This episode is from the WNYC archives. It may contain language which is no longer politically or socially appropriate.
Maurice Dolbier introduces the day's first speaker, Robert Crichton, who discusses what made him decide to write about the people in a small town in Italy in the book "The Secret of Santa Vittoria." He recounts being hit by a car, and learning the realities of Italy. Soon after he left the hospital he was robbed of all his money. He also discusses his career and fame and describes watching people on the subway reading his book.
Next, Dolbier introduces Cornelia Otis Skinner, who discusses her most recent work, "Madame Sarah," a biography of Sarah Bernhardt. She notes that the book was difficult to write because there was such a wealth of information about Bernhardt, though all of the accounts seem to contradict one another. She tells a humorous story about a French actress she interviewed. She discusses the impact of her acting on the people who saw her. As a person, it was difficult for Skinner to know how to feel - as she was both lovable and hateful, interesting and irritating, kind and cruel.
Finally, Dolbier introduces Garson Kanin, author of "Remembering Mr. Maugham," a memoir about W. Somerset Maugham. She recounts his decision to write about his Maugham, how they came to know each other and eventually become very close friends. He relates stories of Maugham. He discusses his surprise to find that people of the day do not know how Maugham is.
Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection
WNYC archives id: 71351
Municipal archives id: T1809
This is a machine-generated transcript. Text is unformatted and may contain errors.
At this time your city station brings you highlights from the book and off a luncheon luncheon was held earlier today at the walled off of story hotel and was tape recorded for broadcast at this time your host for these programs is Maurice Dolby a book editor for the World Journal Tribune the speakers on this afternoon's program Robert Crikey author of The Secret of Santa Vittoria or nearly zero to Skinner author of Madam Sara an Garson Kanan who has just written a book about Somerset Maugham Here now is Robert Kreitman the author of The Secret Santa Vittoria. That confidence to dull the ears folk and that is more than I had then and a good deal more than I have now. And I was flattered by that introduction but it doesn't make me feel any less nervous. When I accepted this invitation to talk at the booking office knowledge and I had an idea that this was a little round table. I really thought twenty people gathered and you had a little chicken. And peace and a little literature thrown in with the salad. But I didn't expect this believe me I might have worn a suit instead of this sports jacket. And I feel a little bit like him Pastor I once wrote about. That was the great imposter except I don't feel great I'm not really a talker by trade and there seems to be a thing in this country that if you write a book suddenly you're elected to talk to people and I've not done much of that before that in fact the trouble with the novelist is a talker is that he has no real subject to talk about he can talk about his book which you look around and realize about half of the people I would say nine tenths of the people haven't read or he can talk about the state of American letters which will be pleased to hear I'm not going to talk about. Or you can talk about himself which my mother always told me was very bad manners. And said Don't blow your horn in public Robert. Let others do that for you the trouble is nobody ever did. I think since writing a secret Santa Vittoria the question most often been asked is how someone like myself who let's face it is a rather standard brand Cornfed American type ever came to write a novel that takes place in Italy and it's filled with those most strange people the Italians. I have lots of answers and there are lots of them but the honest one is it was a case of ignorance is a purpose of cr├¿me massive ignorance I simply didn't realize what I was letting myself in for when I started all this. And then it was too late to get myself out of it I'm glad I stayed with it but but but I wasn't then when I was writing Santa Vittoria I never really bothered at the time I started on this story to turn the stone over you might say and look at the other side. And it was years later until I imagined an Italian writer who had never written a novel writing a story about a small American town that's a town in Arkansas filled with those peculiar people the Arkansans and trying to carry it off as a matter of fact I don't know any Americans who can do it. So. I think you can imagine some of the pitfalls that that that I had when I I began this and one of the reasons that this book took four years is that I had a very good story but I had no people I had no real count on then I had to go find one and discover it and in that way the courage to me that. I was a stream the fortunate in several things how I managed to reason we carry off the story which I gather I've done is and I did it by doing a lot of things that no sensible Italian one ever dream of doing but which at the same time drop me a lot about a tidy in life and some of the secrets behind it lot of these were sheer luck my first piece of good fortune for example was being run down by a car I was I was I was in a pedestrian cross-walk and every person in any town you would know that while it's his same way and his letter is six feet high but Destin has the right of way that the cars just come roaring through that's the way it is there. We Americans of course believe in signs. But the the driver the car that was coming at me couldn't believe I wasn't going to jump out of the way. And I have course having a right in my side and a sense of sort of abstract American just as really couldn't believe he was going to keep coming at me. He was a very good driver he ran on over only part of me. Was quite a trick at the speed he was going. And I think the only reason he stopped he was afraid my body might injure his car and it was that everything. Now it hurt but it was my first real insight into the Italian Mind. These people the Italians who so often in the past have been considered romantics and dreamy dreamers idealists in a certain way are actually the most realistic of all peoples I've ever come across in the world. For instance they understand the basis of power and human relationships and they respected and it a good example is this case. It's as simple as this say the car is bigger and stronger and faster and it's more powerful than a human being therefore it has the right of way. It goes right through. And sometimes painfully. This was my first insight while I was in the hospital I wasn't really very badly hurt but it was my first insight I think into that special quality Italian mind that's very elusive and hard to put your finger on and it's also my first step down the road of poverty which turned out to be the true blessing in my case a few days after I got out of the hospital I took a room in a small country. And I took it on the second floor and it had a balcony and it was really like an old stage set for a small opera company and it was a big vine growing up the side of the building and any Italian no Italian I think would have taken that room he would have taken one look at it realized it was dangerous and if he didn't take it he certainly wouldn't open the windows at night to let the night air in and of course that night someone came up the vine and the next morning I was a much poorer bit wiser man. And as of that moment I was broke. Now there is one beautiful thing about experience and again some I was the Italian the thief I left two hundred about two hundred fifty dollars in my wallet and I was going into remote mountain areas so if there's any American Express people here or something it really doesn't work in those towns you have to carry cash. And. The thief actually had to work in the darkness and I can imagine him doing it to leave me the money he separated it was all in a bundle and he had to actually work out to leave me two hundred fifty dollars I think so marvelously Italian and so sweet but I'm. I harbor no ill feeling at all sure that I'd like to meet this guy someday. But from that day on I was plunged into poverty and I had just begun my research and I was about to quit at that time and go home to America and yet I did have to survive I was unable also to ask my wife Judy who I didn't know I was going to be here today I would have allowed her to come. To send me some more money since she was supporting my four children holding two jobs terrible. So I had one alternative I sank to the level of a peasant and I did I lived in these little towns I'd knock on people's doors and say Would you like to sell me some food for twenty five cents or fifty cents and that sounds very little to us but they have no other way to get it and they were delighted and let me tell you the food is terrible. For. They have one thing this is not of my notes and I'm going to like it but they keep enormous jugs of wine and it gets a big white coating over it like it's like the wax on all jelly jars or protection that coating is live bacteria if you take a glass of wine they're used to it but when you take a glass of wine your stomach actually swells up so I don't advise any of you don't drink the local wine it's a myth. In any case I had to knock on doors and going to people's homes and houses and I did find a type of life that was privileged really out of out of these out of this poverty to see a kind of Italy that most people don't get to see night one point I don't think you can fake that already you can't go to a country and say all right I'll go with very little money and I'll be poor and now it has to happen to you you can't fake it you can't have a resource and the fact that you know I was hit by the car and had a high expensive medical bills and it also wrecked my one good suit by the way that's why minutes Jack. And. Then it was robbed were probably the three finest experiences of my entire life. I wouldn't want to repeat them. The next question I think I have here yes. The second question I get a lot of and this I think my editor said not don't don't bring this up it's embarrassing and you shouldn't go into all this nonsense but I think it's sort of interesting and something that will never happen to me again but I second question I'm getting a lot of is how does it feel to be a success and I had never realized the whole success orientation of American society but I get people sending me congratulatory letters on my hands in the newspapers marmosets they don't read the book I think that. And the other things that feel to be rich famous or something and at first I was terribly embarrassed by this I I made a terrible mistake and even try to answer the question you can't answer questions like that so I point out that I wasn't really rich and that I was a good deal less famous than the second string fullback in the Green Bay Packers fans. But people don't listen this they want to believe in success they want to be successful and so now I say it's it's great to be rich and boy it's fun to be famous and you want to try it sometime. This pleases everyone except my old friends who never tire of telling me of the days when I wasn't allowed in the need to buy orange juice. But then it's as I say Well said What good is success without the failure of a friend. What I'm really trying to get at here is a very strange mystery that other writers must have experienced in which I call the case of the invisible books now as I sat here in a little bit envious of Skinner because her books were invisible all sorts of people came up to have her book autographed and signed but here it is again that. Has never worked. So as I say the business about the success was was that I'm not interested in six. Yes I'm really interested in the book I spent four years suffering over. But where are they and where do the people go to hide who read them and so on because this is an actual fact now since the book came out in August. Well I have a point here this is not intended as a boast of some sort but as a necessary fact the book is so the hundred forty thousand copies about retail value that. I don't know and the Book of the Month Club is distributed about one hundred thousand more and that's you know it's really a different terrible amount of paper going to consider and. Boxcars of paper billions of words as I have seen since August exactly two human beings ever hold a book published. Never. I have never seen anyone buy a copy in a bookstore and I once spent three hours in Corvettes to learn the tech divestment I mean. I didn't want to have layers up too but you know I was up to no good. I've not even seen anybody pick it up and put it down and in fact I did and she bought the valley of the dolls and I never. Was. But my first sighting was easy the most exciting and it would be the first time you see a human being with your book and I was swimming in the ocean off Long Island and I saw this man on the shore in a little green canvas chair holding up the book and has a rather loud garish cover that. It's nice but. There's a lot of garish and. The man sitting but I came out of the water and I came way up Beach sort of like starting again because I didn't want to notice me and I came around and I wanted to see where he was and I knew he'd be very excited I knew that and I heard over some sound asleep. The second one was months later as I subway coming up town and I don't know there's an instinctive thing about these things and the man sat opposite me and opens that hatch a case and I knew my book would be in there and it was and he opened the box up in the front page and started to read his lips began moving and he read it for all the way from fifty ninth Street to one hundred twenty fifth Street and never trying the date. Then he started to come through the buckets. And I said stop it those are the best parts don't do that and then he put them closed and yawned and he put it back and said Has a case and no parent earth will ever convince me open that but again as my second saying the third one running out of time my third. Sighting was it was actually I was carrying a book and. I was on an elevator in the sky craned around to see what it was and he did read the title All right secret of Santa Vittoria and he sent. Me That book really. Well. You don't get many moments like this in your lifetime. So i told me exactly what it was I said let somebody. This book is a masterpiece. There are no words. In this book. For every member of your family at once. And. He said. I think. Now the last one really has me puzzled. I was in an old elevator another elevator story but I could hear people talking down the shaft and one of the sort of cages and they were talking about my book and I could hear the words sound of a toy and of course my hair bristled and I got very excited and then the elevator doors open and they came on and she says one of the women said well it's still up there still up on top and then she turned and said it's very important to me and when the other woman said Well why was it some point you said well of course you know he's my cousin and. I had never seen this woman. So I looked at a young closer and closer it's possible that and Sonny said What are you looking at but guys. I've never asked I've never seen anyone with a book sense there is a copy here very excited about that. In closing thank goodness. I was asked by nobody really I mean I think I made it up. But I was asked to say one or two words about the novel as an art form and the novel is you know it was always dying and has been dying for two hundred years and I'm forced to feel there's still a little bit of life left in the corpse. And as most of you know by now I tend by nature to be a storyteller. It is to me one of the oldest and most natural ways of expressing something and if you listen at a dinner party for instance you'll be amazed how often people pass along information through the form of the story you know we don't tell factual things we have a feeling we put it into a story form but today there really is an all out assault on the story to tell a narrative to use the basic thing with the novel always has been this is to commit some sort of unpleasant sin and I have gone around apologizing for being a storyt