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A Mother's Tears of Laughter

By Libby Ingrid Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 15, 1998

  Style Showcase


    The Jester and Pharley begin their adventure (Copyright photos courtesy of The Jester Co. Inc.)
Imagine you have a son, 22 years old, bright, vibrant, ambitious. He dies of a massive tumor that invades his lungs, leaving a grieving family and one final creation – a children's book he wished to see published.

Imagine you publish this book (with your own money), bring it across the country (on your own steam), make it into a success in the twin grim worlds of self-publishing and children's books.

What then? Could you stand to see the story end?

Today she's had only orange juice and coffee. It's 1 p.m. when Barbara Saltzman pulls a bundled hotel napkin from one of her black bags; inside are five English muffin halves, stale from humidity. That's lunch and she's off.

Saltzman, 57, onetime entertainment editor at the Los Angeles Times and lifelong workaholic, has had nine readings, four television appearances, meetings with three senators and a four-day American Library Association convention in seven days.

"She's Joan of Arc now," says Saltzman's friend of 36 years, Anita Fisher. "This is a religious mission almost."

Driving, Saltzman tells anecdotes. She laughs a lot. She gets lost and does not get mad. To keep her sense of humor, she thinks of David.

David Saltzman. He was handsome and he shone. He spent the summer before his senior year of college studying in Greece and as his mother remembers him then, he was tanned – "a Greek god." That was the summer he conceived of the book, "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle," that would become his mother's life.

"When you have children, your life is changed forever, but I never thought my life would be so transformed as it has been since David's illness and death," says Saltzman. "It's taken on a whole new meaning and texture."

How do you gauge the texture of a changed life?

    David Saltzman Author-artist of "The Jester Has Lost His Jingle." (Copyright photos courtesy of The Jester Co. Inc.)
In Palos Verdes Estates, in the suburbs of Los Angeles, there is a house that once had a dining room, a personal office and a garage – and now, does not. There is a house that has been overtaken by a jester: a cheerful red-clothed, red-hooded, bell-laden figure and all of his trappings, the books and dolls and pins.

For Saltzman, work and life are one. She is immersed in her purpose – baptized by it, if you will. Her devotion is, after all, an act of faith. She is perpetuating her son's spirit.

In David's children's book, the Jester's mission is to bring happiness back to a world that is "cold and lonely."

The Saltzmans – Barbara, Joe and their son Michael – feel that the Jester, the central character, embodies his author. Like the David they loved, he is blond and funny and continually raising people's spirits. Despite a world turned gloomy at the start of the book, the Jester . . .

was still happy and bubbled with joy,
for he played with life as you play with a toy.
He would dance to its rhythm,
being light on his feet.
He would sing to its tune,
which was gentle and sweet.
Banished from his kingdom when the king no longer finds him funny, the Jester saves the world by making a young cancer patient laugh. (Incredibly, David thought up the story before he discovered the tumor in his own lungs.) The story's moral has to do with the individual's power to find happiness within, happiness in the face of circumstance.

David, Saltzman says, "always had the facility to walk into a room and light it up." She believes her own purpose is to bring her late son's creation to children across the country.

You should see their faces, says Joe Saltzman. When they learn of David's struggle, "kids take this message and say, if David can do it . . . I can do this."

He continues, "It's a way of introducing David to people who never knew him."

David's Illness


It started with a dry cough. It was subtle, crept up on him. His mother first noticed it sometime before his summer trip to Greece. No big deal – he was prone to bronchitis – but the cough didn't go away. She nagged him to go to the doctor; she thought he might have walking pneumonia. At school there were other symptoms: night sweats, a low-grade temperature, fatigue. In early October he went to the doctor and discovered he had Hodgkin's disease.

It was in a fairly advanced stage, Saltzman says, but Hodgkin's has a high survival rate, and her son had incredible vitality. Michael Saltzman says that as a child he was amazed by the "ferocity" of his brother's spirit: "David could will himself into a better mood." They thought maybe he could beat it.

That will of his, it was strong. David stayed at Yale his senior year, undergoing radiation and chemotherapy, taking classes, giving tours of the campus and working on his children's book. The disease went into remission briefly when he graduated (magna cum laude) and then came back. He returned home, had a bone marrow transplant.

At some point, it seems, he accepted the prospect of death with what family friend Jo Panitch describes as incredible fortitude.

Panitch says David used to visit her during this time. "He wanted to talk about dying," she says. He "taught me so much about accepting life and taking life and every day on every level."

At home, his parents set up the garage as a studio for David's work. He believed in it. He was going to finish that book.

And he did.

He died in March, still tweaking the completed work.

David's Book


Saltzman is a self-described perfectionist who "mother bear"-ed her son's work.

"I was protective and nurturing and guiding without being overwhelming I hope," she says – then momentarily departing from her careful poise – "and I was gonna be damned if I was gonna let anybody destroy the essence of him . . . which was this book."

David's family promised him they would publish the book after his death, and they did. Published it themselves when the big houses wouldn't take it, when they said its length, rhyme and proposed high quality were expensive and unmarketable.

Saltzman, Joe, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California, and Michael, a writer and executive producer at NBC, paid for the first run of 30,000 copies with a $250,000 second mortgage and donations from friends. They incorporated as the Jester Co. in 1994.

Since the book's first printing in late 1995, they've sold 250,000 copies. Says Diane Robuck, children's book editor at Publishers Weekly, that is "an impressive number of copies for a book that's only been out three years, especially given the fact that it's self-published."

In March 1996, less than a year after the book's first printing, it peaked at No. 16 on the New York Times bestseller list. "The Jester" was among the top 10 bestselling children's picture books for the month of January, according to Publishers Weekly.

With proceeds from "The Jester," the Saltzmans pay their costs and tiny staff of four, and fund donations of the book, mainly to pediatric cancer clinics around the country. Either directly or through other organizations, they've donated 25,000 books thus far.

They have close to half a million dollars in "floating" debt, in part because they must pay all their production costs up front. Saltzman hopes ultimately to get the company out of debt, but for now all the money they make from the $20 book goes directly into manufacturing and operating costs to keep it in print. Saltzman quit her job in 1996. She draws no salary. She does this full time.

This, meaning the traveling and the readings and the donations. This, meaning five to 10 days away from her home each month – days spent in hospitals and schools and bookstores in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, Oklahoma City . . . and now, Washington. This: the television shows ("Good Morning America," "The Today Show," "CNN Today"), the rental cars, the getting lost, the stale muffins, the early mornings and full days. Sometimes she leaves the hotel bathroom light on so if she wakes in the night, she'll know where she is.

She knows ISBN numbers and bar codes, foreign and domestic shipping, title pages and copyright pages. She knows doll production because, by the way, there's a Jester doll.

She's "very accommodating, very sweet, very accepting," says her friend Fisher, "so the fact that she can battle the dragons is a complete contradiction." She is, after all, a one-woman public relations, advertising and promotions crew.

She even drives a van complete with the Jester and his scepter sidekick Pharley, the book's main characters, painted on its side. People pull up on the highway, says Joe Saltzman, roll down their windows and yell, "We love your book!"

They call it the "Jestermobile."

His Mother's Dedication


"I have never seen a family work as well as this family did," remembers family friend Panitch. Michael Saltzman says of his parents, "They nurtured any curiousity we had and it was very encouraging."

These days, Barbara Saltzman starts work in her dining room office at 8 a.m. and often stays on through midnight. She says the only thing that takes her away from the Jester is her 2-year-old granddaughter.

This devotion explains much of the book's success. As one industry insider says, "It would be unrealistic to expect any publishing house to give [the book] this kind of attention."

For readings and appearances, Saltzman wears a fuchsia top and dark suit (her "uniform," in the Jester's colors), and a Jester pin on her lapel. She drags around three hefty black bags that seem to contain everything and then some – like those tiny clown cars at the circus.

His Mother's Indomitable Will


"I thought it was just a mother's grief talking," says Joe Saltzman. He is recalling his first reaction to his wife's plans for the "Jester" manuscript after David's death. He loved his son's work, but had doubted the possibilities for its success in the publishing world. What they did not want, he says he knew then, was to publish a vanity book.

He became a convert to the cause while witnessing the development of the book and the initial public reaction to it, which he calls "a firestorm."


"I don't believe in burying it," Saltzman says of her grief. "It energizes me."

People do seem to have uncommonly strong reactions to "The Jester," not least because of the emotional potency of the story behind the story. Grief is a great unifying force. Saltzman tells of people who approach her at readings and conventions, tearful sometimes, and grateful. They have lost mothers and sons and daughters. They tell of illnesses and accidents and the years afterward, and they ask her, "How do you cope with it?"

"I don't believe in burying it," Saltzman says of her grief. Yes, she misses David, desperately sometimes, most of all on happy occasions – at Michael's wedding, at the birth of her granddaughter. Yet this work is her balm. "It energizes me."

And she's not stopping. Saltzman sees herself doing this for another 10 years at least. She plans to translate the book into other languages, and expand the Jester line into toys, clothing, a cartoon show, a drama. She wants to publish David's journals and some of his unfinished kids' books. She wants to establish the Jester Co. so that it can continue past her lifetime.

She believes, in fact, that "The Jester" "will become a staple of children's literature," taking its place beside the works of Maurice Sendak and Dr. Seuss.

Certainly "The Jester's" remarkable success bodes well for its future, and yet, it owes much of its success to its history and its spokeswoman. The book itself is sweet, but some might say it borders on the sentimental. Its happy ending is perhaps too easily attained, even for a children's book:

Whenever I feel like crying,
I smile hard instead!
I turn my sadness upside down
and stand it on its head!
The Jester is lively, but does not reveal the sort of imaginative leaps that classic children's books take. Remember the clever metamorphoses of Margaret Wise Brown's "The Runaway Bunny," the impish goodness of Margret and H.A. Rey's "Curious George"? Timeless children's books are few and far between.

Yet in her unqualified confidence in "The Jester," Saltzman reveals the most striking feature of her story. What a will, what a ferocious will. What loyalty and what faith and what transformative power are necessary to turn the loss of a son into a book, a business, a daily endeavor. To bring a tale of triumph to thousands of children.

This is about more than David's achievement. This is about his mother's.

The Comfort of Laughter


Just before her first reading at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Saltzman is arranging her suit jacket and her bags and her mental faculties in the heat of the parking garage. She's just unclipped two curlers that were perched at the sides of her head, in defiance of the weather.

"Only an insane person would do this," she says, rifling through a bag to find the name of her contact.

In the recreation therapy playroom, there is cake and sherbet-and-ginger-ale punch. Saltzman starts by asking the children if they have brought their smiles with them. She's got different voices for the Jester, sidekick Pharley, a grumpy King, a grumpy bum, a grumpy cigarette-smoking subway commuter. She fairly hums with energy.

In his author's note to "The Jester," David Saltzman writes of the day he learned of his cancer. In the midst of crying, he suddenly imagined the Jester coming to his aid. At the Jester's suggestion David began to laugh, marveling at "how silly and scary and wonderful this world of ours is." He had created something that could lend him comfort in the face of mortality. This same creation lends strength and purpose to his mother's days.

At the crucial scene, when the Jester makes a child with cancer in a hospital bed laugh, Saltzman starts to laugh herself, loudly and sincerely. It's not part of the text. She just laughs.

People seem startled. She keeps laughing, the open book shaking in her hands. It's infectious, and some children start to giggle.

And there is something downright funny about it: this dark-suited woman, standing before all these children, laughing very hard because of nothing at all. Or perhaps, because all of this – this life – is to be laughed at.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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