I’m reading a book called Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer, and the Lost Screenplay by John Wranovics. I have some interest in film and in Charlie Chaplin that’s rubbed off from my film-buff husband. James Agee–film critic, novelist, and poet– is in my pantheon. Putting these two together makes for a book that interests me.
Near the end of his life, Agee saw a dream come true when, in 1947, he met and soon became friends with Chaplin, one of his heroes. He called Chaplin the greatest living artist in any medium, which, when you consider the time in which they were living, is awesome praise. Chaplin, to Agee, was a greater artist than James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Pablo Picasso, or Ernest Hemingway. Agee, himself a highly regarded film critic for Time and The Nation, had already published his great eccentric journalistic study of poor cotton farmers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, but, in getting to know Chaplin, began rubbing shoulders with more luminous luminaries, such as Gene Kelly, Dorothy Parker and a young Norman Mailer.
All this has little to do with what I want to write about. It’s still going to take me a while to get there.
In order to move to California, with the hope of someday working with Chaplin, Agee contracted with Life magazine to write two Hollywood-oriented articles. One became Comedy’s Greatest Era, a seminal essay on the silent comedians, paying tribute to Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The other was a profile of the director John Huston, with whom he also became friends. Agee ended up writing much of the screenplay of Huston’s movie The African Queen.
Agee had his first heart attack (the second would kill him two years later, at the age of 44) while working with Huston. While he was recovering, Peter Viertel took over The African Queen script and later wrote a novel based on working with John Huston, the unflattering White Hunter, Black Heart.
Now we’re there.
That title took me back, all at once, to my parents’ bookcase, circa 1965. I can picture the spine of that book through the glass door, wrapped in a jungle-y green paper cover. ($155 now on Amazon.) Sadly, though, I can’t picture the books on either side of it. I can’t identify them unless by some unlikely turn of events I run across those forgotten titles in some other book or article about the last century.
I wish I’d taken a snapshot of those book shelves. They spoke to me of my parents’ lives, their educations, the eras which formed them, and their friends. Most of the books, I think, were gifts, and others, old books, dated from when they were in school. I can recall some titles, of course. Mark Schorer’s biography of Sinclair Lewis, An American Life. Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I. Lincoln Steffins’ autobiography. It All Started with Columbus and its sequels by Richard Armour, whose humor my dad was fond of. All of these I too read at some point. The Readers Encyclopedia, a reference book by William Rose Benet (brother of the poet Stephen Vincent Benet) , sat in a place of honor and convenience on the mantle, referred to frequently as my parents pored over the Double-Crostic in the Saturday Review which arrived in our mailbox every week.
My dad earned a journalism degree from Ohio State in about 1934. He liked to read, and he read interesting books, but he disliked high-falutin’ things and suspected eggheads, as he would have called them. My mom had a Masters degree in French history. The two of them watched College Bowl (hosted by Allen Ludden, Betty White’s husband) every week and enjoyed competing with the nerdy college kids who appeared there. They read lots of magazines. They weren’t intellectuals, because they didn’t regard themselves as intellectuals. But they represent to me the way lots of college-educated people were back then. They read, and they assumed a certain body of knowledge about literature and history. They could recite lines from Longfellow from memory and could name English monarchs. They smoked. They ordered cocktails when they went to restaurants—a martini for my dad and a Manhattan for my mom.
I used to gaze at that bookcase a lot. I don’t wish I’d kept all the books, exactly, but I do wish I had a picture, so that I could occasionally pick out a title and request it from the library. I want to preserve that mid-20th-century sensibility, which I have so much trouble putting into words. The bookcase and its contents are gone; they remain only fragmentarily in my memory, and my sisters’, many steps removed from my kids’ experience. They’re gone, like the Cold War and the blacklist, the ash trays around our living room, our old dog Abbie, and my parents Martin and Eleanore.