This article originally appeared in Hamptons Country, June 1999.
© 1999 John Sherry

In Recognition

Remembering William Gaddis

by John Sherry

The day before my friend William Gaddis died, his son Matthew called to say they were going to bring him home from the hospital that afternoon. Thinking this meant there had been an improvement, I said, “Good.” When Matthew said, “No, not good,” it was clear that he was going home to die.

At the hospital in Southampton, I found that his condition had deteriorated markedly even from my previous visit a couple of days earlier. I sat by the bed and held his pitiably frail hand. His voice was very weak. I had to lean close to make out his words: “Matthew’s getting the ambulance and we’re going directly to the crematorium.” These were startling words—whether he was confused or indulging in gallows humor was not clear. But Willie was not much given to confusion where words were concerned.

That night, Matthew called me and said Willie wanted to talk to me. He came on the line but his voice was so weak I could not follow the anecdote he was trying to tell me. I pretended that I had understood and said I would see him the next day. His voice was stronger when he said, “No you won’t.” Matthew called the next morning to tell my wife and me that his father had died a couple of hours earlier. He also told us that when they’d gotten home from the hospital the day before, Willie had taken two stiff drinks and smoked a couple of cigarettes. He had not touched spirits for years and, of course, cigarettes had been strictly forbidden because of his emphysema. It seems clear now that he had decided the horse was out of the barn; that it was time to go.

Willie Gaddis was our friend for over 40 years. When I say our friend, I mean that he was as much my wife Dorothy’s friend as he was mine. Muriel Murphy once said to him, “The Sherrys are your family,” and there was a good deal of truth in it. We saw each other frequently and never seemed at a loss for what to talk about. It was not a friendship that stemmed from shared literary tastes. Willie never made easy reading for me, as he did not for a great many other people. But he was unquestionably a master of words. His great theme was entropy, the doomed attempt to find order in a world of overpowering disorder. As he grew older, his sense of the futility and foolishness of the world grew stronger and stronger and, finally, became obsessive.

When JR was published in 1975, it was sent to us, as were all his books. I couldn’t stay the course and wrote him to say that I was jumping ship. He wrote back to say that was not enough to disturb an old friendship.

Willie was a jaunty man—jaunty and very dapper. Short of money all of his life until he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, he dressed himself from thrift shops, but he always looked as though he had been turned out by top-notch tailors.

In the entrance hall of our old Sag Harbor house there hangs—I don’t know why—the head of a deer whose antlers are used as a hat rack. Frequently, when Willie arrived for a visit, he would fasten his muffler, ascot-style, neatly around the deer’s neck.

For many years, we harbored a stray dog brought home by our daughter Sylvia. Rags was a bitch of unknown provenance with a massive bent for motherhood. Twice she whelped behind the couch in the TV room. Rags was very fond of Willie and vice versa. I will never forget the night Willie came to dinner and Dorothy and I fell into one of those fierce, take-no-prisoners firefights familiar to all spouses. At its height, we became aware that Rags—no small animal—had taken refuge on Willie’s lap. Willie and Rags were both nervously regarding the combatants with reproachful, apprehensive eyes. The situation was immediately defused by laughter.

Willie was married twice. First to Pat Black, the mother of his children, Matthew and Sarah, and then to Judith Thompson, with whom he lived at Piermont on the Hudson. They seemed quite a sedate couple, calling each other William and Judith. Sometime after JR was published they decided to split up. Judith moved to Key West. They remained on good terms; indeed, Judith was of great service to Willie when he wintered in Key West the year before his death. I am inclined to think that Willie was a rather difficult partner. Such a phenomenal will and fierce dedication to work takes a toll on a relationship. After he and Judith split up, Willie went spare for a while before re-encountering Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, with whom he had been acquainted years before. Willie fell hard for Muriel and his career blossomed after they got together. Muriel was an old hand at the New York literary scene and her large apartment on East 73rd Street saw lots of dinner parties. Even then, Willie’s reputation was great and growing, but with Muriel, he was in the swim in a new way and he enjoyed it.

The four of us spent a fine winter in Mexico during 1980-81. Dorothy and I drove our Datsun to San Miguel de Allende and found a splendid house for an old friend and us. We also found an attractive house nearby for Muriel and Willie.

By then, Willie had received a Guggenheim award and was beginning on Carpenter’s Gothic. But the emphysema that would lead to great suffering, and finally to death, was worsening. San Miguel is a hilly town where everybody walks everywhere, and Willie was puffing badly. He still smoked heavily; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether he ever really stopped. But for the present there seemed to be few dark clouds ahead. It was a happy winter for all of us.

As the ’80s paraded on, more good things continued to happen for Willie. Carpenter’s Gothic was published and received an extremely warm welcome from Cynthia Ozick in a lead review in The New York Times Book Review. Willie’s stock was high and rising. His agent, Candida Donadio, negotiated a very large advance from Simon and Schuster and Willie set to work on A Frolic of His Own. He received his MacArthur Fellowship and was accepted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He enjoyed it all to the fullest: Winters were spent in New York and weekends were passed at Muriel’s handsome old house in the Georgica Association at Wainscott, which he turned into the setting for A Frolic of His Own. When that novel was published in 1994 and won him his second National Book Award, his cup seemed truly full.

Alas, elements of the disorder and entropy that were the bedrock of his convictions started to gather. His relationship with Muriel began to tatter and then to tear. I don’t really know why; it just seemed as though they were finished with each other. They ceased to live together. He finally sold his house in Piermont—it had been rented until then—and purchased a small, charming house at the head of Three Mile Harbor. Even the address had a “Gaddison” ring to it: One Boatyard Road. There he set to work on his last work, Agapë Agape. And it was there that he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and there that his emphysema grew dire. And there our friend William Gaddis died. We miss him.

Literary forces remembering William Gaddis
In recognition of Gaddis’ works

William Gaddis website