Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Interview: James Hart, author of "Lucky Jim"

Author James Hart did not want to harm anyone else in the writing of his heartbreaking memoir "Lucky Jim," (Cleis Press, 238 pages, $17.95), which he will read from Thursday at the State Museum, part of the New York State Writers Institute fall programming.

"But I also knew I needed to be completely honest," said Hart, who grew up in Troy, "and that was going to be tricky. Many of the people in my story were famous. I love and care about a lot of them."

One of the most important people in his life he did not want to harm was his ex-wife, singer Carly Simon. They were married for 20 years.

"I called her early on in the writing of the book," he said in an interview. "I was terrified that my words were going to hurt her and she said, 'I don't care. Just write the truth. That's all I wanted from you from day one.' "

The book, which was released in April, begins on a train platform in Hudson. Hart had just spent the day with his severely handicapped son, Eamon, at a camp for disabled children, and now he was returning to New York City, where he lived. Simon was standing on the same platform with a mutual friend of Hart's, who introduced the two of them.

"I was single at the time, and I knew she was somebody, an actress maybe. I was stunned by her beauty right away," he said. "There were 20 other people at the Hudson train station staring at her as well. They were staring at the celebrity Carly Simon. They knew who she was, but I was looking at her as a beautiful woman."

Hart writes honestly about his love for Simon and the happiness they had together, but he also writes about his many addictions and his increasing struggle to confront his sexuality.

"Carly has read the drafts of the book all along. I know it's difficult for her to read about her then-husband exploring the gay world with crack and cocaine. That's not something Carly would be rushing to read, but she understands that's the story. The two of us were so right together and so wrong, so perfectly matched and so perfectly unmatched."

Hart admits that he and Simon had options. "I suppose I could have stayed in the closet and maintained some sort of deep relationship with Carly, but that would have been extraordinarily unfair to both of us. We really tried hard to keep our lives together, but in the end Carly and I couldn't live that kind of lie."

In the writing of this book Hart came to realize how the various parts of his life were connected in ways he had never thought about before.

"Despite all my psychological defenses, I've been attracted to honesty my whole life," he said. "As a young man, my trip to the seminary to become a priest was a search for honesty and discovery. I've had to do a lot of 12-step work on myself, not because I wanted to, but because I had to in order to survive."

Hart writes about a lot of personal pain in this book. His early life was filled with brutal violence on a daily basis delivered by his alcoholic father. His son suffered from a seizure disorder that brought about many physical challenges every day that made loving him difficult, and Hart is unsparing in writing about the degradations he brought on himself with alcohol, drugs and sex.

When Hart met Simon, he was an insurance salesman, an everyman. When they were married, he entered the elite world of Martha's Vineyard with its fame and celebrity. He met the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton, film director Mike Nichols and author William Styron.

"Carly and I didn't have a thousand celebrity friends. We had 10 celebrity friends. We weren't searching for celebrity friends," he said. "The truth is a lot of celebrities are people you really don't want to hang out with."

Hart believes fame and celebrity was not the great gift of his life; it was his son.

"On a daily basis, Eamon displayed a terrifying grace, even though he was physically broken. I didn't want to go there. He forced me to find the ways to love him, and he found the ways to love me."
The word "lucky" in the title refers to the many mentors and friends who have helped to save and shape him into the man he is today. "Mike Nichols and Bill Styron didn't have to be my friend, but they were. They didn't need me. Bill Kennedy has also been a close friend of mine since 1974, long before he was the famous writer. He's helped a lot in my development as a writer. He's very rare. Once you're his friend, he never lets a friend go. He's an incredibly positive guy, and he has a great deal of humility."

Hart said he is looking forward to his reading on Thursday.[Editor's note: James Hart visited the NYS Writers Institute on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017.]

"It's kind of a homecoming for me," he said. "So much of my life was spent in Albany. My son lived there through the years. I have many good friends there. I can't imagine a place I'd rather do a reading at. It's like reading to my family."
Jack Rightmyer is a regular contributor to the Times Union.