A three-day celebration of Pulitzer Prize-winner will be held in Albany this week
The First Friday Club is being called to order on the wrong day of the wrong week this month, yet it's hard to imagine a more fitting occasion for the high-spirited literary group than a celebration for one of its most esteemed members: William Kennedy.
Core members began meeting almost 20 years ago in Manhattan. They named themselves after the Catholic tradition that encourages going to church on the first Friday of the month. So doing for nine consecutive months is believed to ensure dying with a priest at your side. Their pact has a twist: If you make nine club meetings in a row (usually held in bars, not churches), you will die with a bartender.
Members originally included Frank and Malachy McCourt, Dennis Smith and Peter Quinn. All have since enjoyed literary success, but during the early years of the club's pint-filled lunches only Smith, author of "Report From Engine Company 82,'' had been published.
One of the group's early heroes was Kennedy, the Albany writer who was said then to be coming out with the final book in a trilogy of literary novels set in his hometown. Quinn, a speechwriter for then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, phoned Kennedy and asked if they might come have lunch with him, a meeting of the First Friday Club.
A date was set: Jan. 6, 1984, the Feast of the Epiphany. "We came up on the train and met Bill for lunch at Lombardo's, but I don't think we ever got around to ordering food. I can't say we drank everything in the place, but we tried,'' Quinn recalled. "Bill never got a chance to say a word. Frank and Malachy held court all day long, telling stories about their childhood and singing songs.
"I think Bill was flabbergasted. He thought he was going to be questioned about symbolism and metaphors,'' Quinn said. "When he gave us a ride back to the train station that afternoon he said he had laughed himself sick. We've stayed friends ever since.''
Frank McCourt, who refers to his friend affectionately as "the Reverend William Kennedy,'' last week remembered the day: "We were fans of his, but we didn't go as groupies. It was a rather rowdy afternoon. If I recall correctly, Bill was a bit taken aback by all of us because we didn't ask him any questions.''
McCourt was teaching creative writing at a New York City high school at the time. Later, he would write the best-selling memoir about his childhood in Limerick, "Angela's Ashes.''
On Thursday, McCourt, Quinn, Smith and a few hundred others are gathering at the Omni Hotel in Albany for the beginning of a three-day celebration of Kennedy. The tribute is in part a belated 70th birthday party for the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, who turned 71 on Jan. 16, and it will be held in conjunction with a national conference of the Associated Writing Programs taking place at the Omni.
Added Quinn, who would go on to write the acclaimed historical novel "Banished Children of Eve,'' about the New York City draft riots during the Civil War: "The First Friday Club was a group that talked about writing without managing to write. Bill Kennedy helped change that.''
"For all of us, he was a role model,'' Quinn said. "He'd laugh to hear that, I know. I don't think he wants to think of himself as a role model and he's not looking to be the head of a group of writing disciples, but we all feel lucky for having met him.''
Kennedy said he had been flattered to meet these men, who would become his good friends. "I had never been to a First Friday. It was an afternoon like I hadn't had before. It was very Irish,'' he remembered. "It was a rollicking time.''
Kennedy does seem a bit embarrassed by this week's grand fete. He is also honored and grateful, but says he's not sure what to make of it all. In addition to the toast and roast that the First Friday Club members will offer at 2:30 p.m. Thursday in the Omni Hotel Ballroom A, the AWP conference will make clear that over the past decade Kennedy also has become a cottage industry in the halls of academia.
Six scholars have just completed or are about to complete full critical books about Kennedy, and each is scheduled to present papers during the second and third days of the conference. Some, such as as Benedict Giamo of the University of Notre Dame, author of the 1997 book "The Homeless of Ironweed: Blossoms on the Crag,'' will be meeting Kennedy for the first time. Kennedy's novel "Ironweed,'' later made into a feature film, won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1984.
"I don't know what to expect and I don't know how to behave. It's strange. I haven't figured it out,'' Kennedy said last week, sitting in a leather-covered chair in the family room of his Averill Park home. "It can't be anything but fun with all of the great pals who'll be there, so I'm not dreading it. I'm just a little trepidatious.''
In addition to his academic treatments, the conference will showcase the novelist, screenwriter, playwright and one-time journalist as both friend and mentor.
Kennedy, who taught writing at the University at Albany in the late '70s and early '80s and at Cornell for the '83-'84 school year, nurtured students, some of whom have gone on to establish themselves. They include playwrights Frank Pugliese and Wendy Riss and journalists Bob Blau, Paul Grondahl, Jim McKinley and Geoff Mohan.
Douglas Bauer, whose most recent novel, "The Book of Famous Iowans,'' received high praise in The New York Times and other publications, was a doctoral student at UAlbany and took a writing workshop and several independent study courses with Kennedy.
"Bill was the guy who opened the gate for me, not in a business sense but in an artistic sense,'' Bauer said. "I had been a nonfiction writer until that time and was wanting to make that shift in my life. His workshop was the first exposure I had to the language of fiction. I credit him with that kind of extraordinary introduction and, after that, with a continuing presence and encouragement.''
Barbara Fischkin, author of the 1997 book "Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America,'' also had Kennedy as an instructor at UAlbany. "I am a writer because of him, as much a writer as I am,'' she said. "He was my first teacher and continues to be the best teacher I've ever had. I rarely write any large project without remembering things he taught me or recently said to me.''
Kennedy has endured a colonoscopy and two hip replacements in the past eight years, yet he appears to be little the worse for wear. He is trim and fit and could easily pass for a decade younger than 71.
He has been working on his eighth novel for the past three years. It's about the Albany political machine between the first and second World Wars, and last year Kennedy read an excerpt from it at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College.
He recently completed a screenplay of his most recent novel, "The Flaming Corsage'' (1996), but refuses to set a deadline for finishing the novel in progress, which was tentatively titled "Roscoe.'' Billy Phelan, the pool hall wizard and protagonist of his 1978 novel "Billy Phelan's Greatest Game,'' may make an appearance.
"Legs is back, that much I know,'' said Kennedy, referring to the colorful gangster "Legs'' Diamond, for whom the first of the Albany trio of novels is named. "I haven't gotten to him yet, but I know Legs is back.''
World of words
Kennedy has been working with words all his life. As a student at Christian Brothers Academy in 1941-45, Kennedy wrote for the school newspaper, The Sentry. At Siena College, where he graduated in 1949 with an English degree, he was executive editor of campus newspaper, Siena News, and associate editor of the college's magazine, The Beverwyck.
His professional journalism stops included the Glens Falls Post Star (1949), Times Union (1952-56), Miami Herald (1957) and San Juan Star (1959), which he helped found.
In Puerto Rico, Kennedy met the Broadway dancer Dana Sosa, whom he married in 1957 and who has been a fixture at his side for 42 years. He also encountered a young American novelist in Puerto Rico who was eager to try journalism, Hunter Thompson, and they have remained friends since.
There are no requirements for being in the club. Irish-American, male and gifted storyteller are traits most participants share. The only dues are the blood and sweat one parts with in the course of writing a book.
Kennedy wrote the foreword to Thompson's recently published letters, though it's difficult to imagine what common ground the down-to-earth Kennedy shares with the over-the-top creator of "gonzo'' journalism. Thompson has said that when their paths crossed, Kennedy was a newspaperman on the way to becoming a novelist and Thompson was a novelist on the way to becoming a journalist.
Kennedy started working on his first novel while in Puerto Rico, "The Angels and the Sparrows.'' It was never published. In 1960 he enrolled in a writing workshop at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Pedras, taught by a visiting professor, Saul Bellows.
The Nobel Prize-winning author provided insight and encouragement when Kennedy most needed it, Kennedy says. The following year he resigned from the San Juan paper to work full-time on his novel.
Back to Averill Park
The Kennedys returned to the Capital Region in 1963, when his father, William Joseph Sr., was ailing. It was then that he purchased his present home in rural Averill Park.
His first published novel, "The Ink Truck,'' came out in 1969, and it wasn't until 1983 that Kennedy truly hit paydirt. That year the third and most critically acclaimed book of his Albany series, "Ironweed,'' was published. He also received a $264,000 McArthur Foundation genius award, which he used to establish the New York State Writers Institute.
The institute took hold and grew, presenting writers workshops and author lectures in fall and spring at the University at Albany, and in the summer at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.
Says Kennedy: "I pursued a career and certain things happened. I'm glad they've happened. I've had a good time. But I don't think it's changed who I am. I still hang out with the same people I hung out with 30 years ago, 40 years ago.''
Nicholas Delbanco, English professor at the University of Michigan and author of 15 books, first met Kennedy in the late '70s, when Delbanco taught at Bennington College. He invited the Albany writer to teach workshops in Vermont. They have remained friends. Delbanco is a frequent faculty member during the summer series at Skidmore.
"One of the things I really admire about Bill is that though I have known him in rags and riches, he really strikes me as the same person,'' Delbanco said. "He has dealt with success better than anyone I know. It has improved the quality of his suits and of his Scotch, but he is very much the same man as when I first met him.''
Donald Faulkner, who runs the Writers Institute in Albany that Kennedy started 15 years ago, believes this week's three-day tribute will help folks in Kennedy's hometown see him differently. "Seeing a good friend honored on his home stage by people who have come from all over the country to do so puts what's familiar in a fresh light,'' he said. "For all of the attention paid to Bill, I don't think people have taken him seriously enough.''
Should folks start to take Kennedy too seriously, the fine fellows of the First Friday Club are likely to bring their Albany member, as well as his fans, back to Earth. Since his 1984 introduction to the group, Kennedy has occasionally ventured to Manhattan to take part in their ribald get-togethers, most recently four months ago.
Kennedy describes himself as an "unofficial'' member, a status McCourt dismisses. "There's no such thing as unofficial. Once you're in, you're in. It's like the Mafia; there's no way out. If you try and leave, you sleep with the fishes,'' the 1997 Pulitzer Prize winner joked. "You can't resign, because there's nothing to resign from.''