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Cover Story: Maddening Genius

Local man works to resurrect long-forgotten Cincinnati novelist Robert Lowry and again put the city on the literary map

By Lew Moores · December 3rd, 2003 · Cover Story
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I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn

looking for an angry fix...

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat

up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities

contemplating jazz...

-- Allen Ginsberg, Howl, 1956
When he died, he left behind a buck and a Timex watch. He spent the last seven years of life living in cheap downtown hotels and group homes, spending his waking hours at the Cincinnati Public Library's main branch and the Bay Horse Café, where students with budding literary careers sought him out for guidance, of which he really had none to give. What friends he had he couldn't keep; what alliances he forged fell apart.

Wives grew tired of him and left. Family had him committed to mental hospitals.

He became in later years an erratic anti-Semite, and it finally ruined his career as a writer. While he had written well and convincingly about blacks and women and had been married to Jewish women, he had in the end written an anti-Semitic novel that made editors wince.

When he ran out of experiences to write about at length, he became, in effect, a diarist who also dabbled in poetry, an artist, a writer of plays and autobiography whose publisher had become in the end the Xerox machine.

But before that, there were the books. He wrote a dozen novels and short story collections, not counting his self-published work. His books brought alive characters on the edge and searching.

He kept company with Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, William Saroyan, Weldon Kees. He had a letter from Thomas Mann praising his Little Man Press, which he started from his home in Linwood, on the East side of Cincinnati. When his first novel was published in 1946 -- Casualty -- Ernest Hemingway called him "one of the best young American writers."

Robert Lowry's star rose from the end of the war until the late '50s. Then he fell apart. His novel, The Prince of Pride Starring, one of his last books and which featured an anti-Semitic protagonist, had the literary establishment reeling. Publishers wouldn't have anything to do with him.

A friend who sought him out in his last year -- before he died on Dec. 5, 1994, at the age of 75 -- found him at the Drop-Inn Center, his head shaven, his dentures missing, shoeless, wearing a filthy T-shirt and ranting incoherently. The police were called.

Between madness and death
James Reidel wanders among the shelves of used books at the Ohio Book Store on Main Street downtown. Among the L's, he hunts for the work of Robert Lowry in search of what he calls the "good" Lowry -- Lowry whose book dust jacket photographs show nothing of the later ravages of illness, poverty, slumming and time.

Reidel -- a poet, editor and translator who lives here and whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Ploughshares and TriQuarterly, among other journals -- is engaged in a project to resurrect Lowry the writer. The writer born and died in Cincinnati, whose jets caught fire in New York and Europe, whose work has been out of print in this country for years, whose manuscripts and original work are stored at collections at the public library here, at Boston University and Kent State University, the artist whose work is largely unknown in the city he left and to which he later returned.

Reidel reconnects with a writer he first met in 1983 and who intrigued him, already 20 years after Lowry had his last work published. Reidel uses a stack of letters Lowry wrote to his psychiatrist in the mid-1970s -- midway between his madness and his death -- as the centerpiece of a manuscript to flesh out for the first time a more thorough portrait of the artist, a fuller examination of his life and what happened to him.

"The book is basically a portal through which to go back and look at the original Lowry material," Reidel explains. "I wasn't even going to cover his life after 1952 (when Lowry was first committed at a mental institution). I thought, 'Why not just skip that whole period entirely?'

"But his personality is so strong and so much a part of everything that you kind of have to complete the story. With the letters, it is one place where he tells it. This is as close as it gets to an autobiography of him and what happened to him."

Reidel finds in the letters a writer who's at once exasperating and sentimental, capable of gratitude, sarcasm and shock, a man in his 50s at the time who is in many ways childlike. Lowry whines and imagines scenarios in his letters where his perceived tormentors get their due. Yet he's also playful and perceptive, complaining of psychiatrists as smarmy mental detectives who look only for the troubles and crises in someone's past, ignoring the grand moments.

Lowry's career ended more than three decades before his death in 1994. While Reidel uses that midpoint as a window into Lowry's life, he is as interested in the vibrant and prolific Lowry of the 1940s and '50s, whose fictional characters came alive on the pages of books and magazines.

Lost desire
"He's not here," Reidel says finally, standing under the florescent lights that illumine book spine titles in the third-floor darkness of the Ohio Book Store.

Lowry's absence doesn't surprise him. All of Lowry's work is out of print, and used copies aren't easy to find. When the work does appear on the shelves of used and rare bookshops, it's often quickly snatched up, often commanding good prices.

Lowry's last mainstream work was a 1962 collection of short stories, Party of Dreamers, published by Fleet. When he died, he owned none of his own books. Yet in the 32 years between his last book and his death, he tried desperately to recapture the magic that gave him an audience, a modest income and a favorable, even laudatory, response from the literary establishment.

Reidel learned of Lowry while doing research for a biography on another forgotten poet and writer, Weldon Kees, a Lowry contemporary and friend. In effect, what Reidel is attempting to do with Lowry is what he's done with Kees -- resurrect an artist's life.

When Reidel learned Lowry had returned to Cincinnati, he contacted him in 1983, searching for information on Kees.

"Naturally, I was fascinated by this connection that Kees had to Cincinnati and to learn that a novelist who had befriended Kees lived, still lived, in my hometown and that I had no idea of his existence," Reidel says. "We talked -- or, I should say, I talked -- about Kees. Lowry said few words. He breathed in this heavy, menacing undertone and smoked constantly and said that he could remember very little of Kees. I felt hostility when I talked to him. You could sense it. It was like the most painful conversation I ever had.

"I think he more wanted to talk about himself, for such audiences were few and far between. I asked him if he wrote anymore, and he said he had lost desire. He said he had no regrets, but I could see that he had. I left that day feeling very let down. In the back of my mind, I knew something needed to be done for him."

In the two decades following, Lowry was never far from Reidel's thoughts. Four years after their initial meeting, Reidel suggested to his sister Jennifer, a feature writer, that she contact him for a possible story. Lowry opened up to her, even turning over voluminous correspondence he had had in 1975-76 with his psychiatrist.

She wrote a magazine story, and other stories followed in the late 1980s, including my own. The media was taken with the tragedy of failed artistry. The writer didn't just choose to stop writing and publishing, nor did he become reclusive like Salinger. He became invisible, as much as he wanted it otherwise.

The media caught up with him five years before he died (and right after he died), and the angle -- what made it a compelling, albeit unfortunate, story -- was the writer's destitution.

Lowry was the shooting star that had flamed out and dissolved in a black sky -- the writer living at the Milner, the Dennison and Ft. Washington hotels, drinking at the Bay Horse Café, taking some meals at the Drop-Inn Center. The writer as madman, who walks through the front door of a downtown bookstore and begins swearing, who causes scenes, who fuels the fire with drink, who fails at times to take his medication, who falls into episodic anti-Semitic tirades. The former artist who becomes the downtown denizen with a white helmet of hair and fingers stained yellow from smoking too much.

"This old drunk scaring people in downtown Cincinnati," Reidel says.

But that wasn't the Lowry that interested Reidel.

Daring content
The Lowry that interests Reidel was the writer who began Little Man Press, hand-printed chapbooks that caught Thomas Mann's eye, a publication for new and progressive writers, gritty and different, a publication of "daring graphic content," Reidel notes.

"Lowry's press was also an off-shoot of the arts and crafts movement, which married fine printing, papermaking and bookbinding to new writing," he says.

Drafted by the Army, Lowry went to Italy during World War II and produced the novel Casualty for New Directions. He then wrote a series of books for Doubleday, novels and short stories laced with scenes set in and references to Cincinnati.

"Lowry is that bridge between the John O'Hara/Hemingway era," Reidel says. "Some people characterize him among the Beats. But he's not a Beat writer -- he's a transitional writer between that. It creates his own little area."

Bruce Cook, who wrote The Beat Generation in 1971, acknowledges this bridge in which Lowry, along with Mailer, foreshadowed the Beats. Even more than three decades ago, Cook pointed out, Lowry had been overlooked.

He wrote, "I'm thinking, too, of a writer now all but forgotten, named Robert Lowry, whose excellent stories and good novels, particularly Casualty and The Big Cage, did a lot to keep American writing in contact with the vein of rich, raw experience from which has always been mined the best literary ore."

A bonus of sorts, Reidel says, is that Lowry incorporated Cincinnati into his fiction.

"What makes it even more idiosyncratic is that a lot of (his work) is located here," he says. "No one really knows that. No one really appreciates that. What takes place here in Cincinnati was once read in New York and Europe and elsewhere.

"We're looking at the mid-century closely now, especially for its value to cultural historians, and this is where Lowry may attract interest. I would like to see Lowry reappraised. Certainly, his work is well crafted, provocative and in many ways still capable of shock. There are some negatives, too, where the membrane between Lowry and his fiction gets too thin.

When Lowry writes from despair, he's wonderful, authentic."

The letters Lowry had written to his psychiatrist sat in a box in Reidel's parents' garage for 15 years. In March, Reidel opened the box and re-read the letters, fulfilling a promise he made to himself to one day revisit the letters and Lowry's work.

He began arranging the letters, lightly editing them, changing some names, such as the psychiatrist and Westwood woman Lowry was seeing at the time. He studied whatever thread ran through the letters.

In April and May, he began constructing the manuscript with interpolated commentary. In June, he began in earnest writing a 15-page introduction to the collection.

Reidel found a peculiar coherence in the letters. Lowry wrote the letters to his psychiatrist at the Veterans Administration hospital as a form of narrative therapy -- an attempt to get Lowry talking through the written word about his past and troubles.

While purely therapeutic, Lowry bloomed at the thought and suggestion. Now he had an audience, indeed a compelling reason to write again.

For Lowry, it was a delicious opportunity to do a literary autobiography at last. He would write his psychiatrist, but more importantly he'd dash off carbons of what he'd written to his old editor at Doubleday.

"It's a self-portrait, of course, one that Lowry replayed over and over," Reidel says. "But here he actually gets much of it down. We see what motivated him, what he thinks destroyed his career and how he's reconciled to his half-life."

Once again, Reidel writes in his introduction to the letters, Lowry is the "young man with a typewriter."

He returns to being the boy who writes stories on a toy Simplex typewriter in his Linwood home. He continues to write as a student at Withrow High School and at the University of Cincinnati.

He begins his own small press, Little Man Press, and begins to attract some attention, including the Mann letter. He publishes work by Saroyan and Kees.

Little Man Press is interrupted, writes Reidel, when Lowry enters the army in 1942 at the age of 23.

'A writer to be reckoned with'
He serves in the army in a photo reconnaissance team and begins writing a book, Casualty, that's considered by some, Reidel points out, to be even better than James Jones' and Norman Mailer's classic World War II novels, From Here to Eternity and The Naked and the Dead.

Its tone, language and imagery at the outset suggests Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, although we have a different war and snow for dust and mud:

Now it was the fifth winter of the war, and in Italy this day the snow fell everywhere. From brown and green the humorous bootshaped thrust of land froze, turned white, seemed now innocent of charred buildings, bomb pits, red blood of men already dead...

Where was the war when the snow fell? The snow was a fairy tale that frosted over this beaten scarred boot and gave back to it part of its dignity. Dead and frozen now, the Italian earth could find itself again...

It's a book that prompted a critic with The New York Herald Tribune to write, "Mr. Lowry will have to be reckoned with as one of the important writers to emerge from the war."

That's the Lowry Reidel is taken with, the Lowry of pre-1952, before he underwent a series of electro-shock therapies. Reidel hopes this book, tentatively titled Last Stand: Letters to My Psychiatrist, will "let him tell the story of why he fell from the American pantheon after getting his toehold, his one-handed, twisting grip" on American literature.

The Lowry of the 1960s and beyond is a skewed Lowry, a writer whose ultimate failure -- unable to write and get published -- doesn't address his literary contributions. It's a Lowry the media zeroed in on but does little to explain either his art or his ultimate failure to produce.

Lowry was a writer who could assume different persona -- women and African Americans -- in his stories. The pre-1952 Lowry spent his creative years in New York City, made friends easily, wrote effortlessly and produced an admirable body of work. It's a Lowry who writes of American GIs in World War II who cope with boredom and bureaucracy and die even when not in the grip of combat; of prize fighters who tip-toe from one world to another, black and white; of strained race relations; and youngsters who take to the road. He can write knowingly of Avondale and with an authoritative voice about Harlem in the 1950s.

"He's a transitional figure between the naturalism of Hemingway and the sentimentalism of Thomas Wolfe and the irony and disillusion of a Kerouac, or a post-modernist such as Joseph Heller," Reidel says. "Lowry made Cincinnati into a Winesburg, an apocryphal setting, as they say, in the American Novel 101, made of his native soil.

"In effect, in a city that seems to have one of everything -- a five-star French restaurant, a baseball and football team, a chili recipe and so on. We have, or had, its novelist, and we have nothing to show for him and have nothing for him. We know nothing about him, really. And I want to address that."

Waiting for the embalmer
Reidel is shopping the manuscript to publishers. He's vetting it, having others taking a peek for accuracy, tweaking it a bit. It's a fascinating and illuminating glimpse into the life of a forgotten artist.

The story takes place before the downtown Lowry came into existence, before the media at last seized on him in the late 1980s, while he still lives with his mother in Linwood, well before the cheap downtown hotels and Bay Horse. In it, Lowry talks about his past, much about his father, who worked for the railroad, the model caboose his girlfriend bought for him at a flea market. He hopes the letters will form the basis of a book, an autobiography.

Lowry buys Triple Peach brandy for $1.73 for a fifth, cherry wine for $1.72. He dreams of publishing in The New Yorker and Atlantic. He uses a credit card to pay for groceries and envelopes at Gold Circle. He has a garage sale, but no one buys his stuff, even though he offers his typewriter and a portfolio of work. He stops driving and catches buses to get to the VA hospital in Corryville, to his girlfriend's apartment in Westwood.

He takes lithium and spends a quarter on a copy of Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, which he finds at a flea market and gives to a son. He writes that he held jobs as a shipping clerk and desk clerk. He calls himself the "Husk," a reference to what's become of his life.

He spends Thanksgiving 1975 with his mother, and they share a roast chicken and a bottle of Thunderbird.

When the media caught up with Lowry in 1988, more than a decade after the letters, his mother had died and the Hutton Street house had been sold. Lowry had begun living downtown in cheap hotels.

He had a champion in a small press publisher and rare bookshop owner from Toronto named Nicky Drumbolis, who had discovered the writer's work and who had collected a handful of unpublished and recent Lowry poems that he'd banged out on his Smith & Corona and then had Drumbolis publish in a smart-looking chapbook, hand-stitched with a red, deckle-edged introductory page -- an american writer at the end of his life.

From one poem:

I live in a hotel

among strangers

and when I'm broke I go

to the Drop-Inn Center

on Cincinnati's skid row

to eat free among the homeless.

It could be worse. There could be

no Drop-Inn Center. But

as you line up to get your handout of food

you know you've hit the bottom.

I came by a copy of the chapbook and was immediately struck by its despair -- an urban voice in the concrete and steel wilderness -- but more to the point by this notion of an obviously literate man and poet living at the Dennison Hotel.

"Living where?" I thought to myself. What's up with this?

A check of Who's Who in America gave some firmament to this mystery. It revealed a Cincinnati native, a writer of novels and short story collections. Critical praise. Collections of Lowry material and manuscripts archived at universities.

Someone I'd never heard of. Huh?

I called and left a message for him at the Dennison. He called me back the same day. He was excited. He'd been rediscovered. When I met him in the lobby of the Dennison, he was sitting there smoking Pall Malls as residents came and went. His hair was white, and he wore a suit coat and pinstriped pants.

In his room upstairs, where he wasn't allowed to bring guests, he had an electric Smith & Corona typewriter. He was approaching his 70th birthday and was animated and outgoing, not at all suggesting the person, I learned in later interviews, who could be difficult, irascible and downright nasty.

He seemed genuinely excited that someone once again took an interest in work that had been out of print for a quarter-century or took an interest in something he'd recently written.

"I've been writing furiously in my room here," he said.

He talked freely about his problems in the past, his institutionalizations, his wives, his poverty. He was sending off his poems, short stories, short plays to Drumbolis in Toronto. He shared with me some of his letters from young, aspiring writers who'd tracked him down at the Dennison.

"There's something jumping out of your books at me," wrote one young admirer. "You still speak directly to my 22-year-old heart and mind."

He told me what his days were like living downtown. Up at 5 a.m. and later heading to the nearby Bay Horse for a couple of beers. Then walking back to his room and banging out some more stuff on his Smith & Corona. Then sending out letters and walking over to the public library, where he spent part of the day reading.

He was on a kind of literary high. Someone was publishing his work, even if in small chapbooks. Someone was going back and reading what he'd written.

"It's nice to see somebody who still has something left, see him light up like this again," Drumbolis told me in 1988.

It was heady, but it didn't last. Lowry ran out of steam.

By 1991 he was the Husk again. He tried the Xerox route -- self-publishing autobiographies, complete with his line drawings, but he had no real champion, no Nicky Drumbolis to collect and publish the work, which had become an exasperating and expensive proposition.

I kept in touch with him. I'd run into him and on a few occasions asked how he was doing for cash. Not very good, he'd say.

I'd give him some money. In 1991, I decided to revisit him for a story. Again he was the Husk.

"I haven't been doing anything except drink beer, eat very little, smoke cigarettes," he told me in the lobby of the Ft. Washington Hotel, where he was now living. He had little to say.

I asked what he saw in his future, not really knowing how he'd answer.

It took him a moment to answer. He just sat and smoked a cigarette, the smoke trailing from his mouth and nose. His face seemed more puffy, his color bad.

"It sure looks dim," he said finally, after spending a moment on the question, his voice low. "I see the embalmer in my future."

A 'minor crucifixion'
Robert Lowry had come alive again in 1988-89, just as he had in 1975-76. He had a reason -- someone had taken an interest, although it was too little, too late.

Now, with Reidel's manuscript, Lowry comes alive again, from across a gulf of close to 30 years. Reidel fills in some of the blanks, with the letters and with Reidel's own critical analysis and insights into what might have happened to explain the literary free-fall.

"Lowry really had been a rising young postwar writer before he had become the lumpy, broken, 56-year-old, mildly controlled alcoholic," Reidel writes in his introduction to the letters.

Lowry is capable of touching, sometimes poignant, moments in the letters. A typewriter gets the juices flowing.

"The sound of a typewriter always did excite and interest me," he writes his psychiatrist. "Well, it's my professional tool, why shouldn't it?"

He's upbeat with his girlfriend and appreciates the little things she does for him. He calls it the "Good Life" at his girlfriend's apartment, and you can feel his appreciation for what had been simple but became luxurious pleasures for him.

"Coffee and orange juice and a bacon and cheese omelet for breakfast," Lowry wrote his psychiatrist. "A shave. Sex. Shower and shampoo for two. Betty sits in the middle of the living room floor while she puts up and dries her hair. A pizza pie for lunch. Then a nap. Now she's hooking a rug and I'm here at the dining room table writing to you."

But he does get dark. He wonders whether his letters blend into one another and gives up on ever having them published. He talks about having clobbered women and how his mother and girlfriend badger him to find work.

He obsesses about medical maladies, such as cysts he finds on his body, and especially about a nominal fee his psychiatrist begins charging (it's only $1) for treatment. He writes nastily to his psychiatrist and tells him he should go back to delivering babies and setting broken bones. He writes a series of fantasy sessions -- born completely of his imagination but based on his psychiatric sessions -- that are at once lucid and perceptive.

He can't write anything worthwhile anymore, he writes. Everything has been destroyed by the electroshock therapy of 1952.

"I can't put a single word down on paper," he writes, complaining about the blood tests, comparing himself to Jesus. "It's also a kind of minor crucifixion in my mind. All they need is a cross to hang me on down there in the blood lab."

Lowry begins writing the fantasy sessions, beginning in September 1976. Reidel writes the suggestion might have been born of the psychiatrist's wanting to get Lowry to think more creatively in an imagined way or simply because Lowry was a tough nut when it came to talk therapy.

Lowry cooperated but could be just as difficult. In one fantasy session, he addresses head-on with what he sees as the problem with any kind of therapy:

I don't want to probe into my childhood. I'm like a detective. I'm not hunting for the good in people. I'm only hunting for crime. That's the effect psychotherapy and these fantasy sessions have on you. You go back, back, back, and dig out all the guilt -- all the rotten things you did. It seems I'll go to any lengths to seek out all the bad in myself. Hitting a girl. Shitting the bed ... It's no longer that line-drive single I hit over the first base when I was playing hardball for Linwood Public School -- It's no longer being president of my eighth-grade class -- it's no longer starting a school paper in the eighth grade -- it's no longer reading to the class in the fourth grade -- it's no loner being a brilliant student -- it's no longer going hunting or fishing -- it's just those couple of stinking things that now represent my childhood ... I can't stand it anymore. This probing. This disgrace of myself.

'I'm prejudiced'
The anti-Semitism, the racism, is more problematic. It ruined Lowry's career even as his eccentricities and illness perhaps could have been otherwise tolerated by publishers and the literary establishment. It did him in, emerging as it did a mere decade or so after the details of the Holocaust and the Anne Frank diary.

"What this book (Prince of Pride) did to Lowry was prove to his editor that he was unredeemable on many levels," Reidel says. "As I said, he was trying to get back into his father's good graces, a father who was unimpressed with his son being a writer in New York. Lowry felt like an outsider in Linwood, and the Jewish trope was an easy one for him to adopt -- and to reinforce via his marriage and identity with his Jewish wives. But Lowry's father was probably, along with other relatives, the source of this kind of folkloric anti-Semitism that would fester in the son, especially after he failed to make it as a fellow traveler among the post-war New York Jewish intellectuals."

Lowry acknowledges the anti-Semitism in a letter to his psychiatrist in August 1976. But his explanation in the letter is neither explanatory nor satisfactory:

I'm prejudiced -- that's something I've been meaning to tell you in a lot of these letters. I'm prejudiced in my soul against Jews and Negroes and it's something ingrained; something I can't get over. The laugh is that my first two wives were Jewish -- isn't that wild? And once in Harlem I consorted with Negresses ... and it seems to me now in the long-ago past when I wasn't, I was wrong and on the wrong track ... Of course when you live in New York for a long period of time, where you're heavily up against the Jews and Negroes, you're more likely to develop such prejudices.

Reidel has some theories about it. Lowry had been a contrarian for most of his life, a child who never grew up and was fond of being difficult.

He delighted in shocking people, pushing the envelope in mainstream literature, so that he had no trouble coupling in his fiction white women and black men and introducing a shock ending like he did in his short story, Passing Star, where the woman who flirts with train travelers is married to an African American. You don't learn it until the end -- much to the shock of one traveler -- wondering until then what is going on with her flirtatiousness and passing racist references.

"Lowry's anti-Semitism strikes me as an act, a parody, albeit conducted by someone who is mad, a contrarian," Reidel says. "Lowry is an infantilist. He hasn't grown up. And what is more contrarian in the decade after The Diary of Anne Frank than to be its antithesis?"

The writer of black and white became the anti-Semite who wrote Prince of Pride Starring, a book rejected by Doubleday because of its anti-Semitic main character. In real life, a Jewish wife had him committed; the psychiatric community, which he perceived as Jewish, administered electroshock therapy that he believed robbed him of his memory and creativity.

He reiterates this in his letters. He also wanted to get back to Germanic roots and working-class background, Reidel points out, and abandon a New York intellectual community he felt had betrayed him.

There was more, Reidel believes, like the grind that is the New York literary establishment. It was a tough milieu. Reidel points out that another contemporary writer, Seymour Krim, wrote in a 1958 essay about failure and what it took to succeed in New York: "Buttering up, sucking up, self-salesmanship, the sweet oh-let-me-kiss-your-ass-please smile."

Lowry was incapable of this.

"Lowry, with that defiant Little Man, self-publishing and rugged genius, individualist persona of his, would never have been able to do that," Reidel says.

He's not unlike the character in his first novel, Casualty. Pfc. Joe Hammond is defiant and contrary, looks down on insufferable officers, whom he considers toadies. Hammond is a grunt who "went into the pungent latrine and pissed into the metal trough and came back out into the snow, buttoning his heavy army trousers." Piss on it all.

Swastika at Christmas
We visit the Bay Horse on Main Street. It's just a block from where Lowry lived in the late 1980s. A glass of beer goes for a buck in the downtown saloon that hasn't changed much since Lowry visited.

Reidel has no misgivings about coming here, but he's quick to point out this isn't the place the writer usually patronized, the Lowry who preferred more upscale lounges and bars in both Greenwich Village and Cincinnati. Places he could afford in more prosperous days.

Can you find the spirit of Lowry here?

"Lowry was looking for something he had lost in the Bay Horse, and we need to make that clear when we go 'looking for Lowry' in such a place and use that to show just what an outsider-insider he was here," Reidel says. "He was living with his mother. Kerouac went to seed living in his mother's home. The Bay Horse is a kind of minor Lowry haunt. He probably spent more time in the public library, looking at magazines or newspapers. That's where I'd see him.

"My thinking is what was he was looking for at the Bay Horse was something he had in New York. He liked (downtown Cincinnati) because of his old haunts in New York."

Reidel, who is Jewish (which Lowry knew), got a letter from Lowry one Christmas. It was a Christmas greeting of sorts, adorned with a swastika on it.

"It was like a Nazi Christmas card," Reidel says. "Kind of showed me where he was at. So I decided, 'I can't help you. I can't do it. I want to do it. But I'm sorry, I'll have to wait until you're dead.' And that's what I've done. I waited until he was dead. And I waited until a number of years had passed. I always felt a little cruel about this, because he would have liked to have known that someone cared to take him on."

A customer at Ohio Book Store becomes genuinely curious about Lowry when he overhears a conversation with Jim Fallon, the store's proprietor, about how often Lowry's work shows up in the store.

"Was he ever recognized?" the customer asks Reidel. "Born and raised here? When did he die? How old was he?"

Reidel wonders, with some amusement, what Lowry would have done with access to the Internet and e-mail. As Reidel's Letters manuscript shows, Lowry could generate an enormous amount of correspondence when prompted. One can imagine him sitting for hours in the public library in front of a computer, sharing thoughts and a public diary of his life.

Reidel's dream is to see Lowry's work back in print.

"Lowry is our Titanic out there, our Andrea Doria, to pick a more contemporaneous wreck, the author of novels and thick collections of stories, much of it having as much to do with life here as it is now," Reidel says. "I wish that there was, you know, a university press that could reprint all of his great stuff and we could be talking about that. But we can't. We're at a loss. It's nearly 10 years after his death, and nothing has been done even at this safe remove from his old crazy self, who scared away anyone who wanted to help him.

"It's time to stop talking about the old Bay Horse Lowry. We need to look at that good Lowry who existed up until 1952. We need to picture him then, and begin again."



MORE INFORMATION ON ROBERT LOWRY can be found in a previous CityBeat cover story, "Robert Lowry: An American Tragedy," issue of March 2-8, 1995; and in a new fan magazine published in Germany, Robert Lowry Journal (www.robertlowry.de).
 
 
 
 

 

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