Literary figures William Kennedy and Bernard Conners on work, growing old
Longtime friends: The novelist and NYS Writers Institute founder in conversation with the former publisher of The Paris Review
William Kennedy and Bernard Conners at the Fort Orange Club in Albany. (Photo credit: Paul Grondahl / NYS Writers Institute)
Literary figures William Kennedy and Bernard Conners on work, growing old
By Jack Rightmyer
First published July 24, 2022
© Albany Times Union
Reprinted with permission
Upon hearing that best-selling author Bernard Conners was publishing a second edition of his 2015 memoir Cruising with Kate: A Parveneu in Xanadu (British American Publishing) with a new foreword by Pulitzer Prize winner William Kennedy, I wanted to sit down with the two gentlemen — Conners, who will be 96 in September, and Kennedy, 94, — and talk about their friendship and iconic lives in the world of literature and film.
Both men grew up in working-class families and have lived extraordinary lives. Conners, owner of Canada Dry’s largest soft drink franchise, was a Golden Gloves boxing champion and college football star. He was briefly with the Chicago Bears. He became an FBI agent in the 1950s, a best-selling novelist, and the publisher of the The Paris Review, one of the world’s premier literary magazines.
Kennedy has won numerous awards for his writing. He was a successful journalist at the Times Union and an editor for a newspaper in San Juan, Puerto Rico. He wrote two screenplays, “The Cotton Club,” based on James Haskins' book of the same name, with director Francis Ford Coppola, and “Ironweed,” based on Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Upon receiving a MacArthur Fellowship, he founded the New York State Writers Institute which, since its inception in 1984, has brought some of the greatest global literary figures to Albany.
Our dinner took place at the Fort Orange Club, an ornate brick building built in 1810 on Washington Avenue only a few steps from the Capitol. It seemed the perfect setting to ask a few questions and sit back and let these two friends converse.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and space.
On meeting, and starting their literary work:
Kennedy: I think we first met back in the 1970s, but I can’t remember the event.
Conners: I always cultivated writers and would always seek them out whenever possible. I first remember reading you as a journalist, but it was your series of books on Albany when I felt you were a real icon. ... Bill always writes such good dialogue, and I loved the forward you wrote for the new edition. I was so touched that you would do that.
Kennedy: I think we met because we had a mutual friend in writer Joe Persico.
Conners: I started writing after my days at the FBI, but this guy,” pointing to Kennedy, “is the real writer who has emerged on the worldwide stage setting his stories in Albany. It’s remarkable. As the publisher of The Paris Review I read so many great writers, and he’s as good as any of them.
Kennedy: I was committed to being a writer halfway through my college years at Siena. I especially wanted to be a journalist, a reporter. I wanted to be in the action. I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Everything about being a reporter was appealing to me. ... My articles in (the Times Union, when he was in his 20s) were fun, but they would disappear after a day. I soon became enamored of reading people like Hemingway who also began as a reporter and then jumped to writing fiction.
Conners: When you were at the Times Union I was in Chicago and New York working for the FBI. I spent much of my time dealing with reporters, giving them information, and I was amazed at how hard they worked day after day.
On accelerating their careers:
Both men lived busy lives before publishing their first books. Kennedy was 40 in 1968 when The Ink Truck was published. Conners was 36 when he published the best-seller Don’t Embarrass the Bureau in 1962.
Kennedy: I decided to quit being a journalist and worked as an editor in San Juan. I thought it would help me become a novelist. I always felt like I never had enough time. It’s hard to write full-time as a journalist and also write a good novel. ... Five years ago, I started to write about going to Cuba meeting Fidel Castro and the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, my whole relationship with him, but then I just stopped because what I really want to write are novels.
Conners: I found it hard to be objective writing my memoir, but it did give me a much greater appreciation for my wife, Kate. I met her 75 years ago, and I’ve never heard that woman say a negative thing. I can’t believe she would live with me all these years with all my flaws.
In his memoir, Conners writes fondly of George Plimpton, who was an Army friend who went on to establish The Paris Review in the early 1950s and became its editor-in-chief for 50 years. Plimpton was also famous for creating immersive journalism, including the book Paper Lion when he joined the Detroit Lions training camp in 1963 on the premise of trying out to be the team's third-string quarterback.
Kennedy: George knew everyone in the world of writing, and as a young man he could talk one-on-one with someone of the stature of Hemingway. [The Paris Review] was the greatest writer's magazine in the world. Every top writer wanted to be interviewed by them including (William) Faulkner and E.M. Forster. A major thing my friend Bernie did was to financially keep The Paris Review going.
Conners: And by keeping the magazine going I probably kept my friend George alive.
On flirting with Hollywood:
Conners: Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make a movie of my book Dancehall, but that never happened. It eventually went through five different film directors and still has not been made. I did have success as a producer in 2000 of the TV mini-series "Nuremberg" starring Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer that won two Emmy awards.
Kennedy: I was very happy with the film "Ironweed." The greatest actors of our time, (Jack) Nicholson and (Meryl) Streep, were in that picture. I loved writing “The Cotton Club” with Francis. I love that guy enormously. He wanted to make a movie of Legs. He even came to the area to look at locations with me, but that film also fell through. If you’re a writer you need to be inured to failure and disappointment. My book Ironweed had 13 rejections.
On aging, and friendship:
Kennedy: Writing is just as hard if you’re young or if you’re old. It’s always impossible. I’m trying to make sense out of a novel right now that doesn’t want to cooperate with me.
Conners: Old age is a struggle. No one is ever prepared for it. It sneaks up on you.
Kennedy, reaching out and tapping Conners on his right arm: “Bernie, you’re a terrific writer and a terrific literary figure in the history of the 20th century. Your involvement with The Paris Review is nonpareil. I know you don’t care a damn to hear this. You’ve lived a great life. You’re beloved, Bernie. You’ve written a marvelous little memoir. You’re a great self-deprecator, and I was glad to write the forward. Here’s to you, Bernie.” Kennedy then held his wine glass up to his friend. Conners, lifting his own glass: "And here’s to you, Bill. This is one of the best dinners we’ve had in a while."
Kennedy: “You’re never too old to have some fun.”
Jack Rightmyer is a freelance arts writer who has published two books A Funny Thing About Teaching and It's Not About Winning. He is an adjunct English teacher at Siena College and has written for various national magazines such as Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers. He can be reached at email@example.com.