- August 26, 2021
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His name was Roy Bongartz. He was born in Rhode Island, but he grew up in Dayton, Ohio. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II, where, in his own words, he “got shot up.”
His formal education took place at Miami University of Ohio, as well as in Grenoble, Paris, and Biarritz, France, and in Mexico City. He lived a writerly existence.
Besides his wartime travels and experiences, he learned about life from jobs he held in newsrooms, classrooms, radio studios, and the cabs of big trucks. He also studied the human condition in the nighttime haunts, literary salons, and the wordsmiths’ watering holes of New York City.
You might call him a writer’s writer. Turning out good copy was his oxygen, his adrenaline, his nourishment, his down payment on every tomorrow.
In 1963 he returned to Rhode Island with his wife, and they soon were living in a weathered farmhouse in Foster. It was at the end of Spears Path, a dirt road that was marginally passable in summer, but a serious challenge to navigate in mud season.
Before long, dozens of friends and colleagues from New York and elsewhere were making the journey to visit with Roy and Cecelia, who everyone called Ce. Some stayed for days.
The farmhouse was his residence, but Roy lived in the world, traveling often. He was a multi-talented writer and author, a true professional. He wrote multiple articles for the New Yorker Magazine, Esquire, the New York Times, Argosy, Horizon, The Saturday Review, American Heritage, The Nation, and numerous other periodicals.
In addition, travel writing for dozens of publications offered steady work in a freelance career that seemed like a model for how to do it. He was often on the move to exotic destinations, one time heading for Poland, the next to Pennsylvania to chronicle the best place to get scrapple.
He also wrote short fiction for the New Yorker, a collection of which was published as a book called “Twelve Chases on West 99th Street.” He wrote at least seven books, and he wrote plays, too.
When he was at home in Foster, he worked on his manuscripts in an outbuilding he affectionately called “the skunk house,” likely named that because he and the striped interlopers fought territorial battles for the space. He also had a sleeping porch added to the farmhouse for the frequent guests he invited. He called that the bunkhouse.
One time, due to a chimney fire, the skunk house burned, and Bongartz braved the flames to rescue the project he was working on.
He seemed to relish the privacy guaranteed by his isolated house on the dirt road that ended in his backyard. Writers guard their time and seek ways to ward off distraction and interruption. However, they also often crave social interaction and the chance to trade thoughts and enjoy the stimulation of conversation and banter with spirited companions.
Hence, Roy held parties, gatherings that sometimes seemed almost epic. When the word went out, friends from New York would converge on Foster to mingle with Roy and Ce’s friends from Rhode Island.
One budding professional photographer from the Big Apple would arrive from there by bus. Rather than stay on the lonely, near-empty last run coach all the way to Providence, he would talk the driver into letting him off under a streetlight on a lonely stretch of Route 6 near Foster Center Road. There he would stand in his raincoat in the weather, shivering and waiting for Roy to pick him up. Others would arrive by various means.
Sometimes among them would be Gunther Stuhlmann, Roy’s agent, who was also the agent for Anais Nin.
Rust Hills, the editor of Esquire Magazine, came to the gatherings. A writer as well as an editor, he spoke of wanting to do a book on being good. “It’s not easy, you know,” he declared with emphasis.
Warren Miller, a New Yorker Magazine cartoonist and artist was a regular, as were Roy’s Foster neighbors, some of whom were Rhode Island School of Design faculty, reporters, carpenters, librarians, and so forth, a cross section of people he knew.
A genial host, Roy would walk among them, a large jug of good table wine somehow held with his thumb so he could pour drinks over the back of his hand. In his engaging way he would ask, “how about another snort.”
Fats Waller, one of Bongartz’s favorite musicians, played on the stereo. In the waning daylight if you looked out the windows at his yard you could see the skull of a longhorn steer sitting on a stone. Roy had brought it back from one of his trips.
Another window had been transformed into a frame for a painting of a scene on West 99th Street, a tribute to his book of stories, and a quiet joke for his regular visitors.
A young writer – OK – this one, was among them. Eventually, I found Roy willing to read some of my tentative forays into fiction.
His tutelage was practical and instructive and most valuable for its honesty. He didn’t like the first thing he read from me, and he said so, and he told me exactly why. If there is a better, more realistic and useful introduction to a life made from words, I have never found it.
(Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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