On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author

by stonafitch

Author’s Note 10/22/18: To the relative who asked me to remove this inherently incomplete and admittedly harsh essay, a polite no. If I start unpublishing everything I write that offends someone, there won’t be anything left. I think my brilliant, contrarian uncle would be okay with that.

I’ve been thinking lately about a writer I can pretty much guarantee none of you have ever heard of – William Harrington. He wrote or ghostwrote twenty-five novels, including many of the Washington thrillers of presidential spawn Margaret Truman and Elliott Roosevelt, novelizations of the “Columbo” series, several Harold Robbins novels, and his own thrillers. In the New York Times, Anatoyle Broyard praised his clean writing and research.

Like a lot of dead writers, Bill Harrington is pretty much forgotten. But he was my uncle and the only writer I knew when I was growing up, so he holds a special place in my pantheon. His story proves that writers make terrible relatives and worse role models. You’ll see why soon enough.

I remember Uncle Bill as a demi-god of 1970s New York City, a manly man who flew his own plane into Teterboro for long lunches at La Grenouille with his agent and Terry Southern. Velvety suits with wide lapels, plates of duck a l’orange and flaming crepes for dessert. Plenty of Chablis all around. Bordeaux from the fine 1970 vintage. Nights with Peter Falk at the Playboy Club on East 59th.

I’m making most of this up, of course. But that’s probably the life he had in mind – like Hef, Harold Robbins, Burt Reynolds, and Esquire men.

The real Uncle Bill was often charming and occasionally mean but it was excusable because he was a writer, and so, insecure and deeply flawed. He looked like a pocket-sized Norman Mailer, without as much genius or popularity but with an extra dose of street smarts. Bill inspired a kind of fearful awe in our family because he was pretty much always half-drunk and prone to conversational bullying.

Bill took great delight in turning any family occasion into a debacle, which I appreciated, kind of:

Florida, 1968–Family vacation. We climb a tower at a scenic overlook. When everyone else is climbing down, Bill grabs me by the ankles and hangs my scrawny, seven-year-old ass, Pip-like, above the Everglades. When I scream and squirm like a psychotic shrimp, he tells me now you know what if feels like to be scared.

Cincinnati, 1974–Thanksgiving Dinner. Uncle Bill waves me forward from across the table. But instead of asking me to pass the sweet potatoes, he says Have you tasted your own sperm yet? He gives a wan smile as if a special treat awaits me. Then snorts into his Scotch.

Columbus, 1977–Some college bar. The place is empty and no one else in our family is drinking since it’s about noon. But Uncle Bill is marinating in Scotch. To shock us, he’s going on about homosexuality. He says he might suck a cock but definitely wouldn’t let someone fuck him up the ass. As if. By then he looked like Larry Flynt, with a big muff of smokebush hair waving over his gray eyes and a potbelly that begged for luggage wheels.

Each Christmas, like a pulp fiction Unibomber, Uncle Bill would sign his latest hardcover and mailed it to my straight-arrow father, who hid Bill’s books in the Siberian reaches of the knotty-pine bookshelves of our den. Unbeautiful and chunky, Bill’s books were hyper-commercial and smelled of cheap paper and ink, like gun catalogs. Mister Target. An English Lady (his hit). The Search for Elizabeth Brandt (not sure what that one’s about). Virus (a computer thriller before anyone owned a computer). Trial (an early legal thriller).

Left alone at home, I would pull over a chair and climb up to retrieve one of Uncle Bill’s reputedly dirty novels, seduced by their inky perfume. When I was about ten, I turned to a scene about a devious pervert who had gathered up a thin gay junkie and a busty young whore – and forced them to wear scuba suits while having sex for his amusement. Then, much to their surprise (and definitely to mine), the devious pervert plugged in a hidden cable connected to electrodes in the scuba suits and ffffssssstttt.

They were electrocuted via their smoke-spewing pudendum!

I closed the book. This was sex, which everyone seemed to want to do? Where was I going to find a scuba suit? And what about those devious perverts and their electric cables?

My worldview was twisted forever.

Lest you think he was just a garden-variety sick pup, Uncle Bill was a technology savant if not a literary giant. He was a successful attorney and avid pilot. He wrote provocative editorials and orchestrated media confrontations. He co-developed the pioneering LEXIS database, which evolved into an information service that lawyers rely on every day.

That said, he was also a very sick pup.

I had dinner with Bill spring of my senior year in college, hoping for advice for a young writer about to venture out into the marketplace. What I got instead was an evening-long, soul-killing rant about his huge book advances, celebrities he knew, and how bad most other writers (Harold Robbins!) were.

Harold Robbins and friends

After dinner, which included drinking most of the red wine in southern Connecticut, my ursine uncle padded off to his study to write. I could barely walk but Uncle Bill was writing, or appeared to be. My last memory of that night? His puffy face and glittering eyes lit green by the screen of his expensive PC, the first I had ever seen.

There goes a pro, I thought at the time, too young to recognize a drinker with a writing problem. After that, I lost touch with Uncle Bill on purpose, trying to avoid contagion from the palpable bitterness that pumped through him like central air.

Then in 2000, Uncle Bill walked out the front door of his Greenwich mini-mansion and blew his brains out with his fancy German pistol. “William G. Harrington, a mystery novelist with a long career as a collaborator with celebrity authors, died at his home in Greenwich, Connecticut,” the Times obit duly recorded. “The police said he apparently committed suicide, writing his own obituary before he died. His writing career spanned 37 years.” They didn’t run the obit he wrote, of course.

I have to assume that it wasn’t drinking that killed Uncle Bill, or divorce, or declining talent. It was corrosive disappointment. I see his sad but not necessarily tragic life as a cautionary tale for writers – of serious money earned and respect denied, talent accrued and squandered, very good deals followed by deals with the Devil, novels thick with cops and soldiers that led to a final tale of a Luger in his own pale, shaking hand.

Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it. Talk to most writers and they’ll tell you about the major film interest that almost happened but didn’t, the deal with Knopf that went south, the novel that never found a publisher, the foreign rights that floundered. Writers collect disappointment like normal people collect lint.

When my father died a few years ago I took his stack of Uncle Bill’s novels to Goodwill in Montgomery, Ohio and dropped them off with the other debris from the basement. It took three or four trips from the Buick. I never even thought about keeping one of his books. They were bad voodoo, tainted by Bill’s Scotch-scented paw. If I had thought about it, I probably would have burned the books just in case. Their dense, heavily foxed pages would have made a nice blaze in the woodstove for an evening.

A jumble of thousands of books lines the walls of our house – writers I revere or not, books that serve as beacons of brilliance or warning lights, novels I don’t particularly like written by friends I do. When it comes to books, we’re non-denominational. So why didn’t I just put Bill’s up in the outer reaches like my father used to, as a top-shelf memorial to the other writer in the family?

Because they were reminders of something few writers (or people, generally) want to know: Most of our big plans for ourselves probably won’t happen.

Still life with bunnies

Even for Uncle Bill. Trolling through louche 1970s New York City, getting hired to write for big money, living in his Cos Cob mini-mansion with a fluffy dog named Easy (for easy lay; the dog was a slut and Bill sexualized everything) – it all never quite added up to what he had in mind. So he wound up dead. And not happy dead, surrounded by loved ones in a hospice or slipping off at 92 in his sleep. He died alone on his doorstep, brains on the lawn, Luger in his hand, as two-dimensional an ending as any he ever penned.

Writers create people out of words. So why shouldn’t we create expectations out of some version of talent, the occasional break, and bits of praise? The trajectory leads ever upward. Except when its doesn’t. How we deal with the inevitable disappointments seems to make all the difference between a writing life and a bitter end.

A couple of weeks ago I made some truly half-assed attempts to track down Uncle Bill’s agent, lawyer, and other remaining cohorts. But when I heard their tired voices on my voicemail I didn’t have the heart to call them back and dredge up what I’m certain would have been mixed memories of the late William Harrington, American novelist.

I could have called my aunt, who plays piano bars down in Florida, or my cousin in Arkansas. But we’ve been out of touch for years and pestering them about their dead husband/father didn’t seem like a particularly kind way to get reacquainted.

So I didn’t make the calls or do the legwork. I cared but not that much. I already know what I need to about Uncle Bill. And now so do you. Bill Harrington was a writer who fooled himself until he couldn’t anymore. He was a good father and a perverse uncle. He lived high and died low. He was incredibly smart and sharp. He wrote and published twenty-five books.

We should all be so lucky. Right?

For an intro to Stona, click here.

21 Comments to “On William Harrington: My Uncle the Thriller Author”

  1. I’ve read this a few times now and I’m becoming obsessed! This is becoming one of my favorite pieces of writing, I think. Thank you so much, Stona!

    So do you want more of his books? Should those of us who comb thrift shops and used bookstores for oddities keep our eyes open for his titles? Or are you happier without them?

  2. Thanks, Sara (and Gerard) — that’s really nice of you. I always thought everyone had a brilliant but difficult writer/uncle in the family. Didn’t realize just how lucky I was. If you run across any of his paperbacks in your travels, I’m interested.

  3. Some of us Old Guys remember him well. I read several of his books in the ’70s, including MR. TARGET.

  4. One of the many things I love about this wonderful post is its evocation of an imagined 1970s celebratory-level NYC–it so fits my fantasy of that world, with all its big gun male authors.
    One of the other things that hits me particularly close to the bone is the dreaming-dream of writers–and the “decathalon of disappointment.” The way all that yearning and aspiration can turn, curdle, twist. And the way we try to piece these mysteries of our relations together both by the things we remember and the things we somehow, retrospectively, have come to understand. Gosh.

  5. I always grew thinking that was what a writer was! Mailer/Southern/Uncle Bill, all hanging out at Elaine’s, a pretty girl on each arm (the girls were never writers, of course!). And there always seemed to be this cruel misery underneath it all. Can I just say again how much I love this piece?

  6. I’d already copied-to-paste this beautiful sentence–

    “Writing is a decathlon of disappointment, even for writers who do well at it”

    –before I saw Megan’s comment (above), which of course takes the simple hurt of what that line evoked for ME and twists it into a more perfect and even more wrenchingly precise knot… Forgive my saying this, but I’ve long considered the writer’s life to be maybe the hardest there is–not to mythologize/romanticize it, because is digging ditches not harder? And yet none of us dreams of digging ditches, whereas almost everyone who’s *not* a writer dreams of THAT life, of what it might mean, as a mark of human accomplishment, to have written even *once,* to have carried something, anything, through all the way to the end in the way that (say) a novelist must. Of course what we REALLY imagine is the pornographic outer-layer of glamorous-ness (” “) that a William Harrington or Phillip Roth projects (ignoring, of course, the reality beneath), whatever that might be: 200 copies of your latest hard-cover face out at the old Scribners bookstore on 5th Avenue? Your acceptance speech at the National Book Awards dinner?… None of us who don’t write seriously can really begin to understand just how hard that is, or the particularity of that hard-ness, hour by hour, line by line–nor the accumulated cost of all that hard-ness and self-scrutiny over time… And then there’s the unconscious but real added weight that comes from the fantasy the rest of the world has of what you do, of how lucky you are to “just write” for a living, when you could (like the rest of us) be digging ditches, eh? How dare you complain! ………And so I wanted to give a nod to the dark & lovely–and weirdly affirming–self-portrait (or, anyway, self-characterization) of Stona that emerges both through this beautiful essay, and also from a few of his answers in the bio-sheet that accompanies it…. and hope that there really IS a way for him, and for all you writer-folk, to find sources of beauty and balance to compensate for the strain and, yes, disappointment that comes with doing what you do, so that THESE ditches, which deliver us such inspiration and nourishment, keep getting dug.

    (Yeah, I know: a real writer would’ve walked away from that fecking sentimental ‘ditch’ metaphor…on the other hand, Stona wrote about being smothered to death by 97 grandchildren–that’s plenty sentimental too, and nobody gave him any shit about *that*)

  7. Wow – great post. Like Bill I remember Harrington’s books from the 1970’s but had no idea of the sleazy, sordid reality of the man. Thanks for sharing that.

    I do remember his TOWN ON TRIAL fondly, if vaguely, as worth reading.

  8. I really must know- who are you? I am one of William Harrington’s nieces and I’m fairly certain he only had one nephew. Unless he was your “uncle” in a non-familial sense?

    • Holly — Bill married my father’s sister, so he was my uncle by marriage. To be honest, I didn’t know him that well, since he was always kept on the periphery. Though my post focuses on the less-appealing aspects of his life and work, he was truly brilliant and very funny and I’m sure he had many other much more endearing qualities. Unfortunately, I never really had the chance to find out about them. Perhaps you did. Apologies for any offense.

      • Thank you for your reply. It dawned on me just after I posted that just maybe there was family on her side- kind of a duh moment! And no way to delete. I was not offended, but taken aback by some of the similarities. That is until the realization sunk in. He did have some good qualities and was quite a wonderful story teller.

  9. I’m still trying to book an event at that Scribner’s, Hyperbolist! They keep answering the phone “Banana Republic?!?!” Are they mad? Screw it, I’m off to Elaine’s…

  10. Uh Oh. A can of worms here. I am another niece of William Harrington.
    I miss Uncle Bill, and, saying that I wish I knew him better I am glad that someone out there knew him at all and has written about him, I believe he would like that.
    I was very proud all my life of being William Harrington’s niece. For a long time I wanted desperately to be a writer. I wrote to him several times about this, he was not gentle in his replies to encourage me to seek another outlet for my artistic yearnings.
    Uncle Bill was not easy to love. His world experience was much greater than any of his nieces or his nephew. Perhaps I was largely intimidated by this, but as I grew older it did not bother me so much. The way I knew him was much the same as the way you did. He was very dapper, garrulous, heavy drinking . My father and Uncle Bill would get into drinking matches, trying to out do each other in bragging about booze, beer, world travel, women I am sure, and then they would go piss in the laundry sink.
    I too, as a child, would read his books for the naughty bits. The first was Yoshar the Soldier. I read the Jupiter Crisis, the English Lady, and several others, some were shocking to me at the time. To think Uncle Bill was so dirty!
    Thank you for the article. I think you knew him just about as well as any of us did.

  11. For the record: I am NOT one of Bill Harrington’s nephews or nieces (though they seem to be growing in number).

    This is a great piece of writing and a moving portrait. I think most of us who have spent any time at this are in, what, event five or six of the decathalon? I’ve come to realize the trick is simply to recognize that disappointment is as much a part of this gig as eye strain and carpal tunnel… so you might as well get over it, move on, and dwell instead on happier things, like the fact that you get to make shit up for a living.

    • Disappointment comes with the turf, true, just as it’s true that making shit up for a living is a privilege few enjoy. And more power to you if you’re able to shelve that disappointment and focus on the happier, healthier aspects. I just don’t know many writers (or humans generally, come to think of it, but writers especially) who can, on one hand, be as open as serious writing requires while, on the other, brush away the ____ –that magically toxic combo of insecurity and anxiety and disappointment and (yes) ego and lack of control (about the publishing side particularly)–like a spot of lint on the jacket lapel. And while most lives contain disappointment / frustration a-plenty, most other jobs aren’t played out in such a public sphere, where three years’ work (say) can and often is dismissed and/or commented upon (even moreso now, thanks to the internet) by any schmuck with a keyboard, an ax to grind, and 15 minutes to kill. I don’t know a lot of other professions where the job assessment / performance review comes from someone working for a *different* company! CPAs don’t have random dumb-asses they might run into at Starbucks commenting on whether s/he was an idiot to have amortized based on LIFO instead of FIFO in preparing somebody else’s taxes… But writers are subject to public review as a matter of course.

    • Brad — thanks for your comment. And yes, like any writer who manages to stick with it for a couple of decades, I choose to stay focused on the more positive side of the craft, like seeing a novel emerge and come into focus after night after night of writing in the dark. But that’s another angle, and no one really wants to read about someone else’s joy. At least not here.

      I’ve done my time digging the proverbial ditches (still doing a fair amount of digging, in fact), so I’m constantly thankful that writing doesn’t involve heavy lifting, handling toxic chemicals, or reporting to a despotic middle manager. That said, Hyperbolyst got it right — writing is especially prone to corrosive disappointment and rife with new opportunities for humiliation and dismissal. Keeping it all in perspective is always a challenge, as my uncle’s cautionary tale shows us.

  12. I knew Margaret Truman’s books were ghosted. It’s nice to know who one of those ghosts was. Great article.

  13. Stona, I would also like to say that, although I don’t know you well, given the little I have gotten to know you, you are a shining example of how a writer can also be kind, supportive, giving to individuals and the community, and all around a class act. It’s been a total privilege knowing you and having this piece here, and in our few, brief, encounters you’ve demonstrated to me how a writer can and probably ought to be. I’m sure you’ve had plenty of the same disappointments as your uncle in this business, but instead of discouraging younger/less experienced writers you encourage them, and instead of getting bitter and bitchy you started the awesome enterprise that is the Concord Free Press. So, not at all to be uncompassionate towards Uncle Bill, who obviously had a full slate of demons to battle, but thank YOU for showing all of us that another way is definitely possible. You are a bright light in our community and we all benefit tremendously from your presence, and I am really impressed (and moved) by how you have taken this family legacy and turned it around.

    And yes, we do want to hear about your joy here–you’ve earned it!

  14. This piece was e-mailed to me by someone who probably doesn’t know that I am already a fan of Gran-Abbott and I, too, seized on “decathlon of disappointment” as probably one of the best phrases ever written about writing.

    Relative to a lot of jobs I could name, I don’t consider a writer’s life terribly hard (to paraphrase A.A. Milne), but it has such specific disappointments. Part of the problem is that writers, being writers, are very good at (secretly) imagining great successes for themselves. Everyone does this, but no one does it better than a writer.

    But — here I come with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, yet again — I always remember Francie Nolan, watching her friend pick a gift bag at the candy shop and deciding that she had enjoyed the prize almost as much as if she had received it herself. So I enjoy my fantasies, knowing they’re fantasies, and don’t ache when they fail to come true.

    Strange corollary: The dreams that do come true never feel quite as good as you think they will.

    • It strikes me, also, that the thing no one ever tells you is that “egg timer” quality of being a writer (or at least one who wants to continue to be published)…that broody sense that something better happen soon, sooner, NOW … or here comes The Hook.
      To mix a metaphor three times over, that looming sense that there’s a steadily diminishing number of slots left on that dance card and then the dance is over, and it can be like you were never there at all.
      But, then, what a gift Stona gave to his uncle (and us) with this post, because now he’s back again, for another turn on the dance floor.

  15. Thanks so much for this great piece. I’ve enjoyed your Uncle Bill’s Columbo novels.
    Richard Rossi
    Author of the novel “Stick Man”

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