O'Hara UnFriends Gill

LOA Befriends Pal Joey
Exeter, England
The Library of America has just published John O'Hara's libretto for Pal Joey in a two-volume collection called American Musicals, edited by Laurence Maslon.
I'm delighted, having waited for it for more than fifty years. I was afraid Wilie O'Hara Dalaney, O'Hara's daughter, was going to give the rights to the Richard Greenberg rewrite; but it's the real thing, all right. It also marks O'Hara's first appearance in LOA.

Incidentally, I read John Updike's New Yorker review of The Art of Burning Bridges. A terrific corrective of O'Hara's taciturn image, as well as of his feud with Brendan Gill. Apparently the break with the magazine had little to do with Gill's A Rage to Live review; O'Hara asked to be paid for stories the magazine rejected.
Mr. New Yorker
[WritersClearinghouse News Service]
Brendan Gill was ten years younger than O'Hara, but his level of production -- sheer wattage in words contributed to The New Yorker -- probably exceeded John O'Hara's output. Gill wrote fiction, drama, film, and architecture reviews, comment, and profiles. Short of Harold Ross and William Shawn, Gill was 'Mr. New Yorker.' That distinction wasn't lost on O'Hara; it was probably enough to put him on O'Hara's very long enemies list.

Putting O'Hara's enmity over the top was Gill's negative of review in The New Yorker of O'Hara's blockbusterA Rage to Live. Their relationship was already testy. Gill wore his Irish gently. O'Hara did not. Gill's Yale education and Scull & Bones membership came to him naturally. O'Hara was always striving for Ivy-covered totems and Establishment acceptance.
The review was a sucker punch. It should never had happened, and why Gill proposed it, and Shawn accepted it, has never been fully explained. To this day, The New Yorker rarely reviews its own writers in full-length reviews, unless to praise its wunderkind. O'Hara was known as 'the master of the fancy slight.' What Gill did was no fancied slight. It was real. It was mean.
After the review, for more than twenty years, O'Hara and Gill never again spoke civilly. Rants, threats, swears, yes. O'Hara rejected Gill's attempts -- albeit, often feeble -- at reconciliation. Was Gill feeling guilty? Guilty-ish?

It was also about the same time as the review that O'Hara stopped contributing to the magazine. (Gill's word count continued to soar). Why the break with the magazine? Because of Gill? Well, that was the word O'Hara put out. It made Gill's transgression even more consequential. And Gill more of a villainO'Hara's publisher, Bennett Cerf, also circulated the story.

As James MacDonald noted above, the real reason was that O'Hara was angling and haggling with Shawn for payment for stories that were rejected. This procedure is known as a 'kill fee,' and is widespread and standard in freelance writing circles. At least, it was before the Internet. MacDonald thanks John Updike, in his review of 'The Art of Burning Bridges: A Life of John O'Hara, by Geoffrey Wolff, published in 2003, for 'a terrific corrective' to the notion that Gill was actually responsible for the break.

Actually, we didn't have to wait for Updike's revelation. Gill explains all in his own book, Here at The New Yorker, published well before the Updike review, in 1975.

There's ample evidence that Gill regretted his falling out with O'Hara. He attempted rapprochements. O'Hara cut him. He supported O'Hara's membership application at the Century Club.

I think he wanted to make amends, and I got a first-hand admission from him-- well, as close as one as I could expect -- when I met Gill in the mid-1980s in Hartford, Connecticut, his hometown.

Gill and I were serving on the state's library advisory council. Our meetings were monthly. Gill, nor I, nor any council member, for that matter, attended every meeting. But one summer afternoon, we did run into each other at a meeting held at the Wadsworth Anthenaeum, Hartford's fine arts museum.
I knew Gill to be a quiet, kindly gent, quite unlike the vitrol-dripping personage that figured in Here at The New Yorker. Obviously, he had mellowed. Or, maybe he was a nice guy all along.
Did he harbor any hard feelings against O'Hara? I asked.

'None,' he told me. And I believed him.

In the O'Hara brood, forgiveness never came easy. It was inherited. Some years after O'Hara's death, Geoffrey Wolff reports, Gill was and Wylie O'Hara Delaney, O'Hara's only child, were at a party. Wylie was told that Gill wanted to meet her, Wolff noted. A peace offering in the offing? 'Oh, I think not,' she reportedly replied. 


1 comment:

robert saliba said...

A Rage to Live (1949) is a masterpiece - a very under-appreciated novel. Brendan Gill's review was unfair and even malicious.