John Updike, the literary titan who was praised and reviled in equal parts throughout his career, died today at 76. This makes me sad. I sort-of knew him a little bit, since my company represented him for speaking engagements (I was there from 2000 to 2003).
I’ll avoid getting too deep into the many controversies surrounding his literary worth, but here are a few things I can tell you about John Updike:
1. He hated talking on the phone and refused to email. At work we had to mail him letters, which he would respond to on typed 3×5 notecards. I still have one in which he doubts the wisdom of accepting a $25,000 speaking engagement for fear that he would not match the well-honed speechcraft of prior event speakers Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel Boorstin.
2. While Updike was nervous about accepting money for these things, he was also keenly aware of what others were receiving for their events. I remember being yelled at by his daughter over the phone because lesser talents like Salman Rushdie commanded more money. I don’t think he really cared about the dollar figure, but I do think he was very concerned about his place in the firmament of great literary people.
3. He was funny. After one lecture in Florida, a rich alum from a major university wrote us asking if we could obtain an autographed picture for his wife to remember Updike by, since he’d made such a good impression at the event. Updike sent us a signed picture of himself curling 10-pound dumbells in a tweed jacket and tie. The picture had clearly been developed at one of those one-hour photomat places. There was no explanation given for the dumbells.