Friday, 31 December 2010

Seymour Kern: remembering an extremely unlikely friendship

I first met Seymour Kern when I was a 24 year old publishing press officer and he was a retired sixty-something American businessman. The publisher I was working for, New English Library, was about to bring out his third novel, Fifty, and I had to try to drum up some publicity.

Seymour was coming over at his own expense, which increased the pressure on me to arrange any form of TV or radio coverage.

Both his previous books had done fairly well. The first, Samson Duke(pronounced “Dook”) was a Harold Robbins-style New-York-immigrant-rags-to-California-gangster-riches tale, largely based on Seymour’s own experiences (except for the gangster bit). His second novel, The Golden Scalpel, had been a medical drama. But Fifty didn’t look likely to match even its predecessors’ modest success, given that it was about a well-off Californian reaching his half-century. 

I tried to read the book before its author arrived, but it defeated me: the main character was called Charlie Blank, and books where the characters have meaningful names bring me out in hives. (Mind you, I enjoyed the explanation another of our authors, Charlie Chester, gave for choosing the pseudonym Ben Schaeffer – it was, he said, a pen-name.)

When Seymour finally fronted up, he turned out to be short, bald, articulate, opinionated and very, very fierce. He was wearing the sort of “leesure” clothes rich old Yanks used to wear – spotless Burberry raincoat, pale-blue cashmere polo neck, highly polished ruby-red brogues, oatmeal pants with a creases you could cut yourself on, and a large and very silly checkered cap with a furry bobble on the crown. He looked as if he’d dived into Harrods to snap up their latest “Golfer-Pimp” clothing range on the way to my office.

As soon as I saw him, my heart sank: he did not look like a soulmate. It sank further when his first question, delivered with a menacing grin through tensely-clamped, unnaturally white teeth, turned out to be, “Well, what have you lined up for me?” Now, if he’d been a stupid man, I would probably have burbled something about irons in fires or waiting for calls back from big TV shows – but our chief accountant had told me that, on his last visit to London, Seymour had marched into the accounts department unannounced and demanded to check his royalties, promptly discovering that we owed him three thousand pounds. 

This man was no dope, so I decided to tell him the truth. Unfortunately, my admission that I had not managed to arrange a single interview caused a mini-explosion. “What the hell have I come over here for?” “I don’t know,” I said. “After all, we didn’t ask you to come.” 

He turned a funny colour, but instead of chewing my head off, he shrugged and said, “Let’s go eat!”

After that, things went better. 

Seymour had grown up dirt-poor in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, where, as a small Jew, he had got himself beaten up every day by brawny irish kids, who had managed to knock out all his teeth by the time he reached 13. Wearing a Zoot Suit, he boarded a bus for California at fifteen, and, when he arrived in LA looking like a junior version of Kid Creole, the locals wet themselves laughing. 

He tried any number of careers, until an attempt to put advertising on grocery bags resulted in a threatening visit from some tooled-up heavies (he never could figure out what the problem was), after which he Waspified his name, bought some sober clothes, and settled for Real Estate, which he turned out to be very good at.

Having made his pile by his fifties, and not being a greedy man, he decided to settle for what he had and spend the rest of his life trying to become what he had always wanted to be – a successful novelist.

Near the end of our lunch, he launched into a eulogy of the current US President, Jimmy Carter, followed by a general attack on right-wing politicians and big business and the Vietnam War and the British monarchy and... well, I took this for about ten minutes until it was obvious he was never going to shut up, and then informed him – forcefully (I was well into my second bottle of wine) - that I was a right-wing monarchist who loathed and despised Jimmy Carter. 

Seymour looked amazed: I half-expected him to storm out. Again, he disarmed me by grinning (this time I knew those menacing gnashers were false, which robbed them of their minatory power) and said, “Well, what do you know!”

As we stood on the pavement outside the restaurant he disconcerted me yet again by giving me a hug (nose-to-nipple – he really was short) and, despite the fact he hadn’t had more than two glasses of wine, suddenly announced, “I’d be happy to have you as a son!” (Let’s face it - it’s not every day you hear that.)

I went back to the office, made some phone calls, and sorted him out some TV and radio interviews on the basis that he’d be a good performer (he turned out to be excellent) and there were even some decent reviews for the book in the national press (which had nothing to do with me, but for which I took full credit).

I received a letter from Seymour after he returned home, which turned into a regular correspondence. I met him in London a few times, and stayed with him and his wife at their home in Marina Del Rey, in California, and then at a Harvard professor’s stunning colonial house they were renting in Brookline, a suburb of Boston. We never met without enjoying several vicious, protracted political arguments. After one particular screamer about Ronald Reagan, he slumped back, purple in the face, shaking his head: “You know, if you were an American, with your views, we couldn’t be friends.”

Late on in his life he took a trip to the Soviet Union with a group of old, rich, left-wing Americans. It sounded nightmarish, what with them all crabbing about the crappy food, the dirty rooms and the lack of showers (what did they expect?). Seymour half-heartedly tried to blame the West for not being friendly enough towards Russia (!), but, for the only time in our relationship, he conceded that I might be right about something. “I know, I know,” he mumbled sadly, bringing the subject to a close, “Russia’s just one big prison.” I bet he wouldn’t have admitted that to a right-wing American.

When Seymour got stomach cancer in his mid-seventies, he fought fiercely, trying out all sorts of treatments in addition to standard surgery and chemotherapy. (There was even talk of visiting Mexico, for God’s sake - but I think he ran out of time.) 

In the middle of all this, he asked me to help him get his latest book published in the UK. I tried hard (when it comes to books, it’s easier to wheedle and cajole on someone else’s behalf than on one’s own), but Save Me a Seat in the White House – a comedy about a dumb President who owes his election to gangsters and big business – was disastrously out of kilter with public opinion in the Reagan era (after four years of Carter, I’m not sure American electors would have minded if Reagan had turned out to be a KGB plant). Even the liberal Ronnie-haters who ran US publishing wouldn’t touch it. Here in the UK no one would even read it. That was a shame - how I would have loved to let him die believing his novel would act as an anti-Reagan call to arms.

I have absolutely no idea why Seymour and I got on so well: apart from very definite, if diametrically opposed, political opinions, and the fact that we were both writers, we had absolutely nothing in common – we didn’t read each other’s books, couldn’t agree on literature or movies, and didn’t even share a sense of humour! Talk about an odd couple!

Nevertheless, we were friends.

To this day I can’t think of him without imagining how pissed off this confirmed atheist must have been to discover, after his death, that there was a God after all. If I know Seymour, he’s probably still giving Him a hard time about it!


  1. Though I've also commented on your recent article on tennis, I arrived at your site via a google search for Seymour Kern and found your piece on him quite touching and accurate. My parents were close to Seymour and his wife Jesse (also my name) throughout the 60s and even after my mother and stepfather had divorced I know she remained in touch with the Kerns and was quite thrilled when Samson Duke was released in 1973. My mother remarried shortly after that and I had no further interactions with or news of Seymour but I remember him as a fiercely intelligent, witty and personable fellow who demonstrated equal respect to all those he felt deserved it (and the rest clearly didn't)... Thanks for both pieces! Jessie

  2. Thank you, Jessie - I'm glad you think I managed to capture something of the man. Last time I googled Seymour , I must have been half-asleep, because I've just found this excellent LA Times article about him from 1987, written by someone else who knew and also really liked him ( And, because of that article, I discover that "Save Me a Seat" was published posthumously in the US! This makes me feel slightly less guilty about failing to find a publisher for it here in the UK. As you've probably already discovered, it's available on Amazon -
    - and I'm not sure whether Seymour would have been delighted or enraged that the one available "new" copy retails for a mere $151.88! Probably a mixture of both, knowing him.
    Every now and then I imagine Seymour reading one of my right-wing rants and giving me a really hard time about it - as always, I would have enjoyed being shouted at by him. Anyway, it's great that he's remembered, and that he'll survive forever in cyberspace.
    Thanks very much for commenting, and I'm touched that you enjoyed the piece.

  3. Thank you for writing this. Seymour was my grandfather. I never met the man, and your article was a little treasure to come across.

    1. I'm so pleased you found this reminiscence. I was just thinking the other day what fun it would have been to hear Seymour ranting about the current US election - although I expect that, for once, we would have been in agreement. Great bloke - I miss him.

  4. Seymour Kern was my father. You've captured his essence in this blog. I loved him dearly and miss him more than words can express. Thanks.
    Stephen Kern

    1. Hi Stephen - I'm pretty sure we met once when I was staying with your parents, either in Brookline or Marina del Rey. You'd either just finished or were writing a thesis on Time, which I'm guessing morphed into the book, "The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918"?

      I'm so glad you feel I managed to capture something of your father - I thought of him several times while watching the the US election results coverage on Fox: I'd love to have watched it with him - although I expect it would have been noisy!