Back in those single-engine days—the days of Selectric typewriters and carbon paper—we both worked really hard, building and nurturing an audience for Kinsey. I’ve sifted through my ancient files and discovered many enraged letters written by me and sent to various people at Holt, Sue’s first publisher. There is a certain, consistent sameness to these letters: if you scream politely, eloquently, you will eventually be heard! By the time “G” is for Gumshoe marched onto the New York Times Bestseller list, I’d learned a good deal about Sue Grafton:
Here was a woman with no use for sentimentality, a writer for whom ethics, principles and integrity were not the hypocrisy of our politicians but simply matters of hard fact. No clutter. No glibness. No complacency. And hard work. Even as late into the alphabet as “W”, the work stayed hard—Sue never phoned it in. Never. In fact, I found a note from Sue in which she cheerfully announced that she had amassed 605 pages of single-spaced notes for W and was finally moving in a straight line…
There came a time, probably around “P” is for Peril, when my deeply middle class, Judeo-Christian bones kicked in and I decided I was making too much money from Sue’s success. I don’t want to be falsely modest here but I began nursing febrile, dark, 4:00 am thoughts that Sue might hire a lawyer and just be done with me. So I called her up and began ranting and raving,
“There’s nothing for me to DO for you!” I complained. “You’re never any trouble! Don’t you have any anthology deals going awry? Or some permissions snafu that needs my attention?”
Sue just laughed that effervescent, tingly laugh of hers and said, “No, Ma’am.” I finally said, in utter exasperation, “Well, can’t you at least send me your ironing?” She laughed again, and said, “Oh, honey. Just enjoy it. Call it back pay.”
And so, I did. But I want to return here to the subject of ironing.
When I heard from Steve last Spring, that Sue’s operation had yielded only bad news, I was suddenly desperate to see her, to get on a plane and visit her. It was finally arranged that Lucy and I might visit between chemo sessions, the last week of July. Ever the vainglorious Leo, I declared, “Oh, that’s perfect! July 31st is my 65th birthday!” Sue’s response to this was distinctly Southern: if there’s a birthday, then of course, there must be a cake! I protested, but Sue remained firm.
Lucy and I spent a deeply charmed evening with Sue and Steve, begging for a detailed house tour. Two features fired Sue’s enthusiasm. One was a fake dresser. It looked exactly like a traditional, three-drawer wooden dresser but cut discreetly into its side was a kitty cat door, housing a food and drink station and a litter box. No noise, no noxious smells, no spraying litter all over the floor. Sue had designed it herself and was rightly proud of its elegant functionality.
The second feature Sue adored in the house was an old fashioned iron, actually called a “mangle”. It was a large ironing steam press, with multiple fabric settings and Sue loved showing it off, like a vast, domestic fantasy.
So now you know why Sue never sent me her ironing: she was having way too much fun doing it herself.
When I visited Sue late last July, she seemed shockingly thin, needing to nap but otherwise fully present. I had assumed my birthday cake would be made by Liz Gastiger, their long-term chef and friend. But no, Sue had made my cake herself: a perfect lemon genoise with buttercream frosting. As I tucked into my second piece, I exclaimed, “Sue this cake is a LONG way from Duncan Hines, whose recipe is it?”
“Rose Levy Berenbaum,” she told me.
I nearly choked, “But Berenbaum is impossible, she’s so exacting, she’s an absolute tyrant of precision!”
I don’t know. There’s something so deeply moving about this beloved writer, not an ounce over ninety pounds, baking me a sublime birthday cake. The next morning, before I drove to the airport, I had a third slice for breakfast.
Respectfully submitted, indeed."