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March 21 2020
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Robert Stone in New York City, 1967. He died in 2015, leaving behind little evidence of his childhood.

Robert Stone and I were close during the last 15 years of his life. For anything prior to that, my primary source for his biography was his wife, Janice; the two had met in a class at New York University soon after Stone finished a three-year enlistment in the navy in 1958. Janice had spent much of their 50-plus-year marriage organizing Bob, as she would put it. She also preserved and organized a wealth of material for the biographer who might one day show up.

Stone died owing the third book on a three-book contract—intended to be a childhood memoir, and much anticipated, as his childhood was rumored to have been dark and strange. He had sold the book on the strength of an article, published in Architectural Digest in the 1990s, about living with his single mother during his middle teens in a single room at New York’s Endicott Hotel. He never wrote a line of the memoir. That unusual, fascinating childhood presented itself to the biographer as a black hole. There would be little to go on beyond such anecdotes as Janice and others might remember.

Finding the Grail

Janice had marshaled her archives into a dozen-odd cartons along one wall of the Stones’ New York apartment, and she spent a couple of weeks helping me understand what was in them. Several dusty days went by. Janice approached me with a scant ream of typescript in her hand. “You might be interested in this,” she said.

This looked like a dissertation in psychology from the late 1970s. The author Ann Greif had interviewed Stone, under a transparent pseudonym, “Thomas,” while he was teaching at Amherst. The dissertation had a faintly Freudian cast, and Stone had recited his childhood and much of his youth to her.

Earlier I’d spent some 20 years studying the Haitian revolution, a field where researchers learn what it’s like to deduce whole cultural vessels from a couple of potsherds. My account of Stone’s childhood was going to be one of those. To be handed the Holy Grail intact was a dizzying experience. Ann Greif quoted Stone on his childhood copiously, allowing me to do the same. I have not quoted Greif herself (my best efforts to track her down all failed) until now, although every time I handled her manuscript I blessed her name, as I do today.

That unusual, fascinating childhood presented itself to the biographer as a black hole.

“After the first meeting to discuss the study,” she writes, “in which I had felt uncomfortable with Thomas’s apparent aloof interpersonal style and his blank vacant gaze, I wrote: ‘Thomas seemed to me a mix of a lost flower child, an eccentric writer, an academician, and a schizophrenic.’ I learned in subsequent meetings that these first impressions did indeed point to important aspects of Thomas’s past experiences. However, I can now also recognize that these impressions were colored by my own anxiety in the situation and likely by the fact that Thomas was high on marijuana during that first meeting.”

As the project went forward, Greif retreated from her first impression that Stone might be schizophrenic and began to appreciate “his flawless and almost lyrical use of language and the occasional glimpses of his sophisticated wit…. Thomas was a very articulate and lively observer of his own experiences. When given the task of reviewing his life, he was able to summon the smallest details of earlier events and to remember the nuances and intricacies of his feelings and thoughts. At times, his recollection was indeed so vivid that he seemed to be reliving in part the earlier time, and anger, anxiety, affection, love, and fright could be felt in the room.”

And how! This revelation had a double layer. Not only did I get the childhood in Stone’s own telling, but also I got to watch him tell it as a man in his prime—that version of my lost friend, and most admired writer, I had never before seen with my own eyes.

Madison Smartt Bell’s Child of Light is out now from Doubleday. Bell is also the editor of Robert Stone’s The Eye You See With, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Robert Stone, published by Library of America

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