The Day Max Fell
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Untitled portrait by Max Maynard / Winchester Galleries, Victoria, BC


Brilliant and hard-drinking UNH literature professor Max Maynard never achieved the fame he craved. His daughter Joyce, however, landed on the cover of the New York Times Magazine at age 18. In 1973, as one family career shot skyward, the other fell like a stone.



The first time I saw New York Times writer Joyce Maynard, she was bouncing on her bed. I saw her through a second-story window. It wasn't my fault. I was painting her family’s house.

Max MaynardStop me if you think I'm on thin ice here, but this story has been eating at me for more than 30 years. It isn't about Joyce, really, but about her father Max Maynard who was my professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Max was an amazing and tortured man. He was short and often grim. His face and body seemed chiseled from stone and he walked erect like a Roman statue set loose from its pedestal. When he smiled it was more of a grimace. His face squeezed together like Edward G. Robinson, he squinted, and his lower lip, pink and wet, curled downward. He did not look pleased then, but he was.

Max’s lectures on literature, to my mind, were raptures on the past, a past he seemed to know intimately. When he spoke of Cicero or Samuel Johnson, it was as if he had just returned from lunch with him. He drew masterful sketches on the chalkboard as he spoke and erased them. Max was a phenomenal teacher and an avowed heavy drinker. When I painted his house in the summer of my junior year, he would greet me in the garden, half in the bag, a glass of vodka in each hand. We drank and talked and talked and drank.

He never got beyond the rank of assistant professor. If you asked Max what he loved, he said he was really a painter. His house was filled with unsold landscapes. Born in India in 1903, he had lived and painted in Canada before World War II and was an associate of Emily Carr who is beloved in Victoria and British Columbia. Commercial fame eluded him. His Cubist-style images, drawn from his Calvinist heritage, won him few accolades outside of western Canada. My life, he told me wistfully, was just unfolding. His was nearly over.

Joyce Maynard in New York Times at age 18 in 1973Joyce must have been back from her first and only year at Yale when I saw her accidentally through her bedroom window in 1972. At age 18 she looked 12. A couple of months earlier she had blown us all away with a cover story in the New York Times Magazine. She was the sudden darling of the post-Boomer generation. Even reclusive JD Salinger, the New Hampshire author of "Catcher in the Rye" wrote to praise her. Months later, Joyce moved in with the 53-year old novelist. Her father was enraged, broken hearted and even a bit jealous. Salinger was the same age he had been when Joyce was born.

I graduated from college the following year and when Max learned that I was taking summer courses at Oxford in England, he gave me his address. He too was escaping to England. He was 70. His teaching career was over. His marriage was over too. His wife Fredelle, a successful magazine editor at Redbook and 20 years his junior had finally thrown in the towel. She was also publishing a new book. Their daughter Joyce was publishing her first bestseller that year. Max, who craved fame almost as much as vodka, was in hell, but he stood like a statue as we spoke, curled his lower lip and shook my hand farewell.

When my Oxford course ended, I had two weeks to spare before returning to New Hampshire. I took a bus to Max's place in East Grinstead, England. Again the warm handshake and the curled lip. He was staying in a large rented country house with a garden and chicken pen.

We drank vodka and he told me about his days as a cowboy, his childhood in Western Canada, his painting. We compared lives – his seven decades and my two. We drank more. Finally, he talked of his daughter Joyce, now tabloid-famous for her relationship with Salinger. Max was morose, fearful for his daughter amid instant fame, lost in his own lifelong quest for recognition. He was painting again and his paintings filled the rented house.

"We were meant to work our way up slowly," he told me referring again to Joyce, "Not that fast." He searched in the sink for two clean plates among the piles of dirty dishware. We ate vegetables fresh from the English garden. He made an omelet from the eggs we found in the borrowed hen house. He refreshed our drinks. He led me out to a wooded area behind the house and pointed out the "Pooh tree" where writer A. A. Milne’s son Christopher used to play.

"I want to visit her," he said at last, "but she won't have me. I would give up everything, even my painting, and fly back there in a minute. I'd move in and simply tutor her, help her take all this success slowly."

Just before Max fell, he took my hand in his. He had confessed, moments before, that he loved Joyce. "I don't want to see her fall from grace," he said. "I don't want to see her hurt."

CONTINUE "The Day Max Fell"


UNtitled seacoast oil painting by Max Max Maynard/ Winchester Galleries in Victoria, CA


I have had one paranormal moment in my life. This was it. I managed to drag the conversation away from his daughter and back to our shared love of literature. I confessed to Max that I too wanted to write. Max assured me that I would, adding that the two of us were, in some way, deeply connected. What we were was deeply drunk.

"You are me," Max said and his eyes were liquid and his lip hung down. "We are one"

I had an awful feeling when Max left the kitchen and wobbled toward the stairway that led up to the bathroom. I offered to steady him, but he would not have it. The statue was turning back to clay, and just as he reached the landing halfway up, I heard what I had fully expected to hear. I knew he would fall. There was a stumble, a small sound somewhere between a curse and a yelp. There was the sickening sound of a man striking the floor, then a soft moan.

The details are largely gone from here as happens when a person slips into shock. When I think of Max at the bottom of the stairs I see Bobby Kennedy in a dark pool of blood. I see a stunned red statue staring at me, then at the ceiling. I had then no idea a man contains so much blood. I remember lifting Max’s head. I remember swearing at him.

"If you die, you bastard," I screamed. "I’ll kill you!"

This line seemed to amuse Max, who smiled weakly. He mumbled and then his head lolled. I ran out into the front yard yelling for help. I picked up the telephone and when the operator asked where I was, I said I did not know. Some town in England, I said. The operator told me to leave the phone off the hook and they would find me. They did.

Max gripped my hand in the ambulance all the way to the hospital. That was, the medic said, a good sign. He refused to let me loose as the doctor stitched the gash in his white-haired skull. He held on until someone pried us apart. Someone else, the police I think, returned me to what looked like a murder scene. My clothes were covered in blood.

I had known without question that Max was going to fall. Now he was going to die. A truth beyond explanation had zapped between us. I was him for that millisecond. He was me. That left one too many of us. At least that is what I thought Max was thinking as he hurled himself down the landing in a desperate farewell act. If I had not appeared in England that day, I told myself, he would never have fallen. Or maybe, had I not appeared that day, Max might have fallen alone and unattended. These thoughts swirled around my brain as I washed an acre of blood from the hallway floor.

Three days later, his head still bandaged like a wounded warrior, Max Maynard stole someone's bicycle and rode from the hospital to the rented house where I was tending to the chickens and living off garden vegetables. He made himself a drink and settled back to painting. We never spoke about the accident. I came home. For two decades Joyce Maynard never wrote about her affair with Salinger and I never wrote about my visit with her father. Now both stories are out, two tales of fallen heroes. You can guess which of our two stories made it into the New York Times.

Max died nine years later in a home for the elderly in Victoria, Canada. Before then, he rose once more. He returned at the end to western California where he had first learned to paint, to love beauty and to drink without reservation. He painted again among his favorite landscapes. He exhibited in galleries. He tried to get sober. Stiffened by arthritis, he must have looked more and more like a stern white statue. But inside that frozen shape, I can attest, his heart soared. 


Copyright (c) 2005 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

Max Maynard works at Winchester Galleries