Jim Harrison has a new book out, and in the midst of working on a memoir-critique this week, I found myself reminiscing about a long-ago meeting with the man. Like so many of these Clouds pieces, this is much more about me than it is about him, but as it's also romantic-comedic, I submit to you...
[Another installment in the ongoing true life adventures of Periphery Man, who has had myriad peculiar encounters with celebrities, while not being a celebrity himself.]
During the Eighties I was married to woman named Sue, and we were as poor as factory mice (this being the decade when so much American industry began moving overseas). I churned out a series of romance novels under a female nom de plume to keep us afloat, while Sue, working at the original Dean & DeLuca’s in Soho, filched the occasional gourmet item to augment our austerity diet. We generally couldn’t afford a dinner out, but we had connoisseur-approved sun-dried tomatoes at home.
One of her co-workers, soon a close friend and complicit in these minor thefts of imported extra-virgin olive oil and the like, was Jamie Harrison, daughter of Jim, himself as famed a gourmet as he was a master of the literary western novel (Legends of the Fall, et al). One summer Jamie (then a fledgling, now successful novelist in her own right) invited us to visit her and her family in the wilds of Montana.
We drove from the airport up to their place in a rent-a-heap so trashed that we expected to lift its rusty hood and discover a caged couple of pedal-pushing squirrels as its motor. I was wearing too-tight just-bought blue jeans, because I’d suddenly realized I didn’t own a pair, and how could I greet Jim Harrison wearing my usual urban pleated pants over my loafers? Might as well hang a ‘Wussy NYC intellectual’ sign on my belt.
I was profoundly uncomfortable, physically and psychically, en route to meeting this mythic cattle-punching poet, whose prose spoke of riding a Percheron through the chaparral on the arroyo (I’m sorry, the what? Through the where, now?), and who would surely see by my outfit that I was no cowboy. So Sue and I were bickering most of the way, punctuated by our mobile junk-pile’s burps of auto-indigestion. By the time we’d nearly come to the end of Jamie’s directions, we were in full marital fight mode, which only made me more anxious. “Are we going to be okay?” I asked my wife. “Oh, yeah,” she said, “Although it would be even better if I could pretend I’d never met you.”
We pulled into the driveway of the Harrisons’ appropriately isolated, rustic ranch house, and I saw the hulking figure of the great man trundling toward us with a greasy-looking paper bag in his mitts. No sooner had I climbed out of our heap than he thrust it under my face, grinning, with a cry of “Fish!” I passed my first test of manliness by not reeling back from the bag’s stench, and made sounds of savvy appreciation. Intending to make a bouillabaisse for dinner, Harrison had evidently just caught this batch, perhaps by diving into treacherous whitewater and grabbing the trout with his bare hands.
Inside the house the Harrisons tried to put their guests at ease, but for me this was impossible. Anyone who’s been married is familiar with that frustrating and frightening phenomenon: how it feels to embark on a high-stakes social mission when you’ve lost your most trusted ally and back-up. The challenge is made more horrible by the necessity of you and your mate having to fake a united front.
For the first hour or so it was touch and go. But the rapport between Sue and Jamie, the calm exuded by Harrison’s gracious, beautiful wife Linda, the lurching garrulousness of the writer himself, and generous helpings of fine wine from what he gleefully referred to as “the Warner Brothers cellar” (he’d sold some early works to that studio for a small fortune) diffused our tensions, and soon other guests were arriving to fill in the gaps.
By nightfall, bouillabaisse bubbling and steaming up the kitchen like a benign warlock’s cauldron stew, the house was in full, boisterous dinner party swing. Somewhere in the midst of the casual revelry, Sue and I came face to face in a quiet corner of the living room, alone for the first time since our rancorous arrival. The olive branch I proffered came like second nature to the likes of me, as the dedicated romantic comedy-ist male’s go-to question in such circumstances is: What would Cary Grant do? Remembering Sue’s parting shot, I feigned flirtatious intrigue. “The face is familiar,” I said. “Have we met?”
My wife knew her cue. “Sue,” she said, extending her hand. I shook it and introduced myself. “A pleasure. So… how do you know our hosts?” I was rewarded with a familiar sparkle reappearing in her eyes, and her little snort of a laugh. “Actually, I’m a friend of Jamie’s from New York,” she said, and before we could continue the charade in earnest, Jamie herself called her away.
In the movie version of this sequence, we’d have played perfect strangers to the hilt all evening, never dropping character. In real life we soon fell back into our real-life roles – but with a difference. With a little aside here and playful private exchange there, we kept the conceit alive as a game between us, stoking the pretense that we’d only just become acquainted at this dinner party.
Harrison had a colorfully diverse and good time-loving group of friends, and the stew was stupendous. Buoyed by my ongoing flirtation with that cute woman named Sue and various combinations of controlled substances, once I got comfortable with his wall-eyed gaze ("My left eye is blind and jogs like/a milky sparrow in its socket") and accepted the fact that he really didn't care about either my literary or agricultural pedigree, I actually shared a few laughs with our host.
The rest of the night is a blur in addled remembrance, but I do clearly recall standing up through the sun roof of Jamie’s car in the moonlight as she drove us to their guest cabin, yelling and nearly getting decapitated by a tree branch as Sue and Jamie shrieked and laughed within. And then Sue and I enjoyed the most intense and abandoned sex of our married life.
That’s how romantic comedy (and Jim Harrison's fish) saved my first marriage. For the moment.