No one was more surprised than David Hajdu when Lush Life, the groundbreaking 1996 biography that restored composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn to his rightful place in jazz history, not only got excellent reviews and won an ASCAP—Deems Taylor Award, but also sold far better than anyone had expected and was optioned for a feature film. "I thought I was writing for 100 people," says Hajdu. "Whenever I told anyone I was writing a biography of Billy Strayhorn, they would say, 'Really? Why?' Had I ever known how successful it would be, I think I would have been paralyzed."
Hajdu knew there would be more advance media interest in Positively 4th Street (Forecasts, Apr. 9), a group portrait of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña during the crucial years of the early 1960s when they collectively changed the nature of popular music. But he's not thrilled about the slant of the voluminous coverage. "It's driving me nuts that it's being reviewed as a Dylan book. If I weren't such a plodding writer and had finished it on time—it was due a year ago—then Farrar, Straus & Giroux wouldn't be publishing it right around Dylan's 60th birthday. I just hate the fact that people might think it's some sort of a memento, like a Mylar balloon."
Such quibbles about attention most authors would kill for might make Hajdu seem like a curmudgeon, which he's not, but the 46-year-old writer does take his work very seriously. "I've always aspired to write literature," he says, "and for a long time I thought, 'Well, I'll write this nonfiction, but someday I'll do real writing.' Then I decided the two need not be mutually exclusive, and I tried to do Lush Life like a work of nonfiction literature. My idols are Henry James and Jane Austen, and I thought about them both a lot while I was working on Positively 4th Street, because of the connections between personal relationships and society in this book."
Hajdu's own connection to this material goes all the way back to 1974, when he conducted some of the interviews later used in Positively 4th Street while an undergraduate at New York University. "I still have them," he says, rummaging through a huge filing cabinet in his one-room office in an Upper West Side apartment building and producing a manila folder with some yellowing typed pages. "I interviewed Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton and a number of others for a piece I called 'Ghosts of the Folk Era' that I submitted to New York magazine. The story was rejected—it was no good—but the interviews weren't bad, and they ended up being an invaluable resource for this book.
"I was fascinated by the Village when I first came to NYU. I was in a division called 'The University Without Walls'—we called it 'The University Without Principles'—which was largely independent study, and I wrote a script for a screenwriting course called Electric, about how Bob Dylan's taking up rock and roll caused a schism between him and Joan Baez. I did a lot of dramatic writing in college, and the playwright Tad Mosel was my adviser for two years. He taught me how to demonstrate, not state, and how to express feelings and ideas through behavior and scenes. Even in nonfiction, I prefer to leave things suggestive so readers can come to their own conclusions. I subscribe to a rule formulated by Howard Hawks, who said, 'Give 'em one and one; you don't have to tell 'em it makes two.' "
Although he flirted with moviemaking (including a student film about Dylan's early days in the Village), Hajdu never had any doubts about what his profession would be. "All I've ever done was write," he says. "It was the second job I ever wanted—the first was to be a garbage man, when I was four! I had some early breaks, and by the time I was a senior in high school, I was writing for the local paper, the Easton Express. I grew up in Phillipsburg, N.J.; Easton, Pa., was this gray factory town right across the Delaware River. When I came to NYU, I also submitted pieces to the local papers, except the local papers were the New York Times and the Village Voice. I had never heard of a proposal, so I was writing full-fledged articles, and eventually they started getting accepted. By late 1977, when I was still in college, I was writing for the Voice, mostly about music, and by '78—'79 I was writing for Rolling Stone."
After Hajdu got married and his two children were born in the 1980s, his priorities changed. "I did some editing for the New York Times magazine division; it was good solid work, and I could make a living in publishing without having to write about things I didn't want to. Then I worked on the launch of Entertainment Weekly at Time Inc. and stayed there as an editor for 10 years. It got me through the launch of Lush Life, I have a nice 401(k) and my son can go to college." (Jacob starts at the University of Wisconsin this fall; his sister, Victoria, is still in high school. Hajdu is divorced from their mother and now married to actor Karen Oberlin.)
Editing paid the bills while Hajdu worked for 11 years on Lush Life. "Billy Strayhorn's music always spoke to me. I knew I wanted to write about whoever it was who had created those works of genius before I knew the dramatic story of his life." In his biography, Hajdu traces the trajectory of a poor black kid from Pittsburgh who yearned for the sophisticated metropolises where others shared his intellectual and artistic interests and accepted his sexual orientation. Strayhorn achieved that "lush life" through his professional association with Duke Ellington, and Hajdu's nuanced analysis of their 28-year collaboration acknowledges its elements of exploitation (Ellington got the lion's share of credit for work they did together), while also recognizing that Strayhorn's behind-the-scenes role enabled him to live openly as a gay man, something he could never have done as a bandleader. So while "Lush Life," one of Strayhorn's best-known compositions, seems the perfect title for Hajdu's book, the author, characteristically, has reservations. "I don't like the double meaning of 'lush,' " Hajdu says. (Strayhorn was a notoriously hard drinker.) "I try to avoid pathologizing my subjects, and I never wanted to reduce Strayhorn to a cliché of the tortured jazz artist who drank himself to death. It was never that simple."
Agent Chris Calhoun found a home for Hajdu's proposal at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where everyone seemed to understand the subject's complexity. "Jonathan Galassi signed the book, and he got right away that although Strayhorn might seem like a minor figure, his story was a window into a half-dozen worlds, including gay culture and black life. At the first marketing meeting for Lush Life, I sat down with five people who had all read my book. They didn't just plug it into their marketing formula, they came to the meeting with ideas about how to do the right job for that particular book. That feeling of people really devoted to your work permeates FSG. Paul Elie, a brilliant editor who did some of the key work on the second half of Lush Life, yesterday sent me an e-mail about some scholarly material he'd recently seen in the field of comic books, which is the area I'm exploring now, just to make sure I knew about it."
Elie and Galassi also edited Positively 4th Street. In fact, says Hajdu, "When I started this book, Paul knew the subject better than me; he's a former musician, played Folk City in the 1970s, and wrote his master's thesis on the folk era. That concerned me at first. I was afraid he'd want to write my book, but that never happened."
Although Positively 4th Street has deep roots in the author's past, it also grew naturally from interests discovered while writing his first book. "Lush Life is about the dynamic between two creative collaborators who were also friends. I found myself fascinated by the collaborative nature of the creative process; I wanted to do more with that. Also, having dealt with jazz, the great popular music of the first half of the 20th century, I wanted to turn to the most prominent music of the second half."
Hajdu is obviously steeped in the ideas, events and personalities of that music. His extemporaneous remarks emerge as confident and polished exposition: "Even a cursory examination of the development and maturation of postwar popular music would lead anyone to Bob Dylan, in terms of marrying the world of the word and the world of music. But when Dylan was trying to find his way in the Village, Richard Fariña was already on the scene writing literature with a rock and roll feeling." How convenient, then, for the sake of story, that in 1963 Fariña married Mimi Baez, younger sister of folk music's reigning queen, and that Joan Baez not only gave Dylan his first wide exposure at her concerts, but also fell in love with him. "It adds something dramatic to the narrative to show four young unknowns setting out to change the world, and two of them literally do, and two don't. Were those two that much more talented? Well, it's not that simple: Richard was a talent to contend with, and there are people who think Mimi was the superior musician to Joan. Was it ambition? Well, Fariña was far more ambitious than Dylan—if that's conceivable."
So ambitious that some acquaintances believed Fariña married Mimi to get next to her famous sister. These remarks are quoted in Positively 4th Street, which also candidly depicts the mutually self-serving relationship between Baez and Dylan. Except for Fariña, whose 1966 death in a motorcycle crash closes the book (in conjunction with Dylan's similar, nonfatal accident 60 days later), Hajdu's protagonists are still alive. Did he worry about their reaction? "While I was writing the book, I wiped from my mind any concern about what the subjects would think," he replies. He interviewed both Baez sisters, but "I never allowed myself to become their friend. We spent a lot of time together, I got to know them well, but I always maintained a professional distance. I never pretended to be there to serve a public relations function. I don't use the word 'participate' when I ask people for interviews, because I don't want my sources to 'participate' with me. We're not part of the same process; we're not in this together."
Hajdu conducted hundreds of interviews for each of his books, but his favorite source is someone he's never met. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon, who was a close friend of Fariña's, replied (by fax) to an extensive list of questions and permitted Hajdu to quote from his correspondence. "This is the guy who enjoined the Morgan Library from making his letters available to scholars until after his death!" exclaims the author, who describes their epistolary exchanges as "one of the most exhilarating research experiences of my life." By contrast, although he dutifully pursued Dylan, he never really expected the elusive musician to see him. Fortunately, Hajdu got access to the unpublished transcripts of interviews Dylan gave the late Robert Shelton for his 1986 biography, No Direction Home. "Bob talked at length and freely about this period of his life, but because Shelton could never decide if he was a journalist or a publicist, he didn't use the most incendiary and illuminating material, so most of the quotes from Dylan have never appeared anywhere else."
Currently framing an outline for his new book proposal (about comic books, but "serious: I don't care about Superman"), Hajdu appears happy and fulfilled in his relatively new life as a full-time writer. "I was able to leave Entertainment Weekly about three years ago, thanks to the success of Lush Life, the advance for Positively 4th Street and most of all the support of my wife. We sat down with a pad, went through our expenses and decided, 'We can do this.' " Heart trouble sharpened his sense that it was time to take the plunge. "I have a pacemaker at a fairly young age, and I decided I was going to concentrate on quality of life, quality of work. If I have one more book in me, this is what I'm going to do. If I have another one in me, great."