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? more