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Our Dinner with James

by David Westheimer


Last month Dody and I were watching a James Baldwin biography on TV and I said, "Remember that time we had dinner with James Baldwin? I ought to write about that." And Dody said, "You already have. Just after he died in France in 1987."

And so I had, in 1987 when I was writing a column for the now defunct Houston Post from out here in Los Angeles. And here it is, edited a little:

Ed Doctorow, (E.L. Doctorow) was my editor at Dial Press at the time. That was some years before he went from being a part-time novelist and full-time editor to being one of the countrys most respected novelists. He was also Baldwins editor back then. Dody and I couldnt remember what year we had dinner with Baldwin at Doctorows home a train ride from New York City. Dody said, "My sister was with us that time. Maybe shell remember."

I couldnt remember her sister being along. (I guess I was having a senior moment even before I was old enough to qualify for them). Dody said she was with us and had a picture to prove it. I didnt remember us having our picture taken with Baldwin, either. But there it was. James Baldwin with Dody, Cissy (her sister) and me. Dody was wearing the fur coat she bought in Switzerland during our spending year and her sister had on her Leon County mink (Aberdeen Angus cowhide with the hair on), bought in Texas. "And you had that Russian-looking fur hat that youd bought in Boston."

We phoned Cissy in Houston and she said, "It was before you went to London (I do welcome an opportunity to drop city names). I went out to Ed Doctorows with you. In New Rochelle. It was an old house. Theyd just moved in and didnt have all their furniture yet." Dody said it couldnt have been just before we went to London because that was in August and both of them were wearing winter fur coats in the picture with Baldwin.

Cissy said wed all been complaining because wed had to take a train to Doctorows and hed sent a car and driver for Baldwin.

That, I remembered. Then Dody found another picture of her and Cissy in their fur coats and me in my Russian-looking hat taken in December 1966 when we were in New York for the opening of my play, My Sweet Charlie (if wed stayed on for another 30 days wed been there for its closing, too — every performance a loser for its producer).

Establishing that our dinner with James Baldwin was in 1966. Wed been kind of nervous when we learned he was going to be at Ed Doctorows, too. Not only was he a world-class writer, which I wasnt, but wed read his work, especially The Fire Next Time, and found them militant, race-wise. Though painfully true.

We couldnt have been more wrong about him.

Baldwin was soft-spoken, gentle, charming. When he learned Doctorow hadnt gotten us a car and driver, Baldwin said he would give us a lift back to New York in his Doctorow-provided car. But would we mind if we if we first stopped off at his sisters when we got there? It was her birthday and she was having a party. We accepted gladly.

There was a crowd at his sisters apartment. We figured a lot of the people there must be famous because she was James Baldwins sister but we didnt recognize anyone. No one knew who we were, either or that we werent famous even though wed come to the party with James Baldwin.

As for the our books with Dial, Baldwins and mine both came out in 1968. His, Tell Me How Long the Trains Been Gone, was a critical and financial success. Mine, Song Of the Young Sentry, wasnt published by Dial. I wouldnt make the changes Doctorow had asked for and my agent took it to Little, Brown. It got a few favorable reviews and barely earned its advance back.

I guess Doctorow knew what he was doing when he provided a car and driver for James Baldwin but left me to shift for myself.


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