CONJUNCTIONS:41, Fall 2003
On William Gaddis
Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt
—I REMEMBER WHEN we met Gaddis. It was 1984, at a dinner party in New York given by Bud and Cecil. Bud Bazelon was a composer, and Cecil Gray, his wife, was a painter. We had met them because Cecil was the cousin of someone we knew in Brooklyn. Also at that dinner was Don DeLillo. And Muriel. She was a pistol. Was that the dinner when the dog ate her show?
—No, I think that was the second dinner—the surreal dinner. But the first dinner was very jovial, everyone liked each other.
—Gaddis struck me as someone who was very comfortable in his skin. Very calm. And very droll. Nearly everything he said was funny. He genuinely engaged himself with the young people who were there.
—Yes. And as a woman I have to say I found him very handsome and very charming. I mean, extremely charming. You wanted to sit beside him. And to keep up with him, too. To say things that werenít dull.
—One of the nice things that came out at that first dinner, I remember, was how much he loved his children. His son was working on a film at the time. I canít remember the details, but Donald Sutherland was in it, and we got into this long talk about Donald Sutherland. I remember saying that I thought Sutherland was rather a lugubrious presence, and Gaddis said, "Exactly. Thatís the world. Thatís precisely the word."
—Lugubrious! Right, but thereís a famous event that we have to get to. That thing on Long Island. We have to talk about that.
—We were staying with—
—Norman Bluhm. You know Norman? A terrific painter. Heís dead now, be he was a great friend of mine, for years. We did a book together back in the seventies, published by John Bernard Myers. For some crazy reason, he and his wife, Carrie, had moved out to East Hampton. Norman hated it, and after a couple of years they left for Vermont. Bud and Cecil, the people who had originally introduced us to Gaddis, were renting a place out there too, and they got in touch. They were organizing a picnic and invited us. And we thought, great, we'll go to a picnic. And at this picnic—
—You can't imagine.
—Not only was Gaddis there with Muriel, but Benny Goodman.
—Benny Goodman! Benny Goodman and his . . . paramour—
—She had been the editor of Vogue. And now she was the CEO or something at Clinique makeup.
—Benny Goodman stared at Siri's legs the whole time. She was wearing shorts. She has the most beautiful legs in the world, and this man, who no doubt appreciated fine things, was like, like this . . . like this. (Stares at Siri's legs.)
—It was agapé, agapé. I kept thinking: Benny Goodman likes my legs. And because it was Benny Goodman that somehow made it good. It made it special. We were all at the beach, and because we were so much younger than everyone else—and so much less sophisticated—I felt like a heroine in a Henry James novel. You know, the young woman who goes off to Europe and is presented with a collection of dazzling, worldly people. The American innocent.
—And then, out of nowhere, Bud whacked Siri on the ass.
—I turned around, and he said to me, "I've been wanting to do that for a couple of years!"
—But he was a rascal. An imp. There was nothing malicious about it.
—No, not at all. I forgave him.
—But anyway, Gaddis and Muriel were at the beach with us. And you had this talk with him. You tell the story.
—He had just won a MacArthur. Not a surprising thing, considering that it was Gaddis. But I said to him, "I think it's great that you got it, you know, and the money's terrific and everything, but I kind of wish these prizes were given to people when they were young and really needed them." And he just looked at me, and there was a big pause—he was kind of a comedian, he knew just what he was—and he said, "Baby, you just dialed my number."
—At some point during that weekend, we stopped by the house where Muriel and Gaddis were living. He and I were standing by the window together, and he said a very touching and funny thing. we were having cocktails, and he lifted his glass and looked at the Scotch in it for a moment and said, "This is the one friend who's never let me down." He half meant it, and he was half joking, but he said it in such a deadpan way that it became extremely poignant. Then he started talking about wealth, the world of New York, WASPs, and a kind of comical bitterness came pouring out of him. "These people with money," he said, "they have no idea how to live. They eat the worst food. They wear the worst clothes, they have the worst lawyers." Again he was very funny. But he really meant it. He felt that world was contemptible, utterly degraded.
—The last time we saw him was at that party in New York. The one given by Brad Morrow—right before the Gulf War.
—Yes. I remember it well. It was quite an evening.
—Gaddis, Coover, Hawkes, Abish—they were all there.
—I wound up going into the kitchen for a drink. They were all standing around, and I listened in on the conversation. And what they were taking about was . . .
—All the bad reviews they had ever gotten. Saying, "In 1961 that sonofabitch in the Boston Globe said this about me." You know. "In 1958 that asshole in Philadelphia . . ." They all remembered them. Every attack, every bad word that had ever been written about them. I was amazed. Just amazed.