Friday, September 7, 2018

A fat little rascal

‘One week from today my diary will become ten years old. It’s getting to be a fat little rascal and perhaps may be the only literature of any value I’ll leave when I die. [. . .] The good diaries, the ones that are truthful and readable and revealing - these should be published. The ordinary lives of ordinary folks. Personal history, en masse, becomes national history.’ This is Edward Robb Ellis, one of the most prolific diarists in American history, who died 20 years ago today. He worked as a reporter for many years, and published a few books, but he is remembered today mostly for the extraordinary diary, published a few years before his death, with the rather grand title of A Diary of the Century.

Ellis was born in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1911. He studied journalism at the University of Missouri graduating in 1934, and subsequently was employed at the New Orleans Associated Press office. He moved to Oklahoma, where he worked for the Oklahoma City Times. In 1937, he married the professional violinist, Leatha Sparlin, and they had one daughter, before divorcing after the war. He served in the United States Navy between 1943 and 1945, editing a hospital newspaper, The Bedside Examiner; and then, after being posted to Okinawa, he ran another newspaper for sailors.

After a short spell at the Daily News in Chicago, Ellis moved, in 1947, to live and work in New York City. There he met and married Ruth Kraus. He worked for the World Telegram for 15 years, and thereafter he wrote several books - including a history of the city - and many articles. Ruth died suddenly in 1965, leaving him bereft. Since the age of 16, he had kept a detailed daily diary, and it was the diary that now kept him going, and indeed became a central focus of his somewhat eccentric life - largely confined to a book-filled rundown Manhattan apartment. With publication of extracts from his 22 million word diary, he accrued some fame, and, having interviewed many names in his life, he himself became the subject of interviews. Prior to 1994, he was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world’s longest diary. He died on 7 September 1998. There is not a great deal of detailed biographical information available online, but a little can be found at Wikipedia, The New York Times, and Salon.

A Diary of the Century: Tales from America’s Greatest Diarist was published by Kodansha International in 1995. In a short introduction, another New York journalist, Pete Hamill, compares Ellis’s diaries, in the first instance, to that of Thomas Mann (see Mann on Mann). Then, he compares them to those of Philip Hone and George Templeton Strong (Wall Street palpitating), concluding thus: ‘They, too, were decent men and New Yorkers, trying to make sense of the dailiness of their lives. Much of what we know about their time - about the way human beings actually lived - we know from them. There are human beings not yet born who will be helped in understanding our times through the diaries of Edward Robb Ellis. That is his accomplishment. That is his triumph.’ Some extracts from the diary can be read online at Philip Turner’s The Great Gray Bridge or The National Diary Archive. Here are several other extracts.

27 December 1927
(This was the first entry I ever wrote in my diary, misspelling and all.) Well Christmas is past and everyone happy. I got a wristwatch, billfold, DeMolay pin, and the usual hetregeneous collection of sox, ties and handkerchiefs. Went to the students’ dance at the Kewanee Club last night. Took Barbara. Not so hot. Had fun there, though. Am reading a book about the World War. Had trouble with Tom Pierce about ushering at the theater. All right now. I’m paid 25 cents afternoons and 50 cents evenings.’

21 April 1928
‘This is a great day, a great day! Today marks the beginning of a second composition book of my diary. As yet no living person has gazed upon the pages of my diary although several persons have asked for that privilege. At first I put down only the things I wouldn’t be ashamed of, but as time went on I began to record all, or nearly all, of my thoughts, actions and desires, be they good or bad.’

22 February 1932
‘My 21st birthday. What a momentous day! Now, if ever, I am going to have to foster some semblance of manhood and play the part of an intellectual adult. There is one thing of which I am exceedingly conscious on this day, and that is my own ignorance. I can claim but a scant share of all the knowledge the world holds. I am woefully lacking any real insight into all those things worth knowing. I am so damned incompetent! However, there is one quality I possess - energy! If I can retain even a part of this youthful zest and joy in living, then perhaps I can conquer the world. Oh, hell, I’m so Goddam pretentious. Twenty-one, indeed! I’m more like a two-year-old. I wonder whether I’m a neurotic. I’m always highstrung and often nervous. In fact, I’m horribly high-strung and at times become irascible toward Melody Snow when she has done nothing to provoke me. Am I abnormal or normal? Am I over-sexed?’

3 December 1936
‘I’m still having trouble adjusting to the city room of the Oklahoma City Times. When I worked for the New Orleans Item the office was a happy Bedlam, while this office seems like Sunday School. Today the managing editor sent me a note requesting that I make sure my desk is neat before I leave. Nuts! A newspaper office should be the last refuge of non-conformists! “Scoop” Thompson even declares there should be a Constitutional amendment stating that it is the duty of every reporter to get drunk every Saturday night - at least.’

20 December 1937
‘One week from today my diary will become ten years old. It’s getting to be a fat little rascal and perhaps may be the only literature of any value I’ll leave when I die. The other day it occurred to me that it might be a good idea for someone to get an advance from a publishing house and then travel around the country in search of men and women who keep diaries. The good diaries, the ones that are truthful and readable and revealing - these should be published. The ordinary lives of ordinary folks. Personal history, en masse, becomes national history.

If I remember correctly, Voltaire called footnotes in a book the sound of slippers sneaking up the back staircase - something like this. Anyway, this is the kind of history found in diaries - the slippers-under-the-bed, the Mrs. Grundy-just-told-me, the sure-crossed-up-that-guy-yesterday, the hope-that-I’ll-get-it-tomorrow, the but-you-said-you-loved-me, the wail-of-a-lonely-frail, as the song says. The marginalia of civilization.’

23 February 1961
‘In the office today Ed Wallace and I discussed Allen Ginsberg, who worked as a copyboy here at the World-Telegram in 1953. Having just read Ginberg’s poem called Howl, solemn-faced Wallace said; “Ginsberg might become immortal  - if Robert Frost beat him to death with a wet squirrel.”

26 April 1989
‘His Royal Ignorance, George Bush, hopes the Supreme Court will outlaw abortion. The man is all eloquence. In other contexts he speaks of “this vision thing” and “the contra thing.” I wish I could tax bad syntax.’

21 September 1989
‘Donald Trump, the flashy real estate man, is supposed to be worth $1.6 billion. The People's Almanac says that if a person spent $1,000 a day, every day since the birth of Christ, even by this date the billion dollars would not have been exhausted.’

23 September 1989
‘Irving Berlin died in his sleep yesterday at the age of 101 in his town house on Beekman Place. I have a special place in my heart for him because a quarter-century ago I spent an afternoon with him and liked him a lot. The New York Times story about him began on the front page and then broke inside to one full page.’

17 April 1993
‘I dipped into some of my earlier diaries and am astounded by the fact that I have forgotten so many things, some of them important. For example, using photographs, I caricatured Ike and Mamie Eisenhower, Ruthie showed them to her boss, a close friend of the President, her boss took them to the White House, where Ike liked my caricature of him, thought the one of Mamie also was funny, but decided not to show it to her lest it hurt her feelings. How could I forget this?’

The Diary Junction

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