© 2013 Mahala Yates Stripling
All Rights Reserved
THE SURGEON STORYTELLER
The Life and Arts of
Richard Selzer, M.D.
sketch of RS (1988), commissioned by Richard B. Sewall
Chronology: Life and Works
Reinventing his Life
A Family of Weepers, 1899-1927
The Young Trojan, 1928-40
High School and War, 1941-45
Becoming a Doctor, 1946-54
Korea—a Tragic Beauty, 1955-6
Chief Residency & Early Practice, 1957-67
Published—Mortal Lessons, 1968-75
The Doctor as Writer, 1976-78
Artist in Residence, 1979-84
Last Grand Rounds at Yale, Dec. 15, 1984
Living by his Wits Alone
Trial and Tribulation, 1985-90
A Deep Black Hole, 1991-3
The Black Swan, 1994-97
The Doctor Stories, 1998-2000
Spiritual Currency, 2001-2003
Roosting on the Podia, 2004-2007
The Writer as Teacher, 2008-2010
The Last Years, 2011 - [Includes legacy]
EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER 9: “Artist
Dr. Selzer saves John Cheever’s Life at Yaddo in 1980.
Writing from 1 to 3 a.m. at his kitchen
table wasn’t enough time anymore. So Selzer made regular retreats to
Yaddo, a three-hour drive from New Haven to upstate New York. His third
trip was a chilly October, and on the way he detoured into Troy to visit
his mother, temporarily back in the hospital from a fainting spell.
At Yaddo the
English-style mansion on the grounds was closed for the small
season, so Selzer lived alone at Pine Garde, a woodman’s cottage at one
end of the estate. "Ivy engulfs every speck of wall," he wrote his son
Larry. "It has turned a spectacular red. Every time I reach into it to
turn the doorknob, I half expect to get burnt. I have the darkest
gloomiest rooms you could ever hope for. You know how cozy I get in
mortuary digs. My metabolism has slowed to hibernatory levels. The ideal
conditions for writing, altogether." And he had a good table to
write letters on.
He joined a dozen other residents
for a congenial breakfast and dinner, and in-between took a box lunch to his studio
to write the entire day, 8 to 6. In the rhythm of Yaddo, he had written
three books. That fall the group included the sculptor
Mary Ann Unger, the writer Joan Silber, and the composer Lee Hyla.
Selzer 52, was one of the oldest residents. And there was another older
writer, a grand master whom Selzer very much hoped to befriend: John
Cheever, then 68. Cheever, whose collection of stories had won the
Pulitzer Prize the year before, was old-guard Yaddo, having depended on
his working retreats to the colony since 1934. He had been, he wrote in
his journal, "A young man here, then a mature man, and now . . . an old
man. Here I have been rich and poor, sick and ecstatically well."1 During
this visit—it would be his last—he worked in Hillside, a studio set in a
grove of locust trees.
A heavy drinker until 1975, Cheever was
showing the effects of alcohol. He had memory lapses and behaved
erratically. At their first meeting, the craggy-faced Cheever led off by
asking, "Richard, have you ever plagiarized?" He continued with "bitchy,
gossipy, and insulting" behavior that disturbed Selzer and the small
group around him. A resident mentioned that she had received a letter
from a friend, a gay writer who considered Cheever his mentor. Cheever
huffed, saying the man was "the only fellow who ever became an Eagle
Scout on his knees."2
Cheever’s bisexuality was not well
know at the time, and, like many of those in the closet during this
time, he used insults to defray any suspicion. To Selzer, it seemed that
Cheever found it hilarious to insult the man in front
of the young painters and sculptors, "many of whom
are very naïve people." Cheever went on to brag of sexual conquests
with women on the
couch in Yaddo’s Great Hall.
Cheever later challenged Selzer to a very
long bike ride from Yaddo around Saratoga Lake, considering it a
personal victory when Selzer, then a heavy smoker, declined. Selzer
finally told the distinguished writer that he didn’t want anything to do
with him, and he avoided Cheever as best he could.
One evening Cheever felt fatigued from a
22-mile bicycle ride. After dinner, he went to an Alcoholics Anonymous
meeting, and later invited people to his studio to watch a World Series
game, the Philadelphia Phillies playing the Kansas City Royals. In the
seventh inning, the plastic cup filled with ginger ale crumpled in
Cheever’s hand, and he fell to the floor in convulsions. A young painter
ran the distance to Pine Garde, banging on Selzer’s door and shouting,
"Hurry! John Cheever is dying!" Barefoot and wearing only pajama
bottoms, the doctor sprinted down the moonlit path, bursting into the
room where Cheever lay on the floor, blue and breathless. Selzer fell
upon Cheever to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Cheever began to
breathe, and Selzer felt a pulse.
An ambulance arrived crewed by volunteers—a
teenage boy and an elderly woman. Selzer got in the back and
administered oxygen to the still-unconscious Cheever. When Cheever began
to stir and moan, Selzer said, "John, it’s Richard. I’ll take care of
you. We’re going to Saratoga Hospital." Still barefoot, the slight
Selzer arrived shivering at the hospital. The doctor, he was told, was
"We’re from Yaddo, and this man may be dying. Isn’t there a house
"No," the nurse replied. "I’ll have to call him."
"All right, you are not going to believe me, but I am a doctor."
"Do you," asked the nurse of the nearly naked writer, "have
privileges at this hospital?"
"I’m warning you not to ask me that question. It’s 4 a.m., and you
had better do what I tell you. If anything happens to him, it’s your
fault. I want you to get me an electrocardiogram machine, and I want an
intravenous in this man now."
The nurse complied. When Cheever was plugged
in and stable, Selzer told her to put him in intensive care overnight.
Curtis Harnack, the president of Yaddo, arrived and gave Selzer a coat.
Selzer told him he didn’t know what was the matter with Cheever, but
that he wasn’t going to take responsibility for him; Cheever should go
home for tests. With no medical equipment, and in light of Cheever’s
temperament, Selzer had reason to feel that should the older man’s
condition at Yaddo take any turn for the worse, he could end up in an
unpleasant situation. If Cheever stayed at the colony, Selzer informed
Harnack, he would leave. They drove back to get some sleep.
Early in the morning Selzer went back to see
Cheever, who had been attended by a resident doctor by then. Cheever
accused Selzer of "raping and violating" him in CPR. Selzer simply told
him that he must go home, and he called Mary Cheever to explain what had
happened. Against Cheever’s wishes, Selzer put him in an ambulance for
Ossining and told the driver not to stop anywhere. A few days later
Cheever wrote in his journal that medical tests proved "inconclusive,"
and he made light of his seizure. But he feared what it had done to his
imaginative powers. In five days Cheever returned to Yaddo enraged at
Selzer, claiming that he had exaggerated the whole thing.
Selzer steered clear of Cheever for the
final week of his stay. As he was packing to leave at 2 a.m., there was a
knock at the door.
"May I come in, Richard?" John Cheever asked.
"Well, you’re here. Come in and sit down."
Cheever said nothing about the incident, instead talking about his
childhood. After an hour of this, Selzer said he had to be in the
operating room at 8 that morning and showed Cheever to the door. "Shall
I come see you in New Haven?" Cheever inquired, swaying toward him and
gazing with great intensity. "I can’t think why," Selzer responded,
avoiding the advance as he let him out. Cheever later wrote Selzer a
garbled note, perhaps attempting to set things straight between them. He
had quit drinking, accepting his homosexuality by then.
Not long afterward, Selzer read that doctors
had removed Cheever’s cancerous kidney, then suspended bone cancer
treatments. On June 18, 1982, his breathing became restricted, and he
died. Learning this, Selzer wondered if Cheever’s behavior at Yaddo was
the symptom of a brain metastasis. He felt "hollow with remorse": had he
failed Cheever, "if not as a friend, then as a physician?"
1 Cheever J:
The Journals of John Cheever.
Ed. Robert Gottlieb. New York: Random House, 1991. 363-6.
2 Qtd in Josyph SAID 92.
Without medical facilities, Yaddo reserves the right to send its
residents home. This story first appeared on July 11, 2001, as
"Emergency at Yaddo" in Praxis Press. Unless otherwise noted, it is
based on my August 9, 2000, videotaped interview with Richard Selzer in
New Haven, CT. and subsequent correspondence with him, as well as
letters and/or interviews with Curtis Harnack, Joan Silber, and Lee
Hyla. Leaving no stone unturned, I also contacted Susan Cheever, but she
had no knowledge of this event.
Dr. Stripling has
interviewed over 100 people, from Sherwin Nuland and Bernie Segal, to
Leon Kass, Ed Pellegrino, Jerome Groopman, and Atul Gawande. The
following essay describes one of fourteen times--from 1993 to 2012--she
has interviewed Dr. Selzer, a giving interviewee.
* * *
THE ART OF
BIOGRAPHY, Part 3, appearing in The Independent Scholar, the
publication of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.
Mahala Yates Stripling, PhD
Editor’s Note: This is the third of a
six-part series that derives from Stripling’s step-by-step process
researching and writing a biography.
III. The Interview
In the old days the
writers of note died, and then they were taken up. But in this day of
ours, when time is compressed, it happens that a writer such as myself
is taken up before he is dead. It’s awkward. It seems that it has come
out of its time—that I should have died. And then it would be easier for
everybody. But then, on the other hand, for a person like you, you have
the singular advantage of having looked at me, talked to me, and heard
me. The biographers of yore did not have that. But you can feel my
personality and record it in your writing. —Richard Selzer to author
Colquitt, my master’s degree committee member, said to me, “You have a
living subject. Go interview him!” So in a cold January of
1993, I had my first interview with
Richard Selzer, Yale surgeon-writer. He invited me to stay
at his house in New Haven. The interview lasted three days. He is now my biography subject.
Our ninth interview in
New Haven was in October of 2008. Selzer is always prompt, so I arrived twenty minutes early
for the 10 a.m. meeting at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
at Yale. I waited on the plaza, but it wasn't long before he rushed out
to greet me from the main entrance thirty yards away. As he gave me a hug, I
noted his ribs had healed from a January fall on the ice and that his
low vision problems did not keep him from seeing me. Chatting like old friends, we walked up to our meeting place on the
mezzanine level, just steps away from the Gutenberg Bible. It is left
open in a display case, and Selzer confirmed that the
librarians turn one page each day.
The Beinecke is a
windowless six-story tower that houses priceless old papers that would
deteriorate in direct sunlight. So its Danby marble walls transmitted a
subdued, ethereal light down upon the large round table Selzer led me
to. But there were no chairs. Almost eighty, Selzer waved off my offer
of help and went over to a high stack of heavy metal chairs. He brought
two we needed for our visit, lugging one at a time over to the table. He had been ill and was tired from giving a keynote address in North Carolina. But in this action I see his habitual
courtesy and the former surgeon who maintained a schedule no matter how
We sat down, but before I could
ask a question, Selzer
softened his eyes and said, “I want to tell you something. I have to
tell you that the older I get the more difficult it is for me to write.
Lately I’m finding it arduous. Before I would leap to my desk and
let it flow out of me.”
I had heard these words
before, in 1993 at our first interview when he was still recovering from a 1991
bout with Legionnaire’s
disease contracted on a book tour. He suspected that oxygen deprivation to his
brain for those three weeks in a coma had caused his “image-maker” to fail.
slowly his abilities came back, he said, "even if not to the feverish degree that
existed before," adding: “There is a certain word,
ballon, in ballet, when the dancer makes a leap up. It's the lift
that he or she has and then seems to pause at the apex for a second,
seems to hang in the air before descending--and that lift and pause is
called ballon. Before my illness, I had ballon. I could
leap and then descend. I probably lost something in that illness. It
doesn't seem to me quite so effortless. It's as though the ballet
dancer has gotten cold and arthritic, and he can't quite make it up in
the air the way he did before. I have that feeling.”
But sixteen years after his coma—and in spite of
his self-professed frailties—Selzer is still working. Besides all of his eleven books remaining in print, Yale
University Press will publish a book of his letters and a book of his
diaries this spring. Then a novel he wrote fifty-four years ago, when
he was a 26-year-old second year surgical resident drafted into the army
and sent to Korea, will be next. The novel, retitled
Knife Song Korea, describes his work south of the demilitarized
zone, including delivering the babies of natives and amputating legs in
a country thick with landmines.
He reflected on his
service in Korea: ”I felt
inadequate because I had total responsibility, so to keep my sanity I
decided to write down my experiences every day in a journal.
before I returned to the states I turned it into a novel. There
was a good reason for me to change it into fiction, because I d id not want to
offend anyone. I repressed my feelings and what I had written then because it was such a difficult period in my life.
someone found the
novel in my archives; it was a literary incarnation. There’s a lot of
curiosity about it. Just the way it resurfaced. There are
still three new books coming out of this old carcass, which is exciting
because I’m 79 years old and still functioning.”
talking about how his stories evolve, and my ears always perk up when he
does it. One day he was
walking across the Green Island Bridge in his homeland, Troy, New York,
he explained, and spotted a half moon in the sky. “I took it as a sign,”
he says of his new story, “Half Moon,” about Henry Hudson’s third voyage
in search of the direct route to the Indies. “Hudson came up the great
river that’s named after him. He went as far as what is now called Troy
and couldn’t go any farther. Then I knew I must write an account of
that third voyage.”
He told "Half Moon" through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old
Dutch boy, a gifted youngster taken from an orphanage by a childless
Jewish surgeon who wants to convert him and teach him medicine. “But he
could never accept Judaism. He just couldn’t do it. So his mentor sent
him away!” The boy went to the docks of Amsterdam where Henry Hudson
took him on board as a cabin boy. Selzer named his hero Kees
Nooteboom—after a Dutch author he admires, Cees Nooteboom.
Selzer read me a passage from
the story, saying I'd have to wait for the publication of the obviously
autobiographical piece to learn of Kees’ fate.
Our two-hour talk
wound down, and Selzer’s voice had become thin but thoughtful: “I’m lucky in a way
because I found my calling in surgery, and I also found my destiny in
writing. I’m very happy to have lived those two lives and to have
succeeded in both beyond my imagination. I never expected that my
writing would be read by so many generations of medical students,
nurses, and doctors all over the world. It’s amazing to me.”
heartened me. Selzer, who's an obsessive stylist fearful of not being
good enough, was no longer refuting his merit as a biography subject.
As we exited the
building to head for lunch, he showed me his sturdy wooden
cane stored in the Beinecke cloak closet. His practical wife, Janet, had
triple-tied it with red yarn at its base, so he won’t forget it. It
helped Selzer with his balance after his coma and again following last
winter’s fall. But this time he left it behind, taking my arm for the
short walk down Wall Street to Mory’s.
Author’s Note: The Selzer Archive is at The
University of Texas-Medical Branch in the Moody Medical Library,
Galveston. Mory’s, a restaurant at 306 York Street, is filled with old
Yale memorabilia. Letters to a Best Friend and Knife Song
Korea were published by SUNY Press in 2009. The publication of his
diaries, a bugaboo that has plagued Selzer for decades through lost
manuscripts and editors, remained in
limbo until 2011, when Yale University Press published the first volume.
A Guide to the Papers of Richard Selzer at UTMB-Galveston