by Hugh Gilmore
I pulled open the heavy door of Cheltenham High School and began walking down the long corridor toward my date with destiny – a memoir-writing class taught by former supermodel, movie star, international beauty and authorial bad-girl Carole Mallory. I was deliberately 15 minutes early.
Should I tie myself to the mast so I might enjoy her aura but still return home to my own Penelope? Should I have left my Sears credit card at home so I wouldn’t go nightclubbing in Jenkintown and lose my money, pride, and reputation, a la “The Blue Angel?”
I hoped I’d be the only one to arrive early and that Carole (Miss Mallory?) and I could talk for a minute or two before class. I had emailed her website last night, introducing myself. She wrote back that my note was “kind and courteous” and “looked forward to meeting me.”
At the end of the hall, a block away, a woman walked toward me, carrying papers. I wondered if it were she: Norman Mailer’s mistress. She seemed preoccupied. Be dignified, I told myself. She’s here as a writer now, not because she was a Hollywood actress or model famous for saying, “All my men wear English Leather, or they wear nothing at all.” At 50 feet away I recognized her from a YouTube video she’d made last year.
I hadn’t expected her to still resemble the model she’d been, but her current state surprised me. She was no longer thin and trim, of course, but who cares? What bothered me was that she shuffled her feet as she walked, as old people in rehab do: taking small steps where her feet barely left the ground, her body otherwise vertical.
She wore a comfortable top and slacks of what seemed to my untrained male eye to be polished velour, in a deep plum color. Small Japanese-style black slippers. Only a little jewelry. Her shoulder-length dark-blonde hair, was very thick and cut across her forehead in bangs that nearly reached her eyebrows. Casual, but neat and elegant. About 56.
I said, “Hello, are you Carole Mallory?”
“Yes, are you one of my students?”
“Yes, Hugh Gilmore. I wrote to you last night.”
“Yes, thanks for your note. Listen, go in the room. There are a lot of books on the table. Pick any two. We’ll be reading from them. I’ll be right back.”
And she shuffled slowly, and what looked painfully, towards the office.
I entered Room 108 and said hello to my three classmates, all women. For what follows, I’ve invented initials for them: “E” sat to my left, “T” and “N” to my right; T and N had taken this class with Carole Mallory last semester, with about six other people at the time.
Carole Mallory returned, sat at a student desk facing our improvised semi-circle, and began reading from a sheet of paper she held. She is quite cute at 70, but probably not recognizable as the former “English Leather” or “Fly Me” supermodel. Except, in spite of her all-business, no-time-for-jokes manner, I see she has the same Elizabeth Taylor-like, deep, lovely, nicely lashed eyes. I squint and try to imagine her sitting on a kitchen stool with Warren Beatty walking slowly, appraisingly, around her. She said, “The first thing Normal Mailer always told me about writing was that you should just write. You can always go back and take care of the grammar … this is so the rhythm sets the pace. Rhythm should rule. ‘Read out loud,’ he said. Also, avoid adjectives and adverbs. They just slow down the pace. Norman hated them.
He plucked them out of my writing all the time. I agree with him now.
I’m at war against adverbs.”
Okay, I thought. I already know this, but let’s go on. She’s certainly answered any questions I had about whether she needs to declare her writing ego or compositional techniques as independent of Mailer’s. But surely, she’s more than Mailer’s Angel-left-behind-to-spread-the-word, especially since from reading her memoir I know they parted bitterly.
Could be though, that he was the greatest ego-boosting male companion she’d ever had, and she still leans on his principles. We’ll see.
“Now, we’ll do some reading from the books you’ve selected,” our teacher says. “N, you go first. Read to the page I dog-eared.” And N starts reading aloud. I gather our teacher believes that if we hear good writing we’ll be exposed to good rhythms that will make our writing better through aural osmosis.
Class had begun at 7 p.m. By 7:20 we’d had two minutes of Carole reading and explaining Norman Mailer’s biases and 18 minutes of N reading Carole Mallory’s memoir, “Loving Mailer” aloud. The reading selection did not seem coincidental. In the book, Mailer tells Carole, “Don’t lecture the reader … Always write for an hour and then stand and stretch and take
a break.” He also says. “Avoid adverbs and most adjectives.” When N finishes, Carole says, “By the way, Hugh, you’re sitting beside two good writers. T especially. She was not a good writer at all when she came in here last term. And now she’s quite good. I’m very pleased. Not just with her progress, but with the fact that I’m responsible for herprogress. It makes me feel really good.”
“Oh,” I say.
Next, E, the other first-timer, reads a passage from “The Raymond
Chandler Omnibus,” a selection where the author battles the DTs as he tries to detoxify from alcohol addiction. E reads for five minutes and says, “Can I just stop there? I stare at a computer screen all day and that’s enough reading for me for now.”
“Sure,” Carole says. “That’s fine. That’s the famous scene where
Chandler describes his own withdraw from alcohol addiction. Thank god I never had to go through anything that bad, but I sympathize. I’m a recovering alcoholic for 31 years now.”
“You are?” E says. “You know, I knew there was something about you the minute I came in here. Just something underneath. We have a girl where I work like that. She’s all depressed and stuff like that and she turned out to have a habit. So I just sensed it with you too.”
I was wondering if we were going to be reading until class ended at 8:30 tonight. I read a lot as it is, and while I do believe reading improves your writing, I can read anywhere. Is there going to be an instructional part of this class? I’d like to discuss, for example, How much does one need to adhere to biographical fact?
But Carol is saying, “Let’s have Hugh read.” And I am handed, in place of the book in my hand, the class copy of Carole Mallory’s “Loving
Mailer” that N had been reading.
This is my decision point. My moment. My Rubicon. I either leave now and run over to Room 118 and join the Spanish II class I originally wanted to take, or I submit to whatever this class is going to be, whether heaven, hell, or somewhere in between. I decide that this classroom and my classmates are a remake of “Lifeboat.” Five strangers cast together by fate. No escape. We may all founder and sink, but I’m going to get to know them all as well as I can and, within reason, let them get to know me. I’m going to take the class seriously. I’m going to cooperate. I’ll help when I can. I’ll seek help when I need it. I’ll “share.” We’re all in the same boat.
I accept the book. I start reading. I give it my best. I read clearly, with my best articulation. I feel some vulnerability in my voice. I act the dialogue, using different voices. I’ve heard Mailer speak, so I use a little of his gravelly, clipped edges. Ten minutes later, I finished.
Carole Mallory compliments me. That felt good. She’s been around professional actors for fifty years, so that feels very good.
Next, T reads from “Appointment in Samarra.”
Then Carole asks me to read again, another scene from her life with
Norman as described in “Loving Mailer.” I feel like a hired Nubian slave popping grapes in Cleopatra’s mouth as she listens to me croon boating songs. When I finish, Carol praises me again. Hmmm. Carole then gave us our assignment for next week: Come in with about seven pages telling a secret from childhood. (No way! I think, despite my nod and compliant smile.)
Class has ten minutes left. Shall we all adjourn? Carole asks. Wait: T raises her hand. She has pages. She came to opening night with pages.
She is a shy woman, not one to draw attention to herself. But she wrote something; may she read it?
Yes. She reads a piece about being a child and falling through the ice on a reservoir while others skated. She flails. She can’t swim. She’s freezing. Someone offers a stick. “Let go of the ice and grab the stick.” She has a flashback to another time when she was younger.
Drowning in a pool she’d been pushed into as a joke. Boys pretend to offer her a hand and laugh and pull their hands away at the last minute.
She sinks beneath. A last-second rescue. Back to the quarry: should she trust the stick offered her? She hesitates, but then she does. Saved.
Everybody looks toward Carole Mallory for comments that will set the tone for future discussions. As T waits, she looks like a puppy who has abandoned all hope of ever being adopted. Carole says, “You used four adverbs there: ‘quickly,’ ‘suddenly,’ ‘desperately,’ and one another. I forgot to write it down.” The end.
T ‘s face collapses with disappointment. Her one chance at the big time and she blew it by forgetting the injunction against adverbs. She looks like she feels she’s just a flawed creature, not worth being listened to, because she can’t get even the most fundamental principle of writing straight.
I can’t take it. I’m just a guest here, and not the teacher, and there may be issues beneath the surface that I should know, but I can’t let the evening end like this. I turn to T and say sincerely that I was moved by her piece. And, “I really liked the way you added to the tension of the rescue by using that flashback to the swimming pool. That was very well handled. That was a nice piece of writing.”
Some size rose back into T then, and she said “Thank you.” Then it really was time to go.
As we pushed the desks back into rows, Carole again said, “Hugh, your reading is enjoyable. You do Norman well.”
“Yes,” N said, “I’d say, you’re the best Norman we ever had.”