A friend suggested I read Richard Stern’s 1973 novel “Other Men’s Daughters,” a classic of the Harvard/Cambridge genre. The 42-year-old physiology professor Robert Merriwether upends his life for a comely undergraduate, and it’s a masterpiece.
I perused Stern’s fascinating obituary in The New York Times in 2013. He was the man who suggested to the young Philip Roth that he write a short book about his unusual summer experiences. The result was “Goodbye, Columbus.” Then I noticed the headline: “Richard G. Stern, Writer’s Writer, Dies at 84.”
My heart sank. No wonder I had never heard of him! “Writer’s writer” is code for “unread, underappreciated, talented, and unknown.” In his lifetime, James Salter (“A Sport and a Pastime”) was known as a writer’s writer, as was the since re-appreciated John Williams (“Stoner”).
Apparently there is yet another level of abstracted obscurity, a category occupied by the legendary (and unread by me) Henry Green: “the writer’s writer’s writer,” as Terry Southern called him. Being a W3 is no walk in the park. The final two decades of Green’s life were “a sad story of increasing reclusiveness, alcoholism, and melancholia,” according to The New York Review of Books.
Surely other professions celebrate this unenviable category, the small-bore successnik admired by more successful successniks? Yes, indeed.
About 45 years ago, I remember my father calling Georges Braque a “painter’s painter,” a remark that seems to have stuck with me. Painter’s painters are pretty thick on the ground, once you fire up the proverbial search engines: Daniel Brustlein, Ed Moses, Frank Auerbach; the list is endless.
It turns out the world is full of “chef’s chefs.” In 2005, “60 Minutes” reported, “The man who may be America’s most famous chef — the chef’s chef — is mild-mannered, even shy. The recipes in his cookbook are so demanding that he actually warns readers not to try them at home.” That was Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, and now many other restaurants, a household name in every household but mine.
Chef’s chefs are as plentiful as bogus “salts” — Pink Himalayan, Grey Guerande, these sound more like designer dogs than spices to me — adorning high-end retailers’ shelves. There is Jamie Bissonette of Little Donkey; Charles Draghi of Bay Village’s Erbaluce, and the late Jean-Louis Palladin (“While Mr. Palladin never achieved the public profile of contemporaries like Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme, he was a chef’s chef. . . .”)
The Chicago Tribune once wrote that Alderman Allan Streeter, who reached a plea agreement on a bribery charge, “fairly boasted that he was the crook’s crook.” In Chicago, that means something. The Tribune recently printed a list of 33 Chicago aldermen who pleaded guilty to, or were convicted of, crimes, since 1972.
That is a record that even our much-indicted Speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives can’t hope to match.
I came across a lovely salute to a Fleet Street hack, who, upon receiving a fan letter calling him “the greatest journalist of his generation,” sent a one word reply: “Bull****.”
“He was the columnist’s columnist, the journalist’s journalist, the writer’s writer — we all bowed down before him,” Michael Parkinson wrote in The Daily Telegraph. The journalist’s name was Keith Waterhouse, and it’s OK if you’ve never heard of him.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.