You won’t find a copy of Julian Mazor’s Washington and Baltimore in Second Story Books. You won’t find one at any of the D.C. Public Library branches, either: For some reason, the book has disappeared from the stacks. And don’t even think about checking the Baltimore County Public Library. There, Mazor isn’t even in the card catalog.
That isn’t because Washington and Baltimore is exceptionally rare. Following its initial publication in the late ’60s, the slim short-story collection went through two printings. And it isn’t because Mazor is just another unheralded hack—indeed, Washington and Baltimore has a staggering pedigree: Four of its six stories first ran in the New Yorker and were edited by William Shawn, the magazine’s legendary second editor, and famed baseball writer Roger Angell. What’s more, it was published by Alfred A. Knopf, then and now one of the premier imprints for literary fiction.
The book received positive reviews in the Washington Post and the New York Times, too—the latter even included Washington and Baltimore on its list of “New and Recommended Books” for the summer of 1968. Marianne Moore was an early fan. So was famed critic and professor Robert Coles, who wrote perhaps the most eloquent testament to the book and author: “Mazor is a gentle, kind, and honorable man, and his stories unashamedly convey life’s ironies and ambiguities….Apparently it is still possible for a writer to shun himself, shun all sorts of tricks and stunts and ruses, work hard and delicately with his characters, and speak warmly, softly, and suggestively.”
Within a year of Washington and Baltimore’s publication, Mazor was awarded an unsolicited Rockefeller Foundation grant to travel and write. Then, the author seemed slowly to vanish. Over the next few years, he occasionally published stories. One was selected for Prize Stories 1971: The O. Henry Awards; another appeared in the New Yorker in 1975. But a new book never materialized. And then Mazor was simply gone, seemingly leaving only a few scattered traces in used bookstores from North Wilkesboro, N.C., to Woodland Hills, Calif.
Until now, that is. Last month, Mazor’s second book, Friend of Mankind and Other Stories, hit the shelves. It contains 280 pages, 10 new stories, and five male protagonists, one of them reprised from Washington and Baltimore. Thirty-six years have passed since Mazor’s last book. He’s now 74.
Reflecting on that time span, Mazor says, “It doesn’t seem that long. I never planned on a new book—I just thought I’d keep writing. This new book is kind of a surprise.”
How things were can be gleaned from Washington and Baltimore’s dust jacket: “In his stories which involve Negroes,” the promotional copy goes, “Mr. Mazor is not merely a sensitive white writer who writes about Negroes. His ear for Southern Negro speech is perfect, and what he conveys, more often than not, is a Negro humor and a Negro poetry that of late have been obscured by crisis.”
Of course, Knopf’s anonymous publicist wasn’t as eloquent as Mazor. Take the scrappy and sparely eloquent story “The Boy Who Used Foul Language”: John Lionel’s African-American maid, Bessie, knocks on the door in the middle of math class: Much to the white 10-year-old’s displeasure, she’s brought the lunch that he’d forgotten. Amid snickers from his classmates and his teacher’s disdain—this is, after all, 1940, when D.C. schools were segregated—John retrieves his lunch, then steps into the hallway with Bessie.
Soon after, the class bully catches John in the supply closet: “You sure have a funny old nigger maid,” he says. Lionel returns the insult, calling the other boy’s mom a bitch and his sister a slut. The two brawl, and in the end, the teacher dispatches John, not the bully, to the principal’s office.
Primarily set in the same era as Washington and Baltimore, Friend of Mankind focuses on Mazor’s flawed male protagonists’ experiences from boyhood through death. “Skylark,” one of the new book’s most endearing pieces, returns us to Lionel, now 16, as he learns to deal with the ladies—most significantly, a 22-year-old Bryn Mawr sophisticate sighted in a museum. As in Mazor’s first book, racial tension is key, present even in an otherwise sweet story.
“Blacks couldn’t go into white restaurants,” Mazor recalls. “Even though there was another black society that was quite advanced, well-educated, because of the institution of segregation, they had their own world….It was very rich, but we were deprived of that….In [white society], we never saw blacks other than as servants or workmen. There was no racial mixing. There was just a lot of prejudice in the air.”
“I don’t really have a way of getting back to that time period—I didn’t have a diary or anything,” he says. “I just remember things that made an emotional imprint.”
That approach apparently works for Mazor’s readers, too. Philadelphia-based publisher Paul Dry was at first reluctant to bring out Friend of Mankind, citing short-story collections’ notoriously low sales. “I initially turned down the manuscript,” he says. However, he adds, “I couldn’t get [the stories] out of my head.”
Referring to the collection’s title story, Dry says, “Although I’d never been in a fight with another kid, and I’d never beaned another kid with a rock, I felt like I had after reading the story….Then I thought, Of course! It’s 1941. We’re about to go to war. The air is crackling with aggression. Julian never states that, but it’s part of the story.”
Born in Baltimore, Mazor moved to the District with his family in 1936, when he was 6. School gave him a strong impression of his new city’s toughness: “On the first day,” he recalls, “I was attacked in the lunch room. I was getting the worst of it, and for some reason I don’t understand, [the kids] were all cheering for me. They must’ve not liked the kid fighting me. It was rough on the playground….You’d be winning a game of marbles, and someone would come over and just take them from you.”
“The mood of the country was different,” he elaborates. “The values were different. We were only 17 years away from the First World War. [It was a] different climate—more simple, more naive, more unsophisticated…. There were very few restaurants, one theater. The city didn’t have the culture that later developed.”
Mazor left Washington for Indiana University in 1947. He then continued his schooling at Yale Law School, graduating in 1954. The following year, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a legal officer. Stationed at Perrin Air Force Base in Sherman, Texas, he essentially began his writing career by penning post-trial clemency reports for federal courts martial.
“I’d write about the accused,” explains Mazor. “[The documents] were very reportorial and descriptive of a life.” The aim was to secure leniency for the convicted. “You know,” Mazor says, “‘Give the guy a second chance.’”
After two years in the service, Mazor returned to D.C. and began writing in earnest. He used an adapted clemency report about an airman tried for using and selling heroin—as well as an inside connection—to gain the attention of the New Yorker. Shawn invited him to a lunch at the Algonquin Hotel, where, Mazor says, “I told him that I wanted to write fiction. He said, ‘You know, being a reporter might make you fact-bound.’” So encouraged, and with temporary financial help from home, Mazor moved to New York in 1958.
There, he lived what he describes as “a Spartan life.” But even as fiction-writing success eluded Mazor, Shawn encouraged him, and he was soon joined in New York by his longtime girlfriend, Arra Ann Tolbert. In October 1962, four years after that fancy lunch, the New Yorker bought Mazor’s first two stories: “Washington” and “Baltimore.”
Both pieces featured John Lionel—the character Mazor would return to for half of his 16 published short stories. Two other Lionel pieces eventually appeared in the New Yorker. The same year Mazor and Tolbert married, the set of four was joined with a pair of non-Lionel stories for Washington and Baltimore.
After receiving the Rockefeller grant, Mazor and his wife spent some time in Britain, where their first son was born. They moved to the Washington area in early 1972, buying a house in Alexandria.
“I came into some money when my father died, investments and such,” Mazor says, explaining how he helped support his growing family on what was still a modest writer’s income. He also signed a first-look agreement with the New Yorker: For 25 years, the magazine made annual payments to Mazor, securing the right of first refusal for any fiction that he wrote.
Mazor established an office in the Cleveland Park building where he grew up. “I moved into [what had been] my grandmother’sapartment,” he says, “and just added a desk to make it into a writing area.” There, he set out to write more stories—though he didn’t always finish them. The decadeslong publishing gap Mazor seems to regard as just part of the process.
“I was writing,” he offers. “Maybe everything didn’t turn out to be a story, but I was working. I had a lot of stories going on at the time. I have some long stories and bits or fragments that never turned out, and from those long stories I took fragments that became other stories. I’m always rewriting stuff. I’m a rewriter.” He also points out that he made time to enjoy other aspects of his life: his long marriage to Arra Ann, which ended in 1993, and, especially, his two sons, who are now adults.
“I got really involved in my sons’ lives,” Mazor says. “I loved being a father. I never realized I’d like it so much.”
Although “Skylark” was published in the New Yorker way back in 1975, and a few pieces have appeared elsewhere since then, Mazor produced four of Friend of Mankind’s stories specifically for the book. It’s a comparatively rigid working method for the author—and one that seems to suit his new life: residing in Georgetown with his second wife, Elizabeth Mazor, and once again writing productively.
“I’m a short-story writer,” Mazor says. “There are some prolific writers out there, of which I’m not one.”
Though he continues to mine the mid-20th-century for material, Mazor’s newest, as-yet-unpublished pieces aren’t directly about his hometown. “There’s a little bit of Washington in the stories,” he says. “One is mainly in Baltimore, set back in the ’40s…
“For now,” he adds, “I’m enjoying this again. I’m working on longer pieces. That’s what I think a writer does—he uses imagination to get inside certain characters that he feels comfortable with, that he feels he knows. Maybe one will turn into a novel. Who knows what will happen next?”CP