Stranger Than Fiction: Philadelphia Noir

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 8 | Posted Jan. 5, 2011

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“It’s not sanitized, it’s not romanticized,” says Boxer of the world Goodis depicted. “This is the bleak utter truth about life, or the life that Goodis perceived, the life that [French writer Albert] Camus wrote about. Just that stark black-and-white reality, that life sucks. You go to bed, you wake up, life continues to suck. People don’t really complain about it, they’re just, that’s their lives.”

This was the raw, exposed nerve Goodis picked at so convincingly. This is what his characters wrestled with, the dread they carried on work-worn backs.

There was Edward Webster Lynn, Eddie for short, the once famous concert pianist at the heart of Goodis’ Down There (1956), who used to play to adoring crowds at Carnegie Hall but, wrecked by his wife’s suicide, gathered up the battered pieces of his psyche and ended up playing for $30 a week in a Port Richmond dive bar. His next love would die too, shot in cold blood right in front of him.

There was Cassidy, the beaten-down man at the center of 1951’s million-copy bestseller Cassidy’s Girl , a once great pilot who now drove a bus. He was torn between two women: “Mildred, the wife who kept him chained with ties of fear and jealousy and paralyzing sexual need” and “Doris, a frail angel with a 100-proof halo and a bottle instead of a harp,” as Goodis describes each in his typically unique style.

There was William Kerrigan, the broad-shouldered Philadelphia dockworker living a “hellhole existence” after his sister’s suicide in the stark tale of desire and revenge Moon in the Gutter (1953).

These men lived lives Goodis wasn’t all that familiar with.

“I do not hold to the premise that a writer must live his own story,” Goodis wrote in an author bio accompanying his short story “Caravan to Tarim” in an October ’46 issue of Collier’s Weekly . “If I did, I would be writing about a fourth-rate football player, a frustrated racing driver, an unsuccessful landscape gardener and an unhappy automobile mechanic.”

Goodis was born in the relatively comfortable middle-class Logan and lived for quite some time at East Oak Lane. He was student body president who ran track and captained the swim team.

He majored in journalism at Temple, graduating in 1938. He wrote ad copy for fairly good dough in Philadelphia, and moved on to write serial pulp in New York, where he’d churn out, he once estimated, 10,000 words a day published under various pseudonyms. One of his books, Dark Passage , was serialized in his hometown Saturday Evening Post. With it, a job offer in Hollywood, where he was hired by Warner Brothers to write scripts, the first an adaptation of Passage . He was being paid $1,000 a week, a king’s ransom back then, and hanging with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Becall, who both starred in Passage . He’s described as the life of the party, a joking prankster never without a smile and a quip by many of his friends and family in the rich, info-packed documentary David Goodis … To A Pulp.

Still, there was something off about him, something that no doubt made him a keen observer of outsiders and drifters. He’d stick the red cellophane of a pack of Lucky Strikes up his nose and fain a nosebleed in front of unsuspecting waiters at restaurants in Hollywood. He’d go out into the L.A. night dressed in a borrowed bathrobe, pretending to be an exiled Russian prince. He’d pretend to get his foot stuck in trolley tracks as a car approached to win the attention of ladies on the street. In Philly, friends laughed. In L.A., they thought him strange.

In To A Pulp friends describe coming out to visit him in Hollywood, they’d demand to be taken to the set, which he did begrudgingly. They wanted a slice of L.A. nightlife, wanted to see the glitz and the glam. He wasn’t interested. One time, though, he relented … and took them to a dance thrown by a waiters’ union.

It’s widely speculated that Goodis loved black women. Specifically, “healthy” black women, a bit of meat on the bones. “Healthy” black women who lived in sections of Los Angeles and Philadelphia where Goodis, a Jew born to Russian immigrants, stood out like, well, a Jew born to Russian immigrants. Sometimes he’d pay these women to verbally and physically abuse him. Other times he had to fight men in the neighborhood to get to them, both a small price to pay to satisfy his lust.

Goodis kept this from his friends. He kept it from everyone. He had to. It was the ’40s, ’50s and ‘60s when such a thing would earn more than a passing glance of disapproval.

He kept a marriage from them too, from his time in Los Angeles. Records show he was married to an Elaine Astor, from 1943–1947. Astor’s son, Larry Withers, discovered the marriage certificate and divorce decree among her belongings after her death in the mid-’80s. The questions he had about the mother it turns out he never knew drove him to research and create David Goodis … To A Pulp, in part relearning who his mother was through the eyes of a writer who didn’t paint too nice a picture of her. (It’s theorized that many of the manipulative women in Goodis’ prose are modeled after Astor, his “sick personal muse,” as Withers calls her in his doc.)

“There were different aspects to my mom,” says Withers from his home in Elkins Park. “There were times when she could be just a regular, loving mom, and there were times where she could be a kind of a demon, shoot you the fish eye and scare you half out of your wits. At times I could see her in several [of Goodis’] books, especially Behold This Woman, which was written a few years after their divorce.”

Says Withers of his mother’s first husband: “He’s a man of a lot of compartments, a hidden man,” but also a “decent person. I think he had a lot of conflicts, a lot of vices and a lot of desires, none of which he could handle very well.

“He had a lot of dark, locked rooms he wouldn’t let any of his friends in,” adds Withers, who spoke with many of Goodis’ friends and family for To A Pulp. “They all had notions and stories to tell, but no one actually followed him or had been with him to confirm it. It was a lot of speculation.”

The Inquirer’s David Hiltbrand (a mystery novelist himself) stopped by GoodisCon in ’07 to file a report, and came away with a telling quote from Goodis’ cousin Herbert Gross, who said of his long-dead kin, “I knew him very well. And I say that with a question mark. I don’t know that anybody knew him very well.”

Another secret: Goodis’ five-year relationship with prominent black sculptor Selma Burke. Burke studied privately under Henri Matisse, and is responsible for the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the dime in your pocket.

To biographer Philippe Garnier, Burke recalled Goodis’ “sensitive nature,” and “tormented and creative spirit, which he always sought to hide … in order to protect himself.”

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Comments 1 - 8 of 8
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1. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 05:08PM

“I cannot wait for Sunday, January 9th to see the Goodis, the bad and the ugly!
David Goodis style!”

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2. Todd Mason said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 05:17PM

“THE SATURDAY EVENING POST was not a pulp magazine. Despite the deep desire of hipsters to make it so, pulp doesn't mean "trashy" or "transgressive," but instead it refers to a kind of fiction magazine that was printed on rough pulp paper. And while it tended toward adventure fiction, it was never restricted to that.

Would that Carlin Romano had only said foolish things about neo-nor over the years, but we haven't been so fortunate.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 07:57PM

“@Todd Mason

The piece doesn't say The Saturday Evening Post was a pulp magazine.”

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4. Todd Mason said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 09:35PM

“True. It does encourage misuse of "pulp" but doesn't actually call SEP a pulp..”

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5. leonard cobrin said... on Jan 5, 2011 at 09:38PM

“Excellent essay. Authentic. Congratulations.”

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6. Jay Gertzman said... on Jan 7, 2011 at 10:31PM

“This article is perhaps the best introductory essay to Goodis and his work. It covers all of the major themes and events in Goodis' work and life, and has many fine insights into a very complex person--and seeker after authenticity in his society.”

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7. william sherman said... on Jan 23, 2011 at 02:42AM

“Small correction to the article: I didn't ask to see David Goodis for a "story" but to negotiate the film rights to one of his novels. Also, Goodis' work was part of a chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation, and I wanted to include whatever he cared to say.”

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8. Adam Lounsbery said... on Apr 4, 2011 at 02:21PM

“"Fain a nosebleed"?

Who's copyediting the Philadelphia Weekly? A high school intern?”


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