In Which Ralph Ellison Meets The Love Of His Life

This is the first in a two part series.

Nothing Has Changed


In 1957, Ralph Ellison told his second wife Fanny McConnell that their marriage had been a disappointment to him.

Ralph and Fanny met thirteen years earlier. She was slightly older, still gorgeous, having changed the spelling of her name from Fannie to Fanny as a way of putting the sexual abuse by her stepfather behind her. She had studied theater at the University of Iowa after transferring from Fisk College in Nashville. Due to Jim Crow laws she was never allowed onstage.

Disillusionment came to Fanny quickly. When she enrolled at Fisk, she told her mother, “I think I am the best looking girl in the freshman class. I am going to make it my business be one of the smartest too.” She transferred from Fisk to Iowa, where she was even unhappier at the larger, almost all-white school. Chicago treated her no better.

Fanny’s first husband was the drizzling shits; her second husband ran off to join the 366th infantry and decided he liked it a lot better than his wife. She lost her job at the Chicago Defender for no reason and found Washington D.C. to be the most racist city she had been to yet.

In New York, she took a position at the National Urban League. It was here that she met Ralph Ellison, who, she wrote, was “the lonely young man I found one sunny afternoon in June.” In reality, the two were introduced by mutual friend Langston Hughes. Their first date occurred at Frank’s Restaurant in Harlem.

Ralph encouraged his new girlfriend to read Malraux. He was planning a novel about a black man dropped into a Nazi prison camp, who would rally the group together before perishing as a martyr. It was meant to be “an ironic comment upon the ideal and realistic images of democracy.”

Three months after they kissed, Fanny moved into Ralph’s apartment at 306 W. 141st Street. She could not tell anyone she lived there, since she would have been fired from her job if they knew. Soon after, she left for Chicago to finalize her divorce papers. Ellison panicked that she would not come back. She had barely hit city limits when he telegrammed, YOUR SILENCE PREVENTING WORK. WIRE ME EVEN IF MIND CHANGED. Fanny replied, NOTHING HAS CHANGED. I AM THE SAME AND LOVE YOU.

When she returned to New York, Fanny was so happy she chanced an enema and threw out her old clothes. They adopted a puppy, a Scottish terrier named Bobbins.

with Bobbins

The two were rarely apart in the years that followed. World War II ended, but Ralph’s own battles continued. They spent part of that summer after their marriage in Vermont, where among the detritus of backwards New England, Fanny’s husband developed the basic concept of Invisible Man.

Ralph found it difficult to write in Harlem, so he rented a shack in Long Island from a black couple that served as his office. The rent took up most of his savings, and Fanny’s job at a housing authority provided the rest of what they had. The two were married quietly in August 1946.

At the same time as Ellison was putting down roots, his friend Richard Wright was leaving America for Paris, exhausted by the insults an invective marriage to a white woman had brought into his life. In Paris Wright would have powerful friends in the expatriate community; Ellison had already found these resources in America.

With Fanny by his side, Ralph hoped for the kind of acclaim and financial security of which he had long dreamed. In order to really get down to completing Invisible Man, he plotted a sabbatical from his wife in Vermont where he could finally wrap up the novel. He took Bobbins and their new dog, Red, with him. He missed his wife intensely: “To paraphrase myself, I love you, write me, I’m lonely, and envious of your old lovers who for whatever pretext, have simply to walk up the street to see you.”

Fanny wrote back, “My dear, all my former lovers are dead. I don’t even remember who they were.”

with a friend’s bb

Ralph encouraged Fanny to spend the time writing, which she had done for the stage in Chicago at the Negro Theater. In New York she was expected to keep up relationships with Ralph’s wealthy white friends, who enjoyed parading her around a bit too much.

By the time Ralph made it back from Vermont where he was basically the only black man in a small college town, Invisible Man was yet to be completed. Fanny felt major pressure to produce a child. At 38 this would have been difficult, and Ralph was resolutely against adoption. Still, she could not conceive despite fertility treatments at the Sanger Bureau. Frustrated with his wife, Ralph pretended to seek other intimacy without ever consummating it.

He took out on Fanny his anger at not being able to complete the book, at what he felt was a token role in a white-dominated literary world. All this he also channeled into his writing. When a friend offered the use of an office in Manhattan’s diamond district, Ralph gladly accepted. Perched in a window that looked out on Radio City Music Hall, passerby were often scandalized to see a black man smoking at a typewriter.


By 1949 Ralph had to abandon his temporary office, but Invisible Man at last, after so long, seemed close to being finished. An excerpt published in the magazine Horizon heightened anticipation for the book and elevated Ralph’s star, pushing him to complete the final manuscript. Fanny did much of the typing as he revised, focusing the text by eliminating an Othello-like subplot.

Manhattan seemed a more hospitable place than ever. In these last months of putting together the book, Ralph would do anything to distract himself from saying it was done; he even constructed an entire amplifier from parts to avoid working on it. Fanny gave him the space he needed: husband and wife were on more solid ground. Finally, with a new agent and new publisher, Invisible Man appeared on store shelves on April 14, 1952.

“We feel these days,” Fanny wrote to Langston Hughes, “as if we are about to be catapulted into something unknown — of which we are both hopeful and afraid.”

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

with Lyndon Johnson

“Sugar High” – Larkin Poe (mp3)

“Jesse” – Larkin Poe (mp3)

In Which We Cast Our Vote For Darcia Darkeyes

the bobby valentine

For Love Or Profit


Victoria Woodhull had every reason to hate the world, but did not.

She was born to an eccentric named Roxanna who people called Annie. Her mother had a strong jaw, a prominent nose, a fondness for hoop earrings. Annie had ten children, of which Victoria was the seventh.

That her mother called Victoria “my little queen” did not save her from regular beatings from both her parents. In church her mother regularly created a scene by launching into a trance of ecclesiastical ecstasy. The only positive lesson young Victoria was able to take was that even pain had within it the possibility of pleasure. To protect herself from the disturbing reality of life, Victoria summoned two imaginary sisters, Delia and Odessa Maldiva, to reassure her. 

By the age of eight, it was obvious Victoria was the smartest person in the town of Homer, Ohio. She used a photographic memory and massive IQ to outwit both her cruel parents and whatever teachers the Methodist Church would infrequently wrangle to instruct children. Her father lost his savings and drifted from job to job, eventually taking up as a fraud hawking spiritual treatment to medical woes. His daughters Victoria and Tennessee, called “Tennie,” were quickly caught up in it.

Victoria was only 14 when she was forced to accept a marriage proposal from the family’s doctor, the 28 year old Canning Woodhull. She “accepted the change,” and was wed to the man on November 23rd, 1853. Victoria soon found her husband’s medical degree was something of a joke; to earn his title only required eight months of training and a short apprenticeship. Her new husband drank to excess on a daily basis, visited prostitutes whenever he could, and gave her a son with severe developmental disabilities.

The young family moved to San Francisco, where friends tried to convince Victoria to become an actress. This inclination soon gave way to making money as a travelling spiritualist healer. After giving birth to a daughter, she divorced Canning and returned to Chicago. Her next husband was a Union officer named James Blood. She reported that a spirit guide told her to move into a house at 17 Great Jones Street in New York City.

dark parrty

The moment she was first exposed to the women’s suffrage movement, she saw her future. She wrote, “visions of the offices I might one day hold danced before my imagination.” She gave up medical clairvoyance and debuted her new career in September of 1869 when she became a stockbroker during the gold panic. With the assistance of her friend and confidant, the ancient Cornelius Vanderbilt, she turned her savings of $100,000 into seven times that amount through capitalizing on what would become known as the first Black Friday.

Vanderbilt’s son prevented Tennie Claflin from marrying his father, but with the financier’s backing, the two sisters incepted their new career as Wall Street stockbrokers; their offices were parlor 25 and 26 at the Hoffman House Hotel on Madison Square. Soon the publicity and interest surrounding the all-female agency allowed them to open a larger office at 44 Broad Street, where they were alternately known as the “Queens of Finance” and the “Female Sovereigns of Wall Street.” The media fetishized the two beautiful sisters, and as a result they attracted early admirers like Walt Whitman and Susan B. Anthony. “Look at this office,” Tennie observed, “isn’t this better than sewing drawers at ten cents a pair? Or teaching music at ten dollars a quarter?”

In a sense, Woodhull, Chaflin and Company succeeded based on its own momentum. Massive parties and high living increased the sisters’ profiles and kept the firm in the news. Tennie took up with the new managing editor of The New York Tribune, Whitelaw Reid, and they used Victoria’s husband as their secretary – he even ghostwrote Tennie’s romantic notes to Reid. As her sister devoted herself to the fledgling firm, Victoria planned a greater challenge. She moved to a Murray Hill brownstone and sent a letter to The New York Herald announcing herself as an eventual candidate for a president of the United States:

While others of my sex devoted themselves to a crusade against the laws that shackle the women of the country, I asserted my individual independence; while others prayed for the good time coming, I worked for it; while others argued the equality of women with man, I proved it by successfully engaging in business; while others sought to show that there was no valid reason why women should be treated, socially and politically, as being inferior to man, I boldly entered the arena of politics and business and exercised the rights I already possessed.

The suffrage movement had been splintered into factions both regional and political in nature, and Victoria picked an ideal time to assert prominence. To support her candidacy she used every media connection at her disposal, and eventually began publishing a weekly newspaper of her own to get the message out. Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly, as it was called, addressed the issues of the day with the proto-feminist perspective you might imagine, but it also abandoned a moralistic tone, arguing that “ambition, love of power and love of fame are not necessarily evidence of insincerity.” It was a bold and true declaration, but it was also as good as a bullseye.

There is a fascination with tearing down both men and women in the public sphere once they assert any kind of moral superiority over their fellow man. In the case of Victoria Woodhull, her ideals and opinions were actually superior: reading them today is like looking into her future, our present. The pages of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly also contained poetry and fiction, stock listings and sports news. There was no field of human activity which did not apply to Victoria’s essential mission. Lasting for six years, the paper hemorrhaged money every time it opened in the morning, but the Weekly did the important work of refining the political and social philosophies of its publishers.

In 1870, Victoria moved to Washington, taking up residence at the Willard Hotel. She began an affair with a powerful member of Congress, a House representative named Benjamin Butler, a former Union general. Her one woman campaign for suffrage oriented around her contention, often posited in the pages of her newspaper, that the Constitution already permitted women the vote. Her crusade made remarkable progress until the president killed the bill before it got off the ground in the House Judiciary Committee. 

artttempting to vote

Her next step was to form her own political party, which she called the Cosmo-Political Party. She booked the largest auditorium in Washington to jump start her public campaign for the presidency in 1872. Butler’s advice for public speaking – “Put that glass of water down. Never touch it while you are speaking” – worked in spades and the resulting oratory was such a success it turned Victoria into a sensation. For her audiences, she was often the first woman they had ever seen addressing a large crowd.

Even those who had previously been skeptical of Victoria’s celebrity threw their support behind her resources and popularity. She was still an easy target for faux-moral critics like Harriet Beecher Stowe (who termed her “Darcia Darkeyes”) and Anna Dickinson, whose prudishness born of a religious background limited their ability to embrace the considerable value in Victoria’s ideas and public appeal. Once she became president, Victoria planned to wear dark blue pants over light blue tights, sporting a short haircut complementing a man’s collar and cravate. When a reporter jokingly suggested she would be arrested in that garb, she replied, “When I am ready to make my appearance in this dress, no police would dare touch me.”

Just as her political capital reached its apex, wild fluctuations in the price of gold torpedoed her brokerage. The behind-the-scenes operations were run by Victoria’s husband James Blood in tandem with her sister, and as the financial side collapsed, the Weekly suddenly inveighed against corporate fraud. Having witnessed the rampant corruption in that world firsthand, they knew exactly where to look for the dirty laundry. The main targets of Blood’s editorials were the railroads, but all were fair game. The love affair with Wall Street was decidedly over.

A legal complaint, filed by Victoria’s insane mother Annie against her husband, exacerbated her daughter’s troubles by bringing Victoria’s domestic life into the open. The supposed scandal that came out of it was the fact that Victoria allowed her diseased alcoholic first husband Canning to reside in her home and help care for their disabled son. In order to justify the arrangement, she invoked the principle of free love, which would end up consuming her public identity.

Her ideas about sex turned some of the most powerful forces in the media against her, including Horace Greeley who insisted “my conviction of the proper dissolubility of marriage is the mainspring of my hostility to women’s suffrage… My conception of the nature and scope of the marriage relation renders my conversion to women’s suffrage a moral impossibility.” It is the exact same doggerel offered today. The nastiest and most hurtful bit of anti-Woodhull propaganda appeared in the pages of Harper’s, where the subject of the Thomas Nast cartoon would be labeled as “Mrs. Satan.”

She took up with the writer Theodore Tilton, who would become her lover as well as her biographer until he turned on her later. Their mutual infidelity came out of his worship of her – among others, he compared her to Joan of Arc. With his help she created a new political party: The Equal Rights Party. To promote the new organization, Tilton penned his biography of her, one of the first in a long tradition of “campaign biographies.” Victoria’s new platform was designed to appeal to the masses, and it repudiated many of her earlier, more pro-capitalist ideas.

Looking back at that platform today it seems neither completely socialist nor especially radical. Her relationship with Cornelius Vanderbilt convinced her that when someone of extreme wealth dies, it was dangerous to allow them to keep everything they possessed within their own relations. The idea of a death tax scared the very rich and powerful at the time; today we only argue over the size of the fine. Even in her newest and strangest ideas, she anticipated the future of the national conversation more than her detractors could have imagined.

Her own finances improved as long as she was able to stay on the road. An intense lecture schedule restored her empty coffers. However, her bizarre plan to nominate Frederick Douglass in the role of vice president without his consent was not only politically impractical, it diminished the impact of her rhetoric. More importantly, her turn against the devout capitalists who had supported her earlier efforts marked the end to their contributions, and she quickly found herself the enemy of then-conservative New York Times.

Susan B. Anthony’s public turn against her came as a result of the gossip from her mother’s trial, and it amounted to the beginning of the end. She began sleeping in her new office, and fell deeply in debt. To resurrect the fortunes of her newspaper, she decided to publish a story she had gotten from Elizabeth Cady Stanton about a popular preacher Henry Ward Beecher committing adultery with Theodore Tilton’s wife Elizabeth. The story was completely true, and it sold more copies than any other edition of Woodhull and Claflin’s Weekly by a large margin. (Some of the editions of the paper were leased for $1 a day.)

goaltender various

Shortly thereafter, United States marshals locked Victoria Woodhull in jail for the crime of obscenity. After her supporters bailed her out, Harriet Beecher Stowe appealed to her own political connections on behalf of her brother and got Victoria banned from speaking in several auditoriums. Beecher himself refused to sue for libel since he knew the story was true, but Stowe believed her brother innocent. In the summer of 1873, Victoria was finally declared not guilty of all charges, with former lover Benjamin Butler offering the key point in her defense.

Yet all was not well. During the trial, Victoria had suffered a mild heart attack, and she was never the same after her illness. Her ideas were fresh as ever, but in the public eye she had been pigeonholed by the critical media as guilty of something. Her oratory focused on the considerable pleasures of sex, a century before such musings would actually become popular to espouse, noting that “to kill out the sexual instinct by repression is to emasculate character.” She herself experimented sexually with her young acolytes as well as with men in power; her husband was pleased to accomodate her wishes if it made her happy.

When the Weekly died, so did Victoria’s marriage with Blood. Their divorce came about as a result of a doctor who had fawned over her and then written a series of vicious letters after she rejected his advances. Blood had originally introduced the two, and the resulting scandal ended her political career. He reported that “the grandest woman in the world went back on me.”


She tried to escape that life in 1883 with a move to London and a third marriage, this time to a monied Englishman named John Martin. High society, including her new husband’s family, strenously objected to her, and Henry James found the material of two novels in her life. She would never talk about The Bostonians, but she noted in her autobiography that James was “one of your greatest intellectual snobs.” In Rome she finally got a real audience with Frederick Douglass, who barely recognized her.

The next year,  she entered menopause and discovered that she suffered from benign uterine tumors. Her desire to restore her undeserved reputation enabled her to find the strength to survive. She wrote, “God helping me, I will not rest until I am known for what I am, not what others have made me out to be.” Her daughter Zula managed Humanitarian, a new publication. She threw herself into her writing, into enjoying the company of her wealthy husband. At the age of 57, he taught Victoria how to ride a bike. But then, in March of 1897, John Martin pedalled up a mountain in the rain, caught pneumonia and died. Victoria inherited a vast sum (over $10m by today’s standards) and plunged it into the paper for four more years, until she conveyed the estate to her daughter. She occupied her remaining years as a generous philanthropist. When the first World War arrived, she promoted U.S. involvement and organized sewing sessions in her community. She endured until the age of 90, asking her daughter and friends to scatter her ashes over the Atlantic Ocean.

Victoria Woodhull never viewed her sufferings as injustice: it was simply the place and time in which she lived. These were not obstacles, trials or tribulations. There was no need for anger or disappointment that things were not as they ought to have been. It feels inadequate to write about her; it is preferable to simply be as she was. In Rae Armantrout’s phrase, Victoria so impotently loved the world.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.


Historical Feminism Ages Like A Fine Wine

Alicia Puglionesi on Margery Kempe

Molly Young on Helen Gurley Brown

Kara VanderBijl’s Feminist Timeline

Midge Decter’s Radical Children

Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton

vanessa redgaverrr

In Which It Should Be Aggressive And Titillating

Yom Kippur



Dear Ms. Armstrong,

Please find the attached manuscript for your consideration. I’m of two minds on the title. The first is that the novel should be called something aggressive and titillating, along the lines of its tensions.

The second is the title should be maudlin and ceremonial, so as not to imply too plainly what comes ahead.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this matter.

David Larkin


Dear Mr. Larkin,

Thank you for sending along your novel “Loose Change.” Norton has purchased an option to publish the work under that title. Congratulations are in order. You should receive the relevant documents by postal mail shortly, and a check for the advance we discussed.

We did feel that “Death Cum” was a provocative and possibly interesting title, but our editor at Norton preferred the other, and ultimately I saw no reason not to accommodate her wishes.

There is one change to the text the publisher requested. They asked that the phrase “demon pussy” on page 27 be changed to “demon vagina.” (There’s a cross promotional opportunity with Urban Outfitters.)

Warm regards and pleased to be working with you,

Ellen Armstrong


Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I have yet to receive the check you mentioned. Sometimes it’s difficult to get mail here. The postman is extremely envious. You won’t be surprised to learn he also fancies himself a writer. Two days ago he hit my car with the bumper on his truck. I think I may be afraid of him.

Great news about “Loose Change.” I have sent my latest work, “The Fasting of the Jews” via UPS. I’m eager to receive your notes and thoughts about it.

Next time you’re in Seattle I look forward to meeting you in person.

David Larkin


Dear Mr. Larkin,

We received your manuscript “The Fasting of the Jews.” Norton is thrilled by how prolific you are. The editor I am in contact with there wants to release three novels by you in the next financial year. Is this feasible?

Our only concern is about the title for this sequel (?). There are no Jews and no fasting in the novel. Pls explain? Norton has pushed for “Looser Change.”

UPS is fine, but be aware that sometimes they deliver their mail to the USPS under their Innovations banner. It might be returned to you via your jealous mailman. Ha!

So pleased to be working with you.

Ellen Armstrong


Dear Ms. Armstrong,

Please let this be your notice that the title “Looser Change” is not acceptable to me.

“The Fasting of the Jews” was not called such lightly. I am planning a proper sequel to “Loose Change” (credit goes to you for the original’s success), which is to be titled “Godfather Clause.” It is in part a reimagining of the making of The Godfather if Al Pacino were a woman… the other part is a murder mystery.

I continue to worry about my postal worker. I drove to his house (he lives only a few blocks away), and he has several plants in his garden from which toxins could easily be derived.

David Larkin


Dear Mr. Larkin,

We completely understand your preference about the title of “The Fasting of the Jews.” We’re prepared to go with it, but after the novel is translated for Arab countries, we’ll be titling the release there “Windows 8 for Dummies.” The international market can be difficult to understand.

I was incredibly thrilled to receive “Godfather Clause.” It is your best work yet.

I’ll be in Seattle a week from Thursday. Hoping to say hi and drop off the contracts for “Godfather Clause.”

Ellen Armstrong


Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I regret I was unable to enjoy the pleasure of your company during your trip to Seattle. I am currently confined to my small (but pleasant) house. My mailman waits outside, either in my lawn or the street it faces. Yesterday I believed I saw him leave, but today when I opened the front door I could hear him in the back. I closed and locked it, and shook for hours afterwards. You cannot even imagine the damage to my new BMW.

He leaves endive, charchavinah and other bitter herbs at the end of my driveway. It may be better not to meet, at least at my home.

Hopefully you can FedEx the documents so that we can be assured they will not fall in his hands. I look forward to speaking with you when this is all over.

David Larkin


Dear Mr. Larkin,

When I left the restaurant in the hotel, I found I was angry, which doesn’t happen very often, I can assure you. You’re a valued client. I don’t want to trade on your good nature, and I’m sure you would not want to trade on mine.

I placed the documents in your mailbox myself. Again, I offer my congratulations on your third published work in the past nine months.

Ellen Armstrong


Dear Ms. Armstrong,

I am the real David Larkin, the true author of “Loose Change.” Whatever arrangements you seem to have made with my mailman after he wrote you under my name are unfortunate. Identify theft is a serious crime. But on to new business.

I have completed a followup to “Loose Change” which I have titled “Authorial Intent.” Would you consider shopping the ms around to publishers?

I have decided to go by the pen name Mark Arturo.

You know in your heart who this is.

Mark Arturo is a writer living in New York.


In Which Alan Bennett Used To Find This All Quite Daring

East Is Danger

Alan Bennett: the son of a butcher who rose from a modest background to become one of the most celebrated British playwrights of the century. The diaries Bennett kept, especially during his visits to America, eclipse those of de Tocqueville and Dickens, amounting to a catalogue of perspectives from humblest to bourgeois. These writings show off a lot more than Bennett displayed in plays like The History Boys or Kafka’s Dick, describing a man who almost unknowingly belonged to a different time than the one he was in.

Why American is a foreign language: we like in a cafe near Gramercy Park, sitting out on a heavy, overcast day. I order a screwdriver and drink it quickly and ask for another.

“I guess it’s kind of hot,” the waiter says.

“Yes,” says Lynn, “and the glasses are kind of small.”

“Yes,” says the waiter. “That’s true also.”

No Englishman would say, ‘That’s true also’ (although it’s a perfectly grammatical sentence), because it’s written not spoken English. Only Ivy Compton-Burnett would write it as dialogue.


Mary-Kay rings from Geneva to tell the children their grandfather has died. Sam answers the phone, is told the news, and then immediately announces to the room in his gruff eight year old voice, “He’s dead.”

William (six) now comes to the phone. “Can I pretend that I don’t know and you tell me all over again?”


Ten years ago it was thought (or I thought it) quite daring for a girl to loosen her bikini top to brown her whole back. Nowadays girls bare their breasts and bake them openly just as a matter of course. Or girls with nice breasts do. Charlotte H., for instance, who sits across the swimming-pool from me now, has huge unexpected breasts with large, snub nipples; they look like the noses of koala bears.

I wear a pair of flip-flop sandals, the sort of with a sole and one strap across – the biblical type, I suppose. When I was a boy and read of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, I thought of their feet as like my own in 1943, sweating in grey Utility socks and encased in heavy black shoes with stuck-on rubber soles. Consequently I regarded Jesus’s gesture as far more self-sacrificing, even heroic, than it actually was. After twelve pairs of such feet, I thought, the Crucifixion would have been a pushover.


An article on playwrights in the Daily Mail, listed according to Hard Left, Soft Left, Hard Right, Soft Right and Centre. I am not listed. I should probably come under Soft Centre.


I am walking in the Lower East Side in New York, strolling east through the village. I am surprised by how much of it has been smartened up. Then I come out into an intersection between warehouses and railway buildings, where, across a large central triangle, I see a herd of mackintoshed derelicts, who are also convicts, each with a white oblong on his boots carrying his prison number. I turn and run, much as one might run to get out of the way of a herd of cows, for I know they are not individually dangerous.

Now I am walking back towards safety – east is danger, I know, and west is home – back along a narrow track beside fields of standing corn. A colourful character waves me on, and then I am confronted by a young man in a smart cavalry-twill coat, the coat slightly too big for him; he has a small head, with gummy, edgy hair. He wants money, and I reach into my right-hand back pocket, where I have several bills, and, taking them out, pull out one for ten dollars. I notice that all the colour has drained from the note. Knowing that I have only taken out one bill among many, he suddenly has a knife in his hand which he is holding before his face, a small knife, the blade of which I can hardly see.

I know as we confront each other in the standing corn that this young man of twenty-six or so is going to kill me and that I had been misled by the cavalry-twill coat into thinking him a better class of person. Suddenly I see why the coat is too big – because that too is stolen. I look into the face of this cold-eyed runt and see as I wake and die that I will perish because I have been a snob.


When, like today, I feel I have got a little way with a plot and knock off for the day, it is like a climber going up a sheer face who pitches camp on a narrow ledge. Tomorrow he may get no further; he may even roll off during the night.


Telephoned by the Evening News to see if I have any comment to offer on the occasion of Harold Pinter’s fiftieth birthday I don’t; it’s only later I realize I could have suggested two minutes’ silence.


Struck by the completeness of New York, much of it still as it was in 1930. Today is Thanksgiving Day and the streets are emptied of humanity, Prince Street swept clean of people, every detail of the fretted fronts of warehouses clear and sharp, buildings cut up like cheese, segmented against the sky. It was like this the Thanksgiving Day after JFK’s assassination, when I walked down a totally empty Seventh Avenue with not a soul to be seen.


In the new form of service God is throughout referred to as You; only one Thou left in the world, and the fools have abolished it. Of course they can’t do away with the vocative, which is every bit as archaic, so we still say ‘O God.’ It’s a good job God doesn’t have a name, or we’d probably be calling him Dave.


Commentators on Kafka tend to enlist him. Heller enlists him, holds him up to the rest of the literature class as a good example. How he would have squirmed! Cannetti does the same, annexes Kafka for his own stringency.

Kafka could never have written as he did had he lived in a house. His writing is that of someone whose life was spent in apartments, with lifts, stairwells, muffled voices behind closed doors, and sounds through walls. Put him in a nice detached villa and he’d never have written a word.


Someone writes asking advice about where to send a TV script. “We sent it to Kenneth Williams and he was extremely enthusiastic about our script but he committed suicide soon after.”


Continuing appreciations of Olivier, all of them avoiding the unspoken English question: “But was he nice?”


Steven Berkoff, who is currently everywhere, is quoted as saying that critics are like worn-out old tarts. If only they were, the theatre would be in a better state. In fact, critics are much more like dizzy girls out for the evening, just hoping to be fucked and happy to be taken in by a plausible rogue who’ll flatter their silly heads while knowing roughly the whereabouts of their private part. A cheap thrill is all they want.


“What is it?” said Ariel C. today, “that I’ve no need to do now that I’m an old lady? Oh, I remember: tell the truth.”

I am having supper at The Odeon when word goes round the tables that John Lennon has been shot. “This country of ours,” sighs my waiter. “May I tell you the specials for this evening?”


A grand seaside hotel in the twenties.

A young woman in black sits in the window, in sharp contrast to other guests in blazers and shorts on their way to the beach.

The hotel manager comes in and tells the woman that unless her bill is paid that day she must leave the hotel. There is an argument.

Meanwhile waiters come in with very expensive luggage, belonging to a millionaire whose yacht has just anchored in the harbour. The millionaire comes in and takes a seat while his room is got ready.

The young woman summons a waiter and tells him to move her seat further away from the millionaire. The millionaire is intrigued. He summons the same waiter, who is noticeably more polite to him than to the woman, and tells him to move his seat closer to her. The process is repeated. The increasingly disgruntled waiter has to move the chairs again.

The millionaire asks why she is moving. She says it is because she can smell money. She is allergic to the sight and smell of money.

The millionaire cannot smell money. She is allergic to the sight and smell of money.

The millionaire cannot smell money. He smells his hand but cannot detect it. He offers the young woman his hand to smell, and she very gingerly does so, and promptly collapses. The millionaire summons the waiter for some champagne. A glass revives her, but the sight of the millionaire tipping the waiter promptly makes her swoon again.

The millionaire asks her how she came to be like this. She says that she married a poor man, and they were very happy, but he worked very hard and gradually became rich. Making money took over his life. He used to come home smelling of money. They lived in a house that smelled of money. He dressed her in clothes, gave her jewels – all smelling of money. She began to suffer from asthma, rashes, fainting fits – all brought on by the sight and smell of money. Even signing a cheque fetched her out in spots.

Eventually her husband died, leaving her very rich. But, valuing her health, she could not touch the money, and besides it nauseated her.

The millionaire is overjoyed. He has spent all his life looking for someone who would love him for himself, regardless of his fortune. He approaches her, but she begins to feel faint.

Suddenly the manager appears with her bill. The millionaire orders the manager to strip, so he can put on his clothes. The manager, obsequious to a fault, does so and the millionaire, now dressed in the manager’s clothes, which do not smell of money, is at last able to kiss the young woman’s hand.

She says she cannot stand the hotel, and wants to leave. Despite being in his underpants, the manager still insists that her bill be paid, but at the very mention of it, the young woman collapses again.

The millionaire is furious with the manager, saying that he will settle her bill. She begins to revive, and as she does so the millionaire begs her to come away with him on his yacht.

“Will it,” she asks fearful, “will it smell of money?”

“No,” says the millionaire. “It is a very petite yacht, and all it will smell of is the sea and freedom.”

The couple leave hand in hand, and as the yacht sails out of the bay, the waiter clears away the champagne, complaining that neither of them has left him a tip.


I  leave the Odeon around eleven, the place already a frenzy of streamers and horn-blowing. Back at the apartment all is quiet, but as firecrackers go off in the street and the noises in her head are blotted out by the whistles and bangs, Rose sings in the new year with a love song.

I love you
and I find it to be true
And the whole world smiles at you.

Except that five minutes into 1985 the fireworks stop, the noises come back, and once more she thinks there is a boy bouncing his ball on her ceiling. No matter that she has thought this for twenty-five years and if there were a boy he would now be a middle-aged man, for Rose he is still bouncing his ball.

“Stop it. Stop it,” she shouts. “I can’t have this. Stop it, you goddamn filthy bum.”


In Which Jack Nicholson Becomes Our Boyfriend

Star in the Heavens


That’s the great self-indulgence, isn’t it? To do what interests you?

- Katharine Hepburn on the director John Huston

Anjelica Huston was born in the absence of her father. Weeks earlier, shortly after John Huston began shooting The African Queen in the Congo, he killed his first elephant. A week previous to that, the married director (not to Anjelica’s mother, naturally) had made a pass at the film’s 22-year old script coordinator. She cried. Lauren Bacall noted, “He was a little frightening to watch.”

Anjelica’s mother Ricki Soma eventually became John’s fourth wife. As an eighteen year old ballerina she had been on the cover of Life magazine. Until he divorced his third wife, Evelyn Keyes, Ricki officially occupied the position of John Huston’s mistress. Still, they lived together in Malibu. Ricki’s first pregnancy was something of a surprise, but by the seventh month, John was divorced and they were married. The boy was named Walter Anthony after John’s father, and they called him Tony, after Ricki’s.

John was soon cheating again, this time with a woman who was essentially Ricki Huston’s double, Suzanne Flon. To his surprise, he fell in love with her. (One of John’s exes once called him “an angel with a gun in his pocket.”) Proceeds from his next picture, the popular 1953 jaunt Moulin Rouge, allowed Huston to resume a more lavish lifestyle. He rented a house in Ireland and moved Ricki there. John drove very fast everywhere he went.

In Ireland Huston’s son Tony almost died in a horse accident, and Anjelica lost part of her finger in a lawn mower. She also fell over their dog Rosie and badly bruised her hip. Another time, she put her arm in a clothes wringer and could barely extract herself from the device. In time, Ricki would move with the kids to Italy. But instead of then divorcing her philandering husband, she found a house in Galway, Ireland, and the family stayed together.

John’s next project was a collaboration about the life of Freud with Jean-Paul Sartre. The two giants hated each other immediately. John said of Sartre, “One eye going in one direction, and the eye itself wasn’t very beautiful, like an omelet. And he had a pitted face.” Sartre was constantly writing down things he himself said in conversation, and he never stopped talking. The lack of respect was mutual. Sartre wrote to Simone de Beauvoir, “Through this immensity of identical rooms, a great Romantic, melancholic and lonely, aimlessly roams. Our friend Huston is absent, aged, and literally unable to speak to his guests… his emptiness is purer than death.”

Anjelica lived in her own little world, only associating with the children of the household’s groom. Little of their parents’ angst reached the kids. Anjelica would later tell biographer Lawrence Grobel, “They were sort of two stars in the heavens when I was growing up.” Anjelica wanted to become a nun, because they were the only other women she associated with on a regular basis. When she told her father of her intentions, he said, “That’s great, when are you going to start?”

Her parents kept their secrets close to the vest. For a long time she did not know her father had impregnated another woman, a young Indian actress named Zoe Sallis. When John finally decided to rid himself of Ricki, they barely informed the kids. Anjelica later said, “We were just told, ‘You have to go to school in London now. And your mother will live in London with you, and you’ll come back to Ireland for holidays.'” She was put into the Lycée Français, where she was expected to learn in French. For tax reasons, Ricki would not grant him a divorce. John kept Ricki in London and Zoe in Rome.

Once, at a family meal, the discussion revolved around Van Gogh. “I said somewhat flippantly that I didn’t like Van Gogh,” Anjelica recalled in Lawrence Grobel’s 1989 portrait of the family, The Hustons. He said, ‘You don’t like Van Gogh? Then name six of his paintings and tell me why you don’t like Van Gogh.’ I couldn’t, of course. And he said, ‘Leave the room, and until you know what you’re talking about, don’t come back with your opinions to the dinner table.'”

They still visited Ireland in the summer. The girls would sit in the barn’s hay loft, watching the horses have sex. A stallion would take on mare after mare. Anjelica’s friend Joan Buck noted, “Anjelica and I thought this was the way it went.”

Anjelica hated taking the London underground to school. She wished her mother had more money so she could come to school in a limo like the other girls. Her father was increasingly absent, and her mother became pregnant by an English writer/aristocrat with a family of his own. She did not tell Anjelica she was with child until the baby’s birth was three months away. (Anjelica recalled, “I thought she was putting on weight.”) A week later, John Huston told her for the first time about her half-brother Danny, now two years old.

Anjelica’s emotions were sky high one minute, pathetically low the next. While she was away in Ireland, her poodle Mindy died. John Huston goaded a visiting John Steinbeck into playing Santa Claus for the kids. Steinbeck’s wife almost stroked out.

By the age of fifteen, Anjelica was the second-tallest girl in her class. Suddenly, John’s little girl had become a woman, and in makeup and adult clothing, she was more than a simple beauty. Her mother encouraged adoption of the latest fashions, wanting to relive her own youth in her children. Ricki’s friend Dirk Bogarde would remark, “There seemed to be no age difference at all.”

They parted ways on the issue of drugs. Ricki desperately wanted to keep Anjelica away from London’s scene. When a producer on John’s new project wanted Anjelica for a role (it would have kept costs down), her mother strenously objected to that as well. Anjelica wanted to play Juliet in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s play, and had been encouraged by several callbacks. Her father made the decision for her.

When she showed up on set of A Walk with Love and Death, John was incensed to see she had cut her hair. (Extensions were required and took hours to insert properly.) Father and daughter did not get along on set. She later told Grobel, “The fact that I was ungrateful and petulant about it was hardly something he could have expected. Katharine Hepburn didn’t criticize his direction? Why should I?”

Her next gig was as understudy to Marianne Faithful in Tony Richard’s stage version of Hamlet. It helped shape her into a somewhat decent performer. Although news that a topless photograph might appear in an Italian magazine horrified Ricki, she went to great lengths to get her daughter her first spread in Vogue. The following January, Ricki’s car hit an Italian pothole and her boyfriend swerved into the path of an incoming van. Anjelica’s only mother was instantly killed.


Bogarde said, “Ricki was dead. I’d never see those humorous eyes, the sadness beneath them almost concealed; I’d never see the idiotic daisy-chains, hear the laughter, discuss the latest book, play, ballet or opera; never see her come in from a walk, muddy, wet, with the dogs. Life would go on, but never quite in the same way ever again.” John Huston was not in great shape either. Even though he had difficulty breathing, he still smoked four cigars a day. (He tried pot once years before and had to be hospitalized.)

Her mother’s death pushed Anjelica deeper into modeling. A relationship with photographer Bob Richardson was a tonic of sorts; he kept her extremely thin and yelled at her constantly.

Richard Avedon had told Ricki he thought Anjelica’s shoulders were too big. Despite that, her unique look found work. “I had a big nose,” she later said. “I was still growing into my body. The idea of beauty for me was Jean Shrimpton — big blue eyes and little noses, wide bee-stung mouths. It was an odd dichotomy — and this happens to many girls who find themselves in front of the camera a lot, who truly don’t like their looks. It’s almost as thought they can forget their looks in front of the camera. And I used to love working for the camera. But when faced with the reality of my pictures, I was generally deeply depressed.” New York became her adopted home.

When her father remarried again, Anjelica was not even invited. When her relationship with Richardson flamed out, she began staying in the Palisades with John and his new wife, Cici. In time she moved into a house on Beachwood Drive. It was Cici Huston who would introduce her to Jack Nicholson. She was just 22, he was 36. They began dating straight away, in an on-and-off relationship that would consume sixteen years of her life.

It was March of 1977 when Anjelica headed to Jack’s house to pick up some clothes. She intended to take them back to the apartment of her new boyfriend, Ryan O’Neal. Instead of Jack or an empty house, she found Roman Polanski and a thirteen year old girl named Sandra. When the police came back to the house with Polanski to search, they found both Anjelica and the cocaine in her purse. In order to protect herself from prosecution, she agreed to testify against Polanski. Without her testimony, it was doubtful there would ever be a conviction. She agreed, and the director fled.

Things with O’Neal were no better than they had been with Jack. He frequently exploded at Anjelica’s half-sister Allegra, who John cared for as his own. Allegra still did not know who her real father was, and it was John’s new wife Cici who finally forced the issue, informing the girl herself. In time, Anjelica returned to Nicholson. She came along when he travelled to England to shoot The Shining with Stanley Kubrick. They broke up for good in 1989.

In 1980 she was involved in a car accident which would alter the rest of her life. She was hit by a drunk 16 year old driving a BMW. She was not wearing a seatbelt and her face was decimated. She immediately directed the attending ambulance to Cedars-Sinai, sensing she would need extensive plastic surgery. When she left the hospital, her nose was actually looking somewhat better. She changed her life, moving out of Jack’s house and living alone for the first time.

Ellen Copperfield is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in San Francisco. She last wrote in these pages about the childhood of Simone de Beauvoir. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.

The Best of Ellen Copperfield on This Recording

Dorothea Lange’s Failed Marriage

Sex Life Of Marlon Brando

The Onset Of The Western Canon

Entitled To Madonna’s Opinion

Barbra Streisand Grows Up In Flatbush

A Sneaking Suspicion of Literature

Anjelica Huston Falls Off The Horse

Prefer To Be Simone de Beauvoir

The Marriage of Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra

Elongated Childhood of Jorge Luis Borges

Jokes At The Expense Of Tom Hanks

Which One Is The Gay?

In Which We Sincerely Hope To Impart This Information

Hard to Say is This Recording’s weekly advice column. It will appear every Wednesday until the Earth perishes in a fiery blaze, or until North West turns 40. Get no-nonsense answers to all of your most pressing questions by writing to or by dropping us a note at our tumblr.


I recently received an anonymous message through social. The sender was a woman I did not know, and it said, I apologize for doing this, and linked to this Dear Abby column about cheating.

I’m fairly sure my boyfriend Jon is not cheating on me. At least I could think of no feasible time he would be able to accomplish this feat, since we spend most of our days together.

For various reasons I don’t want to bring this up to him. I’d like to find out more without him knowing or invading his privacy in any way. Help!

Janine L. 


Dear Janine,

Mention the girl’s name in an innocent context and watch for his reaction. He need not know about the message.

If he says, “That’s this crazy girl I used to work with,” ask for more information. Why does he call women girls? Does he realize crazy is a trigger pejorative often imposed on women who simply don’t accept sublimated roles in a patriarchal society? Has he read tumblr?

If this does not resolve your problem, then go to Plan B, the morning after pill. Just kidding, instead wait for the right drunken moment to have the “wild” idea of placing a location tracker on both of your phones.

This part is important: once you have placed a tracker on his phone, if you yourself are cheating, remove the tracker from your phone. The point of this is to catch him, not to expose your own peccadilloes.

Hi guys,

My friend Judy Liederschmidt recently split up with her boyfriend of five years. They went around the world together and took lots of photos in exotic places, such as Bali, the Alps, Papua. New Guinea and Mindy Kaling’s birthplace.

These photos are very prominently displayed in the home they used to share, and everytime I go to see Judy Liederschmidt, who is not dealing with this situation all that well, I feel like her ex is staring a hole in my gullet. He cheated on her and it doesn’t seem healthy for her to be reminded of it at all times.

How can I broach this subject with her and what do I say?

Frederick R.

Dear Frederick,

You have a few options, each with its own drawbacks.

The first of these strategeries involves heavily complimenting her appearance in a way that conveys the idea that these photos are an outdated, disgusting version of her and she requires new snaps to convey the current state of her gorgeous repose.

Failing that, find a friend who is purportedly single and bring him over to her house. She will probably hide the photos before the young man’s arrival, but they may reappear upon the suitor’s departure.

At this point, it would be time for full measures. Has she read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing?

JK, although someone once gave us that book and said it changed his life.

No, instead you have to pretend it is you who has a problem letting go of someone. Be casually having a thing where you throw romantic letters and trinkets into a fire for some reason — it doesn’t have to be the possessions of a love interest, it can be anyone in your life. Heck, it could even be Judy Liederschmidt if she doesn’t straighten her fucking shit out.

Illustrations by Mia Nguyen.


In Which We Answer A Series of Pretentious Questions

Absolute Zero


I am thinking carefully about everything Eva told me the night before. The look someone gets when they have heard too much: I tried not to show it.

Eva asked if I had ever been to Marrakech. I thought: What a fucking pretentious question.

Once, many years ago, I was with someone I thought was too good for me. This one was not like Eva. She would ask terrible questions all the time, e.g. “What do you think Lawrence Durrell was thinking when he wrote Justine?” or “Can I get egg whites on a flagel?” (A flagel refers to a flat bagel.) I looked up what happened to her yesterday: she does PR for Maybelline.

I was telling you what my girlfriend said last night that so appalled me. Other thoughts keep intruding. Did you know that scientists brought a molecule down to absolute zero? It was a mitzvah.

There is this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where this hotshot business executive is driving on a long road trip, and his car gets totaled by a truck. He survives, but he is catatonic. Men come to take his bags and jewelry, never noticing that he continues to live. Other men come in prison jumpsuits and strip off his clothes. Right before they’re about to toss his body in the incinerator, a coroner notices a single tear dropping from the executive’s eye. That was basically the face I was making, last night.

I remember once, an evening like that not too long ago, she was asking me about my past. I felt like I had to reveal something, or else she might stop asking. “When was the last time you were in love?” she managed. First I said, “Murphy Brown.”

Just because Eva originates from something flawed, does not mean that she herself is wrong.

She did not want my real story, the same as I did not want her real story. But we had been together for about fourteen months, although maybe 1/3 of that time was long distance, while I finished a job in Seattle. It felt like she could not wait another moment. She brought out this old photo album. It took us right through her teenage years. We saw her dad, an intensely obese man who had been killed by a drunk driver when she was 14. He had not been around much before that.

I met Eva’s mother in San Diego, where she used to live. My girlfriend prepared me a lot for this meeting, she said she felt it was too soon, but that since her mom usually was overseas, this could be the only chance we would have to all get to know each other.

I have never been to Marrakech. I was in Bilbao once for a month. I met a girl online and she invited me to stay. The food is the only thing I remember, and how she never washed her hair. I told her I could not have sex before marriage, as a stipulation of my religion, but we could do whatever else she wanted. Eventually we did have sex anyway, but not until the last week I was there. By then, we both probably could have lived a lifetime on the anticipation alone, and I asked her to wash her hair, so that was no longer any kind of impediment. When I summarized this life experience to Eva, I stated, “I fell in love once in Spain.”

I attended a lecture last week by a man who wrote a verbose novel that numbered many leatherbound volumes. Someone asked him during the Q & A how he was able to be so prolific. He said that he had gotten divorced. The crowd gave a knowing laugh, but I felt my head get warm. It happens to me in these fast moments. Say it, I thought, say the real reason.

Last night Eva started talking about this ex-boyfriend, who I will call Max. You see, she loved Max dearly but he had some problems. I assumed the end of the story involved Max being the drunk driver who killed her dad, but this was sadly not the case.

Max actually did not treat her all that badly, until he got off drugs. He did not hit her or even yell at her or scream. He just made her feel really bad about herself, for like, years.

There is a compulsion among certain people who believe that others are “too good” for them. Over the years I have heard this every once in awhile, but not as often as some of my friends. It is apparently what her mother told her about me, after we spent an afternoon by the woman’s pool.

I looked in the mirror for a long time after that, wondering what Eva and her mother saw in me. They had both encouraged me to go in the water, but I shook my head and said nothing.

Max is married and he looks happy. His wife has the longest blonde hair I have seen since I used to go to this cafe in San Luis Obispo, where every single picture on the wall was of Max’s wife.

You are probably wondering aloud to your flatmate, I wonder what his girlfriend will think when she reads this! The answer is, she will realize I am the finest writer of my generation.

Tolstoy bought a villa for his daughter Olga in Marrakech. Before his marriage to Olga’s mother Sophia, he listed all his prostitutes, and admitted fathering a child with one of the women. Sophia Tolstoy took it in good stride. We always know the kind of person we are with, since it is the only meaningful way we can understand ourselves.

I told this to Eva just now, when she woke. She said, “Don’t act like you know me,” and turned over.  The woman on the walls of the coffee shop was actually Marilyn Monroe. She died of an overdose. The drunk driver who killed Eva’s dad died in prison from a brain tumor. No one else in this essay is dead.

I do not like knowing these hard stories, even if it is about a person I care so much for. But I would like them a lot less if I was the one telling them. I know we can’t forget what happened to us, even if a choice made now, today, projects itself backwards to change our past actions as Milosz wrote. From that vantage the past is as nebulous and alterable as the present. Taking the next logical leap, it means that the present is as fixed as what preceded it.

Bilbao had the most wonderful restaurants. San Luis Obispo is a great place to live. Seattle’s not so bad either, even if there is not much history. You can always make it up.

Ellis Denklin is a writer living in Los Angeles. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.

Photographs by Hannah Collins.

“My Blue Supreme” – Interpol (mp3)

“Anywhere” – Interpol (mp3)