When someone once wrote that Eliot Asinof was “the last angry man,” it made Eliot furious.
Yes, he agreed, he could get angry at times, but as he saw it, this wasn’t some sort of character defect; there were good reasons for his rage. Like a lawman of the old West, Eliot, who died on June 10 at the age of 88, lived by a code. He hated hypocrites, liars and cheats. It wasn’t his fault that they kept crossing his path.
He also couldn’t tolerate injustice, stupidity and abuse of power–especially when he was the victim of it. Bad books and movies were also on the list. Even more, however, he hated it when other people–those who couldn’t help themselves–suffered similar fates. When they did, it infuriated him, but instead of just grousing, he created a lifetime’s body of work celebrating rebels and nonconformists who took on the system. Eliot’s characters didn’t always win, or, as in the case of the notorious hijacker Garrett Trapnell, didn’t always have righteous intentions, but Eliot admired them for it. Even the 1919 Chicago Black Sox, the subject of his most famous book, Eight Men Out, were to some extent righteous rebels in Eliot’s view. He didn’t absolve them of their crime, but he understood it in the larger context of baseball’s unjust treatment of those great athletes.
The outlines of Eliot’s life are probably common to many Nation readers of a generation that is rapidly disappearing. His father helped run the family menswear store, and Eliot was raised on Long Island and Manhattan. He was a World War II veteran who was radicalized by the infuriating stupidity of military life on Adak Island in the Aleutians, where he served out the war. He was hit by a rock during the melee caused by the American Legion at the 1949 Paul Robeson concerts in Peekskill, New York. He became a screenwriter and TV writer and worked as a front for blacklisted writers until he was blacklisted himself. Unique among Nation readers, he married Marlon Brando’s sister Jocelyn, had a son and got divorced. He wrote his first novel in 1955 and fourteen subsequent books of fiction and nonfiction.
Eliot represented the best of the old left and was proud of it. When Bob Dylan, then the young pied piper of the New Left, made his now infamous and ignorant put-down of the people who “haven’t got any hair on their head” in the audience at the annual dinner of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee in 1963, it was Eliot who led the booing–and not because he was follicularly challenged himself.
A longtime Nation subscriber, he could still get pretty cranky about the magazine. In his last hours before doctors induced his final coma, I brought him a pair of reading glasses so he could read the latest issue. He glanced at it for a moment and laid it down. “You know, I have a lot of problems with this magazine, but,” he added with a shrug, “it’s the best we got.” Then he had a few choice words for our healthcare system, said he was ready for a nap and never woke up again.
Eliot was a tough nut, but he had the courage of his convictions. On my first visit to his West End Avenue apartment, I learned that he literally opened his door to anyone. When you buzzed him from the lobby of his apartment he just buzzed back (which must have pleased his neighbors to no end). Then, when you exited the elevator and rang his doorbell, he threw it open to greet whoever was standing in front of it. That made for an interesting situation after Eliot got into an argument in the New York Review of Books with Norman Mailer over Mailer’s support for the release of imprisoned murderer Jack Henry Abbott. Not long afterward, Eliot opened his door, and standing in front of him was Abbott himself (Eliot emerged unscathed, unlike the young waiter at a Lower East Side Restaurant who crossed paths with Abbott a few weeks later and was stabbed to death).
I first met Eliot in 1978. I was then working as legal researcher for Alger Hiss, using the Freedom of Information Act to uncover evidence that he had been framed. As a baseball fan who had recently read and admired Eight Men Out, it occurred to me that a FOIA request might reveal something about the scandal. I looked Eliot up in the phone book and called him to see what he thought. He was pleasantly skeptical, but encouraged me to give it a try.
So I filed my request. When the documents arrived in the mail a few months later, however, they were all about Eliot. It pleased him in a way, because the documents finally revealed why he had been blacklisted–for signing a petition outside Yankee Stadium calling for the team to integrate. He used the material in a speech on the blacklist I heard him give a few months later, although what I remember best about it was his opening line: “I want to open by stating for the record that I am not now nor ever have been Isaac Asimov.”
As I was starting out on my own career as a writer, Eliot took me under his wing, freely offering his opinions about the ways of publishers (“They put out shit”) and agents (“They exist to suck off of writers”). But for all his legendary crankiness, he could be surprisingly protective of other people’s feelings. He was never harsh about my own work. “That was a good book–real good,” he said last year about my most recent effort, Generation on Fire, a celebration of rebellion and nonconformity in the 1960s. I was pleased that he liked it, but his praise also sparked the realization that he had never said anything about the previous four.
He loved to go to movies, even though most received the Asinofian thumbs down: “It’s a lot of shit.” Even when he got to act in two of them, he didn’t much care for his own performances–“acting is a lot of shit.” On the other hand, anyone else who was so frequently disappointed by the cinema would have given up long before. Eliot continued to go. Having worked in Hollywood, he had no illusions about it. He still believed that filmmakers were obligated to tackle important subjects (especially political ones) honestly. He hated when they took the easy way out with their characters and plots or gave in to commercialism. He was right, of course.
Like any freelance writer, he succumbed to the quick buck on occasion, but he had his limits. After Rosie Ruiz jumped in front of the pack and claimed to have won the Boston Marathon in 1980, she managed to convince a publisher to buy her side of the story. She couldn’t write, though, so they offered Eliot some decent money to ghost the book. Eliot agreed, but on one condition: they would privately drive upstate and set up a 26.2-mile course. Rosie would run it and prove that she could have won the race. They marked out the course but on the appointed day, only Eliot showed up. That was the end of the Rosie Ruiz story, and the end of a decent advance.
It wasn’t the first time he turned down good money on principle. He once refused a personal offer from Mafia chieftan Frank Costello to ghost his memoirs. He did, however, accept a cigar and an offer from Fidel Castro to write a script about the Cuban revolution. While out in Hollywood, in 1956, Warner Brothers wanted to cast his son Marty as the lead in its new TV show Dennis the Menace. Eliot said no. The studio offered Eliot a lot of money and a chance to write A-movie screenplays. Eliot said no. He didn’t want his child screwed up by Hollywood. The studio hired Jay North instead. And Marty turned out just fine.
Eliot was less able to suffer fools gladly than anyone I ever knew. A memoir completed just before his death reveals the roots of his anger. Adak, that frozen hellhole in the Aleutians, was to Eliot what Dresden was to Kurt Vonnegut, but not because of the weather. The enlisted men were forced to make do with a boiler that barely provided heat and hot water, while continually on the verge of exploding. Eliot managed to requisition another one but when it arrived, a colonel commandeered it for his own private use. The old boiler did explode, killing a young corporal, a decent kid–the only death of an American soldier on the island, according to Eliot. He called it murder.
To the end of his life, he hated authority, and the themes of rebellion and courage, all borne from his experience on Adak, echo through nearly all his work, most notably in Craig and Joan, about a young couple who killed themselves to protest the war in Vietnam and People v. Blutcher, which told the story of an African-American man from Brooklyn who fought racism and corruption in the NYPD in the 1960s, years before Frank Serpico went public with his own charges.
Eliot’s bleak worldview sometimes made for a difficult friendship (and, for Marty, parenthood as well). There were times when I’d put down the phone after a conversation in which Eliot was in such a bleak mood that I felt my soul needed a shower. But I could never stay away from him for long. Even at his most crotchety, he was too much fun. He knew the inside stories on everything from Dag Hammarsjköld’s death to how NFL games were fixed by dirty refereeing. With Elliot, there were no sacred cows. He relayed to me a story Hank Greenberg had told him about Lou Gehrig’s anti-Semitism, and one more hero bit the dust. He was a also a great joke teller. He made lovely, whimsical sculptures from stuff he found lying around his yard. He was a fantastic piano player and golfer, all gentle pursuits in their own way. He was also a great ally. “We’ll dance on his grave,” he once said gleefully about someone who did me wrong. He meant it, too.
When his building went co-op in the early ’80s, he finally had his grubstake. He took the money from his insider’s sale and moved to a dilapidated cottage in Ancramdale, New York. He shared the space with a golden retriever pup he named Babe, a lovable dog to whom Eliot gave the run of the county. Eventually, he and his son Marty together built a home on twelve beautiful acres in Ancramdale (Eliot was then in his 60s and had never attempted anything like that before). He became an endearing fixture in the small community. He adopted the people who operated the Ancramdale General Store and the restaurants in the area as his family, which meant they could feel free to return his insults. When he became ill and had to be rushed to the hospital a few years ago, several of them kept an around-the-clock watch in his room.
Over the last couple of years though, his memory began to slip. When he could only barely shoot his age in golf (he first did it at the age of 79–a remarkable athletic achievement), he put his clubs away for good. But he also managed to finish an antiwar novel that he had begun during the Reagan Administration. It will be published this fall and is titled Final Judgment. In Eliot’s case it was, and as to be expected, its honesty and anger is brutal.