Pauline Kael would have been 99 today. I was privileged to call her a friend. Here's an essay I wrote for the book "Talking About Pauline Kael: Critics, Filmmakers & Scholars Remember an Icon" edited by Wayne Stengel. To read the full essay, click here.

Pauline Kael liked to dial up her friends at all hours, engaging in long conversations. She was both a great talker and -- less well-known -- a great listener. I first spoke to Pauline when she called a mutual friend with whom I happened to be collaborating on some humor pieces. I was living in L.A. and was in his apartment at the time. She asked him to put me on the phone. Pauline and I hit it off right away. We were both Californians, and also Western cowgirls-at-heart who deeply loved the arts. 

When, in the fall of 1983, I met her in person, she stared up at me. At 6'0", I was a foot taller than Pauline. She gasped, “Oh, my. You have John Wayne legs.” She meant it as a compliment. I think part of why Pauline liked hanging out with me was my height. If ever anyone should have been six feet tall, it was Pauline. She was an Amazon trapped in a tiny spark plug of a grandmother’s body. I always suspected that she felt vicariously tall when we walked together.

Soon I started writing on my own, and she generously gave a humor piece of mine to Daniel Menaker, her former editor at The New Yorker. I owe my first solo sale to Pauline. I soon learned that I wasn't the only writer she'd helped, not by a long shot. Pauline was easily the most generous major writer I’ve ever met. Not only that but her magnanimity was unadorned with the kind of ceremony most celebrated intellectuals demand. If indeed they actually do anything for younger aspirants, it’s usually just to grant them an opportunity to worship. Pauline didn’t simply help writers get published, she loaned money to those who were struggling, handed out lots of advice, picked up checks at restaurants and listened to endless tales of publishing woes. I think she had a deep feeling that an arts person had to give more to the field than she got from it. Only in that way would the arts really have a chance to flourish.

I also learned I was one of the few young writers who became friendly with Pauline without having been a devotee beforehand. Even though I’d loved movies since I was a kid, and despite her public eminence at the time, Pauline wasn’t one the critics I followed regularly. Instead, when I wanted a blast of thinking about the movies I turned to Manny Farber’s criticism in places like Film Comment and Artforum.

So when Pauline and I started talking about movies, she and I often differed. We'd sit at opposite ends of her long sofa in the dark and cozy, high-ceilinged living room of her Victorian house in Great Barrington, Mass., and free-associate. That was another California-ism we shared: a love of meandering conversation. We'd toss around ideas and opinions and let our minds venture onto subjects other than movies.

We'd talk for hours. A recent transplant to New York City, I was hurt the first time someone snapped at me, "Could you just finish one of your damn sentences?" East Coasters seemed to expect speakers to have a point. But, although super-articulate herself, Pauline was very sweet and accepting of my tendency to let my sentences trail off. 

She was also more tolerant of my opinions than I was of hers. I had a hard time forgiving her for not loving one of my favorite films, George Axelrod’s satire about Southern California and ‘60s teen beach movies, “Lord Love a Duck.” I loved “Dirty Harry” and Clint Eastwood in it; I was a fan of early Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Pauline would mutter “Oh, oh, oh” when I raved about some film or performer she couldn’t stand. Sometimes she’d give me an impatient “Oh, honey!” and roll her eyes. Particularly hard for her to understand was why I saw profundity in the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. She really peered at me through those big eyeglasses of hers over that one. Most of the time, though, she drew me out and was eager to hear why I liked something she didn’t. She'd never talk about it, but one thing Pauline radiated was a conviction that being a writer isn't just about carefully crafting your words. It's about being part of -- and contributing to -- the artistic community. And Pauline, contrary to the impression some people had of her, would never have wanted everyone in the artistic community to agree with her.

As we talked in the winter, snow and ice would pile up outside her house. In the summer, mosquitos would hover outside her screen door as evening approached. The sun would set and she'd say, "Pol, would you mind turning on a little light?" I'd get up and switch on one of her Tiffany lamps. "That's nice," she'd happily murmur. Pauline didn't just have strong reactions to films: she reacted fully to what each moment brought her. ("Ghastly" was one of her favorite things to utter when she didn't like something or someone.) Then we'd talk some more.

To read the full essay, click here.

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