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The Weekly Blague

Song for Matthew

Though Adam was a friend of mine, I did not know him well...


The opening line of Jackson Browne's "Song for Adam" came to mind when I heard about the death of Matthew Flamm the other day. Matt was a good friend whom I didn't know very well but who helped me a lot. The last time I saw him was December 14, 2019, when he and his wife, Diane Keating, came to the New York launch event at the Killarney Rose for my book Bobby in Naziland (since retitled A Brooklyn Memoir). I knew something was wrong when I had a disjointed phone conversation with him several months ago. I couldn't bring myself to ask what it was, and he didn't say. It never occurred to me that he had brain cancer. 


Matt was one of the few people I've met in publishing who was in a position to help an author and was willing to do so. He was a writer, poet, and critic who retired a few years ago from his longtime gig as a reporter at Crain's New York Business. I met him over the phone, in 1999, when he was writing "Between the Lines," a column about the book-publishing world, for Entertainment Weekly. This was one of the first Nowhere Man interviews I'd done, and in the course of our conversation he asked what I was currently working on. I told him about Beaver Street, a book about the history of the pornography industry, based in part on my experiences editing men's magazines, as they're euphemistically known. He mentioned that his old college roommate, whom he'd lost touch with, wrote fiction for such magazines. "Do you happen to know David Katz?" he asked.


"I worked with David all the time," I said. "He once did a 12-installment porno parody of David Copperfield—you know, a serialization like Dickens."


Two things happened next: Matt's item in Entertainment Weekly lit the fuse for the wall-to-wall coverage of Nowhere Man that landed it on bestseller lists. And I began hanging out with Matt, David, and another friend, Neil Wexler, one of the main "characters" in Beaver Street (I call him "Izzy Singer" in the book). We sometimes went to dinner at John's, an Italian joint in the East Village. Matt, David, and Neil were big Godfather fans—Mario Puzo once worked at the magazine publishing company where Neil and I used to work—and John's had that Godfather atmosphere, the kind of place where you half-expected to see somebody get rubbed out over a plate of lasagna.


We were eating in John's one night in 2002. Matt had just published in The New York Times a review of W.S. Merwin's poetry collection The Pupil. He wrote that Merwin sounded so worn out it was easy to forget he was once exciting to read.


"That was harsh," I said.


Echoing Sonny Corleone talking to his consigliere about somebody who had to be whacked, Matt said, "I like the guy. It's not personal. It's strictly business."


Later that year, Matt published another piece in the Times that was enormously helpful. As I continued to work on Beaver Street, he wrote a profile of literate writers, including me, who'd toiled in the salt mines of smut. "A Demimonde in Twilight" gave mainstream legitimacy to a topic that many publishers found too taboo to touch (though the Times was too prudish to print the title of my book). In the article Matt also profiled Neil and David, who used a pseudonym.


Matt's final work is a book of poetry, Grieving for Beginners, published in October. I was looking forward to reading it and discussing it with Matt. Then I saw the news of his death in "Publisher's Lunch," a daily mailing I get. I only wish I'd picked up his book sooner, because Matt spelled out his situation in a devastating poem, "Night Before Surgery, Lenox Hill." It begins:


It could be anything the surgeon said.

In my darkened room, he showed me

on his phone the black-and-white slides

of the mass in my brain.


I extend my deepest condolences to Diane and their two daughters, Gabrielle and Allegra.


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