Dame Helen Gardner and George Newton Bowlin Laws—it seems funny, but very good to me to see them in the same sentence.
I first saw Helen Gardner, brilliant scholar, denizen of Oxford University, later to be made a Dame on her learning alone, at UCLA. She was so smart and so dazzling in the way she taught that she made your eyes water. You left the huge class at UCLA, when she was a visiting professor and still hadn’t quite achieved her “international reputation,” and there you were in bright, glaring sunlight, staggering about as if you’d seen For Whom the Bell Tolls at an afternoon matinee; Gary Cooper had just sent away the beautiful, bewildered Ingrid Bergman so that he could “blow the bridge” in Civil War Spain, but he’s told her their love was so strong that they would always be together… And so she fled and Cooper faced an honorable death that meant something, and there you were, in an iffy neighborhood in West Hollywood facing a long walk home as a little kid, but it was OK because the walk would give you time to dash away your unseemly, twelve-year-old tears, and try in some way, to measure the highest meanings of love and death and art and sorrow, and the regular, usual glaring world we mostly have to live in. (And, yes, I know, it was a corny movie but I was only twelve!)
At UCLA, coming out of Helen Gardner’s Modern Poetry class, after an hour of “God’s Grandeur,” I was twenty, still plagued with watery eyes, and only had ten minutes in the harsh California sun to get over my damn self before my next class to get over the secret, occult, glimmering meanings of “the world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out like shining from shook foil; it will gather to a greatness like ooze of oil crushed…” I would have died of embarrassment if the students all around me — sniffling, dabbing their eyes, forgetting to talk — hadn’t been in much the same condition. Helen Gardner was a stunner, a class act; she held the keys to the kingdom, and she was offering them to us Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from eleven o’clock to noon.
Outside of having much the same build as Dame Helen, a little bit short, a little bit stumpy, a wide pleasing face with a constant smile, sometimes attentive, sometimes absent, George Laws had nothing to do with her. He was born in the early part of the Twentieth Century to a hard luck family who made their home in Oak Cliff, a suburb of Dallas, Texas. They had fled Virginia after the War Between the States. Word was, they were descendants of Pocahontas, and they lived about as poorly as she had. George’s brother died at seventeen, after he cut his finger on his first day at work in the Dallas sewers. His sister would die soon after and his father (after reportedly killing someone in a gun fight) drank himself to death with some dispatch. But George’s defining loss had come much earlier when he discovered the body of his mother, who had blown off her head with a shotgun when George was fourteen. He managed to graduate from high school, stuck around to watch his sister die, then headed west to flee the past.
His mother had left a vindictive suicide note about preferring to die rather than put up with her husband’s “dreadful perversions,” so George took that knowledge with him to California. You could say it colored his attitude toward women, men, sexuality, life. His only solace — outside of screwing every living female he could get to lie still — was the world of books, of art, and the abiding sense that he could have been a novelist — a good one — if life hadn’t fucked him over in such a definitive way.
I should have asked him about all that — he was my father after all — but he had a coping mechanism that was foolproof. You can’t ask questions when you’re laughing, and he kept everybody laughing, all the time, except for that Christmas when I was three when he tried to kill himself too and spent some time in the hospital, where, needless to say, he kept all those nurses laughing. George left one, two three of his wives — when, to my knowledge, they loved him the most. My mother was his second. But he was a good, even faithful dad, calling me every week or so, taking me out, delivering lectures on Melville and Twain, and telling me not to turn up my nose at C.S. Forester. His own favorite novel was Jurgen, by James Branch Cabell; he hated Joseph Hergesheimer, whom he dismissed contemptuously as “the darling of the intellectuals.” That’s how I found out there were intellectuals. But something in him kept him from writing.
I ended up only taking three weeks of Helen Gardner’s class. I’d been living on my own since I was barely seventeen; I was so tired. I married a boy from high school, a soldier who was stationed up in Newfoundland. I took a few talismanic things with me — among them a six-by-twelve inch cardboard poster, an announcement for a public lecture on the UCLA campus that I had attended: Helen Gardner, speaking on “Comedy and T.S. Eliot.” Just a couple of weeks ago, my first husband found it in some papers and gave it back to me. Yellowed with age, in an antique type, dated April 19, 1954. She spoke that day on whether or not you should do what you love even if you aren’t very good at it. She was a little nervous because the audience was mainly faculty, rather than the undergraduates who loved her so much, doted on her every word.
Flash forward to me in Newfoundland, pregnant, throwing up all day, peeing in a bucket in the corner of our bedroom, and not thinking much about the consolations of are. At twenty, justifiably perhaps, my first husband and I felt our lives were over. We went to Paris, I had the baby, came home, finished school over my in-laws strenuous objections. I wrote an (unpublished) novel before I got my Ph.D. I don’t know how else to say this: My life was here, my wished-for life was there, where the writers were. My father was by now married to his fourth and last wife; we were in the same predicament. I married again, had another daughter, divorced. We had some good times, but my second husband liked to tell me that “wives and children killed more artists than cholera.”
At one time when my own life was killing me, I called my dad and begged him to let me visit. He was ensconced in a town in the South with his then-fiancé, more than thirty years his junior — and one of her girlfriends. His fiancé would become his last and favorite wife. They’d all come down with a case of crabs and my dad found a movie poster — “The Attack of the Crab Monsters,” and hung it in the bathroom. That more or less set the tone. They were flat, flat broke; my dad sold reducing machines to farm wives. He was quite chubby and when I went with him one day to sell those machines out among the kudzu vines, a wife somewhat sourly reminded him of this fact. “Ah, Madame, you should have seen me before I began to use this marvelous machine!”
My dad, his fiancé Lynda, and I used to spend the long Southern evenings watching triple features in at the drive-in. They saved the worst for last, and once at about one in the morning we watched a jungle movie, made in somebody’s back yard, with white explorers in pith helmets and a lot of very reluctant African Americans dressed up like savages and speaking in broad Southern accents. The two main savages were Maga and Futu. The dialogue consisted mostly of sentences like: “Quick, Maga! Send for Futu!” Or, “Quickly Futu! Maga must be found at once!”
We went back to the apartment, forgot about it for a couple of days. Then one night as Daddy was cutting up lettuce for a salad, he said, just chatting along, “I wonder what Maga and Futu are doing tonight?” I can’t express the impression this made on me. Here was another person who knew another world was out there! If you couldn’t get to it, maybe you could make it come to you. And you conjured it up out of words.
Just as Gerard Manley Hopkins had evoked infinity by “shining from shook foil.” “Don’t you see,” Helen Garner had said, pleased beyond words, “how if you took a great handful of foil, scrunched it up and shook it light would fly out from it as far as the eye can see? Or if you have just a tablespoon of oil and you put the heel of your hand down and crushed it, it would spread and spread, you really couldn’t get rid of it then — it would just get greater and greater?”
“It will gather to a greatness like the ooze of oil crushed.”
This isn’t going to be an essay about monsters. I’ve been double-crossed a few times and lied to more than once but I find editors and writers and scholars to be, on balance, extremely kind, and almost everyone I’ve known in these contexts has been extremely kind to me. I’m going to flash forward from Maga and Futu ten more years, past my Ph.D. and the beginning and end of my second marriage. I’m a divorcee, “a woman alone with two children.” I live by that phrase for over a decade, and collect some fairly miscellaneous boyfriends. My adored Ph.D. advisor, John Espey, was widowed. I was doing magazine assignments and working on my first novel, which somehow got published. My dad wasn’t all that crazy about this development — his feeling, never before explicitly spoken, was that if you’d suffered enough, you really didn’t have to write. But he yearned. He yearned to write.
Then a cultural development happened: The underground literature in England and America came out above ground like vast fields of rice sprouts, all green and fresh. A rash of trials spread throughout the land. I went downtown to see my idol, my icon, John Espey, explain the central image in Tropic of Cancer — a flashlight turned full blast on someone’s vagina by the ever enthusiastic Henry Miller. “He was simply trying to shed some light on the subject,” Espey said. “I can’t say that I see anything prurient about that.”
Soon enough — and not related to Mr. Espey’s testimony — some desperate attorneys called me as a newly minted, unemployed Ph.D., to defend a pathetic little volume called Lust Thy Friends and Neighbors. I was so wonderful as an expert witness on the stand that day that they tore up my check (for fifty dollars) and made it out for a hundred. For the next two years I made a very nice living defending pornography, and got a book out of it as well, Blue Money, which dirty old men still read to this day.
Soon there came an afternoon, during a biblical Southern California flood, that I went down to my dad’s house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a suburb of San Diego, to help out after Daddy’s fourth wife, Lynda, had her first son. I was thirty-five years old; my dad was sixty-nine and out of work, as usual. In a moment of quiet, I was working in their kitchen, with a stack of novels, taking notes. “What are you doing there, Squirt?”
“I’m taking notes, Daddy. I’m an expert witness in pornography trials!” (As in, “I’m making a living over here. You ought to try it sometime!”) He picked up a volume by Akbar del Piombo and began to peruse it with care. Men tend to get hypnotized by pornography — I saw it for myself a few years later in the U.S. Supreme Court, when Justice Renquist reached down for some from the Bench and didn’t resurface again for the rest of the trial. But my dad was another story. He read critically, and said, as James Fenimore Cooper famously had, when he first picked up a “wilderness” novel, “I could do better than this.”
The very next morning he went into the guest bedroom and began to type. And type. And type. He would publish seventy-three hardcore pornographic novels before he died, and if we lived in a different culture, there’d be statues of him in public parks. I only read four of the novels (there’s a certain unseemliness in reading your dad’s sex fantasies), but his first — and my all time favorite — is written in the “moonlight and magnolias” literary style George grew up with in the Texan South. An intrepid but beautifully brought up heroine, Carrie Hunt (“Transpose those letters!”) sets off in a train ride in the 19th century, complete with the requisite picnic basket of cold fried chicken. The train is robbed; she meets plenty of gallant outlaws and very quickly loses her virtue. She meets men who say things like, “I have no vocation for hard work. These hands just don’t fit a hoe.” There’s sex on every page, of course, and Carrie loves every minute of it. Toward the end, after six strapping young men have taken their pleasure of her, she considers: “For a girl my age I had had a lot of fun, but honestly I had never had all the sex I wanted, even when I had all I needed. Maybe, maybe six men would really leave me wanting no more.” Daddy wrote a porn western called The Secret of Hidden Gap, a porn spy thriller for a friend of mine named Marina called, Marina Blows Her Cover, as well as a porn treatise on saving the earth, Olivia’s Ecology Lesson, and many more.
It’s the curse of the pornographer — even more than the ordinary writer — that his work is not perceived as work; it’s as if “Since you can fuck, you can write porn,” which, of course, is not the case. During the late Sixties, when my dad began his career, we gave a lot of parties. Because he’d grown up in the Depression, he’d learned to roll his own cigarettes and was the only one among us who could effortlessly roll big, fat, firm joints. He’d be engaged in this occupation at parties, mainly standing at the kitchen sink, and handing them off to crowds of young hipsters, when he’d be approached by some callow youth or other. “I…uh…’ve read some of your work. I’ve thought of doing that someday, just to make some extra money.”
The man who’d endowed Maga and Futu with lives of their own would answer crisply, “If you do, be sure to be specific.. Nobody likes generalities. That juice that exudes from an excited cunt, for instance. Most men automatically think of it as clear. But in actuality, it has a certain custard quality….” He’d go on like this for a few more minutes until the brash boy slunk away, and then he’d smile, give me a wink, go on rolling joints.
Time went on. Both my dad and I published. Then my life, quite wild at the time, took another turn. John Espey waited the requisite year after his wife died, and paid me a serious social call, in which he brought along a photo album that showed him mountain climbing, to prove he was in good physical shape. (He was twenty-one years older than I.) He was the son of Presbyterian missionaries to China and had been a Rhodes Scholar. He knew the Coffins of Maine were a prominent family; I thought they might be pine boxes. When Helen Gardner had come to UCLA maybe twenty years before, the rest of the faculty had shunned her — she was a woman in her fifties, in the fifties. It was a miracle she’d been invited at all. But John sought her out. They had mutual Oxford memories, and, as I think I’ve already said, each one was about as learned as the other. Her specialty was Eliot; his was Ezra Pound.
Mr. Espey was many a social class away from me, but we tried it anyway, and stayed together twenty-eight years, until he died in 2000. Many years before that, Helen Gardner — by this time Dame Helen Gardner — came back to Los Angeles, to study for a year at the Clark Library. John was thrilled to see his old friend, and took the opportunity almost every day to go off to the Clark to do some research. He was absurdly proud of her, proud to know her. They would elude the other scholars swotting away under basement fluorescent lights. They lunched together on the lawn, making fun of the others. She told him, one Monday, how on the Sunday, before she’d attended church and became so incensed at the minister’s inanities that she’d declined to take communion; she hadn’t felt herself to be in a state of grace. She was getting testy in her old age, but her obsession with words, and the fun and pleasure they could bring, never abated.
After finishing his seventy-third novel, my father stopped. He developed lung cancer, and worse, a severe clinical depression. His jollity, his joviality ceased to kick in. He took to his bed and wept for a little over a year. Even then he kept a goofy streak that surfaced in unexpected ways. He and his wife and young son drove up to visit us for some holiday or other. When he got out of the car he looked awful; he’d lost maybe 40 pounds and his face was grey. He clutched a little brown paper bag. I took it from him, looked in it. A half-eaten apple, and a quarter of a gnawed-on sandwich. “It was all we were able to take with us, over the border,” he said glumly.
Helen Gardner went home, glowing with academic praise and delight in her Dame-hood. My father died. Then Oxford decided to throw a Fiftieth Anniversary bash of the Rhodes Scholar Reunion. By that time, John Espey had traveled to Europe and China and Japan and Indonesia and Alaska, but he fretted like a teenager asked to the prom. We would stay at the Randolph instead of rooms in Merton, his old school. We received — and studied — the protocol and dress and behavior for each event we chose to participate in. I was to wear a different evening gown (full length!) for every night. I would need a hat and elbow length gloves for the Queen’s tea. John fretted over his tuxedo and repeatedly told me it was NOT to be called a tuxedo. He bought extra black ties, and white. We spent several evenings at home before we left, training me to eat pudding with a fork and tablespoon, lessons I would appreciate while watching a lanky blonde American woman in Merton’s hallowed halls take a heaping tablespoon of blanc mange and pitch it straight on to her ice-blue sequined chest.
John and I had never married but the Rhodes Scholar committee took care of that for us. I was Mrs. John Espey for the duration of the stay. I never saw such a bunch of nervous scholars. They felt about that school the way I felt about Dame Helen — they revered, they venerated the place. By and large, they were ashamed that they hadn’t lived up to the amazing gift that had been given them.
We drove out one day to see Dame Helen, in a flower-covered cottage out of a fairy tale. She’d never had much use for me. I couldn’t begin to match her learning or her repartee, but she knew — from John — how much she meant to me, and she was thrilled, in a stubby, British way, to see us. The house was both cozy and luxurious, everything on a very small scale. The walls were lined with books and she off-handedly showed us the medal and sash she had received, making her a dame. It resided in a little niche in the wall, propped up on blue velvet. We ate smoked trout off pewter plates and drank very strong martinis.
Then Dame Helen asked me outside to see her garden. Not John, just me. “Here are my cabbages,” she said. “Here are my runner beans. I always plant too much squash, but I think everybody does, don’t you?” The sun shone brightly, directly into her eyes. She looked exhausted, an old lady, stubby, her green dress robbed of its luster. It was like coming out of a matinee into the harsh sun. (It wasn’t “like” that; it was that. The look in her eyes was the same that I had seen on my father’s face in the nursing home weeks before he died.) Undefended despair, and all the invocations of Gerard Hopkins; all the goofiness of a brand of pornography that relied on words to suggest, just suggest, that sex might be fun; all the Magas and the Futus in the world couldn’t stop that condition, that terrible turn of events.
All of them used the best weapons they had — words and wit, and my father, the knowledge that every minute you were laughing meant you’d cheated death and the knowledge of death.
They’re dead now. George Laws, A.K.A. Hardy Peters, Dame Helen Gardner, who hypnotized young men and women into the reckless love of poetry, and John Espey, who was less my mentor than my savior. They saved me from the monsters. And writing is the best way I can pay them back.