Thirteen Minutes with Paula Fox

She had written “thirty-four books, two memoirs and six novels,” by the time she was recommended to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she says.

“A substantial amount of work, and even then it took several people to recommend me, Shirley Hazzard and William Weaver... “

I start to explain that my mother asking her to read an advance copy of my new book, to perhaps recommend me to the Academy, it is a mother’s pipe dream...

“Let me finish,” she says, from her apartment in Brooklyn, not far from where I grew up, and to where my mother, a casual friend of Fox’s, has had me mail the book and the companion collection of photographs taken by my daughter. I am embarrassed to be imposing on Fox, whose work I have admired for decades, and yet she has asked my mother that I phone her.

“I want to apologize, my ears are not what they were,” she says. “And I want to thank you for sending these lovely books, I can see the photographs, I can see a woman frying eggs. But it is very difficult for me to read. I get books and I’ve had to beg off. But I will get to them, to what I am sure are your lovely stories.”

She tells me her 90th birthday is April 22, less than a month away. This is the only time Fox and I will speak, I am sure, and I want it to be conversation, not ceremony. I sense Fox does too. She tells me she will be receiving the Hadada Award from the Paris Review on April 6, that she is “the eighth writer to get it," that others include Norman Mailer, Williams Styron, Philip Roth, John Berryman and Joan Didion. I ask her how this feels.

“It feels good,” she says, to be recognized. “But it’s only for a short time. Time swallows us all.”

We speak about her granddaughter in Portland, where I currently live; about her daughter in Corvallis, other grandchildren, great-grandchildren.

At 90, "not very much can get done," she says. "Our speaking for the day is, well, that’s probably about the big point, and you get an A. An A+.”

I take the phone to my bookshelf. I tell Paula Fox that I am looking at The Coldest Winter and Borrowed Finery, that they have a place of prominence, and I thank her for her work; it’s meant a great deal to me. She says I am “lovely and kind” to tell her that.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am I cannot add,” she says, meaning, get me comments in time for publication and promotion and ads, “which are very, very important.” She tells me how fond she was of my late stepfather, the caricaturist David Levine.

“We were taxi buddies, we would ride home from the Academy together,” she says. “I liked him very much, and his work. He even drew me once for the New York Review.”

Does she still have it?

“Yes, somewhere downstairs,” she says. “I don’t keep everything but I think I kept the issue.”

I tell her I adored David, he was so funny and the best person to have breakfast with, a comment that makes her laugh.

“That’s the perfect thing to say about someone,” she says. “And you can’t say that about everybody. There are people I love that I would not want to have breakfast with.”

Fox repeats how sorry she is she will not be able to read my stories quickly, “but I am sure they are marvelous,” she says, and that she will; she will read them.

“But it will take may a few months, and then I will get you something, if I can, if I am still alive.” And she laughs again.

For Paula Fox, who died March 1, at age 93