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tearing the rag off the bush again
Belated Homage to Hariette Surrovell by Tom Silvestri PDF E-mail
a fond farewell to our darling Hariette

So Long Surovell: A Belated Appreciation of Hariette

by Tom Silvestri



I never fantasize about remaking my favorite movies.  But


if somebody asked me to rework Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman


with Hariette as the gutsy, gifted, enigmatic, endlessly


fascinating writer who goes to an early grave and leaves


behind a cult of loyal admirers, I’d have to think twice.


I learned only last week of Hariette’s sudden death, though


it occurred well over a year ago.  Such a major loss to her


family, friends, and readers everywhere brings to my mind


the premature demise of visionaries like Frank Zappa and


Laura Nyro, with whom Hariette had much in common.  Like


Zappa, she was relentless and uproarious in her virtuoso


condemnation of mediocrity and her obsessive pursuit of


excellence.  Like Nyro, she was dark, mysterious, frail,


heroic, and adorable in striking and surprising ways.


Over thirty years ago, I was introduced to Hariette by


another vastly underrated writer, Peter Trachtenberg (who’s


still with us and writing better than ever).  Thanks to an


arguable amount of smarts, considerably more hustle, and a


shitload of dumb luck, I was settling into the position of


editor at the Playboy Book Club back then.  Peter read book


manuscripts and wrote promo copy for me, and he recommended


Hariette for the same frugally-paid freelance work. 


Now, any visit from wise, witty, and deceptively worldly


Peter scored out very high on my scale for enjoyable dis-


tractions, somewhere between the monthly arrival of the


magazine and the latest sales figures.  And when Hariette


started dropping in regularly, too, I had in my Rolodex


another reliable rescuer from the torpor of limp thrillers,


humdrum historical tomes, and how-to business books longer


on hope and hype than know-how. (Indeed, fresh memories of


Peter Gabriel belting out “Humdrum” itself at the Diplomat


Hotel and in Central Park often relieved my restless young


mind of such uninspired submissions as these in the summer


of 1980.)


Playboy was a real book club, not just some obligatory


depository (don’t even ask how many books on the JFK


assassination I read) for softcover collections of center-


fold shoots, of which we were charged to offer but one


per month.  Membership trailed only Book-of-the-Month Club


and The Literary Guild and more than once Playboy took


chances, if not always with success then at least with high


spirits, on books that those two giants wouldn’t have


touched. (To this day, I rank Christie Hefner, the most

senior person to whom I reported at Playboy Enterprises


Inc., as one of the smartest, most capable people that


I’ve worked for to date.)


Peter and Hariette knew infinitely more than me about


prose and fiction writing though they never let on about


that, at least not to my face.  What Hariette wasn’t at all


shy about airing, though, were her abundant views on world


culture, driven by piercing insight and effortless auda-


city.  I recall thinking, on the day I met her, that in


the time of movies like His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire,


she would’ve been called, in the best sense of the word,


“a dame.”


Hariette was as ahead of the beat as anybody I’ve ever


seen.  She was so ahead of the beat she could make Mitch


Mitchell sound like Charlie Watts.  For instance, she was


crazy about Prince – not in that off-putting “I’ve found


the next genius, all by myself” manner, but simply as a


grateful, ecstatic fan – before anybody, and I mean any-


body, had even heard of him.  She had an uncanny eye for


the fabulous and the fraudulent, and it wasn’t always easy


to tell which engaged her more fully.  


I’ll never forget the delightfully dismissive reader’s


report that Hariette handed in on Jack Henry Abbott’s


initial manuscript for In the Belly of the Beast, two or

three paragraphs into which she drawled (yes, her sarcasm


was that visceral), “The writer who, frankly, appears


psychotic…”  Chillingly, she proceeded to practically


predict the disaster that would result from Mailer’s


sponsorship of this evil, unfortunate man before the book


was even in stores.  It didn’t surprise me one bit when,


years later, she became a crime writer as tough and un-


sentimental as the crime fighters that she so championed.


Of course, like Hendrix in his ability to play rhythm and


lead at the same time, she could be ahead of and off the


beat in the same moment.  I remember how a male nude shot


in Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers moved her to lean over to me


in an Upper West Side movie theater and whisper, “Looks


like one of those big cocks that’s never been used,” a


second or two before this somewhat gratuitous image


seemingly had half the patrons wondering if the movie was


going to work.  A gushing Village Voice columnist’s irony-


free use of the term “agitprop” could not only send her


into hysterics but inspire days of hilariously comic riffs


on her part.


In short, Hariette had le gai savoir in spades, though she


awarded a grade of zero de conduite to politically correct


(literally per Mao, in this particular case) fare such as


the Godard film of the former title.  It seems likely this

had to do with the far-left upbringing that another writer


on this site has mentioned.  To be sure, Hariette preferred


capitalism to communism, as anyone who nailed as many pres-


tigious freelance gigs as she did with help from nobody


else well might.  But what really pissed her off, no matter


from which camp it came, was indoctrination – which was


also a big reason that her writing students, whom she at


once entertained, enlightened, and empowered, couldn’t get


enough of her. 


For all her observational skills, she was as kindhearted


as a grandmother, to quote one translation of an ancient 


book we both liked a lot, in the presence of any sound


observations from others.  Once I suggested to her that a


celebrated, New York-based filmmaker, whose latest movie


she’d been assigned to review, had never really seen


Manhattan much beyond the depiction of it in the Marx


Brothers movies of his childhood.  From the way she


showered me with praise on this point for weeks, you’d


think I’d given her my first-born – or at least the writing


job on my first movie production.


Face to face with people, criticisms from “Har” were, for


all her slashing wit, like compliments from anyone else.  


I’ve long sought to emulate that quality in my own work,


but I’d be many years behind in that regard had I never

known her.  I’m not just talking here of her thoughts on


writing.  When I couldn’t fathom why a cadre of prominent


rock ‘n’ roll critics, some of whom I was writing music


reviews for at the time, habitually behaved like rigid-


minded commissars back in the U.S.S.R., Hariette said,


“Tom, don’t you know those guys are all red-diaper babies


like me?  I went to summer camp with them for years!”  Her


tone was that of a proud mother cheering on her child’s


first steps, not an abusive parent.  And when I was head


over heels for a woman whom Hariette quickly sized up as


“not as nice as you,” she withheld that belief politely,


even charmingly, until I told her that I’d finally found


that out for myself.


It’s astounding, and more than a little dispiriting, that


Hariette never published a novel, which probably says more


about the current state of American fiction than it does


about her.  Her greatest strengths as a writer – choice of


words, command of detail, grasp of psychodynamics – were


those that no novelist can live without.  Like a lot of


people who are good at more than one thing, though, she


wasn’t the type to pound out a screenplay every six months


or a novel every year.  Folks who do that are sometimes


very successful in commercial terms, but they don’t often


leave behind a body of work as varied and vibrant as hers.

Like Leslie Braverman, Hariette Surovell will be majorly


mourned and missed, as will her singular assessments of


anything that crossed her path.  I can only imagine what


she would’ve made of a two billion-dollar presidential


smackdown between the likes of Barack Obama and Mitt


Romney, or the pop iconography of Justin Bieber or Nicki


Minaj, or the New York Jets’ refusal to give up on Mark






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