“Do Spirits Return? Will the spirit of Barbara Loden return?”

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Nathalie Léger on Barbara Loden

You have to meet Mickey Mantle, Fred Wiseman had said to me at the beginning of my research—he knew Barbara Loden when she was a dancer at the Copacabana, you should meet him, you never know. I do some digging around: in the 1950s Mickey Mantle was the most famous baseball player on the New York Yankees after Joe DiMaggio, considered to be the greatest switch hitter of all time, a true icon of working-class America. I went to Scranton where he was staying for a few days and we met at the entrance to the Houdini Museum, where he is a regular visitor. He explains to me that in this rather pathetic pantheon devoted to the king of escapology the sense of chaos is structured around a comforting idea. He takes a deep breath: “Down here things vanish.” He breathes out noisily: “But they all end up here again.” He lowers the peak of his cap and sits down on one of the benches in the lobby of the museum, which is situated inside a tiny, rickety old building at 1433 N. Main Avenue, Scranton. Behind us, beyond the table that serves as a ticket desk, the Houdini Tour is exhibited in a series of dim, untidy rooms with blacked-out windows and walls lined with old documents, posters, portraits, and prints. There are a few small mementoes, counterfeit relics, a stage, a lamé curtain, pompoms, festoons, folding chairs for the show. “Do Spirits Return? Will the spirit of Barbara Loden return?” Mickey Mantle asks me, blinking. He is old. Once upon a time he had red hair. He used to be a serial womanizer. Getting up to go to the drinks machine he rises too quickly and loses his balance. Now, standing there talking to me, small and compact, a can of Sprite in one hand, while he steadies himself against the drinks machine with the other, he appears to be concentrating on some longstanding pain. He says, “We always forget that even though he had fought against it all his life, Harry Houdini became an adept of spiritualism toward the end of his life—he became passionate about it in the crazy hope of making contact with his mother who died in 1913—around the same time, I think, that your Proust was doing the same thing with writing, isn’t that right?” I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batsman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust. He comes back and sits down next to me, stretches his leg with a grimace, then sighs as if under duress and tells me that he only became interested in all this when a publisher suggested that he write a memoir. He refused any kind of help, that would be like letting someone else take my bat, and sat down on his own to write. The hardest thing is the words, how long it takes, he says, taking a sip of his drink, the concentration you need to work out what goes with what, how to put together a single sentence.

I had no idea that shaping a sentence was so difficult, all the possible ways there are to do it, even the simplest sentence, as soon as it’s written down, all the hesitations, all the problems. How to describe the trajectory of a baseball? I spent hours on it. My friends told me to chill, just talk about the tours, the trophies, the club gossip, the alliances, the rivalries, the crazy atmosphere in town on the day of a game, all the girls you had, your house, your love for your wife and kids. But I wanted to describe the trajectory of a baseball, the air, the rustling air, the space—the hole the ball makes against the background, its shape and how it has warped by the time it reaches me, its exact line when it takes off again, that I conceive in my mind a millisecond before I hit it, afterward I don’t look at it any longer, I’ve already gone, I’m not looking at it but I keep an eye on it, that’s something else—that’s what I wanted to tell. The crowd, that great mass holding its collective breath, I wanted to talk about the surfeit, and I wanted to talk about what was missing. I read other writers to see how they did it, I read Melville and Hemingway, that was all I thought about, and that’s when the girlfriend of one of my sons, a student in the French department at New York University, gave me a translation of a sentence by a writer she was studying, something like: “The mind’s eye is turned inwards, one must strive to render inner form as faithfully as possible.” That’s how I came to read a bit of Proust, just a bit—but I still couldn’t describe the trajectory of a baseball, no more than I could describe Barbara Loden, I wouldn’t be able to make her spirit come back. Besides, I didn’t know her, her spirit I mean—maybe I glimpsed it through her body, or maybe I’m confusing it with someone else’s; air, the rustling air, the warped shape, the disappearing and reappearing of some sensation against a dark backdrop, that’s what I was looking for. I wanted to be able to do with words what I had no trouble doing with a ball, to let go at the crucial moment, to hold on and let go at the same time; Hemingway does it very well, but I couldn’t seem to manage that hair trigger movement. He drains his drink in a single gulp. Proust, fancy that. He says he would have been better off taking inspiration from Kepler’s empirical laws. I ask him if he saw Wanda when it came out. Of course not, no one saw the film in America when it came out, it was an art house movie; I only saw it much later when she had already been dead a long time and I was trying to write my life by imitating Proust and Melville. Anyway, I can barely remember her or any other girl, my memory’s shot to pieces. He raises the peak of his cap and coolly tosses the empty can into the bin behind me, in a suspended hyperbola; we hear the noise of metal sinking with a gasp into a mass of empty cups. Our conversation is over. Shaking my hand, he says: You know, Wanda and Mr. Dennis, they’re a couple of goofballs, Ahab and Bartleby traveling together—one bears a terrible grudge and the other would prefer not to; now that’s what I call real love, and I wouldn’t go beating yourself up over it. A line of people is forming for the Harry Houdini Tour. A few of them recognize Mickey Mantle—some elderly tourists approach him shyly, they would like an autograph. Another woman, who doesn’t dare speak to him, asks me with tears in her eyes if I am his daughter. The visit begins. Welcome to the Psychic Theater murmurs a gravelly voice into a microphone. The group disappears into the darkness.

This is an excerpt from from Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger, translated by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon, forthcoming October 17th from Dorothy, a publishing project.