How many times, as a child/as a man, did I face the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It must have been thousands of times; my answers never seemed to satisfy. “I want to be a famous writer.”
“A famous writer? What’s that?” seemed to be the basic reaction. “You should be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher.” My grandmother believed that teachers were best, that they were very well paid, loved and appreciated. If she only knew the truth. My father was a mathematician disguised as an accountant — “It’s what brings in the bucks,” he’d say — and sometimes a corporate comptroller. My mother was an electrologist who delighted in removing people’s unwanted body hair — “I’m helping people get out in the world without shame or fear,” she’d proudly say — when she wasn’t an active stage mother. “Get famous, get rich,” she’d tell me. “It’s faces that count, not words at 2.5 cents apiece.”
Still that question “what do you want to be…” came up a lot. I thought about studying to be a Rabbi, but no, that wasn’t my calling. I considered teaching, but not even my favorite grandmother could convince me it was the right direction. For about three days I thought about the life of an airline pilot. I tried out insurance work (my uncle’s suggestion) for six months. Library sciences (10 years for that one), travel agent (another decade or so), movie or television star (five months in Hollywood cured that one), and TV news writer (that one got three years). I always fell back on my one standard response: a famous writer.
There was, inevitably, the same question: “What’s a famous writer?” I could answer the question in many ways. “Ernest Hemingway is a famous writer of novels.” “F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous writer of short stories.” “Eugene O’Neill is a famous writer of plays.” “Edna St. Vincent Millay is a famous writer of poems.” “Oscar Hammerstein is a famous writer of song lyrics.” “Noel Coward is a famous writer of everything.” I want to be them!
I’ve been asked this question my whole life. And since the age of 14, I’ve been a published writer. The Nine Times, a local newspaper in Queens, New York, where I lived growing up, published my reviews and celebrity interviews on a weekly basis. Nobody knew my age and it didn’t really matter; I was published and paid. Henry Fonda was astonished when he met me and that made me feel famous for about an hour. I liked that feeling and it reinforced my desire to be a famous writer.
Literary agent Bertha Klausner signed me as a client when I was 22. Among her other clients were novelist Upton Sinclair, Eleanor Roosevelt, Fidel Castro, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and her own father, Jacob Adler. I was in rarified company, but very little that hadn’t already happened happened. Later I signed on with Charlotte Sheedy, the mother of actress/poet Ally Sheedy, who also handled Lemony Snicket. Under their careful guidance I did not become a famous writer, though I kept writing and in some small part kept publishing.
During that same period I became the New York correspondent for a British Weekly, Gay News, which kept me very busy and active. When the Jerome Kern musical “Very Good Eddie” opened in London a large blow-up copy of my review of the Broadway version graced the front of the theater on The Strand. I was well-seen, but not famous. I wrote articles with Peter Burton and Dolores Klaitch, both better-known than me, but my name was listed first (the joys of alphabetical order). Still living and pursuing the dream was I.
So, when people asked me the inevitable question, the inevitable answer was offered.
After a lot of short story publication and exposure through readings, a local publisher offered me a book contract and the small collection of short, short stories, “Counterpoints,” was published in Pittsfield by The Digital Hand Press in December of 1999. Well reviewed, it was also well received, became a best-seller on cruise ships, and even made it to Japan and China. In 2001, it received a special award from the Friends of Charles Dickens, New York.
That inspired me to publish serially, in the manner of Mr. Dickens. On my already established theater and food review site, Berkshire Bright Focus. I began to publish stories in a series of weekly episodes. A following developed for them and I wrote a novel, “Small Ironies,” in the same way, once chapter per week for just over a year. My following grew around the world, though I was still not a “famous writer.” I was contacted by a vanity press about the book and they published it for me in 2011 as a stand-alone book, which was also well-reviewed and sold well. Now out-of-print, it has been picked up by another publisher and will be re-published in October of this year. Perhaps that will make me a famous writer.
That old question still hung in the air around me when my second novel, “Cement Dust,” was published in 2019. I had been writing for local newspapers and magazines for many years, including six years with The Berkshire Eagle and Berkshires Week, The Advocate, and The Chatham Courier, but they were slowly going under, disappearing year after year. My theater reviews were being published on my website, but the nine outlets for them were dwindling and I was no longer self-syndicated. I was also getting older, a delicious if bitter pill to swallow, and not yet famous.
I was recently watching the movie “Some Like It Hot” and a dialogue between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis suddenly hit home and hit hard. “Seventy-five years, hmmm. Three quarters of a century. Makes a girI think,” Curtis’s Josephine said in one scene. I realized that I was now “grown up,” that there wasn’t much further to go to become that complete and famous person I had intended to be, to become the answer to the question: “What are you going to be when you grow up, Peter?” When would that ever be?
Well, this is it. In 2020, I won a national book award for my second novel, which The Berkshire Eagle refused to review. My silver medal accords it the “second best novel from the seven northeast states” to be published by a small press publisher in 2019, an IPPY Award. When that newspaper refused to publish a notice about the award, I knew I was famous at last. Fame brings with it jealousy and resentment, and I can finally put aside the eternal question about what and who I might be. By now, I was. I am and that’s that. The question may have gotten too old to consider, but not me.