My Time in Pauline Kael’s Apartment.Posted: August 15, 2009
The movie Julie and Julia — in which a young writer feels connected to, and inspired by, an older one — brought back memories of the afternoon I spent with the movie critic Pauline Kael in her apartment.
There were some key differences. In the movie [spoiler alert], Julie is told by a reporter that her inspiration, master French chef Julia Child, hates Julie’s blog. (We never get confirmation that this is so, but Julie presumes it to be true, and is devastated.) And Julie never meets Julia. [End spoiler alert].
I, on the other hand, had the heady experience of learning from Pauline Kael that she liked my work (I was the main movie reviewer for my college newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and had sent her some clippings) and was open to meeting with me. As the DP’s “Cinema Editor,” I had sent her a letter requesting an interview for an article to appear in the paper. How did I get her address? Simple. I went to the University of Pennsylvania library and looked her up in the Manhattan phone book! (She was actually listed.)
I thought that by enclosing some reviews I’d written, I might get Kael, the preeminent American film critic from the 1960s through the 1980s, to say yes in the event she liked them. That’s what happened. I sent her three or four of my reviews. The only one I remember now is the one I wrote about the Carrie Snodgress & Richard Benjamin movie Diary of a Mad Housewife, regarding which I held a jaundiced view. She must have liked my sensibility, or my ability to express my sensibility, or perhaps she simply agreed with my viewpoints in the pieces I sent her, but in any case I received within the week a letter from her proposing I come up to interview her in her apartment on a date in the near future. I called her and arranged to do so.
On that day, I took the train up to New York from Philadelphia. I brought a cassette recorder with me, and we sat down in the large living room of Pauline’s Central Park West apartment. (A manual typewriter on a desk by one wall testified that this room was also where she wrote her movie criticism.) Was I scared? You bet. The fact that at the time I had the moxie to have contacted her for the interview and gone through with it should not be mistaken for an excess of self-confidence.
To say I idolized her would be no exaggeration. Ever since as a high schooler I discovered her first two books, I Lost It at The Movies and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, my way of looking at movies, and my way of understanding the potency of passionate persuasion possible with the written word, were transformed.
I had written out a bunch of questions for Kael, then in her early fifties, and went through my list, trying my best to listen to her answers for possible questions that might occur to me impromptu. She spoke in a gentle voice, and even though I (inwardly) feared that she would reduce me to a puddle by regarding one of my questions as stupid, she didn’t. I had the feeling that she thought it was important to talk to me and give me all the time I needed. That time turned out to be three hours, and at no time did she show impatience.
At one point she interrupted the interview in order to take her small dog around the block for a walk. Some other luminary might have used the occasion as a convenient moment to end an interview with a student reporter. Instead, she invited me to stay in her apartment, by myself, until her return! Why did she not ask me to accompany her on her walk? I don’t know, but it might be because she thought I would welcome the opportunity to get a feel for her place in her absence. It certainly showed a tremendous amount of trust. Why didn’t I volunteer to accompany her on her walk? Because I couldn’t refuse the chance to get a feel for Pauline Kael’s apartment in her absence!
In that twenty minute or so interval, I poked around with my eyes, not touching anything. I noticed that her record collection tilted predominantly (almost exclusively) to two genres, opera and R&B; she had many complete opera recordings, along with a pronounced appreciation for Aretha Franklin. And I noticed that her book collection contained first editions of all the Frank L. Baum Oz books. These books were a childhood passion that predated the film, since she was twenty when the movie of The Wizard of Oz came out.
She returned with her dog (come to think of it, a little dog very much like Toto!) and we resumed the interview. By the time it was through, I had three cassette tapes filled on both sides. As we parted at her door, we clasped hands, and she said, warmly, to be sure to send her the interview when it was written, and to be sure to keep in touch. I said I would do both.
I did neither.
I will never understand why, although I’ve spent many hours of therapy trying.
I would be graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in only two or three more weeks. While I had imagined there would be time for me to write up the interview and get it into the paper, now there didn’t seem to be time.
Only a couple of weeks elapsed between graduation and when I began a master’s program in journalism at Northwestern, outside of Chicago. I brought the Pauline tapes with me, thinking I would transcribe them and turn them into a piece I could get published somewhere. It certainly didn’t seem far-fetched to imagine a newspaper or magazine would want it. She didn’t give out many interviews of any length, let alone as extensive an interview as the one she granted me.
I did, in fact, transcribe the tapes, on the typewriter in my graduate student apartment, during that hot and humid summer of 1971. But I never went further with it.
Nevertheless, I still had those tapes, and I had the typewritten transcript. It always seemed possible to me that I would do something with them. But I never did; and then, one day years later, when looking for the tapes and the transcript, finally possessed of the resolve to write up the piece now, I could not find them. They were lost.
Why did I not keep my promise to Pauline Kael, the one I made to her at her apartment doorway as we parted company that afternoon?
There are many answers to that, all of them true.
- I was at the time, and remain to this day, a person with a rock-bottom sense of self-doubt. While sometimes I am able to propel myself into action and assertiveness in defiance of this self-doubt, at other times I cannot. Concerning my Pauline Kael interview, decades elapsed in a paralysis of self-doubt. At the same time a part of my brain knew that the material would be of interest to a publisher, another part of me kept saying, “Oh, who’s going to want your interview with Pauline Kael anyway?” The energy required to turn the transcripts into a publishable piece was just never there, because hope is the fuel that turns dreams into energy, and when it comes to that fuel, I have always run on empty.
- While Blanche Dubois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” my watchword has always been, “I have always feared the retribution of everyone.” I go around thinking that people think ill of me, and wish harm to come to me, for ways in which I imagine I have failed them. A part of me was afraid to publish the piece, because I was afraid Pauline wouldn’t like it. (The feeling was similar to my fear that she’d pounce on me for a dumb question during the interview, and even though she didn’t do that, the possibility that she would be displeased with my article effectively paralyzed me.) There was no reason, in truth, to suppose that she would have been anything but delighted. That’s easy for me to see now, now that writing the piece is impossible.
- This one is the most difficult to admit. Entirely for reasons having to do with my own sexual inexperience and hangups at the time, and having nothing to do with Pauline Kael, I started to entertain the fantasy that she had “designs” on me—designs that I would have no idea how to deal with. In today’s slang, I started to think of her as a cougar. I had in my makeup a fear — easily triggered regardless that circumstances might not warrant it — of sexual predation. I am so ashamed of having felt this that the words are difficult to type. But I thought, “Why is she having me up to her apartment? Why is she spending so much time with me here? Why is she letting me feel so at home, even to the point of leaving me alone in her apartment? Why, upon our parting, is she shaking my hand so warmly, and holding out the implicit promise of a keen interest in my future if only I will keep in touch? It can only be because she wants to turn me into her personal plaything! In return for what she can do for me, what will be the price to be paid?” I didn’t examine these delusions at the time (a blend of narcissism and terror), but I did entertain them — and the result was to make me keep my distance from her (including not writing the piece and never contacting her again), when my professional goals and hopes and dreams would have been better served by the opposite course. Was it possible that she just plain liked me and had affection for my ideas and my talent? I was able to entertain that thought, too — but not for very long.
- My self-loathing made me feel unworthy of her attention, even if she disagreed with that assessment. It seemed to me a fairy tale had come true the afternoon I spent with her, but it was just a fairy tale. She’d return to her exalted life, and I’d return to the rock I crawled out from under. I didn’t belong in the same world as her.
- The more time passed without my keeping my promises to her to send her the finished piece and to keep in touch, the worse I felt about the betrayal. And the worse I felt, the more paralyzed I became. At some point it seemed ridiculous even to think about the matter much anymore, because surely it was now “too late” to do anything about it.
And then of course, one day it was too late. The tape and transcripts were gone. And Pauline died in 2001, with impeccable timing eight days before the horror of 9/11.
Was I really this crazy, dysfunctional way with everyone? No. I’ve always been blessed with friends and loved ones whose affection and love I am able to take at face value, and return. But these undercurrents ran through me then, and they surface again from time to time.
I remember leaving her apartment that day with a feeling of excitement and belief in myself and my future. Pauline Kael liked me! Pauline Kael wanted me to keep in touch! Pauline Kael is going to be my mentor, recommending me for the movie critic job at a prestigious newspaper or journal! (There were other writers, who would become known as “Paulettes,” whom she championed and helped.) But I couldn’t hold on to that feeling. Soon it was sunk underneath the depression that had been my more or less constant companion since childhood. The feeling was as lost to me, metaphorically, as the tapes and transcripts later became in reality.
Ever since, I’ve had self-recriminations about my stupidity and the road not taken.
And also, about my not having kept my end of the bargain with Pauline. She spent a lot of time with me that day. She didn’t do it for her health. She did it because she expected to see a piece come out of it that would reach a young audience. She had every right to expect that. And she did it, perhaps, out of wanting to make contact with someone who might, possibly, continue her level of thoughtful movie criticism into the next generation. She was generous with her time and got nothing for it in return. I’m ashamed of that.
What would have happened if I had written the piece, sent it to her, kept in contact? Perhaps not a whole lot. But I can’t know that.
I do remember one thing vividly from the interview, and since it is the one moment from our exchange I can give you verbatim without the benefit of the transcripts, I will. Since so much of her early reputation had been gained by publicly bashing the views of less astute (but more famous) critics, I asked her if there were any critics now that she followed with any regularity. She replied, “No, not really. I mean, in any generation, there’s only one film critic worth reading, isn’t there? In the thirties it was Otis Ferguson, in the forties it was James Agee, and now, it’s me.” I loved that answer, because it contained no braggadocio whatever. It was the truth.