It was a beautiful Carolina Sunday yesterday and a wonderful afternoon for a memorial service. Inside the Law School Auditorium at the University of South Carolina, it seemed apropos that a giant photograph of Dr. Matthew J. Bruccoli, peering out at the assembled crowd, dominated the stage. You wondered if he was going to scowl and order us to immediately return to our normal tasks. I guestimate that around 300 to 400 of Bruccoli’s friends, colleagues, and former employees showed up to honor this larger-than-life dynamo and scholar, who left us too early last June. The memorial was wonderfully done; I think he would have liked it. Moderated by Australian author (friend and colleague in the USC English department) Janette Turner Hospital, it featured tributes from authors John Jakes and Budd Schulberg, as well as by USC President Harris Pastides, publisher Frank Menchaca, and life-long friend Michael Lazare. The short video clips that bracketed the tributes were very nice, especially the closing section, of Dr. B lecturing to a small group of students. I wish they had played a little of the jazz that Bruccoli loved so much.
Dr. Bruccoli was the foremost authority on the life and work of F. Scott Fitzgerald, as well as O’Hara, Hemingway, Heller, Chandler, Cozzens, Millar/Macdonald, and a host of other twentieth-century literary figures. He specialized in several genres (ranging from hard-boiled fiction to graphic novels). More than anything else, he considered himself a teacher. He wrote or edited hundreds of volumes, including the premier literary reference work, the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and he loved his role as publisher, producing many additional works, both through the University of South Carolina Press and his own company, Bruccoli Clark Layman. He developed and donated several library collections, the most important being the wealth of Fitzgerald and WWI items that now reside at USC (but he managed to pull in the papers of many other writers as well). He fumed and stormed when others ("bookdopes") disagree with his assessment of collections and failed to come up with funds to purchase the important ones. He seemed to know everyone in the publishing business and dozens of important writers as well. He was great friends with (and later the literary executor for) poet and novelist James Dickey. And he had many other interests: cars, boxing, movies, good food.
I had the honor and pleasure of working for Dr. Bruccoli for the last decade. It was a stressful job at times; many people reacted with disbelief and surprise that I seemed so normal or lasted so long after working daily next to such a tornado of energy. But I got to know some of the real man (I firmly believe that impressions many had of him were deliberately projected by him in a theatrical sense) and I will always remember him with affection and awe. True, I steeled myself for his dramatic arrivals, cringed if he came to work in a bad mood (often), and worriedly prepared answers to the cascade of yellow legal-size papers with handwritten noted signed MJB that often littered my desk when I arrived (especially Monday mornings, when the pile left for me from his work during weekends was greatest). His slamming of the front door was unique and resonated throughout the who building---everyone damn well better know that he had arrived and was ready for his audiences. I also had to be ready for last-minute inquiries (he wanted it right, and he wanted it right now). Yes, he was hardly perfect (though he would disagree). There were many times, however, when he quietly helped me (and many others) out with personal problems.
He dominated my recent life (and I strove to live up to his demands, almost like trying to please a dictatorial father), as he did many others, insisting that I do the best work I could do. He was a force of nature. For the last five or so years, I was in close---nearly daily---contact with him at BCL. It was my job to answer and write up his email correspondence (which he hated), do research (often on the "telly"), and keep him up-to-date on the status of forthcoming volumes. I really was little more than a clerk in the grand scheme of things (though I also editied, indexed, and performed many other tasks). Yet, he graciously listened to my ideas and suggestions, some of which he accepted and then turned into volumes. Even when he disagreed with a proposal, he seemed happy that I was coming up with ideas. Over the past two years I helped sell his large collection of personal books (I have held in my hands some of the most-rare and unique items related to literature). One of my most-fond memories will be spending nearly three hours sitting and chatting with him at a book conference last Spring. Although he could angrily go after people who he felt had not accomplished some task, often over small mistakes (though strangely, he often was less angry when some people really screwed up), he surprisingly never really took me to task (and I certainly would have deserved his wrath a few times). Somehow I was blessed. Still, I always feared that my turn on the docket was forever one arrival away.
I think one reason he seemed to like me is that I too love books. He knew that I was an avid reader, even if my preferences were far different from his. He often picked up and perused whatever volume I was currently engaged in, and even suggested others (I probably never would have tried O’Hara or Le Carre). More often than not he was familiar with the book or writer to some degree (even foreign volumes, for which he had less interest). He introduced me to the Armed Services Editions (which I now collect). I managed to find a couple of ASEs he was lacking in completing the full run (now at USC) and have even donated several items (letters, sheet music, books) that I discovered and bought to his WWI collection (he always offered to reimburse me, but I liked being even a small part of his world). Although he would like you to have believed that he preferred dogs over humans, especially kids, he was always nice to my sons when we came in on the weekends. They were very sad when they watched him on the video clips.
It is amazing that I lasted so long working for him; I really feared that I would not last the first three months at BCL. I think I cannot be corrected in saying the he notched up the tension in any room with his arrival, but he insisted on the best and was most often the center of attention (with the exception of when writers were present). I recall the first time I met him, standing in front of his workstation at the front entrance of BCL. He looked up and took me in, but didn’t really address me, other than to say hello. Then he turned to his secretary: he had been asking her to find a phone number. When she exasperatingly said that she could not find it, he yelled, "THEN MAKE ONE UP!" I nearly turned and walked out the door---thankfully I didn’t. He often told me that I was getting the greatest free education any person could get. And there is much truth in that assertion. He had an amazing memory and was seldom wrong (when he was, he often would not acknowledge it!), and I have never met a more opinionated person. I still remember once correcting him (a dangerous thing to do) on some fact relating to FDR (one of my heros, though MJB disliked him); just after I did so, nearly shaking as I quietly berated myself for my stupidity in opening my mouth, he just looked at me with a bemused reaction, but surprisingly he didn’t explode. . .I guess because for once, I had been right. He always grinned when I hit him with one of my bad puns.
In fact, he was a funny and amusing man when he wanted to be, if you paid attention. There was definitely a sense of the theatrical in him. Sometimes his humor bordered on the cruel, and he could shock you, but once you got to know him, he was quite witty. Many of his sayings and jokes you ended up memorizing. He could have succeeded in any realm: he would have been a domineering general, a fearsome bishop, a terrifying industrialist. . .but thankfully, as he said in one video clip, he was a master caretaker and promoter of literature. Those who knew or met him, no matter their reaction, will never forget him.
I miss Dr. Bruccoli. I will always remember him. I know right now he has the angels in an uproar!
Here he is with poet James Dickey, probably late 1990s, probably at Capital City Club.