The man who wrote the century

At home with Eddie Ellis, the greatest diarist of all time

Published December 2, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Walking up the steps to the home of the world's most prolific diarist, I feel a little self-conscious. Small things -- the spot of mustard on my shirt, the entire shirt, everything I chose to wear that day -- begin to feel like awful mistakes. I'm going to be his material for the day. No matter what happens during my visit, I know I will literally go down in history.

The Guinness Book of World Records has declared the diary of Edward Robb Ellis to be the largest ever. He has kept his diary for 70 years, filling 42,000 pages with 21 million words. The 87-year-old Ellis has blown away a field of the greatest diarists ever -- Andri Gide, Kafu Nagai, Thomas Mann, even Samuel Pepys, whose output of 1.25 million words in nine years (1660-69) looks like a bad case of writer's block by comparison. (By way of context: Since an average novel runs about 100,000 words, Ellis' feat is akin to writing 210 novels -- around the combined output of Dickens, Kipling and Balzac, with the works of Proust, Joyce Carol Oates and portions of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" tossed in for good measure.)

A lifelong newspaperman, Ellis lives in a four-room brownstone apartment on a leafy street in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. Fifteen thousand books are shelved floor to ceiling, each one annotated with exclamation marks, underlined in red marker and stuffed with news clippings. There are scores of encyclopedias, the complete works of Carl Jung and sections devoted to mysticism and New York City.

Ellis turns on a desk lamp to see me better and politely offers coffee, juice, doughnuts. I accept the offer and absorb the delightful disarray of heavy Victorian furniture, caricatures drawn by Ellis, framed articles about his diary and a bust of his late wife, Ruth, the only woman he ever truly loved. Notes drift about on the dusty floor, and I glimpse volumes of his famous diary that sit, enticingly, in an adjoining room.

Ellis looks like a Bohemian Santa Claus, with a long white beard, red felt beret, green pocket T-shirt and cowboy boots. He is full of Welsh charm, eyes twinkling behind the thick dark rims of his glasses. But before I can ask him a single question, Ellis has asked me three of his own. Soon I'm happily describing my life and times. Emphysema bothers him, but he's too busy taking down the details of my life to get hung up on his lungs. The next morning, Ellis will spin the notes into a diary entry on his Hermes manual typewriter, and I will become part of the longest story ever told.

Finally, we get around to him. What led him to spend his life writing such a humongous thing? "It's a compulsion," he says. "I've just tried to observe what the hell happened. The motivating force in my life is curiosity. I've always been curious, and I don't know why." He thinks his paternal grandfather, a bank owner who left behind many books, may have something to do with it.

Ellis says he has sought the truth by telling the truth, even when he was flunking out of journalism school (he returned to earn his degree from the University of Missouri in 1934), drinking and smoking too much and chasing skirts until he feared he would become a "tin can Casanova" -- all of which he wrote about in "A Diary of the Century: Tales from America's Greatest Diarist." At 600 pages, the hardcover book (it was recently released in paperback) represents a mere 1 percent of what Ellis has written during eight reporting jobs, two marriages, 13 presidencies and lots of hangovers. "Writing that book was like undressing in public," Ellis says. He's been floored by the reaction -- letters, phone calls and visitors from South Africa to Montana and lots of press. Ellis attributes the response to one fact: "It's an honest book in a dishonest age."

He began his diary in 1927, trying to liven up a dull winter in his hometown of Kewanee, Ill. Sixteen-year-old Ellis challenged two friends to a contest: Who could keep a diary the longest? Lousy gamble for them, as it turned out. One quit after two weeks, the other after three months. Ellis kept his diary going through a 35-year career as a reporter in Kewanee, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Peoria, Chicago and New York, and has never stopped since.

Ellis' diaries are filled with meticulously recorded encounters with the famous and notorious, thanks to some choice assignments and a knack for being in interesting places at the right time. As a young reporter in Peoria during World War II, Ellis inadvertently used Eleanor Roosevelt to deliver a message to a friend in Washington, D.C. In Chicago, he interviewed Thomas Mann on Germany in the wake of the Nazi defeat and watched Mae West ogle Mr. America backstage. In New York, he caught Grace Kelly in her building's lobby on the morning after her engagement to Prince Rainier and tagged along on Harry Truman's daily walks.

Paging through Time/Life's "80 Great People of the 20th Century," Ellis figures he saw or met 25 of them, including Henry Ford ("he had bad breath and blue hair"), Elvis Presley, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Sanger and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He described Sinclair Lewis as "a very ugly man" who had "a belly like a basketball" and a "face like a skull." He visited E.E. Cummings, who told him "I always sign my name in capitals. This business of lowercase for my signature -- people just made it up." Ellis crooned "Always" to Irving Berlin after drinking a glass or two of scotch with the composer in his Manhattan office.

And Ellis didn't just record his life in his diaries, he literally crammed them full of its artifacts: every letter he ever received and carbons of those he wrote; ticket stubs and invitations; newspaper clippings, photos and caricatures. It occurs to me that "compulsive" might be putting it mildly.

But Ellis' compulsion has resulted in what Gene Gressley, director emeritus of the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming, which housed the diaries in the 1980s, called "one of the more important 20th century historical documents." Marvin J. Taylor, director of Fales Library at New York University, where Ellis' diaries will be preserved after his death, says, "What you have with Eddie Ellis is a diary kept for a very long time which is extremely well written. Eddie is someone who witnessed many of the great movements of the 20th century. He is erudite, and as a journalist, Eddie is more concerned about words than the average writer."

Words failed Ellis only once, when Ruth died at age 56 of a heart attack. After 17 days, and afraid he might never write again, Ellis "took a deep breath, sat down at my typewriter, began pounding the keys and in one stressful afternoon told the story of my wife's death. Then I collapsed. I had written without any thought of style. It felt like slapping raw hunks of beef on a butcher's block." He produced nine gut-wrenching pages of prose.

"Her legs were doubled up in pain, but I don't think she was conscious," reads the entry, dated Aug. 4, 1965. "I ran down a corridor and bit my wrist to keep from screaming. I felt the hair in my mouth. I wanted my wife and I wanted her alive."

Grief matured Ellis. In later years he began an inward odyssey, studying mysticism and smoking marijuana. He authored award-winning historical narratives on New York City, the Depression and the home front during World War I. At 70, he had an affair with a woman half his age. At 80, he saw a woman with beautiful legs and wished he were 40. "Staring at her legs, mesmerized by them, I knew she knew she has beautiful legs and likes to show them," Ellis wrote on Aug. 29, 1990. "I choked down a tortilla and a Coke and reflected that this sadness comes to all men in all places when age diminishes them. So in a Mexican restaurant on Hudson Street in Greenwich Village on a sparkling day in August, a tiny tragedy was played out by a man too old to make out."

The longest entry is 14 pages on Dec. 28, 1942, the day his daughter Sandra was born. The shortest? "Hung over."

Ellis has few regrets about his life. He is saddened that a divorce from his first wife prevented him from raising his daughter. He wishes he had become a psychotherapist. He likes to envision how he would start a group therapy session: "Everyone would stand up, wave their hands in the air, and shout, 'I AM WRONG!'" He laughs.

Now Ellis is content to watch the world from his apartment. Nevertheless, he still wants to know: What's it like to date in the age of AIDS? Do they issue cards with your HIV status? "Really?" He's a pessimist about the future, he says. He remembers what historian Will Durant said he learned from writing the 11-volume "History of Civilization": "Things were bad. Things are bad. Things will be bad."

Ellis says the chief characteristic of the 20th century is the acceleration of time -- "the speed of change speeds up." He believes that Josef Stalin was the most powerful man who ever lived; that the most important issue in the United States today is race -- "We are going to have a big explosion some day if it goes unresolved." He thinks the U.S. reached its peak in the 1950s after conquering Hitler and that the quality of life has declined since. He cites the invention of psychiatry, television and the atomic bomb as defining the century.

Ellis is at work on Volume 2 of his book, editing the old diary pages with a red marker. He rests easier since he willed his diary to NYU. Sometimes, he says, he sits back and thinks, "It's been quite a ride, Ellis." Death? "Death," he says, "is like a ship emerging from the fog."

Does Ellis think he is an extraordinary person? He leans back in his chair and considers this.

"I am an ordinary man," he says, "who has done one extraordinary thing."

By Laura Johnston

Laura Johnston is a writer who lives in Chicago.

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