Drinking With Irwin Shaw
A balmy evening in Manhattan, mid-May, 1979: my girlfriend, Chris Keller, and I kill time before a jazz show by strolling along E. 57th Street. An older man approaches slowly. In one hand he holds a small, netted fisherman’s bag, empty. As we get closer, I realize who he is.
“That’s Irwin Shaw,” I say, watching the famous writer disappear into the Dover Delicatessen, a fancy grocery where Greta Garbo could be seen from time to time.
There was no mistaking Shaw’s face with its large nose, florid complexion, shrewd, observant eyes and somewhat wild salt-and-pepper hair (mostly salt). A face of a man who’d done some living. Anyone who ever bought an Irwin Shaw novel in hardback—say “The Young Lions” or “Rich Man, Poor Man” or “Nightwork”—would spot him from the author’s photo. “Let’s go in.”
For a few minutes, we stalk Shaw from narrow aisle to narrow aisle. Chris and I look at each—what are we doing?—and walk out of the store, only to stop a few yards up the sidewalk. I know if I don’t speak to him, I’ll regret my timidity for the rest of my life.
So we wait.
Soon he emerges, his bag weighted by a few purchases.
“Excuse me, are you Irwin Shaw?”
“I am--and you are . . .?”
We introduce ourselves. During a minute or so of small talk, Shaw learns we are reporters: Chris from UPI, I from the Daily News.
He smiles when he hears this. Fellow writers, kind of.
“Fine,” he says. “Let’s go have a drink.”
And so begins our long night of drinking (and drinking and drinking) with one of America’s most famous—and charming—writers of his time. We never made the jazz show.
We end up a half-block west at the Irish Pavilion. Shaw orders Scotch. We follow. Shaw is a veteran Scotch drinker. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Within minutes, you’d think that Chris and I had known Irwin (as he insisted on being called) all our lives. He was sixty-six that year, in Manhattan to consult doctors for an ailing hip, hence his slow gait. An avid athlete, he’d played football for Brooklyn College before embracing skiing, a sport he could indulge regularly since he lived half the year in Klosters, a village in the Swiss Alps. Summers were spent at his recently purchased home in Southampton (the picture above shows Irwin a month or two later at the house).
Shaw spoke proudly of his son, Adam, a former Washington Post reporter who’d recently published a well-received book about an airplane disaster. He spoke of his own travels, places he’d lived, a bit about his war experiences. Hemingway was mentioned. Shaw had introduced Mary Welch to Hemingway, and she became his fourth and final wife (Irwin didn’t talk of this, but Hemingway knew that Welch and Irwin had had a fling during the war, and Papa didn’t like it, but Papa didn’t like a lot of things). I told him that as a kid, I’d skimmed “The Young Lions” for dirty parts, never found. I praised his classic short stories, among then “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses,” “Sailor off the Bremen” and “The Eighty-Yard Run.”
Mostly though, he asked questions, listening with genuine interest. Chris by far was the more fascinating of his two new friends. She already had lived in Berkeley, Kenya, Paris, Carmel, Avignon, and the French Alps, while the most I’d managed was to escape from Queens (we were living in a great corner apartment in Park Slope before Park Slope morphed into what it is today). It didn’t hurt that Chris was a tall, smart, good-looking young woman. Irwin definitely liked women.
The hours passed quickly. The drinks kept coming. Finally, Irwin paid the bill, insisted on buying Chris a charming Irish wool cap, and invited us to his room at the nearby Ritz Tower for a nightcap.
As we sat in his room, the phone rang. The man on the other end was screaming. It turned out that Irwin was quite late for a dinner with his legendary agent, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, the screamer.
“What do you mean ‘where have I been?’” Shaw replied to Lazar. “I’ve been with Chris Keller and Vince Cosgrove.” We cracked up. Lazar had no clue who we were.
We finished the nightcap and accompanied Shaw downstairs, where he commandeered a limo to take him to Elaine’s and the steaming Swifty. Before getting in the car, he offered some advice. “I think you two should get married—and you can have the ceremony and reception at my place on the Island.” He absolutely meant what he was saying. I shook his hand, Chris kissed his cheek and off he went uptown to drink more Scotch and exert more warmth to more friends. Somehow, we drove back to Brooklyn without incident.
Four months later we did get married, not on Long Island but in Chris’s native California.
I recently finished rereading Shaw’s 1975 best-seller, “Nightwork,” a great summer entertainment, a book as charming and knowing as its author, filled with colorful characters who cavort in glamorous places (St. Moritz, Florence, Davos, Paris, Rome, Nice). Shaw describes his hero’s travels with such precision and feeling that you can almost smell the Mediterranean or savor a brandy après ski.
The book starts as a bit of a thriller, but that’s not Shaw’s ultimate intent. What we get is a young American, Jamesian in his innocence, who learns about the world from more experienced types, notably Miles Fabian, a witty, affable scam-artist. Remember as you read “Nightwork’ that it was published thirty-eight years ago, and that $100,000 doesn’t get you as far as it did back then; that there are strong female characters, and some who are more pliant. Oh, the hell with this … just read the book and make up your own mind. Go online, a copy will cost you less than the postage.
If you’ve never read Shaw, another good place to start is “Short Stories: Five Decades,” published in 1978. There are sixty-three stories collected, some unforgettable, some perhaps too slick, too glib, too commercial, criticisms that haunted Shaw after the 1948 success of “The Young Lions.” William Goldman, an admirer, has observed that Shaw had “the ability to write with an ease and a clarity that only Fitzgerald had. There is never a wrong word, a phrase that makes you stop, reread, make sure you’ve gotten the sense right . . . Do not look for symbolism in Irwin Shaw . . . He is not interested in that. He wants only to get us safely through the terrors of the night.”
This year marks Shaw’s centenary (he died in 1984), yet I’ve seen no events, no essays to mark the milestone. Michael Shnayerson wrote an excellent biography in 1989, and that same year Esquire ran a superb piece by James Salter, a close friend of Shaw’s. The University of Chicago Press has kept both “The Young Lions” and “Short Stories: Five Decades” in print, and quite a few of Shaw’s other novels (including “Nightwork”) are available via Kindle.
So here’s a suggestion: the best way to honor Shaw’s centenary is to read him, and appreciate the work of a gifted, popular professional.
Here's to you, Irwin.