Literary figures William Kennedy and Bernard Conners on work, aging


Upon learning that bestselling author Bernard Conners was releasing a second edition of his 2015 memoir “Cruising with Kate: A Parveneu in Xanadu” (British American Publishing) featuring a new striker from Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, I wanted sit down with the two gentlemen – Conners, who turns 96 in September, and Kennedy, 94 – and talk about their friendship and their iconic lives in the world of literature and film.

Both men grew up in working-class families and lived extraordinary lives. Conners, owner of Canada Dry’s largest soft drink franchise, was a Golden Gloves boxing champion and college football star. He was briefly with the Chicago Bears. He became an FBI agent in the 1950s, a successful novelist, and the publisher of The Paris Review, one of the world’s leading literary magazines.

Kennedy has won numerous awards for her writing. He was a successful Times Union reporter and newspaper editor in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He has written two screenplays, “The Cotton Club”, based on James Haskins’ book of the same name, with director Francis Ford Coppola, and “Ironweed”, based on Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. After receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, he founded the New York State Writers Institute, which since its inception in 1984 has brought some of the world’s greatest literary figures to Albany.

Our dinner was held at the Fort Orange Club, an ornate brick building built in 1810 on Washington Avenue just steps from the Capitol. It seemed like the perfect setting to ask a few questions and sit down and let these two friends chat.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.

Upon meeting and beginning their literary work:

Kennedy: “I think we first met in the 1970s, but I don’t remember the event.”

Bitches: “I’ve always cultivated writers and always sought them out as much as possible. I remember reading you first as a journalist, but it was your Albany book series when I felt you were a true icon….Bill always writes such great dialogue, and I loved the foreword you wrote for the new edition. I was so touched that you did that.

Kennedy: “I think we met because we had a mutual friend in writer Joe Persico.”

Writing has always occupied a central place in their lives.

Bitches: “I started writing after my days in the FBI, but this guy,” pointing to Kennedy, “is the real writer who emerged on the world stage by putting his stories in Albany. It’s remarkable. As a editor of The Paris Review, I’ve read so many great writers, and he’s as good as any of them.

Kennedy: “I made a commitment to be a writer halfway through my university years in Siena. Above all, I wanted to be a journalist, a reporter. I wanted to be in the action. I didn’t want to miss anything. Everything related to the profession of journalist attracted me. … My articles in (the Times Union, when he was in his twenties) were funny, but they disappeared after a day. I quickly fell in love with reading people like Hemingway who also started as journalist, then embarked on the writing of fiction.

Bitches: “When you were at the Times Union, I was in Chicago and New York for the FBI. I spent a lot of my time dealing with reporters, giving them information, and I was amazed to see how hard they worked day in and day out.

By accelerating their career:

Both men lived busy lives before publishing their first books. Kennedy was 40 in 1968 when “The Ink Truck” was released. Conners was 36 when he published the bestselling “Don’t Embarrass the Bureau” in 1962.

Kennedy: “I decided to quit being a journalist and worked as an editor in San Juan. I thought it would help me become a novelist. I always felt like I never had enough time. It’s hard to write full-time as a journalist and also write a good novel…. Five years ago I started writing about going to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro and the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my whole relationship with him, but then I stopped because what I really want to write are novels.

Bitches: “I struggled to be objective when writing my memoirs, but it made me appreciate my wife, Kate, much more. I met her 75 years ago, and I’ve never heard this wife say a negative thing. I can’t believe she would live with me all these years with all my flaws.

In his memoirs, Conners writes fondly of George Plimpton, who was an army friend who went on to found The Paris Review in the early 1950s and served as its editor for 50 years. Plimpton was also famous for creating immersive journalism, including the book “Paper Lion” in the 1960s when he joined Detroit’s national football team.

Kennedy: “George knew everyone in the writing world, and as a young man he could talk one-on-one with someone of Hemingway’s stature. It was the biggest magazine in writers in the world. All the best writers wanted to be interviewed by them, including (William) Faulkner and EM Forster. One important thing that my friend Bernie did was keep The Paris Review going financially.

Bitches: “And by maintaining the magazine, I probably kept my friend George alive.”

By flirting with Hollywood:

Bitches: “Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make a movie of my book ‘Dancehall’, but that never happened. It ended up going through five different directors and still hasn’t been made. I had success as producer in 2000 of the television mini-series “Nuremberg” with Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer which won two Emmy awards.

Kennedy: “I was very happy with the movie ‘Ironweed’. The greatest actors of our time, (Jack) Nicholson and (Meryl) Streep, were in that picture. I loved writing ‘The Cotton Club’ with Francis. love this guy so much. He wanted to do a Legacy movie. He even came to the area to see locations with me, but that movie also failed. If you’re a writer, you must be used to failure. and disappointment. My book “Ironweed” had 13 rejections.

On aging and friendship:

Kennedy: “Writing is just as difficult if you’re young or if you’re old. It’s still not possible. I’m trying to make sense of a novel right now that won’t cooperate with me.

Bitches: “Old age is a struggle. No one is ever prepared for it. It jumps out at you.

Kennedy, reaching out and patting Conners on his right arm: “Bernie, you are a wonderful writer and a wonderful literary figure in 20th century history. Your involvement in The Paris Review is unprecedented. I know you don’t care to hear that. You have lived a good life. You are beloved, Bernie. You have written a wonderful little memoir. You are a great self-deprecator, and I was happy to write forward. Over to you, Bernie.

Kennedy then raised his glass of wine to his friend.

Conners, raising his own glass: “And here’s to you, Bill.” It’s one of the best dinners we’ve had in a long time.

Kennedy: “You’re never too old to have fun.”


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