What are the odds? Two major publishers release memoirs at the same time in the same year, both of which are authored by men of professional bearing who glory in Shakespeare and teach classes on the subject. The coincidences passing strange are worthy of one of the Bard's own plays.
"The manuscript of an out-of-control writer is not a pretty thing to behold: sloppy, confused, slapdash, disjointed," writes Herman Gollob, author of Me and Shakespeare. "Out of this chaos the editor must bring order structure, organization, coherence." Now in his early 70s, Gollob is well-known in publishing circles, having served for years as an editor at Little, Brown, Atheneum and Simon &and Schuster. Originally from Texas, he made fortuitous early professional connections that led him into careers as a Hollywood story editor and literary agent. He went on to nurture the talents of writers such as James Clavell, Dan Jenkins, Donald Barthelme and Willie Morris. While his book is, at times, lofty in tone, it is anecdote-laden, rich with gossip and brimming with all things Shakespearean.
Gollob, who teaches adult education classes on the Bard at New Jersey's Caldwell College Lifelong Learning Institute, takes his cue from pertinent Shakespearean quotations, describing his journeys to the Bodleian and Folger Shakespeare libraries, relating his exchanges with students and offering a fair amount of hardcore literary, critical and historical analysis of the Bard's works and influences.
Along the way, he discusses such personal matters as his father's death from prostate cancer, his mother's lobotomy and his high regard for his wife, Barbara. He also takes an apparently long-overdue retaliatory swipe at the late actor Lee Strasberg by relating an incident in which Gollob the editor told potential author Strasberg that no one would ever want to read a book as pedantic as the one Strasberg was proposing. It would seem that Strasberg was not as encouraging of Gollob's early attempts to be an actor as Gollob would have liked.
Bob Smith is a man of fewer pretensions than Gollob, and his new memoir Hamlet's Dresser shows it."I've seen my ordinary name as a promise to be unseen, unheard, unnoticed," writes Smith. "And for most of my life I've honored the contract." The title of the memoir derives from Smith's career as wardrobe man at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, where he rubbed elbows with well-known personalities, including John Houseman, Jessica Tandy and Katharine Hepburn. Nowadays, Smith takes pride in running informal seminars on Shakespeare at senior centers in New York City. With distant parents and a severely retarded sister, Smith turned to the Bard at an early age and found solace in his poetry and his universal, all-encompassing understanding of human frailty. "I think that the more confused you are inside," Smith says, "the more you need to trust a thing outside of yourself. I was desperate to lean against a thing bigger than me, and it was clear that William Shakespeare understood what it's like to ache and not know why." Smith's young life was tinged with sadness due to his mother's depression and alcoholism, his father's aloofness and the love and pain associated with his sister Carolyn, who was eventually institutionalized. His further exposure to Shakespeare through his theatrical work has made Smith a nonacademic expert on the Bard, with an amazing power to recall lengthy passages of dialogue. His book, too, is laced with illuminating quotes from the Bard's plays, which shed additional connecting light on the painful details of Smith's upbringing and ongoing personal hardships, including the tragic suicide of an actor-friend. If the growing soul is best watered by tears of adversity, then Smith is a living example of that axiom. Fortunately, he has turned sorrow into a creative outlet for informing and inspiring his weekly audience of aging men and women, who too are learning of Shakespeare's curative and comforting powers. Martin Brady writes from Nashville.