BLAIR INTERVIEWS - This is the second part of several installments of a taped interview from February 1994 with Clay and Joan Blair. In Part I, Clay had taken a position with Curtis Publishing after having been a Washington correspondent for Time Magazine. Despite efforts to right the ship, Curtis Publishing was about to go under, and Clay had become greatly disillusioned with the corporate situation. He had already worked on fiction, and now he was anxious to get back into writing. - DP
I had left Curtis with a parachute – a brass parachute - but with enough funds to write a
book. And so, I went back to where I had left off in 1949, with notes, to write a novel.
I had started out at Columbia, then went into journalism, then I decided to come back to that and write a novel. And a lot of publishers were anxious for me to write about Curtis, the sinking of the Saturday Evening Post and all of that. I did. I wrote a novel called The Boardroom, which was published by Dutton in 1969.
The publishing company died instantly after it was published. I started this novel. In the middle of it I moved back to Washington, in 1967. I worked on this novel in Greenwich for about two years. I had a difficult time with it, then I moved back to a Washington DC suburb, Potomac, MD, still working on the novel.
I had tremendous difficulty distancing myself from the chaos and the likes of Curtis Publishing to write a book about it, to get separation from the subject. So, I was leading a very reclusive life, working on this novel. I needed a typist. I had a typist in Greenwich, and I had to go find a new one.
That’s where she comes in! (Refers to Joan, who is also present.)
Q - The difficulty you had was primarily because of the closeness?
Having the deadline removed also made a difference. First, I wrote just for my own self and records, a complete non-fiction book about Curtis, a long document in around 1965-66. I didn’t publish that book. One of the provisions that I had in my brass parachute was that I wouldn’t write about it.
So I did write about it, but didn’t publish it. The novel came as a made up story. Curtis was still limping along. They had done all of the things I had recommended, selling the paper mills. Now, they were broken up, bought out by other publishers, each of the magazines. The whole company was broken up piece-meal. This was my program, put into effect much too late. Maybe we would have had a chance, maybe not. In any case, I was sitting in Greenwich as the thing was going down the abyss. The novel wasn’t contractually prohibited, a fiction book, so I knew I could do this. I filed away the non-fiction account, which is now with my papers in Wyoming.
When I was at Curtis, even before, I had copies of my files, and then the stuff from Curtis. All of my correspondence. I ran a study group on how to dismantle the company. Hundreds and hundreds of documents, and all these books I wrote. All my papers, 257 boxes. All the Army stuff has gone to the U.S. Army Military History Institute, at Carlisle, PA. The army papers are there. We did three army books.
The other books are at the American Heritage Center at Laramie, WY, 82701. Mostly (the Laramie Center) had to do with Western stuff, native American, Wyoming books, mining, and so on. An incredible place. It is a museum archives. They have the papers of a lot of journalists, Hugh Downs. They also have ADM Kimmel’s papers from Pearl Harbor. At one point, they embarked on mid-century journalists. And that’s how I got there.
I was moving, and said, “I’ve got to get rid of this stuff,” when, sure enough, the phone rang. Would you leave your papers to the university, and I said, I sure would. And we’ve been sending our papers to them ever since. People have used our papers, but we’ve never been there ourselves.
Q - We’ll back up a bit to where you needed a typist.
Joan - I had graduated from college in 1951 from Washington Univ. (St. Louis), and I was recruited by the CIA. I was recruited and went to Washington for about six months, and they sent me to Japan, where I met and married David (first husband), who was also in the CIA.
We were there about two years and came home in the summer of ’54, I’d guess, then we went to Holland for three years. Then in 1961 back to Japan for about 2 ½ years. Then we were in Hong Kong for about three years. Then in ’66 we came back to the states, to Washington. We had a house in McLean, VA. When we came back the last time, David went to Viet Nam. I suddenly realized I wanted a divorce, and I came up to the island with the kids, and I told Daddy I wanted to get a divorce.
I went back to Washington, and I needed to get a job - needed to learn typing. And a friend said she had a friend who was a writer and he needs somebody to type his manuscripts. So I really did start out as a typist. That’s how that started. It was the Boardroom novel.
Clay - To complete the link-up, we both got divorced, moved in 1968 to Washington, by which time we finished The Boardroom. Joan was very interactive with the ideas, the collaborative efforts, even though her name wasn’t on the cover, not at first.
Q – What about research?
Joan - The Archbishop we did from analysis, the newspapers, not a whole lot of research.
Clay - When I was in Greenwich, I got plugged into this dissident faction of the Catholic church, a strong liberalization where Pope John XXIII, the Vatican, liberalized the church, and I was deeply involved in all sorts of movements at this time, and it was reflected in the things I did at the time at the Post. Things like Montessori that was really an outgrowth of the liberal church. Montessori, as opposed to the traditional Catholic parochial school. And so I had known a lot of dissident priests in Greenwich that had been in combat with the Vatican for promoting liberalization issues.
Of course, I was a Catholic – a disenchanted Catholic – and this book, The Archbishop, had a lot of that in it. I drew on all that stuff I’d been involved in.
Joan - We’d try to think up plot lines of things we could write about. Then, a few months later, we’d read in the papers - there it was - the things we thought were so far out.
Q - Why did you depart from the successful current event, popular subject matter? Why didn’t you stay with that, the topical novel, and go into the technical, historical writing?
Clay - I wrote a non-fiction first about Curtis, then worked for about a year on the childhood, teenage years…then The Boardroom. The Archbishop was the next project, also quite topical. There was quite a deal going on in Washington, an open revolt, a dissident priest element there, too.
Joan - Then while you were doing that, the James Earl Ray thing was going on, and we would go off and work on the James Earl Ray thing.
Clay - Really? In the middle of The Archbishop?
We were in Washington when the James Earl Ray thing was going on. This was a non-fiction project. We were asked to cover the trial.
Joan - They wanted an instant book.
Clay - No, they wanted the trial, and preliminary to the trial we started doing research on his life. And the background for the trial research about the mid-west, his friends, the prisons and all of that. And at the trial in Memphis or wherever that was. And there was no trial. He pled guilty at a hearing.
So we had all this research, but no place to go, and so the publisher said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.” And that’s how we published the book. I used the publisher’s office, and, quite literally, wrote it there in ten days. It’s just a question of sitting down and writing it. Put the trial transcript in the back. An instant book.
(tape: February 8 - side #2)
Joan - But I was never in Memphis.
Clay - It did alright, made a little money.
Joan - It was right in the middle of The Archbishop book. For Bantam World. That’s when World died.
Clay - They presold the paperback, and it farmed out to the hardback, subsidized the hardback. World collapsed in bankruptcy, and that book barely got published in hardback.
Joan - That woman who ran the book store sold lots of copies, she just loved it.
Clay - That was as topical as you could possibly be.
The next was Pentagon Country, a Bantam deal (with McGraw-Hill), and they had great faith in the novel’s future, trying to make us into best-selling novelists. Which is actually where I wanted to be. We had a very good relationship.
This was an anti-Viet Nam book. We went to the Pentagon, and they showed us the basement, the storeroom where they had all of the stuff stored since Civil Defense days. Gigantic.
Pentagon Country: This was about a Navy Captain with two sons, one an officer, one who sets himself on fire. That came out in 1971 at the height of the Viet Nam protest movement when Nixon snuck out in the middle of the night and observed them .
None of the novels set the world on fire - but you don’t remember that (part). Actually, we got discouraged about the novel career. Then we had a big discussion about what to write next with Mark Hill.
Joan - He asked you, “Weren’t you in the war? WWII?”
Mark said, “Why don’t you do something about submarines?”
Clay - This started serious history.
Joan – That was Victory.
Clay - Also had a novel on submarines? Yes. That was just a little flip-back thing, not important. But we put our time in on Victory. That was in ’71. That was a whole whirlwind, going to Washington, getting documents. We’d never done anything like this, a sense of real history, using primary documents, interviews of war people.
Joan - We interviewed as many living submarine skippers as we could from WWII. We drove all around the country, interviewing these people on tape. Hours and hours and hours, every interview was hundreds and hundreds of hours, weeks and weeks, time in the Navy archives, looking at patrols. In those days they were great. They gave us a Xerox machine and said, “Here.” And they declassified things for us.
Clay - We Xeroxed with our little machine 15,000 pages.
Joan - We bought our own paper, but it was wonderful. Nowadays they charge you 25 cents a page, up to 30 cents a page, to Xerox. Can’t do that anymore.
Clay - The research process was about a year, I think. I had trips back to Washington every month. If you add all that in, I think it would be a full year, but not all at once.
Q - How many pages?
Clay - 1100 pages.
Joan - It was a biggie. But it was the smallest of the biggies. They went on from there. (laughs) We thought that was pretty big at the time.
Clay - We finished this book –
Joan - We started in ’71 and we didn’t actually finish until - ’74.
Clay - Yes, but we did Survive in there, too. (Holds up copy of Silent Victory). This was 1072 pages.
This book was published in 1975, and it was tremendously well received. It was a classic book. It was used at the Naval Academy. It’s a definitive book of that element of the war. Nobody could ever…it’s a work of madness.
Joan – No, that wasn’t a work of madness. This is. (She refers to their latest project.)
Clay – You forgot what a work of madness is!
Joan – Oh no!
Clay - It was a work of love, actually. ‘Cause when we began to look at this thing, to write the story, we didn’t know what we were going to write. And then we realized, there was no history of this war.
So that’s what we did. It was very well received. There was the Book Club.
There had been some novels, and some non-fiction done on submarines in WWII, but nothing definitive.
Exhaustive, totally complete. With all the disputations between commanders. Everything.
Q - How did you develop your style with such a complex book, lots of interviews? How do you divvy up the workload, the research?
Joan - When we go to do research, Clay will just take one part, I’ll take another. For the interviews we’d tape them all. I’d transcribe the tapes. Very time consuming. Takes forever. And then, Clay has it all in his head, organizes it in his head, writes it all down, and then I’d type it.
Q - How do you do that, Clay?
Clay - I don’t know. I just don’t know that.
Q - At some point, you got away from the typewriter. And you went to the legal pad.
Clay – Yeah. I had to do that. The reason for it was, we had so many sources, so many folders. I was typing at a little tiny table that the typewrite sat on. We had a door desk. And I had all this stuff spread out all over the place. I was working, just to write one paragraph, I was using five or six different sources. And I found I was reaching over and dropping the damn things on the floor, and all that, so finally I decided to give up the typewriter, and I had all the files…I could write in long hand, put them back, and they wouldn’t fall out on the floor.
And that was, pure and simple, the only reason I did that. Nothing mysterious about it. And, I never went back (to the typewriter).
Well, that’s not true, because I did Survive! on the typewriter.
Joan - You typed Survive? I don’t remember that.
Clay - Yeah. You might have typed the finished version. But I didn’t write it in long hand.
Anyhow, that book was very well received, and it established… I mean, unwittingly, really, I don’t think we ever sat down and said, “We’re… now we’re going to become military historians.”
Joan - No, no. Just one same sort of war thing (leading) into another.
Q - (Reads blurb from the dust jacket of “Silent Victory” to Clay for comment)…The Forgotten War… regarding our lousy torpedos…that there will never be a rival book…little did he know there would be another one!
Clay - (laughs)
Q - Did you leave anything out? Was your book complete? Did you leave anything out?
Clay - Not that I know of!
Joan - We had the code-breaking. We were the first ones to write about code-breaking.
Clay - That’s right. Code breaking was the big thing with submarines, because they could break the code and find out where the Japanese convoy was, and send a submarine to the convoy. And that’s how we …
Joan - And nobody had written about it. All the skippers had signed a pledge that they would never reveal the secret, and, I don’t know…
Clay - But I knew about it, being on a boat.
Q - And now, 25 to 30 years later… It was classified then?
Clay - It was. We really wrote the first thing about Japanese code breaking in the war, as related to operations.
You know, break the code, send a submarine here, blah, blah. And there was a lot of problems with that, because we’re dealing with …the navy always wanted to sink a carrier, and anytime they found out about a carrier, they (U.S.) would send a submarine. And it was very difficult to rendezvous and navigational errors on both sides … and so our submarines were a lot of times chasing around the Pacific, after these phantom things. But, anyway, we were the first to bring all of that to light. Torpedo problems. All that stuff.
END PART II - Dick Purinton