A Gift of Laughter

updated 12/18/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/18/1995 01:00AM

IN JULY 1988, WHEN HE WAS 21 AND working on his first book for children, David Saltzman wrote something that was, in a terrible way, prophetic:

The little girl looked up and her eyes were opened wide.

She turned slowly to the Jester, and she quietly replied.

"Here I lie, I have a tumor.

And you ask me where's my sense of humor?"

Three months later, Saltzman, a senior at Yale, phoned his mother, Barbara, an entertainment editor at the Los Angeles Times. "He said, 'I'm not sure what they're telling me—something about Hodgkin's disease,' " she remembers. In fact, David had been found to have a tumor the size of a football in his chest. It would eventually kill him, but it could not destroy what was left of his life, because David had a purpose—the book he was determined to finish. "It's ironic," says Barbara Saltzman, 55. "David created the Jester to help other people, but as he continued to work on the book the Jester never failed to inspire him whenever he had a down moment."

On March 2, 1990, 11 days shy of his 23rd birthday, David Saltzman died. This October, The Jester Has Lost His Jingle, completed just months before his death, was published.

A double major in English and art, David, who drew a cartoon featured in the Yale Daily News satirizing academic politics, had wanted to write and illustrate children's books ever since he visited the studio of renowned author-illustrator Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are) in 1986. His mother, for one, believes he would have been a great success, and Sendak tends to agree. "He was an immensely gifted kid," says Sendak who met Saltzman in 1986 after speaking at an event at Yale and who at Barbara's request wrote an afterword to Jester. "There was something very intelligent and appealing about him I felt that he had a wonderful future."

After he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's—a cancer of the lymphatic system—and all during his 1½ years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, David continued to work on his book. It told the story of the Jester, expelled from his kingdom for not being funny, who rediscovers the gift of humor from a cancer-stricken child. After David graduated magna cum laude in 198,, he moved back to his parents' home in Palos Verdes, Calif. When a bone-marrow transplant failed to halt the cancer, he poured his energies into the book, frantically drawing and redrawing, writing and rewriting, in a studio his father, Joe, 56, a journalism professor at USC, set up in their garage.

One month after his death, David's shattered family showed the 64-page manuscript with 35 drawings to publishers in New York City. "We were told the book was too long and we would have to cut it," says David's only sibling, Michael, 31, an executive producer of Murphy Brown. "We said, 'You don't understand. This is the final product; the author isn't here to rewrite or redraw.' "

Frustrated by the publishers' rejections, the family decided to publish it themselves, although Joe was reluctant. "My way of dealing with David's death was to get involved in my writing," says Joe, who is researching a history of journalism. "I thought, 'We don't have the time or the money.' But Barbara was determined."

"My promise to David," says Barbara, "was that we would do the book as best we could." They did—spending $380,000, some from a second mortgage and $50,000 borrowed from friends. They used top-quality paper, set up a toll-free number for orders (1-800-9-JESTER), and sent out slick press kits that major publishers might envy. They badgered book chains, including Barnes & Noble and Crown Books into stocking the book and so far they have sold a remarkable 28 000 copies of the $20 hardcover recouping $240 000 of their original investment "Any profit," says Barbara, "will go to printing more books."

The book's message—that happiness can be found even in the face of terrible illness—won the endorsement of Parents Against Cancer, a nonprofit support group affiliated with Long Beach Memorial Medical Center in California, which bought 10,000 copies for pediatric cancer patients around the country. For Barbara Saltzman, the book speaks volumes not only about its subject but about her beloved and loving son "He would," she says, "have made a terrific father."

MICHAEL NEILL
SUSAN CHRISTIAN GOULDING in Palos Verdes

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