Norman Mailer was infuriated with Bruce Jay Friedman for merely putting in an appearance at the party he had thrown. His exit blocked by his host, Friedman attempted to defuse the situation, while at the same time, taking the opportunity to mess with Mailer a bit. He reached over and tousled Mailer’s hair. That was the flash point, the entire party spilling out of the town house and into the street, the two writers facing off on the pavement, each man posturing and throwing punches in the air.
“Richard Adler, the composer of Damn Yankees and Pyjama Game, came between us. That was brave of Adler, who was thin-chested and delicately put together.
‘You can’t fight this man,’ he said to Mailer. ‘I plan to do a musical comedy with him.’ “
Friedman, now at an age, as described by his friend Mario Puzo, as playing on the casino’s money, has written Lucky Bruce, the memoir of his literary adventures. Unlike the kid who goes astray by falling in with the wrong crowd, throughout his life and half-century career Friedman inevitably fell in with just the right crowd, as if falling into a crowd was all there was to making himself a success. Again and again, Friedman makes the best of the crowd he finds himself in, too modest to entertain the thought that it was his presence and immense talent that made those crowds what they were.
The Friedmans didn’t so much live in a Bronx apartment. In the author’s words, the family was crammed into it. While his older sister had the coveted cot in the living room, Friedman slept in a chair in the kitchen, taking the rare phone call in the closet as the family hovered about, listening in. Outside, he doesn’t exactly have to fight his way down the street, but does recall a particularly aggressive game where a boy was given a garbage can lid to defend himself from a barrage of rock-throwing toughs. One wonders how Friedman’s mother would have confronted this gang. Cautioned that fifteen year old Bruce’s arm might have to be amputated because of an infection, she stood her ground against the doctor. “How about we just cut off your head?”
Taking a degree in journalism at the University of Missouri, the New York Jewish kid was turned loose in the heartland. From there, a stint in the Air Force during the Korean War found him editing a military magazine that may as well have been a farm journal. A civilian once again, Friedman looked for work, making the rounds of magazines. The more reputable Colliers, Newsweek, Saturday Evening Post barely gave him the time of day. Taken in by The Magazine Management bunch, the company put out a string of men’s magazines of the day. The stories they published leaned toward storming beaches or brothels - or both, and required an immense amount of words each month. For years and years, Friedman assigned stories, writers, chose cartoons, then wrote his own material on the train home in the suburbs, sometimes through the night, where his sons, on their way out the door on a school day, might find him collapsed over his typewriter at the kitchen table. Then it was back on the train, storming the beaches from Manhattan.
Stern, Friedman’s first novel came out to high praise and modest sales. His second, A Mother’s Kisses, rode the best seller lists for months. Scuba Duba, described by Time Magazine as “a flagellatingly funny first play,” had a marathon run off Broadway. His second play would be Steambath. Stories appeared in the best magazines. Lucky? The old expression comes to mind, that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
Friedman fashioned a career of steady output, highlighted by bursts of creativity and hard work. His story “A Change of Plan,” for example, was written in one night and immediately sold to Esquire, later to become a pretty damn good movie called The Heartbreak Kid when Neil Simon and Elaine May were involved, and a not so great remake with Ben Stiller when they weren’t. Hollywood called, and Friedman gave them Splash, Stir Crazy. And on and on. The author drops names, pokes fun at himself for doing so, and we don’t mind a bit, these glimpses of Woody Allen, William Styron, Natalie Wood, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Kurt Vonnegut.
BJF, out on the town, 2010
(photo by MZ)
In Lucky Bruce, Friedman declares his second wife Pat to be the love of his life. But he writes just as lovingly of friends and colleagues - Elaine Kaufman for providing Elaine’s as a writer’s hangout, his agent Candida Donadio, (“…it was easy to be brave with someone fearless clearing the path ahead.”) whose doting, encouraging attention made him feel like her only client, Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo, to whom the memoir is dedicated.