In 2002, The Harvard Crimson came across a restricted archive labeled "Secret Court Files, 1920." They had uncovered a tragic scandal in which Harvard University secretly put a dozen students on trial for homosexuality and then systematically and persistently and, according to author of Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage 1920 Purge of Campus Homosexuals William Wright, "savagely" tried to ruin their lives.
William Wright graduated from Yale University in 1952. He worked at the legendary Holiday magazine in its heyday and was editor of Chicago magazine and has contributed to Vanity Fair, Town and Country, and The New York Times. His books include Pavarotti, My World, Sins of the Father, Lillian Hellman: The Image, The Woman, and The Von Bulow Affair and now Harvard’s Secret Court: The Savage Purge of Campus Homosexuals. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and Key West, about which he is writing a book.
My Identity Theory colleague and fellow canine lover and novelist Christian Bauman (who was recently listed as one of the 50 least significant people in American Literature) once mentioned his neighbor Bill Wright to me, extolling him as an engaging raconteur. When Wright’s book was published, he again reminded me of Wright. Thus, the fun (at least I think so) conversation that follows, which begins, of course, with the story Wright fleshed out in his book—one that seemed to (no surprise) fly under the radar of mainstream culture.
Robert Birnbaum: If you tried to write this book today, could you?
William Wright: Well, I didn’t finish it that long ago.
RB: If I read correctly, access to the information, the files have been changed.
WW: Oh, I see what you mean. The files, as I understand it from my friend at the Harvard Archives, are still there. It’s just the listing on the database [changed], so nobody has any idea what they are.
RB: So they can’t be found. [laughs]
WW: I hope enough people read my book so they know that they are there.
RB: How did you come to do this story?
WW: I’d love to tell you because I want to make sure, being a journalist, I like to give credit where credit is due. The Harvard Crimson broke the story. They were looking for something else and found this reference to the secret court of 1920. One top official said to me later, if they hadn’t put the word “secret” on them, nobody would have ever noticed. Of course, that’s a red flag. And so a student journalist named Emmett Paley went after it and saw what it was and realized it was a big story–82 years had gone by and it had been buried all that time. And so he and six other undergraduates worked on this and did a really bang-up job of researching it. I found out that there is so much there that although they got the bare bones of the story, there was so much more. There really was plenty more for a book.
RB: Were the names redacted in the files at that time?
WW: Yeah, they [the Crimson staff] even did that. I didn’t even have to go through the terrible thing of calling up people and saying, “By the way, I am here to tell you your grandfather was thrown out of Harvard for being a homosexual.” The Crimson did all the dirty work. They did all that. There was a young woman at St. Martin’s Press, on their editorial staff, who had worked on one of the Harvard publications, not the Crimson but she had read those articles, and she suggested it to St. Martin’s as a book idea. And they came to me because there was an editor—he and I have been waltzing on the dance floor for a while, trying to find an idea for a book. And he came to me with this and so I was very lucky that he didn’t like any of my ideas and I didn’t like any of his.
WW: Until this one—we both thought it was terrific. As I say, it turned out to be even more terrific than it appeared on the surface. I was lucky to get onto it.
RB: Before we get ahead of ourselves, give me the gist of this story.
WW: It started when a student was suspended, expelled—he was probably not going to be let back in, in 1920—
RB: —Cyril Wilcox.
WW: Yes. Of a middle-class family, in Fall River. He was sent back from Harvard—nothing about being gay. But he committed suicide two days after he got home. And some letters arrived from classmates that made it clear that he was an active, enthusiastic member of a gay group on campus. Well, as someone said to me recently, and I understand this, a lot of families would have burned the letters and that would have been the end of it. Cyril Wilcox had an older brother named Lester who went ballistic. He stormed up to Boston and found his brother’s lover, a man named Harry Dreyfus who ran a small bar here on Beacon Hill. And went to see Dreyfus and got as many names as he could from him, and beat Dreyfus up and stormed up to the Dean’s office and didn’t beat the Dean up, but he demanded that Harvard [take some action]—the way Lester saw it was that his beloved brother had been seduced into this group that Harvard harbored. So it was Harvard’s fault that his brother was all screwed up and committed suicide. There were a lot of steps in this story where a temperate response could have ended it. Or at least kept it from becoming the major scandal it became. The dean also got very excited.
RB: When you say major scandal, wasn’t it kept a secret?
WW: You’re right, that’s a misuse of the word scandal because it wasn’t out in the open. But enough of a major deal for Harvard to form this court.
RB: So a kind of subterranean scandal. People knew about it.
WW: Yes, it was a tempest—a hidden tempest. But it ruined a lot of lives and precipitated three suicides. The dean, Greenough, he went to the president of Harvard, in 1920 it was Lawrence Lowell. Lowell also reacted very strongly to this. The subtext to this whole story—Harvard had a reputation, even in those days, for having a lot of gays. A lot of people light on their feet and all that stuff. And to what extent these deans were aware of that or motivated by that I have never been able to ascertain because they never would say such a thing. But their reactions were excessive and there is no arguing that. They expelled eight guys—one committed suicide the day he was expelled and it didn’t slow this court that was formed by Lowell in the slightest. They were writing letters and calling boys in the next day for interrogation.
RB: My favorite of your references to Lowell was at first Amy Lowell was referred to as his sister, and later in their lives he was referred to as Amy Lowell’s brother.
WW: Right, first she was famous for being the sister of Harvard’s president and now the only reason people know him is that—he had a couple of other missteps. He set up the quota system at Harvard, which he has never been forgiven for, and he was on the Sacco-Vanzetti final review board, that the governor of Massachusetts set up. Basically she’s [Amy Lowell] famous now and he’s not.
RB: Some irony that it was his lesbian sister. What’s Harvard’s reaction to this book?
WW: They have been very cooperative.
RB: Now that it’s out?
WW: I don’t know, I guess I‘ll find out.
RB: Perhaps you know of Alston Chase’s book on Theodore Kaczynski, Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist.
WW: I’ve heard about it.
RB: Unfortunately, it was published at the beginning of the Iraq war and was no doubt overshadowed, as was everything. Chase exposed some concerns about the psychological testing that was going on campus in the 50s. That and the curriculum, he argues, adversely affected someone like Kaczynski. Apparently Harvard was not happy with his work and denied him access to a key psychologist’s papers.
WW: I had an interesting interview with Sidney Burba, who is head of all the Harvard Libraries. Do you know how many there are?
WW: Twenty-nine. He said something that I thought really was commendable. I had tried to be provocative. I asked, “Why when these files were discovered, why didn’t you just deep six them, get rid of them, burn them?”
RB: Something the Germans wouldn’t even do.
WW: Unlike the Americans, like Richard Nixon. Anyhow, he said that they take very seriously their responsibility as the custodians of Harvard, because they see Harvard as the history of American culture. He didn’t quite say it that grandiosely, but it was that idea. “We feel we don’t have the right to tamper with history.” Very commendable, if true. But of course I have my punch ending at the end of the book—they seem to have changed that opinion a little bit. But not too much.
RB: Coincidentally, there is a new book called The Chosen Ones dealing with the Ivy League quota system.
WW: And The New Yorker recently had an article about Harvard’s admissions policy. And they said, and I really have to pick up on that, that one of the things they learned to do in the 1930’s and even in the late 20s was to detect signs of homosexuality.
WW: One of the questions you had to, I had to ask in my book, was how could Harvard throw students out for fraternizing with boys that they had accepted? They mumbled something about how all they got was their grades and we asked the head masters of their schools if they were good guys—we don’t know about things like that. But I can’t help feeling that his change of policy at Harvard was a result of this 1920’s scandal.
RB: Do they still give physical exams to the incoming students?
WW: They did when I was at Yale in the 1950’s. I don’t know if they still do it at Harvard. But at least in the 1930’s they were definitely on the lookout for limp wrists.
RB: Right, there’s obviously a physical test. Were people named Bruce not allowed to register?
RB: People who sang show tunes?
WW: No Judy Garland records, absolutely.
RB: The really bizarre thing is that Harvard really continued to send out bad references.
WW: Yeah, to me that’s one of the two things that sets this story apart. One is that it’s Harvard and you expect something better. And the other is the way they pursued these boys for as long as thirty years afterwards. That shows a moral zeal that is really hard to explain. They are so afraid that these homosexuals or people who are friendly to homosexuals—some were expelled just for that, as I alluded to—that they would go out into the world and contaminate other areas. A lot of universities would have been happy just to get rid of them, sweep it under the carpet and get it off their backs. You’ll love this —the irony of the FBI coming to Harvard in 1953 to ask why Joe Lombard was asked to leave Harvard in 1920—he was up for a federal judgeship. They told him in chapter and verse that he was known to fraternize with these known homosexuals. He was expelled but he was let back in. And the FBI guy said, "This will go no further." In other words, the FBI considered it irrelevant to a federal judgeship. Harvard did not consider it irrelevant in 1953, 33 years later.
RB: Wasn’t Lombard involved in the founding of the OSS?
WW: Wild Bill Donovan took the job but he said he wouldn’t take it unless Joe Lombard would come and help him with it.
RB: A guy with immaculate credentials—
WW: —and a high security clearance. I am convinced that Lombard was a heterosexual. A number of these boys were. They were just opportunists. I say that in the most affectionate way. They couldn’t get girls so they would let these guys down the hall—
RB: Spending a few days immersed in this story one has to think about sexuality and identity and it strikes me that Americans are badly adapted to dealing with the whole subject of sexuality.
WW: Right. That’s why in my chapter on homophobia at the end of the book I say that it is an area we are most confused about. Even now, even today.
RB: You present that gem, that people who are most vociferously homophobic test highly aroused in studies that present homosexual images.
WW: A fascinating study. It’s almost an old truism the most homophobic people are the guys who are—it turns out from that study from the University of Georgia, that that’s true.
RB: I didn’t understand—the eight accused guys were expelled from Harvard. Why do they still get listed in the class rolls?
WW: I was struck by that too. I’m not sure. I guess whoever organizes the class anniversary books—students. And they apparently don’t have this vindictive feeling that the administration of Harvard had. But you are right, all these boys who were expelled, including Ernest Roberts, who was the ringleader of these gays, he was the most outrageous. And I think Ernest Weeks Roberts would have given today’s college presidents a few problems because his parties were really over the top, with sailors in uniform and queens in drag.
RB: He was the one who continued on apparently leading a wonderful life on three continents.
WW: No, that was Wolff. Roberts married his girlfriend in Brookline and led a totally heterosexual life as far as anybody knows. He wrote in his class book that he had such a happy marriage with his son and that he was very bad about keeping up with old friends.
RB: Was his son a source for you?
WW: I tried desperately to find his son. He would be in his upper seventies now—no, I was not able to find him. The Internet is wonderful for tracking down people and I had some real victories and the Crimson was helpful. Lester Wilcox’s son, who is 77 and lives in North Conway.
RB: Interesting that you chose to open the book with this eerie scene with an institutionalized patient
WW: I have a wonderful friend, Allison Lurie, the writer, and she was very cross with me about that. She said, "Bill, you don’t say who it was. You’re in an insane asylum and—”
That’s the point, yes? That’s how that scene derives its fascination.
WW: I said, “Alison, writers do this to me all the time. They lead me down the garden path. They set up a thing and don’t tell me until later. Much later. You don’t find out who it is.” There is an allusion to the fact that he had been to Harvard. But the of course everybody in my book had been to Harvard.
RB: The opening worked for me.
WW: Oh good. Yes, I liked the fact that one of the characters you are about to read about spent the rest of his life in a nut house and I think it is a nice black cloud to waft over—
RB: Not to mention that he seemed to have serious chemical dependencies and none of that seemed to bother the Harvard authorities.
WW: Yes, he was a cocaine addict and it was interesting to me how incredibly understanding Harvard was in 1920 about cocaine addiction.
RB: Was cocaine illegal then?
WW: No, but it was still not a good thing in the eyes of the universities. You’re right, though, they looked on it more as a medical problem than a character problem. With homosexuality, that was pure character. That was immorality, a weakness of character. Which I always thought was amusing in that it gave a hidden endorsement to homosexuality in that they were implying everyone would do it if they didn’t have a backbone of Christian morality going for them.
RB: I like your Gore Vidal citation about how—
WW: If statistically, if the normal thing is to be heterosexual, that is wrong because masturbation is practiced by more people than any other form of sex. Only Gore Vidal could have come up with that.
RB: Is it too early to gauge the Harvard response?
WW: The Coop has a big window display of the book—maybe that’s an in-your-face thing. But I don’t think Harvard cares. They were very quick to admit that they had made mistakes over the centuries.
RB: It would be fun and perhaps funny to put together a list of Harvard’s crimes against humanity.
WW: Hasn’t anybody? Well, I’m off to a good start.
RB: This and the Unabomber story.
WW: The whole ROTC thing, this bad news. I don’t see that as my mission but maybe I‘ll change.
RB: Have you been accused of harboring anti-Harvard sentiments?
WW: No, they really haven’t. And as far as Harvard is concerned, all the interviews I‘ve had in the past two years, the fact that I went to Yale was of absolutely no interest to them at all. That was like Podunk State Teacher College as far was they are concerned. To Harvard, there is Harvard and everything else. I say that sort of disdainfully but I am full of admiration for the overall history of Harvard. Especially when I read the history in those early years. They were lots of times that Harvard could have knuckled under to the Commonwealth and they stood their ground, especially the religious efforts to take over—well, it was briefly a religious school.
RB: These long-standing, well regarded institutions, generally well regarded. The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harvard comes up against really bitter criticisms and animus and belligerence, but in any case you must acknowledge their intelligence and excellence—the people who run them are really smart. It’s not dummies who are making these kinds of errors.
WW: That’s right.
RB: The criticism seems always a leveling attempt. As when Tina Brown went to the New Yorker, howls of protest. Did the magazine become crap all of a sudden?
WW: Well, I thought it did.
WW: Not crap. I mean articles about Mike Ovitz’s in and outs. Can you imagine what Wolcott Gibbs and the old New Yorker crowd would have thought about that? It’s nice to have one magazine that doesn’t care about Mike Ovitz and the ins and outs of MGM.
RB: Sure, they have that forgettable stuff, but as some major publishing houses publish whatever the current lowbrow authors are but they also publish stuff that has no apparent commercial viability. Tina Brown brings the pinnacle of celebrity journalism to The New Yorker, but under her watch they also published a full issue on Mark Danner’s work on the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador in the 80s.
WW: Oh no, she did some good things.
RB: It was the cover and the whole issue was basically Danner’s book, which was an expose of US culpability that I think Ray Bonner was either fired or reassigned for at The New York Times.
WW: She did some good things but her real enthusiasms were great for Vanity Fair—who’s in and who’s out. She had a predilection for criminality too.
RB: She brought Anthony Lane to The New Yorker. He’s wonderful.
WW: To me, you judge a magazine by their worst writers, not their best.
WW: There are a lot of magazine writers—I’m an old magazine snob and got my start at Holiday magazine when we wouldn’t have anybody who wasn’t a really superb prose stylist and so a lot of famous people like Rona Jaffe and Garson Kanin wanted to write for us. But my boss wouldn’t hear of it. He didn’t think they wrote well enough. And then you’d have some Oxford don who nobody’s ever heard of but a beautiful prose style doing a piece. Anyhow, I don’t want to dump on Tina Brown but basically her vision is pretty crass. She has some good taste in writers but a lot of times people don’t know if it’s well written until they see the byline.
WW: And then she says I’ve heard of him and he is one of the good ones.
RB: I loved and love magazines—but to use a pretentious word, Brown is the zeitgeist of current magazine culture.
WW: Yes, she has changed everything. Except that I have heard that no magazines she has edited have ever made money. That’s a shocker when you think how thick [Vanity Fair was]. She was a big spender. I know because she gave me assignment that never ran and they paid handsomely for it.
RB: She was SI Newhouse’s darling, apparently
WW: For awhile, but I am sure he was responsible for her leaving.
RB: You think?
WW: I don’t know.
RB: I thought she was anxious to do the late and unlamented Talk magazine with the Weinstein Brothers.
WW: It’s always hard to figure that out. We all thought Norman Pearlstine left the Wall Street Journal voluntarily until it was brought out that he was fired. They often try to fig-leaf it up.
RB: So in the scheme of your work, this book was accidental.
WW: It is really is. As I say, he just handed it to me St. Martin’s Press, the whole story.
RB: I know Douglas Shand-Tucci from his book on Isabella Stewart Gardner. His next book was on homos at Harvard.
WW: Yes, I took him to lunch and we had a great old time. We were over at the Harvest for about three hours. I don’t understand his book [The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture] really. It’s building a case that this professor was gay and he has just got you convinced and he moves to the next one. So to me it was an elaborate game of “gotcha.”
RB: He struck me as a kind of gay chauvinist, almost wanting to argue that really everyone was gay.
WW: He knew about this whole episode. His book was published by my same publishers. And he didn’t feel it was worth mentioning. Or maybe didn’t fit in with his chauvinistic dream for gayness and Harvard. One of the gay activists at Harvard who was cooperative with me said she had one misgiving—he was afraid that it would make Harvard look like place that beat up on gays. He said that they had been terrific to the gay and lesbian groups. It’s changed totally in recent years.
RB: Other than places like Wyoming and such, is there blatant homophobia afoot in the land?
WW: This is a whole new area, but I spoke at Yale the other day at their gay and lesbian group—the director of their organization feels that Harvard is still very homophobic in hidden ways. He wants a big gay and lesbian building there. It’s a gays thing.
RB: In the same way I joke—and maybe I am not joking about everybody being anti-Semitic—I think everyone is homophobic. I am not that concerned about anti-Semitism unless it’s shoved in my face. So it’s possible to argue that everyone hates everyone else.
WW: Oh yeah, I’m not crazy about redheads.
WW: That’s—now I’ll get on my real soapbox—it’s the glory of the human, we have these nasty little impulses. Like murder [laughs]. I can’t walk down the street in Manhattan without wanting to murder about three people. But then we have this other network of impulses for fairness and decency.
RB: There are a number of places where you suggest that humans are this roiling, volatile, barely contained pot of emotions and impulses.
WW: We are not a particularly nice species but we do have this one thing that edits our selves a little and controls us. And I guess that’s what the deans at Harvard in my story were doing. They felt that we all have these impulses but the good guys don’t give in to them. And the weak immoral ones do. I think they are wrong. There are plenty of men who have no homosexual impulses at all.
RB: Your writing career has been mostly magazine journalism?
WW: My jobs have. I was editor of Chicago magazine in about 1970 but I have been writing books since then. I’ve done magazine pieces right along but mostly books. My agent said, and I agree, that getting a magazine assignment 10 or 12 years ago was as hard as getting a book contract, and of course, book contracts are much more lucrative. And I like the focus on one thing for like a year or two.
RB: Are there times that you want to write essays or think pieces?
WW: No, I really don’t. But when I write on a subject like the Harvard Secret Court of 1920, I think there is a lot of Bill Wright editorializing in each paragraph [laughs]. An editor once told me, I wrote a book about the Von Bulow murder case. He said you never use the first person but you are in every paragraph, and I like to think that happens—I am happy to hear that. I think if people pay 25 bucks for a book they are entitled to know what the author feels—this mask of this impartial journalist that is sort of the Wolf Blizter thing— I don’t go for at all. I like a little passion and anger, indignation.
RB: This claim of impartiality and lack of bias is kind of a straw man. You edit by choice and verbiage and –
WW: That’s right.
RB: The Fox Network’s flying monkeys like to go, “Some say…”
WW: I fall back on that myself as a way of avoiding using the “I” word. I’ll say, “There are many who might say that…” and anybody would know that’s me saying what my objection is. The whole thing about whether you have to come out from behind the screen and say, “I think this and I think that…” Or you do it the way I do, sort of cowardly.
RB: What’s with this fetish for “full disclosure”? As if that clarifies and relieves one of responsibility. Anyway, are you doing what you wanted to when you imagined your future as a child?
WW: I went to Yale because I had seen that musical version [Night and Day] of Cole Porter’s life.
WW: And I thought writing musical comedies in Technicolor for four years would be a pretty good way to go. But I don’t know why I deviated from that. I think it was going to Holiday in the 60s. There they venerated good writing. My boss used to say that you can take a writer and make him a journalist but you can’t take a journalist and make him a writer. We got all kinds of people—like Truman Capote. The first nonfiction he ever wrote was for Holiday.
RB: I get this sense that there is a pall over the idea of the kind of nonfiction that is called speculative nonfiction. I don’t understand that.
WW: I thought that if you were a literary writer writing nonfiction, you were still obliged to tell the truth. I thought you were implying that they invented—
RB: Isn’t the bedrock of all this about telling good stories?
WW: Yeah——but we have two forms, fiction and nonfiction. You can tell any story any way that you want in nonfiction and it can be 99% true and you can make little changes. But I think when you call it nonfiction as I do in my books, you are under an obligation to get it as right as possible. God knows, we all make mistakes but there is this unspoken obligation and that’s why when I had my big battle with Alan Dershowitz [over the Von Bulow case] —he implied I was in the hire of the other side because I had the audacity to say Klaus was guilty. Or again, I didn’t say, “Klaus was guilty.” But anybody reading my book would know I agreed with the jury in the first trial. He went for the jugular —to me that is a writer or journalist’s jugular, if you say that they are not trying to get it right, they are trying to sell you a bill of goods. I received the full horror of the dark side of Alan Dershowitz. He was out to destroy me and my book. He is not a nice man and he has no integrity and he is a liar and all those things. But I find myself now on the same side [laughs] of a lot of issues as Alan Dershowitz.
RB: I usually don’t read him but he I read a piece where he accused Noam Chomsky of being a Holocaust denier—which is not true.
WW: We did one show together in Providence when my Von Bulow book came out and they put us on a love seat together. He has already attacked me all over the mat and just before the little red light went on, on the camera, he turned to me and he said, “You know you have written about one of my favorite people, Pavarotti.” And then the light goes on. He was trying to throw me off-guard I’m sure. As soon as the little red light went on he went for my jugular again.
RB: So what’s next for you?
WW: I live down in Key West in the winter and I have this thing—I’ve suddenly decided I would love to write a book about Key West.
RB: No one has written about Key West?
WW: There are about fifty books out there but they are all guidebooks. Or books on Ernest Hemingway.
WW: I’ve now counted four books about Hemingway and Key West. I’ve read three of them and they are good and fun to read but it makes me realize as I have read some of the other histories of Key West—there is an impulse in historians to gussy up and to dignify the history of whatever they are writing and Key West’s history is all scoundrels and mavericks and deadbeats.
RB: Funny, I have always enjoyed Provincetown and the last book by Peter Masnso was just way off the mark.
WW: Provincetown is probably very similar to Key West.
RB: Right. It’s the end of the earth. It has the same kind of constituencies: smugglers, fishermen, artists, gays, actors, and real estate crooks.
WW: One difference is that Key West is more of a year-round town. We have a fire department and a PTA.
RB: So does Provincetown—it just swells up ten-fold in the summer. Michael Cunningham wrote a little book on P-Town.
WW: Key West is also very old. It was a very prosperous town in the 18th century. When there was no way to get there except by boat. Nantucket might be a good parallel.
RB: So are you going to do this book?
WW: I’ll have to find a publisher will pay me anything to do it. There’s a lot there and we have had so many really great characters there. Not just Tennessee Williams and Hemingway, but many, many more—I don’t want to sell one of your readers on the idea of doing the book.
RB: Barbara Ehrenreich lives there?
WW: She still has a house there. With the great and deserved success of Nickel and Dimed she has bought herself a house in Charlottesville because her daughter is there and Barbara’s granddaughter. It’s hard to think of Barbara having a granddaughter. Now I heard that her daughter Rosie might be going up here, to Cambridge to teach. She went to Harvard.
WW: There is a scene in Panama which is a very similar book to 92 in the Shade, where the hero—his girlfriend had thrown him over and he goes and nails himself to her door. Now to me that is McGuane at his—he had an affair with Elizabeth Ashley, she called him Captain Berserk. And he lived up to it. I don’t know if he ever nailed himself. A good friend of mine says that the writer group that I am part of down in Key West now has gotten very staid and I thought about it and I can’t think of one of them who would ever nail themselves to a door.
RB: I think that group still fish down in the Florida Keys.
WW: Yeah, he shows up every once in a while. He’s a really nice guy. What a wonderful writer.
RB: Have you read anything interesting or exciting recently?
WW: I’m reading Alison Lurie’s new book [Truth and Consequences]. It’s fun to read. She has really such a sharp take on things. And I read Sam Harris’s The End of Faith—a fascinating book. I am quite atheistic and this angry snarling book by a brilliant young philosopher, not only about religion being bunk, but it’s going to destroy civilization.
RB: Not a new claim.
WW: He puts it forward better than anybody I have heard. Interesting thing to me is that book is getting some [a lot of] advertising support. I think someone like George Soros has come in and said this guy is finally telling it like it is. Richard Dawkins, the British geneticist, said that this book is telling all of us to wake up. It’s a very powerful book. The only part that disappointed me, he goes into the second half—in the first half he pokes at and debunks all religious belief and shows how dangerous they are, how pernicious nowadays because of the weapons we have and the way we can vent our religious angers and the dangers of masses, millions of people feeling they have a special road to god. And they know what god wants. We are certainly dealing with that in this country too. But I just can’t believe a book on such a controversial subject would be getting the play—ads over and over again in The New York Times. The book has been out awhile and just now it’s getting a big push. My fantasy is that George Soros reads it, somebody with pots of money.
RB: Do you read both fiction and nonfiction?
WW: I tend to read mostly nonfiction. Except I have a good many friends in Key West who write fiction—like Robert Stone is one of my best friends. He is such a superb novelist and just to keep up with my friends novels fills up my fiction hunger. But given my druthers I would generally prefer nonfiction. That’s what I do. I tried to write fiction and I am no good at it. I thought about how wonderful it would be to write a book without having to call people and intrude in their lives.
RB: Maybe you really like doing that?
WW: I think I do. I always saw nonfiction as a stepping stone to writing fiction when I started out. But then I thought there was something kind of wonderful about writing Gone With the Wind and calling up Scarlet O Hara and saying, Let’s have lunch, I don’t understand why you did what you did.
RB: The British refer to fiction as the senior service.
WW: [laughs] I didn’t know that. God knows that the novel has an incredible history that nonfiction doesn’t really have. The great novels certainly outnumber the great works of nonfiction, if there are any.
RB: In Cold Blood?
WW: That’s superb. I ‘m pretty much an admirer of John McPhee. I just read one of his early books, I just happen to have read—The Pine Barrens—a terrific book. When I was at Holiday we got all these great writers like John Steinbeck and Lawrence Durrell to write nonfiction and Steinbeck wrote Travels with Charley. Ted Patrick, the editor at Holiday, my boss was a friend of Steinbeck’s out in Long Island and he talked him into doing it. That’s a superb book on America. De Tocqueville would be considered a great work of nonfiction. Matthew Arnold wrote some wonderful travel books about America. There have been a lot of [good books] recently. But none of them can hold a candle to Jane Austen, and Thackery and all the great novelists, all the great Russians. A friend of mine is teaching a course on literary nonfiction at University of Pennsylvania and I have been trying to coach him because I am much older and I have been through it a lot more. And one of the things you have to zero in on is what makes Susan Orleans or one of the really good ones—when does it leave solid journalism and become literary? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? As you suggest some people think it might be a bad thing. When I wrote the Lillian Hellman biography, I did a little essay at the end about “so what if she lied?” She tells great stories. But there are answers to that.
RB: She was alive when you wrote it.
WW: I take full credit for courage. She was very litigious. Nobody would mess with Lillian. I wrote her a very respectful letter saying that because of my great admiration for her, which I had, Simon and Schuster had asked me to write a biography of her. I made it very clear in this letter that “Lady, I am writing this book whether you like it or not. The contract is signed and I am off and running.” She did answer and I end my book with it. She is very enigmatic. She said, “As I do not wish a biography written about me, I cannot see you.” Even the word choice is strange. “So I see no point in seeing each other.” But she typed her personal phone number at the top [laughs] She wanted to negotiate a bit. She was a piece of work.’
RB: Well, I hope we talk again for your next book.
WW: I’d love to, I enjoyed it.
RB: I hope it’s the Key West book.
WW: That might be a sleeper. It’s full of rich characters.
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing