Friday, March 6, 2009

My Lunch With M.F.K. Fisher

Growing up in the Napa Valley, where our family had moved in 1954, after brief periods of residence in Richmond and Oakland, was in many ways a condition of cultural isolation. The Valley had been first settled in the early 19th Century, primarily as an agricultural economy, eventually with a heavy emphasis on grape growing for the production of wine. During Prohibition, that business was depressed. By the early 1950's, when we first began to explore it, the Valley had become a bit seedy: There were three major industries where people worked: Mare Island, the Naval Shipyard which thrived in the War Years, and for several decades later before being finally decommissioned in 1996; Basalt Rock & Gravel, just south of the town of Napa; and the wine industry. Despite its proximity to San Francisco, it did not begin to grow until after the War. 

My Mother had worked in the 1950's as a photographic retoucher, shaving off pimples and wrinkles from the negatives of local portrait photographers. It was exacting work, done at home over a light projection contraption, hard on the eyes. In the early 1960's, she was hired by the novelist and short story writer Jessamyn West, to type her manuscripts. In those days, before the invention of the personal computer most writers either wrote in longhand, or on manual typewriters; the typed manuscripts were then transcribed (typeset) by the publishers. Manuscript typing was a crucial step in the process, a sort of pre-proof or -galley draft. It required accuracy and care. Mom was good at it. She worked first on a sturdy, heavy black Remington upright, eventually using an IBM Selectric. 

Jessamyn West had moved to the Valley in the early 1960's, with her husband, Max McPherson. Max was the Superintendent of Schools for Napa. They lived in a beautiful craftsman style home, with a barn for their horses, and a swimming pool where I often got to swim on hot Summer afternoons. I remember the McPhersons as a very old-fashioned couple, bathed in a kind of nostalgic twilight, Jessamyn aggressively "cheerful" and a bit brusque, and Max more serious, though with twinkling amusements.   
Not long after she had begun working for Jessamyn, Mom met and began working in the same capacity for Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. Fisher had arrived in the Valley about the same time we had, recently divorced from her third husband Donald Friede (familiar as the other name of the short-lived Covici-Friede publishing house during the 1920's). Fisher continued to use her first husband's name throughout her life, the "pen name" she had used first as a writer. Fisher lived up-Valley in an old two-story (up and down) house in St. Helena, with her two daughters. Mom didn't drive, so my Stepfather or I would drive her up for her frequent meetings with Mary Frances. During those years, Fisher, who had already a well-established reputation for her culinary works, was writing a series of recollections of the Quaker Community of Whittier in Southern California, where she had spent most of her childhood and youth; the book would eventually be published under the title Among Friends (1971). Mom typed the manuscripts of The Story of Wine, Map of Another Town, The Cooking of Provincial France, With Bold Knife and Fork, and A Considerable Town (a book about Marseilles, where Fisher had lived for a while with her two girls), in addition to the Quaker book.

One day when I was 17, I was invited to lunch with Mary Frances. Very special. When I arrived, she met me at the door, wearing a dramatic long white gown with abstract black designs. She was all made up with lipstick, her hair drawn back in a neat bun. She would have been the age I am now, about 60; she looked her age, but rather as if she were trying to look much younger. She invited me in and introduced me to her older daughter, Anne, a thin somewhat non-descript girl about my age, with short dark hair and a quiet manner. We sat down to talk. I explained that I wrote poetry, but didn't have any idea about how writing might someday be a part of my life. "Well, young man, you should use whatever connections you can in life; if there's anything you want me to do, just say the word!" Fisher was well-connected, she had an important agent, and knew the editors of the major national magazines, including William Shawn at The New Yorker. She mentioned that she had had something to do with getting the cartoonist William Hamilton published The New Yorker recently. She described Shawn: "He's absolutely tiny, almost a midget!  When he 'deposes' you about one of your pieces, he kneels on this little tuffet right in front of you, and you sit in terror of his opinion!" I knew what I was writing then wasn't good enough to show to anyone as intelligent and astute as Fisher, but it was fun to be taken seriously, and I was honored. After a while, she said she had to go into the kitchen to work on the meal, and asked if I'd like to entertain her by playing the small piano she had in the livingroom. "You just go ahead and play something you like, and I won't be in the room to bother you." I had been enthralled by the French Impressionists, and had been practising the works of Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, etc. I played a couple of Debussy's Preludes, and then Poulenc's Trois Movements Perpetuals. When I had done, Fisher told me to come into the kitchen, lunch was being served. I don't know what I expected, but it was a meal of simplicity and purity. She'd boiled a batch of very long, very thin noodles, perfectly al dente, mixed at table with a grated cheese, probably a Romano. With this was a dish of very long, lightly braised green beans, in a bit of seasoned olive oil, and a bottle of French Chablis, the name of which, of course, I can't remember, but which she said she had chosen for its "acquaintance" with the food. "I know that Poulenc piece very well," she said as we were eating, "it always reminds me of those big fluffy red-heads in that Renoir painting, do you know it?--sitting at the piano in a state of romantic suspended animation!" 

I remember that there was a portrait painting of her on the bathroom door, which I later learned had been done by "Timmy" (Dillwyn Parrish), her second husband. Parrish, it may be recalled, was, in his youth, one of the children whom his relative Maxfield Parrish had used as his painting subjects. After lunch, we sat in her livingroom talking. She sipped from a glass of clear vermouth she kept by her side. We talked for a long while, but I can't remember much of what about. She had a way of making you seem privileged by her attention and regard, but she could also be peevish and snappy. If she disagreed about something you said, or about someone, she'd speak her mind. I said I thought E.M. Forster was a very good novelist, actually still living at that time. "Oh, that old queer, he's just doddering now, just doddering!"

Not long after this, the architect David Pleydell-Bouverie designed and had built for her a chic little cottage in a vineyard field in Glen Ellen (not far from St. Helena). This "Last House" as Fisher called it, was where she spent her remaining years, alone, writing and thinking and corresponding, lionized and pampered and patronized. I remember that you weren't allowed to harm spiders in her houses, because she considered them valuable soldiers in the war against pests. But there was no militia to defend her against groupies, hangers-on, and other such human pests, who made pilgrimage to the shrine of the doyenne of America's grande nouvelle cuisine.            


Andy Gricevich said...

What an encounter! I'm jealous. Fisher was a fine writer; I've been putting off really diving in, but have been gleefully thumbing around in her books for the last couple of years.


Curtis Faville said...

Andy, the best book to start with would be An Alphabet for Gourmets, which is divided into separate sections, which may be read in any order.

Most of her books contain interesting anecdotes from her life, but she never set down an organized autobiography. The Letters is fascinating, sort of like the curtain drawn back as in The Wizard of Oz. She created a partly fictionalized persona for her work, more charming and flexible than her true self.

Graham Foust said...

This is terrific.

I've always liked Douglas Bauer's piece about spending time in New Orleans with Fisher and looking for the perfect gin fizz. I think it's in Death by Pad Thai, though I've also heard him read it--very well--aloud.

Curtis Faville said...


I don't know the Bauer piece--is it online?

Thanks for reading--a privilege to be read by you.

Graham Foust said...

Hi Curtis,

No, I don't think it's available online, but Death by Pad Thai is relatively easy to find.

I looked it up, and Bauer's essay is actually the introduction to the book, though I remember his piece as simply being the best thing in it.


Anne Zimmerman said...

I am writing a book about M.F.K. Fisher but never had the chance to meet her. Your words are lovely and so personal. Thanks for sharing.