“Amanda gone? Nah-not Amanda. Not that girl!” wrote Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, on McSweeney’s Web site on Tuesday. “Too big-hearted, too bouncy, too funny, too sweet, too goofy, too playful, too smart, too wiser-than-her-years for her to be gone.”
Like Ms. Orlean, much of the New York literary world seemed to be struggling with the reality that 32-year-old first-time novelist Amanda Davis was indeed gone-killed, along with both of her parents, when the Cessna that her father was piloting crashed 16 miles north of Asheville, N.C., on March 14. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.
And the circumstances surrounding her death only contributed to their disbelief and their anger.
Davis’ parents, James and Francie Davis, both college professors, had been shuttling her around on a shoestring book tour to promote her first novel, Wonder When They’ll Miss Me . The trio had started in Davis’ hometown of Durham, N.C., proceeded to Asheville, and was headed to Pittboro, N.C., when they went missing late Friday. The crash site was discovered the following day.
Indeed, a number of Davis’ friends told The Observer they were angry at her publisher, William Morrow, for its lack of support for her novel, which they said led the author to concoct her own scrappy tour with her father as pilot. Davis’ last two editors at the publishing house-including the editor who acquired her work, Rob Weisbach-had both left Morrow in recent years, and friends said she had no champion in the company.
“She fucking knocked herself out to get this book out there,” said Davis’ friend, Susan Troy. “She did not get a lot of help.”
“It’s a familiar story-an orphaned book getting short shrift and poor to no marketing,” said Elizabeth Gaffney, an editor at large at the Paris Review . “But Amanda suffered a consequence hideously out of proportion with the usual woes of the situation.”
Davis’ friends also took issue with a March 16 Publishers Weekly report in which William Morrow was portrayed as having a warm and supportive relationship with Davis-one in which her publicist called her “eight times a day.”
Ayelet Waldman, a writer and the wife of Mysteries of Pittsburgh author Michael Chabon, said Davis had actually been sad and disappointed with her publisher. “It’s not like she had this great idea and she wanted fly around in a Cessna,” said Ms. Waldman. Though she said she didn’t hold the publisher directly accountable for Davis’ death, Ms. Waldman wished William Morrow had acknowledged some form of regret. “What bothered me was that they didn’t just say it: ‘We wished we’d toured her, and then she wouldn’t have been on the damned plane.’
“I know I’m angry and I lost my best friend and that’s part of what’s going on,” Ms. Waldman added. “But still …. “
Reached for comment, William Morrow publisher Michael Morrison expressed his sadness, but referred us to Davis’ agent, Henry Dunow, with the explanation that he didn’t think it was appropriate to talk about the situation.
Mr. Dunow said, “I wish William Morrow had had a greater publication plan for her-but I personally think it’s a leap to make any causation in her death.”
The agent also said, however, that he was having a hard time coming to terms with Davis’ fate. “I came in this morning and on my desk were Amanda’s name and number and various details we were talking about,” said Mr. Dunow on Monday, March 17. “There’s something about the nature of this death that is impossible to make any peace with.”
Davis, who had recently been awarded a teaching fellowship at Mill’s College in Oakland, Calif., was a fixture of the youngish New York writing community, instantly recognizable at parties by her mass of kinky auburn hair and funky tortoise-shell glasses. Colleagues recalled her spiky wit and den-mother affection for fellow writers. “I realize that if I hadn’t met her in Brooklyn College,” said Ms. Gaffney, “I would have met her six or 10 times in the coming years. She knew so many people.”
In the late 90′s, Davis worked as an assistant t o Esquire fiction editor Adrienne Miller, where she also became acquainted with Mr. Eggers, then an editor at large with the magazine. Ms. Miller said Davis was “unbelievably enthusiastic” and had “a very fine, sophisticated ear.”
In 1999, with the publication of her first collection of short stories, Circling the Drain , she left Esquire to join a circus. “She traveled in this hilarious bus with all these crazy people and that’s when she got those tattoos,” recalled another friend, Elissa Schappell, the editor of the Hot Type column in Vanity Fair . “And she would say, ‘Yeah, why wouldn’t you be in a circus?’ ‘Why wouldn’t you fly with your dad?’”
Davis’ stories are populated with eccentric characters who struggle with bad luck and loss. Her novel is about a formerly fat girl named Faith who is recovering from a brutal sexual assault. She joins the circus and begins to heal. “She was a total sucker for a redemptive ending,” said Ms. Gaffney. “I don’t know what to do with her own ending. It wasn’t redemptive.”
But Ms. Gaffney tried to wriggle out of that conclusion. “Although in a weird way, it was like one of her stories,” she said, recalling an early story entitled “Print.” “It’s about a girl who walks out into a field and you see these footprints and the girl just vanishes,” she said. “It’s like Amanda: She just jumped from the middle of a field and vanished, or was abducted by some fate.”
Davis is survived by her brother Adam, 29, and sister, Joanna, 26. On Monday, March 17, the McSweeney’s Web site erected a memorial that included remembrances by Mr. Chabon and Davis’ close friend, Heidi Julavits. A memorial service is scheduled to be held at the Housing Works book store in Soho on Wednesday, March 26.
Federal Oscar Incident
The March 12 press briefing held by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer covered such topics as President Bush’s morning phone calls to Russian President Putin, United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Zayed and the Philippines’ President Arroyo. Mr. Fleischer expressed the President’s condolences over the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and took questions about the U.N. Security Council and the March 17 deadline for war.
According to a transcript of the briefing, he also fielded a question about the Oscar race.
As the press conference was winding down, talk-radio host Lester (Les) Kinsolving made his move.
“Ari,” said Mr. Kinsolving, who has been covering the White House since the Nixon administration, “the Los Angeles district attorney’s office has announced that if movie director Roman Polanski comes to the United States, even to receive an Academy Award [for The Pianist ], he will be arrested as a fugitive after his 1978 conviction for giving champagne and narcotics to a 13-year-old girl and then raping her.”
Then Mr. Kinsolving got to the point. “Does the President believe that the L.A. district attorney’s office is right, and that the federal government should move to get the extradition of this dope-pushing child molester?” he asked.
Mr. Fleischer, who hears off-topic questions from the enthusiastic Mr. Kinsolving almost every day, gave a slightly exasperated reply. According to the transcript, he said: “Lester, by now I would have hoped you’d have picked up the pattern that there are questions you need to address to other people, not the White House.”
Mr. Kinsolving persisted, asking “how does the President feel” about the potential for Mr. Polanski’s arrest.
“The President feels that you should have picked up the pattern of addressing questions to other people,” said Mr. Fleischer.
“And who should I address it to, [since] he wants to duck it?” asked Mr. Kinsolving.
Mr. Fleischer finally laughed and admitted, “I really don’t know, and I’m not sure I care.”
In an Oscar voting week that included Academy executive administrator Ric Robertson warning that certain studios might be docked tickets to the awards for inappropriate campaigning, a dustup over a Miramax ad for Best Director nominee Martin Scorsese featuring a written endorsement by former Academy president Robert Wise, and the posting, by the Smoking Gun Web site, of the 1977 testimony of Mr. Polanski’s then-13-year-old victim, Samantha Gailey, some Hollywood sources were betting that Mr. Kinsolving was being used as a stalking-horse to carry out some Oscar-nominated studio’s dirty tricks.
Not so, said Mr. Kinsolving by phone.
“I wasn’t even aware of [the Oscar campaigning uproar], even though I think I am the only talk-show host who is also a White House correspondent who is also in the Screen Actors Guild,” said Mr. Kinsolving, who has appeared in the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals .
Asked what prompted his question about Mr. Polanski, Mr. Kinsolving replied: “Well, No. 1, I believe that the Constitution shows that the President shall see to it that the law is enforced.
“No. 2, I believe that using narcotics and champagne to rape a 13-year-old is simply horrible.” Mr. Kinsolving was sort of yelling by the time he got to No. 3, which was that if the President could comment on the rescue of 15-year-old Elizabeth Smart in Utah, he should also be “concerned about the possibility of giving an Oscar to a dope-pushing child molester!”
Mr. Kinsolving added that he’d also read an editorial about Mr. Polanski’s crime in The National Review .
“I don’t care how good he was-and I hear the movie is very good!-if Benedict Arnold directed a play, would they honor him in New York?”
– Rebecca Traister
Grubman’s Day in Court
Allen Grubman was in court on Tuesday, March 18, but not as an attorney.
The entertainment lawyer and father of publicist Lizzie Grubman was called for jury duty at the criminal courts building at 100 Centre Street, where he waited with the rest of the jury pool before being summoned and questioned by a judge.
According to a fellow potential juror, Mr. Grubman was dressed “rich but casual,” in a powder-blue cashmere sweater and powder-blue shirt with its collar sticking out. The source said that he was “grumpy and preoccupied” and that he talked on his cell phone “the whole time he was out in the hall, on the way downstairs-he almost sat on my lap because he was so involved in his call.”
When the group was summoned to Room 1301, the judge explained that they were being selected as jurors in the case of a man who was found in Manhattan with 135 pounds of cocaine in his car. When the Honorable Judge W. Wetzel asked twice if anyone had any “emotional or moral” reasons why they could not be impartial in this case, Mr. Grubman raised his hand.
According to the witness, Mr. Grubman told the judge, “Yes, I had a close family member involved in the civil justice system in the past year and I think this would be too hard for me.”
Mr. Grubman was likely referring to his daughter, Lizzie, who in 2002 served a brief jail sentence after pleading guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and criminally negligent assault after backing her father’s Mercedes S.U.V. into 16 people at the Conscience Point club..
When the judge asked if this would interfere with his impartiality, Mr. Grubman said, “Yes.” The judge then thanked and dismissed him.
Also in the pool, according to our inquisitive source, was a man who spent the morning fiddling with his BlackBerry, and was overheard identifying himself as a “good friend” of Mr. Grubman.
When called by the judge, Ronald Altbach told the judge that he was “the C.E.O. of a corporation under siege,” by the Federal Trade Commission. Reached later by phone, Mr. Altbach said, “No, I said a besieged public company. Because all public companies are besieged.” Mr Altbach is C.E.O. of Cross Media Marketing Communications, which has been involved in a recent legal battle with the F.T.C.
Additionally, Mr. Altbach wrote and performed “Dancing in the Moonlight” with pals from Cornell University as the band King Harvest, and later wrote, played keyboards and produced songs with the Beach Boys for five years. He also produced the 1987 TV-movie Nights in White Satin, before becoming an investment banker in New York and eventually heading up Cross Media.
Mr. Altbach was not selected for the jury. Mr. Grubman could not be reached for comment by press time.
Tangoing With Duvall
On the evening of March 17 at Soho’s Cafe Novecento, Robert Duvall smoothed the remains of his gray hair over the back of his head and neck. In his rumpled gray suit, he looked like the city-slicker version of Gus McCrae, the aging cowboy he played in Lonesome Dove .
On this unseasonably warm evening, Mr. Duvall was attending the premiere party for Assassination Tango . The 72-year-old actor had not only written and directed the film, he incorporated two of his current passions into the plot: tango and his girlfriend of seven years, 31-year-old Luciana Pedraza, who sat to his right.
While Ms. Pedraza chatted with other guests at the table, Mr. Duvall told The Transom her story. She had once been voted “Miss Elegant” in a beauty pageant, he said, glancing over at his leading lady. And though Ms. Pedraza hails from Argentina-land of the tango-Mr. Duvall said she had yet to learn the dance when he met her “on the street” seven years ago. The tango-obsessed actor arranged for lessons for her and then made her his leading lady on and off the screen.
Ms. Pedraza wore black-on-black patterned pants and a backless halter top. When she posed for photos with the pale and leathery Mr. Duvall, each muscle in her tiny back flexed visibly under her toffee skin.
“When I get off the plane [in Argentina], her father says, ‘You’re in the same jacket you wore last year,’” Mr. Duvall said with a wry smile. “Over there, they are very concerned about that: your face, your beauty, your psychiatrist. I’m not into all that stuff.” He chuckled, and the creases at the edges of his eyes deepened. “But I love Argentina. I’ve been there 38 times. They are arrogant but warm. The French are arrogant but arrogant.”
That was the only hint that Mr. Duvall gave of his political leanings. Given that the premiere took place on the day that President George W. Bush delivered his 48-hour ultimatum to Iraq, The Transom asked him about his reaction to what was going on in the world. But Mr. Duvall just looked at the table and gave a brief wave of his hand. “Sure, I’ve got my opinions, but I try to keep them to myself. I know some people like to talk about it, but I get embarrassed. I get embarrassed when I hear them sometimes.”
He and Ms. Pedraza, along with United Artists chief Bingham Ray, had skipped the Angelika screening of Assassination Tango , but it wasn’t to catch President Bush’s televised speech. Rather, the group had noshed at the arrogant but arrogant Bouley Bakery, where Ms. Pedraza chatted with singer Lyle Lovett about a documentary she plans to make about country singer Billy Joe Shaver. “We had some very nice dishes there,” said Mr. Duvall, who proudly reported that Ms. Pedraza is also at work on a documentary about Texas playwright Horton Foote.
It seemed that Mr. Duvall was interested in talking about anything but politics-including the likelihood of late fatherhood. “I have two stepdaughters [from previous marriages], but that’s it,” he said as he looked warmly across the table at Ms. Pedraza. (She was chatting with producer Rob Carliner.) “No, I don’t have any of my own.” Mr. Duvall glanced back at The Transom, gave a rueful smile and pulled close to whisper in our ear.
“I shoot blanks, actually,” said the cowboy.
Sigourney and The Guys
It was after 5 p.m. on March 13, and actress Sigourney Weaver was still selling The Guys , her current movie, about a journalist who helps a fire captain write eulogies for eight of his firefighters, all of whom perished on 9/11.
Ms. Weaver was sitting at a table in Room 1931 of the Regency Hotel, from which the bed had been removed. She was wearing tight shoes, busy neon socks, striped pants and a gray Michael Kors sweater. She’d done a dozen TV interviews, roundtables and one-on-ones, and there were several more to go. This was no problem for her: Once, she did 158 interviews in a day.
So The Transom decided to make things a little interesting for her. We told Ms. Weaver we’d get back to The Guys after a little word association.
Ms. Weaver didn’t seem particularly eager to play our little game, but she agreed, more or less.
George W. Bush, we began.
“Determined,” she said.
“The good old days.”
Ms. Weaver had had enough . The Guys , she explained, “was not a political movie.” Still, she kept a polite, patient cool, and even laughed several times despite our repeated attempts to change the subject.
But Ms. Weaver always managed to steer the interview back to its intended purpose: to promote The Guys , which was directed and co-written by her husband Jim Simpson. He even acts in it.
“You know, so little good has come out of 9/11,” Ms. Weaver said. “And this [ The Guys ] is one of the few things that has come out that shows how people have reconnected with each other.”
Then, later in the interview: “I think the movie-you know, The Guys -puts a human face on who the victims were,” Ms. Weaver said. “And I think one of the things it shows is that this happened not just to the firemen, but to New York as a city of families, not just New York as a place where there are cops and witty single people. This, to me, is a very universal story, and someone in the Middle East could watch this story and realize that it was about a regular guy just like him …. Any culture could relate … and I think if there’s anything to look toward, it’s that our humanity is greater than this situation we’re in with Iraq.”
Was she able to turn off the subject of 9/11 and laugh uncontrollably-have a great time like it was 1999?
“I did last night. I had some dinner with friends of mine. We talked mostly about how geeky we were as adolescents and how we finally outgrew that.”
There in the hotel room, Ms. Weaver sure didn’t seem geeky or giddy. She looked a bit grim.
Time to change the subject. Her father, Pat Weaver, was president of NBC and created the Today Show and the Tonight Show . Who did Ms. Weaver like in the media these days?
“I like Jeff Greenfield.”
Who didn’t she like?
Ms. Weaver squinted at The Transom. “What’s your assignment?” she asked.
“Listen, we’re going to have a hard enough time getting people to see this movie. I’d rather spend the time we have getting people to see beyond ‘Oh, 9/11-I don’t want to see that .’” She admitted being “the reluctant interviewee.”
We took one last shot at engaging Ms. Weaver. We asked her if these times were similar to the cynical, corporation-dominated culture that pervades much of the four Alien movies.
“No, I don’t think so,” Ms. Weaver said. “O.K.?”
“O.K.” meant the half-hour was up. At that exact moment, there was a knock on the door. Time for another interview.
Sharpton’s B.I.G. Night
Has the Reverend Al Sharpton changed his mind about the political power of hip-hop? Mr. Sharpton’s presence at B.I.G. Night Out, a black-tie event at the Metropolitan Pavilion that paid tribute to slain rapper Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Christopher Wallace) and a number of other fallen hip-hop artists, was surprising in light of his past denunciations of hip-hop culture. In his latest book, Al on America , for instance, Mr. Sharpton wrote: “As far as I’m concerned, [rappers] are low-down devious things who aren’t worth the millions of dollars young people spend to make them stars.”
But there was Mr. Sharpton at the March 11 event, pressing the flesh and having his ego stroked in return. “Mr. Sharpton, thank you for running for President. I admire your bravery,” a twentysomething woman said earnestly. “Thank you, dear, thank you!” Mr. Sharpton replied as he breezed by the young woman.
When The Transom asked Mr. Sharpton what had prompted this change in attitude, he told us: “I think there’s a positive side to hip-hop.” But he soon changed the subject to politics, citing the reasons for his Presidential candidacy: “There has to be someone out there against the war. I think that when the economy has gone bad, we need to focus on what’s going on within the country rather than chasing bogeymen abroad.” He said that he didn’t have anyone in mind yet for his running mate. “We do that later,” he shrugged.
– Noelle Hancock
The Transom Also Hears …
… If public-relations legend Sy Presten ever gets tired of pitching stories- not on your life, baby! -he could always carve out a second career performing at Edelweiss. On Feb. 6, Mr. Presten cross-dressed as real-estate mogul Barbara Corcoran’s mother at the Feb. 6 publication party for Ms. Corcoran’s book Use What You’ve Got & Other Business Lessons I Learned From My Mom , and on March 10-Ms. Corcoran’s birthday-she sent him a present: a photo of her and the dolled-up publicist with a note: “Here’s my token of thanks for going above and beyond my hopes and expectations.”