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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    ‘What was Jimmy REALLY like?’ — The ‘Merrill Memories’ project offers personal views of late poet

    James Merrill (Tom Victor)
    Tolly Boatwright (courtesy Duke University)
    Steven Yenser (courtesy UCLA)

    In our pop culture-centric world, it’s fair to suggest the driving intellectual question at any moment is, “What’s (insert name of celebrity) really like?!” — and it would be aimed at people like Travis and Taylor, Beyoncé and Jay Z or Harry and Meghan.

    But is it unreasonable to think that, at some point, Aristotle asked Plato, “What was Socrates really like?” or Dr. Johnson might have been asked, “What’s that Boswell guy really like?”

    It’s human nature, after all, to wonder about such things regardless of any perceived intellectual gravitas.

    In our part of the world, for example, the name James Merrill is pretty familiar. Most folks, even those who wouldn’t describe themselves as particularly literary, could tell you something about him. He was a writer — a poet, right? Or maybe they know he was a rich guy who owned a very cool house in Stonington Borough — one that had a hidden office and secret door and a Ouija board — and that he lived there with his longtime partner David Jackson.

    Fans of poetry and scholars, of course, are very familiar with Merrill’s work and his deserved reputation as one of the greatest poets of his time. He wrote 14 volumes of poetry that includes the epic “The Changing Light at Sandover,” and was recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, the Bollingen Prize, two National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

    But … what was Merrill REALLY like?

    Drawing back the curtain

    In a fun, thoughtful, informative and creative exercise that indeed adds that one-degree-of-separation sparkle of personality to the poet’s profile, the Merrill House Committee has completed an online video/oral biography called “Merrill Memories.” Funded by Charles C. Clark, the project, now posted on the jamesmerrillhouse.org website, features video interviews with more than a dozen subjects who knew Merrill.

    “James was considered a formalist poet, but he was a living, breathing, very funny human being who was living, at the time, a very unusual lifestyle,” says Cynthia Elliott, a Merrill House committee member who directed the project. “We purposely looked for people who had varying relationships with James — family members, children of friends, longstanding colleagues, neighbors, other artists — so we could include stories you wouldn’t find in more formal biographies.”

    Indeed, “Merrill Memories” serves as a fine companion piece to scholarly studies or books like Langdon Hammer’s “James Merrill: Life and Art,” which are superb but admittedly might appeal to the more academically minded.

    “The project was instigated when Doug Radicioni retired,” Elliott says. Radicioni operated Doug’s Barber Shop in a bottom floor space of the Merrill House that he leased from the poet. “Doug had that shop 52 years. I thought he’d be an interesting subject, but he said he didn’t really interact with Jimmy other than to give him a rent check every month.

    “But it made us think. A lot of the people who knew Jimmy were getting older and theirs were voices that needed to be heard while it’s still possible. And we wanted to reflect different flavors of his personality.”

    They knew him well

    Interview subjects in “Merrill Memories” include J.D. “Sandy” McClatchy (poet, opera librettist, friend and co-executor of Merrill’s estate); Catherine Merrill (ceramicist, Merrill’s oldest niece); Willard Spiegelman (author, retired professor, former neighbor); Kathleen Bonann Marshall (former Merrill student and longtime friend); Steven Yenser (poet, critic, longtime friend and literary executor of Merrill estate); Sibby Lynch (former president of the Stonington Village Improvement Association whose parents were part of the Stonington literary circles which included Merrill); and Amy Merrill (playwright, producer and Merrill’s niece).

    Also: Tolly Boatwright (professor emerita of classical studies at Duke University who knew Merrill and Jackson in Stonington through her parents); Rachel Hadas (Professor of English Emerita at Rutgers University-Newark and friends with Merrill since meeting him in Athens in 1969); Marilyn Aronberg Lavin (longtime friend, art historian, teacher, researcher, and writer); Robin Magowan (poet, Merrill’s oldest nephew); Merrill Magowan (nephew and executor of Merrill’s estate); Dan Potter (artist and friend of Merrill’s since childhood).

    In addition to the newer interviews — most of which were conducted by Zoom starting during the COVID lockdown — the committee was able to utilize video of sources like McClatchy, who died in 2016. Archival footage, taken from the 2015 James Merrill Symposium in Washington, D.C., shows McClatchy reading a personal letter from Merrill.

    Merrill wrote the letter in 1973, responding to one from McClatchy about experiencing depression connected to the difficult reality of life as a gay man at the time. The entire recitation is valuable not just because Merrill’s advice to his friend was witty, poignant and wise, segueing from personal anecdotes and gossip to world history, psychology and societal observations, but also because it’s proof positive that Merrill was a consummate and prolific correspondent.

    “He wrote several letters a day, I’ve come to learn,” says Yensey in his segment, “and it’s a great mystery how he ever had the energy to write that many letters and to work as much as he did and to have time for all the friends he had … James was the first multi-tasker I knew. He could be speaking in French to one person and Greek to another and in English to me … Wherever he was, he had a study set up and there was never any question what the center of his life was. It was writing.”

    Different sides of an icon

    One recurring aspect of Merrill’s personality that surfaces frequently in the video remembrances is his sense of play and wit.

    Lynch at one point in youth got a job gardening for Eleanor Perenyi, another Stonington Borough author and close friend of Merrill’s. In her interview, Lynch remembers one afternoon in particular.

    “I couldn’t believe my luck. I was lying on the ground picking black currants. Eleanor and Jimmy were in lawn chairs next to me gossiping about Gore Vidal. I thought I was the luckiest person in the world,” Lynch says. She was president of the Stonington Village Improvement Association when, on his death, Merrill bequeathed his home to the SVIA.

    She also describes looking forward to coming home from school and her parents bringing her to borough cocktail parties. “Jimmy would always be there, and he was always so delightful,” she says. “His face was full of light and his voice was lovely.”

    The interviews are incisive and charming and seem to have brought the happiness of memory to the subjects — all through the prism of Merrill. Topics include the poet’s interest, at family dinners, in his nieces’ and nephews’ activities — even if the adults wanted to talk about Merrill’s new Pulitzer or National Book award; a poem that upset many borough residents; a nephew’s childhood Christmas visit to Merrill in Rome (and being stood-up at the airport), a confession that one subject couldn’t understand Merrill’s poetry; Merrill had a small acting part in the film “Lorenzo’s Oil”; rather than in a spot of honor or a trophy room, Merrill haphazardly kept his Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards over the kitchen sink.

    Spiegelman, in his interview, remembers being in graduate school at Harvard when he met Merrill for the first time. “I’d never seen anybody so refined in my life, and I was quite intimidated,” Spiegelman says. “But he was very gentle and inquisitive … he did not talk about himself … and the last thing he ever wanted to talk about, particularly with academics, was his poetry.”

    To see and hear

    What: “Merrill Memories”

    What it is: An oral/video project containing interviews with numerous friends and relatives of poet James Merrill

    Where: Accessible via jamesmerrillhouse.org

    When: Anytime

    How much: Free

    For more information: jamesmerrillhouse.org.

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