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Albany in Mind

William Kennedy on the history and charm of the city that contniues to inspire his fiction

by B.A. Nilsson on October 19, 2011

William Kennedy, photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

“Everybody went to Albany for one reason or another. They went to Keeler’s, they were here for the track. It had nightlife. Bright lights, roulette wheels, hot-mattress hotels.” William Kennedy is explaining the appeal of the city that gives a unique texture to his nine novels. It’s the city in which he was born and schooled and spent much of his literary apprenticeship.

And it makes a sly appearance in the first pages of his new novel, Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, when singing star Bing Crosby joins local jazz pianist Cody Mason in an impromptu recital witnessed by 8-year-old Daniel Quinn.

Bing launches into “Shine,” a hit song for him in a lively recording with the Mills Brothers. The racist overtones of the song’s lyrics have troubled many commentators, despite champions like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and this controversy gives the novel its philosophical backbone as social tensions spark violent revolutions in two different cities.

“As I was finishing Roscoe, I had this, my next novel, in sight. There were two elements that inspired it. First was the civil-rights movement, which I wrote about in Albany. And then there was a jazz pianist named Jody Bolden, who played in Albany during the ’50s and ’60s. The song brought those elements together.”

Kennedy describes himself as a lifelong Crosby fan. “Bing played in Saratoga with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra,” he says, “and returned there often because of the track. Did he ever visit Albany? I’ve heard rumors that he did.” For those keen on hunting down the factual forebears of fictionalized events, Kennedy’s two nonfiction collections, O Albany! and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, offer essays in which many of the people and situations of Changó’s Beads prefigure.

Over the course of his work, Kennedy has fashioned a fictional Albany well-grounded in his own research and experience. Changó’s Beads spends part of its time in the city during a single day in 1968: the day when Robert Kennedy was fatally shot, a day when the conflicts among a number of Albany-based characters, including journalist Daniel Quinn, will play out.

“I’ve telescoped a lot into one 12-hour period,” says Kennedy, “but everything that’s described took place here at one time or another.” He covered civil-rights issues for the Albany Times Union throughout the 1960s. “I wrote three or four pieces about the War on Poverty and interviewed Bobby Kennedy for one of them. I wrote about housing issues, integration . . . and did a series of individual interviews with notable black people in the community. It brought me a certain amount of hate mail, but also a lot of support.”

 

Kennedy and his wife, Dana, live in Averill Park, a short distance from Albany. His 19th-century farmhouse has been modernized without losing its rustic charm. We talk in a living room that sports at one end a bar and a pocket billiards table, at the other a sizeable collection of film-related books. A life-sized horse sculpture looks familiar from the time it spent on a Saratoga street during the 2007 Horses Saratoga Style exhibition.

Born and raised in the North End of Albany, Kennedy had boyhood interests in cartooning and writing, and veered toward the latter through high school. After graduating from Siena College, he got his journalism start as a sports reporter for the Glens Falls Post-Star. Following an army stint in Europe, he returned to Albany to write for the Times Union. But the seeds of a novelist’s ambition were beginning to bud, and Kennedy grew increasingly unhappy with the gig. As he writes in Trolley Car, a long-sought interview with Louis Armstrong played a role in his departure. He wrote “a reasonably bright, comic story that revealed Satchmo to a small degree,” but it was killed by the news editor and saw print only after Kennedy took his case to the paper’s managing editor. “The whole episode tipped the balance of my discontent and a month later I quit the paper and took a job in San Juan,” he writes.

He took a job with the Puerto Rican World Journal, where he soon became assistant managing editor—but the paper folded within the year. In early 1957 he took a job with the Miami Herald covering Cuba-related issues, which figure into the first half of Changó’s Beads. The novel’s first extended sequence opens in March of that year as journalist Quinn has a memorable encounter with Ernest Hemingway in a Havana bar.

“I almost met Hemingway,” says Kennedy, who portrays the writer as maddeningly brilliant and pugnacious. “But now I can say I have.”

In the novel, Hemingway asks Quinn:

“What are you writing?”

“Grim stories about political exiles in Miami buying guns to send to Cuba,” Quinn said. “The grimness is redeemed by my simple declarative sentences.”

“Remove the colon and semicolon keys from your typewriter,” said Hemingway. “Shun adverbs, strenuously.”

“I’m sure I use more adverbs than Hemingway would have approved,” says Kennedy, “although it’s not a grammatical form I’m fond of using. I try to keep every sentence as tight as possible. Slash what’s slashable. That’s my motto.”

He describes his workday, which begins at a computer. “I edit as I go, and what I put out at the end of the day I read at night. The next morning, I cut more or throw it away. When I’m satisfied, I move on.”

Moving on was a theme in his life as a reporter. He left the Herald to return to Puerto Rico as managing editor of the new San Juan Star. Novelist Saul Bellow was teaching at a nearby university, and accepted Kennedy as a student. His influence “turned me into a real fiction writer of my own copy,” Kennedy told the Paris Review—and helped inspire him to leave his job. “I loved journalism, but after being a managing editor for two years, I wanted to work for me,” he says. “I didn’t want to be responsible for other people any more. I lived below the poverty level for two decades because I wanted to write novels. It was Hemingway who said, ‘Keep writing. The money will come later.’”

Kennedy began writing about Albany while still in Puerto Rico, which sharpened his desire to learn more about it.

Back in the United States, “I still had to make money of some sort, and continued to write for different publications. I worked for a while for the New Republic, where one of the other writers said that we were practicing ‘dirty shirt’ journalism—we were too poor to send out our laundry.” Kennedy returned to Albany in 1963 with fresh eyes for the city, opened by his investigative work for the Times Union, work that won him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The sense of place found in his journalism effectively journeyed to fiction. “Out of the environment comes the action,” he says. “It impinges on the characters who dwell in these various places. And the characters are not necessarily reconstitutable in any other given city. In the Midwest, say, you’re not going to find the kind of ethnic makeup on the block where Billy Phelan was, where you had Italians, Irish, Jews and even some WASPs. You won’t find this, say, in Cincinnati.”

And, of course, the politics were unique. For 60 years beginning at the turn of the 1920s, Dan O’Connell’s Democrats controlled city government, to an extent that for most of that period, the newspapers were too cowed to go up against them. “Then Dan Button came in as an editor at the Times Union in the early ’60s and transformed the paper. He put it in battle mode against the machine.”

Changó’s Beads draws an effective parallel between that revolution, helped by a countrywide sense of rebellion, and the battles fought against Cuba’s Batista regime, including a failed 1957 attack on the ruler’s palace. “I was writing for the Miami Herald when that happened, and met some of the guys who participated in the attack. We got to be friends, and they fed me stories.”

A strong sense of mysticism also characterizes the novel’s Cuba scenes, particularly the traditions of Santería. A vivid scene of pilgrims en route to the church of San Lázaro is based on the writer’s own participation in such a ritual.

“We were on the road from 10 o’clock at night until three in the morning. I didn’t understand what was happening, there was nobody to tell me, and I was overwhelmed by it all. People were on their bellies and crawling on their knees. One man was dragging a concrete block that he was tied to. At the time, it baffled me.”

Journalists and novelists both are charged with making sense of the incredible, although the novelist’s toolkit includes a wider range of instinct and imagination. Kennedy’s first novel, The Ink Truck (1969), was inspired by a strike at the Times Union and is marked by the surreal touches that continue to inform his fiction.

In 1983, Kennedy’s work was rewarded with two life-changing events. The novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Kennedy won a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—the so-called “genius grant.” This not only gave him a measure of financial freedom, but also enabled him to found the New York State Writers Institute, based at the University at Albany, which presents a variety of workshops, seminars, readings and other events.

Alongside Kennedy’s passion for music is a film fandom that goes back to his childhood. “I must have been four or five when I fell in love with westerns,” he says. “I went to see Hoot Gibson and Ken Maynard and Tom Mix—although Mix was clearly a lot older. What I couldn’t stand were the singing cowboys like Gene Autry.”

But a jazz singer like Cab Calloway was a different prospect. Kennedy wrote the screenplay for Francis Coppola’s 1984 movie The Cotton Club, which profiled the legendary entertainment venue where Calloway and Duke Ellington earned early fame. (“I met Calloway not long after the movie opened,” says Kennedy, “and asked him what he thought of actor Larry Marshall’s portrayal of him. Cab smiled and said, ‘He was very good. But I could have done better.’ ”)

Kennedy’s next celluloid turn was the screenplay for Ironweed (1987), which brought Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep to Albany. Since then, Hollywood has been fickle. “I don’t want to write any more screenplays,” Kennedy says. “I’ve done too many of them that have gone nowhere. The money has been good, but that’s not what I’m doing it for.” Still, the movies keep calling, “but I don’t take it seriously any more. Roscoe is under option to Paramount, and there has been talk of a film directed by Martin Scorcese with Tom Hanks, but the option is soon to run out.”

The film version of Kennedy’s novel Legs met a more abrupt fate. “Francis Coppola came to my house for dinner one evening,” the writer recalls, “and we were in the middle of a discussion about the movie when he was called to the telephone. It was from a producer who said that they’d just had to fire a director, and could Francis take over on Peggy Sue Got Married? That was the end of Legs.”

Although it thus can be said that Peggy Sue killed the gangster, in real life the murderer of Jack “Legs” Diamond remains officially unknown, although O Albany notes some clear signs that it was engineered by the Albany political machine. In any event, the house on Albany’s Dove Street where Diamond was shot was put up for sale around the time the film version was being considered, and Kennedy now owns the place, along with his Averill Park home. And he likes to take people around his old North Albany neighborhood.

“I was stopped by the police there the other day. A lot of the city I’ve written about is still in place, even if the exact street isn’t—Colonie Street, for instance, is gone. But the North End is exactly the way it was when I grew up, with the houses within a stone’s throw from one another, just as it was in 1936.

“Which means that, when I show people around, I have something to say about every block. And that’s what happened. I was slowing and stopping the car so often that the police wanted to see why I was driving so erratically. I’ve got to be careful.”

Otherwise, Kennedy shows no sign of slowing. His play Grand View premiered at Capital Repertory Theatre in 1996, and it’s to theater that he’s turning again for his next project. “It’s something I started in the ’90s, and I think it’s got some promise. It’s about the Phelan family, and there’s some new material as well as some old. There’s a second-act problem—when isn’t there?—but I think I’ve got it knocked.”

William Kennedy will be signing copies of Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes this Saturday (Oct. 22) at 4 PM at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza (1475 Western Ave., Albany).