Monday, July 6, 2009

Shooting for Playboy, Hanging with Kerouac, Celebrating New York: Ghosting Gotham

By D.Z. Stone

(NOTE: This is the latest in a series of articles and commentaries written by Gotham team members.)

My friend Jerry is a ghost and I am his ghostwriter, pulling together his last novel, Gotham, a saga covering fifty years of the city and people he loved. It was his last request to me.

Jerry died in August of 1999. I feel bad admitting Gotham is still not finished.

I was surprised and honored that Jerry had asked me and looked forward to going through his draft and copious notes. Gotham is pulled from his life and those he knew, and the novelist and photographer Jerry Yulsman had led an exciting life during a glamorous time with some very interesting people.

Born in Philadelphia in 1924 and kicked out of high school at sixteen, Jerry lied about his age so he could join the U.S. Army Air Corps. After the war, the former Master Sergeant settled in Manhattan, where he put his Distinguished Flying Cross in a sock drawer, shared an apartment with Wally Cox and Marlon Brando, frequented jazz joints and Greenwich Village cafes, took an iconic photo of Jack Kerouac after a night of heavy drinking, becoming a successful photographer contributing to Collier's, Look, and Playboy magazines.

By the time Jerry lost some vision in an eye and turned to serious novel writing in the 1980s, he'd also taught photography at New York's School of Visual Arts, worked as a photographer for Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, authored several books on photography, did the photographs for two books by the comedian and social commentator Dick Gregory, published a Victorian-themed paperback erotica trilogy under a pseudonym that had been popular in Great Britain, and married his fourth (and best) wife, the Associated Press photo editor Barbara Woike.

In 1998, when Jerry was working on Gotham and diagnosed with lung cancer, he had already published two novels, the award-winning Elleander Morning and Last Liberator, a book about his experiences during WWII.

Not long after Jerry learned that his diagnosis was terminal, he asked if I would edit and complete his final novel.

The request did not come out of nowhere. Yes, Jerry had been a good friend, confidante, and general advisor, but we had also been writing partners collaborating on a screenplay and we'd often read and critique each other's work. He'd read a novel I was working on while I'd read excerpts from Gotham. Perhaps most importantly, I knew his three possible endings.

I said yes, and said yes again some months later when Jerry repeated the request from his hospital bed (even though he also added that I had the best legs in New York and I wondered how much he could still see, and he asked me to say hello to Frank Sinatra's ghost standing in the corner of his hospital room).

I knew Jerry was serious about the request when his wife Barbara later told me that my bringing Gotham to a publishing conclusion some day was one of the only things she actually remembered talking about to Jerry as he was being wheeled to the ICU on the day his oxygen level dropped to nothing. He told Barbara that he'd asked me and trusted me to do it, if I were willing.

In the first years after Jerry's death, I was consumed by another project, the life story of two Holocaust survivors. Plus, I knew I didn't have all of Jerry's material on my computer. All I had were the chapters he had emailed me and the chats he had asked me to save when we discussed the book.

Jerry wrote in Wordstar, and neither his wife or I knew how to operate his ancient computer. We couldn't read or print out any of the text. Then in 2003, Barbara met a computer wiz who could untangle Jerry's old hard drive and pull Gotham off of it.

It was almost a thousand pages.

I was excited to get the disc with all the material. Then after I opened it I remember thinking that if Jerry weren't already dead I'd probably want to kill him.

He'd saved every version of every chapter he'd ever written, and it became clear that toward the end he was editing and re-editing and messing up more than he was fixing. It was a mishmash. Or was it? Sometimes I wasn't sure which version of a chapter was better.

Then there were Jerry's notes. I'd be reading along a smoothly written section when I'd suddenly come across a note that shook up the entire running narrative, like the one that said that Hypo would be developed and integrated. What? Jerry wants Hypo, a character drawn from the real-life photographer Weegee, threaded throughout the book? Did we really need more Hypo? My first inclination was to ignore notes like these, but I knew I couldn't if I were to do Gotham justice. I had to at least think about it.

So I did some reading up on Weegee and gave some serious thought to where I should insert the Hypo material. I haven't decided where and when I'd use more Hypo, but I did enjoy reading and learning about Weegee, a lot.

I also chose not to ignore the emails and many chats Jerry had asked me to save. Here's one from June 2, 1998.

ELEANDER: I have a new character for Gotham
ELEANDER: You wont believe this guy but
ELEANDER: My friend Earl can vouch
DZStone: tell...

He explained that the character was based on a man named Jerry Intrator. Jerry had met Intrator through his friend Earl. Intrator lived on 45th Street just east of Sixth Avenue over a movie art house.

ELEANDER: Intrator was a "hondler"
ELEANDER: Escaped from Germany during WW2
ELEANDER: as a teenager walked to Spain!!
ELEANDER: mother died in Auschwitz
ELEANDER: Father survived
ELEANDER: When I met Intrator--->
ELEANDER: he was exploitation film producer

In those days (1950s), Jerry said that foreign films imported to the United States went through two censors, US and NY.

ELEANDER: for instance---
ELEANDER: an "art film" would come in to NY---
ELEANDER: pass US import censorship
ELEANDER: but fail NY censorship

Then the American distributor would contact Intrator. He'd view the film and censored part and then Intrator would reshoot the censored scene.

ELEANDER: example--->
ELEANDER: Bergman's first picture
ELEANDER: had a nude bathing scene
ELEANDER: in a river or lake--- I forget
ELEANDER: Intrator reshot it on Staten Island
ELEANDER: using look alike friends
ELEANDER: (including me LOL)
DZStone: you?
ELEANDER: lots of long shots

Intrator would then match editing and film stock. That meant Customs couldn't censor that part because it was shot in the US.

ELEANDER: Times review said---
ELEANDER: Only Bergman could shoot a nude bathing scene
ELEANDER: in such good taste
ELEANDER: Intrator did a lot of that
ELEANDER: tired…could u save this chat to a file

I must confess that sifting through Jerry's manuscript draft, notes, and chats became a bit overwhelming, so much so that I had to put Gotham down and tend to my own work. Even though Jerry had a good thirty years on me, sometimes I wondered if I would have to find someone to agree to finish Gotham for me after I was dead.

Then Barbara told me she was moving to a new place with her new husband and there were some things of Jerry's she was wondering if I would like, including a papier mâché bust he had made of W.C. Fields many years ago when he was sick and stuck inside. I said yes, and took the various photos, manuscripts, and W.C. (complete with straw hat) home to haunt me.

I put W.C. on a shelf, and every so often I'd look at him and feel guilty that I wasn't so willing to work on Gotham anymore. There were also times I'd look at W.C. and get angry with Jerry for thinking so highly of my writing, telling myself that I couldn't write at all and Jerry had just been stupid insisting that I was brilliant and a much better writer than him. Or I'd get angry with him for asking me to do this—and even angrier at myself for thinking I could.

Mr. Fields, it should have been "Never work with children or animals—or dead authors."

Then a couple of years ago I pulled up some Gotham files and came across this note.

NOTE: Fifth Avenue has grown somehow brighter in the months since the war ended. Pedestrians were more spirited, the women smarter; stylish and crisp in new spring outfits. Skirts were longer, men's trousers were once again pleated and cuffed.

The red, white, blue and olive drab displays in patriotic shop windows had been replaced by colors once prisoners of war: turquoise, tangerine, mauve, periwinkle, blush. Fashions had changed. The understated woman had replaced the fleshy, big breasted kewpie doll. Leggy, apple pie Betty Grable had given way to slender elegance. The high-fashion mystic was no longer the sole property of the rich. Seventh avenue was now mass marketing it to a burgeoning new middle class. To be “new” was to be chic…The New Woman…The New Look…The New Pointed Roundness…The New You. Lord & Taylors' window featured elegant mannequins in ankle length skirts. They perched, incongruously in the orchid bearing trees of a Congo jungle.

I got lost in this note, and for the first time in a long time, I envisioned what Jerry was writing about. His note intrigued me so much that I started reading about old New York—and not simply fashion. I read about New York in the late forties and fifties and had a better idea of the BYOB parties in Greenwich Village that Jerry had written about. The jam sessions in Harlem with Dizzy Gillespie. Dolly, the hooker with a heart. The young woman from New Jersey with intellectual pretensions who joined the Communist party and was going to change the world, one dockworker at a time.

Or how Jordan Axelrod, Jerry's thinly veiled alter ego, felt when he first arrived at the old Penn Station after the war.

Jordan Axelrod had expected instant euphoria. The lack of it had left him with little but the misery of a lousy pair of Cordovan wingtips. They were too tight. He trudged up the long iron staircase from Track 29 with a hundred other guys. They carried barracks bags and cheap suitcases. It was a long staircase.

I considered Jordan Axelrod and how much of Jerry's own life is entwined in Gotham. I now have a clearer sense of what the novel reveals not only about him, but of his particular time and place, the men and women who flocked to New York after the war to make the city their own.

There's never been a carrot dangling on a stick for me here, like an advance or a guaranteed place in posterity for having piggybacked onto a brand name like the woman who finished Jane Austen's novel. What motivates me to finish Gotham is love of the material. Gotham is seeing New York the way Jerry saw it—with his camera eye and storyteller sensibility—a vision well worth sifting through a thousand pages for.

Jerry Yulsman hadn't left me with an uncompleted albatross clunker of a legacy, but a gift. I finally realized that completing Gotham wasn't a matter of trying to mimic Jerry, but, like the best editing and ghostwriting, this was a collaboration. Working on it part time, Gotham may well take a few years to pull together. That's okay. Yes, Jerry, I'm still willing. Say hi to Frank for me.

D.Z. Stone is a freelance writer who specializes in content for major corporations, financial institutions, newspapers, ad agencies, and radio broadcasters.


Peri Appollo Schacknow said...

I love it and am very much looking forward to reading Gotham when you finish it!

GaryB said...

What a wonderful piece and so appropriate for Gotham Ghostwriters. The anecdote about the Bergman doubling in Staten Island is a total surprise to me and I am a Bergman devotee. Please let us all know when "Gotham" is finished.

Allison Hansen said...

Sending encouragement, and hoping to read Gotham soon! Jerry was a warm, funny, and engaging man who was kind enough (or perhaps amused enough) to let me use Elleander Morning as the name of my band. Great piece, DZ!