Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Woodman and "The Writer from Philadelphia"

When Jerry Spinelli took a job as an editor at Chilton, a Philadelphia publisher of trade magazines and automotive manuals, he confidently told a co-worker that he'd only be working there for about a year or two until his first book was published.

More than a decade later he was still waiting for that first book to be published. By this point he was married with a large family. Money was tight. One evening he stood distraught in a store, debating whether to buy cold syrup for one sick child or milk for the rest of the children; there wasn't enough money for both. Despite these hardships, Spinelli persevered, getting up before dawn to write before work and then returning to his typewriter in the evening.

What is it that separates the wannabe-writer from the published writer? Talent, certainly. Self-motivation. Persistence. And it helps to have someone who believes in you...and also thinks of you as a writer. For Spinelli, that "someone" was his wife Eileen. One evening, as the two watched an auction on their local public television station, an interesting item came up for bid: A Night on the Town with George Plimpton. Jerry spoke of how inspiring it would be to spend time with a famous published writer like Plimpton. Then he sighed and went to bed. That's when Eileen got up, checked their meager savings account and phoned in a bid. They ended up winning the auction.

When George Plimpton learned that a Pennsylvania couple had won the auction, he thought he might take them out to eat, then see a Broadway show and "put the Spinellis on a sensible train back to Philadelphia."

The Spinellis arrived at Plimpton's Upper Eastside duplex on the appointed night and, after drinks, the two men played a game of pool while Mrs. Plimpton showed Eileen around the apartment. Later, while the Spinellis looked at some books in the library, Mrs. Plimpton pulled her husband into the hall and whispered that Jerry Spinelli was an aspiring writer and that Eileen had spent almost all their money on this evening -- $425! -- leaving only $5 in their savings account to keep it open. George Plimpton was mortified. He finally decided, "Then we'll have to turn this into a literary evening" and made plans to take the couple to the well-known restaurant Elaine's, a frequent haunt of NYC writers.

In the taxi, Plimpton said he "murmured a prayer that there would be a good literary crowd at Elaine's." If not, he'd pretend to recognize a few of their fellow diners as ESQUIRE editors while "anyone with a beard" would be identified as the writer Donald Barthelme.

But when they entered the restaurant, Plimpton gave a sigh of relief as "the sudden fancy crossed my mind that Madame Tussaud herself had been working for a week to get it set up for ourselves and the Spinellis." Table after table was filled with literary bigwigs: Kurt Vonnegut...Jill Krementz...Irwin Shaw...Peter Stone...Dan Jenkins. Plimpton guided Spinelli from table to table:

"Mr. Talese, Mr. Hotchner, may I present Jerry Spinelli, the writer from Philadelpha." When he heard me introducing him as "the writer from Philadelphia," Mr. Spinelli beamed. We moved on to Bruce Jay Friedman, sitting with a large crowd. "Bruce, Mr. Spinelli, the writer from Philadelphia."

Then Plimpton saw Woody Allen.

At Elaine's, there is one famous house rule. At a place where table-hopping and squeezing in at a table to join even the vaguest of friends ("Mind if I join you?") is very much de rigueur, it is not done at Woody Allen's table. Even on the way to the Gents, nothing more than a side glance at the brooding figure of Woody Allen, mournfully glancing down at his chicken francese, which I am told is his favorite dish, is permissable. To interrupt his meal by leaning over and saying, "Hi ya Woody, how's it going?" would be unheard of.

But I thought of Spinelli's four hundred twenty-five dollars, and the long trip up on Amtrak, and the five dollars left in the savings account, and the half-finished manuscript in its typewriter-paper cardboard box.

"Woody," I said, "forgive me. This is Jerry Spinelli, the writer from Philadelphia."

Woody looked up slowly. It was done very dramatically, as if he were looking up from under the brim of a large hat.

"Yes," he said evenly.
"I know."

We stood there transfixed. Allen gazed at us briefly, then he returned to his contemplation of the chicken francese on his plate.

Plimpton said that Jerry Spinelli was awestruck and not really sure what had just transpired. "Did you hear that?" he said as he sat down in a daze.

Some time later George Plimpton received a letter from Spinelli saying that his first book had been released. Within a few more years he was one of the most famous names in children's books. How had he made the leap from wannabe-writer to published writer? Through talent. Self-motivation. Persistence. In Spinelli's case, it also helped to have a wife who believed in him and always thought of him as a writer. And maybe it even had something to do with a special night when a whole room full of literary luminaries -- everyone from Gay Talese to Woody Allen himself -- made Jerry Spinelli feel like he was indeed "The Writer from Philadelphia."


Unknown said...

This is a terrific story. Are you quoting from a longer piece by Plimpton?

Peter D. Sieruta said...

Thanks Jeanne! I'd heard the story from Jerry Spinelli's perspective in a couple articles/speeches, but did not know that George Plimpton had also written about the incident until today. The long quotes in the blog are from an article he wrote for NEW YORK magazine. It was later reprinted in at least two anthologies: NEW YORK STORIES and EVERYONE COMES TO ELAINE'S.

Thanks again,


Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this story.

Melissa (& Billy) said...

Wow. I would venture to say that the entire evening was a 'divine appointment.' =)

Unknown said...

And, thanks, Peter! I'll have to get hold of these anthologies -- I'm a big Plimpton fan.

Robin Gaphni said...

What a great story. As an aspiring children's book author, it's stories like these that give me hope. Children's literature is all the better because of Jerry Spinelli's perseverance (and his wife's belief in his abilities as a writer). Thank you!

Lupe Ruiz-Flores said...

Beautiful story. I had heard this before from Spinelli at a Chautauqua conference I attended a while back. I was inspired then as I am now.