Here's how to get four books published simultaneously: Like Michael Straight, just do it yourself. All you need is a minor case of the frustrated-writer syndrome and a fair amount of money -- say $25,000 or so.
Both of which Straight had a year ago when he created Devon Press, a rather teeny publishing company that operates out of a house in California and a borrowed desk near Wall Street.
"We're barely solvent," sighed Straight, who has inherited scads of money from his parents.
Nonetheless, last night this former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts celebrated the publication of his and Devon's latest: "Twigs for an Eagle's Nest," "Caravaggio," "Trial by Television" and "Happy and Hopeless."
"Admittedly," he admitted, "if I'd been living on an artist's salary, I couldn't have done it."
The party was held in the neighborhool of the general nonfiction shelves at the Discount Records and Books store in Chevy Chase. Brie cheese was served near the hot-selling paperbacks and the champagne flowed in front of the children's books section.
One of the main-party activities, besides congratulating the author and poking through the shelves, was to flip through one of Straight's books and look for mention of yourself.
Which was what occupied Alan Jabbour, a former cohort of Straight's at NEA.
"That's me," he said proudly, pointing to a passage in "Twigs" that said: "On the third occasion in the summer of 1976, a number of others chose to leave the Endowment." Jabbour then bought the book, saying he'd take it home to check it out further.
The book takes on the Arts Endowment for funding projects like an ink-drip from Hayley, Idaho to Cody, Wyo., which supposedly served as a commemoration of the birthplace of Ezra Pound and Jackson Pollock. Last night, the party attracted lots of current and past Arts Endowment sorts, Rep. John Brademas (D-Ind.) and tennis partners, college buddies and family of the author.
Included in the college contingent was Center for Hellenic Studies director Bernard Knox, who hung around with Straight when both were at Cambridge in England. "We organized the overthrow of the British bourgeoisie, but we didn't quite succeed," said Knox, who was flipping through "Caravaggio" when he spotted an absorbing line.
"'And didn't she get pregnant?'" he recited with dramatic feeling from the book, which is actually a play.
From the family contingent came Michael Straight Jr., who, when prodded a bit, dredged up an anecdote about the family newspaper all the Straight kids used to publish on Martha's Vineyard in the summer.
"It was called the Greenspring-Menemsha Gazette," said Straight Jr., who's a lawyer with the FTC. "I wrote the Exciting Adventures of the Egg Man."
Straight's wife Nina, formerly an Auchincloss and a relation to novelist Gore Vidal, came late. Her excuse was a law class at American University. g
And was she going to read any of her husband's books? "I mean, listen," she said, "if I got into the habit of reading my relatives, I'd never do anything else."
Of the other three books, "caravaggio" is a play about the painter, "Trial" is an updated, enlarged version of Straight's earlier book on the McCarthy trials and "Happy and Hopeless" is a love story that takes place during the JFK administration.
Incidentally, that last one sat around in Straight's top desk drawer for years. "I was told it was unpublishable because nothing happened," he said. "There isn't a rape or a murder in it."