The only writing by John Neary that I ever published was a letter he sent in 1964. I was starting an alternative journal, The Idler, and had tried to drum up some free submissions from writer friends. Neary, who passed away a few days ago, responded with this:
Dear Sir, toward Washington, lurching towards pundithood through those buff-colored badlands festooned with the skeletons of other ambitions named Ascoli, Buckley, et aI.
Permit me to cock my trusty old Royal rimfire and fire this dum-dum salute to The Idler. Here’s to no blanks or flesh wounds. Here’s to (bless his heart) old gouty S. Johnson, whose best quote is the one I carry next to my heart (in my wallet) : “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
New York Citv
Neary’s response didn’t surprise or bother me. It wasn’t because he was a reporter (and later an editor) for Life Magazine, it was because he was Neary, a writer friend who came closest to being like the writers one found in fiction or in the movies than any I would ever get to know.
In college he even had a roll of news ticker paper on a hanger behind his typewriter so he could emulate Jack Kerouac who, while Neary and I were at Harvard, published On the Road after typing it on one 120 foot paper scroll.
Neary exuded the spirit of the uncaptured writer – exhibited by the likes of fellow Baltimorean HL Mencken, Kerouac and Truman Capote. Even with my college beret and cigarillos, I was no match, ending up more like the man in the hammock in the New Yorker cartoon who explains to an annoyed wife standing next to the unmoved lawn mower: “A writer isn’t always writing when he’s writing.”
And Neary knew how to get others to talk. He once described the question he had asked of IF Stone: “How could he could stand shoveling the same shit year after year after year, covering the same poltroons explaining, and miscreants committing, the same miserable malfeasances?”
Stone’s response: “You have to take the long view. First, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, man has already progressed to the point where a commandment against cannibalism was no longer necessary. And, second, it’s like pissing on a boulder. For the first few thousand years, you don’t see any effect. But after that, you start to see a definite impact.”
Among the many stories Neary wrote about was a rumor in the late 60s that Paul McCartney had died.
As the music site, Turn Me On, Dead Man, describes it:
The rumor became so widespread that Life magazine sent a crew to Scotland to track Paul down and take a photo of him. Paul had taken refuge from the Beatles’ legal battles at his farm in Scotland and he was not at all happy to be confronted by reporters. When the crew from Life magazine appeared on his farm, Paul became angry and doused the photographer with a bucket of water as he took pictures. The reporters quickly left and Paul, realizing that the photos would cast him in a negative light, followed after them. In exchange for the film of his outburst, Paul agreed to let the Life crew do an interview. The resulting article, [written by Neary] which went into some detail about the supposed clues to Paul’s “death”, appeared as the cover story for the November 7, 1969, issue.
After Paul appeared on the cover of Life magazine, coverage of the “Paul is dead” rumor declined rapidly. References to it have popped up occasionally since then, but the rumor had run its course after a few weeks.
Neary eventually moved to New Mexico and gave up writing in favor of becoming a metalsmith . But words did not vanish from his life. One of his sons, AP reporter Ben Neary, recalled to the Albuquerque Journal how his father built bookcases on nearly every wall in the house.
“I remember he offered to pay my brothers and me $100 each, when we were in high school, if any of us would read all the books he had in the house. None of us took him up on it. It would have been impossible. . . He read thousands of books, ranging from forgettable mysteries through the great novels. He read technical manuals on welding and electricity and even kept books he couldn’t read, like the ‘History of Islam’ in Turkish.”
His own words would occasionally show up in the local media, such as in a letter to the editor near St Patrick’s Day in 2008:
“I am writing to ask that the meretricious exploitation of the music and the desecration of the sacred imagery of my people on St. Patrick’s Day cease forthwith! The crooning of “Danny Boy” by lugubrious tenors, the employment of leprechauns, harps, shamrocks, clay pipes, derbies and phony brogues by larcenous merchants who have no idea of their significance is disgusting.”
Two years ago, I was included in an email thread discussing the discovery of a photo of a beloved Cushman scooter that Neary and his college roommates had shared, and even repaired in their suite. Neary hadn’t lost his touch:
“Dear All, Speaking of the Cushman, that enduring symbol of my life– I have one even now, a ’43 (the one in Cambridge was a ’48), sitting up alongside the driveway awaiting repairs so I can run it around the proppity– it is illegal for road use nowadays, only one brake, displacement too small– I shall never forget uncapping the gas tank one day in the living room of B-16 and seeing the glowing end of the cigarette I had in my mouth reflected back up at me from the gasoline within….”
I got a little bored with the exchange and so wrote with deliberate malice:
“Sorry to report the future of motor scooters is not good. . . turns out they emit a lot of pollutants. ..”
Neary’s response: “So do bicyclists.”
To which he later added:
“Sam, Jeez, get with it! I mean, where do you think all that tungsten comes from for those snazzy TIG welds on those bicycle frames, and just consider all those Spandexes that have to be slaughtered to make those curvy cycling pants on those cuties, and the rubber trees that get punctured to make the tires for those bikes, and all the air that gets puffed away out of our breathing atmosphere to fill ’em up, and on and on, like that there.”
A few more exchanges and then:
“Dear All– All kidding aside, I think scooters are dangerous as hell, what with those teency wheels and the high center of gravity the frames impose on the rider(s) and believe man (and woman, too) should ride a Norton Commando or a Henderson or a Vincent Black Shadow the way God in Her infinite Wisdom intended. I mean, why die a slow agonizing death in the orthopedic rehab ward from a run-in with a leaf-clogged storm sewer grate when one can splat instantly upon the grille of a Kenworth out on the highway?
“Over and out for me. all best, John”
And so, sad to say, it truly is.