Remembering Eliot Asinof

The news of Eliot Asinof’s passing earlier this week brought back memories of having spent time with him at a BEA in the late 90s. The show was enjoying its Chicago run then, and I was there with SIU Press to launch a series on literary baseball writing that included a new edition of Asinof’s first novel, Man on Spikes.

Author-publisher relations can sometimes be a bit fraught, but spending time with Asinof was effortless. Over a long dinner at the late, great Printer’s Row restaurant, we were treated to tales of his screenwriting days in Hollywood before he was blacklisted. He included a discreet sidebar about his marriage to Jocelyn Brando (yes, that Brando) and delighted in detailing passionate tussles and feuds with big trade houses over the decades.

He often received Isaac Asimov’s mail when they lived in the same building in Manhattan. My colleague Gordon looked just like an old buddy from the Phillies farm team. Just like him, Asinof kept repeating. In a story that confirmed all the possibilities of Life in the City for my ardent imagination, his rainy-day encounter with a woman holding an umbrella at a bus stop led to a friendship with opera great Frederica von Stade.

Asinof ruled the table that night with a gruff New York charm that I’d seen only in black and white movies starring actors he’d probably drank scotch with. He was clearly thrilled for his first book to have a new life. For three days he roved the show floor at McCormick Place, alternately amazed and chagrined at what the world of books had become. He was having fun, and we were his willing acolytes.

During our in-booth signing for Man on Spikes, word quickly spread up and down the row—The slightly stooped, elegantly suited man was the author of Eight Men Out!—which  naturally had special relevance for the Chicagoans and sports fans on hand. On the weekend before Father’s Day, many asked for appropriate inscriptions. A line formed and steadily snaked down the aisle. Asinof revved up and was off, his eyes sparkling, his wit quick, his game most decidedly on.

I soon moved on to a city of my own and other publishing work. On a whim I sent Asinof a letter updating him on my new life. After a few months a handwritten note arrived from Ancramdale. He wished me well in my adventure and also mentioned that the last time he’d been in the Twin Cities was when he was playing minor league ball before World War II. Nice place, he said.

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