Au­thor’s work resur­faced af­ter years of ne­glect


The Washington Post Sunday - - OBIT­U­AR­IES - BY HIL­LEL ITALIE

Paula Fox, a prizewin­ning au­thor who cre­ated high art out of imag­ined chaos in such nov­els as “Poor Ge­orge” and “Des­per­ate Char­ac­ters” and out of the real-life up­heavals in her me­moir “Bor­rowed Fin­ery,” died March 1 at a hospi­tal in Brook­lyn. She was 93.

The death was con­firmed by a daugh­ter, Linda Car­roll. The cause was not dis­closed.

Aban­doned as a girl by her par­ents, a sin­gle mother be­fore age 20, Ms. Fox used finely crafted prose to write again and again about breakdown and dis­rup­tion, what hap­pens un­der the “sur­face of things.”

In “Poor Ge­orge,” her 1967 de­but novel, Ms. Fox told of a bored school­teacher and the teen va­grant who up­ends his life. “Des­per­ate Char­ac­ters” (1970), her most highly re­garded work of fic­tion, is a por­trait of New York City’s civic and do­mes­tic de­cline in the 1960s, a plague sym­bol­ized by the bite of a stray cat.

“It seems to me that in life, be­hind all these names and things and peo­ple and forces, there’s a dark en­ergy,” Ms. Fox told the As­so­ci­ated Press in 2011.

Her work was out of print for years, but she en­joyed a late-life re­vival thanks to the ad­mi­ra­tion of such younger au­thors as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wal­lace and Jonathan Lethem. She lived for decades in Brook­lyn and was a rev­ered fig­ure in the New York City bor­ough’s thriv­ing lit­er­ary com­mu­nity.

Ms. Fox wrote more than a dozen chil­dren’s books, in­clud­ing “The Slave Dancer,” win­ner of the New­bery Medal in 1974. Her other books in­cluded the nov­els “A Ser­vant’s Tale” (1984), “The Western Coast” (1972) and a 2005 me­moir about liv­ing in Europe af­ter World War II, “The Cold­est Win­ter.” “Bor­rowed Fin­ery,” her 2001 me­moir, was nom­i­nated for the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle award.

She might have writ­ten more nov­els, but a head in­jury suf­fered in a mug­ging in Jerusalem in the 1990s left her un­able to write long fic­tion. She in­stead be­gan work­ing on mem­oirs and shorter pieces.

Paula Fox born April 22, 1923, in New York City. Both of her par­ents were screen­writ­ers.

She re­mem­bered her father, Paul Fox, as a drunk­ard given to “in­ter­minable, stum­bling de­scrip­tions of the ways in which he and fel­low writ­ers tried to elude do­mes­tic­ity.” She de­scribed her mother, Elsie de Sola Fox, as a “so­ciopath” who kicked her out of the house as a young girl.

While grow­ing up, Ms. Fox lived ev­ery­where from a plan­ta­tion in Cuba to a board­ing school in Montreal. She stud­ied pi­ano at the Juil­liard School in New York.

“My life was in­co­her­ent to me,” she wrote in “Bor­rowed Fin­ery.” “I felt it quiv­er­ing, spit­ting out bro­ken teeth.”

Liv­ing in Hol­ly­wood in the 1930s and ’40s, she danced with John Wayne and en­coun­tered John Bar­ry­more, “yel­low­ing with age like the ivory keys of a very old pi­ano.” Mar­lon Brando was a friend.

Ms. Fox had a brief mar­riage as a teenager. At 19, she gave up a daugh­ter, Car­roll, for adop­tion. Car­roll is the mother of singer Court­ney Love.

A de­voted reader since child­hood, Ms. Fox did not pub­lish a book un­til she was past 40. She worked for years as a teacher and as a tu­tor for trou­bled chil­dren and was mar­ried briefly for a sec­ond time, to Richard Siger­son, with whom she had two sons.

She set­tled down with her third hus­band, trans­la­tor and Com­men­tary ed­i­tor Martin Green­berg, whom she met af­ter he had re­jected a story she sub­mit­ted for the magazine. Green­berg’s brother, Cle­ment Green­berg, was among the 20th cen­tury’s most in­flu­en­tial art crit­ics.

In “The Cold­est Win­ter,” Ms. Fox wrote that liv­ing abroad had lib­er­ated her mind, “show­ing me some­thing other than my­self.” Her early fic­tion in­cluded the sto­ries “Lord Ran­dall” and “The Liv­ing,” nar­rated in a col­lo­quial style by black char­ac­ters and pub­lished in the mid-1960s by Ne­gro Digest. In “The Slave Dancer,” a young boy is cap­tured and forced onto a slave ship.

“I’ve never been a slave. I’ve never been black. I was never on a ship,” Ms. Fox told the AP. “But I have a cer­tain nar­row un­der­stand­ing of cer­tain kinds of char­ac­ters, and of evil and kind­ness and good­ness and ten­der­ness.”

By the 1990s, her work was for­got­ten by all but her most de­ter­mined ad­mir­ers — one of whom was Franzen. The fu­ture au­thor of “Free­dom” and “The Cor­rec­tions” came upon “Des­per­ate Char­ac­ters” while at the Yaddo writ­ers colony in 1991. In a Harper’s magazine es­say about Amer­i­can fic­tion, he called “Des­per­ate Char­ac­ters” an over­looked mas­ter­piece.

Au­thor Tom Bis­sell, then a pa­per­back ed­i­tor at W.W. Nor­ton, read the es­say and won­dered why he hadn’t heard of the novel. He looked in stores, with­out luck, and fi­nally got in touch with Ms. Fox, who sent him one of her copies. Nor­ton has since reis­sued all of her adult nov­els, with in­tro­duc­tory es­says by Franzen and oth­ers.

“I’d never heard of Paula Fox, ex­cept as an au­thor of chil­dren’s books, be­fore an ed­i­tor pushed ‘Des­per­ate Char­ac­ters’ at me three years ago,” Lethem wrote in his in­tro­duc­tion to “Poor Ge­orge,” re­pub­lished in 2001. “Three years later she’s a fa­vorite, and an in­flu­ence on my own work.”


Au­thor Paula Fox in New York in 2011. She drew on real-life tur­moil to write sto­ries of break­downs and dis­rup­tions.

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