Greenwich Village on a brisk spring day sparkles in the morning sunlight as a few dog walkers stroll by and coffee drinkers sleepily make their way to the cafes just opening up along Hudson Street. (10:30 is a bit early for the late-rising West Village to be really bustling.) This tranquil scene could easily be a passage in Mary Cantwell's 1995 book, Manhattan, When I Was Young, a pensive memoir that is as much a sharply observed social history of New York in the 1950s and '60s as it as an account of her life as a young wife, mother and magazine editor.
With the exceptions of a brief newlywed residence on 21st Street, eight months at the Chelsea Hotel and some unhappy stays with Upper East Side friends after her marriage broke up in 1970, Cantwell has lived in the Village ever since she arrived in New York, fresh out of Connecticut College, in 1953. "I do not want to [live anywhere else]," she states in Manhattan, "not because of what the Village is but because of what I have made it, and what I have made it depends on who I am at the time." Place and personal experience are deeply intertwined for Cantwell, whose first book, American Girl (1992), limns her hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island in the 1930s and '40s, with the same precision of physical detail and emotional nuance that characterizes Manhattan, When I Was Young.
The final volume in Cantwell's trilogy of memoirs, Speaking with Strangers (Houghton Mifflin), is somewhat different from its predecessors. It chronicles a period in the 1970s when, as managing and features editor of Mademoiselle, she traveled extensively, finding solace in work -- "the only companion I have ever been able to rely on," she writes -- during a bitter separation and eventual divorce from literary agent Robert Lescher.
New York publishing and her private life are still important elements in the story, most notably in a poignant depiction of her conflicts as a working mother and a sardonic one of her four-year affair with a famous writer identified only as "the balding man." (Is this womanizing creep "whose mendacity outweighed his considerable talents" James Dickey? You won't find out from Cantwell.) But they share space with evocative renderings of trips to Australia, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Russia and Hawaii, where "speaking with strangers," paradoxically, helped Cantwell rediscover herself.
"I'm really rather proud of Strangers," Cantwell remarks, "because I didn't think I could pull it off. It's a short book, and yet I managed to set it on three continents. I think I'm naturally a terse writer, and I like to leave things to the reader's imagination. I try not to over-describe, because I want readers to be there with me; I tend to be terse because it leaves room for them."
Yet the author herself is very much present in the text. "It's the same voice," she notes. "It's the narrator that counts here; I have to stay with that. I'm seeing the world, but there's another world I'm carrying inside me, and because of that, every new world I see is touched by this interior world. There's nothing I can see now without reference -- that's impossible for anyone who's lived long enough and been observant, which I tend to be."
Cantwell comments in Strangers on her gift for "instant intimacy," and it's evident moments after she opens the door to her spacious loft, a remodeled garage in a former meatpacking warehouse. Chatting about her eight-month-old granddaughter, her younger daughter's impending move from Brooklyn to Riverdale and rising real estate prices, she's warm and engaging, pleasantly curious about her interlocutor's life without ever seeming invasive. When the tape recorder is turned on she becomes more businesslike, firmly demarcating lines that will not be crossed -- she is, after all, an experienced journalist familiar with the best-friends-for-two-hours nature of the interview process.
There are no restraints, however, when a discussion of her trilogy's narrative arc unexpectedly segues into memories of her beloved father. Leo Cantwell is the hero of American Girl: a proud, involved parent (overshadowing his wife, who barely registers in the text) determined that his intelligent daughter escape the cozy but constricting confines of small-town Rhode Island for the intellectual fleshpots of New York City, which he was certain would embrace Mary and her abilities.
He died when she was 20, and Manhattan, When I Was Young makes it clear that this loss haunted Cantwell's marriage. Although her husband encouraged her to excel just as her father had, the mentor-disciple relationship so inspiring to a daughter proved inhibiting to a wife. (Cantwell also reveals perhaps more than she realizes about how burdensome it became to Lescher to live with her father's ghost.) Strangers shows the writer learning to live and work to please herself for perhaps the first time in her life. Yet in her mind, this evolution is still linked to fulfilling her father's ambitions for her.
"I think in Strangers I wanted to demonstrate, if only to myself, that something of my personal muddle was resolved, that I did start a new life," Cantwell says. "I regained myself, who got lost so many years ago... I think really when my father died was the beginning of the loss." It's quite a shock when this brisk, self-possessed woman suddenly gets a quaver in her voice and brushes tears from her eyes. "God, it still makes me sad. I mean, I didn't go around like a perpetual mourner; I'm not like that at all." She takes a breath and continues shakily. "It's just that whenever I think of work I think of him. He was so eager for me and my sister to work, he expected everything of us he would have expected of sons. I guess one thing that makes me happy is that I think he would be proud of me, because I finally got back to being the person he raised."
American Girl is a valentine to Bristol as well as to Leo Cantwell, and his daughter regains her composure in describing the book's genesis. Cantwell moved in 1980 from Mademoiselle to the New York Times, where she was a member of the editorial board. From 1988 to 1990, she also wrote a personal column for the paper, "Close to Home." "An editor, whose name I don't even remember, wrote me and said that in the background of everything I wrote was this small town: Would I be interested in writing a book about it? Well, I was. I'd hated myself for years because I never tape-recorded my grandmother, who used to tell me wonderful stories about Bristol; it would have made a great oral history. I wanted to write down what Bristol was like; it's not a coming-of-age story, but a portrait of that small town. Of course, that makes it also about me, because I've never lost that small-town attitude. I've gone through life with my jaw hanging open!"
The anonymous editor who made what Cantwell describes as "a casual suggestion" never got a crack at the manuscript that resulted. Lynn Nesbit, then at ICM, sold the book to Joni Evans, who brought it with her from Simon &Schuster to Random House in 1987. When Evans set up the Turtle Bay imprint soon thereafter -- "taking only the books she was sure she could make money on," says Cantwell, who is caustic about publishing's exigencies -- American Girl was doubly orphaned. Not only did the editor who inherited the manuscript dislike her personally, Cantwell asserts (once again claiming not to remember the name), but Nesbit had formed a partnership with Mort Janklow, leaving Cantwell contractually obligated to ICM, where she was "only a name on a folder." Good reviews and decent sales took some of the sting out of what Cantwell saw as Random's lackluster handling of the book, but it wasn't a happy experience.
The publication of Manhattan, When I Was Young went more smoothly, though it too moved from one house to another. Freed of her contractual obligation to ICM, Cantwell entrusted Manhattan to Nesbit, who sold it to Viking; when editor Dawn Sefarian took a job at Houghton Mifflin, Cantwell decided to follow her there with the completed manuscript.
Like American Girl, Manhattan captures a vanished world -- in this instance, the glamorous literary community of "bright young men and their first wives," who held poorly paid publishing jobs while waiting to have babies and throwing dinner parties with recipes invariably culled from "Julia" or Gourmet.
"What I wanted to do was show New York at a certain time," says Cantwell, who thinks of herself as a social historian more than a memoirist. "I'm doing a piece for Vanity Fair now about a restaurant that was a kind of a footnote to New York's cultural life some years ago. It's soon to close, and the people who hung out there are dying fast; I am longing desperately to report it before it's gone. That might sound funny, desperation to report a restaurant, but I love all those small things, like you find in the diaries of George Templeton Strong. I think they're terribly important to building a portrait of a place. That's why I loved writing Manhattan." It's no surprise that Cantwell declines to tell PW the name of the restaurant; she has altered names or used obvious pseudonyms (her daughters are "Snow White" and "Rose Red"; her ex-husband is "B.") in all three of her books. She defends this practice, which some reviewers have found coy, as a matter of protecting privacy in the case of her family. By contrast, she justifies not naming "the balding man," deceased since the affair depicted in Strangers, on artistic grounds. "He was rather famous, and I felt that if I used his name, the name itself would get too much of the reader's attention and distort the book. I could be the most elegant writer in the world, and nine-tenths of the book could be about something else, but if I had an affair with George Bernard Shaw, all anybody would care about was that one-tenth about my affair with George Bernard Shaw."
With Strangers just off the presses (Peter Davison handled the final details after Sefarian departed Houghton Mifflin), Cantwell is enjoying life as a freelance writer. She left the Times in 1996 with fond memories and no plans to set them down on paper. "I don't want to write any more about myself, and I can't think of anything duller than reading about my life at the Times," she says. "It was a very good job, but writing editorials is, as I describe it in Strangers, 'like being a brain on a plate': I never had lunch with anybody; the highlight of the week was on Friday, when I went to Barnes &Noble."
She doesn't say so explicitly, but one gets the sense that Cantwell has had enough of the rooting around in the past that memoirs inevitably entail. "Memory, I am told, is selective -- but not mine," she writes in Manhattan. "'Selective' implies choice, and I have none." Today she characterizes her retentive memory as "a curse. I thank God I can write a bit, because it lifts the burden of this kind of memory a little. I carry so much baggage because of this memory, and I'm glad I can get rid of some of the weight by writing. I'm always amazed, because I go upstairs to work, everything so muddled in my head, and then when I sit down to write, there it is, in all clarity. It's like magic, what happens, and I don't really understand it."
She might try fiction "just as a challenge," and she's attempting to convince a friend to join her in adapting a murder mystery for television. She likes to tackle different forms.
But not different places, not anymore. She doesn't travel the way she used to, content in her "cave" in the city this small-town girl has called home for 45 years. "This is the most long-lasting love affair of my life. New York is my passion, and I don't think a native New Yorker ever feels quite the same way. Bristol is my roots, and I suppose when I die I will be buried there in the family plot, because that seems fitting. And yet in my heart of hearts I really feel that my ashes should be scattered over the Village, or tossed in the Hudson, or planted in a corner of St. Luke's garden."