Paula Fox, a prizewinning author who created high art out of imagined chaos in such novels as “Poor George” and “Desperate Characters” and out of the real-life upheavals in her memoir “Borrowed Finery,” died March 1 at a hospital in Brooklyn. She was 93.
The death was confirmed by a daughter, Linda Carroll. The cause was not disclosed.
Abandoned as a girl by her parents, a single mother before age 20, Ms. Fox used finely crafted prose to write again and again about breakdown and disruption, what happens under the “surface of things.”
In “Poor George,” her 1967 debut novel, Ms. Fox told of a bored schoolteacher and the teen vagrant who upends his life. “Desperate Characters” (1970), her most highly regarded work of fiction, is a portrait of New York City’s civic and domestic decline in the 1960s, a plague symbolized by the bite of a stray cat.
“It seems to me that in life, behind all these names and things and people and forces, there’s a dark energy,” Ms. Fox told the Associated Press in 2011.
Her work was out of print for years, but she enjoyed a late-life revival thanks to the admiration of such younger authors as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. She lived for decades in Brooklyn and was a revered figure in the New York City borough’s thriving literary community.
Ms. Fox wrote more than a dozen children’s books, including “The Slave Dancer,” winner of the Newbery Medal in 1974. Her other books included the novels “A Servant’s Tale” (1984), “The Western Coast” (1972) and a 2005 memoir about living in Europe after World War II, “The Coldest Winter.” “Borrowed Finery,” her 2001 memoir, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.
She might have written more novels, but a head injury suffered in a mugging in Jerusalem in the 1990s left her unable to write long fiction. She instead began working on memoirs and shorter pieces.
Paula Fox was born April 22, 1923, in New York City. Both of her parents were screenwriters.
She remembered her father, Paul Fox, as a drunkard given to “interminable, stumbling descriptions of the ways in which he and fellow writers tried to elude domesticity.” She described her mother, Elsie de Sola Fox, as a “sociopath” who kicked her out of the house as a young girl.
While growing up, Ms. Fox lived everywhere from a plantation in Cuba to a boarding school in Montreal. She studied piano at the Juilliard School in New York.
“My life was incoherent to me,” she wrote in “Borrowed Finery.” “I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth.”
Living in Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s, she danced with John Wayne and encountered John Barrymore, “yellowing with age like the ivory keys of a very old piano.” Marlon Brando was a friend.
Ms. Fox had a brief marriage as a teenager. At 19, she gave up a daughter, Carroll, for adoption. Carroll is the mother of singer Courtney Love.
A devoted reader since childhood, Ms. Fox did not publish a book until she was past 40. She worked for years as a teacher and as a tutor for troubled children and was married briefly for a second time, to Richard Sigerson, with whom she had two sons.
She settled down with her third husband, translator and Commentary editor Martin Greenberg, whom she met after he had rejected a story she submitted for the magazine. Greenberg’s brother, Clement Greenbert, was among the 20th century’s most influential art critics.
In “The Coldest Winter,” Ms. Fox wrote that living abroad had liberated her mind, “showing me something other than myself.” Her early fiction included the stories “Lord Randall” and “The Living,” narrated in a colloquial style by black characters and published in the mid-1960s by Negro Digest. In “The Slave Dancer,” a young boy is captured and forced onto a slave ship.
“I’ve never been a slave. I’ve never been black. I was never on a ship,” Ms. Fox told the AP. “But I have a certain narrow understanding of certain kinds of characters, and of evil and kindness and goodness and tenderness.”
By the 1990s, her work was forgotten by all but her most determined admirers — one of whom was Franzen. The future author of “Freedom” and “The Corrections” came upon “Desperate Characters” while at the Yaddo writers colony in 1991. In a Harper’s magazine essay about American fiction, he called “Desperate Characters” an overlooked masterpiece.
Author Tom Bissell, then a paperback editor at W.W. Norton, read the essay and wondered why he hadn’t heard of the novel. He looked in stores, without luck, and finally got in touch with Ms. Fox, who sent him one of her copies. Norton has since reissued all of her adult novels, with introductory essays by Franzen and others.
“I’d never heard of Paula Fox, except as an author of children’s books, before an editor pushed ‘Desperate Characters’ at me three years ago,” Lethem wrote in his introduction to “Poor George,” republished in 2001. “Three years later she’s a favorite, and an influence on my own work.”
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