Monday, May 26, 2008

Too many deaths of too many good people

PUERTO VALLARTA, Jalisco, Mexico - The last few weeks I noted the passing of two people who influenced me greatly in my life: Norman Mailer and Robert Mondavi.

Mailer influenced me by his writing and his overpowering intellect. I believe that he was one of the smartest people in the nation. Certainly among the top one-tenth of one percent. I will be using some of his books this fall when I teach a class called Literary Journalism. (No, it is not an oxymoron.)

I read almost all of his books and magazine articles, with his 1965 novel, An American Dream, being my favorite. I read it while at Villanova and parts of it still haunt me.

I met Mailer once in the early 1970s after he had given a great speech at the College of Marin in California about the dangers to democracy posed by the Republican party and the lunatic right wing. I took my well dog-eared copy of An American Dream to him for an autograph and in one of those moments, he and I locked eyes in full battle mode. If you read much Mailer, you will understand that we disliked each other instantly. We had a psychic punchout.

And this was after my years of admiring his writing. Later, I still read every word he published and came to see his true genius was as a social commentator, not as a novelist. Had we shared a few cocktails together, we might have become friends - or duked it out in the parking lot.

Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer

The death of Robert Mondavi, the grand old man of vinters was sad, too, because I admired his empire and his dedication to the craft of winemaking.

I met Robert at a his Christmas party at his winery in 1972. I walked up to the open bar and ordered my favorite drink at the time, a Tom Collins - an act that almost caused the bartender to faint.

The bartender told me they had probably 25 different varieties of wines, and that I could have all I wanted of any of them. But never, he said, never, mention hard liquor again inside the winery walls.

An hour later, I told this same story to friendly white-haired fellow sitting next to me at the dinner table who laughed very loud. He later stood and offered a Christmas toast for the health of everyone - a toast that included a funny story about the young newspaper reporter sitting next to him who had asked for a Tom Collins at the Robert Mondavi Winery Christmas party.

Yes, it was Robert Mondavi.

And yes, he really did think it was funny.

To this day, I drink Mondavi wines from time to time and think about that even and how gracious he was then, and until the day he died.

Robert Mondavi
Robert Mondavi

Rest in peace, Robert. Have a sip of some celestial wine - or break down and have a snort of hard liquor. Tequila is worth the change.

And rest in peace, Norman. Perhaps now you understand how important that copy of An American Dream was to me so many years ago, and why I still keep it locked in safe place.