Growing up in Philadelphia with no money or contacts was an inauspicious start for a kid with a desire to write. All I ever had was a bit of lunch money. I studied journalism in high school, wrote a column much like this one for the school paper, and co-edited my graduation year book. I even wrote short plays that were performed, to my embarrassment, at various assembly programs. I took a lot of heat for those because they were awful.
I remember attending a writing conference for students conducted by the very prosperous Curtis Publishing Company, based in Philadelphia. Among their many publishing enterprises were The Saturday Evening Post, Jack and Jill Magazine, and their pride and joy, Holiday Magazine, the first important travel guide which came out monthly. I remember sitting in the audience at that swanky hotel way out in the Philadelphia “”Main Line,”” feeling so apart from it all. Writing for a Curtis publication seemed so distant and unattainable, certainly beyond the reach of a youngster with corduroy pants, worn out at the knees and just enough change for the bus ride home. I never allowed myself the dream of entering into that world. It seemed so glamorous and reserved for the privileged. One of the speakers was an editor for the Saturday Evening Post. She wore a huge straw hat and sunglasses and a black print dress and dangled a gold cigarette holder from her lips like Bette Davis. Ever since then I’ve been a sucker for a woman in a wide-brimmed straw hat. I don’t remember a word she said, but God I remember that hat and her puffing away from her gold cigarette holder. Man, I thought to myself, “”Now that’s a writer.”” I’m embarrassed to tell you that.
Ten years later, I was living in a cold-water flat in Greenwich Village. I had traded the poverty imposed on me from childhood for the poverty I imposed on myself. After all, it was for a goal. On looking back I can only conclude that poor is poor no matter what. I was living in a hovel on Leroy Street which cost $43.50 a month and I struggled in those two rooms to write the great American novel. The toilet was down the hall and my metal shower stall was in the kitchen, next to the stove. I was able to cook dinner and take a shower at the same time. My desk consisted of an old door, turned on its side that rested on milk cartons. Ah, the life of a single man, looking for his muse as he stirred the soup, shampooed his hair and pounded on an old manual typewriter. Believe it or not, those were the happiest days of my life. They were carefree and zany. My only responsibility then was Alice, a sweet old cat I rescued who drooled all over my lap whenever I petted her.
And then lightening struck. A friend of a friend of a friend showed a part of my unfinished novel to a magazine editor. I remember the call like it was yesterday.
“”My name is Arno Karlen and I work for Holiday Magazine. Would you be interested in meeting me for lunch tomorrow and discussing the possibility of writing an article for us?””
When you get hit hard in the back of your head, you literally see stars for a while before blacking out. Well, that’s what it felt like. After all those years of wanting it bad, of self-doubts, of bad hamburgers, of unmade beds, someone casually calls on the phone and invites you to write for the dream publisher of youthful fantasies.
I met Mr. Karlen at Sardi’s the next day, wearing my threadbare shirt collar and frayed cuffs and all. I unsuccessfully tried to scratch away the soup stain from the one knit tie I owned. I placed my pants under the mattress that night to try to restore the crease. It didn’t. But none of that mattered. The man liked the way I wrote and didn’t mind saying so in a matter of fact manner. He was soft-spoken, well-mannered and fully aware of what the assignment meant to me, an unpublished writer. We agreed that I would write a long piece about the rise and fall of Coney Island and perhaps its rebirth. He asked for a 3,000 word essay.
“”Will you accept $1,500?””
I almost choked on my vichyssoise and added another stain to the tie. I smiled and nodded because I could hardly speak. In 1966, $1,500 dollars was a fortune. It’s not so bad now. In the life of an unpublished writer, the most memorable moment is when you make your first sale and that was it for me. Within one week, I received a check for $750 and was to receive the rest on completion of the story.
My friends and I stared at the check for at least twenty-four hours before we all agreed that I needed to celebrate in some memorable way. Now it happens that I had my eye on an oh-so-cool, young woman who was always floating around my favorite hangout, the Limelight bar, restaurant and dart room just below Sheridan Square, in the village. I remember saying hello to her that evening and with absolutely no finesse I blurted out the news of my new success. She gave me an appropriate smile and congratulated me. I then asked her if she would help me celebrate in a day or two by having dinner with me at a great restaurant. She said yes and it just seemed like one victory after another. I was certain my life had changed.
I bought a suit, rented a car, and made reservations at an incredibly great french restaurant fifty miles upstate. At that time, the most elegant restaurant in New York City was La Caravelle and they owned a quaint country place in Banksville, New York called La Cremiere. It was a splendid country inn, French style. As I drove upstate in the late afternoon I pulled over to the side of the road at the half-way point, gave my date a nosegay of flowers, and popped open a small bottle of Champagne. I had it chilling in a chest along with two glasses. I poured. We drank a toast to good writing, to success, to ascendancy, and to the Curtis Publishing Company that was so beyond my reach ten years earlier.
Well, we entered the restaurant as if we went there often and ate a magnificent meal and were all nice and rosy with brandy and dessert. By that time, I was convinced that my current status was permanent and that all things were now possible. I leaned in close to the lovely lady who the week before seemed as beyond my reach as Curtis Publishing and said something like, “”Shall we do it again next week?””
She fluttered her eyes, giggled and said, “”You’ve got your sleeve in the chocolate mousse and your cuff is dripping whipped cream.”” My ears incinerated. In a puff of smoke, the grand illusion disappeared and snapped me back into my reality. We never dated again and the last I heard of her was she went off with one of the Clancy Brothers, an Irish folk singing group. Evidently he was a much bigger deal than a one-shot writer for Holiday Magazine.
My life did not change very much after that. I stayed in my tiny apartment on Leroy Street for another three years until my wife came and got me.
Curtis shut down Holiday Magazine and my article, a damn good one I thought, never made it to print. However, to this day I am still close friends with Arno Karlen who bought my first important story. He became a dear, valued friend with whom I share many good stories. He is now a busy psychotherapist and I am a published author.
Years later, as a married man, still living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village I sold my first article about dogs and was paid the modest sum of $25. Out of that, however, came the sale of my first book, “”Good Dog, Bad Dog,”” which has now been in print for thirty-two years and is still going, like the Eveready Bunny. The road twists and winds and doesn’t give a clue to where it will lead. If you bend when it bends there may be real treasure waiting for you. For me it was the delicious authoring of more than thirty books about dogs and cats along with a monthly pet column in House Beautiful Magazine. I’ve come a long way from the days of my corduroy pants worn out at the knees. I’m not rich, but I am no longer poor either.
Friday, February 11th, 2005 " Eighteenth Annual Hill[s Science Diet Winners Circle Awards. Marriott Marquis Hotel, New York City. MC will be yours truly, Mordecai Siegal.
Sunday, February 13th, 2005 " 70th Anniversary dinner of the Dog Writers Association of America, Writing Competition Awards. Southgate Towers Hotel, New York City.
Monday, Tuesday, February 14 & 15th, 2005 " 129th Annual Dog Show of the Westminster Kennel Club. Madison Square Garden, New York City.
Mordecai Siegal’s newest book is, “”The Cat Fanciers’ Association COMPLETE CAT BOOK. The Official Publication of the CFA,”” published by HarperCollins. It is a reference work comparable to the American Kennel Club Complete Dog Book. His most durable books are “”Good Dog, Bad Dog (Henry Holt),”” “”When Good Dogs Do Bad Things (Little, Brown),”” the 10th Anniversary Revised Edition of “”I Just Got A Puppy. What Do I Do? (Simon & Schuster),”” “”The Cornell Book of Cats, Second Edition (Villard),”” “”The Davis Book of Dogs (HarperCollins),”” “”The Davis Book of Horses (HarperCollins).”” He is President Emeritus of the Dog Writers Association of America and a founding member of The Cat Writers’ Association.