Who was your Fletcher? I’m listening to Charlie Parker and thinking about #Whiplash. You must see it.

I bet we have all had a Fletcher, someone who wanted the best from us.

Or is it someone who wanted the best and got it in the worst way?

Or is it someone who had absolutely no idea what our best was….and was just a sadistic bastard?

I have had a few Fletchers in my life.  Today I woke up thinking about brilliant, bossy, impossible Lola Szladits, head of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.  She wanted to be my mentor — and I loved and admired her.  In between my PhD graduate student years in English literature, I worked at the Berg, mostly fetching precious handwritten materials and occasionally turning the pages of The Wasteland manuscript and the Virginia Woolf diaries wearing white gloves (“Hello, I’m Ann, I’ll be your Ezra Pound server today……).  Lola wanted me to go to library school and then work side by side with her, whispering that maybe someday becoming her successor.

But every day, when I went inside that gorgeous, windowless room and archive, I felt two parts exhilarated, one part claustrophobic.  The sound of the heavy door shutting slowly behind me felt like the lid of a tomb fitting into place.  Never mind that I was locked inside with Dickens, Joseph Conrad, Auden, Whitman, Hawthorne, the Brontes.  I could not imagine becoming Lola.

During my second summer, the Berg received the gift of a wonderful new collection, and it was my job to do the initial cataloguing.  I performed the work diligently, and had my first taste of that back door of history that opens when you have access to letters, journals, even receipts from book purchases.  It was the sleuthing that would later inspire me to be a biographer.  I was already pretty sure that I was headed for a career outside of traditional literary scholarship.

So I asked Lola if I could meet our illustrious donor, learn more about the real life behind this exhilarating collection?

She went berserk, accused me of putting myself ahead of the institution, I was all ego, I had no integrity, certainly no future with her.  Gone was my mentor, and in her place, a loud, raging, Hungarian demon.

And that was the end of my career as the future curator of the Berg.  I already knew it was not for me, but I could not have predicted the explosion that would destroy what had been a beautiful relationship.  I was devastated.  Somewhere, my mother still has the letter that Lola wrote about me, after my first summer at the Berg, when I was still her darling.

I went to Lola’s memorial service at the Library, years later.  I was struck by a life lived in service to an institution, inspiring, uncompromising.  Of course, I stopped by the Berg and heard that door hissing closed with the same finality.  Was Lola truly aghast at what was at its worst, a youthful indiscretion; at best, an early instinct for networking?  Or was it that she knew my best — and when our versions no longer aligned, I was finished.  Perhaps she could have explained that to me.

Fletchers don’t explain.

Comments

  1. So interesting—and so chilling. A stark example of what almost inevitably happens in mentor/protege relationships, through no fault of the (eager or reluctant) protege—through the protege’s just living her life and being herself. What you did was normal, not a youthful indiscretion or any other kind of indiscretion. Your interest in the donor showed curiosity and enterprise—qualities that could have been very useful to the Berg. L.S. (whom I thought about just now, and googled, to find out if and when she died) sniffed what she thought was competition, or the early stirrings of competition, I’m guessing. I’m sure you know all this now, but ouch, I feel for your younger self.

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