this stuff was tougher. Still, after a few Lexus/Nexus searches I knew he was telling the truth. And as I spotted each news item, I grew more certain success was mine, or would be any day now. Feeling that I needed to meet this man, I flew to New York where he graciously offered to take me for lunch at the Century Club. I didn’t know what the Century Club was then but I found it at the appointed time and date. I knocked on the imposing door and was informed it was closed. Befuddled, I persuaded them to allow me to wait inside for Mr. Richardson. At the end of the day, he had not come.
That night I learned that he had assumed that I would know that when the Century Club is closed you go next door to the Yale Club. There he had waited all afternoon, just as I had.
We rescheduled for the next day. This time we met and had lunch. I remember admiring his broad Windsor knot and his savoir fair. We talked about writing. My RR friends know I am thorough and I had tracked down his novel and read it. He thought nothing of that book, just an exercise to improve his skills as an editor.
The drinks were sharp and strong. The light was a soft yellow and the wood paneling deep and burnished. I looked across the room and there was Kurt Vonnegut. Perhaps fame makes any writer stand out. But Vonnegut, like Einstein, looks ready to be cast in the part. Even odder (or perhaps even more Vonneguttian), the previous night, after I had gotten back to my room, I had stayed in and had cruised the TV dial before choosing to watch Slaughterhouse Five. Now I was in the same room with Vonnegut who was eating with at least 4 other men and their table was soon boisterous. Richardson flicked his eyes over to that table and raised his eyebrows. I smiled back. We both knew we were eating with Vonnegut.
He told me then that he had tried hard but that he wasn’t having any luck selling my book. Looking back on it now, I’m not surprised. But he encouraged me to keep writing. I promised I would. We talked about authors he knew who had dusted off their first few books after they got published. With a few more drinks I felt better.
On the way out, we fell in line behind Vonnegut, waiting to collect our jackets. It was my chance. “Mr. Vonnegut,” I said, “I just want to shake your hand.” He extended it. Then I asked him, “What advice do you have for a young writer starting out today?”
“When you get invited to a college,” he said, “Find out what sports they are into. Then whenever you need to change the conversation, just say, so how is the football team doing?”
Buzzed and with nothing to do, I said goodbye to Richardson. We would never speak again. I walked on to Nat Sherman’s and bought myself a cigar. As I inhaled I told myself my next book would be the one and I wasn’t so wrong. I was only off by 15 years.
I had hoped to write more of these "fun" journals (at least they seem fun to me), but summer teaching calls. First up is Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. Wish me luck.
Causes Matthew Biberman Supports