Saturday, September 08, 2007

John Podhoretz: Madeleine L'Engle at Home

You know her as the author of A Wrinkle in Time — possibly the best and most memorable young person's novel written in the United States since World War II. If you're lucky, you read or sampled a dozen or more of the 60-odd books she wrote for children and adults before passing away on Thursday at the age of 88.

Madeleine L'Engle was our neighbor growing up. She lived on the 9th floor at 924 West End Avenue in apartment 95; we lived on the 6th floor in apartment 65. There was one elevator for this line of apartments and therefore everybody in them came to know each other quite well, especially since the elevator had a habit of breaking down and trapping a few of us in it for 20 minutes at a time.

As a young boy, I knew her as the kind-faced and friendly woman with the two fluffy big nice dogs (in contrast to the constantly barking and lunging German Shepherds who lived on 12 and scared the bejeezus out of me and everybody else). Then, when I was 9 or 10, I read A Wrinkle in Time and my sister Naomi told me offhandedly that she was its author.

I wrote her the first fan letter of my life and, heart pounding, rode the elevator to 9 and slipped it under her door. Within hours a package was left at our door with an inscribed copy of its recently published sequel, A Wind at the Door, a box of baked chocolate chip cookies, and a response that was so appreciative I could hardly believe it, it was so gracious and thoughtful. I had grown up with writers whose friends were all writers and one thing I had learned even at that ludicrously tender age is that saying anything to any author about his or her work is to enter into an emotional minefield.

Madeleine had sold more copies of her work than any of my parents' friends, and probably had received more fan mail than any of them, but her letter had a tone of delight to it that not only suggested she understood how to write to a child, but also that she had about her an almost supernatural grace — suitable to someone who was a very serious churchgoing Episcopalian and the author of several novels for adults about the difficulties and joys of faith. I was particularly taken with The Love Letters, in which a young woman finds herself absorbed in the story of St. Teresa of Avila.

These were books I read the old-fashioned way — by finding them haphazardly at public libraries around New York over the years of my boyhood and adolescence. I would have 15 second discussions of them with her in the elevator as we traveled down or up. I was slightly abashed to be speaking so gushingly, and I think she sensed that and always made it seem as though I had made her day or her week.

Her late husband, Hugh Franklin, was as lovely as she — a working actor on soap operas and in theater around New York who would leave tickets at the box office for me whenever he was performing. This, needless to say, is not something most actor neighbors in New York would do.

My parents moved out of 924 West End Avenue in 1979, and I never saw Madeleine after that. But I still read her — she wrote a moving account of her marriage in a book called Two Part Invention that she published after Hugh's death in 1986. And I still knew she was around, still serving as the writer in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 111th and Amsterdam — a New York landmark that appeared in several of her books set in our Upper West Side neighborhood.

So for those who were moved and affected by A Wrinkle in Time, or the Austins books, or her trilogy of memoirs about faith, I just wanted you to know that their author was a wonderful neighbor, a wonderful person, and a model of social and personal grace. I was profoundly lucky to have had the chance to spend time with her in an elevator that kept breaking down.

09/07 10:40 PM

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