Category Archives: Writing

Writers in the Family

Azor, published in 1948

Azor, published in 1948

I’ve got to credit my mother, Maude Crowley, for setting me on the path to becoming a writer. Not only did she insist that my childhood speech be perfect in grammar and syntax, but she wrote five children’s books. The Azor series, published between 1948 and 1955, featured the exploits of a Marblehead boy much like me and his friends who were based on my pals Chris and Erik Brown.  My father, Joe Crowley, a Boston newspaper editor, was also an expert in spelling and grammar. He reinforced my mother’s teaching and corrected me on anything she missed, which wasn’t much.

My mother and her sister Therese had graduate degrees in journalism from Columbia University in New York.  Both worked as reporters in New York, and Therese co-wrote a study of laundry workers there. In 1931 she married a young reporter for the New York World, Joe Mitchell, who became a celebrated writer for the New Yorker. Disdaining celebrities, he wrote with compassion about obscure and eccentric New Yorkers, turning them into memorable characters. “Joseph Mitchell transformed journalism into art,” wrote Newsweek in its 1992 review of Up in the Old Hotel, a long-awaited collection of his work.

Nora Mitchell (age 6) and Dave (age 7) in Marblehead. Therese Mitchell photo.

Nora Mitchell (age 6) and Dave (age 7) in Marblehead in 1946. Therese Mitchell photo.

I saw my uncle at least twice a year during our family visits to New York and when he came to Marblehead with Therese and my cousins Nora and Elizabeth.  We last met in New York in 1993, just after the publication of Up in the Old Hotel.  Joe was gloomy as he often was, and as we walked the back streets around the Fulton Fish Market he said, “You know, David, there just aren’t any people left in New York like the ones I wrote about.”

Before he died in 1996 he had agreed to a film based on his work. Joe Gould’s Secret appeared in 2000 and featured Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Ian Holm as Gould, a literate and cultured inhabitant of Greenwich Village who lived like a derelict.  On February 11, 2013, The New Yorker published “Street Life” a fragment of Joe’s unfinished memoir, discovered by Thomas Kunkel who is writing his biography.

Therese who died in 1980 was a professional photographer, and in 2002 my cousin Nora published a collection of her mother’s photos from New York in the 1930s along with quotes her father’s books.  In her introduction, Nora wrote,

…I read them [reissues of Joe’s books] closely for the first time in years, with my mother’s pictures freshly in my mind, I was overcome by the traces of each in the other. The words and music were such perfect companions that putting them together became an almost obsessive exercise. As I watched them watching the men on lunch break and the shoeshine boys and the unemployed men at Union Square and the waiter writing the day’s menu on the restaurant window, they were resurrected. (©The Recorder, The Journal of the American Irish Historical Society, Spring 2002)

Jospeph Mitchell tells Dave's daughter Hanna a about the South Street Seaport in New York

Joe Mitchell and Dave’s daughter Hanna at the South Street Seaport in 1976

Some people, like Nora, who don’t write often for publication, have no trouble expressing themselves when they speak of people they love.  I can say the same about my daughter Hanna who reached the difficult decision in 2001 to send my special-needs granddaughter to a boarding school:

It was as if somebody pumped oxygen into her finally and all of the other children as well and she felt comfortable to be what she is…When it came time for my husband and I to leave, we looked around for her to say, “good-bye.” We finally found her surrounded by a group of boys and girls, who were all talking, laughing and having fun. We did not want to break up the party, so we stood back, watched, and cried in happiness over this vision of her contentment. Finally, one kid noticed us and poked her to let her know that her parents were standing by. She extracted herself and ran over and we let her know we were leaving and she gave us both big hugs. My husband and I cried, but she did not. She said, “Mom, don’t worry about me, I’ll do great!” And, she is. (© Woodbury Reports, Inc “Was It The Right Decision?” Hanna Ryan, April 2001)

Next week: Dave’s grandfather and Theodore Roosevelt

More About Writing

Gallows Hill Stories

Recollections published in the Recorder, Fall 2003

I started writing these memoir pieces in 1997, when I submitted my account of a visit to Marblehead to a St. Louis hobby magazine. I picked it up again after my mother died in 2000. In 2003 The Recorder, published by the Irish-American Historical Society, printed some of my father’s recollections along with an introduction I wrote. After my retirement in 2005 I began taking writing and other classes at Washington University’s Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI). And In June 2007, I attended the Washington University Summer Writers Institute.

My grandfather had written a short memoir, Growing Up In Norway, and with his inspiration, I began writing my own. It is now in second draft form and I hope to polish it enough over the coming academic year to submit it to literary agents.

I teach night school courses at Washington University in the fall, winter and spring which limits most of my writing to the summer when I have time. Last summer The Marblehead Reporter published a short piece about an eccentric woman I knew growing up there. I’ve submitted five more articles to the Reporter which I hope they will publish over the course of the year while I’m teaching.

I get great feedback on my writing from fellow Washington University Lifelong Learning students and from members of another group I joined at a bookstore in St. Louis.

Next week: Writers in my family and my connection to The New Yorker.