Jeff Whitmore: Friend, Writer, and Beyond

Attempting to keep up a blog has, for me, become an experience all too similar to attempting to maintain e-mail correspondence with friends: difficult, sometimes impossible, but always rewarding if and when it takes place. I found myself beginning each e-mail letter with a disclaimer or apology for being “tardy” or having waited so long to write (and I’d begun to run out of “original” excuses or disclaimers, and pretty much just said the same thing with each “fresh” apology). And now, once again (and again), posting this blog, I must apologize for the fact that it will not include the full sequence I promised in my last post (“Coming Attractions for April,” March 29–all too long ago!), but focus on just one, the first subject I said I’d write about: another piece of homage (such as I offered on Bob Danziger and Dottie Dodgion) to a friend and local “artist”: Jeff Whitmore.

Having coffee (espresso in my case) with my friend Jeff Whitmore is a delight and something of an adventure, for Jeff has had ample “life experience” (abundant, in fact!) and has a host of tales to tell—tales that take place in several settings and under fascinating circumstance: all of which he relates with considerable wit and charm.

Let’s start with the time he, a “down-and-outer” sitting on the steps of a slum building, sipping from a bottle, was attacked by a herd of cats (cats which had been leaning from windows, running across an alley, even the “obligatory” cat pawing the air and hissing)—attacked and left for dead. This all took place in a film, of course (or else I would not, now, be able to spend time over caffeine and good conversation with Jeff “live”!)—a movie made by a producer with whom he shared the same lawyer in Hollywood, where Jeff was living in 1977, hoping to get rich in the film industry.

The cat scene—and Jeff’s role in it (smeared with cat food in order to attract the critters’ attention, and initiate the attack)—would end up on the cutting-room floor, the producer telling Jeff, “It just didn’t fit with the rest of the film.” “I never did get to see my acting triumph,” he says now, with modest remorse. Jeff and I share a joke: after learning that Saint Francis of Assisi said he wished to be known all over Europe for his … humility, we try to see who can outdo the other when it comes to self-effacement (he recently signed a letter, “Yrs modestlier than ever,”; not to be outdone, I replied, “Yours, in continued humility, modestlier than ever”—and the game was on.).

Here’s a photo of Jeff that accompanied an article he wrote about his Hollywood experience called “His Was the Face on the Cutting-Room Floor” (as you can see, he truly is fond of cats after all)–and here’s a photo of Jeff and me showing off our books for Patricia Hamilton’s Park Place Publications:

Jeff1  Bill and Jeff at Expo

And then there’s the occasion when ever-alert Jeff, compassionate to the point of sainthood, hoping to fill all voids when it came to legitimate human need, realized that “any stranger to our shores” (even those who find themselves in high-tech or executive positions) having mastered traditional textbook English as a second language, frequently found themselves at a loss when they encountered “swear” or “dirty” words —and were thus deprived of the full range of human communication.

Adopting the nom de plume or pen name Sterling Johnson (which he employs for his books) and sincerely believing that “communication is the name of the game,” hoping to enlighten these folks who couldn’t comprehend basic profanity, Jeff sat down and wrote English As a Second F*cking Language. The book was so successful (and proved so immensely popular with ESL teachers) that Jeff–or Sterling Johnson—penned another: Watch Your F*cking Language, which proved equally appealing, and of equal value when it came to inculcating knowledge that would allow anyone to “communicate effectively in the English language.”

The second book bears the same subtitle as the first: “How to swear effectively, explained in detail with numerous examples taken from everyday life.” I can say in all seriousness that both books are funny as … well, you can fill in an expletive of choice—very funny as well as being massively instructive, and useful. In the mood of what a newspaper article on Jeff described as “tomfoolery or shrewd determination,” he (or Sterling) sent a copy of the first book to author Stephen King (a fellow New-Englander and Red Sox fan), who responded immediately with a blurb: “Great f*cking book! Funny as a f*ck!”—words which stimulated further sales for St. Martin’s Press.

Here’s a photo of Jeff from an earlier time, when he found himself published alongside Stephen King in Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine:

Jeff3

Other incarnations in the life of Jeff Whitmore include a stint as standup comic (his daughter, a standup herself, invited Jeff to join her on stage at the Purple Onion in San Francisco, the Improve in San Jose, and elsewhere); and, as “Doc Savvy,” providing the Monterey County Herald with a humor column fleshed out with cartoons signed by “Roka” (another pseudonym). I first met Jeff when we both, working free-lance, wrote profile pieces for Monterey Blues Festival programs: the reward for which, having written about performers–and I did interview the first (but wasn’t doing very well until I mentioned a Detroit, Hastings Street, Ford Motor Company connection)–was to see and hear John Lee Hooker, James Brown, and Little Richard “live.” Jeff and I also shared space in Monterey Life, a magazine under the stewardship of mutual friend George Fuller, which Jeff previously edited.

Here are a couple of Roka cartoons–so much fun that I will include others throughout this post:

Roka1   Roka5

Jeff’s most recent literary project is a novel, also written under the name Sterling Johnson: Dangerous Knaves. I’d like to spend some time (and space) telling you about this, for the book is well worth it. The protagonist or hero is a three-foot six-inch wonder (and he truly is—or becomes so!) named Winthrop Mead. The novel not only tells the tale of his “coming of age,” but his encounters with a collection of highly unscrupulous characters (so “crooked,” as my Arkansas father would say, they “could crawl up into a corkscrew and sleep with great repose”). I won’t give away the eventual outcome of the entanglement—for it’s the means of getting there that really counts, and Winthrop has a host of wild adventures throughout “getting to” the book’s close.

Here’s the cover of Dangerous Knaves–which can be found for purchase on Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Dangerous-Knaves-Sterling-Johnson/dp/193553078X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404258863&sr=1-1&keywords=Dangerous+Knaves.

Dangerous Knaves

 The setting is Boston, a city Jeff Whitmore (Sterling Johnson) knows well not only as an imagined entity (making that city come alive through the manner in which he allows his characters to experience it), but existentially as well—for one of the charms of the book is its occasionally “autobiographical” tone, as if the author knows every square inch of Boston well, from top to bottom, inside and out—and I more than suspect he does.

The novel opens with an epigraph from Cotton Mather, on “the notion of procuring Invisibility by any Natural Expedient yet known”: a goal the characters pursue, each in his or her own way, housed within the actuality (depicted on every sensory level, not just sight) of not just Boston, but Germany, Cape Cod, San Francisco, and Big Sur thrown in for grand measure—and for solid dramatic and humorous effect.

Sterling Johnson has a host of serious things to say about human “nature’ or behavior, but he is essentially a comic writer—and the very first sentence sets the tone: “Call him Ishmael?” followed by a single word, “Ridiculous,” this embellished by a description of Winthrop Mead as “an outcast, true … content to bear that solid New England name,” a creature who carries himself “with the grace of a natural athlete”; trim and fit, even though he only weighs seventy-six pounds.

We learn that “a tangle of events” had a hand (and another human appendage) in his birth (I won’t give away that side of the story, but it’s fun), yet that the birth was not at all well received by his grandmother, Elva Stone, a rich widow (banking: “a prominent figure in Boston society”), a woman who sizes up the father, Henry, as a potential prospect for her daughter, “like a racetrack tout evaluating a two-year-old” (a sample of Jeff’s, or Sterling’s fine phrasing), and then concludes, “Money and job security would soften the thud of her daughter’s lack of charm” (her daughter’s “matrimonial clock approaching midnight”).

Elva’s appraisal of her new grandson is just outright cruel: admonishing her daughter, she says, “You have whelped a monster,” and brought “discredit and shame to the name of Stone.” The author skillfully balances such discord with humor. The doctor tells Henry, “You see, Mr. Mead, your son is very small”; to which the father replies, “I imagine so. He’s a baby.”

Break time for two more Roka cartoons:

Roka4   Roka2

While all this is going on, we are introduced to a character named Otto Doppelman, a waiter at Boston’s “venerable Parker House,” a man of German descent who will figure prominently in the ensuing action. He is described as “thrifty,” but the busboys, with whom he does not share tips, call him a “stingy Nazi bastard.” In truth, he is a spy and anti-Semite who came to the US in 1928—who, after thirteen years of residence, considers anyone who offends him “a Jew,” the ultimate example being “President Rosenfeldt.”

Sterling Johnson handles this balancing act–of separate characters’ lives and habits–with seeming ease. The narrative thread is intriguing and enjoyable, graced often with both subtle wit and acute humor (but not too cute).

We are treated not only to the Meads and Otto Doppelman, but a host of characters whose lives get entangled in a myriad of ways—and we witness the “character” of Winthrop grow or develop through an extended account worthy of The Education of Henry Adams. We visit the South Boston Aquarium with Henry and Winthrop, where the three year-old finds the koi display “not pretty” (as Henry does) but “beautiful,” and he does not wish to leave. The boy learns to speak German and Spanish at age ten, takes up taxidermy and “banding” birds on Cape Cod, becomes an avid Red Sox fan, and masters karate with his sensei Mr. Nakada—putting the art to good use when two brothers, bullies (Tony and Angelo) attempt to deprive him of a box of cannolis Winthrop has purchased as a birthday present for Mrs. McGrail, housekeeper/cook, and “as much of a mother as he was ever going to have.”

The “development” of Otto Doppelman receives similar thorough treatment. We learn that, as a spy, he is visited by his recruiter once a month, and that “like most semi-professionals in the espionage business,” he is “suspicious to the point of paranoia.” Sent to Germany, he survives an American sub attack, and ends up on a deserted beach on the Coast of Portugal–but I won’t repeat the wild tale of what led up to landing in that location, or what lies beyond it for Otto.

Break time again for two more Roka cartoons:

Roka9    Roka7

That’s just about all the detailed plot and character disclosures you’re going to get from me, Folks—because I want you to buy the book and see for yourselves what has and will ensure. The plot thickens with the introduction of characters with names like Chuck Sibley, and the Reverend Ansel Hatch (CEO and President of Hatch Toys, the “second largest toy manufacture in US,” one of their items being an Indian doll that bleeds when you shoot it), Hatch a man who sincerely and thoroughly believes that “our past is our future,” and acts out that belief in dangerous ways. And we meet General Lemander Chesley “Half Moon” Bonnard, who will serve a significant (and hilarious) role in the overall story, a man who claims to “speak American wherever I am,” and feels that “emotions were best left to women and civilians.”

Readers are entertained by Winthrop’s first sexual encounters, his journey from the “theoretical” (information from a cabinet of books his father kept for him, and for himself) to fulfillment (or entelechy) by way of Hilda Langfeldt, “the new maid,” a German beauty who will also play a significant part as the total story unfolds. From this point on, the novel turns into a full-fledged adventure tale—and I will leave the delights of that to you, as future readers.

The author seems equally at home, comfortable, in nearly every genre or style: from science fiction to memoir to magical realism to comedy of the absurd. You name it and Jeff Whitmore—or Sterling Johnson (should Jeff fall short)—can do it. The author is no “message” monger, “in your face” always with something super-important to say or prove. He is having far too much good natured “fun” for that; although Dangerous Knaves does offer–as I suggested earlier–ample lessons to be learned when it comes to human “nature” or behavior.

When people failed to heed the sort of “lessons” Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. more than suggested with Slaughterhouse Five, he determined that only comedy–even jokes—was the way to go if you hoped your audience might take away something serious (as in “of  lasting value”) from your books (books short enough, Vonnegut said, so that even Presidents could read them). In an interview, when questioned regarding his “irreverence,” his “self-deprecating humor,” his belief that his books had become “merely collections of jokes,” Vonnegut replied, “I think jokes are a perfectly viable form of literature … I make my points and discuss my ideas with jokes, rather than with oceanic tragedy … the best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.” And to prove his point, when asked, “In 1981, you wrote that if a third world war should ever come, you’d be spry enough to dance again. You ready to dance?”, Vonnegut responded, “Sure, I’d love to dance, but not alone. And women don’t like to do it with me … the way I do it.”

Subtle “lessons” in humanity are among the delights that Dangerous Knaves affords, along with its extraordinary diversity of stylistic approaches, and humor. I was reminded, obviously, of Vonnegut (and other writers such as Peter De Vries, a favorite of mine, and Thomas Berger), reminded of Absurd Comedy as an art form—but I am also reminded, as I said, of The Education of Henry Adams, and (of all writers!) Henry James, in the manner Jeff, as Sterling Johnson, makes any two figures standing in the proverbial carpet come fully alive. And also reminded of Henry James because of all the rich Boston “stuff.”

Roka10     Roka8

Sitting over coffee (espresso in my case) at our favorite “hang place,” Juice n’ Java in Pacific Grove, California, Jeff tells me he wrote a first draft as far back as 1967, in a cabin in Tiburon just after he stopped working at University of California Press (he once took Carlos Castaneda to lunch when, employed in Sales and Promotion, he’d just read The Teachings of Don Juan in proof). While serving time in Hollywood, Jeff heard the proverbial “knock-on-the-door” with regard to his own manuscript, then called “The Erotic Cabinet of Winthrop Mead” (interest that ranged the whole route from “opt” to movie to TV pilot series—the works!), an “almost” writers (aside from Stephen King) are all too familiar with. He dropped the project until he took it up again and re-wrote the book as Dangerous Knaves—“a few years ago.”

Inspiration for the book came from contacts Jeff made while serving with the 24th Infantry Division in Germany: starting out as an assistant machine gunner and ending up writing for the Division newspaper. The character General Lemander Chesley “Half Moon” Bonnard reflected the existence of the notorious Major General Edwin Anderson Walker–who, interviewing Jeff, actually asked him, with regard to the then forthcoming presidential election, “Who are your parents going to vote for?”

The key ingredients in the book belong solely to Jeff Whitmore (and Sterling Johnson), for Dangerous Knaves is enjoyable on many levels, and they all come together handsomely in this fast-moving tale or “outrageous romp” (as advertised) through Cold War politics brought up to date by way of timeless insight, imagination, and verbal skill.

Talking with the author, along with reading the book, IS a joy—for the same wit, charm, and eternal relevance one finds in his work are embodied in what he says “in person.” The tales he has to tell are a delight—and it has been my good fortune, and that of those who know Jeff well, to be his friend.

And I’ll close out with two final Roka cartoons. Thanks Jeff–for ALL you do!

Roka3    Roka6

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

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