James Purdy, 1914-2009: A Personal Remembrance

Published in: May-June 2009 issue.


WHEN the incomparable James Purdy passed away in March on Friday the 13, 2009, at the prodigious age of 94, he had been pretty much out of the publishing mainstream for nearly two decades. One of his last short stories, “Reaching Rose,” published in the 2004 collection Moe’s Villa and Other Stories, was a remarkable piece of semi-confessional fiction about a lonely bar fly coming to terms with his own mortality:

When Mr. Sendel first began going to the telephone booth he had talked only to himself, but this had never really satisfied him. First of all he no longer had anything more he wanted to say to himself. He was an old man, and he did not care about himself; he no longer actually wanted to exist as he was now. Often as he sat at the bar he wished that he could become invisible, disembodied, with just his mind at work, observing. He wished that the painful husk of ancient flesh which covered him would be no more, that he might live only remembering the past currents of his life. Perhaps, he reflected, that was all immortality was: the release from the painful husk of flesh with the mind free to wander without the accumulated harvesting of suffering.

I suspect that after experiencing so many kicks and pricks from critics throughout his long career, Purdy, like his fictional creation, wished that solid flesh would resolve itself into a dew and float as pure spirit above the maya that is this world. “I’m the most extolled and damned writer around,” Purdy observed during the first taped interview I conducted (among many) in December, 2004, in his modest studio apartment in a stately brick Victorian building on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, a building that might have served handily as a locale in one of his novels. “I never had a ready-made market. Most publications wanted formula stories, which I’m not capable of writing. The general public wants to be fed pabulum, and I don’t have any ideas that are amenable to trade and commerce.”

When I first met James Purdy, despite his crabapple appearance, he was the very model of Old World politeness: tall and greyhound thin, with quick, playful blue eyes and a head of unruly silver hair that at times imitated the sprightly crest of an exotic bird, genus Cacatua, perhaps. Because his building’s owner was too damn chary to install an intercom system or electric door buzzer, the writer had to trudge down two curving flights of stairs to let me in. However, despite this inconvenience, he appeared courtly in a cardigan sweater, English-style boots, and the slight scent of Pinaud cologne. A dapper herringbone hat was placed on a hallway table for his rare outings to Montague Street. Once inside the small studio apartment, I noticed the several framed vintage prints of 19th-century pugilists on the walls. Next: a framed photograph of Dame Edith Sitwell on the Federal-style mantelpiece, gazing into the room with the imperious glance of Minerva; and hung on the wall above, an oil painting of a young man who could have posed as the callow Malcolm from Purdy’s novel of that name, his first. In fact, it was  Purdy himself in his twenties as depicted by his long-gone friend Gertrude Abercrombie, an artist known for her “slightly berserk” scenes of Chicago slaughterhouses, empty train platforms, and water towers seen in blue-gray lunar light.

“Gertrude’s work is connected to some older vision,” Purdy explained. “She is a great seer of faces, as astonishing to me as Modigliani. Of course, she was a bruja. Very witchy!” Abercrombie appears in different guises throughout Purdy’s stories and novels: as the painter Eloisa Brace, who paints the angelic cipher, Malcolm; as the “serious fucker,” Maureen O’Dell, in the gay landmark novel Eustace Chisolm and the Works, but she makes her most frank appearance in the form of the sexually assiduous bohemian in Purdy’s last novel 1998’s Gertrude of Stoney Island Avenue. Like the theme of his earlier story, “The Nephew” (1960), the novel portrays a woman’s obsessive search for facts to help illuminate the life of her deceased and formerly estranged artist daughter, Gertrude, whose flamboyant hedonism and carnality becomes a source of stygian gloom for the mother. The story has its counterpart in the myth of Demeter’s descent into Hades to find her daughter Persephone.

“Was Gertrude Abercrombie a nymphomaniac as she’s portrayed in the novel?” I inquired. “Well, I suppose you could say she was very experimental,” Purdy attested. “She was a very fine friend—and way before her time. But, she was always getting into man trouble. She was a hard liver, and unfortunately she died from drinking too much.”

While sipping a cup of aromatic green tea, I quickly scanned the shelves of books to spy on the author’s reading preferences and possible influences. Right away I spotted a Rockwell Kent edition of Moby-Dick, Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose and Funeral Rites, Ronald Firbank, Leaves of Grass, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, a copy of Roberto Callasso’s K (on Kafka), a book on world mythology, and a Dictionary of Afro-American Slang.

“[Gertrude Stein’s] Three Lives inspired me early on,” the author observed. “I think it inspired a lot of writers—Hemingway and Steinbeck, too. I liked Stein until she became too self-conscious—then became hard to read. Carl Van Vechten was a good friend and supporter of my writing. I dedicated Malcolm to him, and I based the character of Cyril Vane in Out with the Stars on Carl.”

Purdy, who spoke fluent Spanish, was also big fan of Garcia Lorca, and professed to be inspired by the writer’s theory of “duende” and “deep song.” He preferred writing longhand on tablets and later typing out his revisions; as a hobby he enjoyed drawing fanciful heads in full-face or profile, which are a combination of Cocteau’s faun heads and wide-eyed hieratic masks. He also composed poetry and playful “anonymous letters” to send to friends, which are said to be quite startling works of art in themselves.

Before he died, Purdy was working on a new novel, to be called The Manse. A collection of his plays is scheduled to be issued this spring and will include the full-length plays, Brice, The Paradise Circus, Where Quentin Goes, and Ruthanna Elder.


Michael Ehrhardt is a freelance writer based in New York City.


Read More from Michael Ehrhardt