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I neglected to mention that Jack Devlin is my stage name; I was born Jacob Davidson. Elliott, of course, knew this before he met me. He had the book, the lowdown, on everyone on the Council. He knew who had been in psychoanalysis and for how long, who was hiding his or her homosexuality, the names of everyone’s former and current lovers. In the case of the rich on the Council, he knew the origin of their wealth. He liked to quote Balzac saying that behind every great fortune there is a crime. Elliott made it his business to discover the crime. What else he knew about me, I don’t know, but I assume pretty much everything.

Before our quarterly meetings the members of the Council were sent a thick notebook containing grants up for approval, new legislative items of interest for the arts, and much general bureaucratic bumpf. Most of us never opened these notebooks before the meeting, so soporific was the material contained within. Best I could do was glimpse it before isinglass eye glaze set in. Elliott, though, read the stuff as if it were Talmud. He read it at the level of discovering typographical errors and correcting punctuation. This reading allowed him to dominate our meetings — distinctly not, let me add, to the liking of just about everyone in the room, including the political appointee who was the chairman of the NEA, a former Republican congressman from Oregon named John Featherstone, whose ignorance of art, as Elliott liked to say, was “ten steps down from zilch.”

Elliott could be brutal in these meetings. Staff members at the NEA later spoke to me of their terror when he questioned — interrogated would be closer to it — them on their various programmes. I recall his speaking out against a grant for something called “writers’ places,” which were to be places set aside for novelists, poets, critics, to meet, talk, drink coffee and tea, enjoy one another’s company. Elliott remarked that he thought this was ranked with the most genuinely foolish grants up for approval in his time on the Council. “Writers don’t need a place to meet. What writers need is to get their bottoms into the chair before their desk and start writing.” A black woman novelist on the Council, of whom Elliott once remarked to me that she had won every national and international prize going but the Heisman Football Trophy, replied that she could not disagree more with what Elliott said.

“Writing is the loneliest of jobs,” she said. “The creative writer is often filled with doubt. He or she works alone, struggling for clarity and meaning. Wasn’t it Henry James who said of the literary artist something on the order of ‘We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.’ No, I quite disagree. A place for writers to meet to talk, to share ideas, to form a community of artists seems to me a grand idea, and I wholeheartedly support this grant.”

“Gee, Marva,” Elliott responded, “that was beautiful. You ought to show slides with it.”
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