Monday, June 12, 2017

When writers write back, part 2

William F. Buckley Jr.
"Thanks for your bittersweet review," William F. Buckley Jr. wrote to me in a letter dated Feb. 23, 1979. His letter, written on National Review stationery ("Dictated in Switzerland. Transcribed in New York," it says at the top), was in response to my review of his book A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts, which appeared on Jan. 28.

I thought bittersweet to be a good choice of words, for my review had, in fact, been full of both high praise and sharp criticism. His letter, too, was bittersweet, concluding as it did with the words, "Thanks for your encouragement," as if my humble review in a relatively small newspaper could somehow encourage one of the great political commentators of his generation.

The main thrust of his letter, however, had to do with my complaint that some of the columns reprinted in his book seemed dated, specifically one about Ronald Reagan's choice of a running mate in 1976. "For your information -- and maybe I should make this plain in an introduction in a future collection," he wrote, "I attempt to republish pieces that are essential to a narrative -- in the case you cite, the big event between the primaries and the convention was Reagan's designation of Schweiker for VP. If I had left it out I would not in my opinion have adequately told the political story of 1976." I am sure Buckley was right. Old newspaper columns become part of the historical record, and who was I to say that history is dated?

Steve Allen
Another letter from a very prominent author was dated Jan. 27, 1994. Steve Allen, who had long been one of my favorite television personalities, had sent his complaint not to me but to my editor. You always know you're in trouble when someone with a complaint goes directly over your head without first giving you a chance to respond. Such a complaint, from another prominent individual, once nearly got me fired. This time, however, the blow was softened considerably by a note from Allen's secretary that accompanied his letter. (The letter actually was signed by his assistant, but had been dictated by Allen.)

Besides being a TV star, Allen was a prolific writer, and I had reviewed his book Make 'Em Laugh, supposedly a guide for comedy writers. I had written that the book "comes across more as bragging than instruction." Allen ignored this dig, but was incensed that I wrote, "Allen accuses Johnny Carson of stealing much of his material from Allen, Jonathan Winters and others. Allen says Carson has 'the worst reputation in the field of comedy.'"

To this Allen said, "Mr. Allen has never made any such assertion, either in print or speech. For whatever the point is worth, it is his personal opinion that Mr. Carson has a very good reputation indeed in the field of comedy.

"There is, however, one specific regard in which Carson's reputation is low, among his peers, and that is as regards the narrow question of plagiarism: the use of other comedians' material." I thought that is what I had written, but Allen apparently read my quote from his book as being more broadly interpreted than either he or I intended.

The hand-written note from his assistant, Karen Hicks, says as much. "Between you and me," she wrote, "the quote was obviously referring to Johnny's reputation for plagiarism. This letter was dictated by Mr. Allen under (sic) my signature. Apparently he wants it made very clear that except in this one area he has nothing bad to say about Johnny."

The worst part of this exchange, from my perspective, was that Steve Allen didn't sign his letter, so I don't have his autograph.

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