E.L. Konigsburg passed away today. She was 83 years old and was best known as the author of ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’.
That book meant a lot to a lot of people and it meant a lot to me. It was first published in 1967. It in that I have something in common with the book. My mother first published me in January of that year. It is a striking thing to find you share dates in common with the art that shapes your life. Only John Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series had a bigger impact in shaping how I thought of myself and what I had in common with others and which others and how we might be different. And it turns out that the Great Brain was also first published in 1967. I don’t believe in that kind of numerology, but it seems to believe in me. It’s hard not to take it personally when one of your artistic heroes, Spalding Gray in my case, commits suicide on your birthday. So I hold on to my treasures without any skepticism for their magic.
Neither book shares much with the character of the times. They don’t much feel like books written during the Summer of Love. But they share something with the counter culture in their skepticism about authority. The counter culture developed a backward looking embrace of the Marx Brothers and WC Fields as timeless spoilers of authority. There’s a little Marx Brothers and Fields in the idea of running away from home to live in a museum. And that holding of authority at arms length is what they instilled in me. One wouldn’t want to hurt anyone, but neither should you pay too much attention to velvet ropes and security guards. It’s always more fun to be somewhere you’re not as long as your hearts in the right place.
And since 1967 I’ve spent more than my share of time in places where I wasn’t supposed to be, often at a price, never with regret. Not so long ago, I was on a tour of Mark Twain’s House with a friend and we were in Twain’s writing room / billiard room (a man who knew something about writing about runaways) on the top floor of the residence chatting with the executive director of the Twain Museum. I said that I could never do his job, because I’d be here, in this room drinking scotch and smoking cigars every night, reading, playing pool. He looked puzzled. It had never occurred to him. And that’s why he can do that job and I have a police record. Twain, of course would have approved, that’s still no way to run a museum.
Because of E.L. Konigsburg’s ‘From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ I’ve always believed that an art museum would make an excellent residence and that my filing system only needs to make sense to me. But what has really given my life the character it has is that I’ve never been able to shake the belief that it’s possible, in fact desirable, to live on the nickels and dimes, gleaned from a fountain, discarded by well wishers.
A few years ago, The New York Public Library issued a 90 second Newbury challenge for The Mixed Up Files. Here are some of my favorite entries and at least one that wasn’t an entry (just to be sure).