— W. C. Fields
THE IDEA OF HAVING one last lunch, be it with a cherished hero or a beloved friend or family member brought back from the dead, is certainly an intriguing one. The proposition is both daunting and alluring, especially as one grows older and address books become filled with more and more ghosts. And there is all of history to choose from if you wish to pick a hero instead of a friend or family member. Who is the lucky dinner date? What would you say to your chosen one? It’s a tough call.
This is precisely the scenario that Erica Heller has constructed in her new book, One Last Lunch: A Final Meal with the Ones Who Meant So Much to Us. She posed the question to a number of writers and artists: if you could, who would you bring back from the beyond to have a final meal with? The responses ranged from heartfelt longing to whimsical humor, with several seeking an elusive closure by having the last word.
Some time ago, I received an email from Heller inquiring if I had any ideas as to who might like to participate. I gave her a list of contacts for likely contributors, mostly writers, who I thought would love gabbing it up one last time with a significant other/hero from the past. I asked Heller how she had come up with the idea. “Unfortunately, I’m not a writer who walks around every day with a lengthy list of book ideas jockeying for prominence in my head. Just the opposite. So, when I do stumble onto one that I think has possible substance, I jump on it ferociously.” I asked her if a particular family member or idolized writer inspired the idea. “I happened to be thinking of my mother,” she replied, “who was fantastic but who has been gone about 25 years. I pictured us at lunch at Barneys (alas, no more) in NYC, and in my head I could absolutely hear our conversation. This moment turned wistful, then nagging. I began thinking, then obsessing about the idea of having one more opportunity to be with someone cherished and gone.”
Lunch, to me, is a meal that subsists in a nether realm between breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is too early to entertain discourse of a substantial kind. Dinner is fraught with the weight of the day’s events. Lunch, however, is a happy medium between the two, with eager and focused diners who have peaked like the sun in the sky. That’s my theory, anyway.
A portion of Heller’s book features sons and daughters imagining lunch with departed parents. Rain Pryor recalls her father, Richard; Kaylie Jones brings back her larger-than-life father, James; and Benjamin Cheever summons his father, John. I was surprised by the level of intimacy in such short pieces: I felt I learned more about the subjects than a 500-page biography could teach me. They portrayed idols as mortals like ourselves, consumed by the simple tasks that propel our daily lives. Contributors were given the freedom to write about whomever they wished, though sons and daughters of famous parents were encouraged to keep it in the family because of the strong associations. Heller decided to spend her last lunch with her own father, Joseph. She told me that writing this piece “proved to be much more difficult than writing about my mother because our relationship had been so difficult. At the same time, it was oddly satisfying.”
Other contributors chose to write about friends they had been missing for years. Clarence Major wrote about his old friend, James Baldwin. I asked him if it was difficult constructing a conversation after all these years. “I remember conversations Jimmy and I had back in 1981 and 1982 in Nice,” he told me. “Of course, I was already familiar with his writings so I knew his thinking on many issues. In the piece, I have him respond to current events, and I felt confident putting words into his mouth because I had a good idea what his responses would have been.”
Heller invited me to contribute my own lunch story, and I chose Allen Ginsberg, for whom I had worked during the 1980s in New York, helping to catalog tapes and videos of his various readings. Before arriving, I would call his staff to make sure it wasn’t an exceptionally busy day, when I might be in the way. If I got the green light, I would head down to begin sifting and rummaging through the latest box of materials. Allen’s door buzzer on East 12th Street never worked, so I would call from the corner and someone would throw a key out the window, wrapped in a sock. Often Allen would have just gone to sleep, having spent the night answering mail and writing.
Frequently, though, our schedules overlapped, and through the years we had wonderful conversations. Recalling those days and imagining such a reunion was quite a different experience than I had expected. A realization of how much time has passed and how many friends were now gone rekindled a surge of emotions.
The creation of One Last Lunch took some stamina on Heller’s part. As she told me:
I made my dream list of departed people I thought were fascinating and who might make a compelling luncheon companion, never dreaming I’d get two responses, let alone 48! But I was determined. I did some research to see who had been close to these people and began mailing out queries, about 100 a day, for months. Most were ignored, and many others just didn’t want to be bothered, didn’t want to revisit the past. What can I say? I became an Olympian negotiator. I must have underrated my powers of persuasion, because in the end we got almost every single name I’d hoped for, except for Mike Nichols, all with lunches that were absolutely perfect. We received essays, a one-act play, cartoons — everyone expressed her or himself in their own unique, chosen way. No two lunches were alike. In the end, I opened the door for a bit wider selection, including lunches where the writers were known to the contributors but perhaps not who they would choose to have a last lunch with. It was a massive job, but somehow it all came together.
Between these covers are encounters for every taste, 48 in all. Expect appearances from Kurt Vonnegut, Julia Child, and Kirk Douglas, among others. Even Jesus returns for a quick bite. I hope that when you read this book, you imagine your own favorite lunch guest, and enjoy a dream repast you never thought possible. Who knows what ancestors or fans may recall us when we are gone? So, keep your appetite sharp, and of course, don’t forget the tip.
David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports.