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REVIEWING

CRUISING WITH KATE:
A Parvenu in Xanadu

By Bernard F. Conners

British American Publishing | 2014 | 326 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

Bernard F. Conners

Age 88.  Roll that around your head for a while.  Imagine being age 88.

That’s where polymath author Bernard F. Conners now resides.  Not only in the ultra-wealthy realm of his self-described Xanadu, but also in the realm of those whose lives are on the cusp of 90 years of age.  His autobiography is remarkable.

Here’s a man who is no stranger to the world of books, having published a slew of successful novels decades ago.  Not only did Bernard F. Conners earn bestselling status with Don’t Embarrass the Bureau in the 1970s, but also with Dancehall and The Hamptons Sisters in subsequent decades.  He also authored Tailspin, a work of nonfiction.  Did I mention that Conners has also been an FBI agent of distinction?

His noir-inflected, subtly Gothic, and highly readable novels did very well with many reviewers and legions of book-buyers, while at the same time Conners sustained for himself a varied career as a top-tier corporate executive (his fortune was made at the Canada Dry soft drink conglomerate), a real estate mogul, and more.

Conners also published The Paris Review and generously funded everything from one of its distinguished poetry prizes (established in his name) to a handful of its ancillary endeavors in the literary milieu.

All this sounds like Walter Mitty on steroids.  But it’s merely a portion of the unique, world-class, and multifarious resume of Bernard F. Conners.  Wait.  It gets better.

Once upon a time, before all of the above, Conners was a gangly misfit and awkward social outcast who then morphed into an excellent athlete with superb boxing skills.  We’re talking Golden Gloves caliber, through and through.  We’re also talking some seriously impressive gridiron exploits as a quarterback for St. Lawrence University.

As for those boxing skills, they were so adroit that Conners won title bouts in the Army, which beat the hell out of the options: He was spared combat duties at the tail end of World War Two or in Korea.  Yes, indeed, the author was one of those startled young Americans tapped by the long arm of Uncle Sam for military duty not once, but twice.  Conners was first in uniform in 1945 and then again after the Korean War detonated in 1950.  In the Army is where he first met George Plimpton.

It is the legend and legacy of George Plimpton that gives this unusual memoir its ultimate literary anchor. Conners and Plimpton were entwined for most of their adult lives as allies in the perennial publication of the always distinguished, keenly refined, and impecunious literary quarterly that Plimpton had co-founded with a cadre of like-minded others in the early 1950s.     

In short, Plimpton always provided the editorial acumen while Conners wrote the checks.  And yet, Conners was never a mere benefactor.  His own books and his writing chops were superlative enough not only to earn a large readership for his mystery novels but also to induce the serious attention of Donald Fine, one of Manhattan’s most coveted, gifted, volatile, temperamental, and respected editors and publishers. 

Conners fell back on his Golden Gloves training (metaphorically speaking) in order to deal with Don Fine’s infamous persona.  Anecdotes abound.

Here’s one, tossed off with the dry humor and admirable restraint that Conners displays through his memoir: “Although a diminutive man, Fine had a gargantuan ego and temper.  Legend had it that when he sold [his company] Arbor House to the Hearst Corporation in 1978, after signing the sales contract, he said to the Hearst representatives, ‘Okay, now get out of my office!’ “

Cruising with Kate derives its title from Conners’ lifelong love and devotion to his wife—their love story is no less rare and successful than the author’s enviable ability to straddle overlapping careers and to do well at the highest echelon of disparate environments. 

Not that it was easy.  The key motif in this memoir is the ever-present stress of “the butterflies” within, always making the author aware of his deep-seated insecurities.  Nonetheless, he rose to all challenges and somehow made it look easy.  But it wasn’t.

As for its subtitle—“A Parvenu in Xanadu”—one can safely assume that it’s a low-key admission on the part of the author.  By definition, a “parvenu” is a “nobody” who somehow became somebody.  More formally put, it’s a person who despite his or her obscure origins manages to acquire clout, riches, and some degree of fame.

And to use that subtitle is a classy way for Bernard F. Conners to admit that even now, he remains mystified, no doubt amazed, and grateful for his idiosyncratic life.

Perhaps that’s why he chose to write his autobiography in the third person, which is exceedingly rare in the writing of memoirs.  Yet, it works.  Instead of plying us with the usual insufferable “I this” and “I that” of more traditional autobiographies, the reader is engaged with “Bernard” as a third-person protagonist.

It’s as if the author has novelized his life in order to detach a bit and gain some perspective by stepping back.  To say the least, it’s been a life of cinematic brio.

(M. J. Moore is at work completing a new novel.)



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