It was the party for James Jones' "Whistle," the novel Jones wrote from his deathbed, and it might have been a tearful, even dreary event, but that, his friends agree, would not have pleased James Jones.
So instead, it was, as Ralph ellison put it, somewhat like "an old Irish wake" or, as Irwin Shaw put it, "a celebration." Three hundred of the late author's famous friends, including writers such as Elia Kazan, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Willie Morris and Norman Mailer, gathered Wednesday night for a black-tie gala at a Manhattan armory --a fitting location, for a party for a writer whose main works had dealt with warfare. They came to exchange stories of Jones' generosity and boozing, to recall his talent ("From Here to Eternity," "The Thin Red Line") and praise his name, and to finish for him what he couldn't finish himself.
Guests, most of whom were friends, were welcomed on arrival in a receiving line led by Gloria Jones, a high-spirited blond woman in a dress touched with gold, who, joined by children Jamie, 17, and Kaylie, 18, yelled out warm hellos. "The very successful Betty comden," she yelled, "the famous Norman Mailer," "my famous lawyer." Other famous guests included such socially hot items as Jacqueline Onassis, escorted by artist William Walton, Barbara Walters, who had interviewed Jones twice on the "Today" show and pronounced him "warm and forthcoming," and Woody Allen, who did not know Jones, but came as the guest of Jean van den Heuvel, and would later, in sweet and friendly fashion chide reporters for eavesdropping on guests.
"She removed a gun from her bag," projected Woody Allen as a reporter rummaged in her bag.
Allen, one of the few guests out of black-tie uniform, was dressed in cream sports jacket with leather patches at the elbows, a work shirt, and pleated, baggy corduroy trousers worn Annie Hall style. He said he hadn't known it was going to be a media event, hadn't even known it was going to be black tie, that he'd just been asked to a party.
The crowd was a paparazzi's dream, or, as New Yorker writer Wilfred Sheed put it, standing off to one side looking somewhat amused, "like one of those cartoons where everybody has a number on them."
Walter Cronkite talked shop (anchormen as stars) with Mike Wallace; Woody Allen talked shop (Academy Awards) with Shirley MacLaine ("I knew Jimmy in Paris in the '60s, I think we were both drunk," said McLaine, in memoriam.) Lauren Bacall and Lee Radziwill nuzzled (not simultaneously) the bald head of the diminutive Irving Lazar ("5 feet 4 1/2 inches," he reported. "No, let's say 5 feet 3 inches"). Elaine Kaufman, proprietor of the chic Manhattan literary hangout that bears her name (Elaine, not Kaufman) said Gloria Jones was "one of the great hostesses" and took confession from Ellison. "I've never been to your place," said Ellison, "because I'm intimidated."
There was Budd Schulberg (who had introduced Gloria and James Jones). tom wolfe, Frank Yablans, Sen. Jacob Javits, Sargent Shriver, and Mike Nichols. There was time executive Henry Grunwald asking Woody allen if he'd write a piece about the Academy Awards. (Allen, up for the Academy triple crown --best writer, director, actor -- looked pleased and said he'd think about it.) There was Norman Mailer in attendance though Irwin Shaw said he and Jones had been on the outs for 15 years. "I'm here because I respect his work . . . to honor him," said Mailer, who was on good behavior for the party and did not hit anyone. He added that Jones was one of the few American writers. "I learned something from, oh, excuse me, from whom I learned something." Which was? "Distance."
"If he were alive," said Jones' close friend Shaw, "he wouldn't need this party; he'd go and give a lot of interviews. But he's not here so we're doing it for him. so it's a publication party, but it's also a tribute to a man unfairly treated by critics, sort of a vote of confidence."
"Whistle" was to have been the final book in Jones' world War II trilogy. The story, of wounded soldiers returning to civilian life, was a book Jones had worked on, off and on, for over 30 years. And a few weeks before his death last May, Jones left notes and tapes for the book's completion. The last three chapters, based on those notes, were completed by Morris. Still largely unreviewed, "Whistle" was called by Newsweek "Jones' best novel in 16 years."
The party, to celebrate the novel's completion, was Gloria Jones' idea. She was joined in her role as host by writers Shaw Styron and Morris, by Jones' agent Irving "Swifty" Lazar and Helen Meyer, of Delacorte Press, Jones' publisher. The tab for the party, which included a buffet supper of beef florentine, striped bass and citrus mousse, was picked up by Delacorte, according to Lazar, who is quite good on financial matters.
The party was reflective of the very social life of James and Gloria Jones. They had been famous for their allnight poker games in their wonderful house on the Ile St. Louis in Paris. Their little farm house in the potato fields of fashionable Sagaponack, Long Island ("Chateau Spud"), served as a gathering spot for New York literary heavy hitters in the last two years. "It was the sort of house where they always had a ham or a roast beef in the oven," one guest at the party recalled.
Spirits quieted somewhat after dinner in the officer's mess, when Lauren Bacall, Kevin McCarthy and Martin Gabel read from Jones' work, and Shaw led the toasts.
"We're not here to mourn," said Shaw. "We're here to celebrate. What we're celebrating is the completion of a massive monument, created by one indomitable man, out of his talent, his persistence and courage."
Willie Morris added his tribute. "I say the death of a great artist isn't the end, it's a turning point . . . It removes him from the whims and fashions of the day."
Festive spirits resumed shortly after when Gloria Jones told the crowd it was Shaw's 65th birthday, and the room broke into, "Happy Birthday Dear Irwin."
"Thank you," Shaw responded graciously. "I go on Social Security next week."
By 1 a.m. the party was still going strong, few people were dancing, most gathered around the bar.
Heller talked about how in the last days of Jones' illness, he had sent Jones a tape recorder and Jones had insisted on paying for it, and about the time, during the Paris days, when a writer friend had gotten into trouble gambling, and ones raised the $10,000 or $15,000 to get him out of jail. Sheed, a neighbor of Jones' on Long Island, recalled Jones as a "very courteous man," a man who didn't hold a grudge and never mentioned to him his tough review of "Go to the Widow Maker," though Jones remembered it well.
"It's an unusual sort of situation," said Sheed, looking around the party. "It's a situation like the one at his funeral; he's gone, but you don't want to be sentimental, because he was not sentimental. He was just a terribly nice fellow. And how do you see a nice fellow off?"