The following was submitted by Society member Charles McElwee.
The John O'Hara Cult, at Least, Is Faithful
BY WILLIAM GRIMES
Published: November 9, 1996
Few writers have fallen further or faster in critical esteem than John O'Hara. Once mentioned in the same breath with big guns like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he took his reputation with him when he died in 1970. But it may be too soon to write him off.
An O'Hara cult exists, and five of its most dedicated members gathered at Fred's restaurant Thursday on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a panel discussion organized by Harold M. Evans, the president and publisher of Random House adult trade books, whose Modern Library division has reissued ''Appointment in Samarra'' and recently a collection of novellas. The zealots were the journalist Gay Talese, the novelist Louis Begley, the essayist Fran Lebowitz, the historian Shelby Foote and David Brown, a former film executive who worked with O'Hara in Hollywood.
Big claims were made for O'Hara. Ms. Lebowitz called him ''the real Fitzgerald,'' and praised ''The Big Laugh'' as the best novel on Hollywood ever written. Fitzgerald, she said, got a free ride because the 1920's cloaks him in glamour. ''O'Hara was a far superior writer,'' she said, ''although he never wrote anything as elegant as 'Gatsby.' 'Appointment in Samarra' is his most cosmetically stylish novel, which is why the critics like it.''
Mr. Foote, the eminent historian of the Civil War, called O'Hara ''our Trollope,'' and read aloud a passage from ''Ourselves to Know,'' about some wounded soldiers getting off the train in their hometown after Gettysburg, that he called the single finest thing ever written about the Civil War.
Elephant that he was, O'Hara took on different shapes depending on who was grabbing hold of him. For Mr. Begley, the author of ''Wartime Lies'' and ''About Schmidt,'' he was a moralist, with an acute sense of the power of sex and money to determine human affairs. ''Butterfield 8,'' about the downward spiral of a fast-living party girl on the Upper East Side, he called ''one of the great indispensable American novels,'' noteworthy for its ''unsparing, very subtle view of vice.''
For Mr. Talese, a first-generation Italian, O'Hara was the great ''outsider inside,'' relegated to the margins by his ethnicity and for that reason a sharp-eyed reporter on American life and social distinctions. ''He gave people like me a sense of a larger America,'' he said. ''He got inside the political back rooms and the parlors and told us what Americans said, how they lived, the details of the clothing, the shoes, the cars.''
Mr. Brown, who helped produce the film versions of ''From the Terrace'' and ''Ten North Frederick,'' singled out O'Hara's ear for dialogue. Unlike many novelists, Mr. Brown said, he understood the difference between a line that played on the page and a line that played on the screen.
All five participants knew their O'Hara inside out, early, middle and late. They knew the short stories, the novellas and the novels. But when Mr. Evans asked the group to choose the best introduction to the author's work, ''Appointment in Samarra,'' O'Hara's first novel, won in a landslide. Mr. Brown praised the book, about a car dealer in a small Pennsylvania town who becomes a social outcast, as ''one of the most vivid descriptions of the Great Depression before F.D.R., before the bright promise.'' Mr. Begley, alone, held out for ''Butterfield 8.'' ''I put it ahead of 'Appointment in Samarra' because of the incredible, vertiginous way that sexuality, and the irresistibility of sexuality, leads to doom,'' he said.
From his post on Olympus, O'Hara was probably inhaling the incense grudgingly. The man whom Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, called ''the master of the fancied slight,'' regarded even extravagant praise as no more than his due and probably a lot less.
O'Hara's thin skin led to a famous blow-up with The New Yorker. The cause of it, Brendan Gill, stepped forward from the audience on Thursday to recall the negative review he gave ''A Rage to Live'' in 1949, a slap in the face that caused O'Hara to sever ties with the magazine for more than a decade.
Mr. Evans, aware that O'Hara's daughter, Wylie Doughty, was also present, gave Mr. Gill a chance to recant. Mr. Gill spurned the offer. ''I had to tell the truth about the novel,'' he said. But he pointed out that the real fireworks started when James Thurber got in on the act. He convinced O'Hara that the review had been written by Wolcott Gibbs, The New Yorker's theater critic and a close friend of O'Hara's. ''If Thurber could cause two friends to break up, or three, that was a triumph,'' said Mr. Gill.
O'Hara may have been touchy, but he was no fool about the business of selling books. Mr. Brown pointed out that he published a book every year, a novel one year and a short story collection the next, always on Thanksgiving. Love of the holiday had nothing to do with it. He chose the day to avoid a review by the strait-laced Orville Prescott of The New York Times, who did not review on Thursdays. The author preferred his chances with Charles Poore, one of the Times's other book critics.
''He also had the idea that people would be at home that day and more of them would read the review,'' said Mr. Talese. ''He was very cunning.''