Fly on the Wall

By Ellen T. White

    By the summer of 1979, I had lived in New York City for just over a year, toiling away in a lowly position in the public relations office of a dance company. I was 26 years old but still surprisingly starry-eyed for someone that age. I had caught the bug for writing. Not fiction — I can’t make up a story on a dare, has always been my refrain. I saw myself as an opinionator, an essayist, and thought my own name’s resemblance to that of the great E.B. White to be of vague significance.

    My start was humble but true. I was placing Broadway theater reviews in an obscure Village rag, as well the occasional op-ed in out-of-town newspapers.

    That year was pre-AIDS awareness and post-pill, still a heady time of sexual freedom in which a young woman, in possession of a party invitation, could find herself in a passionate relationship by night’s end. The party in question was a bacchanalia on East 79th Street. In true Southern fashion, a homecoming queen and king were crowned and drunkenly carried aloft to I’m not sure where.

    I busied myself exchanging heated looks from across the crowded room with an unusually tall man. As the crowd shifted, we were thrown together. With an Alabaman lilt, he introduced himself as Winston Groom. In a strange coincidence, his name was familiar to me. His first novel, “Better Times Than These,” had been hailed by The Times earlier that week as one of a handful of authentic Vietnam War narratives. I had gone on a fruitless search for the book and told him so. He groaned at what he saw as a line and spirited me off for the weekend.

    That Memorial Day weekend was cold and wet. Winston had rented a ramshackle Victorian place outside Bridgehampton. It still stands on Route 27 today, now a bilious Pepto Bismol pink, though I am pretty sure it was barn red in those days. The house was dark and comfortingly gloomy, bearing no resemblance to the spacious, airy interiors we associate with a Hamptons summer today. It had a Boo Radley aspect. The suspicion that it might be haunted was heightened by the persistent chords of what sounded like a violin emanating out of thin air.

    To our delighted surprise, however, raspberries grew wild by the bucketful at the edge of the property, and the kitchen was so well equipped that it demanded committed forays into domesticity.

    As a newly anointed Southern war novelist, Winston had moved easily into the East End’s extended literary enclave. Though James Jones, the author of “From Here to Eternity,” had died of congestive heart failure the year before, he was still the reigning hero in spirit. His big-hearted widow, Gloria, was the center of this universe. Of Gloria’s many claims to fame, her legs doubled for Marilyn Monroe’s in the subway updraft scene of the movie “The Seven Year Itch.” Gloria, a former actress, was in her 50s by then, but she was attractive enough to make this claim thoroughly believable.

    The Jones house was a hub for much activity. Notably, it was the site of a standing weekly poker game, in which participants wore green visors and burned cigars down to nubs in ubiquitous ashtrays. All made themselves at home even when Gloria couldn’t be found. One afternoon I came across a distinguished man whipping up something in a pan. He explained he was challenging himself to come up with an original dish using the expired ingredients in the refrigerator. I only later learned that it was Craig Claiborne, then the celebrated food critic for The Times.

    That summer was launched with Gloria’s party for the “60 Minutes” anchor Shana Alexander, whose new book, “Anyone’s Daughter,” explored the kidnapping of Patty Hearst — that day’s real-life mystery. That I can’t remember a soul who was there is more a testament to my abject terror than anything it says about the event itself. I was out of my depth and feared that my nascent romance would lead to a summer in which no one would be much interested in talking to me, surrounded as I was by all that literary accomplishment. But Winston’s aura of success rubbed off on me. His friends were unfailingly kind and at least appeared to take my ambitions seriously.

    We spent many hours that summer at Bobby Van’s. Its then-dark interior looked like the set for “The Iceman Cometh” and was the scene of debauchery all would have the good manners not to mention the next day. We met the writer Willie Morris often for lunch. He held court at a front table every day wearing the same polyester tweed pants, as if he couldn’t be bothered to go home to change. Willie was sweetly funny and easy to like. Years before, he had written “North Toward Home” — a revered Southern classic — and was the famously deposed editor of Harper’s magazine.

    At this point in his life, though, he seemed to have run low on energy. I thought of him as old and was shocked to learn that he was only 44. He was completing his friend James Jones’s unfinished novel, “Whistle.” The next year Willie would return to Mississippi, where he married happily and moved on to many more great literary feats.

    That summer I was particularly dazzled by Irwin Shaw, who had come out of the starting gate in 1948 with “The Young Lions,” his World War II epic, but was far more famous for the lurid mini-series, starring Nick Nolte, that had been made from his novel “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

    Irwin was neither young nor handsome, but he radiated a sexual energy that would have been apparent to a woman of any age. His wife, Marian, kept a gimlet eye on his every move. According to Winston, Irwin wrote “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” — his short story about a husband with a wandering eye — in a New York hotel. When Marian found and read the draft, she threw it out the window in a rage. Irwin watched his pages fluttering out of the hotel window on his way back from a walk. “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” was part of his collection “Five Decades,” which came out that year. I still have a copy he inscribed, “To Ellen, who I hope will send me her book after 50 years.”

    Much of what I learned that summer stays with me today, but it was Joseph Heller’s words that truly amazed me. At a dinner party, he told me that his work always depended on the first sentence that he wrote. Sometimes that sentence would lead to a “Catch-22,” but it would more often dead-end into chapters that were abandoned in drawers all over his house.

    Though it doesn’t make it any more excusable, I was more than a little tipsy when I threw myself down in Joe Heller’s lap at a lawn party in Southampton. It led to an epic argument with Winston, but we had no shortage of those. This seemed fitting to me, all part of what becoming a true writer was all about in my mind. Sometimes I would leave for New York in high dudgeon, only to find myself headed back to Bridgehampton the next week.

    I don’t know if it’s the rose-colored glasses, or whether the South Fork wasn’t quite the snarl of traffic that it is today. The vast potato fields, still around then, were sometimes covered in white flowers and a revelation to me. Even the prosaic potato seemed to strive toward a kind of poetry. As I made my way to Bridgehampton on Fridays, the mist hovering on Route 27 at twilight filled me with affectionate awe. I began to see the East End as a place where I might like to live someday, though the thought was a distant reality.

    Alas, my romance with Winston wouldn’t even survive the fall — though, over the years there were spur-of-the-moment rendezvous in attempts to rekindle the romance. The attraction had legs but the relationship wasn’t destined for permanence. He would join the pantheon of well-known writers with his novel “Forrest Gump” and several Civil War histories. He returned to Point Clear, Ala., to live and start a family.

    Life continued on in New York for me. While I thought of the Hamptons often, I would not return for more than 20 years. When I did, it was to a house I bought with my husband in Springs. In a marathon three months, I finally finished a manuscript for a first book I had imagined many years before.

    By then, of course, Willie Morris, Irwin Shaw, Gloria Jones, and Joe Heller were gone. But the memory of the summer of 1979 was and will always be an important part of the landscape that attracts and inspires me.

    Ellen T. White is the author of “Simply Irresistible,” from the Running Press, a humorous compendium of tips from the romantic women of history. She lives in Springs.