Rice has always lived like a hermit.
This was so even when he was in the city, but at Sagaponack, on Long
Island, it has been even worse. His old farmhouse sits humped over itself
off a street that didn't have a name until recently, when overnight
somebody turned up and left a little sign calling it Sagg Lake Drive;
the "lake" probably refers to the water that collects across the pavement
at Sagg Main Street every time it rains. Behind are the elaborate gardens
of Robert Dash, painter and landscaper, a very decent man who like Rice
is attentive to the beauty of the environment around him, with the single
difference being that Rice likes things the way they are and Dash successfully
gilds them. Nearby is the comfortable Hamptons house of Kurt Vonnegut.
Now and then I see him on his way to the Post Office on Sagg Main, tall
and thin and permanently bent from the waist from leaning over a typewriter.
Seeing him one day on my way to Rice's, just after I had published my
novel, that never got any recognition at all, I waved discreetly at
him from the car; dear Kurt waved back at his fellow author. That little
wave helped soothe me for the failure of my book.
the other side of Rice's house, a computer magazine publisher has had
built a modern version of an entire Tuscan village in typical neo-Hamptons
style whose only attractiveness comes from a large field of wildflowers
adjacent to it; Rice hates this place, it is indeed unshapely, unwelcoming
and pretentious; I expect Bob Dash dislikes it too. Rice looks over
there and swears. He is probably unaware -- I doubt he would care even
if he became aware -- that a lot of people in Sagaponack disapprove
of his house too. It's straight up-and-down old wood, some of which
is rotting here and there, unpainted for years and generally unattended.
It is state-of-the-art Bonacker, plain and simple like the people who
were here before all the others on eastern Long Island (after the Indians),
and it sits in the middle of a pleasant orchard of peaches, apples,
plums, quinces and blueberries; visited by a very large songbird colony,
an occasional pheasant, wandering guinea hens, a colony of diseased
Long Island rabbits, and a cross from outer space that Rice calls Sagghenge
(he claims it just flew in from the primeval past one night, an object
from some other universe, but we all know he installed it himself).
The house and grounds suit him fine; he doesn't really care whether
Plimpton is not far away; other neighbors over the years have been Peter
Matthiessen, Truman Capote, James Jones, Wilfrid Sheed and a number
of regular staff writers for "The New Yorker," "The New York Times,"
"New York" magazine. Rice, true to his hermit's nature, has always
been aloof from all these people, except for Sheed, with whom he has
been friends for many years. When "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton"
became a best seller, and was reviewed on the front page of "The New
York Times Book Review," one of his celebrity neighbors is reported
to have exclaimed: "Oh, so that's who that guy is!" He says he also
was a friend of Matthiessen, back when they both were travelling a lot,
to some of the same places. "But right after he became a Zen Buddhist,"
Rice says, "he became an angry man. So what can you do with an angry
The General Store and adjacent Post Office are busy on summer days with
media-known people wandering blindly out on to Sagg Main focused on
photo opportunities rather than oncoming cars; those of us who are familiar
with the area, and not really a part of the General Store crowd, instinctively
drive very slowly past the General Store. Rice sits in quietness in
the midst of all this. He had the farmhouse moved from Parsonage Lane,
not too far away, to its present site years ago, and then, as is his
nature, allowed it to run down considerably, as he wrote, painted, took
pictures, and travelled to the Middle East and to India and Pakistan.
Then he married Susanna Franklin a few years ago; she left her own house
in New Jersey to stay with him in Sagaponack; she got him to install
a furnace and radiators (Rice, ever indifferent to creature comforts,
used to sit there wrapped in blankets in wintertime, warmed on one side
of his body by a woodstove). She also got the place cleaned up, as best
as could be, and helped put some order in their orchard. All this wasn't
as simple as it may sound; Rice has kept everything he has ever owned,
produced from his typewriter, his easel, his camera, right back to the
days at Columbia. The place is filled with old manuscripts (he has published
a dozen books), photographs, correspondence, magazines (especially his
own, "Jubilee"), clothing, furniture and travel mementos. A lawyer,
Susanna put order not only into house, taxes and various property matters,
but also into his relations with publishers, agents and editors; this
came at a very useful time as "Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton" continued
to sell well in the United States, and to attract attention abroad,
especially in England, France and India.
Susanna died suddenly and tragically five years ago; a severe attack
of asthma sent her rushing alone in her car toward Southampton Hospital
in the middle of the night; the attack was so bad she didn't have time
to wait for Rice to dress, slowed down as he was from Parkinson's. She
crashed fatally into a tree at Water Mill; the strain of the asthma
had led to a heart attack. Rice still is not even close to getting over
his grief; at Christmas and Easter, especially, or any other occasion
that exemplifies togetherness, he quietly goes to pieces; his doctor
recently lashed out at him: "Why the devil are you still grieving? It's
been three years, that should have been enough." But it wasn't, and
Rice has an excuse this time, as the house begins going back to the
old ways of decay; Susanna is no longer there to run things. Also, Parkinson's
controls and transforms his life; the disease had appeared a year or
two before Susanna died, and since her death has got much worse. In
his present state he wouldn't be able to keep the house up, even if
it had suddenly become his nature to do so.
While we were at Columbia, Rice became the editor of "Jester", the college
humor magazine, and I was one of his writers. Robert Lax, the poet;
Robert Gerdy, later one of the better editors at "The New Yorker"; Charles
Saxon, later a "New Yorker" cartoonist, Bob Gibney, Seymour Freedgood
and Ad Reinhardt, the painter, were there. Most important for Rice and
for me, and I daresay for a number of the others, Merton was also there.
He was an illuminating presence in all our lives. This is especially
true of Rice, of Lax, and, as I am now discovering, of me too. We are
the only ones left -- Rice at Sagaponack, Lax on his Greek island, Patmos,
and Knight in Manhattan. Merton is with us every day. And that is the
way we want it; we don't ever want to lose him.
I don't believe, either, that Tom wants to lose us. He had a deep love
for friendship; in his eternal mind I don't think he ever lost touch
with any of us.
Rice remembers the first time he saw Merton; it was in the student center
where most of the undergraduate activities took place -- this was in
John Jay Hall, where the college newspaper, "Spectator", was put together,
and where the "Jester" staff hung out. "I heard this extraordinary piano
music," he reminisced recently, "loud and rhythmic, sounding as though
three or four people were at the keyboard at once. 'Who are those guys
making all that noise?' I asked a friend. 'It's only Merton," the friend
said, 'playing barrelhouse.'
"He was my friend from then on," Rice said. "We never lost track of
each other, and since his death not a day goes by that I don't think
Rice, who sponsored Merton in his conversion to Catholicism, is at odds
with many aspects of today's Thomas Merton cult. "It presents Merton
as a plastic saint," Rice says, "a contemporary Little Flower, a sweet,
sinless individual who has a direct line to God. But the God some people
see Merton communicating with is not the God that I think Merton would
have been praying to. I am not comfortable with the plastic saint image
of Merton; he was no such thing. I see Merton as an individual in the
grand scheme, and it makes no difference whether he is approached as
a Roman Catholic monk or a Buddhist lama. He was Merton, and he has
his influence as Merton."
In Paradise with Merton, Rice says, are Lao Tse, Isaac the Blind, Ibn
el Araby, Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King,
Charles de Foucaud the Keeper of the Pass, Teilhard de Chardin, Rabia
al Alawiya, the Original Sai Baba, Susanna Flying Feather (his own Susanna),
Ahmad al Alawi --"an endless number, hundreds, thousands of saints of
all faiths, some with no faith at all."
Such are the people Merton is associating with," Rice says. "He's a
world figure. He's a man who fits into the scheme of the universal holy
man with an appeal to everybody. His most important characteristic is
that he is universal; anybody can approach him, pray with him, denounce
him, love him; he is there. He's part of the grand scheme, helping us
on the way to that mysterious summit we are all searching for."
So here we are, the two of us at at the age of 82, with nearly all our
lives behind us; Rice, with his religion unique but still intact, and
I, an active Protestant at a young age, having a long time ago stripped
away those beliefs. Thinking of Merton. Hoping Merton doesn't forget,
pretty sure he won't.
When the lights go out and the spirit streaks off into the dizzying
and frightening darkness, Merton will be there. I'm counting on him
to reach out for me; then I'll leave the rest entirely up to him; he'll
know where to go and what to do.
I hope you have quick hands, Tom.
And strong wrists.