“Rochester had sprung up like a mush-
room, but no presage of decay could be
drawn from its hasty growth.”
The day after his 101st birthday, novelist Henry W. Clune escorted my wife and me to a fine local restaurant, where we dined in the Henry Clune Room. “It’s a sin to live this long,” he said as we drained our preprandial martinis. We later repaired to his wooded estate for a nightcap and a chat into the midnight hours.
Henry had been rereading (with an array of glasses that have the magnifying power of Palomar’s telescope) The Great Gatsby. “Somewhere in that book Fitzgerald mentions Gilda Gray,” he said. “She was a friend of mine.” We delved into Henry’s library of scrapbooks, and sure enough, there was a faded telegram from 20′ s glam our girl Gilda Gray.
Visits with Henry are like that: enormously pleasurable-and personalized-tours of the last hundred years. Henry is half as old as the American republic and has a much better memo ry. He has lived for seventy years in that most interesting of precincts, the outskirts of fame. (When, after a whirl wind courtship, he married Olympic swimmer Charlotte Boyle, daughter of rakish adventurer Joe “King of the Klondike” Boyle, the New York World immortalized swain Henry in “The wooing of Charlotte Boyle” and then anathematized him in “The Shower that Shattered a Mermaid Friend ship.”)
I daresay that no American writer has ever known a place for as long or as well as Henry W. Clune knows Rochester, New York. He was born in 1890, to a father who once lived in the same boardinghouse as Susan B. Anthony (who was, by Mr. Clune’s report, no barrel of laughs). His mother was one of 12 employees on the first payroll that George Eastman ever met. (Mom’s boss was fictionalized in Clune’s 1952 epic By His Own Hand, an ambitious work that merits comparison with Dreiser’s Cowperwood trilogy.)
Henry grew up on Linden Street during “the finest time to have been alive”-the years preceding “our en trance into World War I.” He flunked out of Phillips Academy, learned the newspaper racket, and soon became the most popular columnist in the city’s history. Over the years he would write six novels and seven books of memoir and regional history, including The Genesee, a gem in the Rivers of America series.
A local imprint published a book of Henry’s stories shortly after he turned 100; at 101, he’s shopping around an unpublished novel describing the desolating effect the Vietnam War has on a family in a small Upstate village. On its merits alone, the novel deserves publication, and besides, Henry wryly notes, “There might be a sales dodge in the age of the author.”
Lucine and I stop by the Lair de Clune every ten days or so to see Henry and his son, Peter, an actor and superb raconteur. We enjoy these evenings immensely; I feel, at times, as though I’ve wandered into a John P. Marquand novel and have become, willy-nilly, a gentleman.
“I always wanted to be a snob,” Henry admits. “But I know too many mugs.” Yes, he does. Who else could balance friendships with George Cukor and characters named Peaches Strange and Rattlesnake Pete? Henry moved with remarkable agility between the country clubs and the pool halls. He knew Eastman and Frank Gannett and the fraying Rochester aristocracy they destroyed-“the old Castilians in tattered purple snooting the world and owing the grocer.”
Clune cheerfully concedes that he is a provincial. He loves quoting Bernard De Voto: “Why see Paris, France, if you haven’t seen Paris, Illinois?” It’s easy for him to calculate the price he’s paid for his stubborn parochialism – lack of critical attention and national celebrity-he cause he’s known so many writers who haven’t paid it. For instance, his Rochester friends Philip Barry and Louise Brooks.
Philip Barry grew up several blocks from Henry Clune. An Irish-Catholic boy of considerable charm, Phil left the Flower City for Yale and later George Pierce Baker’s drama workshop at Har yard (where Thomas Wolfe was a classmate) and he never looked back.
“Phil was a dandy,” Henry recalls; was he ever. He married a rich girl, lived at Cannes and East Hampton, and wrote a series of clever drawing room comedies that made him “a tidy sum of money,” as Wolfe noted, not without envy. For a time in the 1930’s, Philip Barry was the golden boy of American theater.
Two of Barry’s plays-Holiday and The Philadelphia Story-are among the most delightful of screen comedies, but except for an anthology edited by Brendan Gill, the playwright rests in obscurity. “Phil is even forgotten in Rochester,” Henry laments; Barry’s sophisticated epigrams and horsey-set badinage are alien to his native soil and simply cannot survive without continuous sunlight from stars afar. Phil Barry didn’t need a hometown, and now, I’m afraid, his hometown doesn’t need him.
Louise Brooks staggered into Rochester because she had nowhere else to go. She was a Kansas chorine who made a slew of silent movies, most famously the German G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929), in which she played Lulu, the guileless hedonist, irresistible to men (among others) until, lucklessly, she picks up Jack the Ripper. (Talk about Mr. Goodbar!)
Louise was an erratic, arrogant, dissipated beauty. She refused to sleep with the moguls (though she conferred her favors on almost everyone else) and ridiculed Hollywood while taking its money. The industry was run, she later wrote, by “coarse exploiter[s] who propositioned every actress and policed every set. To love books was a big laugh. There was no theater, no opera, no concerts—just those goddamned movies.” A has-been at age 33, Louise fled the glitz.
She ended up back in Wichita, teaching dance, until a scandal involving the better part of a high-school football team made it best for her to move on. She drifted downward until 1956, when she settled in Rochester at the invitation of the curator of the Eastman Museum of Photography, whose archives she mined to write a series of razor-sharp essays later combined in Lulu in Hollywood.
Louise Brooks and Henry Clune began a fitful, exasperating friendship. She swam in gin on dinner dates, Henry remembers, but her bile was . . . well, bewitching in a way. She lived in a dingy apartment on Goodman Street, paid for by William Paley, an old love; Henry hated to stop by her tenement because “she’d never stop talking. You could never get out.” (I repeat this to a friend, a Brooks fancier. He is aghast. “She was casting pearls before swine!” he exclaims. I relay this to Henry, who is delighted. “Swine: oh, that’s great. I’ve been called worse”—not least by Louise, who frequently execrated him as a “goddamn bourgeois.” He asks me to extend to my friend an open invitation to “stop by and hear all about Louise. I’ll tell him she wasn’t any great beauty. She reminded me of general housework.”)
Louise reentered the Celebrity Nation in 1979, thanks to Kenneth Tynan’s lengthy paean in the New Yorker. European cineastes had long insisted, “There is no Garbo! There is no Dietrich! There is only Louise Brooks!”; finally, cisatlantic adulation was hers. She died in 1985; four years later, Knopf published Barry Paris’s 609-page biography. (“Mose,” Henry growls, his saltiest imprecation. “Six hundred pages for an actress? That movie Pandora’s Box bored me to tears.”)
Henry showed us some poison-pen billets-doux he’d received from Louise in the final crippled years of her life. Miss Brooks soaked even her Christmas cards in vitriol: under the stenciled “Season’s Greetings” her chickenscratch lacerated Humphrey Bogart (“a gentleman and a bore”); Will Rogers (a stone-drunk who avoided human companionship: “no wonder he never met a man he didn’t like”); and the talented writer who had renovated her reputation (“Tynan was no fag—just your usual upper-class English pervert”).
Louise refused to indulge Henry’s provincialism. “I hated you,” she fondly reminisced in one Christmas letter, typically devoid of Christian charity. Henry was too . . . too . . . “Rochester.” She airily dismissed Clune’s claim that Phil Barry was the equal of O’Neill and Coward. She reviled Rochester as her Coventry. “To be a rebel is to court extinction,” Louise once said in a boozy self-dramatizing fog, and for all her tartness and determined debauchery and undeniable pulchritude, I wonder if she ever realized that Henry, doggedly and faithfully creating a Rochester literature of place, was more of a rebel than she ever dreamed of being.
Hollywood never tempted Henry (although Frank Capra borrowed his novel Monkey on a Stick, which became Meet John Doe); neither did progress. His writings have had an elegiac air since I don’t know when. Sixty years ago he was wondering “if the old spirit of neighborliness that gave such a distinct character to the average residential street before the advent of the motor car, the movie and other institutions of the present era that tend to take people out of and away from their homes, anywhere exists.”
You can imagine what he thinks of the six decades since.
It’s no longer safe for a woman to walk after dark down the street on which Henry Clune grew up. Philip Barry’s alma mater. East High, once the city’s swankiest public school, is now among its most dangerous. I attended an East basketball game last season and tried to picture Phil Barry in a fur coat waving a pennant, amidst all the black leather jackets and Raiders caps. I couldn’t. East High no longer belongs to languid swells who address their parents in Barry idiom. (“Wot, Mums? Oh, you are a wench!”) But let’s look on the bright side: East High has graduated from Cole Porter to rap. Deft wordplay and rhyming have become cool in today’s inner-city schools, and I don’t know about you but I think that this is marvelous news.
Henry is pessimistic about the big things, but in the private realm, which after all is what matters most, he really has had a wonderful life. He is a revered figure in Rochester, his hometown. He was ever loyal to his city, which outsiders often find gray and unfriendly, and his sense of rootedness is as profound as is humanly possible.
An optimist might even say that things are looking up in Rochester. William McFeely’s biography has renewed interest in adopted son Frederick Douglass. The Susan B. Anthony dollar may circulate again. You can rent The Philadelphia Story at any decent video store. The Louise Brooks hair helmet is back in style. Henry Clune is 101 and still writing. The circle is unbroken, sort of, and in that sea of Raiders caps I’ll bet there is one boy or girl who will grab the baton and continue along the path that is Rochester’s, and Rochester’s alone.