Last Thursday Stuart Brent looked out the window of his Michigan Avenue store and glared at the freezing drizzle. “And then the rain turned to snow,” he says. “And I looked up and said, ‘God, at this late stage in my life are you going to turn me down?'”
Brent, who’s 80, had worked like a dog for two months planning a party for Philip Roth and his new novel, Operation Shylock: A Confession. And he didn’t want the party ruined by piles of slush in the streets. “I even designed a very special invitation,” he says, handing over a cream-colored card with a matching envelope. “Notice the texture.”
Brent had successfully appealed to God on other occasions. For instance, when B. Dalton moved in down the street ten years ago. “Every morning I asked for a miracle. And God said, ‘I can’t bankrupt a business that size overnight. But I’ll wreck the building.'” The building was subsequently torn down.
God didn’t turn Brent down on Thursday either. The sleet subsided by party time.
The party, says Brent, “was the apotheosis of my lifetime. It culminated everything I’ve done. Philip Roth said he never, ever allowed anyone to give him a party. But he said, ‘In your case, I’ll do it.’ I proceeded to make it my greatest party.”
Later Roth said he doesn’t go on publicity tours, doesn’t know or care about marketing or selling or publisher’s hype. “They can do whatever they want. It’s their business. I did this for Stuart– the best independent bookseller in America.”
Brent was touched that his friends turned out. “Kupcinet, Ann Landers, Ann Gerber, Lucia, Robin Cook, who asked me that day, ‘Stuart, is it a rainy day too in the republic of letters?’ Richard Stern, Saul Bellow–who said if he wasn’t sick he would have been here. The dean of DePaul, Studs–I don’t remember whether he was here or not. Hundreds and hundreds of my most favorite customers. We sold 1,000 books at $23 a copy.”
Roth said he didn’t really attend the party. “I just sat in the back and signed my name–like I do on the first of the month in my checkbook.” And told Brent he was going to send him the doctor bills for whatever ails one after signing 1,000 books.
“This was a turning point in my life,” says Brent. “It gave me again a personal love of human ability. At no time did he show any irritability. He’s so clear, casual, unrehearsed. One young poet, a tall chap of about 28, brought about 20 Philip Roth novels out of two bags–those bags, you know, that young people carry. He brought them all the way from the upper peninsula of Michigan. He wanted them all signed. I was about to interrupt. Here was the great literary intelligence of the century, and I felt shaken by what I saw. No writer would have stood for it.”
Roth, however, signed all 20 copies.
Brent says, “One author who was here once got tired and stopped signing. I said, ‘What are you doing? Go back.’ He did, but there was a rupture in our friendship. He’s still living, but I haven’t done a single thing for him since.” Brent declined to divulge the writer’s identity.
After the party Brent, Roth, Roth’s wife (actress Claire Bloom), and a small entourage went to L’Escargot for dinner. The chef had baked a special cake for Roth. “Our banter was joyful, so charitable, so human,” says Brent. “We talked about literature and friends and his great understanding of American writers. I think his most telling remark was when he said, ‘You know, Stuart, at this stage in civilization there are worse fates than being an American citizen.'”
Brent explains that during his two-day visit Roth subjected himself to only a few brief interviews, having noted, “The truth is, life is so much more than a question-and-answer period.”
“Every great writer I know, none of them showed such–” Brent stops, then suddenly remembers another Roth truism. “He told me there’s never such great, good fun as foolish intellectual gossip. He added something though. He said foolish intellectual gossip makes you feel like you’ve had a ‘good schtup.’ That’s a good fuck.” Brent giggled.
But Roth wasn’t eager to discuss other kinds of gossip on Saturday morning, when he was back at Brent’s to sign a few more books. I started to tell him about the time I met his sister-in-law, a local real estate agent who was then married to Roth’s brother, a local artist.
“My ex-sister-in-law,” said Roth.
I explained that at the time I had just read an excerpt of his autobiography about his life at the University of Chicago with his first wife, but I still had a lot of unanswered questions about his relationship with her.
“I really don’t want to get into this,” Roth said rudely.
“So, you don’t want to hear about how I met your ex-sister-in-law?” I asked. I was going to tell him how she was showing my girlfriend a condo; when she mentioned who her brother-in-law was, I asked her my questions– and she answered a lot of them.
“She wasn’t my wife. I wasn’t married to her,” said Roth.
He shook my hand. And said a warm, polite, extended good-bye to Brent.