When I am nine years old I find the yellowed newspaper clippings. They are all of well publicized divorce trials featuring mob men and showgirls. The men—with nicknames like Leo the Leech or Benny the Bull—are pictured full-faced; the women, with their 48-hour figures spilling out of 24-hour undergarments, are shown to their best advantage, in profile. The divorce lawyer, always mentioned in the first paragraph, is my father. Some of the papers that chronicle these trials no longer exist: the New York Globe and Daily Mirror. The clippings are from before my birth.
These articles spark the idea of writing my own stories, tales of a nine-year-old girl with a lawyer father and scandalous clients. Nancy Drew, eat your heart out: This is no milquetoast lawyer dad like Carson Drew, but rather my lurid retelling of public scandal, sensationalist angles, and sex—or what passes for sex when you’re nine.
I proudly show these stories to my father, who, when he reads them, shakes his head and tells me: “You’re funny, kid, but don’t write what you know.” I realize this means he doesn’t want me to write about him.
At twelve my parents exchange their city apartment for a house in the country and we get a different view of the Hudson. It is the year I learn the meaning of the word “disbarred.” Because of this unplanned midyear move and a lousy public school system, I find myself the only Jew at Sacred Heart Middle School, an all-girl affair that is terrifying at every turn. After my first day of school I tell my father about the life-sized, half-naked man nailed up in the entranceway. “That’s what they do to Jews who get a big head,” he tells me. “Watch yourself.”
At the height of this preadolescent angst I get the idea to write to Woody Allen. After all, who better to relate to my sense of feeling out of place? I have just seen Annie Hall and I am convinced Woody will understand. I write to him about my recent exile from the city, my parochial school experience, the works. I even send along a picture of me in full Annie Hall regalia, wearing my father’s tie and vest and a hat I bought at a church bazaar, for good measure.
“You’re just a young girl,” everybody says. “Why would he write back to you?”
Two weeks later there is a handwritten reply from an Upper West Side address—of course he’s always happy to hear from a fan! Have I read Kafka? Have I seen Bergman? This is decades before movies on demand; I have no prayer of seeing Bergman. The movie theater in my town has been running The Sound of Music for about six weeks straight. I read Kafka and write an in-depth analysis—“I think he’s very funny.” Woody writes not to worry about Bergman, that he would be happy to take me to a movie when I come to the city. He also tells me about a film he is making with another twelve-year-old girl, Mariel Hemingway. We correspond for a while and I decide I can trust him with my stories, romantic tales of a twelve-year-old girl who has a famous movie director as a pen pal. I receive his last note after I send those stories, a postcard from L.A. On it Woody writes: “You’re funny, kid, but don’t write what you know.” I realize this means he doesn’t want me to write about him.
At twenty-five I am four years older than my lover’s daughter. My lover is a poet who studied at Kenyon at the slippered feet of John Crowe Ransom, and with a cranky Robert Frost. After Kenyon, he went on to divinity school in New Haven. He can actually marry people in the state of Connecticut. Maybe that’s why the whole time we’re living together we never leave New York.
We break up over Mexican on Bleeker Street. In the background there is a roving mariachi band, moving stealthily from table to table. Behind us a group of NYU frat boys, who think they recognize the “Frito Bandito” song, start singing. While I am trying to listen to words that make no sense—“Timing, not working out, you’re too young”—the boys chant aye yi yi yi in the background, like some kind of crazed Greek chorus.
During this, our last conversation, our last meal over Mexican, my lover confesses to accidentally finding my journal, one I placed behind a bag of potting soil under some cleaning supplies in back of the utility closet. My journal is filled with stories of a young girl who lives with a narcissistic poet in an undersized apartment in New York. One of the last things my lover says to me as he gets up to leave the table is: “You’re funny, kid, but don’t write what you know.” I realize this means he doesn’t want me to write about him.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
By Meghan McNamara, Director of Media and Communications, Stillhouse Press
I was first introduced to Wendi Kaufman by Dallas Hudgens (Stillhouse Press’ founder, and publisher of Relegation Books) and Scott W. Berg, both of whom attended George Mason University’s Creative Writing MFA program with Wendi and co-founded the Rotisserie Writers Group, which met for the better part of 20 years. It was mid-June and we had just founded Stillhouse Press six months prior and were in search of our first book. Dallas, who started Relegation Books with the goal of publishing established writers who have had a difficult time finding a place for their work in a larger publishing house (a goal which Stillhouse very much supports and hopes to embody with more emerging writers), had suggested we consider Wendi’s manuscript. Despite finding success publishing many of her stories, Wendi had struggled for several years to find a publisher for her full collection.
Immediately upon reading Wendi’s manuscript, Stillhouse’s Editor Marcos L. Martínez and I were struck by the power of her narrative voice, her dark humor, and her range. We agreed that Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories would make a perfect debut publication for Stillhouse Press. Of course, we also knew that this book wouldn’t be like other that follow. After battling cancer for nearly four years, Wendi’s doctors told her in early July that her treatment was no longer working and that she had perhaps only weeks to live. With that in mind, we desperately wanted Wendi to have a chance to see her book through to publication.
Over the course of that summer, I’m not sure how much any of us slept, ate, or did anything except think about making Wendi’s book. It’s nothing short of a miracle that we were able to take it on at the end of June and turn out a complete book just two months later. I will say that Wendi had a lot to do with it. I have never met someone so driven, so enthusiastic. Her energy, even at the end of her life, was contagious. She had this remarkable ability to get people excited about reading and writing and supporting other writers. And without that ebullience, I think the months that followed would have been exceedingly more difficult.
We received the first copies of Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories in our offices on the same morning that we first learned Wendi had passed. Like her stories, there is a certain sorrow that comes with knowing that Wendi never had a chance to see the finished product, but she had a hand in nearly all the elements of the publishing process that preceded it and there’s something really special about that. It was like she had left us, only to come right back and say “but look at this beautiful book!”
ABOUT WENDI KAUFMAN
ABOUT STILLHOUSE PRESS