Herbert Gold, now ninety-four and still clacking away on his Royal typewriter, was once a famous author. His most successful novel, Fathers, was admired by critics and read widely: it was a best seller for many weeks in 1967. In the New York Times, Eliot Fremont-Smith called it a “beautiful … book, the best and most deeply felt that this talented, sensitive and dispassionate author has yet produced.” It was Gold’s seventh published volume of fiction; there would be nearly twenty more, plus six books of nonfiction. Saul Bellow was a personal friend and an admirer; he published short stories by Gold in his magazine, The Noble Savage. Vladimir Nabokov put one of Gold’s stories, “Death in Miami Beach,” on his personal list of favorite American short stories. When the success of Lolita allowed Nabokov to give up academia to write full-time, he chose Gold to succeed him as a lecturer on Russian literature at Cornell; and in 1967, Gold interviewed Nabokov for The Paris Review.
Gold was neither as successful nor as famous as many of the Jewish American writers of his generation, but he was no slouch. He’s left his mark on twentieth-century American literature, even if he rarely made a splash, and has lived as a writer for nearly seven decades, outliving many of his contemporaries. He knows that his end is nigh, but he’s in no hurry to leave. He has been writing poems for the first time in decades, and has a new collection of verse called Nearing the Exit.
An interview with Gold is challenging because—despite his remarkably good health—he is nearly deaf. This interview took place in Gold’s rent-controlled apartment on Broadway, near the top of Russian Hill, in San Francisco, where he has lived for half a century. It’s a quiet spot with a glorious view of the Bay Bridge. Gold won’t say exactly how much rent he pays but admits that it’s less than a thousand dollars a month, surely one of the best housing deals in the city, and a fitting spot for telling the stories he’s been telling for most of a century.
How does it feel to be ninety-four years old?
Well, the group of poems that I have coming out is called Nearing the Exit. The fact is that I’m in extreme old age now. Sometimes, after a cup of coffee, I feel immortal, but I sleep more than I used to. At ninety-four, I know it could happen at any moment, but I’m not dying. You see, my body works. My ears and my eyes have some problems. I have a little arthritis in these knuckles, but it doesn’t interfere with my typing. I have much less stamina than I used to. In some ways, I feel less pressure to find a partner. I’m happy with my children and most of my grandchildren and am content with that.
At the moment, I don’t have a novel underway. In 2015, I published a novel called When a Psychopath Falls in Love. I have no contact with agents anymore. Everyone I knew in the agent business is gone. I have no contact with editors, but the book came out anyway. The publisher drove down from Portland where he lives and wooed me, claiming to love the book. I didn’t have an agent. Nothing happened with the book. It’s out there, and when I ask my publisher what’s happening, he says, It’ll be rediscovered. I don’t believe that happens very often.
It must be hard to lose your friends.
And how! It’s difficult to lose them. I tell people my main entertainment is going to funerals or memorials. My dearest and oldest friend is failing. Another friend, Paul Krassner—he was the editor and publisher of The Realist, a radical satirical journal published in the sixties. He wrote a book with Lenny Bruce—it’s very funny. I knew him in the fifties, when I still lived in New York. Back then he called himself a stand-up satirist. I wanted to call him recently, finally found his phone number, and he told me about his wheel chair.
Tell me about Lakewood, Ohio, the Cleveland suburb where you grew up.
We were the only Jewish family. My father had a fruit store, and then a grocery store, and then what he described as a supermarket. The word supermarket was just kind of coming into use. I was subjected to a lot of “Christ-killer” epithets and was chased home by the kids from the Catholic schools. People looked in my hair to see the horns, asked me to take off my shoes to see my cloven hoof. The Black Legion was very popular, the German American Bund was very popular. I felt a lot of anti-Semitism. But being the only Jew in the school had advantages, because sex was forbidden. Sex was work of the devil, and Jews were the work of the devil. So girls liked me. I was popular in a funny way.
You made a long jump from Lakewood to Morningside Heights when you enrolled at Columbia. What was that like?
When I arrived in New York, I looked up the editor of Experiment Magazine. I was not yet eighteen but had published some poetry there. The editor invited me to a party. There was an old lady watching me, sitting in the corner. When I say old, I mean she was about thirty-eight—but I was seventeen. She spoke with a funny accent. Her name was Anaïs Nin—I had no idea who she was. She started to talk with me about coming back to see her houseboat in Hoboken. I was enticed by the idea of sex with an older woman, but when the party was winding down, she started leading me down the stairs, and said to me, You remind me of my father. That scared the bejeezus out of me. I said, Oh, I’ve got a paper due tomorrow morning. I was starting at Columbia. I ran away with my nickel for the subway. That was the only time I saw her.
Your college career was interrupted by three years in the army. You finally graduated, then got a master’s degree in philosophy from Columbia in 1948. And then you received a Fulbright grant to continue your philosophy studies in Paris. You arrived in 1949 with your second wife. What was Paris like then?
Jean Wahl, my advisor at the Sorbonne, suggested I do a thesis for a doctorate on Maine de Biran. You’ve never heard of him—I hadn’t heard of him. He believed that acts of will could cause creative evolution. So I did a little research, but then I bought a bicycle. That was fatal. I paid seven dollars for a beat-up, used bike in 1949, and I started to ride around Paris—we had no heat. I lived with my first wife in a forty-cent-a-night room at the Hotel de Verneuil. With a bike, you can’t do research in philosophy—it’s too distracting.
I would ride my bike and think about the French Resistance. In 1949, the war was still fresh, there were trials of Nazi collaborators on the front page of the paper every day, and I got the notion of writing a novel about an ordinary accountant in Lakewood, Ohio, who had the spirit of a French resistant. It’s called Birth of a Hero—it wasn’t a very good book, but it was published by Viking Press. It was well reviewed, it was a help to my career, but I was still too infected with Henry James and other academic icons of the time, so I didn’t break free.
So you abandoned the philosophers?
I abandoned them. I kept going to Jean Wahl lectures, and I still collected my checks. I was a rich American then because I had both the GI Bill and the Fulbright, and I had a wife, which was unusual among young students then. When she got pregnant, I bought my first automobile, a Renault Quatre Cheveaux, which was the French equivalent of a Volkswagen—a simple, cheap, tiny car. In the hotel, where we lived, Jimmy Baldwin lived in the room next door for awhile.
What was Baldwin like then?
Baldwin was a star without having published anything yet. He was very charming. He was writing, of course. He wrote a very critical review of Richard Wright, which antagonized Wright and a bunch of other people. He floated among lovers and older women, who thought, here’s a thrilling black writer.
Edith, my first wife, who is not of sainted memory, was a chain-smoker. Cigarettes were very hard to buy then, and visiting tourists would bring them to her as gifts. She liked Pall Malls, which were king sized—they weren’t common in Paris. We never locked our door, and Jimmy stole a carton of cigarettes we’d been given. And he smoked them in front of us, daring us to react.
Was Saul Bellow in Paris when you got there?
Yes. I met Bellow at the Café Rouquert, which was a hangout for medical students. I had just finished Birth of a Hero and went to a stationery store to have it wrapped. I told the clerk it was a manuscript of a novel I was sending it to Viking Press in New York—mainly because I’d read The Victim, Bellow’s book, which was published by Viking in 1947. And when she finished wrapping it, she hit it and went, Merde! I was startled. How does she know it’s shit? But for the French that means good luck also.
When I sent the manuscript to Viking, it went into the slush pile. A young reader named Monroe Engel dug it out and passed it on to Malcolm Cowley, who was chief editor at Viking at the time. They decided they wanted to publish it, but needed to vet me—no one had heard of me. They asked Bellow, who was one of their authors, two questions. Did Gold really write it? And, do you think he’ll write another? Saul wrote back a very good, very strong recommendation—yes, I was a real writer, and no, I wasn’t a plagiarist. Saul and I became friends. Viking published Birth of a Hero in 1951.
Bellow was a difficult man. We quarreled often. He poured out his troubles with wives to me. He had five wives. He slept on my couch—I was living in a furnished room in New York after my divorce with Edith. I had no money then. She extracted every bit of blood she could get from me. Bellow and I were friends, but then he did an anthology of stories that didn’t include me. And I was really irked. A book of Jewish stories that didn’t include me! And I said, Saul, you told me how much you loved “The Heart of the Artichoke,” the short story that was the kernel of Fathers, and other stories. But then he just said, I forgot.
After Bellow’s death, there was a program at the Jewish community center in San Francisco. The speakers included me and Gregory Bellow, his son. He looked out over the audience, and began his presentation. “My father … the Nobel Prize winning novelist … was a narcist.” Calling Saul a narcissist—or rather a “narcist,” no one corrected Gregory’s pronunciation—was really out of line. He was somewhat self-centered, like a writer devoted to himself, but he did many kind things for many other people—unasked-for favors. He was a complicated person.
Let’s talk about Nabokov. How did it come to pass that George Plimpton asked you to do an Art of Fiction interview with him in 1967?
The Saturday Evening Post asked me to do a piece about Nabokov. I told Plimpton, and he said, Well, do an interview with Nabokov for The Paris Review, too. Nabokov and I had become friends. He chose me to take over his teaching duties at Cornell in 1958. I used to receive a number of letters from Nabokov, except they weren’t really from Nabokov—he would always have his wife, Véra, write the letters, or he’d dictate them. He wanted me to send him questions for the interview in advance, so I did. And when I arrived at his hotel in Switzerland—in Montreux, on Lake Geneva—he greeted me with his typed answers. Mr. Gold, he said, here is your interview.
But I stayed with him, in the hotel, for maybe two weeks, and I saw him every day. I said, Look, I’m not going to interfere with your writing, but an interview needs to be done as an interview. I said, you just let me know when you finish your day’s stint of writing and we can have a walk or a talk. Then I’d be awakened by a call at about eight-thirty every morning. I am finished with my work, he’d say. Now we go for a walk.
I remember swimming in the pool at the Montreux Palace, the hotel where Nabokov lived for the last sixteen years of his life, and I saw Véra conferring very seriously with Nabokov—Volodya, she called him. I knew they were plotting. So I came out of the pool, and he said to me, We have decided that you should be paid five hundred dollars for the interview, and I should be paid five hundred dollars. I remember Plimpton telling me they never paid the interview subject, but in fact they did. Nabakov wanted to be fair … Whenever Véra was not there, he would tell dirty stories, turn the subject to sex. Not anything like Lolita, just sex.
Let’s talk about your self-appraisal of your own work, your sense of mission.
My mission is to reveal reality, not just by writing history but also by making it magical, making it new. Most of my books are invented stories, but I want to make the reader believe that the events are really happening. I do feel I am doing something that is extra literary by making people open to other realities, but I’ve never written anything explicitly political.
The book of mine that was the most successful, after Fathers, was A Girl of Forty. It had five or six printings and hit the bottom of some best-seller lists. It was about someone refusing to grow up. I still know her. She’s now in her seventies. I changed many of the details—she was someone I had had an affair with. I wanted to make that experience magical, but also a warning—if you’re a human being, you need to grow up. The Man Who Was Not with It was published before On the Road, but not nearly as successfully. The book grew out of a road trip when, just out of high school, I hitchhiked from Cleveland to Florida. I wanted to encourage kids to adventure.
I give my grandchildren money at the end of every year. My grandson David called me recently. He’s in Colorado, running wilderness programs for disturbed boys. He’s a really good kid. He called to thank me. He had never told me this, but he said that when he was very young, my age when I took my road trip, he wanted to take a bicycle trip across the country. He was an athlete, a track start at university, and everybody was opposed to it, thinking it dangerous. The only person who didn’t was me—I encouraged him to do it. I had forgotten this.
When I graduated from high school, I conceived of a plan to pack my cardboard suitcase and hitchhike around the country. My parents were opposed. When I told them I was leaving anyway, they argued against it. My mother might’ve even cried a little. I promised to send them postcards, which I did. But my father got his car and drove me outside Cleveland for a better place to start. He never really wanted me to do it, but he helped me anyway. Encouraging adventure is in my genes—and welcoming the magic of life’s carnival and chaos.
Robert Kaiser retired from the Washington Post in 2014, after working there as both reporter and editor for more than fifty years. He is author or coauthor of eight books, most recently Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How It Doesn’t. He first met Herbert Gold in Moscow in 1972, when Kaiser was The Post’s Moscow correspondent.
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