|Robert Stone, 1937-2015|
I cherish the memory of a weekend in March 2008, when I invited Stone to speak at Tulane as part of the Mellon Lecture Series. You can see an online video of Bob Stone's interview, in which he answers questions about his writing and does a reading from Hall of Mirrors. What you can't see online is the drama that took place after a ghost stole his meds at the Columns Hotel.
Here's what happened. As Tulane's visiting Mellon Professor in 2007-2008, I was responsible for inviting speakers and organizing their events. Bob Stone was one of my first choices. I contacted him by phone and he was eager to come to New Orleans, where he had spent some happy times in his younger years. I asked if he wanted to stay in a French Quarter hotel, perhaps near the St. Louis Street apartment where he had lived in the 60s. No, he said, he'd rather stay in some "interesting" place outside the noisy quarter. I immediately thought of the Columns Hotel, a stately and picturesque old mansion on St. Charles Avenue. That seemed fine with him.
What he didn't tell me was that he had an advanced case of emphysema. He also didn't say that he depended on a regular intake of Valium to calm his nerves. When we arrived at the Columns, we found that his room was on the third floor. The hotel had no elevator, so we trudged up the ornate wooden staircase, step by wheezing step, with me carrying his bag and Bob pulling himself up by the railing. He was tired from his trip and decided to turn in for the night.
When I arrived at the hotel to have breakfast with him the next morning, he was in a terrible state. While he was taking a shower in his room, he said, someone had stolen his shaving kit along with his meds. The prospect of spending two days without Valium was causing him to panic. He was furious and sputtered vague threats at the hotel desk clerk if they didn't "cough up" his shaving kit. The clerk assured him that no one had been in his room that morning, but that wasn't good enough. Bob immediately checked out of the hotel and demanded that a porter bring his bag down.
A veteran waiter at the Columns, meanwhile, pulled me aside and said, "It's the ghosts." What ghosts? "Don't you know the Columns is famous for its ghosts? They're children." How did he know, had he seen them himself? "No, no one sees them. But they play childish pranks, they hide stuff, and sometimes they push people down the stairs. When they touch you, you can feel that they have small hands. Children's hands." Had he been touched by them? "Many times."
I decided not to tell Bob about the ghosts. In his agitated state, the story wouldn't sit well. Instead, I focused on practical matters: moving him across the street to the Best Western, and procuring some Valium so he could function during the rest of his visit.
I don't take Valium so I called my cousin's husband for suggestions. Ray doesn't take Valium either but he knows a lot of people and, sure enough, one of his best buddies from college had a stash. It also happened that Ray and his pal Charlie were huge Robert Stone fans. Ray told me to bring Stone over to Charlie's house near the Fairgrounds and they'd fix him up.
Stone was somewhat heartened by the news that help was in the offing, but still in a sour mood when I pulled up in Charlie's driveway. When Ray and Charlie answered the door, giddy at the prospect of meeting their hero, I whispered to them, "Just play it cool. I don't think he's in a real chatty mood." Bob pulled up behind me, breathing hard. As soon as I made the introductions, Ray and Charlie started quoting their favorite bits of dialogue from Hall of Mirrors. Bob did not seem amused, but perked up when Charlie produced a handful of blue pills. He immediately downed one (or more?) with a glass of water and, after a moment, relaxed enough to carry on a brief but civil conversation.
|Robert Stone speaking at Tulane's Rogers Memorial Chapel|
Next stop was Walgreen's for toothpaste and toilet articles, then on to Tulane, where Bob was a guest speaker at Joel Dinerstein's seminar on "The Birth of the Cool." He was in great shape by that time and enthralled the students with stories about his adventures with Neal Cassady and the other passengers on Ken Kesey's psychedelic bus tour. That afternoon, I hosted a public interview and reading, which was well attended (Ray and Charlie were on the front row) and well received. That night, Bob was guest of honor at a dinner with members of the Tulane English department, held in a private room at Ralph's on the Park.
When I drove him to the airport the next morning, he was an a good mood. He told me about a false sexual harassment accusation made against him, and later retracted, by a hysterical student at Yale, an incident that he would use as the basis for his last novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl. He said he'd had a great time in New Orleans and would be glad to return.
He did: in December 2013, my former Tulane colleague Tom Beller brought him back for a lecture and reading. I did not see him on that occasion, but I presume he kept a close watch on his shaving kit and avoided any ghostly encounters.