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Guestwords: ‘Mrs. Lassie’ & Me

Wed, 11/04/2020 - 15:06

Every week I drive 20 minutes to hike a Pennsylvania nature trail named for my torch donor. Looping through the woods, past rivulets and ravines, wildflower meadow and chestnut grove, is my thank-you to my late friend Jere Knight for trusting me to write the first biography of her late husband Eric Knight, the English-American author of the novel “Lassie Come-Home.” Jere and I talked for umpteen hours in the nearby farmhouse where 80 years ago Eric finished the eternal-flame tale of a courageous collie traveling nearly 1,000 unfamiliar, treacherous miles to join her original humans.

I met Jere in 1986, after she publicly demonstrated “Lassie” and collie behavior with her own collie. Nicknamed Mrs. Lassie, she had spent 43 of her 79 years promoting the legacy of Eric, who died at 45 in the crash of a military plane, a U.S. Army major at the peak of his fame, quickly forgotten in the middle of a world war. I was impressed by her boundless devotion to her man: writing two “Lassie” books for children; lobbying for an Eric stamp; working with two would-be biographers. I was charmed by her lofty earthiness, merry wit, enviable English elocution, and twinkling cornflower-blue eyes. Somehow she reminded me of a Philadelphia Quaker version of Katharine Hepburn, who failed to buy the movie rights to “This Above All,” the 1941 novel that made Eric a global sensation.

Our bond began in 1988, after my newspaper, The Morning Call, ran my two long articles marking the 50th anniversary of “Lassie” as a short story in The Saturday Evening Post. Jere liked my diligence, my passion, my fondness for separating fact from fantasy. She also liked that all my mentors were senior citizens who cared for their dying spouses.

We teamed up in the lovely 18th-century home in Pleasant Valley that she and Eric bought as a wreck in 1939, the seventh year of their marriage — her first, his second. I set up shop in the two-story, two-level study built with movie money for “This Above All,” a 1942 vehicle for Joan Fontaine and Tyrone Power as star-crossed lovers in blitzkrieged England. Here, during four years of weekends, I roamed through Jere’s meticulous, library-like archives of letters, contracts, drafts, reviews, interviews, and the world’s best bank of “Lassie” cartoons.

We compared notes in the dark dining room/den with the walk-in fireplace and the signed print of a painting by Grant Wood, Eric’s good friend. Stoked by tea and cookies, we analyzed Eric as virtual orphan, child laborer, World War I soldier, cinema journalist, screenwriter for Spencer Tracy, military propagandist with Lt. Col. Frank Capra, pal of the poet E.E. Cummings, and everything to Ruth (Jere) Brylawski — translator, Olympic-caliber fencer, and professional pacifist.

Nothing pleased Jere more than remembering her love alliance with Eric. He courted her like a bard in letter after letter, sometimes two a day. In one missive he alphabetized her virtues; in another he praised her in the style of Shakespeare and Hemingway. He made her braver and funnier, strengths that helped her handle his three long-estranged daughters and a team of bullish assistant story editors at a major movie studio. She made him a much more successful writer by taking care of home affairs, personal business matters, social engagements, and all kinds of crises. They were each other’s first true champions, the best of their breed, a tribe called Jeric.

“That kind of love is not only durable, it’s endurable,” Jere said during one of our recorded chats. “Life doesn’t give you a deal like that a second time. It’s pretty special, believe me, kid.”

Literary widows can be black widows, poisonously protecting reputations. Jere was an open book with dog-eared pages. She downplayed her many prominent roles, including writing speeches for Oveta Culp Hobby, the first director of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She made fun of her failure to win the war on Eric’s behalf, and made light of her failure to bear a child with Eric, joking that he joked about her “sympathetic” pregnancies during his absences. She was tickled that she lovingly nagged Eric to save his energy by writing his stories rather than acting them to crowds of fans; she was proud that she inspired the lovingly nagging wives in “Lassie” and his other Yorkshire yarns.

“I don’t think we women need to be ashamed of being preachy and bossy or matriarchal,” she explained. “It’s in the nature of the beast.”

As an editor Jere could be a tough mother. I still feel the bruises from her “NO!!!” in black, blue, and red ink. As an earth mother she was tougher. I still feel her death-ray glare when I trashed a piece of aluminum foil long before its time.

Yet we had only one serious disagreement, a remarkable feat for a decade of collaboration. Jere insisted that Eric dreamed up “Lassie” while walking a New York forest with his dog Toots, a come-home collie taught by her com panion to obey commands in French, German, and Shakespeare. I insisted that he dreamed up “Lassie” at a train station in England after talking to unemployed ship builders forced to sell their beloved dogs, part of his research for a Saturday Evening Post article on Britain’s depressed industrial areas.

As usual, we reached a happy compromise. We settled on “Lassie” as an English-American fable about a collie testing greed and generosity to shepherd a more humane society. In short, it’s no more a kid’s book than “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Jere made me much more than a dedicated recycler. She expanded my vocabulary by calling herself an “amanuensis” rather than an artistic assistant, a “relict” rather than a widow (“Just don’t call me a relic, kid”). Driving to a “Lassie at 50” exhibition at Yale University, she instructed me to keep at least two car lengths back on the highway, a safety tip that’s kept me accident-free for 30 years.

Most important, she offered the right words at the right and wrong times. She comforted me during romantic breakdowns and the mental meltdowns that led my father to disappear for a month into Manhattan homeless shelters. After my dog died she sent me her consoling poem about the death of the collie that brought us together. She lived the Quaker mandate to “speak to thy condition.”

Somewhere along the line I became Jere’s “extra” son, “G-Geoff” to “J-Jeff” Lindtner, her second-marriage child. Jeff sealed our friendship by letting me share honors he coordinated for his mother. He turned her twilight into an Indian summer with the publication of her first poetry collection and her township’s first quality-of-life award for being an early environmentalist and a model citizen. “As long as I’m around this community,” she vowed during the ceremony, “I’m going to yak.”

In 1996 Jeff invited me to visit Jere during her final hours in a Quaker retirement community. I was holding her hand when she cried “Eric! Eric!” with her eyes closed, in a dream state. For some reason I looked at the floor and saw three chapters from my unfinished Eric book. The top page was bloodied with corrections and redirections. There was nothing to do but laugh.

This year I decided to celebrate “Lassie” at 80 with weekly pilgrimages to the Jere Knight Nature Trail. I like to stop by her dedicatory plaque, written and produced by her son, high above the creek she helped preserve. I make a peace sign with two fingers; place them on “friend,” the last of her 17 bronze graces, and repeat her call to me to action: “What else have we got, brother?”

Geoff Gehman, a former Wainscott resident, wrote “Down but Not Quite Out in Hollow-weird: A Documentary in Letters of Eric Knight” (Scarecrow Press). The East Hampton Library will Zoom his talk, “On the Trail of Lassie’s Tale,” on Nov. 12 at 6 p.m.

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