Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN
Eleanor Mooseheart

IN THE FALL of 1971, Sally Smith Andersen was a single mother of two young sons with an uncertain future. She had lost her initial bid for tenure in the English department at the University of Illinois and was apprehensive about the prospects of her second and final chance. Although she was a promising poet, it was unclear how much her publications in that genre would advance her academic career. Just to be safe, she resolved to go job hunting at the next meeting of the Modern Language Association, which was to be held in Chicago between Christmas and New Year's. In the meantime, Ruth Stone— who was a guest professor at Illinois that year—had invited Sally to spend Christmas with her in Brandon, Vermont.

As Sally became a more committed poet, she began to look upon Ruth as a mentor. During Ruth's time in Illinois, she and Sally gave readings together and struck up a warm friendship. The older woman was not only a more experienced and successful poet, she was also Sally's guide to a world that seemed more sophisticated than any she had previously known. Sally had had a conventional Middle American upbringing with periodic visits to family in southern Illinois and Mayfield, Kentucky. The only real celebrity in her family was her great aunt, Alice Hegen Rice, who wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. Christmas in Vermont seemed just the sort of interlude to take Sally's mind off the precariousness of her personal and professional life.

Sally and Ruth set out from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in Sally's car, driving all day and well into the night; snow fell steadily and the roads grew increasingly hazardous. As was her habit when traveling back to Vermont, Ruth intended to spend the night at Leslie's house in Buffalo. Because Sally had never met Leslie, her impressions of him were based entirely on his work. Having recently read Being Busted, she asked Ruth, “Does Leslie Fiedler use drugs?” “Absolutely not, ” Ruth replied, “but he has one foot in the alcoholic grave.” (Given the fact that both Sally's father and her ex-husband had been alcoholics, this was not an auspicious introduction.)

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