In 1996, I embarked on a journey into my father’s past. I knew he had led an interesting life – rising from very humble beginnings in Chicago to the top of the advertising world as one of the original “Mad Men” (a term he hated), with a 20-year side-trip as a shopkeeper at a fashionable boutique – with funny stories, crazy characters, romance, tragedy, the “whole catastrophe,” as he liked to put it. (He was quoting Zorba the Greek, though in most translations from the Greek it comes out as “the full catastrophe.”) I thought that if I tape-recorded his memories in chronological order, it would give him the raw material to edit into bona fide memoirs. My father was interested, and so we began a series of taped conversations between 1996 and 1997 in which George recalled his life from the 1920s until the 1960s.
After about eight hours of recordings had been amassed, we stopped. Like many projects about which my father was enthusiastic, this one got put on the backburner as life’s responsibilities pressed in. (I later found an outline he had done in 1993 for a book about his boutique, Greek Island Ltd., along with the first and only chapter. That, too, apparently, had been put on hold.)
In 2007, when my father became sick with cancer, he began writing short memory pieces for the Booknotes newsletter that he proudly produced for my brother Peter’s Manhattan bookstore. Those brief memories – which repeated some of the recorded recollections he had shared in the 1990s – inspired me to revive our old project.
Alas, I had left it too late. I showed my father the transcripts of the previous interviews and he, typically, commented first on the typos and misspellings that littered the unedited material. Although he expressed interest, by the time we had geared up, the cancer had gotten worse and his memories had become haphazard and unreliable – and he now had little energy left to devote to recalling the past.
Luckily, my father was represented in other venues – in letters to family, friends, and colleagues, in speeches he gave at parties and other events, and in unpublished writings that he kept among his papers. I have used material from these sources to finish the story as best I can. (The raw, unedited copy for much of this has appeared on my website since 2009, when my father died, and, as of this writing, has been viewed by 4,470 people.)
This collection, incomplete as it is, still serves to offer a glimpse at one remarkable man’s journey through life. As mentioned, George often liked to quote the character Zorba, from the novel Zorba the Greek, in which Zorba replies to a query about his marital state: “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The whole catastrophe.” I have added that exchange to the beginning of these memories because George’s life was all about the joys (and burdens) of families. But, when I think of my dad (a big movie buff), I also think of Marlene Dietrich’s famous, brief comment at the conclusion of Touch of Evil: “What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of man.”
At first, “The Warthog” – about a talking warthog with a slice of pizza on his back – didn’t seem like anything special. Creator Tom Sinclair got the idea in 1970 after reading a Gold Key Tarzan comic book that at one point featured a herd of warthogs. “I was fascinated by them,” Siny recalled in 2015. “Something about their odd appearance appealed to me. The image kept bubbling in my mind.”
The result was a tale called, simply, “The Warthog.” It was very short and written in a fairy-tale style, and it did have some of the elements of the later stories. “The most intelligent warthog on Earth stalked through the town of Midville,” it began, “his scarlet pince-nez placed deftly on the bridge of his nose. He wore a red dressing gown (for red was his favorite color) and red-and-white striped shorts. On his back, tied about his neck by a short cord, was a slice of pizza wrapped in wax paper and placed in a paper bag.”
It is a striking opening. Unlike the other stories, however, it is told in the third person, and the narrator presents the Warthog (later referred to by his friends as “the Wart”) as an odd creature, who wore a dressing gown and shorts (Corky Miller, the artist for the series, usually left these items out). He is also vaguely menacing (note that he “stalked” through the town of Midville).
Siny probably meant “The Warthog” to be a one-joke wonder. The Warthog would be dramatically different when he reappeared again a few months later in “The Return of the Warthog.” As Sinclair recalled recently: “At the time, I was just getting into the Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I had the idea of making the Warthog into a kind of Holmesian character, where he would also be his own Watson, narrating his adventures in Victorian-style prose.”
TheWarthog is wonderfully endearing, as he sits in a Holmes-like bathrobe in a little cottage by a lake, recounting his adventures in a style sounding more 1870s than 1970s. (Some examples of dialogue from the later tales: “What ho, fellows!” “Right you are, Mr. Wart!” and the Doyle-esque sentence construction – how often did Sinclair have his character say, “said I” rather than “I said”?) These were the little touches that helped define the Warthog and which I believe contributed to his popularity. There was also the series’ dry humor, poking fun at Frank and Joe Hardy – the gung-ho, intrepid Hardy Boys in the famous children’s stories by Franklin W. Dixon – whose names he appropriated for the Warthog’s two young friends, but who acted less like the Hardys and more like a pair of Dr. Watsons to the Warthog’s Sherlock Holmes.
But it wasn’t all period language and name games. The stories are successful because they are well-written, fast-paced, and imaginative fantasies, clearly inspired in tone by Conan Doyle and in content by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs (the template is ERB’s Venus series, which, like most of the Wart’s adventures, is actually one long, interconnected story). It’s hard to believe Sinclair was only fourteen when he started writing these tales.
This new book, Memoirs of a Wandering Warthog, is the long-awaited and much-needed return of the real Warthog. Let me explain. In 1985, Sinclair interested a small publishing house, Albert Whitman & Company, in Niles, Illinois, in publishing all the Warthog tales in a volume called Tales of a Wandering Warthog. But, although it was a thrill to see the Wart professionally printed, there was something slightly different about our hero: it wasn’t simply that Joe and Frank had become Adam and Troy (small publishing houses certainly worry about lawsuits more than fourteen-year-old writers), or that the romance between the Warthog and his beloved Irene had become platonic – she was now his housekeeper (small publishing houses certainly worry about the propriety of inter-species romances more than fourteen-year-old writers). It was the tone itself that had changed. Whitman’s editors had flattened the writing out, and much of the charm of the original tales – such as the Victorian style of speaking – had been eliminated. Gone, in fact, is much of the idiosyncratic charm of the original stories.
But why dwell on past transgressions? As the Wart (and Dr. Watson before him), would put it: suffice it to say that Sinclair was never happy with the Whitman version of his creation’s adventures. So now, say I, put on your red dressing gown (for red is our hero’s favorite color), adjust your pince-nez, sit back, and savor the wonderful adventures of the most intelligent warthog on Earth.
Tom Soter, the author, co-author, or editor of nearly a dozen books released since January 2014, says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block.
“If you’re an improviser (and we all are to some extent), you trust your first instinct and go with that (you can always revise it later). I talk about my writing methods in both DISAPPEARING ACT (in the story called, ‘The Ten-Minute Paper’) and A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT (in the chapter on improv and writing). Graham Greene used to deal with writer’s block by going to bed and trusting that his unconscious would work out the problems he was having. It usually did.”
Soter went on say that the ideas for his books are generated by circumstance. “My most recent books are A DOCTOR & A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO IMPROVISATION (co-authored with Carol Schindler/Dec), THE WHOLE CATASTROPHE (co-authored with George Soter/April), and BEDBUGS, BIONDI & ME (May). The first one came from my love of teaching improv, which I have been doing since 1987, and my desire to put my experiences, thoughts, and teaching philosophies into a more permanent form. The second book was done because I wanted other people to know what a great guy my dad was (and possibly because, despite his many accomplishments, he didn’t merit an obituary in the Times, which irked me). And the third was done to assemble five years of ‘Editor’s Note’ columns – with useful advice and fun stories – into a more lasting form than the pages of HABITAT magazine, where they first appeared.”
In August, when we sat down with him, the writer said: “I’m finishing up my fourth book of essays called DRIVING ME CRAZY. I have about three or four more pieces I’d like to write. At the same time, I’m reviewing material for a compilation of fiction that I wrote between 1968 and 1975. It will be called LOOK AT THEM NOW, and will also include stories by Alan Saly, Tom Sinclair, and Christian Doherty.”
George Soter, the author of THE WHOLE CATASTROPHE: THE STORY OF MY (OFTEN TERRIFIC) LIFE , is remembered fondly by his friends and colleagues.
He loved a good laugh like he loved a good scotch. A true gentleman to his fingertips. Mike Bencivenga
I think George would have been happy to be described as a “raconteur.” The word is more adult than “story-teller,” more urbane. But he didn’t tell stories because he wanted the limelight, wanted to be the center of attention. If they were funny or interesting – and they always were – he wanted to share them with others, wanted people to enjoy them. The stories were part of conversation, connecting with friends. The anecdotes will not die, but no one else will tell them so well, with so much relish. Stephen Green-Armytage
I still see George sitting around my pool reading some hugely cerebral book, talking politics and trying to decide what is an appropriate cocktail time! I loved and love you, George. Lucille Capo-Miller
George epitomized what we have always called the “Soter Spirit,” with that bright twinkle in his eye! Robert Gardiner
If George had been so inclined, he would have been a novelist de nos jours, because no one had a keener eye, or a more tolerant nature. I am blessed for having known him. Steve Kanfer
Though I’d had word from Peter of George’s impending death, it was nevertheless shocking to hear of its arrival. For George, as everyone whose path he crossed is well aware, gave off the dazzling essence of life in everything he did or said or thought or imagined. In a word, a look, a flick of his cigarette ashes… Stu Hample
Pretty happening dude wearing a Speedo in his 80s. He had, what they call, panache. Georgie, we all adore you and will never forget you. Nina Royal
We miss him so, yet every memory is a celebration of the amazing soul and spirit that forever he is. Tim Wolff
George was simply larger-than-life. He had a great laugh and that big smile; he was so smart, so handsome, so articulate; his expressive hands would gently hold a pair of worry beads or unhook a piece of silver that was casually, but perfectly, draped over the corner of a piece of furniture, and he’d turn it over, explaining its history, it purpose. Marella Consolini
I saw your father at a bus stop, and we waited together, and conversed. The conversation went from my quest to accurately depict the McCarthy era in Such Good Friends to inaccuracies he’d identified in the early-1960s-era TV series Mad Men. It struck me then, and it strikes me now upon learning he’s no longer with us, that your father was a treasure-trove, a witness to a fascinating era in America, who remembered details, the fine points that make up the ethos of the time. Noel Katz
I never see him in my mind’s eye as a solitary figure. There are always people around… Leonard Smith
I walked into George’s store one day three years ago, and was immediately struck by the elegant, learned, engaging man who greeted me and who then took me on a “tour” of the various objects in the place: jewelry, fabrics, paintings, figurines. George brought things to life – those objects were surely alive with his love of art and travel. I was so inspired that I wrote a short piece on George and the shop for Columbia magazine. Paul Hond
I admired the many leafy plants that basked in the great western daylight that flooded into the apartments from New Jersey and beyond. I once asked him how he maintained them in such good condition. “Simple,” George said, “when a plant doesn’t look good any more, I just replace it.” Judy Kinnersly
Good bye Georgie, I miss you already. People like you should never die. Stella Nikolopoulos
Tom Soter has written a witty and perceptive collection of books in the past year, all while working a 9 to 5 job, running a 25-year-old weekly improv comedy jam, and teaching three improv classes a week. He has also had to deal with Parkinson’s disease for the past 11 years. How does he do it?
With inspiration from Victorian author Anthony Trollope, who, while working fll-time at the post office, wrote 47 novels in a 30-year career, Soter found a role model for his life and his creativity. He has himself produced nine books since January 2014, including his latest two, Look at Them Nowand Driving Me Crazy.
Look at Them Now features short fiction by the author and his longtime friends, Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, and Christian Doherty. The four wrote the 40 stories in the book – 10 stories apiece – between 1968 and 1975. Most have not been read since they first appeared.
“On reading these old stories,” says Soter, who selected and edited the science fiction, mystery, and fantasy tales, “I have to admit, some of them really wowed me. It’s sometimes hard to believe that they were written by teenagers.” The pieces first appeared in self-published magazines that Soter created and sold in high school.
Driving Me Crazy represents a collection of personal essays, the third in his ongoing “does anyone really care?” memoir project that started with the acclaimed Overheard on a Bus. The new book features nearly 50 amusing anecdotes about his crazy life and family, including his online dating adventures, and also features a revealing interview with James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (“Diamonds Are Forever,” “Live and Let Die”), and a conversation about improv comedy with improv legend Carol Schindler.
LOOK AT THEM NOW. I’m very excited about some of the new books that are available from Apar Books/Guardian Publications. Top of the list is Look at Them Now, which features short fiction by my longtime friends Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, and Christian Doherty, and me. We wrote the 40 stories in this volume between 1968 and 1975, and most of them have gone unseen since their first appearance. To prepare the volume, I went through many stories, some great, others not so good, before I came up with ten tales per author. I then had to digitize them (and clean up the scanning artifacts), and lay them out with appropriate art from the magazines in which they initially appeared (mostly by Corky Miller, but also illustrations by Pierre Vaz and Doug Picirillo). There are some really terrific stories in here – even though they were written by teenagers – and I urge you to pick up a copy today.
DRIVING ME CRAZY. Available now is my third (or fourth, see below) collection of personal essays in the ongoing “Tom Soter does anyone really care?” memoir project. Actually, I know many people care because of the favorable remarks I’ve gotten concerning my first two volumes, Overheard on a Bus and Disappearing Act.This one is a little different: although it features many (what I believe are) amusing anecdotes about my life and family (I’m particularly pleased with my story about online dating), it also includes my interview with James Bond screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz (Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die) and my conversation with Carol Schindler about improv comedy. Check it out!
A DOCTOR AND A PLUMBER IN A ROWBOAT. And speaking of improv, this volume, which came out late last year and which my co-author Carol Schindler and I modestly dubbed “The Essential Guide to Improvisation,” has received some nice remarks from some people who know something about the art of improv: actors Mark Ruffalo (“I highly recommend this book”) and Hal Linden (Barney Miller, “I wish I had this book when I was first starting out”), and master teacher Rob McCaskill (“This is a great teaching tool for anyone who wants to improvise well”). It’s available now from Amazon.
BED BUGS, BIONDI & ME. This could be called my third book of memoirs, although it’s a little different from the other books in the series. It features pieces I wrote for Habitat magazine over the past five years for my monthly “From the Editor” column (there are also three stories that didn’t appear there: a report of my talk with actor Charles Grodin about a play he wrote about prejudice in co-ops and two stories about ex-boxer Nick Biondi, who was accused of racism and paid out thousands of dollars in penalties and legal fees). I had a number of people come up to me and say, “You know, I don’t have much interest in real estate, but I found this book fascinating.” See for yourself!
MEMOIRS OF A WANDERING WARTHOG. You should also check out another volume, Memoirs of a Wandering Warthog. The Warthog is the creation of Tom Sinclair and he appeared in roughly two dozen stories between 1970 and 1975. A sort of combination Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage, the wart is an erudite adventurer who travels to and from Phobos (where he encounters the horrifying Giant Bees of Phobos), returns to battle poachers on earth, solves “The Mystery of the Peridot Emerald,” and meets the magical and mysterious Fabulous Twins from another dimension. Sinclair, who started writing these stories when he was barely 14, is putting them out in this collection from Apar Books. It has great illustrations by E.C. “Corky” Miller, and some introductory remarks by yours truly. I highly recommend this book.
Christmas will be here before you know it, so it’s a good time to stock up on gifts for your family and friends. Also, join us for a book-signing event on Friday, December 2, at 6:30! Click here for the details.
I first met Jack Montalvo the way a lot of people met him – on the internet.
He wrote me a cheerful e-mail about ten years ago, in which he introduced himself in an easy-going manner that I later learned disguised an obsessive intensity about things that interested him. He told me that he had attended St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s high school in the early 1970s at the time I was there, adding that I wouldn’t know him because he was four years younger than me. Then he got to the point: he said he was a big fan of Apar Films.
I read that part again.
Now being “a big fan” of Apar Films would give anyone pause. Outside of my immediate family and a few friends, who would remember Apar, let alone be a “big fan”? Apar was the name of the “company” that produced 25 Super-8 movies in which I appeared with Tom Sinclair, Alan Saly, and Evan Jones, and which were directed by Christian Doherty. We had made them between 1970 and 1974, and they were primarily screened for family and friends. They were action films, each featuring a chase, a fight, and sometimes a girl.
But how could this guy Montalvo know about Apar?
He explained that he had seen them when we screened some of them at the school bazaar (admission: 25 cents). They apparently made a big impression on him. “I was blown away,” he said once. “They were so cool.” He watched them whenever we had screenings, and as the years went by, he never forgot them. In 2005, he took a shot in the dark and e-mailed me, asking if the films were still around and if he could see them. We had transferred most of them to DVD by this point (and they are now on YouTube), so he was in luck.
Jack’s obsessive love of those films was mind-boggling. He remembered details that most anyone else would have long since forgotten. In one of the many enthusiastic e-mails he sent me before we actually met, he asked me if we had ever made Flowers Are for Funerals. Now this shows the obsession of a true fan. At the end of Don’t Live for Tomorrow, our James Bond-influenced spy film (featuring our James Bond-like spy Henry Sorelli), a title card appeared announcing our next Sorelli movie, called Flowers Are for Funerals. The card appeared for maybe 15 seconds at the very end of the film. Fifteen seconds. And yet nearly 40 years later, Jack remembered it.
Jack was a detail man. He once wrote me about a continuity error he noticed in Don’t Live for Tomorrow. “Henry Sorrelli chases after the No. 4 bus which has a billboard on the side of it; advertising one of New York City’s AM radio news stations,” he recalled. “The bus gets away from him, so he appropriates someone’s bicycle to continue the chase with. When he catches up to the bus, the billboard is gone. In fact, there is no billboard on that side of the bus, at all!” (I’m surprised he found only one error!)
When we finally met, Jack was full of praise for us, gushing about what a thrill it was to meet the stars of Apar. I felt a little embarrassed by Jack’s hero worship of us. I certainly didn’t feel we merited it. But Jack was always e-mailing or calling us, asking us to share memories of the movies with him. When I put a documentary together about the films, called A Chase, a Gun, and Sometimes a Girl, I interviewed Jack for a segment. In the outtakes from that interview (seen in the short film, Fan), there is a moment when, off-camera, I am about to photograph Jack and I ask, “Ready?” “Born ready,” he says with the cocky self-assurance that I often felt masked a deep insecurity.
But that’s just an impression. I have to admit, I didn’t really know Jack, except through the Apar connection. I didn’t know much about his family or friends (though, if Facebook is any indicator, he seemed to have a lot of the latter). He once confessed to me in an e-mail: “During my party-animal days (mid-1980s) I used to sit in with bands and sing lead vocals on R&B and rock & roll songs and the people in the club used to like it.” I know he had a job working with a disabled man, that he had dreams of one day buying into the apartment building in which he grew up, that his political beliefs were naive and objectionable, and that he was a terrible driver.
On that last point, I remember riding with him and Christian Doherty when we were driving out to a location in New Jersey in 2010 to film a new version of Christian’s 1972 movie, The Place. Jack said he was “nervous” about driving in New Jersey, saying he’d gotten lost there in the past. But, really, the only ones who should have been nervous were the other drivers – and Christian and me. I never felt as close to death as I did in that harrowing car ride, which Christian later referred to as “playing bumper cars with Jack Montalvo.” Going out was a trip that could have been part of The Road Warrior, with Jack weaving in and out of traffic with reckless abandon, at one point jumping across two lanes, amid blaring horns and swerving cars, to make an exit. Coming back at night, Jack complained about his back hurting and suggested I drive; then he jumped a curb and landed us on a lane divider. As high-speed traffic whizzed by us on the right and left, I wondered if we would ever get home in one piece. We escaped with our lives – and what got us through that experience was primarily Jack’s “gee whiz” excitement about everything he encountered (and, of course, a little luck).
Jack was like that: passionate about so much, so earnest – almost naive – in his enthusiasm. He admitted to us that he had always wanted to be a filmmaker. “I wanted to be the next Alfred Hitchcock. I was always reading about making movies and while I’ve never really made a film, myself, I did work behind the scenes and as an actor, years later for student films made by a guy I knew who majored in film. But during my St. Hilda’s days, my life seemed to revolve around doo-wop music, George Carlin, Star Trek, Cheech and Chong, the Marx Brothers, James Bond, and horror movies. I was forever using an open microphone to tape record entire soundtracks of horror movies that were shown on Channels 5, 7, 9 and 11. One of my favorites was the 1958 version of The Blob. While Steve McQueen (one of my favorite actors) always hated this film, I liked it so much that I can still recite all of the dialog in it from start to finish if I watch it today! And I plan to eventually produce my own feature-length movie version of The Blob but with a Pulp Fiction approach to it! Maybe my version of The Blob can become an upcoming Apar Production!”
Jack always wanted to make a film. He once told us an idea for a movie revolving around a pop song he loved. We told him to write an outline. I don’t know if he ever did. The one time he submitted ideas was when Tom Sinclair and I were preparing a script for the Apar Film Quandary in 2012. Jack gave Doherty, Sinclair, Saly, and me audiocassettes of Jack describing his ideas for the movie. None of us could take it seriously – who records notes for a movie? Otto Preminger maybe. And who still has a cassette player? We didn’t treat Jack too well then – Alan was the only one who listened to the one-hour tape (and then just part of it). We weren’t trying to be cruel – though Jack must have been hurt by our behavior – it was simply that we couldn’t take ourselves as seriously as Jack did. And if we couldn’t take his love of Apar Films seriously, it became harder to take him seriously.
After Quandary, in which Jack had a small role, I didn’t see him for a long time. Just recently, however, I had a brief conversation with him, and he asked me (as he always did) when were we going to make another film? I joked that Alan Saly wanted a million dollars to do another one, but then added, more seriously, “Christian and I were talking about shooting a short film soon.” I could sense his excitement over the phone, as he blurted out, “Let me know! I’ll be there!”
Alas, it was never to be. On Wednesday, September 30, I got a call from Saly, who offered me the grim news that Montalvo was dead. Once again, it was hard to take seriously – but this time for a different reason. It was hard to picture that vivacious, enthusiastic “big kid” of a guy dead, only in his mid-fifties, felled by a heart attack.
I’d rather remember Jack as he was in 2009, when he wrote me a long e-mail offering his thoughts about Apar, fandom, and why he was an actor “almost as good as Marlon Brando.” “You guys have dubbed me your number-one fan and I like wearing that hat but I’d prefer to trade it in for a different one,” he said. “I’d like to be the first official member of the Apar Productions team for the new century (I gather that no one else has beat me to it yet). And rather than make cameo appearances in the films, I’d like to try out for ‘meatier’ parts. I think I’d make a good villain in a Henry Sorrelli film. I’m a good actor; almost as good as Marlon Brando and, when I want to, I can be funnier than W.C. Fields. I am good at facial expressions, body language, and voice work! I’ve got a voice like a rubberband! I can twist it around so many different ways and I can do various accents, as well. So, if you guys are still interested in making films where actors’ voices are dubbed in with those belonging to others, you want me on your team!”
You’re on the team, big guy. You’re alright, Jack.