When I was eleven, I was yanked out of my progressive grammar school and sent into exile up the Hudson River to a military school. I was there for six years. Avoiding the military life as best I could, I spent much of my sentence in the library reading—reading anything odd, arcane, and outside the limited glimpses of literature that a military school curriculum allowed. In short, I hid myself in the darkest, most remote of intellectual caves for those years. In an alien world, my aim was to educate myself as a poet, to survive.
To my great good fortune, after graduation, I found myself at Southampton College, in Eastern Long Island. Like every college, Southampton depended on local adjunct professors to supplement the small, costlier full-time staff. But, unlike most colleges, Southampton was able to hire the local artists and writers, who—the Hamptons being the Hamptons—were often the best in the world. For instance, Willem de Kooning taught elementary painting. Ilya Bolotowky, the neo-plasticist painter, with his huge mustache and thick Russian accent, taught my Freshman English class. The Bollingen-prize poet David Ignatow taught creative writing, as did the poet, playwright and translator, H. R. Hays.
Why did a group of distinguished artists and writers congregate at a new, undistinguished college? “You see,” de Kooning told me after we’d become acquainted. “In the wintertime, they’re here all alone. They work in their studios all day and then want to get together at night, usually at Bobby Van’s, or some other bar. Then they get into a fight—Jim Jones likes to throw punches—or get drunk and the police take them to jail. It’s either that or they meet at the college and have a good time without getting into too much trouble.” “The truth is,” Ilya Bolotowsky added. “We’re all exiles.” I came to believe that Bolotowsky was right. Hays, Ignatow, Bolotowsky and de Kooning were not only exiles, they recognized me as one, too, and to my delight became my mentors and friends during my college days and for many years after.
Meeting Capote at Keene’s, Southampton
One afternoon, when I was in Keene’s, a tiny man with a squeaky voice pushed his way through the door, yipping: “Mr. Keene! Who the hell’s book is blocking my book in your window?”
The College had recently published my ﬁrst poetry collection, Earth Works, and Keene had given it pride of place, almost entirely blocking another book. Keene pointed at me. “It’s his book.”
I knew who the screaming man was; I didn’t need an introduction, but Keene introduced us, anyway.
Truman Capote stared at me. “Suppose you tell me, young man, what kind of book you’ve written that’s so damn important it gets to block mine?” “Poetry,” I said. “Oh,” he said, his anger deﬂating as if poetry threatened nothing. “Hah! Poetry!” he snorted and turned to Keene, beginning a rant about something else.
“Don’t take Capote seriously,” Keene told me later. “He has no respect for poetry, or history, for that matter,” he concluded, pointing to a copy of Capote’s In Cold Blood. “Just you read it. Made the whole thing up. You’ll see.”
When I returned to Keene’s a few days later, the copy of my book that had been in the window was gone. I suspected the worst.
Keene protested, “No, I didn’t hide it. It was Capote. After you left, he bought it.”
Keene also published a newsletter called the Steamboat Press which he typeset by hand in a shop around the corner. I recall that he published articles about local history, of which he was an expert and the Town’s volunteer historian.
One day, he invited me to visit the printshop. Cabinets of type were set against the walls, and a long-bedded printing press occupied the center of the room. He showed me how he ﬁrst inked the form of cold type by turning a crank. The crank caused a roller to impress ink on the type. He then arranged paper on top of the type and, turning another crank, lowered a platen, which pressed the paper against the letters. I was curious about a stack of type forms standing against a corner wall that extended from ﬂoor to ceiling. “That’s my full setting of the original Bible that Johannes Gutenberg published in Mainz,” he told me. “Every Latin character as it was originally set. Each page exactly forty-nine lines long. All 973 pages of it.” “How long have you been working on this?” I asked. “Since I opened the shop twenty years ago. By my calculations, I have twenty more years to go before completing it.”
I never heard anything more about this great project. In fact, no one I spoke to who had known Keene could tell me anything about it. Reluctantly, I’ve come to believe that he had been having fun at my expense, displaying what Sherlock Holmes described as Dr. Watson’s “pawkish” sense of humor. It was his joke. He had never set Guttenberg’s Bible.
Another of Many Random Encounters with Truman Capote
I’d meet Capote accidentally in obvious places in the Hamptons: bookstores, the porch of a friend’s house in Sagaponack, and various bars. Of course, I knew who he was and what he had written. His fame awed me when we’d first met. For his part, he seemed to remember me, but vaguely as to my name or who or what he supposed me to be.
I’d stopped at Bobby Van’s hoping to sell the owner an advertisement in the summer newspaper that employed me. Truman Capote was there at a corner table. He recognized me from previous chance meetings and lifted his arm laconically to wave me over. “You must try one of these cocktails,” he said. “You see how lovely and pink mine is, like the Sargasso Sea? Sit down!”
I sat. “What’s in it?”
“Grapefruit juice with just a little splash of vodka. I enjoy one of these–only one–each day.” He waved to the waiter. “Bring this young man one of these.”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’m working today.”
“Pity. Always working. Well,” he said to the waiter. “You can bring me his. Can’t let this young man’s drink waste away untasted.”
Meeting Proust’s Granddaughter
Canio’s bookstore, an Old Curiosity Shop of dusty shelves on Main Street in Sag Harbor, attracted young writers. You might find anything there. I was in Canio’s one day, when I met Marcel Proust’s granddaughter.
I’d been attempting to read C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, off and on since I was sixteen. Now a first-year instructor at Southampton College, I thought I’d give it another try. Canio’s had several volumes in different editions, and I was whispering to a friend of mine when we were interrupted by a tall, elderly woman.
“I’m standing right here,” she said. “And I can hear every word you’re saying. So, don’t say anything scornful about my grandfather.”
“Your grandfather?” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “My grandfather, Marcel Proust.”
This was a striking coincidence. I didn’t know how to respond.
“You’re impressed,” she said. “I can tell. But I knew my grandfather during the composition of his entire oeuvre.”
I was excited and wanted to ask her questions but didn’t know where to begin. She continued without me. “He even posed me as a model for his heroine in the second volume.”
“From a Budding Grove,” I said.
“That’s better translated as Of Flowers and Virgins.”
“You modeled for a novel?”
She smiled modestly. “I was the virgin.”
This is where the memory ends. It wasn’t too long, however, before I discovered that Proust, once described as a “confirmed bachelor,” had neither children nor grandchildren.
I never encountered Proust’s granddaughter again, but I remember our meeting as a lovely, lyrical experience. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that the world is full of ghosts. I’ve met some of the most interesting in bookstores such as Canio’s.
Sandy McIntosh was born in Rockville Centre, New York, and received a BA from Southampton College, an MFA from Columbia University and a doctorate from the Union Graduate Institute and University. After working with children for eight years as a Writer in the Schools he completed a study of writers who taught in the program and how their work with children affected their own writing. He alternated teaching creative writing at Southampton College and Hofstra University with publishing non-fiction and journalism, poetry, and opinion columns in The New York Times, The New York Daily News, The Daily Beast and elsewhere. His poetry appears in The Best American Poetry. He was chairman of the Distinguished Poetry Series at Guild Hall, East Hampton, New York. He has been managing editor of Long Island University’s national literary journal, Confrontation, and is publisher of Marsh Hawk Press.
This memoir is a selection from Lesser Lights: More Tales from a Hamptons’ Apprenticeship published by Marsh Hawk Press in 2019.