Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Best Curmudgeon Ever

I first saw him when I was in the 4th grade. My brother Craig had just gotten some literature from the newly formed Fund for Animals; and there, in the brochure, was a photo of its founder and president, Cleveland Amory, standing tall and speaking out for the rights of mustangs, seals, and all other creatures who couldn’t speak for themselves. My imagination was fired: that summer, one of my entries in the local 4-H Fair was what I thought of as my “animal conservation scrapbook” with pictures of buffaloes blithely scissored out of an out-of-print history book and literature from the Fund that I’d pilfered from my brother.

Years later, I came across Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas, The Cat and the Curmudgeon, and The Best Cat Ever. I devoured those books, crying at the end of the third one, when Polar Bear, the curmudgeonly stray who’d taken the activist under his paw, died. Some people complained about that last book – Amory went off on tangents, dropped names, yada yada -- but I loved the tangents. They were vivid and peppered with his unmistakable brand of humor. If good writing is, as one of my teachers used to say, like “extraordinarily good talk” – well, Mr. Amory could talk my ear off in print anytime. I never took much stock in the name-dropping charge either. The man simply struck me as being someone with interesting stories to tell, and it just so happened that given the circles he’d traveled in, a lot of famous folks figured in those stories.

So, when my Just Cats! Editors, Nancy and Bob Hungerford, told me to go ahead and set up an interview with him, I was delighted. And scared. I mean, this was Cleveland Amory, published author and former T. V. Guide critic, I’d be interviewing, a man who was capable of tossing off a verbal barb as lightly and easily as a paper airplane. Then, one Sunday shortly before our scheduled interview, I found myself driving behind a ranger with the word “Curmudgeon” embroidered on its spare-tire cover. I laughed aloud: suddenly, I knew the interview was going to turn out all right.

It turned out more than all right. Cleveland Amory was surprisingly easy to talk to. At one point, he frankly admitted that in the beginning, the term “animals’ rights” had made him nervous. “Everything having to do with rights back then,” Cleveland explained, “had to do with blacks, more so than women…and it seemed to me that saying, ‘Animals have rights’ might be construed as being disparaging to blacks, and, after all, blacks controlled a lot of animals in Africa and elsewhere.”

“I’ve always preferred the term ‘animal conservation,’” I remarked.

“I disagree with you there,” he shot back, explaining that the older term focused on wild animals and more or less left the domestic ones out in the cold. Was I smarting from his friendly but firm rebuke? Hell, no. I was exhilarated. It was one of those magical journalistic moments: the interview had stopped being an interview and become a dialogue. I went on to ask him about his personal philosophy, which was, like the man himself, direct and unpretentious. “Simply to be kind,” he replied promptly. “That would solve so much.”

If our first interview was a Bill Moyers-eque exchange, the second one was like a talk with an old friend. “I love the stuff you sent me,” Cleveland told me, referring to my review of The Best Cat Ever and a few other things I’d sent him in the interim. “I think they’re terrific….You write beautifully.”

We talked about the Polar Bear books, and I ran one of his comments by him, hoping to draw some more quotes from him. “Now, the last time we talked,” I began, “you said you were trying to get people to see Polar Bear as he was to you.”

There was silence on the other end of the line. “That’s good,” Cleveland finally said. “That’s better than anything I could have come up with, except when I was younger.”

We talked about the cat novel for young adults I’d just finished (Houdini) and – briefly – about the book he was premeditating (Ranch of Dreams, as it turned out). “You’re going to write that,” he retorted. Chuckling, he repeated, “You’re going to write it. I’m the senior writer – I’ve been working in the goddamn trenches long enough.” Shortly after that, he remarked, “You know, I’m sick of talking to you on the phone. Come down to the office here sometime.”

So, early that November, I walked into the Fund’s office. Cleveland looked up and gestured to the wide windowsill to the right of his desk. I hopped up and took out my ice-cream-sandwich-sized tape recorder, only to discover that the batteries had died in transit. I tossed the tape recorder back into my bag and whipped out my steno pad and pen.

We ended up spending over an hour together – partly putting the finishing touches on our interview, partly just visiting. Actually, we did more of the latter. One of Cleveland’s strengths was, I think, that he didn’t stand on ceremony. This lion was comfortable enough with himself that he didn’t have to. Roar, that is. Not about silly formalities. No, he was going to save his roars for what really mattered: his work on behalf of the animals.

He was a generous-hearted lion, too – generous with his time and with his praise. As we chatted, he’d toss off a friendly remark: “You should be reviewing all this – You’re funny – We think alike.” As I rose to leave, he took the Houdini manuscript from me, glanced at it, and said, “I know this’ll be good.” He asked me if I had an agent. When I replied that I didn’t, Cleveland replied, “Well, I think an agent would be very interested in you. Some people are only one-book writers – you’re not. You’re going to be writing for the rest of your life.” And he autographed the copy of The Best Cat Ever that I’d brought along with me: “For T. J. It was a pleasure being interviewed by a writer I know who is just at the dawn of a fine career. Cleveland Amory. Nov. 7, 1994.”

He sat back and eyed what he’d written. “Hmmph,” he said matter-of-factly. “Looks like ‘damn.’” And it did. He handed me back the book, and we shook hands. ‘Call any time,” he told me. I left his office a-glow. It didn’t matter whether anything more came of this – it didn’t even really matter whether I heard from him again. What did matter was that someone who mattered as a writer thought that I did, too.

But I did hear from him a few weeks later, and his response to Houdini was all a writer could ask for:

“…I thoroughly enjoyed Houdini. What a sweet, loyal soul. And what a brave one, to boot.

“Now, mind you, I am a few years older than your target audience. But only a few. So I can safely say you have a winner on your hands.” He went on to make a suggestion regarding one of my secondary characters, then concluded, “Meanwhile, I hope other people like Houdini as much as I – and I look forward to seeing it in bookstores before long. Be sure and let me know your progress. By the way, do you want your manuscript back?

“With warmest wishes,

Cleveland Amory.”

We corresponded fairly regularly after that. He always responded in a warm, friendly fashion to whatever writing news I shared with him, suggesting what he felt was a better title for one of my essays or laughing off a typo in my published interview with him. “A piece of journalism as positive as `Making a difference…' can,” he observed dryly, “can afford one ‘Amry.’”

Then, on July 11, 1995, my husband, Tim, was killed in a freak car accident coming home, and Cleveland’s response showed that he more than lived up to his philosophy of “simply to be kind”:

“Your letter was waiting for me upon my return from a long trip. What can I say?

“’Sorry’ is such an insignificant little word. Yet I do want you to know how sad I am for you. I am also gratified that you were able to take solace from the last chapter of The Best Cat Ever. You are quite right. Tim would most assuredly not quibble over a cat/human distinction.

“I enjoyed your ‘Out-of-Print Cat Books’ article and, of course, I am terribly pleased over the acceptance from Poets & Writers – though I understand full well how this lacks the thrill it might have once had for you.

“In closing, let me add my hopes that with each passing day, you will feel a little better. It goes without saying but if there is anything I can do to help, please do not hesitate to ask.”

We met again at the Fund’s office that Halloween. As usual, Cleveland was down-to-earth and to-the-point. We talked about everything from Tim, our daughter Marissa, and the cats-in-residence to what I was currently working on (“You have a sense of humor,” he remarked approvingly, “and it shows in your writing.”) and finding an agent for Houdini. He took a few minutes out then and there to place phone calls to his various contacts for me, leaving messages like “This is the IRS. Why aren’t you at your desk? I can’t stand this type of dereliction….” He never left his name, but that voice with its Bostonian accent was unmistakable. Besides, I had a pretty strong hunch that the folks who knew Cleveland were used to finding messages like that on their answering machines.

There is one memory-picture from that visit that still makes me smile. At some point during our chat, the phone rang, and Cleveland excused himself to take the call. He didn’t say much, just started chuckling. “Marian!” he suddenly bellowed. “Marian! Come in here and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk!”

There was an ominous silence. Then Marian Probst, his long-time secretary and the Fund’s treasurer “under whose incredible memory for irritating facts he [the author] has, with the patience of Job, long suffered" (The Cat and the Curmudgeon), marched into his office. “Cleveland,” she said shortly, “I was on the phone about greyhound racing. I could not come and listen to what Ed has to say about his desk.” And turned on her heel and marched out.

Cleveland sat there quietly for a moment. Then his desire to share the joke got the better of him, and he turned to me. “Ed’s this lawyer,” he explained. “Very funny guy. Anyway, someone came in to talk to him, looked at his desk, and said, ‘Were there any survivors?’” He chuckled again, shaking his head ruefully. “A writer would have given anything to come up with that….”

The other thing I remember vividly is the book-signing. This time, I’d brought the first two books in the Polar Bear trilogy with me. Cleveland took them and scribbled away for a few minutes, pausing only to ask me our cats’ names or to check the spelling of Marissa’s (“Because, of course, she’s going to read these some day,” he told me.); then he handed them back to me, saying, “There! I’ve signed my name, so you can’t give ‘em away.”

I flipped open The Cat Who Came for Christmas. On the title page, he’d written, “For TJ and Cricket and Kilah and Dervish and Tikvah and Zorro and Woody and Boris and Starfire – and of course Marissa. With love to you all, Cleveland.” But it was the inscription in The Cat and the Curmudgeon that really caught me by the throat: “For TJ and Marissa and in memory of Tim – with special affection – Cleveland Amory.”

I looked up at Cleveland. “He would have been pleased,” I said softly. And that one gesture on his part convinced me more than anything else that Cleveland Amory was a class act.

We continued our correspondence. Sometimes it would be awhile before I heard from Cleveland – there were book tours and, of course, business for the Fund – but he never failed to respond. “I am also pleased over the spirit of your letter,” he wrote shortly after our meeting, “—it seemed much lighter, almost back to the way things were when I first met you. Hopefully, this is a reflection of your true feelings." Or, after those first holidays without Tim: “I thought about you during the Christmas holidays, knowing this was yet another thing to be ‘gotten through.’ But I see by your letter you have come through with flying colors. Not that I doubted you would. But it is nice to have it confirmed.” And the condolence note he wrote me after my favorite cat Cricket’s death was just as thoughtful as the one he’d written me after Tim’s: “Not only do I feel for you but know only too well what you are feeling. The Best Bet, [my essay about Cricket,] however, is a lovely tribute to her.”

There were lighter notes, too, such as when I thought I’d landed a publisher for my novel: “Three cheers, and then some, over the happy news about Houdini. Really, I could not be more pleased and eagerly await my copy. Inscribed, please.” Or when one of my essays had been picked up for Chocolate for a Woman’s Heart: “So here I am again with kudos…even if their title is indeed inferior. This from someone who is quite partial to chocolates.”

We had a brief chat in April 1998, when the Houdini contract fell through. Cleveland was warm and affectionate, assuring me that the publishers had to give me my manuscript back. Then, before he signed off, he said, “By the way, Sally here was asking how you were doing.” I honestly didn’t remember who Sally was – I must’ve met her in passing during one of my visits – but it was such a typically down-to-earth homey Cleveland-ish statement. It was also one of the last things I ever heard him say.

I didn’t hear about his death till the Friday after it happened. A few days later, Barbara Bowen of Bowen Books sent me a copy of Cleveland’s obit from The New York Post. “What a grand and full life he had,” she wrote simply. To me, that was the best – the most fitting – epitaph ever. No living in half-shadows, no simply going through the motions for Cleveland Amory. He had lived his life grandly, fully, no-holds-barred. And how glad I was to have shared a few moments of that life with him.

Not long afterwards, I was working on a crossword puzzle and happened upon the following clue: “Conservationist Cleveland.” Immediately, my mind sped back to that first long-ago interview. I grinned to myself and inked in my “Amry.”

Point for my side, Cleveland.

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Anonymous said...

Excellent post Tamathy! I enjoyed his books also and am so jealous that you had such a personal relationship with him - I'm sure those conversations are one you have been and will continue to treasure forever.

Love from NH

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, O Anonymous. Some personalities are so vivid, you never think of them as being dead. Cleveland falls into the category for me. He was kind, generous, and delightfully down-to-earth and informal. One of my mom's neighbors wrote him a letter once re something she'd read about the Fund: she came home one evening, and her son said, "Mom, Cleveland Amory called."
"Right, Karl," she scoffed. "And who else?" But he HAD called -- he wanted to talk with her first-hand about the article.

Kim Cady said...

That was such a heartfelt and beautiful interview. I had always been a Cleveland Amory fan from his work in animal protection. I believe knowing his sparkling side, both as a writer and friend has made my day complete. Yhank you!

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Kim -- I treasure the memories of those meetings and talks with Cleveland. And his letter about HOUDINI still hangs on my office wall, right by my desk. It -- or should I say Cleveland -- has gotten me through a number of rough patches in my writing career.
Btw, there is an excellent bio on Cleveland that came out in 2009 -- CLEVELAND AMORY: MEDIA CURMUDGEON & ANIMAL RIGHTS CRUSADER by Marilyn Greenwald. It's definitely worth checking out.