John Fante: Father of L.A. Literature

Michael Aushenker , Staff Writer | Palisadian-Post,
May 07, 2009. »»

But to Vickie Fante Cohen and Her Brother, Jim Fante, He Was Simply ‘Father’

Jim Fante is weeping. He sits across from his sister, Victoria, at the dining room table of her Sunset Mesa home. A watercolor of their childhood family home, the Pt. Dume hacienda nicknamed 'Rancho Fante,' hangs near the window, which boasts a panoramic view of the Queen's Necklace. A small, framed 1960s photo of John Fante, avuncular and distinguished with pipe in hand, stands on the kitchen counter.

Rich Schmitt / Staff Photographer
Pacific Palisades became a part of Jim and Vickie Fante's lives. The Malibu-based Fante family shopped in the village and ate at House of Lee. "I'm sorry we don't have the house anymore," she says of their Cliffside Drive home.

The tears stream down Jim's face as he shares with the Palisadian-Post his favorite part from his father's second novel, the 1939 Los Angeles-set masterpiece, 'Ask the Dust.' This particular passage, in the voice of the young writer Arturo Bandini''Fante's literary alter ego of four novels''is a meditation on bigotry:

'I have seen them stagger out of their movie palaces and blink their empty eyes in the face of reality once more, and stagger home, to read the Times, to find out what's going on in the world. I have vomited at their newspapers, read their literature, observed their customs, eaten their food, desired their women, gaped at their art. But I am poor, and my name ends with a soft vowel, and they hate me and my father, and my father's father, and they would have my blood and put me down, but they are old now, dying in the sun and in the hot dust of the road, and I am young and full of hope and love for my country and my times, and when I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I am ashamed of the terrible thing I have done.'

As Jim finishes, Vickie appears visibly moved. One gathers that, as much as Jim has taken himself aback by the power of his father's writing, even after so many reads, Jim is not surprised. Such was Fante's command over the written word.

'Ask the Dust' follows the exploits of 20-year-old Bandini, author of the short story 'The Little Dog Laughed,' who lives off of its residuals at the fleabag hotel Alta Loma, on the crest of downtown's Bunker Hill (an L.A. which no longer exists). Ostensibly a writer's doomed romance, subtextually a love letter to the City of Angels, 'Dust,' at its core, comments on bigotry, the layers of it.

'Bandini felt the bigotry that he hated for himself,' Jim explains, 'and projected it on Camilla because [as a Mexican immigrant] she represented the only thing lower than him.'

Jim prefers his father's earlier stories, primarily 'Dust,' over Fante's latter-day work. He feels his father became distracted by his Hollywood screenwriting assignments, and that Fante's output became increasingly glib. 'It's so raw and honest,' Jim, 58, says of 'Dust.' 'I love his prose.'

If his semi-autobiographical Bandini novels are to be believed, Fante was simultaneously proud of his Italian-American culture and self-conscious about it. Given the immigrant family he sprang from and the era in which he grew up in, Fante could not avoid his ethnicity. In his fiction, he courageously faced it head on, in all of its paradoxical glory. But his protective pride over his craft and his angst regarding his place in the literary world may have gotten the better of him in the long run. 'It was Mom's opinion that he was his own worst enemy,' Vickie, 59, says.

In the late 1930s/early 1940s, Fante wrote poetry masquerading as prose; novels rich with quasi-autobiographical detail and perceptive humor, which were not fully appreciated until near his death in 1983. When his novels failed to provide a steady income, he turned to Hollywood screenwriting in the 1940s through 1960s; a m'tier he detested. Years later, Charles Bukowski fell in love with the economical, impressionistic prose of 'Dust,' and he vocally proclaimed that the novel single-handedly inspired him to write. Bukowski ultimately helped get Fante's books back in print via the small Santa Barbara publisher Black Sparrow and pave the way for a wider Fante appreciation.

'Fante was the hip guy who was not afraid to write about his feelings, which is why Bukowski championed him,' says Richard Schave, founder of Esotouric, which conducts a bus tour of Fante's L.A.

'Bukowski was central to the fact that we're having this conversation right now,' Fante biographer Stephen Cooper (2000's 'Full of Life') tells the Post. 'Had Bukowski not jumped in, Fante would've fallen through the cracks of history.'

Jim and Vickie tell the Post the story of their relationship with their father, a complicated man who was alternately loving, aloof, big-hearted, short-tempered, and bitter over his treatment by Hollywood, by New York, even by Adolph Hitler himself.

Born in 1909 to an Italian father and Italian-American mother, Fante chronicled his turbulent Boulder, Colorado childhood in his first published novel, 'Wait Until Spring, Bandini' (1938), in which he captured his dysfunctional immigrant family, headed by his father, a hard-working, alcoholic womanizer. ['The Road to Los Angeles,' which Fante had written first, surfaced posthumously in 1985].

Fante was writing in the Sacramento Bee when Joyce Smart, a Stanford graduate and former editor of the college newspaper, caught his columns.

'She wrote letters to Dad relating to things he was writing about,' Vickie says. 'My mother comes from a family that's conservative, wealthy and white. Grandma said, 'Don't you go meet him! You'll marry him!''

John and Joyce eloped in 1936, and Joyce's mother promptly disinherited her for four years. The feeling from Fante toward his mother-in-law was mutual.

'He took great satisfaction in peeing on her lawn,' Jim says of Fante (who comically riffed on such escapades and tensions in his 1977 novel, 'Brotherhood of the Grape'). When the Post asks whether their grandmother objected to the couple marrying because Fante was a writer, Jim and Vickie laugh, chiming in simultaneously: 'Because he was Italian!'

Despite the family drama, John and Joyce complemented each other.

'She supported him,' Vickie says of Joyce. 'They fought, but they had political fights. She was a Republican, he was a Democrat.'

Vickie adds that, throughout their marriage, it was Joyce who took care of Fante's affairs, saving all of his manuscripts and letters and, in later years, lording over his dealings with Hollywood.

Until the publication of 'Wait Until Spring, Bandini,' Fante wrote for periodicals. He had begun writing professionally at the age of 23 with the publication of his first short story in The American Mercury, and his stories continued to appear in such magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Esquire, and Harper's Bazaar. 'Ask the Dust' followed a year after 'Wait' in 1939, capturing, in Fante's precise style, the poetry of life in downtown L.A., the horrors of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, the restless drive of the young, ambitious writer's struggle against the forces of the universe to find success.

Of all of Fante's children''Nicholas, Dan, Vickie and Jim''the oldest son became the most troubled. Jim remembers Nick as 'brilliant, a math genius with an IQ of 160. When he was 5 years old, he played chess with several of Dad's friends at once and beat them all.

'Nick worked as a toolmaker for most of his life,' he continues. 'Nick went to the Navy and came back and alcoholic and he never kicked it.' Nicholas died of alcoholism in 1997.

Fante scoffed at the idea of his children 'taking up his line of work. 'He would have terrible arguments with Dan,' Jim says. 'He wanted Dan to go to a trade school and become a plumber. Something practical.'

Only Dan, the second-oldest, became a writer (in the Bukowski mold). The 65-year-old author of 'Chump Change,' and 'Spitting Off Tall Buildings' has insinuated in the press that their father was an angry drunk, but if Fante went through a volatile, alcoholic stage, Vickie and Jim, youngest of the Fante kids, did not witness it. They were babies when Fante acquired enough success to relocate from Mid-Wilshire to Malibu in 1951. But Jim and Vickie do not deny that their father was a complicated man: dominating, with a short fuse.

'He was someone you didn't want to mess with,' Jim says. 'He had the most remarkable use of words I had ever seen,' Jim says. 'It was like going through the wood-shredder. They wouldn't realize he had destroyed them until later.'

Fante's work time was sacred. 'When he was writing,' Jim says, 'you couldn't make any noise. Mom would run interference. When we watched TV, it was the show he wanted to watch. When we went out, it was where he wanted to go.'

Vickie admits she was disappointed when she became homecoming princess at Santa Monica High and her father didn't show up. Jim remembers returning from his Cal State Northridge graduation ceremony: 'Dad was sitting in a recliner in front of the TV. I said, 'Well, Dad, I graduated! I'm done!' His response was, 'Can you change it to Channel 2 for me?'

'I remember being hurt, and I talked to Mom about it. She must have scolded him for it. He went into a Santa Monica pawnshop and he bought me a new watch,' Jim says, laughing.

'When he was in a black mood, he wouldn't talk,' Jim continues. But the siblings also remember their father's mix of generosity and braggadocio with great fondness, such as the time Vickie really wanted a horse. She received a note from her dad, working in Italy, which read, 'This is a little letter about something big. Yes, you may have the horse!' When Vickie desired a pair of shoes, Fante entered the store, pointed to the pair, and told the salesperson, 'I'll take them in every color!'

'Vickie and I had friends come over not to see us but to see Dad,' Jim recalls. 'He would tell them stories and they loved that. And every time he told the story a little bit different.'

Vickie recalls the time she made a mistake of bringing an Italian joke home to the dinner table. 'Dad was furious,' Vickie recalls. 'He said, 'You don't ever say things about Italians.''

She and Jim also recall a man who loved animals. Many a mammal had made Rancho Fante its residence over the years. The horse Fante allowed his daughter to get was named Stardust, and later on they had two more stallions. There was also a quartet of bull terriers (Mingo, Rocco, Dominic and Elizabeth Anne), a pair of mutts (Ginger and Duchess), Willy the German Shepherd, four cats (Joe, Oliver, Gomez and Tahuti), a donkey named Jenny, two pairs of Chihuahuas (Lucky and Kita, Mitzi and Sam), an Akita dubbed Buck, Corky the beagle, an iguana, a pair of guinea pigs (Scruffy and Phoebe), and a goose named Ambrose (not to mention the chicken coop). All that was missing, evidently, was a pair of monkeys and Noah with his ark.

Jim says his father was an avid golfer and 'a huge, huge, huge sports fan, he watched everything.' His literary heroes were Knut Hamsun, Sherwood Anderson, and Friedrich Nietzsche. On TV, Fante enjoyed watching Jackie Gleason and Johnny Carson, and in the movies, anything starring Humphrey Bogart. But heaven help anyone who put out inferior product. The Fante children insist they never saw many films in their youth because if their father, a tough critic, didn't like the first few minutes of a movie, he walked out on it.

'He was such a complicated person,' Jim says. 'As time went on and his career dwindled, he took jobs he was embarrassed about. Movies such as 'Maya the Magnificent' with Jay North. He was very disgusted to write that one, and he took a lot less money for it.' Another badge of dishonor: 'Going My Way' with Gene Kelly. Jim and Vickie even remember a moment when an abashed Fante gathered all of his children before him to inform them that he had no choice but to work in Hollywood to make a living.

As he ventured deeper into screenwriting for the studios''working on screenplays for such films as 'My Man and I,' 'The Reluctant Saint,' 'Something for a Lonely Man,' 'My Six Loves,' and 'Walk on the Wild Side'''Fante strayed from writing novels. It would be a long stretch until his next one, 'Full of Life' (1952), arrived. 'It was biggest success of his career,' Jim says. 'The movie did very well.'

The film version, starring Richard Conte and Judy Holliday, was directed by Richard Quine, whose 1954 film noir, 'Pushover,' featured Kim Novak in her debut role. Novak became a friend of Fante's after the author wrote the screenplay for her movie, 'Jeanne Eagels.' Once, the famous actress was over at Rancho Fante when Nick Fante asked Novak if he could borrow her white Corvette to impress a guy he knew down at the gas station. Novak suggested one better: drive her sports car to the station with movie star Kim Novak riding alongside.

In Hollywood, Fante also befriended Malibu residents such as 'Then Came Bronson' star Michael Parks and Martin Sheen. When Peter Sellers was attached to star in a movie based on Fante's 'My Dog Stupid' (which never materialized), he dined at the Fantes' home, where the 'Pink Panther' star won over the writer. 'They just loved each other,' Vickie recalls.

Fante knew John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, but his closest friend from the literary community was William Saroyan. He no doubt related to the ethnic playwright, an Armenian-American, who was about Fante's age and who told blue-collar stories set in Saroyan's native Fresno.

By the 1960s, Fante followed the money to Europe, where he worked on screenplays for such producers as Dino de Laurentiis. He fell in love with Italy, where his ancestors hailed from. 'If he could, he would sell the Malibu house and move to Italy,' Vickie says. 'He used to talk about it.' Joyce returned from Northern California one time to find a 'For Sale' sign planted outside the family home. She was livid.

But by the early 1970s, Fante's career was dead. The reason the novel '1933 Was a Bad Year' had not surfaced until following his death is because, in the 1960s, 'it was flatly rejected,' Jim says. 'They wrote a letter that was very upsetting. It said, 'When you get to the point where you're as good as the guy who wrote 'Full of Life,' contact us. He was devastated.

'By the time we were in high school, they were broke all the time,' Jim continues of their parents. Luckily, Joyce had invested in land. 'She had inherited some property,' Vickie says, 'and during the dry period, she would sell off parts of it.'

Call it the 'Ask the Dust' curse: the bad luck which has perpetually plagued what many Fante scholars consider his greatest literary accomplishment.

For the last seven years, Fante's novels have been published by a large publisher, HarperCollins. But that was not always the case.

'He writes 'Ask the Dust',' Jim says, 'and he was considered on a level with Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway.' Unfortunately, Stackpole Sons, 'Dust''s original publisher, also released an English-language edition of 'Mein Kampf,' evidently without permission. Hitler promptly sued Stackpole and won. As a result, the financially damaged Stackpole neglected marketing 'Ask the Dust,' which bit the dust commercially in 1939.

The year that 'Dust' was published, Fante's novel found itself in stellar company. Cooper calls 1939 'an annus mirabilis' which also saw the release of Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath,' Nathanael West's 'Day of the Locust,' and Raymond Chandler's 'The Big Sleep.' Hemingway's 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' came out only a year later, and Budd Schulberg's 'What Makes Sammy Run?' came out in 1941. The summer of 1939 saw the release of such classics as 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Wuthering Heights,' 'Stagecoach,' 'Of Mice and Men,' and the 'Titanic' blockbuster behemoth of its era, 'Gone With the Wind.' So it was an especially fertile creative period in American history, and Cooper deems Fante 'an important figure in 20th century literature.'

Three decades after 'Dust''s release, Robert Towne, one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters (and a Palisadian), fell in love with 'Dust,' which he came across while researching 1974's L.A. history-steeped 'Chinatown.' Mel Brooks, who has produced such diverse fare as 'The Elephant Man' and 'Frances,' once owned the rights to 'Dust' but let them lapse. Now Towne excited Fante with several meetings at Rancho Fante to discuss a film adaptation, which Towne wanted to title 'The Love of Arturo Bandini for Camilla Lopez.'

'When he first told my father that he wanted to do it, Dad was very excited,' Jim says. 'They had several meetings about it at our house. Then it became a tremendous source of frustration.'

Towne spent the better part of three decades working on other projects. At various points, Johnny Depp and Val Kilmer had committed to playing Bandini. But by the time Towne's film was released, 23 years after Fante's death, it starred Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, and the 'Los Angeles' depicted in the movie was constructed in South Africa.

Despite Towne's pedigree and his passion and promotion for his project, the 2006 film version of 'Dust' failed to ignite critics and audiences and it quickly disappeared. The movie's marketing may have been a victim of tensions between Paramount Pictures and Tom Cruise, who co-produced Towne's movie with his producing partner, Paula Wagner. This was, after all, in the wake of Cruise's May 2005 'Oprah' couch-jump incident. By mid-2006, Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount's parent company Viacom, had publicly chastised Cruise. Shortly after, Paramount ended its 14-year relationship with Cruise and, that November, Cruise/Wagner Productions set up shop at United Artists.

'It's very sad,' Vickie says. 'It's had a lot of bad luck for such a great book. If the movie had been a success, maybe it would've changed things.'

What Hollywood began, diabetes finished.

By the early 1970s, Fante's waning screenwriting career and maple syrup-flow of literary output was exacerbated by his deteriorating health. Diabetes robbed him of his toes, then his feet and his legs, then his sight...but never his spirit.

When Fante wrote 'Brotherhood of the Grape' (about an L.A. writer who, while visiting his Italian-immigrant family in San Joaquin Valley, gets roped into assisting his dominating father on his final masonry gig), one of the first people he gave it to was Towne, who forwarded it to 'The Godfather' director Francis Ford Coppola. The pair flipped over 'Grape' and 'they took him out on the town in San Francisco,' Jim says. 'It was a big deal.'

By the early 1980s, a blind Fante wrote his final Bandini epic, 'Dreams From Bunker Hill,' by dictating the book to Joyce.

'He had been very disoriented for a long time,' Jim says, adding the book seemingly flowed out of him. 'She wrote it down on yellow pads as fast as she could. They worked on it for months.'

Jim never did meet Fante's champion, but he phoned Bukowski to inform him when his father, 74, passed away on May 8, 1983. Bukowski's reaction was 'Oh, [expletive]!' and he hung up. 'That was the only conversation I had with him,' Jim says.

Joyce died in 2005 at age 91. Today, John and Joyce's offspring have produced nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

In recent years, Cal State Long Beach has been an epicenter for Fante fever, thanks to such teachers as Cooper and Teresa Fiore.

'The poet Gerald Locklin, a friend of Bukowski's, was including Fante in his Cal State Long Beach classes in the '70s and '80s,' says Cooper, a professor of English at the university. 'David Fine, a former professor of English, wrote what is still the definitive book on the Los Angeles novel. In 1995, Cal State Long Beach sponsored a three-day conference on Fante. David and I had this brainstorm to celebrate and investigate Fante. The turnout was in the hundreds and from all over the world. The L.A. Times writer [now book section editor] David Ulin covered the conference.'

Cooper explains his personal attraction to Fante's prose. At age 24 in the early 1970s, Cooper had found a copy of 'Dust' at a now-defunct Westwood bookstore. 'I was young and trying to write a novel,' Cooper says. 'The identification factor was off the chart.'

As the years transpired, 'I kept waiting for someone else to write a biography,' Cooper continues. Realizing no one had, he finally wrote his Fante portrait, 'Full of Life,' based on extensive interviews with Joyce and her offspring.

'What was challenging was gaining the trust of John Fante's widow,' Cooper says. 'She's a very savvy, very worldly, sophisticated woman. She'd been approached by other hopeful biographers. I wrote her a letter and she screened me for I don't know how many meetings on her patio and in her living room.'

Delving headfirst into writing Fante's biography, Cooper says, 'One of the great adventures is that nobody knew nothing about Fante. He was all but completely forgotten.'

Despite the efforts of Cal State Long Beach's English faculty, a full-blown Fante appreciation in America has yet to calcify. In recent summers, Torricella Peligna''the town of origin of Fante's lineage, located in Abruzzo, Italy''has hosted a Fante festival. Fante, who has been translated into more than 20 languages, has a bigger following abroad than in his native country. (Cooper says a French translation of 'Dust' kicked off a European Fante fervor in the early 1980s). 'They were fast to seize upon the reappearance of Fante's work in large part because of Bukowski's fame over there,' Cooper says. 'But then Fante got a foothold on his own strengths.'

As they give Fante's personal effects''first typewriter, his letters and manuscripts, even a lock of his hair snipped by Joyce''to UCLA, which acquired them for posterity, Vickie and Jim are optimistic that an American revival''make that a long-deserved recognition''will finally come to John Fante. 'My hope,' Vickie says, 'is that he will become as well known as Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway.'

Then Vickie shares an anecdote. Recently, she was at Spectrum gym on Sunset at Pacific Coast Highway. She happened to be within earshot of two men, in their early 20s, one of whom recommended to the other his all-time favorite book.

'That's my father,' Vickie proudly told the young men. 'He wrote 'Ask the Dust.''

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