Saturday, September 21, 2013

Elmore Leonard

I took this photo earlier this month while attending Elmore Leonard's funeral.
This is the tennis court in the backyard of his home.  The net is down.  The court is covered in black mold.  It seems like a fitting image for the way I felt during my couple of days in Detroit.

The funeral itself took place at the Holy Name Catholic church that Elmore attended most of his life.  A beautiful and moving ceremony.  Here's the front and back of the program.  And two photos which I think capture wonderfully two of the sides of Elmore.  Serious, thoughtful, wise.  And twinkling with humor.

I was staying in a Holiday Inn not far from the funeral home in Troy, Michigan, about 15 miles from Detroit itself.  My trusty GPS had steered me from the beautiful new airport (this city is bankrupt?) to my hotel and then it had successfully located the funeral home the afternoon I arrived.

At the funeral home visitation, I spoke with Dutch's family and with Greg Sutter, a wonderful man, a friend, and Dutch's researcher for many years.  The casket was open, a fact I had not fully prepared myself for.  But the guy looked good, even dead, a little more serious than in the photo just above (taken by his good friend Mike Lupica, a terrific guy).  He didn't have his usual twinkle, but who would under those circumstances.

The next day was the funeral service.  I punched in the address and left the motel very early just in case. 630 Harmon Street.  I drove south on the interstate for about twenty minutes, back into the city of Detroit and exited, as instructed by my British speaking GPS lady, on Caniff Street.  Well, the potholes got deeper every block I went and the neighborhood got grimmer.

I told myself, well, Dutch just hung in there with his childhood church long after the neighborhood went bad.  Just like him not to be distressed by such a scary area.  Then the street seemed to narrow, guys in baggy clothes started staring at me, started drifting toward my car, started blocking the way, and I said, well, maybe not.

And U-turned and headed back to the interstate.  Well, the church was on 630 Harmon Street after all, but that Harmon Street was in Birmingham not Detroit, as I had wrongly told my GPS.

Birmingham is to Detroit as Coral Gables is to Overtown.  A beautiful, graceful town well north of the potholes and crack houses.

It felt like a moment from one of Dutch's novels.  In fact, Caniff Street figured prominently in City Primeval, a novel I just finished re-reading.  Two people were gunned down there.


The service was wonderful.  His sons, Peter and Bill spoke humorously and touchingly about their dad.  The man was a great dad, just as I would've imagined.  The granddaughters sang.  A violinist played a beautiful rendition of "A Little Help From My Friends."  But several of us commented afterwards that the most surprising and most emotional moment came at the end of the service when an officer from the United States Navy led two of his associates through the Military Honors drill.  Taps was played, the flag was folded, Dutch's military service was described.  Another from the greatest generation fades from view.

Dutch was incredibly generous to me.  He entered my life before my first novel was published and he figured prominently throughout my literary career, assisting me in ways that were above and beyond the call.  His novels, of course, were also deeply influential on shaping my own style, perhaps too much so at the beginning of my career, a fact he noted once with a wry wink.  

I've had a couple of literary fathers.  Dutch was one.  

I hope someone cleans the black mold off that tennis court soon and strings up the net.

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