A Memorial to Sam Lawrence
Read at the memorial service for Seymour (Sam) Lawrence, 1994
We’ve come here today from all over America and Europe to make a valentine for Sam, and the timing is somehow right, since he operated as an empowering saint in the lives of so many of us.
I first met Sam, in 1978, at the Saint Lawrence Writers Conference, and he has functioned as an angel in my life ever since. Sam was an artist at what he did, and he understood what artists need. “You’re a real writer,” he said to me on the phone, “Bring your stories to Boston.” We planned the publication of BLACK TICKETS together in Mendocino, with Sam put up in some spectacular digs and me arriving in my dented Nova on a weekend break from my first teaching job. Somehow we ended up in an old graveyard by the sea at dusk, with fog and gold light swirling around Sam’s walking stick, and he looked at me seriously and said, “You’re a witch.” At that moment something sparkled across a stone, moving fast, and he said, “Look, look, a wizard! I mean a lizard!” He became ‘the Wizard,’ and his letters to me began, Dear Witch. He really was in it for the magic. Writing was alchemy, and publishing was the prayer that carried the words.
He quoted me as saying, “Sam and I found each other,” but I think that statement is representative of how Sam viewed all his relationships with writers. He chose his writers very carefully, and when he committed to our work, he committed for life, and beyond death. He loved us, he took care of us, he yelled at us, he drank with us, he phoned us, daily sometimes, with all the news of the latest foreign sale, swank dinner, advertising budget, he gossiped with us, he ate and drank with us in inimitable Sam style, a style that said, ‘We’re wonderful, and the work we’re trying to do is wonderful, and will endure, like this wine.’ He argued with us, he apologized, sometimes, with an engaging, slightly chastened dignity, he was patient and forbearing. Romance might waver, domestic arrangements collapse, but Sam was steadfast; he helped us in ways our families could not. He did what only he could do: he sustained our spirits, even as he made money for us, and for himself, with utter glee. All that was a lovely game and a passionate life, he loved life, he loved good food and beautiful places and English suits and privilege. He insisted on privilege, yet he said to me more than once, “It doesn’t matter where you come from. Katharine Ann came from Indian Creek, Texas, she came from nowhere. Itdoesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you do; that’s why we live in this country.”
He lived life on his terms, with a kind of crazy bravery. I think of him at ABA in a wheelchair, with a nurse to change the bandages on his bleeding foot. Threatened, he worked. He worked harder. He worked in bed with his papers strewn all around him. We talked about the December sales conference at Houghton. “Should I walk in with the crutches, or should I just be seated at the table when they all walk in? Better if I’m sitting down already, don’t you think? Less of a big deal.” Faced with his own illness, his own mortality, he was amazingly brave in dealing with us, his writers, like a parent whose first thought is to protect the children. He made himself a myth about Ahab, the swashbuckling publishing pirate, and the voice on the phone was always strong, he was always making progress, he was the star of rehab, he was planning to come along on that upcoming European pub tour, which country should it be? And he convinced us. We’d all been concerned about Sam. But when we got the call from Joan, his much loved companion, or from Camille, his long-time assistant and ally, or from Tom, who was with Sam in Florida, the news — that such an undaunted heart could stop — was unbelievable. The day he died, he dictated a letter to me from his hospital bed, and he ended it -Love and best wishes for a Great and Glorious ’94, the Wizard of Boca Grande.
His was a glorious faith. His belief in us was unconditional, because writing is not founded on conditions. He stood as an elegant bulwark between the writer and the corporation, the writer and the reviews, good or bad, between the writer and self-doubt. He cheered our every endeavor, he railed against our enemies, he told us jokes, he danced with us, he published work that inspired us to work, he repeated our best conversational lines to one another as evidence of our immense stature and the crazy vagaries of the writer’s circumstance. He made us a kind of family. And beyond all that, he influenced the course of American literature. Writing was a life, not a career. Publishing was a calling, not a job. He was fiercely uncompromising. He was bull-headed in support of us. He laughed with us, he comforted us.
And having worked with him will continue to comfort us, to gird us for battle with the darkest days of his absence. For me, those days will be many. I met him as a nearly unpublished 25-year-old; he was the benefactor and constant of my writing life. He was my friend, through the deaths of my parents and the births of my children. He waited, without complaint, six years for my new book, with never a break in letters, calls, or lunches at the Ritz.
Finally, I phoned him from MacDowell last summer and said, “Sam, I’m packing the car to go home. Today’s my birthday and I finished the book.”
“Perfect!” he shouted. “I love you!” He promptly dispatched two dozen roses to Boston. He loved the book, but he didn’t love the title. Titles came and went over the next few weeks. Finally he said to me, “You’ve got to let go of this goddamn book. You’re driving everyone crazy. I have the title.”
“Well –” I said.
“Listen carefully,” he said. “It’s one word.”
There was silence on the line.
“SHELTER,” Sam said, with that hesitation that crept into his speech, “may we all . . . find some.”
I felt a little scared, like a shadow had come between us. He’d been in and out of the hospital, but I hadn’t known, until that moment, how scared I was of losing Sam. I couldn’t quite breathe.
He took my silence for indecision. “It’s ominous, he said, “it’s mysterious. It’s like an offering.”
So, Sam, a thousand hearts in this valentine. But today is not our only offering. You don’t die while we’re alive. In the act of writing, we celebrate you. In reading each other, we celebrate your vision. All of us in this room, in supporting, producing, selling, editing, literary American fiction, protect what you protected, and we honor you.