Saturday, March 3, 2007


My agent John Cushman was saying I'd better meet Seymour Ralston. The last time my agent had wanted me to meet one of his clients he had gotten me together with a guy named Bernie who was doing a rip-off book called "The Joy of Oral Sex," and Bernie, it turned out, was putting together a taped panel discussion he wanted me to join because as author of Bangkok After Dark, Taipei After Dark and Manila After Dark I would surely be a great addition. So there I was late one night in 1974 in a darkened office building sitting around a table that had three open bottles of Scotch, an activated tape recorder, glasses, ice, and some strange liqueurs. I sat there drinking and pontificating with a lovely porn actress named Tina, a skinny guy who made and smoked pipes shaped like penises, a pretentious erotic painter who seemed as underdeveloped as if she were a member of my family, a witchy woman who apparently organized sex tours, and a disheveled man who had once worked for Playboy. The liquor flowed and I spoke with great authority of the plethora of blow jobs in Taiwan and the surprising lack of them in Thailand. And I was sure, as drink followed drink, that I was a great help to the venture, even a great success in this interesting crowd -­ seemed that way, though the next day I could remember nothing of what I had said -­ and when I saw "The Joy of Oral Sex" in a Hong Kong bookstore a year later I did not have the heart to read the transcription of that panel discussion.

The reason now for meeting this other client of John's, Seymour Ralston, was that I was several levels below broke ­ trying to look like a functioning man on the New York scene but living in a small dusty room in a condemned Upper West Side building in a forgotten apartment shared by a Maoist, a Daily World reporter, his girlfriend who fluctuated between Trotskyism and Anarchism, and three unhappy but sexually active militant feminists. Some months I could not come up with my 50 dollars rent money. I had used up the Harper & Row advance John had negotiated for what had seemed like a lot of money but which vanished quickly since in order to get the two-book contract I had promised that I would interview stolid, dull American ambassadors on the one hand, and reckless or saintly American expatriates on the other, on all five continents. The advance money was turning out to be only a fraction of what I needed to make good on my promises. It felt like like any future I might have as an important American writer was in the balance.

"But Seymour will have some ideas," John said. "Seymour started writing us from Miami two years ago with his book ideas. The last was for a history of the electric chair. We kept turning him down in boiler plate rejection letters and we refused to set up an appointment for him when he came to New York but somehow he talked his way past the reception desk and then talked his way into our private offices, and without knowing why or how I found myself inviting him onto our client list. I know he¹ll have some good ideas to help you get out of the fix you're in."

We met in John's office, which was on 43rd across from the New York Times in the same building as the New Yorker. Seymour was a stocky, hyper-alert black-bearded fortyish man in an open neck shirt and a wide-weave tweed suit that looked as if it has been tailored and then carefully rumpled for Robert Morley. He was carrying what looked like a dark green bowler hat that seemed to be part of him. He had a big welcoming smile between the black beard and twinkly black eyes as if this were his office and his city and his world and he was welcoming both John and me to these places.

"Let's go for a walk," he said in a strong, cello-like Southern voice. We headed uptown to Central Park South. He told me about his wife, a pretty water skiing performer at Cypress Gardens who had just beat cancer, as he had too, he said. He told me how he traveled everywhere first class for free and always stayed for free in luxury hotels (he was currently in a large park-view suite in the Essex House), and he told me about how as a writer he could make something out of nothing­ like this very routine story he did about electric chairs that he had sold 57 times in 30 states to Sunday supplements by just changing the names of the city and state and the first death-row convict that was mentioned in the lead.

And now we were opposite Central Park and entering a rich little store called Hunting World where he had never been before, he said, but where in 20 minutes a woman who had thousands of dollars in clothes on her back was trying to get him to accept as a gift a $10,000 elephant hide briefcase because, she cooed, he was the sort of person they wanted people to see carrying their cherished merchandise.

Maybe, I thought, Seymour Ralston really is the one to help me.

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