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The Day Max Fell

If a writer knows a juicy story,
is he or she compelled to tell?

Max Maynard The first time I saw New York Times writer Joyce Maynard, she was bouncing on her bed. I saw her through the window. It wasn't my fault.

Stop me if you think I'm on thin ice here, but I've got to get this story off my chest. It isn't about Joyce, really, but her father. It happened about 25 years ago and I've been keeping it quiet. Until recently, if you knew something private about another person, you held it to yourself. History was about significant events. At least, that's what I was taught.

Now, thanks in part to Ken Starr and Joyce Maynard, the gloves are off. On Friday, Mr. Starr saw fit to deliver two vanloads of "substantial and credible" material to Congress concerning President Clinton's affair with a White House intern. Earlier in the week we finally learned the gory details of Joyce Maynard's affair with author J.D. Salinger from her new book "At Home in the World." Both reports are graphic and the women, each starting-out obscure and about 30 years younger than their famous male partners, tell all. Now history knows more than it has a right to know.

The effect of too much detail, is more detail. To combat Starr's muckraking report, released to the world on the Internet, the president's lawyers fire off a giant written rebuttal. The media goes haywire. People take sides, and the resulting furor becomes the story. Same with the large-scale coverage of the Maynard book in the New York Times Magazine. (The following story in the same issue was on Starr.) Now the whole world knows that the 18-year-old writer was invited to stay at the New Hampshire home of the reclusive author of the cult "Catcher in the Rye." If you didn't see it in the Times, you can read it on her web site (joycemaynard.com) where you can also get an autographed photo for $25. Joyce Maynard says she was too nervous too technically consummate the relationship. Starr says Monica Lewinsky never made it to fourth base either. Nonetheless, the character of two living men are impeached, and millions of tiny useless words erupt across the media in response.

The resulting dialectic may be unstoppable. Does a public figure own any privacy? What is too much detail? Who decides what gets said? Can anyone trust anyone Are we all compelled to get naked and jump in? Stand back, because the compulsion is coming my way.

More than 25 years ago I was painting Max Maynard's house in Durham when I saw Joyce Maynard bouncing on her bed through the second-story window. Max was my literature professor at the University of New Hampshire, an amazing and tortured man. His face and body seemed chiseled from stone and he walked erect like a Roman statue set loose from its pedestal. His lectures were raptures on the past. He was a phenomenal teacher and an avowed heavy drinker. Max never made it beyond assistant professor at UNH and, in his mind, he was actually a painter, though his Cubist-style images, drawn from his Calvinist heritage won him few accolades.

Max's wife Fredelle was a successful magazine editor at Redbook and elsewhere. During this time, Fredelle published a book of her poetry and Joyce, just 18, had made it to the top as self-appointed spokesperson for her generation in the New York Times. The next year I graduated from UNH and, when Max heard I was attending summer classes at Oxford, he slipped me an address in England where he would be staying. He did not tell me he was getting divorced. He did not reveal his desperation. He stood like a statue, his lower lip curling down, and shook my hand warmly.

When my Oxford course ended, I took a bus to Max's place in England. He was staying in a lovely, rented townhouse 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, me in my early 20s, he in his late 60s I believe. We drank more. Finally, he talked of his daughter Joyce, already famous for her relationship with Salinger. This was late 1973. Her affair may have been over by then. Joyce attended Yale, wrote her book "Looking Back," bought a farmhouse. Her writing will corroborate every detail.

Max was morose, fearful for his daughter amid instant fame, lost in his own lifelong quest for recognition of his own art. His paintings filled the house.

"We were meant to work our way up slowly," he told me referring to Joyce, "Not that fast." He searched in the sink for two clean plates among the piles of dishware. We ate vegetables fresh from the garden. He made an omelet from the eggs we found in the hen house. He refreshed our drinks.

"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, help her take all this success slowly."

Behind every tell-all story, I imagine, is another story, the one about the teller. There must be things we need to know about Monica Lewinsky and her childhood, about little Ken Starr and how his friends treated him in grammar school, about Clinton, about Joyce, about me, I suppose, now that I've been drawn into the fog of it all. Detail, like I said, demands only more detail.

On her web site, Joyce includes an essay called "My Father Was a Painter." She talks of two dads, a handsome energetic artist by day, a depressed drunken dad at bedtime. The pain is all there. We walk in and out of each other's pain, and some of us write it all down.

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."

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 him stumble, heard the sickening sound of a man striking the floor, a soft moan.

The details are not important here. Imagine the assassination of Bobby Kennedy if you want a visual, the dark pool surrounding a stunned man staring at the ceiling. I had no idea a man contains such blood and, despite my hysteria, I got an ambulance. Max held my hand all the way to the hospital, held it during the quick stitching operation. In three days, his head still bandaged, he stole someone's bicycle and rode home from the hospital where I was still tending to things at the rented house. He made himself a drink and settled back to painting. I came home. If Joyce Maynard could keep her Salinger secret, I figured, I could keep Max's.

According to Joyce's web site story, her father had some success. Even later in life, in his 80s, he sold a few paintings. He had a big gallery show or two. He died shortly after the birth of her first son. She and her sister inherited Max's paintings. Most they sold, some she kept. Today, she writes, the paintings are a touchstone to the half of her father she adored. The missing half, perhaps, she searched for in other ways.

When we write about real events and real people, we shape the soft clay of history. Sometimes a writer makes a gentle flowing line, other times just a thumbprint, sometimes a deep angry gouge. All this furor over details is nothing new, but details demand details. Then the clay hardens, the bronze is cast and the new versions of our heroes are revealed, for good or ill. Maybe the fault is not with the storytellers, but with the notion that they, like the men and women they expose, are ever anything but clay.

To read the Star Report click here:

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
J. Dennis Robinson

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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