To come to New York City for the first time armed with a name, a number, an address…but not just any name, number or address. The prospective contact will only count if it also holds the promise of gaining entrée to a world you hope to enter, publishing, say, or the editorial department of a Conde Nast magazine. If you have the name of such a contact in your possession before you climb off the bus or the train you could be forgiven for thinking that you’re already ahead of the game.
Many years ago when I arrived in New York with a couple of suitcases and two hundred dollars in cash I had the name of just such a contact, a correspondent for a prestigious weekly whom I will call Tessa Vaughan. She had published three well-received books including the biography of a controversial poet. She was married to a noted professor and lived in a vast apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a commanding view of Central Park.
My father had known her father in the city where we’d both been raised. That was our only link. Over the phone Tessa was surprisingly receptive and proposed that we get together the following week. At the time I’d been in the city for only a couple of months and had just found an apartment on West 95th Street and Amsterdam. My landlord, an elderly Romanian émigré, rented it to me for $140 per month and another $5 for utilities. This was in an era when it was possible to live, though by no means prosper, on $10,000 a year. The apartment left much to be desired. In the winter frigid air seeped in, rendering the lone radiator utterly ineffectual; in the summer, in the absence of an air conditioner, the heat turned the air into glue and made sleep impossible. The apartment overlooked the world’s ugliest playground which consisted of swings and jungle Jims. There was no grass, just asphalt and cement. This playground was meant for children living in a housing project across the way, but they never seemed to use it. From time to time, though, gangs of bored teenagers would pass through the playground and if the impulse seized them, they’d pick up some stones and fling them at my window. The window was high enough up to challenge them while sufficiently within range to offer a reasonable chance of hitting it. They succeed three times, sending shards of glass flying in all directions. Luckily, the only injury was to the window. I moved out after a year. A friend was vacating his small apartment in The Village and I took over the lease.
Living in The Village had been my dream for years. It was the destination to which writers had gravitated for years – Edith Wharton, Henry James, Malcolm Cowley, Allen Ginsburg, W.H. Auden, Edna St. Vincent Millet, Patricia Highsmith. But that was when writers like artists and musicians could afford The Village. They can’t anymore. But this was the Seventies – “Ford to New York: Drop Dead” days – when you a good, tasty lunch at a reputable midtown restaurant might run you seven or eight dollars. Forty dollars could go a long way unless someone mugged you before you spent it. There was a lot of that in those days, too.
But I was under the thrall of the romantic illusion. The artist in the garret is one of those enduring myths that continue to exert a perverse hold on the imagination. In the abstract, of course, the idea of a struggling artist is one thing; the trouble starts when you actually have to live like one. At first, because you believe that you are not doomed to spend the rest of your time in such reduced circumstances – that this is only a rite of passage before you achieve your ambition -- the difficulties and privation can be borne tolerably well. If you’re young and you have friends to call on if you need to unburden your soul – and those friends are pretty much in the same boat you are – the inconvenience can even seem like an adventure. For a time anyway.
In the initial pages of his novel “Sophie’s Choice,” William Styron deftly captures the loneliness and longing of a would-be writer in the person of the author’s fictional alter ego Stingo. Shortly after arriving in New York, Stingo finds a job at thinly fictionalized McGraw-Hill (where Styron worked) reviewing badly written submissions that will never see the light of day. He rents a dingy one-room Village apartment in the University Residence Club, whose guests were all men “mostly middle-aged or older Village drifters whose nest stop downward was skid row.”
Each night he returns home – he refers to it as a “cubicle” --with his daily ration of three warm bottles of Rheingold. (Refrigeration being more of a luxury in the postwar years when the novel is set.) He doesn’t have to look far for the life he’s yearning for. It’s right there outside his window, which reveals “an enchanted garden” adjoining a house fronting West 4th Street. The owners of the house and the garden are a dazzling couple -- “a youngish tweedy man whom I fantasized as a rising star at The New Yorker or Harper’s and his lively and astonishingly well-proportioned blond wife.” Stingo dubs them the Winston Hunnicutts, a name he thinks appropriate to their patrician good looks. Tormented by “unwanted solitude,” Stingo sits at the window, enviously observing the Hunnicutts hosting glamorous garden parties. “There in the golden dusk of Manhattan in an atmosphere of culture and unassertive affluence from which I knew I would forever be excluded, a soiree would be commencing…”
Life for Stingo begins looking up, however, when he befriends an older editor at McGraw-Hill, a failed writer who sees in Stingo’s youth the potential he once had but never realized, and takes him under his wing.
Most newcomers to the city, it is true, don’t know an established, well-connected muse or mentor who can show them the ropes, introduce them to the right people and usher them into an “enchanted garden” filled with famous and desirable people. There are exceptions; of course; some have worked as interns at law schools or brokerage houses the previous summer or know somebody who is now running a division of Warner Brothers they attended Groton or Boston Latin or Dalton with. Or else their father knows someone at CBS who knows someone at Random House who just happens to be looking for an assistant. In the best of circumstances you may find a patron who is plugged in and willing to launch you on your career.
I do not know whether I expected Tessa Vaughan to fulfill such a role exactly, certainly not at first, but for a time I thought she might provide me with an entrée into a world that I’d read and fantasized about but hadn’t a clue how to penetrate. Indeed, our first meeting at a coffee shop went better than I dared expect. Tessa was a savvy, intense, dark-haired woman for whom ideas mattered a great deal. She was one of those rare people who know how to listen, which is one of the reasons why she was such a good journalist. That is to say, she made you feel as if your words counted – a rarity in this day and age -- though whether she was actually interested in hearing about my modest accomplishments, or was simply eager to give me that impression. In any case, what could I say that would interest her? All of her friends were important people; they’d written novels and produced network TV shows and reported on events in dangerous corners of the world. Everybody she knew moved in rarefied circles; their books and plays were prominently reviewed in The Times and optioned for film rights. Somehow, between writing cogent, exhaustively researched pieces on the burning issues of the day for one of the most prestigious magazines in the country, she still found time to raise a small child and carry on a complicated dispute with her coop board.
At one point during our conversation Tessa brought up the name of a sharp, funny novelist she knew. Would I like to meet her? Of course, I said. Tessa told me that she’d arrange a dinner the following week. I felt as though the doors to some exclusive club were being flung open for me and all that remained was for me to walk through them.
The promised dinner did in fact take place; that much I remember, but what was said at that dinner has long since slipped from memory and in any case, mattered less than the intoxication of simply being invited to a dinner party with people of such accomplishment. I allowed myself to think that I was accepted, quite oblivious of the fact that every strata of Manhattan society has its own rules and etiquette, with unfathomable hierarchies where many pitfalls await the naïve, the unwary and the presumptuous. My place at the table was far more provisional than I could have expected because I had no experience in this world.
I felt obligated to contribute to the discussion, to justify my presence so that I would be asked back. It’s possible that I talked too much or said the wrong thing, or committed some faux pas of which I was not remotely aware.
There was, however, no sign then or for some time afterwards that I might have violated some unstated rule or simply worn out my welcome. On the contrary, Tessa even offered to submit a novella of mine to the fiction editor at her magazine, a gesture so flattering that I didn’t hold it against her for failing to follow up on it. (Needless to say, it was rejected without a word of explanation.) She continued to extend invitations, too. .Would I like to meet friends of hers from Texas who would be in town the following week? Would I be interested in meeting an attractive young woman of her acquaintance? Would I be available for lunch next week? This was no problem. I was always available for lunch.
But it became increasingly difficult to get through to her to confirm that any of these events were on. My calls were seldom returned. And when I did succeed in reaching her some crisis always seemed to be brewing. “I can’t talk now,” she’d snap, “The stove just exploded.” Or her child was sick. Or she was flying out the door or was leaving for Paris – “call me in two weeks.” Once she promised to call back in five minutes. I waited, staring with mounting frustration at the silent phone. She never did call -- not that day or the next. But why would she keep asking me to call or suggest getting together if she didn’t mean it? I made excuses for her; she was busy, she had pressing deadlines to meet and family obligations and a baby and an exploding stove and that business with the coop board, a conflict that seemed as interminable as the Hundred Years War.
This went on for several months. One day I called her and for once she answered. I told her that I was going to London for a couple of weeks on vacation, and knowing that she’d been based as a correspondent there some years before, I was hoping she might suggest some people I could look up. Tessa assured me that she’d compile a list of names for me. She gave me every reason to believe that she would be able to put me in contact with a number of brilliant, creative and well-placed individuals, the kind of people she’d hung out with and reported on.
Two days before I was to leave for London, though, the list still hadn’t come. Tessa said she couldn’t understand what had happened to it. Her letter must have gone astray in the mail, she said. But not to worry, she would give me the names and numbers over the phone. Once again I had the sense that I was imposing on her even though as far as I could see, I was only taking her up on her offer. When she came back on the line she apologized, saying that she could only find one name because she’d been unable to find the address book with all the London numbers in it.
I was disappointed – and naturally suspicious. Why only one name and why was it the name of this particular friend? I phoned the woman when I got to London and then traveled some distance on the Underground to meet her at her flat. She turned out to be an older woman who wore her unhappiness openly and drank too much. Yes, she said, she’d met Tessa on occasion but the two hardly knew each other and hadn’t been in contact for ages. I sensed that it was Tessa’s way of sending me a message. And the message could be summed up easily: Don’t bother me.
I saw Tessa only once afterwards; she was with her husband, descending the stairs at Lincoln Center after a screening at the New York Film Festival. It was an awkward encounter of careful nods and forced smiles. Not a word passed between us.
Which was worse? I wondered Never to have been invited to the garden party or being invited once and then not being asked back? Was it better to get your foot in the door before it slams in your face and leaves you with bruised toes? I’ve never been able to decide. I had been permitted a glimpse of a world that I had come to New York to find; if I wanted to get back to it then I realized that I would have to enter by another door and reach that door by traveling down a different path.