July 31, 2013
Well, at least they went to high school together, that accounts for it: DeWitt Clinton High School, in the north Bronx. By the time James Baldwin and Richard Avedon brought out Nothing Personal (1964), they’d known each other for 25 years.
Sol Stein, another classmate, said that to get to Dewitt Clinton from Harlem, Baldwin had to take the subway, bus, and then go on foot. The three of them were core editors for the Magpie Tower, the students’ publication. It was Stein, “high school buddy, editor, novelist, playwright” who would later suggest to Baldwin what would become Notes of a Native Son (1955). The two even collaborated — on the story “Dark Runner,” and the play, “Equal in Paris,” a dramatization of one of the essays in the volume.
Old school ties, then. But what about A Rap on Race (1970), the transcript of a seven-and-and-a-half-hour conversation between Baldwin and Margaret Mead, talking about Paris and Istanbul, Israelis and Palestinians, Huey Newton and John Wayne, Baldwin’s nephews and nieces and Mead’s grandchildren?
Or his friendships with all those women, probably not such great friends among themselves: Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison. Morrison wrote in her eulogy in the New York Times, December 20, 1987: “You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” Simone, meanwhile, simply looked happy next to him in that earlier, younger picture — who would have thought she could smile like that?
His life would have been extraordinary even if he had never written a single word. But, as it is, all of this is extra, on top of everything else. It’s mind-boggling.