As 'Studs Lonigan' Goes on TV, James T. Farrell Still Sings of the City of the Big Shoulders
Jumps is one of the best all-around athletes ever turned out at St. Cyril's. He has taken a prominent part in every sport and in every phase of the school's athletic activity. During his course he has won nine major "C's," an unequaled record.
Half a century after that yearbook entry was published, the jaw still juts and the hair remains thick. The eyes now peer out from behind Coke-bottle lenses, and the pugnacious, bantam pose has given way to the settled, stocky presence of a retired football coach. Still, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Jumps has never stopped being a man of letters. And he still likes to shatter records. But since school, he has done it under his given name, James T. (Thomas) Farrell. The Catholic boy who decided he would rather not seek the priesthood answered a different call—literature—and since then neither Farrell nor literature has been the same. The publication of his Young Lonigan (the first of his Studs Lonigan trilogy) made him famous at the age of 28. By 50 he was obscure again. Now, at 75, the author is about to be celebrated one more time. "All because of Studs Lonigan," muses the grizzled Grand Old Man of American realism. "Who would have thought it?" And he then answers his own question: "Me."
From the start, Farrell knew that the central character of his first trilogy was blessed (and cursed) with permanence. But he could hardly have foreseen the day when Studs would be resurrected as a big-budget NBC miniseries beginning March 7. In it Harry (Movie Movie) Hamlin plays the booze-crossed, luckless antihero and Colleen Dewhurst is his querulous mother. For once Farrell has been fortunate in Hollywood: The script has the tough, ironic ring of '20s Chicago and conveys the author's bitter vision of a nation and a people eroded by a lack of pity and understanding. The series has another vital function: to help remind viewers of one of our neglected resources, the man who sired the model for James Dean and Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro, and all the other rebels without causes who have ignited the screen from the '50s to this Wednesday night.
"Funny to think of Studs doing all that," Farrell says. "He was always such a kid himself." So was his author. Farrell is nearly as old as the century and a lot sprier. He may not write steadily for 12 hours, as he did in the old days, but he still races to the typewriter every morning and turns out his quota. Six drawers of unpublished manuscripts—novels, histories, stories, criticism—testify to his undiminished industry. But Farrell and Studs have more in common than energy. Both are Irish-American, feisty, soulful and adventurous. The difference is that Studs was beaten by the system. Farrell is still fighting it.
Like all great middleweights, he has had a lot of bouts. The son of a teamster, young Jim found himself uprooted at the age of 3 when he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle and his grandmother in a middle-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. "Altogether, I attended three parochial schools," recalls Farrell. "I used to call that a miseducation, but if I lost my faith, I learned moral values. And they never left me."
A good thing too. Farrell, who went on to the University of Chicago, was beset by all the temptations of the '20s and '30s, from Prohibition hooch to Communist hackwork. Yet, all the while he had only one true love: baseball.
"Ah, those sunny days," he likes to remember. "That's when I saw my first heroes, Eddie Collins and Stuffy McInnis—one half of the Philadelphia One-Hundred-Thousand-Dollar-lnfield. One of my greatest days ever was the time I found a box-seat ticket on the sidewalk, went to the game in style and saw Ed Walsh pitch. Everybody was excited when I got home—my sister had just been born. And I said, 'Gee, just think: She was born on the day of a no-hitter!' Baseball is my longest, most faithful love."
He was to develop another powerful affection—for the printed page. "I became convinced that I could be a full-time author if I had a chance. Or took one." He hitched rides from Chicago to Manhattan. "I got there late at night, so I picked out the first bench I saw in the first park I ran across, made myself comfortable and tried to go to sleep. Couldn't sleep. It wasn't the bench, it was the people arguing all night long, the pros and cons of Al Smith for President. I had picked Union Square where everybody shouts until the sun comes up."
He had returned to Chicago by the time his first article was published in a Kansas monthly. The subject—the filling-station racket—would be valid today. His debut novel was both true and fictive: a tragedy of Irish America, Chicago and lost youth. Young Lonigan received ecstatic reviews; Farrell was hailed as the new Theodore Dreiser, a major novelist to be ranked with Hemingway and Faulkner. The trilogy was perceived incorrectly as a kind of Hibernian Roots. "People thought of Studs as a journal of poverty," says the author. "It isn't, really. Studs' old man has enough money. It's spiritual poverty I was writing about: the Irish, with their sad history and their great dreams that collided with the facts of American life."
The Farrell style was a frank retailing of life as he saw and remembered it. The radicals linked Studs to their indictment of capitalism. But Farrell went his own way—he helped to form the League of American Writers, then broke away when it went too far left. The action brought him no friends from the other side of the spectrum. Conservatives flapped their right wings whenever his name was mentioned; they had found the descriptions of sex in Studs too shocking. Indeed, on a '30s visit to Ireland, one pious labor leader named Jim Larkin introduced the author around with a warning: "I want you to meet my friend Farrell; he's written a great novel, but you dare not read it for fear you'll lose your immortal soul."
As the social consciousness of the nation was swallowed by thoughts of World War II, there was less booming from the Farrell cannon. His new books were not up to Studs Lonigan, the critics said. Even editors were less willing to print Farrell's work. "They looked at my stuff and said it wasn't Farrell," he says. "Every goddamn thing I do is not Farrell. Who the hell is Farrell anyway? If I ever find the son of a bitch I'll have him killed."
The writer went West to write movies ("I lasted two weeks") and returned to his work and his decreasing income in New York. Personal problems surfaced. The booze he had held at arm's length in the Capone era began to beckon. The royalties diminished. Farrell and his young wife, Dorothy, split not long after their son died in infancy. He married a beautiful Broadway actress, Hortense Alden; they had a child, Kevin, but the marriage dissolved some years later. He remarried Dorothy but they separated again in 1958.
"I was not afraid of oblivion," he says. "I remember reading the lines of Yeats, 'I spit into the face of Time/That has transfigured me,' and thinking, 'Yes, that's exactly how I feel.' " The money slowed to a trickle; the reputation faded like an old dust jacket. "They say I'm washed up," he told friends. "Editors and publishers tell me I should have quit writing years and years ago. They think I should have conveniently died at 30. But I won't die. I'll keep writing."
He kept his vow, but it was a near thing. He sent money to both ex-wives and to Kevin. "Once you've loved someone," he observes, "you just can't let them starve." But for the man who paid the bills, starvation was never far away. Novels were held by publishers—and then abruptly returned. Others were published and neglected by the universities that had once made him required reading.
A low-budget version of Studs was released in the early '60s, starring unknowns and furnished with an ending that falsified the book's letter and spirit. A year later, Farrell ruefully recounted, "I was at a true ebb. My total annual income was exactly $2,165."
It would have been easy to quit on life and art. Instead Farrell took heart from the inscription in one of his books: "To Jim, who always fought for everything he got. Gene Tunney." The middleweight battled back. He went off the sauce. "I wasn't an alcoholic, really. Drinking was a folly for me, not a profession." He wrote his way out of debt: newspaper columns, baseball reportage, paperback originals. When ulcers floored him, he went to the hospital and had two-thirds of his stomach cut out. "I missed work for two days. On the third day in the hospital I was writing again."
Still, it was not the present tense that saved him, it was the past perfect. "Every time a bill came in, every time I thought I was flat broke, somehow a royalty check arrived from Italy or a reprint payment from London. I got by." He changed Manhattan addresses several times, from a room in the Chelsea Hotel to the Beaux Arts Hotel to his present comfortable 3½-room apartment on the East Side, only a few subway stops from beloved Yankee Stadium. There he broods about the old days: "One of my first poems, written in 1927, starts, 'Leave me walk over the years, free and alone..." I have walked over the years, pretty many of them, free and alone."
Many, but not all. For the past several years he has kept company with Cleo Paturis, a magazine editor. "People think Jim's been 'saved' by an honest woman," she says. "Nonsense! Jim never needed saving. He was always a great man, a great writer with enough energy for 10 authors."
As proof, she gestures to those files. Farrell riffles through folders, thinking about the new days, deciding which will be his 53rd published book. The voice is like that of Jumps, pondering some option plays: "Here: 10 novels, baseball stories, another short story. I've got more than 20 books in these folders. I know the last sentence in this unfinished book. It's 'The world was forever old and all was new.' "
It is an embarrassment of riches, but James T. Farrell declines to show any embarrassment. He was an overnight success in the old days, but the next night was longer than the ones they have on Venus. Neglect did not destroy him, nor critical devaluation and personal misfortune. Of course they did not help. Now that he stands at the beginning of yet another revival, now that there is still another edition of Studs Lonigan, now that Kevin is doing fine as a surgeon in Baltimore, James T. Farrell has no illusions and few expectations.
"I want to do what I've been doing," says Farrell, "that's all. To pay my own way, go to spring training in Florida, watch some ball games, walk in the old New York neighborhoods. To visit my grandson, to remember and write. What else is there?" As for the rewards of the new miniseries: "I'm very seldom recognized these days, and TV makes celebrities of actors, not writers. Which is fine. I don't have to waste my time on autographs when I should be writing novels. Besides, I've never sought immediate rewards. At 75 you don't expect to win sprints. I'm in this thing for the long run."
Godspeed, Jumps. Godspeed.