by Art Shay
(Swans - March 22, 2010) Over this very writing station I keep a small bulletin board on which I post the latest news of my novelist friend Nelson Algren, better known as Jean Paul Sartre's competitor in the storming of the emotional and sexual heights of the great Simone de Beauvoir. The board is about to flood, New Orleans style, onto its surrounding white walls. My God, poor -- in every sense of the word except literary and sexual achievement -- Nelson has been dead since 1981. My son Harmon, whom Nelson godfathered, has been one with the Florida swamps since he was murdered there as a genius Hippie two weeks shy of his 21st birthday in 1972.
Harmon's picture -- wild hair, eyes somnolent with Florida pot -- faces Nelson's. Nelson's is an ink drawing by the late, great David Levine, purloined from his $2,500 image of Nelson -- that he copied from my photograph -- right down to my posing Nelson behind the 8 ball. We were in a pool hall showing Marcel Marceau the place so he could work it into a tableau called "pool shark," which he did that very night at the Civic Opera House -- an homage to his two Cheecago friends. When I think of Nelson's and Harmon's pictures adjoining each other I remember the true meaning of "fey." It didn't originally mean elfin. It meant, as T.S. Eliot once averred, fated to doom. And so they were -- Algren with a fucked-up life and career that will, it looks like this very week, finally peak -- if Johnny Depp and his French actress girlfriend actually bring Nelson's story to the screen.
Already my pals given to heckling me, are bruiting the Hollywood rumor that Danny DeVito has dibs on playing me if he can lose two inches of height, or get some super flat Mephisto moccasins.
Yeah, my e-mail and fax are full of notes from Australia, California, Florida, England, and even Chicago -- Nelson may be rising, is in fact risen this week pushed into new life, retrieved by none other than the latest red-eye-made-up Mad Hatter himself, that doughty Pirate of the Caribbbean, that hard robbing, hard shooting, easy -- escaping John Dillinger of last year -- Johnny Depp. I wish him well on purloining another life and fixing it in the public imagination for good, as good actors do. And why not? Who the fuck has time for posterity's wheels to move?
My Chicago Sun-Times Depp-Algren clip, caparisoned with a long-haired studious looking Depp in reading glasses and serious mien, quotes Johnny: "our movie talks are going well."
An old acquaintance and collector of my Algren pictures, a novelist, film writer, and producer Clancy Sigal, a Canadian senior living in La La Land with a younger, intelligent and beautiful wife, is the other half of Depp's "our." (He is known by the cognoscenti in hot literature as the younger lover, and book subject, years ago, of super-novelist Doris Lessing, now alas, an old lady.)
Clancy's been trying to peddle an Algren script for years, he told me the one time we met -- sharing an ABC-TV cab at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Clancy's career had a beautiful upward spike a couple of years ago when his production of "Frida Kahlo" was a Hollywood hit. I especially loved the part where my father's young manhood revolutionary pal in Russia, Leon Trotsky, came to hide out with and visit Diego Rivera (Frida's muralist husband) in Mexico, then had an affair with the wild lady artist. Then was hunted down by a recriminative, well-rubled Stalin assassin with a claw hammer.
I speculated that my mild father might easily have been seduced by voracious Frida if he'd gone to Mexico instead of the U.S. Thus, by dream logic, she might have been my mother. Or something. And I'd be writing this in Spanish with Frida drawing the mystically sexy page illustrations.
I asked Clancy about the state of the Algren movie and he reminded me that "American Dream" was only in pre-production, "but remember, this is Hollywood." I remember. That memory is buoyed by the unpredictable Oscars the other night and by the humor of my late son-in-law, movie writer Eliot Wald, whose chafing against Hollywood could easily be discerned in his work for Saturday Night Live, Hollywood, Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder, Kelsey Grammer, and the like. It was his idea to put his pals Ebert & Siskel together on Chicago TV as dueling movie critics.
Sometimes my daughter Jane, Eliot's widow -- still grieving after five years -- would appear in the front-row audience of Saturday Night Live and she'd wave to us. The termination of Eliot's life in his fifties was alas, the working out of one of his aphorisms: if it happened in Hollywood, take it with a grain of assault.
If Depp does the movie, please let Swans know who plays me -- or if they changed my part or my sex, or put in Dolly or something. James Cameron and I, while neither of us is starving, will be suspicious of Hollywood from now on.
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About the Author
Art Shay is the author-photographer of more than fifty books, the former staff Washington correspondent for Time-Life and Life Bureau Chief in San Francisco. Shay has had 25,000 published pictures including 1,050 covers of magazines, books, and annual reports for such clients as Ford, 3M, National Can, Motorola and ABC-TV. His pictures hang in the National Portrait Gallery (Heffner, Durocher, Robert Crumb) in the Chicago Art Institute. His work is currently exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (through June 29, 2008) following an exhibition at the Gallerie Albert Loeb in Paris, France. The April 2008 issue of North Shore magazine (Chicago) says that "his pictures have the psychology of Dostoevsky, the realism of Hemingway, and the metaphor of Melville... He's in the Pantheon of great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, Strand, and Stieglitz." The Daily Herald (Chicago suburban) of May 5, 2008, called him "the pre-eminent photojournalist of the 20th century..." (back)