The late renowned editor Ashbel Green at last at rest in Stonington Cemetery
Although the late poet, editor and librettist J.D. McClatchy liked to claim credit for naming a prized section of Stonington Cemetery “Poets’ Corner,” it was another formidable Stonington literary figure, Ashbel Green, who introduced me to, and guided me through, the stories in this storied glen.
Six years after he died at age 84, he, too, finally has taken his place there. Among his neighbors are the Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Stephen Vincent Benet (who won two poetry Pulitzers) and James Merrill; best-selling espionage novelist Grace Zaring Stone (writing as Ethel Vance) and her daughter, the biographer and memoirist, Eleanor Perenyi; Newsweek editor Osborn Elliott and — thanks to Ash Green telling me about this obscured gravestone — Gaillard T. Lapsley, scholar and Edith Wharton’s literary executor. Ash’s marker is next to that of his first wife, Anne McCagg Green, who died in 1995.
Ash Green was an editor at Alfred A. Knopf for more than 40 years, and a partial list of his authors is testament to the esteem he was accorded: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Andrei Sakharov, Walter Cronkite, George V. Higgins, Philip Caputo, Ken Burns, Geoffrey Ward, Joseph Ellis, Alan Riding, Elena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Ross Macdonald, Timothy Egan, Ernest Gaines, Jacobo Timerman.
That he offered me his friendship during the months, mostly summer, he was up from New York was both an honor and a challenge. He was whip smart, archly impatient with factual errors or intemperate pronouncements, even in casual conversation, and generous with tales of the literary life.
For a couple of decades, we would meet each summer. We talked tennis and baseball, and what his son, also named Ashbel but known as Tony and then working for the Portland Oregonian, was doing. Ash Green, the elder, was a dedicated to his alma mater, Columbia University, and in 2004 put together a book, “My Columbia,” a collection of reminiscences about the school.
With me, ever the acolyte sitting near him in his living room on Wamphassuc Point, where he lived with his wife, Betsy Osha, a producer for Dateline NBC, and surrounded by piles of books on tables and cushions, his demeanor sometimes showing the wear of illnesses that hampered his last years, he would dish.
Despite being put off by the cover letter, he took home a manuscript submitted by an unknown former Providence Journal reporter who had become a lawyer. His name was George V. Higgins. It turned out to be the dialogue-rich crime sensation “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and launched Higgins’ career.
Not long after the book took off, Green invited Higgins to Stonington for a summer weekend. Also there, as the guest of someone else, was Roger Angell, the New Yorker writer and author of superb books on baseball, in particular. Green recalled a group of locals gathered at Sandy Point, or somewhere by the water, and hearing Angell pompously boast that he was the only New York Times best-selling writer in Stonington at the moment, Green and Higgins wryly smiled.
In January 2007, Ash sent me an obituary from the Boston Globe for a woman named Mary Forni, who lived in Maine, and, as fate would have it, while driving home from a card party one snowy night in 1944, saw two men walking down a rural road with large suitcases. One of those men was William Colepaugh, from East Lyme, and a member of the class of 1938 at the Bulkeley School in New London. He and the other man, who had been aboard a German submarine off Mount Desert Island and had rowed ashore in a rubber boat, were German spies. They were captured but spared execution because of the sudden death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Instead, the sentences were commuted to life in prison, and then to 30 years.
Ash told me tales of H. L. “Doc” Humes, the brilliant if unstable writer and novelist and a founder of “The Paris Review,” who once showed up at Columbia handing out $100 bills — he may have given away $10,000 to $20,000 — to students, urging them to spend the money quickly to break the spell of capitalism. Humes was once married to the late Anna Lou Aldrich of Stonington, and coming up from New York to visit one summer, impetuously overstayed his welcome in a house belonging to another woman, and eventually had to be escorted out.
Ash told me about the summer Truman Capote came to Stonington, and where to find published accounts of Capote in the village, which the author of “In Cold Blood” labeled “Creepyville.”
The writer I wanted to hear about was Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and Nobel laureate, and for whom Ash Green was editor of the English editions of his work. Green wooed Garcia Marquez away from another publisher, Harper & Row. In 2003, as “Living to Tell the Tale,” the first volume of a planned three-book memoir by Garcia Marquez, was about to be released, Green told me the Colombian writer had lymphoma and no longer traveled much beyond his home in Mexico City and weekend place in Cuernavaca. He also said that Garcia Marquez, though fluent in English, would speak only Spanish, and that he loved films and jazz.
I absorbed all my friend told me. I miss him to this day. I regret that I didn’t know him when he was younger, and not beset by illness. But his mind was never distracted. He had his days, as we all have our days. But if he liked something I wrote, praise be, it made mine.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day. He may be reached at email@example.com
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