May 21, 2008
Novelist Warren Adler back in a New York state of mind
Growing up in Brownsville in the 1930s, Warren Adler would pass a small, 24-hour candy store almost every day on Saratoga Avenue, around the corner from his home. The toughs who hung out there were bad guys who were looked up to by those in the neighborhood as heroes. Only years later would he learn that this was the headquarters of Murder Incorporated, and that many of the Jewish guys drinking egg creams were killers.
Adler, the 80-year-old best-selling author of “The War of the Roses,” recently returned to New York City after being away for 40 years and uses this setting in his latest novel—his 30th book—“Funny Boys” (Overlook Press). He has also just published his fifth collection of short stories, all set in Gotham and written since he has been back, called “New York Echoes” (Stonehouse Press).
Set in 1937, “Funny Boys” is also inspired by another traditional Jewish type: the Catskills comedian. The novel has a laugh track, a running monologue of Borscht Belt humor, as Mickey Fine, the tummler—a hotel’s resident comedian, social director and general merrymaker—gets mixed up with the hit men and thugs who control all sorts of illegal rackets through the Catskill hotels and Sullivan County. Fine is naïve and ambitious, hoping to use the Catskills to launch his career as a comic.
In writing the novel, which was long in the making, Adler interviewed Milton Berle, Red Buttons and other comedians who got their starts in the Catskills. He also researched the lives of Jewish gangsters, and the novel includes appearances by real members of Murder Incorporated, like “Pittsburgh Phil” Strauss, who got the electric chair in 1941. Here, “Pep,” as he is known in the novel, spends his weekends at Gorlick’s Hotel in the Catskills, along with other members of “the combination,” as the group of Jewish and Italian mobsters referred to themselves.
The tummler’s story gets entangled with the adventures of Miriam Feder, a young Jewish woman known as Mutzie. Having grown up poor in Brownsville, she has dreams of a better life than that of her parents; she loves movies and glamour and even looks a bit like Jean Harlow. Full of hope and innocence, she becomes a gangster girlfriend.
Adler’s a good storyteller, with an ear for the way these Jewish gangland types would have spoken to each other, and also for the rhythms of a good joke. The novel is filled with Yiddish and Yiddishisms.
“In Hollywood, I’m called a relationship writer,” Adler says, in an interview in his Manhattan apartment. “But I’ve also written about espionage. Every book I write is different. Some are very sexy—that’s part of what relationships are about, part of our humanity.”
The stories in “New York Echoes” feature familiar characters—couples seen in elevators of apartment buildings, older women on Central Park benches, a man who begins his day by reading obituaries; some stories look back nostalgically at an earlier New York. He writes of relationships and their mysteries, love, loneliness, aging, Sept. 11.
“I want my writing to be crystal clear, not obscure,” says Adler, whose books have been translated into 30 languages. “I work very hard on being easy to read. I’m not trying to impress with my erudition. I want the story to move. I choose words very carefully.”
“Everything is autobiographical,” he adds, “it’s all hidden there in different ways. Fiction is an amalgamation of life’s experiences and your own imagination, how you see the world around you and what you’ve read before.” He recognizes that his subconscious is also at work, and never goes to sleep without thinking about what he will write the following day.
A descendant of seven generations of rabbis, he often lived with his grandparents during his father’s frequent bouts of unemployment. They were 11 people sharing a single bathroom. He recently went to see Brownsville, and the house still stands on Strauss Street, with the same fruit trees around it. But he says it looks very different.
“I loved my childhood. We had no money. But I was surrounded by love, and a lot of laughter,” he recalls, noting that he wanted to be a novelist from the age of 15.
A few years ago, he served as principal for a day at his old school, P.S. 183, where they found his second-grade report card on file, which indicated that he had reading problems. He later graduated from Brooklyn Tech and New York University and studied writing at The New School, with classmates Mario Puzo and William Styron. His first job was as a copy boy at the Daily News.
During the Korean War, Adler served in Washington with Armed Forces Press Service. He then worked in public relations, serving United Jewish Appeal and Jewish War Veterans and was recruited to handle the Jewish vote in Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, and later headed his own advertising and public relations business. Living in Washington, he was friendly with many American and Israeli officials, and enjoyed taking Yitzchak Rabin to Redskins games. It was Adler who first introduced Golda Meir to Ronald Reagan, at a fundraiser in Los Angeles.
For many years, Adler wrote fiction in the very early mornings before heading to work. In 1974, after he published his first novel, he began writing full time. He also lived in Hollywood for some years, writing scripts, and, most recently, in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where, as he did his writing, he had a full view of the Grand Tetons.
Now, his office overlooks East 56th Street. Above his desk is a large portrait of George Washington, his all-time hero. On the opposite wall, posters advertise two films made from his books, “The War of the Roses”—starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, which, he says, “plays somewhere in the world three or four times a week—and “Random Hearts.” A trilogy of three of his stories, “The Sunset Gang,” ran on Public Television, and his play “Libido” is scheduled to open off-Broadway later this year.
Adler writes two books a year. Not all have been published, and he has about a dozen books in the wings. For him, writing is a calling.
“I have learned over a long lifetime that I did it because I needed to do it. I have been lucky to earn a living doing it. I can’t stop.”
He’s long been interested in electronic publishing and has made all of his previous works available in digital format. He has been blogging for eight years.
While the success of “The War of the Roses” has made him something of an expert on divorce, he has been married to his wife for more than 50 years. Adler belongs to several private clubs and participates in a Great Thinkers Group, where members meet to discuss books on philosophy. He also takes part in a weekly Talmud study group.
“This is where I want to be. I’m really drinking it up. I love this town,” he says. “As long as I can keep writing, I’m a happy man.”
Warren Adler will autograph copies of his new novel May 27, noon, at Book Soup, 8818 Sunset Blvd. (on the Sunset Strip), (310) 659-3110. Adler sponsors “The Warren Adler Short Story Contest” every year on the Internet.
Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week, where this article originally appeared.