Happened to wander into a bookstore in Albany this afternoon where William Kennedy was reading and talking about his books.
It's been said that Kennedy's been doing to Albany in his novels what Faulkner did with his little postage stamp sized piece of Mississippi in his. Kennedy is the author of Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Roscoe, The Flaming Corsage, and one of the greatest American novels published since World War II, Ironweed.
Kennedy is also a former teacher and sometime penpal of my brother, Luke Mannion, which gave the blonde and I something to talk about with him after the reading.
One thing leads to another. We told him where we were living these days and it turned out he's familiar with our local newspaper, the Times Herald-Record.
Not because he reads it.
Because, once upon a time, when the world was young, the paper fired his pal, Hunter S. Thompson.
In fact, that's how Kennedy and Thompson became friends. Kennedy was editing a newspaper down in Puerto Rico and Thompson, finding himself out of work for beating up the candy machine in the Record's breakroom, applied for a job as sportswriter for Kennedy's paper.
"He wrote me a very arrogant letter," Kennedy said. "So I wrote him an arrogant letter back. He wrote me a threatening letter back."
Kennedy replied to Thompson's threatening letter with a funny letter. They were friends ever after.
You can read their exchange of letters in Thomspon's Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman.
It's hard to imagine the two of them, Kennedy and Thompson, friends. It's like imagining a friendship between an old sheepdog and a rabid squirrel or between Thompson and a normal, completely unself-medicated human being.
No point to this, and the reason I didn't title this post Fear and Loathing in an Albany Bookstore or Hunter S. Thompson's Greatest Game is the story Kennedy told about his cameo appearance in the movie version of Ironweed, which starred Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep as the former ballplayer, Francis Phelan, and his lady friend, Helen, a former nightclub singer, on the bum in Depression era Albany. In the movie, and the book, there's a scene in a bar in which Helen imagines her glory days as a singer have returned. She starts signing to a small group of fellow down and outers in voice shot to hell by drink and bad health and in her head she blossoms into her old self with her old voice wowing a crowd of swells in a swanky joint like the kind she used to play. When they were filming the movie on location in Albany, the director stuck Kennedy and his wife in the scene as extras to fill out the bowled over crowd of Helen's imagination.
Streep sang her own song, in both voices, the broken and the restored. The scene was mostly one long shot, following Helen through the crowd as she sang. They did 17 takes. That was to be a wrap. Streep asked for one more. This time, take 18, she let loose with something extra. And she truly wowed the crowd on the set. Wowed herself too, a bit. The look of pride on Helen's face when she finishes her song and the crowd goes wild is perfectly in character, but it may be Streep breaking character too, revealing her own pride in her own singing.
You can look for yourself and try to judge which it is, if it's not both, because that's the take that made it into the movie, take 18.
Streep followed a slightly different path through the tables on that take too. She finished up at the table where Kennedy was sitting with his wife. And when she was done and while the crowd was going nuts she leaned down and grabbed Kennedy and pulled his face up to hers and gave him a great big kiss.
That made it into the movie too.
When he finished telling the story, Kennedy grinned with a mixture of shyness and slyness and said, "I think that's the whole reason she wanted to do one more take. She wanted to give me a smooch."