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Aiken, Agee, and Sandburg: A Memoir

ISSUE:  Spring 1983

After all, it had been so long ago, and because I was aware of my own mutability and creative rust, I had not dared face the memories of my friends, three of the finest American writers in the first half of this century.

Then early one evening last winter I visited the Fragua, a favorite watering-hole in San Miguel, where I have lived for five years. This Mexican colonial town is reputed to be a cultural center for young gringo would-be sculptors and weavers, painters and writers, a thinned-out version of what, in my youth, Provincetown, Westport, McDowell, and, of course, Paris, had truly been. There is here a fine arts institute and a center for writers. Each is housed in a 17th-century colonial mansion. Twice a year, a few hundred students in their early and mid-twenties fly, bus, or drive down to attend English-conducted classes and at dusk sit in the quiet Cathedral-dominated plaza, with notebooks and virginal canvases. Between six and eight, they take advantage of the happy hour at the Fragua to buy two drinks for the price of one and allow themselves to mingle with gringo elders like myself.

This particular night, the dimly lighted sala was packed with well-heeled Mexicans except for a group of young Americans sitting around a long, oblong table. Anne, a 20-year-old enrolled in a poetry class, whom I had met sometime before on a plaza bench, called out to me to join them. She introduced me, then explained that the girl beside her was also a budding poet but that the five young men were studying the art of fiction. As I shook hands, I guessed the oldest was no more than 25. They all looked detached and cool, very urban gringo.

In the presence of youth, I choose both an idiom and a casualness to expel any image of the teacher-geriatric-in-residence. I sipped my beer and listened to passionate opinions of MacEnroe, Connors, and Borg. Only after the beer did I venture aloud the hope that they felt as deeply about their literary champions as they did about their tennis favorites.

Anne’s sun-tanned brow wrinkled. What did I mean— literary champions? Who, for example? Let’s have names.

I knew I had better not mention the dead. Most of the younger writing students I had met lately had shown little knowledge of, or respect for, the far literary past. And above all, not my three dead friends.

Deliberately, I chose contemporaries, all, of course, under 50, which eliminated two Nobel Prize winners and three National Book Award recipients. I named eight highly gifted serious novelists and two poets. There was a beat of silence. Then one young man said, “We’ve probably read something by all of them. But what’s your point? So what? I don’t get it—” Pause. “—sir.”

I asked: Which serious writers of today turned them on? What work gave them a “high”? Who in these confused times influenced their hearts and minds? Who sent them soaring, gave them an urge to laugh and celebrate life?

Anne shook her head, annoyed. “That concept is so—” She hesitated perhaps too well-bred to go on. But the other girlpoet finished the phrase. “It’s so dewy-eyed. You know, 19thcentury romanticism. Writing isn’t any great thing.” Her bracelets jingled, and her eyes widened in a blond-doll mockery. “How such and such an author changed my life and loves . . .that’s too heavy.”

The young men agreed, making the same point—why have literary heroes? Why such intensity about any other writer? By next century, no books would be written anyway—audio-visual systems, you know. A magazine as an artifact. Who will care to read on a space station?

Later, sitting outside in my patio, the thought of those young cynics, so lacking innocence, with only disrespect for the sweat and hurt of creativity, brought memories darting up from dark places to the surface of my mind. I began to recall certain moments I had shared with my three dead friends, whose writings would not likely be read by any of those kids back at the Fragua or by so many others exactly like them, unless the reading would be made compulsory in an American literature class.

But there were these three friends. Conrad Aiken. Rufus Agee. Carl Sandburg.


As my sophomore year began, Harvard assigned tutors to confer with students every week concerning their progress and problems in a chosen “major.” My major was Eng. Lit.

To my delight, I learned my tutor was to be Conrad Potter Aiken, celebrated poet, critic, author of three books of verse, a collection of literary essays, and a volume of short stories. Harvard had offered him the tutoring job because he was an alumnus of distinction, and, as he was to tell me later, Aiken had accepted for one reason only. He needed the money.

A typed postcard signed C.P.A. arrived, asking me to drop by his rooms the following afternoon.

Anyone who admired his poetry and had read about his work, knew of his childhood tragedy. As a small boy, he had come downstairs in the Savannah, Georgia family home, in time to witness his father kill his mother and then turn the gun on himself. It was no wonder to me that certain critics found in Aiken’s poetry an overbrooding romanticism, a descent into the dark, Jungian collective-unconscious, while others compared his lyrical work to the whispering adagios of Schumann and Faure. For these reasons, in my innocence, I expected to meet a tall, dark, Heathcliffian figure, cold and aloof, and a trifle mad.

As he opened the door, I saw there was nothing of the archetypal poet about him, I was 17, so Aiken at the time was a little more than twice my age. I see him dimly now, as through glasses needing cleaning, a man of medium height, small-boned, with thin sandy hair, a thorn of a nose, pale freckled skin, and light eyes behind steel-rimmed specs.

Instantly he put me at ease, treating me as a functioning adult, which I was not, and behaving not at all like a Harvard tutor was expected to behave, offering a cigarette, pouring glasses of wine, and finding out in a matter of minutes how sincerely I wanted to become a serious writer. I wondered why he stressed one of my courses—Pre-Elizabethan Drama. I explained that theater was my first love, and I had studied on my own a great deal in that particular period.

He was delighted. His eyes twinkled merrily behind his glasses. With a mock conspiratorial air, he confessed he was a good critic but a poor scholar. He had neither the time nor the urge to research that period. But, alas, there were other students taking that course in Pre-Elizabethan Drama, and they would be running to him for guidance, God forbid. The truth was, and it was to be a secret between us, he was writing a novel, a big project, more difficult than any poem or story he had ever tackled. He had to finish it as soon as possible. It had be a great success. There were so many debts to pay off.

With a second glass of wine, our secret pact was sealed. We agreed that as the course proceeded from week to week, I would prepare detailed notes for him. In return, he would help me with any serious writing I might be doing outside the academic confines.

I recall how Aiken’s carefree mood seemed to fade with the autumn twilight. His voice took on a note of sadness as he began to talk of wanting to live in England in a house he owned on the coast of Sussex. He loved the house. It was 400 years old. There was a large mortgage due.

It was the second time he had stressed his debts.

Sensing it was time to go, I handed him my copy of his book of poems, Priapus, which I had brought along. I asked him to autograph it. He took out a fountain pen as I announced naively, “It’s a first edition.”

He chuckled morosely. “All my books are first editions,” he said. Then: “What are your initials?”


He wrote, and handed back the book. The page read: “To Before Christ Schoenfeld from Chemically Pure Aiken.”

From that fall afternoon through the end of the next spring, I supplied him with Pre-Shakespearean Drama notes. He kept his side of the bargain. When he was free from his novel, he would let me read aloud a new short story or a one-act play. He would point out, with kindly but surgical precision, where I had falsified life or written too sloppily or failed to find my own voice. He encouraged, inspired, set me on my path.

The summer vacation was close at hand. To my dismay, Aiken told me he would not be renewing his tutorial job. He was sailing for England.

The day he came to my rooms to say good-by, he brought a framed Hiroshige print, one of the rare, theatrical series. “It’s a mint,” he explained. “I saw it in the window and thought you’d like it.” I stuttered my thanks, hiding my feelings by pouring drinks, knowing his financial situation, and knowing what sacrifices he had made to buy the print.

He sailed to England. During that summer and fall, and for the next two years, his letters were lighthearted and merry; he was working well; he loved his old house in Rye; his novel Blue Voyage would be on bookstands soon; he was positive it would sell many copies and get him off the financial hook; he was “secreting a long narrative poem.”

I answered each letter, but it began to take a longer time for his letters to arrive. Then I received his first cry, a cry that grew shriller with each succeeding mail. Blue Voyage hadn’t sold well; some of the reviewers had misunderstood the psychoanalytical nuances he had attempted; only a Delphic oracle fingering the entrails of a goose could divine how he might earn a decent living from his verse. . . .

Trying to write a comforting reply, I fumbled but mailed it. After a month, a letter came, Aiken talked out his despair on paper. I had always thought it strange, from our very first meeting, that he had never once mentioned wife or family. I had wondered why, but I’d been too shy to ask a man as private as Aiken. Now, out of the blue, after these years, he wrote, “I’m having divorce complications, money, money, damn alimony, and the children.” To add to his griefs, he had fallen, “suffered a hair-line fracture, and the medical expenses. . . .”

It began to grow difficult for me, half his age, with no assurances of my future, to know what to write him. But I tried. Back in Cambridge, he had permitted me, from time to time, to witness moments of melancholia, but never had I been shown his mordant, bitter side. Now a letter came in answer to mine, attacking those critics who he claimed had always underestimated his stature as a poet, critics who certainly did not help pay off the mortgage on the house in Rye, and pay other loans. . . . It was always a matter of needed money.

Stammering on paper, I offered to get a loan from my father. He replied with an attempt at lightness, a few puns, a feathery jest. But then the paragraph: “You’re a great fellow, B. C. S., and long-suffering. Thanks, but no. Write a Broadway hit and I’ll pull my forelock and live out my old age on half your royalties.”

For a long time I could not reply. I could not find the words. I was no longer the 18-year-old romantic at Harvard. Two plays had been turned down by agents. I had worked very hard to learn my craft. I had experienced my first despair of love. Perhaps I had grown self-engrossed from failure. But I did manage to write how much I admired the symphonic structure and exquisite prose of Blue Voyage.

A month or so passed before the final poignant confession arrived. It was a brief note, but I have always remembered the last sentence. “I am constantly pursued by ghouls of anxiety.”

I could not face answering him, and he never wrote again. Although he left his beloved house in Rye and came to live in New England for many years, there to enrich his reputation as poet and critic, he and I never saw each other again.

But through the years, wherever I have lived, the Hiroshige hangs somewhere on a wall, both because of its intrinsic beauty and as a testament of the generosity and tortured nature of a true poet.

I am certain the students at the Fragua do not know his name or care.


“I’m Rufus Agee, but they call me Jim,” he said.

I no longer remember what weekend dormitory party found me standing beside the tall, gangly, dark-haired 18-year-old, but I remember his face, good-looking in an oldfashioned way. By that I mean, it was a throwback to the kind of face in the gallery of Matthew Brady’s Civil War photographs, the face of a fledgling recruit from Kentucky or Tennessee, a combination of teen-age innocence and intuitive knowledge, with deep-set questioning eyes, bold nose, sensual mouth, unruly hair.

He informed me he was a junior; I told him I was a senior. We discovered we both hoped someday to have writing careers. It was impossible to talk over the big-band radio music. Agee suggested going back to his rooms. Walking across the snow-covered campus, I said I was entering Yale Drama School in the fall and asked, did he enjoy going to plays? He confessed he preferred movies. I countered, snobbishly, there were so few good ones, concealing my surprise at his enthusiasm for such mass entertainment. I didn’t want to argue the point. He had been enormously amiable; there was a special quality I favored but couldn’t as yet define.

In his rooms, as we talked for hours, I tried to pinpoint that quality. Suddenly it became clear what Jim Agee possessed. It was an intensity, but not dramatic by voice or manner, a quiet intensity which I suspected came from feelings born in the deepest levels of his guts. I discovered he was not a private, secretive person, at least as far as I was concerned. He didn’t mind, during this first meeting, pouring out his thoughts and feelings about the cadence of a stanza, the challenge of prose form, the enviable genius of Joyce, the rough delights of sex, the danger of loving and being loved. Throughout the conversation, he kept speaking of the need to discipline himself, to hone what talent he had, until it became razor-sharp, so that by the time he reached 30, 12 years from now, he would have sliced away all lies and artifice, all imitative style, and be respected by those he respected as a poet and writer of truthful tales. I cared little about disciplining myself, so that throughout those hours of talk, it surprised me that someone even younger than I should have constructed such a rigid design for himself both as artist and human being. He kept emphasizing that selfdiscipline was obligatory not only for writing but for daily living, because both went hand in hand if a man wanted to be totally dedicated to his work. I felt he was upbraiding himself, albeit with humor, when he regretted not having had the discipline to stay away from the party; he should have rewritten a story he was working on. I remember chiding him, finding his attitude hidebound, hugging him like a hair shirt. He laughed boyishly and admitted, yes, he craved a monk’s discipline but not a monk’s celibacy; no, heaven forfend, and then and there he let me know without boasting, how he had just spent a pleasurable weekend with a Radcliffe sophomore. I hid my envy; I thought anyone younger than I damned well disciplined to be able to seduce a Radcliffe girl and at the same time be able to write a short story.

Way after midnight, as I was about to leave, Jim handed me a piece of lined paper torn from a small white pad. “It’s my translation of a love poem by Catullus,” he said earnestly.

“I’ve never read the classics,” I admitted, wondering if he had, as a child, learned both Latin and the need for self-discipline from nuns. Years later, when Jim gave me his story “The Morning Watch” to read, I discovered I had not been too wrong that night.

I was touched by the beauty of the three short stanzas, clean-lined and lyrical.

He was pleased. “Would you like it?” He was like a child offering a playmate a prized toy.

I told him, very much, and he gave it to me. I believe it was one of the first serious poems Agee ever wrote. Today, with many of his letters to me (along with Aiken’s), the Catullus translation is in the library of the University of Texas at Austin.

In the months before my graduation, Jim and I shared hopes of peak experience and writing fame. The following fall, I entered Yale Drama School. Two years later, I sold a play to Broadway, then another. Radio writing brought me to Washington. Suddenly ten years had flared and vanished like the scratching of a match.

I saw Jim several times in New York. He had been married twice, fathered children. His 30-year-old deadline for triumph had passed. He had stopped writing poetry. No short stories or novels had been published. But he had attained recognition in other fields; acclaim for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a poetic-photographic autopsy on deprived tenant farmers, a diagnosis of spiritual anemia in America. At the same time, the world of movie-makers regarded his pages in Time and Life as the most insightful and perceptive criticisms.

With the end of the Second World War, I left Washington to work in Hollywood. Two years passed. Because of his fame as a movie critic, Jim was offered a writing job. He phoned me to find him a house for his third wife Mia, his children, and himself. By a stroke of luck, I found the house next to mine on a private beach at Malibu.

Perhaps it was the quiet stretch of sand and ocean that, at first, despite his writing for movie director John Huston, brought him the inner strength to write his two short stories, “The Morning Watch” and “A Mother’s Tale.” I thought them superb and was delighted that he had turned his gifts to fiction. He had found his prose style, tight, compact, yet lyrical. When I praised his stories, he reminded me, halfjokingly, of his college-boy emphasis on discipline, comparing the agonies of any serious writer to the spiritual conflicts of a lecherous monk. Having written these two memorable tales, he would now continue to write serious fiction. But he didn’t. Instead he insisted to me that screenwriting was the literary art of the future. He had reviewed scores of original screenplays but could only recall a baker’s dozen he thought worthwhile. He was determined to write originals that would be deep, accurate observations of life. I listened to Jim, irritated that my dear friend, who once had seriously hoped to emulate Joyce, should now wish to write in a medium that, from my broad experience, depended not on inner voyage or discipline or loneliness but rather on social alliances, collaborations, and budgets.

Jim finished an original screenplay concerning Van Gogh and Gaugin. Although I admitted it was a high-water mark in movie writing, I warned him it would not sell. I was right. It never sold. It was too “literary” for production. But he adapted other people’s work: The African Queen and Night of the Hunter, excellent projects circumscribed by studio restrictions. Jim was paid well. I did not dare offend him by stressing that his morning committee meetings added to his dragonfly-lily-pad Hollywood life were sapping his unique qualities as an artist and might destroy the promise he had made to himself and to me so often. I noticed that he had begun to drink heavily. One day he suffered chest pains: the diagnosis, angina. As his friend and now his neighbor, I found myself becoming a ragout of confusion, anger, and sorrow, because I had foreseen what might result from studio pressure, bouts of drinking, strenuous sets of midday tennis at the Chaplin and Huston courts, the long Sunday cocktail brunches with the British crowd, Huxley, Heard, Isherwood, and with the Nazi refugee crowd, Brecht, Weil, Eisler, Rheinhardt, as well as struggling to maintain a semblance of domestic felicity. There were simply not enough hours to leap like a gifted trapeze performer from ring to ring and then hunt for the needed, isolated, unlighted area to feel, to think, to create, to love.

I recall one of the few times Jim was able to escape from the Hollywood circus to walk with me along the dark beach. Over the screech of gulls and the fizz of the surf, he began to talk hopefully, challengingly, like a call into the darkness. It was startling to me, aware of his poor health and weariness, that, seemingly oblivious to weeks of waste, he could speak with a faith as sharp as the salty air. It was as if his innocence had never been sullied. He was determined to write a novel. It would deal with his boyhood in Knoxville and with the death of his father.

My wife and I flew off to New York to try to sell my new play. We stayed in Jim and Mia’s flat in the Village. When we returned, we went to live in the San Fernando Valley. I got in touch with Jim and discovered he had bought a New York brownstone on King Street. Mia and the children had already left Hollywood to move into the house; Jim was remaining to adapt a Stephen Crane novella for a studio.

Over the next months, his angina worsened, but defying the advice of his cardiologist, he continued to play tennis as well as drink with the great and near-great of the movie world. But, despite this, he told me a miraculous fact over dinner one night: he had started his novel.

I persuaded him to come stay with us for several days. I think he was glad to rest. Under his California tan, his face looked drawn and his eyes falsely bright. One night, after dinner and a few drinks, Jim asked us to listen to a chapter he had just finished writing. He sat cross-legged on the floor in our living room, a drink beside him, and started to read. He had always argued that the best writing was written to be read aloud, and he was a fine reader.

The chapter was to become the most critically acclaimed in A Death in the Family, the poignant section in which young Rufus goes with his father to a Charlie Chaplin movie and how the old-fashioned movie house, the audience, and the antics of Charlie illuminate the relationship of father and son.

When Jim had finished reading, neither my wife nor I could speak. Perhaps part of our reaction was due to alcohol, but I don’t believe it. I remember how my wife gave a small sob and then bent down to embrace Jim, whispering her feelings. I held back my tears. At last Rufus—not Jim—Agee had attained that hilltop level of writing he had climbed to reach since our meeting at Harvard a lifetime ago. Suddenly I feared for him. No one knew better than I how seldom he had been able to keep the altar-oath to discipline his complex life.

He never lived to know the world-wide acclaim of his novel. He would have received it with the smallest of wise smiles, pulling his forelock.

We were both in New York and had arranged to meet. Two days before our date, a heart attack in a taxi killed him. I did not attend the funeral. I felt no guilt. I guess I wanted to deny his death at 46, to pretend we were still arguing about Henry James in a dormitory room.

I am sure those young San Miguel would-be writers have not read Rufus’s slim book of poems or the collection of movie reviews or seen his screenplays produced so long ago, or read “A Mother’s Tale” or “The Morning Watch.” Possibly, because of its abiding worth, one of them has picked up A Death in the Family and casually scanned it and put it down as sentimental and hardly what one reads in a space shuttle. They could have learned so much about the shape and form of prose and how to concretize in words both the minutiae and the fullness of life. They would have also learned how difficult it will be for them, as writers, to find balance in their own lives in this confused world.


Television was still in the womb of science and I was chief of the Radio Section of the Office of Emergency Management. The country had been at war for almost a year. So it was that the White House asked me to put together on radio an hour-long, all-networks Labor Day show to spur the listeners to war effort in field and factory. The broadcast would conclude with an address by President Roosevelt.

I secured as speaker British Laborite Ernest Bevin, along with American trade union leaders of that day, Sidney Hillman and David Dubinsky. To ensure wider listening appeal, I contacted the popular entertainers Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald, and others whose names I no longer remember. The dramatic climax, to be broadcast immediately before the president’s speech, would be a one-act play especially written by me, a half-hour radio play stressing the need for American labor to work even harder against the enemy. I knew my playlet would be emotionally effective propaganda, but I also felt it was a hastily written, overblown theatrical trick. To ensure its success, I cast it with three great Hollywood stars of that era, James Cagney, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson.

The noonday broadcast was a success. The following day, friends called me to report that the famous poet and historian Carl Sandburg had devoted his entire syndicated column to praise of my play. I hurried out to buy The Washington Post. Unbelievably, Sandburg had written of the “wonder and glory” of what I had considered a foxily placed, slick melodramatic piece of demogogic appeal. The poet even suggested that the networks rebroadcast the play “to the farthest archipelago and distant star.” I read and reread the column with delight and wonder, delight at the three-time mention of my name, and wonder at the positive reaction of this celebrated artist. How could he have been so critically blind to the defects of my play? After all, back in college, who had not heard of this latter-day counterpart of Walt Whitman, this ex-truck-handler, harvest hand, balladeer and soldier, the author of such poems as “Fog” and “Chicago, Hog-Butcher of the World,” as well as of a monumental biography of Lincoln? I concluded that, being the poet of the American genre and a fighter for freedom, he had permitted his patriotism to get the upper hand of his aesthetic sense.

That evening, around seven, the phone rang.

“Hello.” It was a deep, rough, yet strangely musical voice. “This Bernard?” I said it was. “This is Carl Sandburg,” the voice announced casually.

I was too shaken to say anything except stammer thanks for his column. He brushed that aside, said he was in Washington and would like to meet me. I jumped at the chance. “How about the cocktail lounge at his favorite hotel?” he asked. I knew which hotel was meant. It had been Lincoln’s favorite. “The Williard?” I said. “Good boy,” he said, chuckling, as though he had been testing me.

In a corner of the dimly lighted lounge, I spotted Sandburg’s thick crop of snow-white hair, spilling characteristically over one side of his brow and the noble, sculptured face made familiar by famous photographs. He looked in his late sixties, old enough to be my father. With him sat a middleaged man, with a kindly face, Eugene Meyer, publisher of The Washington Post.

I sat sipping a drink, feeling callow and truly shy, as both men insisted I had written a fine piece of drama as well as sparked the labor movement to perform even harder to lick that son-of-a-bitch Herr Hitler.

“Too damn smoky,” Sandburg suddenly exclaimed. “Let’s get out of here. I feel like a walk, how about it?” Mr. Meyer excused himself and invited us, after our walk, to show up for a bite at his home.

Sandburg’s stride was wide. He wore no hat. The night was breezy, and it had begun to drizzle. He did not seem to care, except to pull a scarf tighter around the neck of a heavy, dark coat.

I let him lead me around the center of town, back and around Dupont Circle, down to Ninth, along Pennsylvania, He did not slow his stride. The drizzle was heavier now. He paid it no attention.

He wanted to know about me, my background, my college years, my marriage, my political attitudes. I answered as well as I could, trying to change the topic. Finally I managed to stroke his ego by mentioning that, at Harvard, Aiken and I had once remarked on the mixture of pathos and brutality in his Lincoln books. Sandburg liked that. I had lifted him on top of his hobbyhorse, and now he rocked a Civil War steed in the increasing drizzle until we found ourselves in front of the White House.

The White House was dark except for one strip of light which Sandburg identified as a working office rather than the Oval Room. He rocked back to Lincoln. “He had nights like this, Lincoln, agony,” he said. “Like F.D.R. right now, you can bet. All alone. He’ll work for hours. Since Lincoln, there’s been no president like him. When I spoke to him last month, I felt he was in pain. But no else can shoulder the burden. But then, the shoulders that man has!” And he measured with his hands.

We had been walking for more than an hour and he had not shown the slightest weariness, his voice and his physical movements the equal of a young man like myself. We walked toward Georgetown, passed a typical neighborhood bar on Wisconsin Avenue. Sandburg said he was a little damp and thirsty from the walk and would like a beer.

Inside the bar, a group of students from Georgetown University was sitting in a booth. As we entered, one of them jumped up and hurried to Sandburg, recognizing him. He called to his friends and, before I knew it, we all grouped together around a large, oblong table.

Sandburg was in his element, in a bar, surrounded by admiring youth who knew his work. For an hour, he filled the room with anecdotes, off-color jokes, critical appraisals of other writers, bits about Lincoln, a wonderful mixture of poetic sensibility and the macho of the slaughterhouse. I recall how for a minute or so, he eulogized the whoregoddess as well as the mother, then switched abruptly to draft deferment, asking why these students had been deferred, and explaining how wealthy families during the Civil War had paid poor lads to substitute for their sons.

It must have been well after midnight when we said goodbye to the students and taxied to Eugene Meyer’s home. In the drizzle, the mansion looked like a silver box. Sandburg rang the doorbell. After a moment, Meyer himself opened the door. He was in pajamas. Sandburg apologized for the hour, hoped we hadn’t awakened the servants or the family, but proclaimed, however, that we were damned hungry and he intended to cook something. Meyer turned on lights in the marble foyer and in the drawing room. Sandburg and Meyer were like brothers, joking, and then Meyer pushed Sandburg into the butler’s pantry. Then he led me into his gallery to show me his art collection. I can remember, among the paintings hanging on the fabric walls, a Modigliani, a Rubens, a Corot, and a Cézanne.

In a while Sandburg came into the art gallery rolling a butler’s wagon on which were platters and cups, toast and coffee, scrambled eggs and bacon. We sat in velvet chairs, breakfasting among materpieces.

When I bade goodnight to Carl and Mr. Meyer, it was near dawn. I told the poet I wanted to see him again, to please keep in touch. He said he would phone me before he left Washington.

Carl kept his promise, and we became close friends. I remember walks at night down Seventh Avenue in New York, with him and his friend, Marianne Lorraine, Parisian Resistance fighter and protégé of Edith Piaf. We would link arms, my wife and I, and Carl and Marianne, and Carl would sing bawdy ballads which Marianne could not understand, and we would laugh happily. Later we would sit in a cafeteria and talk for hours. Sometimes he would quote from his poetry.

The last time we saw each other, Carl must have been 80, but he still retained incredible virility, political acumen, still writing articles and poems. His thick white hair still spilled boyishly over his brow. There were projects for the future, he promised. I recall we sat together at a large table at an Adlai Stevenson rally in Los Angeles. When we parted, his smile was one of the most endearing I have ever received from any friend.

He died at 89.


Now, sitting in my patio in San Miguel, I thought back to those students in Georgetown, grouped around the long oval table, and how they had wanted to share Sandburg’s ideas, to be influenced by him, to show respect for the man, and how those would-be writers at the Fragua tonight had dismissed my question of a young student’s work and life changing because of an Aiken, an Agee, a Sandburg of today. But of course, way back then, we could afford to be romantic, with prospects of far horizons. It had been a less complex world, a between-wars time, before Saigon or Dallas or Watergate, before the P.L.O. or Israel or Middle Eastern oil stirring troubled waters or space armaments. Perhaps that was the difference in two kinds of youth, and I felt sad for those young writers back at the Fragua who would never be blessed by such memories as I had of three fine artists whom I could call my friends.


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