Monday, August 13, 2018

BURT BRITTON R.I.P.

Burt Britton was a good friend of mine. I'm not posting his photo here because the only one I could find online isn't great, and because he was a very private guy in his last several decades, and because his true and best self-portrait is the book he produced, called SELF-PORTRAIT, which changed his life.

Burt was an ex-marine and an actor before he became a fixture at The Strand bookstore in lower Manhattan in the 1970s when I was raising my oldest boy on my own there and scuffling to get by. One of the ways I paid the bills was writing book reviews for papers like The Village Voice and The Washington Post. As a result, a lot of authors and poets sent me their books or their publishers did. I'd sell bags of these books to the many booksellers in the book district which The Strand was the heart of.

I'd usually stick one rare book in each bag to entice the booksellers who'd buy the bag as though they hadn't noticed that one book was actually worth something. Burt's station was in the basement among the rare books. When I approached the counter one day in 1975 with my five-year-old son, Miles, Burt said, "You're the poet Michael Lally," which surprised me since I wasn't famous.

He disappeared in some book stacks and came back with copies of the several books of mine that existed then, to sign for him. After I did, he pulled out a bound sketch book and opened it to a blank page and asked me to make a self-portrait. I gave Flynn the pen and he drew a picture of himself (in patched jeans) writing his name on the figure's shirt, then I sketched a thought bubble coming from the figure's mind and put a little sketch of my bespectacled face inside it.

When we were done, Burt flipped through the sketch book showing me self-portraits by famous writers—e.g. Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, and Kurt Vonnegut etc.—and unfamous ones like me. It turned out everyone in publishing knew of Burt's sketchbooks full of similar self-portraits and wanted to publish a collection of them. But they all wanted to do just the famous ones, and Burt refused to let anyone publish them unless they included everyone.

Eventually Random House agreed to his terms and the book came out in 1976. It was an instant success and garnered a full blast of media attention (meaning newspapers and network and local television) turning Burt into a star. He was married to the late, model-beautiful Corby (before there were model opportunities for stunning African-American women, their wedding celebration if I remember correctly in their apartment on a New Years Eve), but the publicity created challenges as women came out of the woodwork to entice this manly ex-marine book loving bright and ruggedly handsome newborn celebrity, and they divorced.

One story he shared was about the late Margaret Trudeau, the ex-(I think at the time) wife of the Canadian Prime Minister, and yes, mother of the current Canadian Prime Minister. She came to New York and called Burt from her hotel room relentlessly until he went and spent some time with her there.

He also was approached by a book lover who thought his newfound fame could help make a success of a new bookstore they opened near the old Whitney Museum on upper Madison Avenue. It was called Books & Company and one of their first window displays included all my books at that time (it was before smart phones and I didn't own a camera and never thought to ask anyone to take a photo so...).

Burt was now in a position to order any books he wanted, to sell in the store, but he loved too many books and before long the upstairs office spaces were crowded with boxes of unopened books, as was eventually the room where readings were given (I did a few there), and all the profits were being plowed back into Burt's obsession, so his partner bought him out.

As fame faded and the bookstore everyone thought of as his wasn't his anymore, he retreated into almost the life of a hermit (though eventually fortunately he and Corby got back together before she passed a few years ago). In 1982 I moved to L.A. with Mies and my oldest child, Caitlin, but when in New York (and after moving back East in '99) our mutual friend the late poet Ray DiPalma would call Burt and the three of us would sit in the living room of Ray's apartment and talk books and acting (Ray had done some theater acting too, like Burt) and share stories about writers and poets and book people and actors we'd known.

We did that the last time not too many years ago, and afterward Burt walked me to the subway and hugged me goodbye. He had a gray beard by then and wore dark glasses and a knit cap and a seemingly too large overcoat and in general looked like an anonymous vagabond. But Burt was always uniquely iconic, so even incognito you couldn't miss the power of his presence. He was someone no one who met him at any point in his life ever forgot. Including me. And I never will.

[here's a link to his NY Times obit]

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