Ann Beattie | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Ann Beattie 

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Ann is standing in the driveway between the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton and Water Tower Place. Her publicist always arranges for someone to drive her around whatever city she is visiting, and she is waiting for the person who will be her escort in Chicago. On the phone the night before, he told her he would pick her up at 9:45 this morning and would be driving a silver Honda. She has been standing in the driveway for about 15 minutes it still has not seen a silver Honda. She is beginning to feel cold.

When she arrived last night, it was balmy and humid. She walked around the neighborhood near her hotel, coatless, and stopped in a Japanese place for some sushi. This morning it is about 50 degrees and windy. She has not brought the proper clothing, so she is wearing just about everything she has brought with her: an oversized black cotton sweater, bleached jeans, a black wool melton blazer with big lapels, and white calfskin Reeboks. One lock of her shoulder-length hair is pulled back with a rhinestone barrette, and even though it is dark in the driveway, she is wearing a pair of Laura Biagiotti-style tortoiseshell sunglasses.

A man in a bright red shirt and a black leather bomber jacket approaches her and asks, "Are you Ann Beattie?" She says that she is, and he introduces himself as her escort. He says that he did not recognize her immediately because in all the pictures he has seen of her she has waist-length hair. She laughs a big, toothy laugh. This surprises her escort, who does not expect Ann Beattie to laugh, ever. She says that her hair used to be a trademark, but since she cut it off, people she's known for ten years walk right past her on the street.

Because they are making two stops downtown before she has to be back at the Ritz for lunch, it will be more convenient for them to go by cab than to drive, her escort explains. They take a taxi to Kroch's & Brentano's on Wabash, where Ann will sign copies of Alex Katz by Ann Beattie, her latest book and first book-length work of nonfiction.

In the taxi, her escort asks her why she wrote a book on Alex Katz. (Alex Katz is a painter of figurative works that are, for the most part, brightly colored, coolly observed, and apparently almost dimensionless, as if flattened on the canvas.) She says that it began with a letter from an editor at Harry Abrams. Harry Abrams is a publisher of lavish and expensive art books.

"She told me they were interested in doing a book on Alex, and that she had always noted a shared sensibility between my writing and his painting, and she'd like me to consider writing it." Ann says she thought it was a great idea, and told the editor she'd do it.

At Kroch's the people from the advertising department flutter around her and bring her to the art area, where she signs books, has her picture taken, and makes an entry in the store's author autograph book. Before leaving the store, she buys a book of John Loengard photographs and sends it to her grandmother in Wilmington, Delaware, as a birthday present. She pays by American Express.

Ann uses her hands while she talks. They are large and bejeweled (she is wearing rings on three fingers), and she has polished her long fingernails, which used to be even longer (she cut them at about the same time as her hair), a particularly vivid shade of red. One of the Kroch's people suggests that her nails seem a little out of character. "Well, that's exactly why I have them," she says.

On the way to the WFMT studios in Illinois Center, where she will be interviewed by Studs Terkel, she explains how she began writing. She was a graduate student at the University of Connecticut in 18th-century English literature, and she started writing fiction as a hobby. There was a professor in the English department who liked her work, and he started sending it out to magazines for publication.

Ann says she was very prolific in those days, and after about 20 rejections, the New Yorker finally accepted one of her stories. The year she made about $15,000 writing for the New Yorker and about $3,500 from U. Conn. for teaching, she decided it was time to become a full-time writer.

The WFMT studio is occupied, so Ann and Studs sit in the room off the main reception area and tape about an hour's worth of conversation on his Recording Walkman while overlooking construction of the Swiss Grand Hotel. She is pleasantly surprised to learn that Studs evidently has read her book from cover to cover, and the hour goes by quickly. Before going back to the Ritz for lunch with a reporter from the Tribune, she ducks into the washroom to change into a blue-and-white-printed jersey skirt and a pair of blue suede pumps. Later she makes an oblique reference to Elvis.

The escort tells her there are 45 minutes to kill until lunch at the Ritz Cafe. It does not take her long to suggest that they go shopping, and they take the elevator down to Water Tower Place.

Ann wants to buy ties. She has a friend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she lives, to whom she sends ties on a consistent basis. He is a painter and will not wear ties with regular patterns, making rep ties, club ties, and paisleys unacceptable. This disappoints Ann because she thinks the paisleys have all the nicest colors in them.

At Marshall Field's, she selects one Valentino and one Fumagali, both bright and abstractionist, and has them sent to the painter in Charlottesville. "He does nudes," she answers when asked, but does not elaborate.

The Tribune reporter is waiting when they return to the lobby of the Ritz. She recognizes Ann immediately. When the escort announces that he will not be joining them for lunch, the reporter seems relieved.

When the escort returns for her, driving his silver Honda, they head off for Ann's last stop of the day, at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she will tape a show with WNIB host Paul Fanning. Ann waits in the Honda while the escort goes to find Fanning. When he returns, she has changed back into her jeans and Reeboks. Fanning asks Ann whether her name is pronounced "Bee-tee" or "Bay-tee," and although she tells him it is "Bee-tee," he says "Baytee" three times during the taping. Nevertheless, he seems to have read not only Alex Katz by Ann Beattie but everything else she has written as well, and conducts a probing interview.

It is about 3:00 and Ann's plane does not leave until 5:45. She tells the escort she would like to visit the Art Institute before she goes, but he warns her that the later they leave for the airport, the more likely it is that she will miss her plane, so they drive directly to O'Hare. She is going to Los Angeles for more promotion and for a visit with friends.

Just past the Kennedy-Edens junction, Ann and the escort discover they have both lived in Philadelphia. When he asks her where she lived, she tells him a street address that he recognizes to be marginal, at best. "Why there?" he asks. "I was in love," she replies. It was the summer before she was to finish her last term at American University, she tells him, and she was living with a Penn professor. She had decided not to go back to school in the fall. "My father called me one day and said 'What exactly do I have to do to get you to finish school?' and I said, 'Well, you could buy me a 1968 powder-blue Mustang convertible,' and he said, 'Done!' So he bought me the convertible and I finished college." She tells him that the car is still in storage at her parents' house in Washington, D.C., but that she is having it shipped to Charlottesville this summer so it can be restored.

The escort is thinking that this must not be the real Ann Beattie. Ann Beattie writes haunting New Yorker short stories about depressed, displaced people she looks at from a sort of distant, detached perspective. Ann Beattie would not send thoughtful gifts to loved ones or tell funny stories about extorting convertibles. She would not have a raucous sense of humor or a charming demeanor or any quality you would be tempted to consider gregarious. Ann Beattie would not seem like such a healthy, well-adjusted, nice person.

At the United terminal the escort helps Ann with her bags, a small maroon one and a large white one. She tells him that before today, she never knew anyone in Chicago, but now she does. She shakes his hand and says good-bye.

The escort watches her as she walks through the sliding door, and drives away in the Honda. He is wondering what she meant.

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