Enterprises Requiring New Clothes
By David Daniel
Henry David Thoreau, the Sage of Walden Pond, cautions us to beware of all enterprises that require new clothes. With due respect and affection for the man—and I have tons of both—there are times when new threads are called for . . .
To begin, I’m going to back to a previous post, titled “Please Hold for Mr. Marek,” in which your narrator told of his experience selling his first novel. Though in truth, “first” means first published hardbound novel; it was far from the first he’d written. (On this point, the late Boston-based writer George V. Higgins once remarked: “The success of The Friends of Eddie Coyle was termed ‘overnight’ in some quarters. That was one hell of a damned long night, lasting seventeen years…” During those seventeen years, Higgins had written fourteen previous novels; he eventually destroyed them.)
The editor making the offer was a long-established figure in New York publishing and had his own imprint at St. Martin’s Press (these days a division of Macmillan). After the back-and-forth phone calls (no email or texting in those days)—getting an agent (at Mr. Marek’s suggestion), a contract agreed upon, the editing process underway—he said one day, “I’m coming up to Boston next week. How about if we meet.” It sounded good to me. “Let’s have lunch at the Ritz,” he said.
Where does a story start? David Copperfield begins with the eponymous protagonist’s birth; Moby Dick with its narrator’s simple self introduction. In The Catcher in the Rye Salinger goes Dickens one better, dismissing “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.” I shall begin my brief tale by saying that after my editor’s proposal that we meet I rushed out to Macy’s and bought a blue blazer and a pair of gray flannel slacks. I borrowed my dad’s best silk tie.
On the appointed day, I arrived at the lavish Ritz-Carlton where I met the Mr. Marek for the first time. He had flown up from New York City that morning. We exchanged pleasantries in the lobby and then went into the dining room. All of this was new to me. Although born in Boston, I’d grown up a modest child of the suburbs, in a teetotaling home, so there amid the silver and crystal and white linen of the classic old four-star hotel restaurant, with its views of the Public Gardens, I felt like a bumpkin.
“What are you drinking?” Mr. Marek asked. Had anyone ever actually asked me that?
Actually, someone once had. A few years before, when a graduate school professor of mine at the University of Maine had invited me to lunch at the faculty club to discuss my thesis, the waitress asked if we’d care for a drink. I looked to my professor and he said, “I’ll have scotch.” I said I’d have the same. Waitress said: “Black & White or Red?” In time I would come to understand that is a choice of two: Black & White Scotch, or Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch; but heard it as Black or White or Red. I said, “Black.” She and my professor exchanged a quick glance of knowing. “Very good, sir,” she said. I never needed anyone to embarrass me; I always managed that quite well by myself.
So now, when Richard Marek was asking at the Ritz. “What are you drinking?” I hesitated. “Umm . . . what’re you going to have?” I asked back.
“A Martini,” he said.
“That’s what I’m going to have, too,” I said, making it seem as if it had been my thought all along.
The drinks came. Ice cold, straight up with a twist. Silver bullets. The recipe (I inquired later of the barman) was Tanqueray #10 and a whisper of dry vermouth. The cocktail was so cold and juniper-bright that the first taste sent a spike into my sinuses . . . and warmed all the way to the stomach, where it lit something on fire that sparked along the nerve endings back to my brain.
Wow, did I grow charming, witty. Mr. Marek was fine and erudite company. Now, one Martini would’ve been plenty, or the slower buzz of a bottle of beer, on simply fizzy water—especially for a rube like me—but in such grand company, and with the high-flown literary talk of the Manhattan publishing world, a second Martini was deemed in order.
Later, going home, in my new blazer and gray flannel slacks and the spill stain I’d managed to get on the silk tie I’d borrowed from my dad, I thought of Thoreau’s warning. But then I recalled that there was more: The full line was “beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes” (Italics mine)—and it lifted me.
Do I wish I’d been more sophisticated, wittier, chiller, more erudite? Mais oui. But I was different in subtle ways. A little older and wiser. And I didn’t kill the deal. In fact, Mr. Marek would work with me on one more book after the launch of that first, taking me over to E.P. Dutton with him when he went there to head that venerable publisher. Eventually, he got out of publishing to pursue independent editing.
That day I had my first real taste of the literary world, and it was a good one. After all these years, it still has flavor. In 2018 we would reconnect and have lunch—iced tea this time—and share stories and experiences. We talked about working on a project together, 23 years after the first one; but it was not to be. Marek died in 2020 at age 86.
Note: For more on Mr. Marek: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/25/books/richard-marek-dies.html