Soul of David Goodis
David Goodis surrounded by Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Note the lines of B&B's clothing and Bogart's real hairline. Photo courtesy of April Feld Sandor.
What made David Goodis write as he did. A peak into his mind is offered by his cousin, April Feld Sandor, who was 16 years old when David died. I interviewed her on August 19, 2008. When young, April wanted to be an actor. It was still a time when girls were pushed towards traditional careers such as being mothers, secretaries and nurses..
David, however, gave different advice. "David believed that anyone who wanted to rebel, should rebel. He told me don't be scared." With David's encouragement, April pursued her dreams, going on to a career as actor, disc jockey on WMMR and WCAU-FM in Philadelphia, voice over artist and director. She has performed in New York, London and Philadelphia.
April said that David tried to straddle two worlds---the world of obligation to family and his own world of career and personal desires. He was loyal to the traditional world of his parents and extended family. He took care of his mentally ill brother Herb. He attended all the family gatherings. After a stint in Hollywood, he returned to Philadelphia and lived with his parents until they died.
However, David was not traditional. "He did not have a traditional life plan such as getting married and settling down to a stable profession such as being a doctor, lawyer, teacher or merchant. There would have been someone in the family who could have pulled him into a field and helped him out. He didn't want that."
"Instead, David chose a professional that would be 'iffy' as to what would happen," She referred to writing "pulp pieces" rather than "lofty stuff in the beginning."
"At heart, I think David was an actor. Had he not become a writer, I think he would have become an actor. He had a desire to observe others. There was a chameleon aspect to him," she said.
"David used his observation skills very well and could become anyone -- taking on the role he needed in order to gain perspective and the information he sought. That's why I think he could have been an actor. Actors observe human nature and then present that to others," April said.
"David just chose to do it in writing. Ultimately, however, I think so many of the stories that go around about him are because he went out there and 'played' a part in order to understand. Plus, I think he was just interested in exploring humanity. It wasn't false behavior -- it was very genuine," she said.
"Honestly, in reality, we are ALL so many 'roles' insides: students, teachers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins, friends, lovers, haters, questioners. We are fearful, respectful, loyal, and disloyal, and the list will go on," she said.
"Ultimately, the biggest thing I think about David is that the readers of his books want to pigeon-hole him and make him 'ONE' thing or another. As humans, we are NOT one thing or another. I totally can understand the respect and curiosity about a writer -- the how and the why. I guess I just feel bottom line that the more you chase the nuances and try to 'define' someone, the more you will discover that you cannot 'define' a person. I don't think any one person KNOWS another completely. Nor should we," she said.
April said the key to David's personal mystery is his mentally ill brother Herb. "At the time, there was so little understanding of mental illness. There was a need to keep it secret," April said.
"David's writing was a truth below an exterior. In a lot of ways, his writing was a way to write the truth he saw in life. He saw suffering in all classes and it was a time period where no one talked about suffering. Think about the time period. Among first generation Americans, there was an ethic of closing ranks to hide things they did not want people to know," she said.
"Today we are the opposite. Everyone wants to spill their guts on TV or compare suffering. We use it to make excuses. I don't think we can judge a time period -- it just was -- and it needs to be considered in understanding the human nature of the time," she said.
"As a little girl, I thought Herb was retarded because he seemed 'slow'. Now I understand it was his medications," she said.
"Later on when I was older, I was told that Herb could be dangerous to himself and others. He was kept super-sedated with heavy duty drugs. It must have been frightening with Herbie. David was a little guy and Herbie was big. Herbie could be great one day--a sweet lovely man, a gentle giant. Herbie was very funny. He had a wicked sense of humor like David. And another day--boom," she said.
April explained, "Long after Herb died, I found out what the deal was, but when I was young, no one explained it to me. No one was ashamed of Herbie. He was not kept hidden. He was great, actually -- I remember how sweet he was. The family just would not talk about what was 'wrong' with him, at least to us kids," April said.
Herb died in 1971. April thought that today he would be diagnosed as schizophrenic or bipolar. "In the 1950's, mental health issues were suppressed and also not much was known. Mental illness was thought to be the responsibility of the mother. I am sure that David and his mother did not really understand what was happening with Herbie," April said.
"It was David's responsibility to take care of the family and he straddled the world of obligation to his family and himself," she said.
"Think about the concept of brother---the 'other' brother in David's writing. Maybe David was trying to understand Herbie's world," April said.
"David was interested in the truth," April said. "He was fascinated by possibilities. I wonder if David was ever concerned about mental illness striking him? Did David want to explore Herbie's world?"
"This had to have been a big issue in David's life," April said.
"David was such an observer of life. He was curious about all facets -- and here, in his own life, there was this uncertainty, this man who for a certain amount of years was one person growing up with David, and then suddenly became another," she said.
"Some day someone is going to -- or at least it would be interesting to -- do critical analysis of all David's books just from the viewpoint of Herbie. How accurate I am about all of this, who knows? It is just internalized supposition.
"David's observation skills enabled him to seek the world outside the closed ranks of the family," April said.
"Herbie may have been the start of David's fascination with the unspoken world. He didn't write about the world he lived in. He tried to get to the root of what he did not understand," she said.
David's first novel was "Retreat From Oblivion." I asked April if David's writing was not a retreat from oblivion but rather a search for lives lost in oblivion. She said, "Yes, I think that could be part of his search."
"The real sadness is if David could have lived a little longer he could have found answers. It was the next 20 years that things unveiled enough that you could understand your world and put things in perspective," April said.
"I think Herbie is the key. Imagine going through your own adolescence -- dark enough -- and there is now this drama around/within you. You are a sensitive and observing person. It must have been frightening for Herbie and frightening in a different way for David and Aunt Mollie and everyone in the family," April said.
"And so, there's David, loving writing, wanting to make a living from it, and loving his family, and now there is a 'stranger' so to speak in his life. The Herbie he knew has irrevocably changed. I imagine that the inner questions had to move from there and begin to reshape your own world. I think that some of the stark differences within -- seeing these sides of Herbie, wondering about his own human nature -- helped him to look at the stark differences outside the world he knew -- and explorations into a darker side of life held fascination," she said.
"David was a great guy. So was Herbie. And, my Aunt Mollie was lovely and lively. I remember David with happiness, with music, with jokes, with laughter, with honesty, with courage, and with trust. I wish I could have known him longer and I'm glad the books are around because they show me other insights about him that I was too young, at the time, to appreciate. Those insights don't change what I knew about David," she said.
Sitting in the living room of the house she grew up in, April Feld Sandor pointed to the area where David Goodis performed his pranks at family gatherings and told jokes.
"He was a person I loved, a cool person. It was a lot of fun to be with him," she said..