After a hiatus of several months, this is a bittersweet way to begin my first blog. The promised new design page is not yet visible and all the political, cultural, and social events of the past few months are still on a list next to my computer. Something monumental in my life occurred on 3 September 2010 that I knew deep down I had to recount, even to all the people who did not know the man about whom I am writing.
Larry Ashmead was my first American editor. He bought my first novel when it was in its raw, badly structured form. He saw something in Absence of Pain that countless other editors apparently missed and ultimately passed on the manuscript. Larry’s belief in my book validated the notion that I was or could be a writer whose dreams of reaching people through my experience and words became a reality.
The day that Larry called me to say that Harper Row, now Harper Collins, wanted to buy my book is etched forever in my memory. Living in Paris and working for US News and World Report and Elle magazine, I was about to begin an interview with Elizabeth Dole, then head of the Red Cross, and wife of Robert Dole, a major force in the Republican party. The year was 1987 and I was in Washington. I was just setting up my tape recorder and had a cell phone that resembled a small hand vacuum cleaner when that unwieldy contraption rang or buzzed. Without thinking, I picked it up and heard Larry’s voice. “Congratulations,” he said, “I love Absence of Pain, and we’re going to work together to make it perfect.” Seconds passed in silence while Mrs. Dole sat patiently with a puzzled look on her face. Finally I spoke, “I can’t believe it,” I said into the phone. “I don’t know how to thank you.” Larry started laughing and talking and I just sat there, dumbfounded and completely oblivious to my photographer and my subject who were staring at me as if I had lost my mind. When I came back to earth, I remembered where I was and told Larry that I was actually about to begin an interview with Elizabeth Dole. “Give her my regards,” Larry said, “and tell her I’m waiting for her husband’s book.” And that started a friendship with Larry Ashmead that lasted for nearly a quarter of a century and which included several years of no contact, disappointment on his part, bad judgment on mine, shared grief over departed friends, and finally, a rapprochement when we became neighbors in Columbia County in New York State.
At the beginning of our friendship and professional relationship, Larry would stay with me in Paris on his way to or back from the Frankfurt Book Fair. He knew everyone in the publishing world, editors, authors, agents that I had never even heard of, though I was living in the same city. There were countless lunches, dinners, and meetings and each time Larry left Paris to return to New York, I realized I had made new friends, linked to them by our mutual love and admiration for Larry. He was a force in the business—one of the last real editors in the same way that Max Perkins had been decades before. Brilliant, funny, wickedly perceptive, and above all, generous and loving, Larry was an original in every way. The mere fact that he believed in me made me better or at least inspired me to please him when I gave him pages of a book, was incredibly generous on his part. After all, I was a novice. And, there were so many things he taught me—how I owed my readers a happy ending, how saying the same thing twice or three times in a row dilutes the power of the thought, how adjectives should be used sparingly like sugar, and how, when he edited out paragraphs, sentences, or sections of a book, I was miserly and never “threw anything away.” He used to tell me that he knew the same words would appear in another book or even in another part of the book we were editing together.
If I was a collector of my own words, Larry was a collector of some of the most talented and fascinating people. He was also an obsessive collector of objects. If he suspected that I had a penchant for tea pots, Larry would find the most outrageous ones and send them to me for every occasion until finally, I had to tell him that I was no longer interested in tea pots but rather had started collecting paper weights. Paper weights would arrive on holidays and birthdays until I figured out I had better claim another passion and it would go on and on like that. His own house in Kinderhook in Columbia County was filled with odd objects, shelves of miniature figures or sugar bowls or stuffed animals, and Larry’s own fascination with his camera immortalized those collections. I have so many pictures that he took of me or others posing in front of one or the other of his cases that held different versions of the same object. In fact, Larry never went anywhere without his camera and the pictures he took at parties or informal gatherings captured forever people at their worst or at their best and were distributed to everyone, some with bubble captions overhead that put words in the mouths of his unsuspecting subjects.
What strikes me as I reflect on Larry and how privileged I was to be part of his life, even if our relationship was on and off for decades, is that I remember precisely where I was during pivotal moments in his life and mine. When Walter, his partner of more than forty years died, Larry called me on my cell. I happened to be in New York and was in a store in the Diamond Exchange getting a new band for my watch. “I loved this man for forty some years,” Larry wept into the phone, “and now he’s gone.” Walter’s death was a tragedy that would mark the beginning of Larry’s descent into depression and self-destruction. It was unthinkable to Larry and to those who knew him that Walter was no longer there, at Larry’s side, complete with all his southern charm and sophisticated banter. They were as different as any two people could be, yet inextricably aligned, complicit, and complementary as lovers, friends, and partners who stayed together happily for a life time.
Another moment that stays with me is a night that I arrived in New York from Paris. Larry and one of his protégés, John Michel, decided to pick me up at my hotel for dinner. It didn’t matter that I was exhausted. An invitation from Larry took precedent over my own fatigue or even another commitment that I may have had. We went to Larry’s apartment on Sutton Place where John was enlisted to fix several shades in Larry’s bedroom. It was a memorable night for several reasons. First, Larry’s cat, Isaac, whom he swore was over twenty years old and who had never been touched, brushed, or approached by anyone, including Larry, was racing around the apartment. Until then, Isaac was a myth. It was difficult to believe Isaac was exactly as Larry described. But there he was, matted and full of fur balls and tangles, left to his own devices as he raced around the apartment avoiding any human contact. John was on a ladder, with Larry holding him steady and directing him while I curled up on a bed and fell asleep. Predictably, Larry took pictures of me sleeping, mouth open, hair a mess, clothes askew, and of course sent the pictures around to all our friends.
Larry adored animals as much or more than he adored his friends and authors. In fact, it was Larry who convinced me to get a pet. My first dog, Herzog, came into my life, named after a character in my first novel, after months of badgering by Larry that a single woman should absolutely not live alone. The best and most reliable companion, he advised me, would be a dog or a cat. They would let me write, not ask to read a first draft, and never, under any circumstances, expect me to leave my work to go to a social function, While on a book tour for Absence of Pain, I passed a kennel somewhere in Brittany in France and saw a sign advertising poodles. Herzog came into my life and Larry became the unofficial godfather. There was nothing that Herzog would ever want and not have. And, when I once told him that Herzog loved to eat horse manure, Larry sent me packages of manure to keep in my refrigerator. When I opened the package I considered myself lucky that I didn’t relate to cats, since Larry kept frozen mice in his refrigerator as snacks for his cats. If it were anyone else, I probably would have sent the packages back with a scathing note about how I had no intention of keeping horse manure in my refrigerator even if my miniature poodle considered it a gourmet treat. When Herzog died at almost sixteen, Larry wrote me a condolence note that assured me he was waiting for me in that big dog run in heaven.
There are so many other incidents and memories and hysterically funny moments we had, but the ultimate irony of our lives happened at the very end.
Who would have thought that I would leave Paris and fall in love and marry a man I knew long before I had ever met Larry Ashmead? Who could imagine that my new husband would have a country house in Columbia County, not more than twenty miles from Larry’s home? In the beginning, though Larry was still mourning Walter’s death and distressed that he had been retired from Harper Collins when he still had so much to give, we saw each other often. He took dozens of photos of me and my new husband, and referred to us as the “lovebirds.” Larry and friends came to our house and we went to his. One of the very last gifts Larry gave me was to introduce me to my agent, a man who mirrored Larry in his humor, brilliance, and elegance. One of the last times I saw Larry was at his annual birthday party on 4 July at his house in Kinderhook two years ago. He wasn’t well, that was obvious. Shortly after that, Larry’s descent into depression took over a large part of his life, obliterating the optimism, interest, and energy to go on. Isaac, the wild cat, had died, other cats passed away, and finally, Tobin, his beloved Golden Retriever that had been Walter’s dog, left him as well. Simply put, it all became too much for him to bear. He lost his verve, his ability to care deeply for everything and everyone as he had done all his life. His grief wiped out what had been his indomitable spirit. He stopped answering his phone except for a chosen few. It was impossible for me to reach Larry. I had news of him only through those several people whom he allowed into his life.
Who would have ever imagined, twenty six years ago, when the legendary Larry Ashmead rang me when I was in Washington with Elizabeth Dole, to announce that he was actually buying my book, that I would be there at the end of his life?
Fate is strange. Had my husband not called me when I was living in Paris, suggesting that we give our relationship another try, had he not had a house in Columbia County, and had Larry not been dragged to Memorial Hospital in Hudson, New York for dehydration over the Labor Day weekend, would the end have been written that way?
Several calls from mutual friends alerted me to the fact that Larry was in hospital a mere twelve miles from my weekend home. He had gone into hospital under duress though he was severely dehydrated and badly nourished. Larry had stopped eating. Within days, he went from what was simple dehydration to hospice care, sedated and comfortable but rapidly failing. His body was simply shutting down.
Wrestling with the decision of should I go or what right did I have to be there when we hadn’t been in touch for two years plagued me for days. Finally, on Labor Day weekend, 3 September, I decided that I would go under the guise of being there for those who were sitting vigil at the hospital. Lawrence Peel Ashmead took his last breath seconds after I entered his room.
The first thought that entered my mind was that he was where he wanted to be—with Walter, Isaac, Tobin, and all the friends and colleagues who had died years before. Somehow it didn’t make sense. Sitting in his hospital room with several of his closest friends, with Larry still in his bed but gone, seemed unimaginable. Shock and sadness overcame me and selfishly I thought that it was much too soon. He should have rallied, fought his way back to some kind of a life where he could still give so much and teach so many things to so many people. The tragedy was that none of us were living in Larry’s skin. No one had the right to wish that he could or should have overcome his grief. The reality was brutal. We, who were still here, had lost one of the most exquisitely original people anyone had ever known. For me, Larry was instrumental and influential in everything I wanted to become. I will never forget him. Ever.
How fitting that Larry came into the world on a holiday weekend—4 July—and left this world on a holiday weekend—3 September. The problem for the rest of us is that without Larry, those holidays will never be quite the same.