When I first heard the name Lester Atwell, I was sure I knew it from somewhere, and that he had to be famous. I was wrong. I had gotten him confused with Hollywood’s Golden Age actor, Lionel Atwell.
Lester was much handsomer than the famous movie star, and never having thrown scandalous parties attended by underage nymphs, he was also much more of a gentleman.
I met him through my late husband, Charlie King. Both were members of their church’s confraternity. Since I was brought up Jewish, morphed into a happy-go-lucky Atheist, and married a Roman Catholic, I had no idea what a confraternity was. I still have no clue.
Charlie introduced me to his friend because I was nibbling around the edges of literature, and Lester was already a published author. Charlie, always my champion, had decided that Lester should give me a helping hand. So one fine night, I found myself sitting on a sofa in his living room, sipping tea, and marveling that a man so elegant and accomplished would be taking the time to help me.
He was doing it, of course, for Charlie. Anyone with a grain of sense loved my husband, and Lester had more sense than most.
When I think of Lester Atwell, what instantly comes to mind is Kelly green, because that was the color of the wall-to-wall carpet in his living room. The door moldings and windowsills were snow white, and the fireplace mantle was dark brown. It was a snug, delightful room dominated by sunshine, elegance, and bookshelves. On one of Lester’s bookshelves were first editions of his three books, rebound in hand-tooled leather.
The books were gorgeous, and I was delirious with envy and admiration. Everything about Lester inspired admiration. He was elegant, modest, slim, and so handsome that even in his 70s, he still could have played the love interest in a romantic film.
Lester’s trousers were always creased, his shoes were always shined, and I never saw him without a sports jacket, dress shirt, and tie. He often invited us to his house for dinner. Before, during, and after our meals, which he cooked himself, we discussed philosophy, politics, family, the future, and the arts.
We three were an odd grouping. Charlie, the fireman turned fire marshal turned arson consultant. Me, aspiring writer, ex-secretary, and Charlie’s business partner. And Lester, the man whose books were so celebrated that one had inspired a Broadway musical.
Lester was born in 1908. After a few false starts, he became what he was born to be. A writer. In the 1930s and 40s, his stories were published in all the major national magazines. When he turned 34, he was drafted, and went to war. Lester spent the next four years in the army.
He wrote about infantry combat in his first book, Private, a runner-up for the National Book Critics Circle Award and described as “the first non-fiction novel.” If you want a beautiful new edition of Private, call: (610) 259-9978.
Lester’s second book, Love is Just Around the Corner, was transformed into Flora the Red Menace, a musical starring Liza Minnelli. His third book, Life With Its Sorrow, Life With Its Tear, received a review from Publisher’s Weekly I can only drool over: “…so beautifully constructed, so moving…its appeal…is enormous.”
Lester wrote his last novel, The Other Dear Charmer, when he was 87 years old. It is a marvelous love story about the difficulties encountered by a recently married young man in maintaining close relationships with his two boyhood friends. Despite the best efforts of my literary agent, it has not yet been published.
When I think back on my years of knowing this incredible man, one conversation in particular stands out. He told us about how his mother, proud that his stories were being published in national magazines, was bragging about Lester to a woman friend. The friend, refusing to be impressed, remarked offhandedly, “Oh. I must tell my son to write stories, too. Since it’s obviously so easy.”
Lester had studied, struggled, disciplined himself, and endured. He had worked hard to teach himself to write. So hard that, when his mother’s friend dismissed him with an arrogant toss of her head, he felt a hot flame of indignation.
Forty years later, that flame still burned as fiercely.
It gives me great delight to recollect how that gentle, amiable, generous, and humble gentleman never condoned the old bat who had trivialized his accomplishments.
Writers write. Don’t mess with us. We can be an unforgiving lot.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2012, Shelly Reuben