There’ s a moment in Nelson Algren: A Life on the Wild Side, the biography by Bettina Drew, that misses the deeper truth. It’s March of 1975 and Algren is auctioning off the possessions in his Wicker Park walk-up; he’s setting sail for Paterson, New Jersey, leaving Chicago forever.
Drew writes: “As collectors, fans, hangers-on, old friends, reporters, and photographers descended on the Evergreen apartment, asking, How much for the signed Playboys? Was the dishwasher for sale? Algren gloried in his own swindles: he’d fetched a tidy sum for a table he said was the very one on which he’d played poker with the neighborhood guys while writing Golden Arm. Actually, it was just an old table.”
Swindles? It obviously didn’t occur to Drew that the ratty old poker table might have fetched a “tidy sum” simply because Algren, at this late stage in his life, wasn’t exactly made of money, and a well-wisher wanted to contribute significantly to his stake. And if this altruistic twist on the bare facts isn’t exactly accurate either, the well-wisher being neither that thoughtful nor that decent, let it be said he was also not a credulous putz. No, think of him as a young man still in that lucky time of a life when even though you have no real money you have more than you know what to do with. Blithely spending $200 (for that’s what it was) to buy a poker table from Nelson Algren was a way to feel really happy.
March 28 was the hundredth anniversary of Algren’s birth. There’s an excerpt from Entrapment and Other Writings, a new Algren anthology, in this week’s Reader, and there’ll be a reading Monday evening
Saturday at Steppenwolf with famous names. It’s no more than Algren deserves but it’s more than he might have imagined back in 1975, when his fame in Chicago was at low ebb. The large part of Chicago capable of forgetting one of its most famous writers had already forgotten, an insult that by itself gave Algren all the reason he needed to blow off our city. But the bigger reason, which Algren kept to himself until he was gone, was that he intended to write a book. His subject was Hurricane Carter, a famous middleweight of the day who’d been in prison since 1967 for a triple murder in Paterson Carter maintained he had nothing to do with.
A year after Algren left I interviewed him for the Sun-Times. It was our only serious conversation, and if the subject of his poker table came up he didn’t call me an idiot for buying it. We talked a long time. His first 200 pages on Carter had been turned down by the New Yorker and turned down by Playboy. “Now it’s at Rolling Stone,” he said. “What’ll happen there I don’t know. People aren’t waiting in line for it.”
Perfunctorily, I asked Algren if he missed Chicago. Predictably, he said he didn’t. “I have no need of the city at all,” Algren said of the place where he’d lived most of his life and set his most famous books. “Absolutely no need. I don’t think of the town at all. You know, there’s another city near here – New York – which makes a pretty fair substitute. They have movies, big buildings, electric lights, everything you see in Chicago. It fills in.”
We turned to the matter of David Peltz.
A former radio actor who’d gone into the siding business, Peltz was an important friend. They once worked up a musical version of A Walk on the Wild Side together, and Peltz even claimed he was Algren’s source for the immortal axioms in A Walk on the Wild Side that conclude, “…Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” Peltz was also the friend of Saul Bellow, and for Algren and Bellow fame was something of a zero-sum game. Just weeks after Chicago remembered Algren long enough to say goodbye to him, Bellow, the toast of the town, published another of his critically acclaimed best-sellers. This one was Humboldt’s Gift, and in 1976 it would win the Pulitzer Prize and Bellow would win the Nobel. For a story on Bellow when the book came out, David Peltz told Newsweek a tale out of school.
Back in the early 60s there’d been a serious poker game in Algren’s flat. Peltz lost big. Studs Terkel lost big. The big winner was a wannabe mob tough who for reasons I’ll soon explain I’ll call Cantabile. Peltz wrote Cantabile a check, but Algren, having convinced himself that Cantabile had cheated, talked Peltz into stopping payment on it.
And then Algren went out of town. This left Peltz alone to deal with Cantabile, who wanted his money. Peltz would later recall two cement blocks sailing through his windows, promptly followed by a phone call from the perpetrator. “Dave, pay up or you’re going to be killed,” said Cantabile. Peltz replied, “You’re breaking the wrong man’s windows. You should have broken Nelson’s.” Maybe so, but as Cantabile pointed out, “Nelson’s not around to appreciate broken windows.”
So Peltz paid, and Cantabile, his gravitas reasserted, spent all the money on Peltz to show him what kind of a guy he was.
This is the story Peltz told Newsweek — plus confiding that he’d told the same story to Bellow, who’d used it in Humboldt’s Gift. “Cantabile” was the name Bellow gave the thug. Could Bellow have committed a greater offense than this — appropriating one of Algren’s best stories and putting it into his own book?
In our conversation, Algren shrugged it off. “It’s just one of the funny incidents you never get around to writing about,” he said. “Writers latch on to other people’s stuff and as soon as he writes it he thinks it happened to him. I’m sure Bellow is sure it happened to him now. And I’m glad he used it. If I had limited myself to just the stuff that happened to me I’d have written about half a book.”
For a more honest reading of Algren, I had to turn to Peltz. “I haven’t seen him for a long time,” Peltz said. “He got jealous of my relationship with Bellow. He’s very hot at Bellow being such a success and being so straight and watching all his P’s and Q’s.”
In turn, Algren said this about Peltz: “He just stopped coming around. He’d go and see Bellow and then he’d come and see me, and, I don’t know, I guess ultimately he preferred Bellow’s company.”
And Peltz said about Bellow: “I haven’t heard from him since the Newsweek interview….I don’t think he likes it known what the source of his material is. I didn’t want him to use the story, because I was once a writer and I’ve put it aside for a few years and I have a jillion incidents as social security and this was one of the incidents I didn’t want him to use.”
Peltz said this about Algren and Bellow: “I lost two good pals for no good reason.”
Algren eventually turned Hurricane Carter’s story into a novel, The Devil’s Stocking. It wasn’t published until 1983, two years after Algren died. Two years later Carter’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison.
Here’s Studs Terkel’s version of the poker game story.