I just got a brief and beautiful note from Vivienne Jaffe that her husband, Marc Jaffe, had passed on December 31 at the age of 102. Images of Marc, walking in from his morning horseback rides to breakfast at Fishtrap, addressing the Fishtrap audience to tell them about the special place and literature they were part of, driving me from Alvin Josephy’s house in Greenwich Ct to his place in Williamstown, Massachussettes in our last real visit, come flooding back.
Alvin Josephy chose the theme—”Western Writers and Eastern Publishers”—in 1988, the first year of Fishtrap. Alvin said that the people in the East didn’t really know about Western writing and writers, that the New York Times sent him the wrong books by the wrong authors for review. He wanted meetings, meetings in the West.
So, he brought his agent, Carl Brandt, who had never been west of the Mississippi; Naomi Bliven, a staff writer at the New Yorker; and his friend and sometime editor, Marc Jaffe. Marc then had his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin Publishing, and had recently rescued Alvin’s Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest with an unabridged paperback edition. The hardcover originals were going for $60-$100 because the paperback of the day had omitted important appendix and discussion notes.
Beyond books, Alvin and Marc shared Harvard, the Marine Corps, and love of the West. Alvin’s Harvard career was interrupted by the Great Depression, but he always considered himself part of the class of 1936. Marc graduated from Harvard in 1942 and immediately joined the Marine Corps. He fought in major battles in the Pacific, and won a Bronze Star for his actions on Okinawa. Alvin was a Marine Corps journalist in the Pacific, and won his own Bronze Star for recording and reporting the landing on Guam.
Both men were always Marines, but neither was a boaster. I remember a small photo and Bronze Star citation from President Truman on a staircase wall in the Jaffe Williamstown home. Alvin’s photo and citation are now on our wall at the Josephy Center—I don’t recall them being displayed at his home in Joseph or the house in Connecticut.
Marc made friends and became a regular at Summer Fishtrap. He found writers to publish—books by the Canadian Native writer Tom King and Oregon writer Craig Lesley; an essays by Janie Tippett and Eileen Thiel and others found their ways into Marc’s anthologies of the West.
I think it was in the second year of Fishtrap that we asked poet Bill Stafford and Marc to do the Sunday morning summaries of where we’d been and what we’d heard. Bill was always eloquent, but what I remember is Marc saying that Fishtrap was not a place to sell your wares, not a place to find the keys to getting published. Fishtrap was a “revival meeting” for writers and publishers, a place to recharge batteries and go home to write more and better.
I’m sad that the New York Times, or any major newspapers, have failed, to this point, to publish an obituary of Marc Jaffe. A gushing local interview on his turning 100 recalled his days at Argosy Magazine and then in the mass market paperback business. At New American Library and then at Bantam Books, Jaffe published Micky Spillane, his old Harvard friend, Gore Vidal, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and Louis L’ Amour.
Which reminds me of one of my favorite Jaffe stories. I had had a discussion with Bill Gullick, who wrote texts for big picture books on the Snake River and Chief Joseph, and had a string of moderately successful “Westerns” to his credit. I’d read Treasure in Hells Canyon, a Doubleday Western that told the story of the Chinese massacres on the Snake River, and Gullick told me that his Bend of the Snake had been made into a Jimmy Stewart movie called Bend of the River.
But, Bill Gullick wanted to know, what it was about Louis L’ Amour that put his Westerns so far above everyone else in the field. I asked Marc.
“Well,” Marc confided, “Bill is probably as good a writer as Louis.” And then he chuckled as he compared the surnames, L’ Amour and Gullick. Nothing wrong with a sexy writing name, he smiled. But more than anything, Marc said, while Gullick was busy pursuing L’ Amour, trying to “be Louis,” Louis had had his eye on being a millionaire. “And I made him one. Give me twenty books in ten years,” Marc told him, “and you’ll get your million dollars.”
I never told the story back to Bill, but it and a hundred other bits of wisdom from Marc Jaffe—and the image of him and his just right western hat and wide grin coming back from a morning ride and getting ready for the Fishtrap day are now part of me.
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