Hemingway, Ingrid Bergman, Michael Blankfort & me

I met Michael in 1973.  I had returned from Israel clutching a 300 page manuscript about my travels and arrest in the Soviet Union.  I had heard the name Michael Blankfort a board member when I attended the Brandeis Camp Institute. I looked up his number in the phone book.  In a rush of nervousness: I was interrogated by the KGB for four days, had been the first to meet with the Hebrew teachers in Moscow (that may be an exaggeration but it maybe not be it was the summer of 1971) told him I’d written a book about my experience and asked if he had time to read it.

“No,” came his response.  Then he said, “But I’ll read it anyway.” That was Michael, he never turned anyone away.  The following day I met him in his office.  He was 65 and I was 23. For the next nine years we had lunch together about every ten days.

Michael lent his precise eye and understanding to everything I wrote. I would leave each of my manuscripts with him, then wait nervously. When he finally called, there were no wasted words. Either there would be praise or he would say quietly, “I’ve read your material. You better come over. We’ll go to lunch.”

Always lunch. Unlike many people who listed their office numbers and held their homes sacrosanct, Michael did the opposite.  The day I looked him up in the phone book, I found only his home number. He thought he wouldn’t be disturbed as much with his office unlisted.  It didn’t work. The phone rang constantly and with a humanity I came to be in awe of, he made time for everyone. There was a different name scribbled in pen every day at 12:45 in his little appointment book.

On rare occasion now, I stop at Walter’s Café and get a schnecken, a German cinnamon pastry that Michael always loved, as a remembrance. An elegant, dashing man, with a moustache and a full head of wavy gray hair, Michael was always ebullient and full of humor.  He had a breadth of spirit: there was nothing small or petty about him, something I only partially achieve. And perhaps most of all, he was a lover—of people, and especially of women.  The eyes of the maitresse d’ at the Swiss Café lit up when he came through the door; he always had a few moments to smile that huge smile of his and talk to her. He went to see Mrs. Kramer, a little old lady who owned a tobacco shop near his office, every day.

Once he took me to see The Juggler (1953) at UCLA.  He bear-hugged friends as he always did though a little nervous; he had not seen the movie in over twenty years. I watched Kirk Douglas, as a German juggler, the toast of Berlin who believes he won’t be touched by the Nazis, a concentration camp survivor running through the streets of Haifa, unable at first to accept either his new homeland or what had happened to him.

Michael’s fiction is a remarkable eclectic yet cohesive body of work. The Brave and the Blind (1940) about the Spanish Civil War which Hemingway panned in a national review and then apologized years later to Michael saying it was a great novel and he had been worried it would eclipse the coming For Whom The Bells Toll. The Strong Hand (1956) about the dead hand that holds back change when an Orthodox rabbi falls in love with a woman whose husband has been killed over the Pacific but not declared legally dead; I Didn’t Know I Would Live So Long (1973) about an out of fashion painter who leaves his marriage and then returns; Take the A Train (1978) about a Jewish boy who befriends a charismatic black con man from who he learns honor; and The Exceptional Man (1980) about a psychoanalyst in a sexual relationship with his adult daughter.  And half a dozen others. Later Hemingway ran into Blankfort dining with Ingrid Bergman at the Stork Club and apologized.

A contract screen writer in the 40’s at Columbia and Fox, among his numerous credits were The Caine Mutiny, Texas, Blind Alley, Adam Had Four Sons. He wrote screenplays at the studio during the day and novels at home in the evening.  To continue to write fiction, he told me, was his “test of integrity.”

The day before the accident, Michael came to my Third Annual 30th Birthday Party.  In the nine years we had known each other, it was the first time he visited my home. Two years before he had forgotten my (first) 30th birthday party (the second was never held) and called the following morning.  He had remembered as he went to bed, and upset, had lain awake much of the night. He wanted to apologize and asked if I would forgive him.

I found him in the room where I write  He stopped at the Blankforts—some he had given to me, some I had scrounged in used book stores—and I pointed to Goodbye, I Guess.  I told him that was the only one I hadn’t read and I was saving it for some time special.  What I meant but did not say was that I was saving it to read after he died to hold onto him a little longer.  They were the last words I spoke to him.

He had finished his novel on Saturday, the day before the party.  On Monday, he took it home with him as he did each night, stood near the bottom of his steep driveway, the manuscript in one hand, the garage door clicker in the other, pushed the button, lost his balance and toppled backwards. All six feet of him. Unable to break the fall, his head crashed into the cement. He went into surgery, then into a coma and never regained consciousness.

I’ve never read Goodbye, I Guess. I’m not, so far, able to.

About the Author
Howard Kaplan is the author of the The Damascus Cover and Bullets of Palestine and has just completed a new novel of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The Spy's Gamble.