One of the side benefits of hanging out at the Newberry is the ability to hang out with celebrities or, more often, people who KNOW celebrities. It’s that “seven degrees of separation” business. I may never have eaten Thanksgiving dinner with prima ballerina Maria Tallchief, but mysteries at the Book Fair used to be priced by someone who did. (She always thanked Heaven that Maria herself did not do the cooking.) It must be admitted that my own association with celebrities deals with unloading books from the trunk of their car, so perhaps the connections through other people are the more satisfying. (I was glared at by Mortimer Adler, but I take it I am not alone in this.)
One of our volunteers grew up and spent more of her life in Highland Park. (“The poor end of town” she always hastened to add.) Her mother played bridge, and her bridge partners have provided material for building these tenuous relationships. It was a few years after she first mentioned in passing that her mother used to play bridge with a Mrs. Goldman, whose son Billy went off to Hollywood that this bit of trivia sank in.
“Billy?” I said. “Goldman? That wouldn’t be the William Goldman who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, would it?”
She looked at me as if I was talking with a mouthful of turkey and gravy. “Of course. I told you he went to Hollywood.”
He went lots of places from Highland Park. He went into the Army and then went to New York, where he thought about becoming a great writer. He shared an apartment with his brother James (responsible for “The Lion in Winter”, among other things) and a friend named John (“Cabaret”, “Chicago”) and worked on some stories and poetry he later described in words I probably shouldn’t use in a family blog. Before he gave up on it, a novel he’d written in three weeks was bought by a publisher who asked him to rewrite it and make it twice as long.
He went on to become one of those novelists who bedevil the sorters at the Book Fair, since some of his novels are just novels, and go into Fiction (Temple of Gold, Tinsel), some are thrillers and go into Mystery (Marathon Man), and his most beloved book is fantasy and belongs in Science Fiction.
I haven’t been able to prove it, but I BELIEVE this book, which I bought in high school, has to hold the record for having the phrase “Soon to be a major motion picture!” on its cover longer than any other work of modern fiction. Published in 1973, it was always intended by Goldman to become a movie on day, and he worked on the screenplay at about the same time. He had been employed in the screenwriting trade for some time, starting with touch-ups and sometimes extensive surgery on other people’s work. At the same time, he had been doing research on Butch Cassidy and the Hole-In-the-Wall Gang. (He wrote some short stories under the name Harry Longbaugh, a name used by the Sundance Kid.) This research turned into a screenplay, and suddenly he was in demand for that work as well.
He dropped out of demand years later, partly as a result of a few failures and partly because of his grumpy book Adventures in the Screenwriting Trade, in which he spelled out exactly all the trials and tribulations he’d had in Hollywood, naming names. Goldman was generally grumpy when he wrote about writing, his own in particular, and claimed that he really wrote only two things he could look back on without humiliation. One was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the other was that 1973 novel which in 1987 became his most popular movie, a little thing called The Princess Bride, which grew out of bedtime stories for his daughters.
It’s nice to have this skimpy acquaintance with the author of one of my favorite books, even though the volunteer who provided the connection died some years back and Goldman himself died last Friday. (As a pre-teen, the volunteer also had a mad crush on the pre-teen George Will, but that’s not quite the same.)