Sunday, January 9, 2011

B.H. Friedman, RIP

Because of the tragedy in Tucson, it's been a sad weekend, and this morning we were further saddened to learn of the passing of B.H. Friedman, a terrific writer whose nonfiction was justly celebrated but whose fiction -- novels and stories -- deserves wider recognition.

We first learned of B.H. Friedman when his 1974 novel, Museum, was published as part of the opening three books put out by the Fiction Collective; the others were by our Brooklyn College MFA professors, Peter Spielberg and Jonathan Baumbach, the first co-directors of the Collective, where we worked as an editorial assistant.

We read Museum, Friedman's fourth novel, 35 years ago and still recall it as a highly intelligent, spare, well-crafted story that both told us a lot about the art and museum world and delineated a compelling family drama. An excerpt:
Despite its legalistic impersonality, Em knew how difficult this letter must have been to write - or even to have had written. He imagined discussions between lawyer and client about spreading the gift over five years, the lawyer being tactful, Helen being - what? - hopeful? - self - deluding? Despite Alton Riggs's "suggestion," Em had long since decided never to ask her for such a letter, but rather, if necessary, to double his own pledge. Now once again he leaned over and kissed her hollow cheek.

"What about the others, besides Bill?"

"Leslie's the biggest surprise. Though I've often questioned her motives, she did suggest Louis, and she's been absolutely supportive on every design issue that's come up. Maybe she sees the new building as a way to re-establish our side of the family. Whatever it is, she's so excited I'm almost beginning to like her."

"As children you were closer than you think," Helen shut her eyes for a moment, trying to remember. "You teased her and she bossed you and all that, but underneath I'm not sure if you two didn't get along better than most brothers do with older sisters."

Em wasn't sure either. He shrugged, moved on to the remaining member of his committee: Ellis Murdoch.

"He attended this last meeting. He's just back from Europe-"

"I know. He's the only one from the museum, besides you, who's come to see me. The people from other organizations I'm involved with visit, but your family - I wouldn't give a dime to the museum, if it weren't for you-" Her eyes shut again - and her mouth, on an unintelligible phrase, perhaps "and your father."

"Until Ellis returned Byron Lord had been feeding us the information about the museum's operation. D'you know By?"

There was no response. Helen was asleep, breathing deeply. Em tiptoed from the room. All that about Ellis's and By's opposed ideas concerning lighting, hanging, systems of movable partitioning, almost everything - all that could wait until Em's next visit.

In the New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called it "the most intellectually stimulating of the three [Fiction Collective's initial] books" and said it "poses interesting questions about the function of museums and offers credible fly-on-the-boardroom-wall views of the way such institutions are run." For us, a kid who knew nothing about the art world, it was an insider's peek and a meditation on the limits of idealism written by an erudite literary mensch who was, in his daily life, a highly successful businessman and executive.

B.H. Friedman, of course, was best known for his innovative and magisterial biographies of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Jackson Pollack, but his fiction was also first-rate. Especially his stories: his collection Moving In won the CCLM Award and his collection Duplex (our favorite) won the Nelson Algren Award. His last book of short fiction, Swimming Laps: Stories and Meditations, proved that he never lost his touch, even in his seventies.

The first non-family trustee of the Whitney Museum Board of Trustees, B.H. Friedman was beloved by many in the art world. We offer condolences to his family and hope that lovers of literature will check out his books of fiction if they're not familiar with his work.

He was the one of the most gentlemanly writers we dealt with as an editorial assistant at the Fiction Collective in the mid-1970s and a different kind of role model than our creative writing professors. Like many others, we will miss him.

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