Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Friendship and Barnaby Conrad

 Barnaby Conrad makes story of his friendships and friendships of his stories, sharing each with the adventurous éclat of a schoolboy trading sandwiches at lunch.

He has told a memorable range of stories, engaged an even more memorable spectrum of friendships.  If you know him for any time at all, he'll have shared his stories and his friendships with you to the point where you feel the stories happened to you and the friends were yours all along.

Two of his longest and  deepest friendships are so vivid with him that you tend to think of these remarkable individuals by their first names rather than the charismatic San Francisco newspaper columnist, Herb Caen (1916-97)or the electrifying bullfighter nicknamed "El Ciclon," Carlos Arruza (1920--66).  Herb and Carlitos.  Conrad has made them your pals.

You are more respectful of one of his first employers, the Nobel laureate, Sinclair Lewis, whom you tend to refer to as he does, Mister Lewis.  Same holds for one of his mentors in the bull ring, Juan Belmonte, whom he calls Don Juan.  The artist Norman Rockwell remains Mister Rockwell; his literary mentor at Yale, William Lyon Phelps, the scholar and critic from Conrad's New Haven days is still Professor Phelps.

When the San Francisco attorney, Melvin Belli, often referred to as 'the king of torts," discovered you knew Conrad, he invited you to a fine lunch at Scandia, hopeful of discovering "What does he say about me?"  When Belli found out that what Conrad said was complimentary, he let you pay the bill.

Thus far, you have also had "friendships" with Stewart Granger, Zsa Zsa Gabor (Darling.  I'm so relieved to hear you say Barnaby was gored in Madrid.  I thought you said he was bored."), Sterling Hayden, Howard Duff, his pal from Yale John Ireland, Sandy Vanocer, Anne Francis, William Styron, Richard Widmark, William F. Buckley, Jr. and his son, Chris; Gore Vidal, Thomas McGuane, and Tom Brokaw.  From Conrad, you know enough about Mr. Steinbeck to think of him as well, but always as Mister Steinbeck.  Because of Conrad, you were even hired to edit an unwieldy memoir from the legendary Arthur Jacob Arshawsky, also known as Artie Shaw, but that is another, less friend-oriented story.

 Filled with the ebullience of their human subjects as Conrad's portraits are, there is an even more compelling sense of presence and anima in his merest sketches of animals, which range from scribbled sketches as a way of autographing one of his books, acrylic mock-ups of fishing and nature scenes, illustrations of dogs and cats, not to forget sculpture and tromp l'oeils so convincing, the viewer is tempted to pick them up or pet them.  A sculpting of a cat in the front yard seems about to clamber over a fence, whereupon to scoot to freedom.  A wooden portrayal of a cat near the mailbox crouches, poised to spring at an unsuspecting bird.

Of course his portraits of humans telegraphs his fondness for the species, emphasizing some small, remarkable feature about each in addition to the overall sense of his having captured the subject in motion.  But his animals vibrate with some electric sense of dignity resident in each one, almost as though Conrad could see beyond what most of us see in animals.

He has had an outrageous procession of animal friends, including a python named Porfirio, a fox, numerous birds, a succession of dogs and cats.  Birds, particularly ones with the abilities of speech, seem to have held a special place in his heart.  

One African Gray named Madison had the mischievous habit of being able to duplicate Mary Conrad's voice, a talent Madison seemed to relish by calling in a convincing approximation of Mary, "Barney, pick up the phone."  Other times, Madison was won't to call out, "Barney, I'm home.  Come help me with the groceries."  This often led to conflicts when the real Mary arrived and called out, "Barney, I'm home.  Come help me with the groceries."  Sometimes, when he tells the story, his eyes twinkle.

Who can say for certain?  Perhaps not even Conrad, himself.  The long, ongoing procession of birds and animals into his various homes could be a way of trying to play some trick on Reality.  "Every story about an animal is ultimately a sad story,"  he has observed.

After a moment's reflection, he brightens.  "But that doesn't mean we should stop having them in our life."


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