Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Ad
by Bill Peschel
||Nov 2, 2010
A collection of 200 stories and anecdotes about the great writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe and Norman Mailer
Truth is stranger than fiction.
If you've imagined famous writers to be desk-bound drudges, think again. Writers Gone Wild rips back the (book) covers and reveals the seamy underside of the writing life.
Insightful, intriguing, and irresistibly addictive, Writers Gone Wild reveals such fascinating stories as:
* The night Dashiell Hammett hired a Chinese prostitute to break up S. J. Perelman's marriage (and ran off with his wife).
* Why Sylvia Plath bit Ted Hughes on the cheek.
* Why Ernest Hemingway fought a book critic, a modernist poet, and his war correspondent/wife Martha Gellhorn (but not at the same time).
* The near-fatal trip Katherine Anne Porter took while high on marijuana in Mexico.
* Why women's breasts sent Percy Bysshe Shelley screaming from the room.
* The day Virginia Woolf snuck onto a Royal Navy ship disguised as an Abyssinian prince.
Pull up a chair, turn on good reading light, and discover what your favorite writers were up to while away from their desks. Sometimes, they make the wildest characters of all.
Excerpts from “WRITERS GONE WILD: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes” by BILL PESCHEL
(c) 2010 by Bill Peschel
CHAPTER 1: DRAMATIC DEBUTS
Iconoclastic, shocking or just plain weird, these works inspired tsunamis of outrage.
Johann Goethe: Threat or Menace? (1774)
The next time you’re told that rock music, graphic novels and violent video games are corrupting our youth, remember that German novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did it first. At 23, his “The Sorrows of Young Werther” thrilled readers and outraged moralists with its tale of doomed youth dying young.
Written as a series of letters, the sensitive, romantic Werther describes his disgust with society’s hollow values. Passionately in love with Lotte, he kills himself rather than see her marry the dull, plodding Albert. In an ironic twist, he shoots himself using Albert’s guns.
Goethe found the inspiration for his story close at hand. As a newly minted lawyer in Wetzlar, he was befriended by Karl Jerusalem, who introduced him at a ball to Johann Kestner and his fiancée, Charlotte. Goethe fell deeply in love with the 19-year-old Charlotte, but she preferred her stolid Johann. Distraught, Goethe fled Wetzlar but still kept in touch with the couple and even attended their wedding.
Goethe wasn’t the only man unhappily trapped by love. When Jerusalem was rejected by a married woman, he borrowed two pistols from Kestner and shot himself. Goethe combined his misery with Jerusalem’s tragedy and wrote his debut novel in only four weeks.
“The Sorrows of Young Werther” became the book to read in 1774. The official edition was translated into several languages, and pirated editions were eagerly snapped up. Other writers jumped on the bandwagon with Werther-like stories. There was even fan memorabilia: breadboxes and porcelain statues of Werther and Lotte were sold. Young men raced to their tailors to copy Werther’s signature outfit: a blue frock coat with tin buttons, buff leather waistcoats, brown boots and a round felt hat. Even Jerusalem was drawn in, as his grave became the site of candle-lit ceremonies.
But several countries banned the book when several men, and at least one woman, followed Werther’s lead, committing suicide in their romantic desperation. To prevent future tragedies, the publisher added to later editions a warning from Werther to “be a man and do not follow after me.”
Only the Kestners were unhappy with the success of Werther. “The real Lotte would . . . be grieved if she were like the Lotte you have there painted,” Kestner wrote Goethe. As for Albert, “Need you have made him such a blockhead?”
Goethe tried to make amends, but he couldn’t help crowing a little. He advised Kestner to tell Charlotte “To know that your name is uttered by a thousand hallowed lips with reverence, is surely an equivalent for anxieties which would scarcely . . . vex a person long in common life, where one is at the mercy of every tattler.”
Perhaps. It could also be that ─ to a man rejected in love ─ success is the best revenge.
CHAPTER 4: CENSORS AND EDITORS
Both want to fix your prose: one like a mechanic, the other like a veterinarian.
Madame Bovary Too Hot For France (1856)
With “Madame Bovary,” the French novelist Gustave Flaubert announced to the world his intention to push the novel into uncharted territories. The magazine publisher in Paris who printed the opening chapters, however, was more worried about being arrested.
It was bad enough that, in telling the story of Emma’s adulterous affair, that Flaubert neglected to condemn her sin ─ as if unfulfilling affairs, financial fraud, and a terrible death by poison wasn’t enough ─ he had also written a sex scene too hot for the authorities.
The love scene between Emma and her law clerk lover, Leon, bears a close resemblance to a “Benny Hill” sketch. After meeting at a church, Leon bundles Emma into the back of a horse-drawn cab ride. The oblivious driver roams the city and every time he slows down or tries to stop, a voice inside the curtained cab calls out: “Go on!,” “No, straight on!” and “Get on, will you?” As the exhausted horses are driven through the streets, Flaubert writes, the people stare “wonder stricken” at the curtained cab “tossing about like a vessel.”
To avoid a possible arrest for immorality, the publisher dropped the “if the cab’s a rockin, don’t come a-knockin’” scene. Alas, it was in vain. They were hauled into police court and charged with committing an “outrage to public and religious morals.” Fortunately for them, they were acquitted, and the publicity helped make “Madame Bovary” a success.
Despite that, Flaubert was still unhappy. “The success you obtain is never the kind you wanted,” he grumbled. “It was the farcical bits in ‘Madame Bovary’ that made it a success.”
CHAPTER 11: ULTRAVIOLENCE
The pen may be mightier than the sword, but that doesn’t mean you should bring a dictionary to a knife fight.
Norman the Knife (1960)
When Norman Mailer heard about a friend who had attacked his mistress with a knife, he commented, “God, I wish I had the courage to stab a woman like that. That was a real gutsy act.” Several years later, he got his chance.
The occasion was a party he had thrown in his New York apartment to launch his campaign for mayor of New York. With the help of his wife, Adele, he planned to win the support of the disenfranchised, and he wanted them to see that he had connections with those who ran the city.
The problem was that the elites didn’t want to play, and they ignored his invitation to the party. When Norman’s friends such as Allen Ginsberg, George Plimpton and Norman Podhoretz showed up, they found his apartment jammed with street bums and party crashers from the Bowery.
Mailer was pissed, and he drank heavily as the party grew more raucous. He got into fistfights and received a black eye while his wife, Adele, carried on in one of the bathrooms with another woman.
After the last guests left, it was 3:30 a.m., and Norman and Adele began arguing in the kitchen. Perhaps Adele’s sharp tongue had set him off; one report said she jeered that Dostoyevsky was a better writer than him. Whatever the cause, Norman punctured her chest and back with his 2-inch pocketknife, nicking her cardiac sac and nearly killing her.
Adele recovered, decided not to press charges and received a divorce. Mailer pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and received a suspended sentence. But what concerned him most was not his wife’s health, or going to jail, but being committed to a mental hospital, because, as he told the judge, “for the rest of my life my work will be considered as the work of a man with a disordered mind.”
Norman Mailer was as prolific with his fists as he was with his opinions. Here are some of his classic bouts:
* Jerry Leiber: In 1967, at the popular restaurant Elaine’s, Mailer attacked the songwriter from behind and got kicked into a wall, smashing the plaster. Mailer tried to eye-gouge Leiber and a waiter did the same for Mailer. Elaine herself broke up the fight by threatening to bar Leiber if he knocked out Mailer.
* Bruce Jay Friedman: The novelist and screenwriter was on the receiving end of a Mailer head butt after he messed up Norman’s hair at a party in 1968. As Friedman got in his car, Mailer unleashed his fury on the car, hammering it several times. Friedman got out, took a head-butt to the chest, and threw a punch. They were separated again, and Friedman drove off with Mailer again punching the windows .
* Rip Torn: As part of an improvised scene in Mailer’s 1970 movie “Maidstone,” Torn nearly brained the director and star with a hammer, wrestled him to the ground and choked him. Mailer bit off part of Torn’s ear and fought back until they were separated by Mailer’s fourth wife, Beverly, and his children.
* Gore Vidal I: After Vidal compared Mailer’s “The Prisoner of Sex” to “three days of menstrual flow” in 1971, Mailer head butted him in the green room of “The Dick Cavett Show.”
* Gore Vidal II: At a New York party in 1977, Mailer threw a drink and then knocked Vidal to the floor. Vidal got the last word, however: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”
CHAPTER 13: WAR
On the battlefield or behind the lines, these soldiers and civilians revealed hidden depths.
Beetle Bailey Coleridge (1793)
Beset by debts and an unhappy love affair, 20-year-old Samuel Taylor Coleridge fled Cambridge University for the soldiering life. But the future author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” behaved less like the dashing Harry Flashman and more like Private Bailey.
Swearing his friends to secrecy, he enlisted in the King's Light Dragoons under the pseudonym of Silas Tomkyn Comberbache. Coleridge proved to be inept at spit-and-polish, although he could confess his shortcomings with eloquence. When a drill sergeant asked, “Whose dirty rifle is this?” Coleridge said, “Is it very, very dirty?” The sergeant said yes. “Then it must be mine.”
He was equally incompetent at riding a horse; in one week, he was thrown three times. Worse, he developed saddle sores, which he described as “dreadfully troublesome eruptions, which so grimly constellated my Posteriors.”
For the sake of his posteriors and the king’s horses, Coleridge was assigned guard duty, where he wrote letters for the illiterate soldiers who took care of his gear. According to Thomas de Quincey, his Cambridge education also drew attention from the officers:
Coleridge, as a private, mounted guard at the door of a room in which his officers happened to give a ball. Two of them had a dispute upon some Greek word or passage when close to Coleridge’s station. He interposed his authentic decision of the case. The officers stared as though one of their own horses had sung “Rule Britannia.”
Eventually, his family tracked him down, paid his debts and negotiated his release. They couldn’t find a substitute to take his place, but the army had had enough of Coleridge. They declared him insane and threw him out.
Mortified at the attention but grateful to be out of uniform, Coleridge returned to Cambridge. He was confined for a month to the college and ordered to translate 90 pages of Greek into English. And for the rest of his life, we can assume, Coleridge never went near a horse if he could help it.
CHAPTER 16: THE JOY OF SEX
Whether a woodland frolic or a back-alley knee-trembler, writers get it on for real.
Boswell Goes Slumming (1763)
There was one thing that James Boswell loved more than sucking up to Samuel Johnson and taking notes for his eventual biography, and that was sampling the delights of London — particularly its women.
On one particular night, to celebrate King George III’s birth, he dressed down in his “second-mourning suit, dirty buckskin breeches, black stockings, and a little round hat with tarnished silver lace belonging to a disbanded officer of the Royal Volunteers,” and toddled off to his favorite hunting grounds, St. James’ Park.
Nowadays, St. James is a finely manicured lawn haunted by tourists and vendors, but in his time, Boswell called it “a long dirty field, intersected by a wide dirty ditch.” It was also incredibly fetid. If the smell of the rank grass and rotten lime trees didn’t knock you out, the garbage dumped by the city’s residents would.
But Boswell was made of sterner stuff, or of a weaker nose. In St. James, he wrote, he “picked up a low brimstone, agreed with her for sixpence, went to the bottom of the Park and dipped my machine in the Canal and performed most manfully.”
Next, “roaring along” the street, he stopped at Ashley’s Punch-house and got drunk. Then he walked to The Strand, where another negotiation turned unexpectedly risky:
“I picked up a little profligate and gave her 6 pence. She allowed me entrance. But the miscreant refused me performance. I was much stronger than her, and volens nolens [willy-nilly] pushed her up against the way. She however gave a sudden spring from me; and screaming out, a parcel of more whores and soldiers came to her relief.
Boswell thought quickly and called out, “Brother soldiers, should not a half-pay officer roger for sixpence? And here has she used me so and so.” That won over the crowd, and he toddled off, but not before he “abused her in blackguard style.”
He returned home at two in the morning, intoxicated with his sport and gratified that “notwithstanding my dress, I was always taken for a gentleman in disguise.”
Boswell cut a wide swath through the female half of London society. According to his diaries, by the time he was 29, he had tried to seduce a dozen high-born ladies, made a nearly equal number of mistresses from wives and actresses, and had sex with over 60 prostitutes. Not surprisingly, he also contracted gonorrhea 17 times.
CHAPTER 18: ALCOHOL AND DRUGS
For inspiration or intoxication, they risked a high price for getting high.
Writer’s Blockage (1804)
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s lifelong addiction to opium took a horrific toll on his health. Not only did it cause insomnia, nightmares and frightening visions, but colon paralysis leading to constipation that was treated with enemas.
Normally, Coleridge enjoyed his enemas. But during a voyage from England to Malta, complications set in that caused a “day of Horror.”
As Coleridge would later recount, he began with a milder treatment in which he sat over a bowl of hot water: “After two long frightful, fruitless struggles, the face convulsed, & sweat streaming from me like Rain, the Captn. Proposed to send for the Commadore’s Surgeon . . . The Surgeon instantly came, went back for Pipe & Syringe & returned & with extreme difficulty & the exertion of his utmost strength injected the latter.”
But instead of the enema causing the blockage to soften, “Good God! What a sensation when the obstruction suddenly shot up! – I remained still three-quarters of an hour with hot water in a bottle to my belly . . . with pain & Sore uneasiness, & indescribable desires.”
But there was worse to come as Coleridge “picked out the hardened matter & after awhile was completely relieved. The poor mate who stood by me all this while had the tears running down his face.”
Coleridge’s addiction to opium took the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture popularly sold as a nostrum for all kinds of illnesses. While it inspired many of his great early works such as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, repeated abuse killed his talent and left him near the end of his life a frail skeleton.
CHAPTER 19: THE END
The Grim Reaper harvests one last story.
John Milton Rises From the Grave (1790)
It started with the best of intentions. The church of St. Giles in London was undergoing renovations, and planned to erect a memorial over the grave of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, who had died 126 years before. To make sure it was properly situated, workmen removed the church floor, uncovered a coffin that they suspected housed his remains, then called it a day.
But, while drinking at a nearby pub, someone asked how they knew Milton was inside. After all, there was no plaque on the coffin, and church records were notoriously inaccurate. They probably drank on that thought for awhile, until someone said something like, “Perhaps we should find out.”
The next day, an apprentice coffin maker climbed into the grave, pried back the corroded lead top to reveal the coarse-linen shroud. Ripping it open revealed a skeleton, gender unknown, but with long hair that had been carefully combed and tied.
Temptation reared its head. They fell upon the bones and plucked out choice bits for souvenirs. One man took a stone to Milton’s upper teeth, while another considered the leg bones and lower jaw before settling for the hair.
When they left, gravedigger Elizabeth Grant took over. She hired workmen to collect admission and watch the windows to make sure no one got in without paying. Dragging the coffin under a pew, she sold peeks at the bones for whatever the market would bear, usually sixpence. Only when the spectators had their fill was Milton reburied.
News of Milton’s involuntary resurrection and dismemberment horrified London. One church member bought back most of the remains and reburied them. But that wasn’t the end for poor Milton. Rumors spread that it wasn’t Milton in the coffin but a woman. Apparently, the rumor-mongers were ignorant that at Cambridge, he was nicknamed “the lady” for his fair complexion and effeminate nature. Nevertheless, Milton had to be dug up a second time and a surgeon pronounced the bones to be masculine. Only then was Milton, at last, allowed to rest.
Writers’ Colonies of the Dead
Like real estate, the most important factor in a writer’s final resting ground is location, location, location. Writers looking for a tomb with a view, should check out these neighborhoods:
* Kensel Green, London: Established 1837. For admirers of classic English literature. Home to William Makepeace Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, poet Leigh Hunt and Anthony Trollope.
* Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Mass.: The American equivalent to Kensel Green, where Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau hang their hats.
* Forest Lawn, Glendale, Calif.: While better known as the movie stars’ final resting place, there are plenty of tourists willing to make a side trip to visit L. Frank Baum, Clifford Odets and Louis L'Amour and Theodore Dreiser.
* Le Pere Lachaise: A sure sign you’ve arrived. More than 800,000 come here yearly to visit the million or so Frenchmen, laid alongside an international cast of writers: Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, Moliere, Balzac, Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust.
Boogasm calls it "a great read for writers and lit-lovers alike"
The book to ease every writer’s mind has arrived. No, it’s not a how-to, but a how-it’s-always-been. See, writers have always been a strange breed, and we can use all the self-help we can get. Reading about how crazy our predecessors were is all the therapy we need. (Just don’t tell that to our relatives.)
Bill Peschel’s WRITERS GONE WILD: THE FEUDS, FROLICS, AND FOLLIES OF LITERATURE’S GREAT ADVENTURERS, DRUNKARDS, LOVERS, ICONOCLASTS, AND MISANTHROPES takes us through episodic stories of some of the book world’s best little-known secrets. What I found most interesting was how some things haven’t changed. Sure, writers are expected to self-promote these days on Twitter, Facebook and personal websites, but writers have always self-promoted, going so far as to write their own blurbs and fake reviews.
It’s also revealed that writers who are connected have fared better. (Sound familiar?) What about writers being boorish, self-possessed jerks? Well, would you expect any less?
In these true-life tales, we get Dylan Thomas asking Shirley Jackson if he could “jump” her, Philip K. Dick hallucinating about living among Jesus Christ in the Roman Empire, Norman Mailer stabbing his wife, and Kafka’s weirder-than-weird porn stash, plus dozens more, all adding up to make a great read for writers and lit-lovers alike. —Malena Lott
PopMatters calls it "a delightful little stocking stuffer"
According to his introduction, Bill Peschel’s Writers Gone Wild is a child of the internet. It began as a collection of daily anecdotes that was in turn fueled by the easy accessibility of new stories and old books through the Web, which eventually merged into a book. Writers Gone Wild promises to feature “the feuds, frolics, and follies of literature’s great adventurers, drunkards, lovers, iconoclasts, and misanthropes,” and it pretty much delivers, albeit not in any great depth or with anything like trenchant analysis. There are a ton of little stories and vignettes in this book, most of them just a page long or so, and I could see it as a web site or a phone app, but neither of those make the best stocking-stuffers. This time of year, maybe a full on book is just what you’re looking for. Would Writers Gone Wild bring you or someone you love some holiday cheer?
Peschel organizes his encyclopedia of literary schadenfreude by theme rather than author, which I found a little off-putting at first, but which I came to see was a good decision. So while you can’t read all seven of the Hemingway stories in one place, you do get to see them alongside similar amusing gaffs and outrages by other authors. Given how generally slight and modest the stories often are, they do tend to build a cumulative force when bunched together around timeless topics like sex, money, fraud, and bad reviews. Within each theme, the anecdotes unfold chronologically, which gives a nice thrust of momentum and a general sense of, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
My main complaint with Writers Gone Wild is that, for the most part, there is very little in this book that’s particularly unique to writers or writing. This is a collection of often amusing (or at least eyebrow-raising) anecdotes involving mostly famous writers. They have to be famous, because Peschel usually doesn’t leave space for much context about who these people are and why we might care about their foibles in particular (although there’s a bibliography at the end with leads for more information about all of them). For example, a tale of two authors I’d never heard of brawling in a London pub left me bored and uninterested, as do most stories about bar fights. But I couldn’t get enough of Truman Capote dishing out biting quips on The Tonight Show, because I love me some Truman Capote archness. A nearly identical book could probably be written about sports figures gone wild, actors gone wild, or politicians gone wild. Maybe even book reviewers gone wild would be a hit (I’ve got some stories for you!).
So for the literary-minded gossip hound, Writers Gone Wild is an easy, fun read. Not every piece is a keeper. Some are too complex to follow in the short space provided, others are sort of ethereal, leaving the reader wondering what the big deal was, but most of the book is solid fun, an entertaining diversion when you’ve got a few minutes to kill. I think it might actually have worked just as well, if not better, as an app or a web site or it’s originally envisioned book of days format. It also works just fine as a book, and might make a delightful little stocking stuffer for a reader or literary snob on your holiday gift list.
Richard S. Wheeler calls it "a literary zoo"
I'm enjoying a book called Writers Gone Wild, by Bill Peschel, published by Perigree. It is, at bottom, a literary zoo. One can stop at various cages and see wild beasts, both historic and modern.
The book is a collection of anecdotes about writers, loosely grouped by theme. Thus there are chapters about writers dealing with editors and critics, dealing with rivals, avoiding jail or getting tossed in, getting into fights, messing with politics, getting snockered or stoned, seducing other writers' spouses, and so on.
I have a tribal connection to all writers, so I love this stuff. Want to learn about Hemingway's fist fights? They are recorded here. Who sniffed or drank what and when? It's all here. You want to know about Oscar Wilde's or Virginia Woolf's love life? Step right up.
My main problem is that I am envious. I would have enjoyed being a Bad Boy Writer, and messing around with Bad Girl Writers, but time got away from me. In any case, I'm the retiring sort, not given to spectacular wastrel living, and thus I'm not a good candidate for Wild Writer status, though I can occasionally insult other writers to good effect.
I do, however, live in Livingston, Montana, once home of many of the wildebeests of the 1970s, and I even know a few. We had Wild Writers and Wild Filmmakers here in such abundance that I hear a new story every few days. I probably have heard a score of great Sam Peckinpah anecdotes. I even have a couple of friends who recite their own anecdotes, so I get to live a vicarious life as a Wild Writer even if my conduct is more akin to that of Emily Dickinson.
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