Fred Exley: Mel Zerman remembers the author of A Fan's Notes

     In 1968 Harper & Row published A Fan's Notes, a fictional memoir by Frederick Exley. The book's originality immediately stood out from the manufactured best sellers headed for Hollywood. Its author was a complete unknown: a "loser," a "drunk," a "dreamer," as he described himself in recounting his doomed struggle to adjust to an "unhuman society."

"For my heart," Exley wrote in his memoir, "will always be with the drunk, the poet, the prophet, the criminal...with those whose aims are insulated from the humdrum business of life." From, he meant, the travails of ordinary, workaday America.

     The son of a telephone lineman for a local power company, Exley grew up in Watertown, New York, a dying industrial town close to the Canadian border. His father was a star local athlete and barroom fighter. Young Fred adored and feared him.

     Disappointments came early--and easily--to Exley. In high school, he blew a key football game for illegal holding. After graduation, Fred matriculated at an "undistinguished" local college. Then, following a busted romance, he transferred to the University of Southern California, an "undistinguished" university, set in the splendor of the Southern California sun.


     On campus, Fred regarded himself as "a leper." (Self-pity was an Exley hallmark.) Ignored by the golden haired sorority girls, he spent his time in local saloons in the company of a vaguely literary crowd.

     At USC, the future author first became aware of Frank Gifford. The star of the school's football team, Gifford was everything Exley was not: popular, a gifted athlete. Fred was never sure if he loved or hated him, but over time Gifford was to became an imaginary alter ego, a rival he never could catch. Fleet footed, sure handed, Gifford soon joined Tulane's Eddie Price in forming a dazzling backfield for the New York Giants.

     In the fall of 1953, Fred Exley headed for Manhattan, his B.A. degree in hand. Unable to land a glamorous job in advertising, he joined the public relations department of the railroad. He lived at the Y, and each night headed for Greenwich Village where perched on a bar stool, he "dreamed my dreams of fame."

     A transfer to Chicago, a cutback at the railroad, a few too many nights in bars, and Fred was back in Watertown. There, he spent his days on his widowed mother's davenport, staring at the blank ceiling, alongside his best friend, the family dog.

     It was Sundays Fred lived for. That was the day Gifford and the Giants played. Cheering Frank on kept Exley going, and, in some weird way, Gifford's accomplishments became to Fred almost his own. In a sad and touching scene in A Fan's Notes, Exley recounts how he trained the family dog to sit with his back against the couch, so they could watch the Giants' game on television, like two good buddies.

     After a few weeks on his mother's davenport, another pattern emerged--one that was to be repeated two or three times.

     The gents in the white coats arrived to take Exley to the "hospital"-- his euphemism for the state mental asylum at Wingdale.

     Fred played cat and mouse with the shrinks and began to write. Two other inmates were his audience; each night he would read them what he wrote. Later, Exley told friends that he "loved" the place. He believed he could "live out my life" in the hospital "as  well any America I had yet discovered."

     Released from Wingdale, Fred tried to make sense of "the holocaust I called my life." Self-dramatization was another Exley hallmark.

     Fred married a lovely social worker, the daughter of a local businessman. She was a Skidmore graduate and encouraged his writing. In A Fan's Notes he called her Patience.

     Later, Exley's biographer, Jonathan Yardley, wrote of Fred: "He was his own teacher and editor." (Jonathan Yardley, Misfit, New York, Random House, 1997) The future author educated himself by reading Edmund Wilson, Flaubert, Nabokov's Lolita, a book he read until the pages fell out.

     Fred wrestled with a long manuscript, then destroyed it one day in an alcoholic rage. The content is unknown. Probably it dealt with the familiar Exley theme: "Life is rejection and pain and loss."

     Drunks do not make reliable husbands. Fred was no exception. In 1962 he and his first wife divorced. Their parting coincided with the end of Frank Gifford's career after several injury plagued seasons.

     When Frank hung up his spikes, Exley felt the "last prop" had been knocked from under him. He bounced around, teaching school near Watertown and working on the copy desk of a Palm Beach newspaper after following his mother and stepfather to Florida. For most of his adult life, Fred remained tied to his mother. It was not until his mid-thirties that he had his own telephone.
     For a time, Fred worked as a clerk for the New York Supreme Court. Later, his biographer, Mr. Yardley, would refer (somewhat disapprovingly) to his subject's "unimaginative anti-Americanism." Getting hired by the supreme court may have been a more telling commentary on "the System" than anything Exley himself wrote.

     Holed up in his mother's attic, Fred typed away on the book that became A Fan's Notes. No one knows when he began the story; at one point, the manuscript was called Footnotes of North Country.

     By 1964 enough of the book had been completed to shop around to publishers. Random House quickly passed, as did Houghton Mifflin and others.

     A book "about football" wouldn't get reviewed, Fred was told. Several publishers were worried about libel. Among the outcasts Fred knew, and wrote about, were a disbarred lawyer ("the Counselor") and several fellow Wingdale alumni.

     Finally, Fred was taken on by Lynn Nesbit, a literary agent who specialized in off-beat writers. She put the book in the hands of David Segal, a Harper & Row editor with an eye for the avant-garde. Segal, who is now deceased, admired the book's "searing honesty." He advanced the new author three thousand dollars to complete the manuscript.

     The book finally saw the light of day--as Fred always knew it would. And: the Truman Capotes who never were, the geniuses who were swallowed by the canyons of the city, the broken hearts that never mended, at last found their bard, and their voices were heard, through him, over the roar of the crowd.

     This interview with Mel Zerman, a former Harper & Row executive, appeared on American Legends web site in July 2005. Mel, whom Fred Exley considered his "best friend," died in 2010. After leaving Harper, Mel founded Limelight Editions which specialized in the perfomring arts and literature.


AL: How did you meet Fred Exley?



 I was Sales Manager at Harper & Row. One afternoon, Lisl Cade, the head of publicity, came into my office looking very weary. She said, "You love authors, right?" I said, "Yes, I do." She told me, "Well, I have one sitting in my office right now. I don't know what to do with him. No program wants him. He's written a book about football, and the book people don't know or care about football." I told her to send him in. It was Fred Exley. He sat down. I told him how much I liked his book and so began a beautiful friendship.



How did Fred react to being a first time author at forty?



He complained all the time that the book wasn't properly publicized: They are not advertising the book, they are not getting it reviewed. He said he had been on three programs, none were major stations. He was very bitter. On the other hand, he was very happy to be in New York and drinking.



Did he talk to you about some of the themes in A Fan's Notes?



He said to me the same thing he said to the interviewers on the rare occasions my friend Lisl was able to get him on a program. He would answer questions by saying, "It's all in the book." His feeling was that everyone should read the book. The book is very true, even though he never made up his mind whether it was a novel or not.


AL: Some find A Fan's Notes self-pitying.


It's a serious novel. A lot of serious first novels are self-pitying and self-centered.


AL: Did Fred ever talk about Frank Gifford?



Of course. Frank invited him to a party on one of those occasions when Fred was in New York. He insisted that I come. I believe Fred had probably sent the manuscript of A Fan's Notes to Gifford even before it was published. Fred was no dope when it came to selling books. It was clear that Frank liked him. Why shouldn't he? The book is very worshipful.



Did you visit Fed Exley in Watertown?



In 1971 my wife and I were visiting upstate New York. I insisted we go to Watertown and look up Fred. It was a Saturday night. We went to a bar. It was the only place in town. There was no time when Fred wasn't drinking heavily and when you went there, you understood why. There is nothing else to do in Watertown except drink.


AL: In A Fan's Notes, Fred wrote about a lot of local characters.



We met a lot of his friends at the bar. They didn't think that he did the town justice and that he had written a kind of mean book. They thought they had to prove to me that they weren't the uncultured small town group that Fred would have the reader believe and that life in the town was richer than he would admit. I tried to say, You don't have to impress me. Fred has written a novel, not a documentary.


AL: In A Fan's Notes, Fred seemed overly impressed by Ivy Leaguers and an Eastern college degree.


 I suspect, if anything, he probably felt that he had made a mistake about going on about that kind of thing. I think he learned better. He knew there was nothing to be envious about. He himself was as important a writer as anybody you can name. He thought so, and I thought so.



Exley left Harper & Row for his second novel, Pages from a Cold Island (1975).



He was so excited. He called me up. I remember I was sleeping. He said, "My next book is being published by Random House." A Fan's Notes didn't sell a lot of copies but got excellent reviews. Fred was very disappointed in how Pages from a Cold Island fared. It wasn't nearly as good as A Fan's Notes, and the excitement of a brand new, very talented author wasn't there. Fred had already made his big splash.



Do you feel he was ungrateful?



Yes. I do. He had a taste of success and wanted more. Fame spoiled him to a certain extent.


AL: Did Fred admire any contemporary writers?


He had very little to say about most writers that was good. He liked William Styron, but maybe that was because they shared an agent.


AL: How did you learn of his death in 1992?

MZ: I believe he was in a hospital, somewhere in upstate New York. He called me and without quite saying so, he made me feel he would never be leaving the hospital. I would call but could never reach him. Every time I asked for a progress report, there was none. One day I called, and they told me he was gone.

(The following books were used as background for this interview: Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes, New York, Pocket Books, 1977 ed.; Jonathan Yardley, Misfit: The Strange Life of Frederick Exley, New York, Random House, 1997)

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