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1983-2015
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

 

Sanchez…

 

 

 

 
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