One hot summer night in San Francisco, roughly 10 years ago, I was sitting in a crowded Pacific Heights restaurant when Alice Adams walked in with a man. She was about 60 at the time, and she was wearing a skirt that fell an inch or so
above her knees and flat heels without stockings. She looked a little impatient, a little crabby and very elegant. I thought: Unbelievable. No stockings, and she's making it work. Part of her success was simply that she had preternaturally beautiful legs and a slim figure. But the rest of it was a blend of qualities I was to discover over the next 10 years of our acquaintance. Alice possessed intense elegance, grace and an organic mental integrity that was distinctly feminine in nature. These qualities were not only aesthetic; they were her way of being.
I had read Alice's stories some years before I met her. I particularly remember the title story of what is still my favorite collection of hers, "Beautiful Girl." It is about Ardis, a former snotty beauty queen turned deluded alcoholic old bag, courted by a long-ago admirer named Walpole Greene, a hopeless nerd turned hotshot editor. In a cool, sleight-of-hand flashback, we see them in college, where shy, homely Walpole nurses a quiet hatred for Ardis, who always seems to be at a glamorous epicenter, laughing her damn head off. One night, "in a stronger than usual mood of self-pity," he decides to stay up all night and go out to a strategic spot to watch the sun come up. But when he gets there he finds a party going on nearby. As he grimly sits alone on a bench, Ardis appears, festively drunk:
"You came out here to look at the sunrise?" she slurred, conversationally. "God,
Wopple, that's wonderful." Wunnerful.
Tears of hatred sprang to Walpole's eyes -- fortunately invisible. He
choked; in a minute he would hit her, very hard.
Unaware that she was in danger, Ardis got stiffly to her feet; she
bent awkwardly toward him and placed a cool, bourbon-tasting kiss on Walpole's
mouth. "I love you Wopple," Ardis said. "I truly and purely do." The sun came up.
He didn't hate her anymore -- of course he would not hit her. How could he hit a girl who had kissed him and spoken of love? And although after that night nothing between them changed overtly, he now watched her as a lover would. With love.
This tiny moment between Ardis and Walpole is piercing because it appears to be a moment of clarity and grace -- and then it is piercing for the opposite reason; although she has in effect changed Walpole's life, Ardis doesn't even remember the incident. In very plain, nearly bland language, Alice Adams evoked rude gaiety, privilege and the often sexualized hatred the undesirable can feel for the desired. Within the same very small moment, she evoked delicacy, tenderness and understanding. She used this moment to reveal a deep range of inner experience beheld with simple, mortal wonder -- and she did it in a hairpin turn.
The generous intelligence in this story is characteristic of how Alice lived her life. I met her in 1989, shortly after I published my first book. Our friendship was not close, but it was valuable to both of us. We met every few months, usually for dinner. We talked mostly about books; she was one of the most supportive writers I have ever met. She had a subtle quality that is surprisingly rare; even though she was opinionated and could be judgmental, she could also allow her friends to be as they were. We were very different, and I think she sometimes thought I was sort of a nut. But even if this was the case, I always felt free to absolutely be myself in her presence. By this I don't mean that she didn't express her disagreement with me. She certainly disagreed with my high opinion of "Crumb," the film about cartoonist R. Crumb. "He hated women," she said. "You can tell. Besides, I've heard he's really into anal sex, and I've also heard he's got a big dick. I don't have any use for him." I laughed at this, and she laughed too, and then she listened to me say why I liked the movie.
This is what I mean when I describe her as innately elegant and graceful: She had the sharpness, the elegance of perception, to see you as she saw Ardis and Walpole -- and what she saw may not have been a pretty sight as far as she was concerned. But she had the grace to stay in her own skin and not get caught up in whether you were thinking or living as she would. She could just let you be. She was able to tolerate a range of contradictory feelings that might suddenly find expression in a small, unlikely moment -- the sort of moment most people don't even notice.
I'll miss her.