Private Lives, Public Print

On the sound theory that there is no last word on anything, I have been reflecting on last month’s piece (“The Teddy Kennedy Watch”), and it has occurred to me that it would be worthwhile to go a bit deeper into the question of private lives in the public print. The truth is, I have second thoughts—or, anyway, additional thoughts. I made the point that with living persons, such reportorial excursions were bound to end in rumor, half-truth, innuendo, and, ultimately, myth. Those would be the results of the more serious attempts of journalism to deal with spectacular or sensational lives, depending as they do on secondary, often unnamed, sources and the stylistic requirement to produce a seamless narrative. No retreat from that opinion, but a recent issue of Rolling Stone has complicated the matter.

The cover subject in this issue is the new phenom of the music biz, Rickie Lee Jones, twenty-four. At the time of this writing her album is number five on the charts, owing largely to the strength of a song called “Chuck E.’s in Love.” Rickie Lee Jones makes Ted Kennedy look like Fred Waring. No part of her lurid private life is spared, meaning brushes with the law, the sauce, numerous redheaded strangers, and (in her words) “every kind of drug you can do.” This is a young woman on the run, and I found her an extraordinary and courageous character, as I found the piece humane and largeminded.

Near the bottom of La Cienega, Rickie Lee and I make a pit stop in a tiny roadside greasy spoon whose clientele is so unsavory that the joint features its own resident rent-a-cop. Rickie Lee, dressed to kill or maim in a skintight, black nylon stretch suit and spike heels, enters with relish, and she creates a minor stir among the night stalkers clustered around the grill when she leans over the counter to place her order.

“I love places like this,” she whispers. “Anything can happen in them, and usually does. I like taking any kind of a risk. I’ve done every kind of drug you can do. . .”

In detailing the life of the jazz singer (the quotes come from the subject, her mother, and her friend, the singer Tom Waits), reporter Timothy White also manages to describe a particular world, a world certainly not confined to the music business but somehow typical of it. It’s obvious that in the milieu of modern musicians a lawless, sensual, or outrageous life is not a professional liability; far from it. Rickie Lee Jones is not running for the presidency. But at the same time she is aware of the problems that come with instant celebrity and the invasion of her privacy, and in the beginning seems wary of Rolling Stone and its inquiring reporter. She wants to control the interview and in the end seems to have decided that the French solution is preferable to the English: No need to invade, I’ll not resist. The result is heavyweight journalism about a chaotic, scattered, painful life—the life related to the music, the music related to the life, all of it of a piece. The narrative is not arbitrary or in any way literary; it flows from the facts; I mean, the reporter’s direct observation. No filtration devices, and no imaginative leaps. White’s account is not sentimental, prurient, soft, or speculative. In the language of a newspaper editor I know, it is just one hell of a damn fine reporting job.

It’s true, no doubt, that editors and readers expect a different sort of life and personality of senators than of jazz musicians. If they didn’t, the late Charlie Mingus would even now be chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Exhibits A & B, Wayne Hays and Wilbur Mills. Teams of reporters were unleashed on the two congressmen. The Washington Post covered Hays as if he and his typist were a separate, and virulent, branch of government. Keyhole journalism at its least convincing, but sensational because it played against a presumption of rectitude. It occurs to me that in Washington, even the most blameless, upright, Presbyterian life— who? the attorney general? Cyrus Vance?—is seen through a veil. The politician, for very good reason, won’t let the reporters inside. Therefore, in the absence of direct observation, the modern reporter plumbs the psyche, “character,” “conscience,” “inner man,” whatever, most of it on the authority of unnamed informants. And, in the instance of the recent spate of pieces on Ted Kennedy, we are left adrift in a Jungian sea.

The point about Rolling Stone’s profile of Rickie Lee Jones is this: the lady lives. She lives on the page the way a great fictional character does, and what’s interesting to me is that White manages this without resorting to any fictional tricks or armchair psychiatry. He employs the oldest, most shopworn techniques in the reporter’s trade: a precise setting of scene, vivid personal description, and a marvelous ear for spoken language.

I learned more that I could believe about the music business and one singer in that single issue of Rolling Stone than I learn about politics and politicians in a month of Time or a year of Newsweek, and not only because the material was sensational, but because it was directly observed.

These additional, and sometimes ambiguous, thoughts about the private lives of public people also came as the result of a spirited late-night argument with an acquaintance who maintained that the only truths worth knowing were the truths of the imagination. Facts were useless and sometimes worse than useless. This acquaintance is a biographer, which gave her words a certain weight. In fact she is a literary biographer, and argued that the life of a writer was to be found in the writer’s books; she was speaking specifically of writers of fiction. The fictional life was the important life and a more significant life, on the whole, than the one that was actually led. No argument from me, God knows. But she went on to contend that it was an important and valuable task to relate the real life to the life in the fictions, and that each enhanced the other. Moreover, the biographer was entitled to any liberty of intelligence or imagination to illuminate the real life through the fictional one or vice versa. I demurred. It couldn’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted and if it were attempted it would be stretching because no one knew the truth except the author and the author wasn’t saying and when he did say frequently lied about it et cetera et cetera. Percy Lubbock on Henry James: “Looked at from without his life was uneventful enough, the even career of a man of letters. . . . Within, it was a cycle of vivid and incessant adventure, known only to himself except in so far as he himself had put it into words. So much of it as he left unexpressed is lost, therefore, like a novel that he might have written, but of which there can now be no question, since its only possible writer is gone.” This seemed to me simply true and unassailably true, but the biographer thought it nonsense. Elsewhere, she cites with approval Richard Ellmann’s phrase “biographical speculations” to describe what she does with a life. One has access to the books, to the letters, to interviews, archives of one sort or another; it’s the biographer’s job to make sense of this. Also, she pointedly reminded me, the subject is more often than not dead. The dead can neither answer nor be libeled, and without interpretation ail one has is a basket of—data. At the end, I conceded she had a point. I was more or less obliged to do this since to cling to my own would eliminate half the first-rate literary biographies of the last twenty years.

Perhaps I expect too much, but I don’t care to read innuendo or psychohistory or docudrama posing as journalism. I don’t even care to read “biographical speculations” posing as journalism. But it is also true that the life of a novelist is not conspicuously different from the life of a politician. The novelist leaves his books, the politician his record—and both are sometimes ambiguous as clues to the life, “monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant,”according to Robert Louis Stevenson. What can be inferred from the public record? Votes given or withheld, yea votes, nay votes, issues on which the politician has chosen to remain silent, and those on which he has chosen to speak—why, with what words, and with what result? How much industry? How much passion? In illuminating or evaluating a politician’s character, is his position on the Vietnam war a darker corner than his sex life? I think it is. It’s the only thing that matters, in the way a writer’s books are what matter. The rest is just curiosity.

I am reading Leon Edel’s wonderful biography of Henry James, and marveling at Edel’s intelligence and canniness, combined with a kind of tough-minded restraint. It’s a superb reporting job—and the more remarkable when you consider that nothing very much happened in Henry James’s life. A hundred friendships, a few “virtuous attachments,” no romance, no violence, no scandal. It is inconceivable to me that anyone will ever know more about Henry James than Leon Edel. He has unearthed and read 12,000 of the master’s letters and worked on his five-volume biography for twenty-one years. There may come fresh interpretations of James, man and author, but no fresh facts. Still, I was struck by Edel’s restraint in making connections between the author’s life and the author’s fiction, and in supplying motives for both endeavors. He seems to be saying, The evidence takes us this far and no farther. Edel, dealing with a writer dead more than fifty years, knowing everything it is possible to know, seems more restrained than the most casual profile writer in today’s journalism. Of course the paradox is that the James biography is marvelously alive and suggestive, the more so for its subtlety. The life illuminates the fiction, the fiction illuminates the life, all of it of a piece.

Nine years ago I wrote a long two-part article for this magazine on the state of the U.S. Army, “Soldiers.” Organization of the piece was a problem, and after much thought, though perhaps not enough, I decided to break the thing down into self-contained chapters: West Point, Weapons, Generals, Garrison Life, and so forth. The last chapter was a long interview with a colonel. It was the most emotional interview I ever conducted, beginning at ten in the morning and ending long after dinner. I filled half-a-dozen notebooks (we did not use tape recorders then, believing that the human ear was more accurate).

The colonel was an old friend from Vietnam days, then stationed in California. He had entered the Army as a seventeen-year-old at the end of World War II, and there was a good deal that he wanted to say; much was on his mind and conscience, it was not so much an interview as a monologue; I barely asked a question. The words came in a torrent and at one point, describing the death of a man in his command in Korea, he broke down, leaning against the wall in my motel and unashamedly weeping. It was an electric moment, and I fell the familiar little thrill known to any reporter in the act of invading someone’s privacy. It is a combination of sympathy and exhilaration, the certain knowledge that you are hearing language unrehearsed and deeply felt and that you are, as a result, going to have one dandy yarn. I had, and have, great admiration for this professional man, now retired, who was not a staff colonel but a combat colonel. I suppose every reporter is soft on someone, poor people, working women, labor leaders, NHL goalies, dirt farmers, whatever. I was soft on professional soldiers, up to and including colonels; I thought something unfortunate happened to them when they became generals, but that’s another story.

I let the notebooks sit for a time, a week or so, then wrote my piece, “The Colonel,” in an afternoon. However, there was a small problem. At the end of it I realized I had not used his name: he was identified only as “the colonel.” We had established no ground rules for this interview, and indeed there was very little in it to reflect discredit on him or his violent profession. Moreover, his identity would be instantly apparent to any military aficionado. He was at that time the most decorated field grade officer in the Army. Still— the interview was so raw, so turbulent, so remarkable in its candor and confession; it was an Anschluss of the man’s privacy and I could not bear to put his name to it. I think he would not have minded; in fact, I believe he would have been pleased. I worried the matter for a few days, then sent it off as written: an anonymous colonel reflecting on his works and days. In some literary way I believed that this colonel could represent all colonels, or anyway colonels who happened to be combat leaders and very intelligent and thorough at what they did. Put a name to him and it’s somehow spoiled. Did Hemingway call his novel Santiago and the Seal That was my rationale.

The Atlantic pieces were eventually published as a book, Military Men. My editor at the New York publishing house reported general enthusiasm among his colleagues, save one. One colleague doubted the last chapter, “The Colonel.” My editor laughed: “He doesn’t believe a word of it.” I was outraged. How could he doubt it? My God, no one could make that stuff up. It seemed to me then the obtuse reaction of a New York book editor far too familiar with the lit’ry life and far too remote from anything else, but as I think about it now I believe it was the anonymity of the colonel that bothered him. No name, no authenticity; exactly the way I feel now about unnamed sources.

Still, I would do now exactly as I did then. This colonel, I quickly realized, was retailing his memory, selective as all memories are. He was caught up in his own cross fire, I had no diaries or letters, nor cross-references of any kind. And his monologue was so strong that I could not bear to change a word, even if—or especially if—by checking, I found parts of that memory defective. What I had was one man’s recollection of his life, and leaving him exposed and anonymous protected us both—his memory of a soldier’s career, my credentials as a reporter of fact. That’s a plausible explanation, and true as far as it goes. But when I think about it now it occurs to me that a memory cannot be “defective.” It simply is, as imagination is; it has a truth of its own that transcends the facts, literal history.

I was pleased with what I had done with my anonymous colonel and his extraordinary memory, but even now I don’t know what to call it; it was not journalism because it was not verified, and it was not fiction because it was not imagined. But, goodness, it was strong stuff. □