Dawn Powell’s New York — An Invitation to Lunch
By Stuart Mitchner
…nothing will cut New York but a diamond. It should be crystal in quality, sharp as the skyline and relentlessly true.
—Dawn Powell (1896-1965), from The Diaries
When Dawn Powell invited me to lunch, I had no idea that she was the author of a dozen novels. All I knew was that she’d just reviewed my first book in the New York Post under the head “Young But Not Beat.” I was 20. She was around 60. It wasn’t until the 1990s that her work would be revived by Tim Page, a heroic, obsessively devoted enthusiast, with help from Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, and, eventually, The Library of America.
At lunch that day, the real novelist at the table never said a word about herself or her work. She was wise, witty, and fun. We were dining in what was to me an intimidatingly classy French restaurant in midtown called L’Aiglon. I’d already been interviewed at the Algonquin and the Russian Tea Room, but this wasn’t an interview, this was a lunch date, and my experience with dates at French restaurants had not been happy. On both occasions, one in Paris the previous summer, I’d taken girls who knew more about wine and French cuisine than I did. There were embarrassing moments.
In Tim Page’s edition of The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 (Steerforth Press 1995), where our luncheon is briefly noted, I’m “a bright, alert lad” who “knew Classic Comics by heart at age of 10.” Such was my contribution to the conversation. Nothing of my excitement about the novel I was writing in a top-floor room at the Players Club or about my Midwesterner’s love for New York, which, as it turns out, I shared with her. I could have talked about how, despite my heavy-handed trashing of the Beats, I loved On the Road, but I was tongue-tied. She’d actually liked my travesties of Ginsberg, my “excellent beat poems are fresh and vivid.” I already knew paragraphs of her review by heart, like the one about how the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wild orgies on beer, and romantic dreams “would be almost too juvenile” except for the way I grew up with my novel “until at the end you see a young, rich talent come into bloom.” I was “a young man of feeling with an eagerness for experience” — and the best I could do was talk about knowing Classic Comics by heart when I was 10?
Publication day for this column coincides with the August 3 pub date of my novel Let Me Be Awake. For the first two steamy weeks of August 1959, when I wasn’t at the typewriter from morning to long after midnight working on my second novel, I was ducking in and out of the stifling heat for meals or running around midtown
being interviewed or haunting stores like Scribners and Doubleday, hoping to see my book displayed in the windows — no such luck. Most of the attention I was getting had to do with the fact that the novel had won Crowell’s College Novel prize, which led to notices like the one in the Times Book Review declaring that “a college novel contest is going to produce a college novel.”
Other reviews were kinder. The head in the Herald-Tribune said I was “An Intensely Aware Young Man.” The Saturday Review quoted Picasso (“It takes a very long time to become young”). Then, wonderfully, there was Dawn Powell. I still haven’t mentioned her last paragraph, the one I should have talked about at lunch but didn’t, for obvious reasons, I suppose, since she singled out a scene between “his father and mother,” clearly my actual parents, “revealing their basically miserable marriage,” in which “the young author shows how much his own perceptions have sharpened in the three years it took him to write the book.”
I wanted to tell her that the scene she admired was the very one my editor (and the publisher) strenuously objected to and wanted me to remove in its entirety because “nothing prepares the reader for it. It comes out of nowhere.” I kept it in, every word, with my parents backing me up. To this day, I regret not telling Dawn Powell how heroic I thought that gesture was, how much I appreciated it, how much it said about my parents, not to mention what it said about the literary intelligence of my editor, who would eventually turn down the novel I was slaving over at the Players Club, where he was a member (it was thanks to him that I had two weeks in that little room, the only air-conditioned exception among my nine New York summers).
The haunted-looking woman in the close-up cover photo on Diaries, taken around the time of our meeting, is hard to match with my image of the jolly lady who took me to lunch. Fagan, the cat in the photo, makes a dramatic appearance in a long February 1954 entry about a visit from a novelist who, she writes, “has tousled Fagan, who in turn has clawed his face and hair, drawing blood which I mop up with whiskey.” That’s vintage Dawn Powell, in life and in art, mopping up freshly spilled blood with whiskey. The diaries soon make it clear that above all she loved to laugh. That’s what made the world go round — laughter. And yet on the cover she seems to be looking over her shoulder for a menacing intruder. She had more than her share of grief, raising a son afflicted from birth with cerebral palsy and schizophrenia, who sometimes attacked her, once so severely that it put her in the hospital for two weeks. According to her Wikipedia page, her son would “today likely be diagnosed with autism.”
I was stunned to read that less than two months before our lunch at L’Aiglon, she and her husband have “about 60 cents between us and Post check doesn’t come.” Less than a month later she refers to the tension “of never knowing when any money is coming in — of the terrifying importance of getting novel in shape. Two months to go. What then?” Next month, just before our lunch, thankfully, the gift of a trust fund from a close friend “saves us all,” bringing Powell, her husband, and disabled child “their first financial security in years,” according to Page.
New York, New York
All through the diaries there are indelible references to the city she came to after graduating from Lake Erie College in 1918, starting life in Greenwich Village, “where all night long typewriters click, people sing in the streets, hurdy gurdies go all day and the laundry boy reads Turgenev.” In another early entry, August 4, 1930, “Took studio — marvelous — at 21 E. 14th. I think I can write a New York novel here on my favorite street …. Hotter than hell.” Jump ahead to July 6, 1953: “There is really one city for everyone just as there is one major love. New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on — a bottomless investment of 21 years … of building up an idea of New York — so no matter what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy.” From August 7, 1957: “Hungover, but after Scotch and orange juice, began novel at 2:30 and flew up to page five with great glee. How wonderful if New York could be bottled while it still bubbles — fast and furious and true.”
Reading such entries, I wish I could revisit our conversation at the restaurant. I’d be talking about New York, the way her thoughts and feelings about the city remind me of my own, where 30 E. 14th is a significant address, the artist’s studio, once Reginald Marsh’s, where my surrogate father the painter Edward Laning hosted our wedding reception. Now I could tell her about the book I was writing, a novel about New York and five characters working in an office during a desperately hot summer in the Flatiron district. I’d tell her how I knew what she meant when she “flew up to page five” because I was on my way up to beyond page 500, pulling it all together in two weeks in a little room overlooking Gramercy Park. Most of all, I’d tell her how it felt to look up from the typewriter now and then and see the Metropolitan Life Tower, all aglow at night, and how it seemed the most beautiful building in the city, grand and graceful company when you’re dizzy from so many hours bent over a hot keyboard.
And she’d tell me how she used to meet her husband in the lobby of the Met Tower, and how they once lived in the neighborhood, on 26th Street, and how she remembers leaning out the window to see the East River at the end of 26th, and in the diary how it felt to be surrounded by the insurance company’s “great stone skyscrapers and at strange daybreak, the sun, muffled in soot, fog, neons, mottled the fringes of these hard cold gray buildings with salmon outlines, white chalky underlines, sharp yellow lines so definitely colored” that she was “convinced they had been painted those curious clown colors in the night. Clown skyscrapers.”
The Saddest Man
In this dream conversation, I’d do what I’d been unable to do at lunch, I’d tell her about the characters in the novel I was writing, the Englishman who thought the world was ending; the sneering, wretched Irishman who never tired of brutally baiting the saddest man I ever knew, whose real-life litany of misery I’d listened to on the subway home from Bay Ridge every day, who lived in a dumpy little hotel on East 12th where the elevator was a glorified dumbwaiter. Then along comes a pretty girl from the Midwest, a theatre student who knew the world was a play and so played them all, making the sad man into a schoolboy in love with her, humoring the Englishman’s madness, subtly driving the Irishman into a lustful frenzy, and totally disarming a handsome Italian detective who’d never met a woman he couldn’t conquer, until this little actress who knew life was a child’s game and they were nothing but children.
And finally, I’d tell her how much I regretted being so young, so new to the world that I was still calling adults like my editor “Mr P.” and my agent “Mr. B.,” and how to this day I regret listening to them when they told me to put aside my second novel, the one I’d finished in that small room on the top floor of the Players Club.
Note: An excellent overview of the Dawn Powell story and Tim Page’s role can be found in Rachel Syme’s July 23, 2012 New Yorker piece. Also worth reading is Richard Brody’s January 8, 2021 essay on her 1957 novel, A Cage for Lovers.