Brief Lives: The Short Stories of Julie Hayden
By S. Kirk WalshAugust 22, 2012
The Lists of the Past by Julie Hayden
JULIE HAYDEN’S ONE AND ONLY book, The Lists of the Past, was released 36 years ago this summer by Viking Press. Ten of its stories were originally published in the pages of the New Yorker, where Hayden worked for 16 years before her death at age 42.
I discovered Hayden while driving with my husband from Los Angeles to our home in Austin, Texas. For the road trip, I had downloaded multiple podcasts, including several fiction programs from the New Yorker. Along a barren stretch of Highway 10 in southeast Arizona, we listened to Lorrie Moore read Hayden’s story “Day-Old Baby Rats.” The story follows a tormented woman as she wanders the streets and subways of Manhattan, through stores and other public spaces, and finally through the heavy doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In the darkness of a confessional, while sipping Scotch from a flask, she tries to ask a priest for help. A slightly older and more broken-down version of Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, Hayden’s nameless protagonist embodies the acute loneliness of living in Manhattan — how the distorted lens of irrational fears and past traumas can transform the city into a dangerous landscape, seemingly impossible to navigate.
By the time the story was over, my husband and I had exited the highway and parked outside a diner. Only a few cars were in the lot, which was on a hill overlooking distant mountains. It was an odd and wonderful setting in which to listen to a story that so fully took me back to New York City — where at times during my early twenties I had experienced similar loneliness and intoxication. Over burgers and fries, my husband and I talked about the emotional power and mastery of the story and how it reminded us of our lost, younger selves. Neither of us could believe that we had never heard of this extraordinary writer.
Returning home, I learned that the book was out of print (and that first editions fetch as much as $240), but was able to locate a copy of The Lists of the Past through the interlibrary loan system of my public library. Lists of the Past is divided into two sections: The first, “Brief Lives,” tell stories that range from childhood memories during wartime to unrequited affairs of the heart. In “Walking with Charlie,” a woman takes her seventeen-month-old nephew to Central Park:
I feel as though all my life I have been traveling toward this spot, to wait beside this baby at the vortex of his joy. In the spooky silvery light, everything is a clue. There are clues all around me, but I cannot interpret them. I cannot even distinguish the mystery.
In Hayden’s careful prose, indelible loss and the opposition of life’s natural beauty are closely hemmed together.
The second half of the collection, titled “Lists of the Past,” features a series of interconnected stories about a family and the death of its patriarch. Domestic lists jotted down by the father supply a haunting undercurrent throughout much of the narrative. (“Front Porch Stuff, Stain Desk, Apple Tree… Drug Stuff, Cokes, Lettuce.”) In the concluding story, “Under the Weather,” the father’s Body and Soul permanently part ways:
“Don’t go,” said Body.
“I will,” Soul said, and whizzed free as a bird up to a corner of the hospital room, where the male nurse, who was already packing, registered the rattle of his flight, the cessation of the sound of Body breathing, with clinical detachment. He looked at his watch and, closing the lid of the suitcase, went over to the bed.
After reading Hayden’s story collection, which stunned me with its vivid brilliance, I couldn’t believe that the author was seemingly forgotten. I wanted to learn more about her, so I contacted Hayden’s younger sister, Patsy Hayden Blake, and several individuals who had worked with her at the magazine during the seventies. These interviews filled in the tragedy of Julie Hayden’s life.
Hayden was the daughter of Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Phyllis McGinley and Bill Hayden, a public relations analyst at Bell Telephone. “She was a very unhappy child with all sorts of fears,” recalls Blake, who now lives with her husband in Santa Barbara. Hayden’s fears ran from tall buildings and traveling to escalators and elevators. Her studies provided a sort of refuge: Hayden attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich and then graduated cum laude in English and ancient Greek from Radcliffe.
After college, Hayden worked at Family Circle before joining the staff of the New Yorker. As the newsbreak editor at the magazine, she sifted through hundreds of newspaper clippings that arrived weekly from readers and then sent batches to E.B. White for final selection. “It’s one of those jobs that the magazine used to have for people that they liked having around,” says poet Elizabeth Macklin, who was William Shawn’s secretary during part of Hayden’s tenure. “She just wanted to concentrate on her fiction — and it was a good job for that.”
According to Blake, her sister wrote all the time, scribbling in twenty-five-cent spiral notebooks that she carried in her pocket, recording her observations of nature, birds, and later her states of suffering. (Hayden was a serious birder, with a checklist of over 600 birds despite the fact that she traveled very little.) She composed her stories on her mother’s portable Royal typewriter.
William Maxwell and his two apprentices at the time — Charles McGrath and Daniel Menaker — served as Hayden’s fiction editors. “Julie was hard to edit in the sense that she was very fragile,” recalls McGrath, who is now writer-at-large at The New York Times. “These stories came with great difficulty and meant so much to her that just the mere suggestion of changing a comma, she would start to tremble and tears would well up in her eyes.”
The stories were published in the magazine over the next five years before the collection was bought by Viking. Though there was little fanfare at the time of publication, Hayden was very pleased that the book got picked up for review in the daily section and the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times. “Julie Hayden’s stories…comprise a book of illuminations,” wrote the critic Richard R. Lingeman, “like a saint’s meditation diary.” When I recently spoke with Menaker on the phone, he compared her writing to the likes of Anne Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Mary Robison, Deborah Eisenberg, and “in a very remote way, maybe a little like Donald Barthelme.”
“During that time, the office was filled with eccentrics,” continued Menaker, author most recently of A Good Talk. “Considering that she was an original eccentric herself, Julie oddly enough fit in.”
Sadly, after the publication of The Lists of the Past, Hayden’s life spiraled downward. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent surgery, but was too scared to follow through with the prescribed chemotherapy. Her drinking worsened as Hayden attempted to steady her numerous phobias, says Blake. Two years after her diagnosis, her mother passed away. Outward signs of her increasingly troubled state persisted: She grew overweight, rarely showered, and kept odd hours. The magazine asked her to work from home for a stretch of time. “I don’t think she saw herself falling apart,” remembers Blake. “For us, it was shocking to see her loveliness and wit diminish.”
During the remaining months of her life, Hayden became a recluse and starved herself, subsisting on only cans of tuna fish and alcohol. In September of 1981, she was admitted to Columbia Presbyterian and six days later died of kidney failure. The autopsy revealed that her system was riddled with cancer. Her memorial service was held in St. Luke’s Gardens in Greenwich Village — a place that Hayden had discovered during a walk in her neighborhood when she was convalescing from surgery and on which she had written an endearing, lengthy profile, published in the New Yorker a week before her death. It was her first piece of extended reportorial writing.
“The ‘lists’ stories stand out for me,” says McGrath, “probably because I worked on them, but also because now I feel haunted by them in a way. I think about them all of the time…. Lists in the right hands have incredible power.”
Hayden’s writing also left a strong impression on Macklin over the years. “It’s that sense of absolute bedazzlement,” she says of reading “Day-Old Baby Rats” for the first time, “when you are witnessing this thing and you can’t even believe it that you had the luck that it came into your hands.”
Not long ago, I was visiting my sister in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We spent one day in Detroit and decided to stop by John King Books, the largest used bookstore in Michigan. The giant, four-story factory building overwhelmed me at first, with its endless shelves made of thick plywood and cement bricks, but before long I found myself perusing the fiction section. First, I picked up William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows and then looked for Hayden’s The Lists of the Past. I was stunned to find an almost-perfect copy for only six dollars. On the inside jacket, a penciled inscription was made out to a woman named Patsy. Readers, I couldn’t believe the book landed in my hands.
S. Kirk Walsh’s nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other print and online publications. She is a founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center for kids. Currently, Walsh is at work on a novel. She can be found on twitter: @skirkwalsh.
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