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Hariette Surovell: A Tribute PDF E-mail
Hariette Surovell: A Tribute
By Cynthia Cotts

Hariette Surovell, an original and prolific writer of fiction, nonfiction and criticism, was discovered in her East Village apartment in the early hours of Friday, May 13, 2011, after friends and family had become worried because she hadn't responded to calls and e-mails for a few days. She had died quickly and painlessly from arrhythmia a few days earlier, according to the medical examiner, at the age of 56.

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Robin & Har
Hariette’s death came as a shock and a surprise to her loved ones. She is survived by her husband, Robin Pitre; her mother Esther Surovell; her brothers Paul, Jeffrey and Alan; and by her niece Margret and her nephew Jonathan. Eerily, her death tracks another mortal story: Her father, Abraham Surovell, who had worked in the art department at Columbia Records for years, died of a heart attack in 1971, when Hariette was 16. He had been devoted to his only daughter since her birth, when he declared as a toast, “My cup runneth over.”

“Hariette was one of the most original, exciting, brilliant and courageous intellectuals on the American scene. I hope that she was able to complete her memoirs,” the American poet Ishmael Reed wrote in an e-mail the week after she died. Alas, she only finished the first two chapters. While she had a cult following, her followers were of the highest caliber.

Describing Hariette’s literary career is a challenge because of the enormity of her talent and ambition. She grew up in Flushing, Queens, where she attended public school and read voraciously, following her mother’s literary tastes. She was a prodigy who published her first piece, “Most Girls Just Pray,” a comment on birth control, on The New York Times op-ed page at the age of 16. That publication led to an appearance on the Phil Donahue show and further publications by Hariette on the subject of teen sex, which was taboo at the time. She attended City College of New York on a fellowship, studying creative writing with the likes of Francine du Plesssix Gray, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, who was her personal advisor.

“There were no Catch 22’s about our long chats about my CCNY experience,” Hariette wrote of Heller on her Web site, “He was always gracious, sensitive, concerned, fatherly and, of course, funny.”

Vonnegut conducted his freshman writing seminar from the living room of his apartment on the East Side, she also recounted on her Web site. “I could practically set my watch to the weekly event. As the designated student began to read the assigned writing exercise, Kurt’s face ... would turn scarlet. Finally, the Mt. Vesuvial eruption: ‘Stop writing about being a writer! It’s narcissistic, self-indulgent and tedious! You have all got imaginations, I assume. Pretend you are Native Americans, Eskimos or Martians or transfer out of my class!’”

When Hariette was 19, Donald Barthelme published her first short story in his journal Fiction. She went on to publish fiction in journals such as Between C & D and The Exquisite Corpse, the literary magazine turned online journal edited by poet and novelist Andrei Codrescu. Codrescu became a lifelong fan of Hariette’s, calling her work “inimitable, superb.” He plans to organize an event to commemorate her sometime in late 2011.

In a phone interview, Codrescu called Hariette a “classic red-diaper baby” and a “dear friend” who was a regular contributor to the print edition of Exquisite Corpse from 1983 to 1995.

“She had a raw deal as a writer,” he continued. “She was 98 percent better than any writer currently publishing fiction and nonfiction. But her work will get its due in time.”

For all her talent as a fiction writer, in her twenties, Hariette became a prolific and ubiquitous writer of nonfiction, displaying her ability to infiltrate worlds where you would not expect a woman to show up. She worked for a decade as an undercover investigative sex reporter for Forum magazine, producing stories like “Baseball’s Sex Hall of Fame.” For that story, she traveled to St. Louis in the nineteen-eighties to attend five of the seven games of a world series, and landed an on-the-record interview with Reggie Jackson.

“I’m active sexually, but not as much as people think,” Jackson told her. “Great athletes can’t abuse their bodies too much ... As a conscientious athlete, I date only one or two people at a time and always end up in my own bed.”

One of Hariette’s cherished possessions was a color photo which hung in her kitchen near an original cover of the Janis Joplin album “Cheap Thrills,” which Columbia released during her father’s tenure there. The photo, which shows her interviewing Jackson on the field before one of the games, captured the moment when New Yorker writer Roger Angell first laid eyes on Hariette, wondering, Who the hell is that woman and how did she land an interview with Reggie Jackson? (Or so Hariette told the story when she cooked me her famous pasta in clam sauce in April 2011. Angell didn’t respond to an e-mail requesting comment.)

She then elicited an on-the-record quote from Angell, who told her, “Sex and baseball players go together, and there is equal action for managers and coaches. Mickey Mantle is famous for making love in three different time zones on the same day.”

Needless to say, she and Angell became friends. Hariette’s bold manner, her wit and her encyclopedic knowledge of the intricacies of human behavior all helped her to develop sources and to infiltrate one forbidden world after another. She had a particular knack for putting her sources at ease, to the point that they would reveal everything.

Hariette evolved into a crime writer, batting out investigative stories such as “Chinatown Cosa Nostra,” an expose of the Chinatown mafia for Penthouse; “Queenpins of the Cali Cartel,” a paean to the female ringleaders of the drug world which was published by Exquisite Corpse and later plagiarized by the New York Post; and “Untrue Blue,” a police story for New York magazine that was optioned by Disney after a bidding war with eight other offers on the table the week after the magazine hit the newsstands.

Peter Bloch, who was Hariette’s editor at Penthouse, recalls her as a “passionate, fiery writer whose outrage over injustice and hypocrisy sometimes turned off those who insisted on seeing the world in ‘balance’ and shades of gray.  Interestingly, for someone who grew up with radical leftists as parents, Hariette felt drawn to police, DEA agents, and other law-enforcers, whom she felt were often given a bum rap by the liberal media. Without being blind to excesses of cop brutality, which she was well aware of, Hariette was furious that the daily heroism of men who often faced death infiltrating drug gangs or terror cells was not appreciated. Her deep affection for many of these men, combined with her witty and bawdy humor, helped them to trust her with the kinds of details and secrets that made her reporting so memorable.”

She was asked to write a treatment for “The Accountant and the Stripper,” a true story based on an accountant who took over six strip clubs in Florida and turned them into financial jackpots. It was immediately optioned by Paramount Pictures and slated to be a TV movie starring William Macy.

The accountant turned the businesses around, Macy told The Hollywood Reporter when the movie was in development. “He brought accounting practices to them. He cleaned up all the graft and the corruption ... He empowered the girls. He instituted child care, employee picnics, employee benefits and he treated the women who worked there as employees with all the dignity that they deserved, and they ended up loving him for it."

Hariette continuously developed new skills. She worked as an advertising copywriter and as speechwriter. She wrote film reviews for Cover magazine. She studied graphology with the preeminent graphologist Felix Klein and published a book with Harper and Row in 1987 called “Lovestrokes: Handwriting Analysis for Love, Sex and Compatibility.” The publication of “Lovestrokes” led to an appearance on the Regis Philbin show, in which members of the audience volunteered to have Hariette analyze their handwriting. She dabbled in the visual arts as well, drawing intricate mandalas as a teenager and again after 9/11. While she never had children, she was immensely proud of her niece Margret, an actor and playwright, and of her nephew Jonathan, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh.

In the course of her career, Hariette taught writing and literature courses at six colleges, passing on to students the insights that she had learned from her favorite writing teacher, Kurt Vonnegut. On her Web site, she recounted the following advice from Vonnegut:

“Constantly vary your language and use new words; show, don't tell; use dialogue to move the plot forward; and, above all, use your imagination!”

Hariette met Robin in an East Village copy shop on 7th Street--or as they later referred to it, a “reproduction shop,” Robin recalls. She was there to make copies of true crime stories that had appeared in Penthouse, and he was duplicating a score that he had just completed for an orchestration class. 

“Looks like he’s getting distracted,” Robin said. The Bangladeshi shop owner, who was probably religious, was following the Post-its Hariette had placed in the pages of the magazines and trying to avoid looking at the photos, but the photos kept popping up. The shop owner looked nervous.

“Did you write that?” Hariette asked, pointing to the music score. 

"Yes,” Robin answered.

“Oh, I’d love to hear it.”

“I could give you a private performance, if you'd like,” he said with a smile.

After engaging in further banter and discovering that Robin was, in spite of his forward remarks, sweet and harmless, Hariette accompanied him to a local wine shop where they bought a bottle of white wine and made a date for a home-cooked gourmet dinner at her place that same day, after he dropped off his score at Julliard. They married nine months later.

Eleven years later, they divorced, but continued a deep friendship and often attended screenings, went out to dinner, and celebrated each other’s birthdays and other special events.

“We were each other's best friend,” Robin says. “Soulmates. I will miss her always.”

Hariette and I were only acquainted twice, briefly: once for a few months after I wrote in The Village Voice about her queenpins story being plagiarized by the New York Post, and then again after she got in touch with me around February 2011, on a much closer note. We lived a few blocks from each other in the East Village, and we had dinner three times that spring in rapid succession. In every conversation, we found new ways in which we were connected. She was very dear, always calling me “Cynth,” which only a few people have figured out is the perfect diminutive for me. She saw us as “sistahs” who were not only both Capricorns and long-time residents of the East Village but also had similar sensibilities when it came to sexuality, language and magic.

In the spring of 2011, as she regained energy and stamina after a series of illnesses, she began discussing the novel that she would write. In the weeks before she died, she told me that she’d had a breakthrough and now knew how she would organize the fragments of the novel that she had been writing during the past year.

We were supposed to have dinner again on Wednesday, May 11. We had set the date a week earlier, and when I e-mailed her that day to confirm, she didn’t respond. When she didn’t show, I concluded variously that she had been eaten by wolves, went through a time warp or landed in the hospital. I always assume that New Yorkers will cancel their plans at the last minute, but they usually tell me, and that one felt eerie. I was waiting at a sidewalk table downstairs from her apartment, leaving phone messages, and she was up there, having passed through the time warp. Late the next night she was found dead in her apartment.

In the days and weeks after her death, I would walk around the neighborhood addressing her, saying, “Har? Har?” Invariably, a moment later, I heard her throaty voice, as if emanating from the sky: “Cynth!”

When I told this story in full for the first time to someone who didn’t know Hariette, about two weeks later, my friend was aghast. She listened quietly and then said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone being stood up by a dead person!”

Those of us who knew Hariette are grieving the loss of a wickedly funny, clever and emotionally centered woman. As her husband Robin said one night when I met with him, Hariette’s brother Paul and her mother to share memories, “She was always thinking about everyone she was connected to and sharing signposts about where to go.”

I personally will miss her, as we had just resumed being friends, we had a hell of a lot in common and she had seriously begun to shine her good vibes in my direction. The good news is that in a time when freelancers are consistently exploited and undervalued, she had sufficient self-esteem to maintain a Web site which helped contribute to this obit and to the Corpse’s posthumous archive of her magnificent body of work.

Hariette, may you and your oft-touted 38 DDD’s rest in peace. I know you would want us to celebrate your life and your amazing adventures, rather than pass the hours weeping over your untimely death. Getting to know you again, I learned what your father meant when he said, “My cup runneth over.”

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