• Master of Ceremonies: Melissa Holbrook Pierson Remembers Peter Schjeldahl

    “It could not be big, loud, fiery, or dangerous enough to suit him.”

    Twenty-five years ago happenstance brought me to the chance of being changed by Peter Schjeldahl. I had recently married a writer who was becoming something of an It personage. He had just published his first book to fanfare, and he consorted with other writers of even higher stature as well as a few art-world bigwigs. These friends became my friends, and I felt flush with luck.

    It was a time of deciding that having no boundaries is the fullest expression of togetherness: there’s no such thing as “your friends” and “my friends.” It’s only “our friends,” our one life, our future as two writers whose separate fortunes are the same. Once at a highway rest stop we found a machine that printed instant business cards. We named our new enterprise after us, three letters from my name mashed with three of his. We were in the business of we.

    One weekend one of these shared new friends, Peter Schjeldahl, and his wife, Brooke, invited us to their place in the country. What country? I didn’t know. As the line in my favorite song went, “Take me anywhere, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care.” I had previously driven out of New York City as far as Bear Mountain, and that seemed far. But we were in Peter and Brooke’s car a long time. We were evidently going away.

    This is the shortcut, he informed us, when after two and three-quarters hours—well past the 95-mile-bladder-comfort radius around the city, which saved the place Peter loved from being overrun by the less hardy—he took a sharp right in the middle of Margaretville. The road ascended steeply. Into deep woods, then out under suddenly limitless sky. Into a tear in the curtain of time.

    He looked straight ahead as he drove the narrow, unmarked road along walls of laid-up stone or dropping off into vast fields but I felt him also watching us. He would have seen my face pressed to the window. Beyond was a standoffish landscape that embodied timeless waiting. I had never seen anything like it, or maybe I had, in another life. Maybe a long time ago I had grown out of these very rocks. Old white farmhouses speckled the distance, Dutch barns gawped beside the road, interiors dark as lost history. Through the car window unreeled a vision of an American past that was simultaneously my past.

    Large things may be given unawares. The giver remains innocent of knowing he has changed someone’s life.

    At the top of one more rise Peter lit another cigarette to hold reasonably near the open window in a semblance of not offending; it was the kind of old habit the body practiced without thinking. Cigarettes were an appendage as natural to his form as the fingers that held them. But we all smoked then. We couldn’t have written if we didn’t.

    After skating high along the lip of a deep bowl of greenish gray, flecked with minute rocks and even tinier Herefords, the car headed down into the wide valley.

    Soon we pulled into a curving dirt drive, at the end of which was a green farmhouse with burnt orange trim (as I recall). It was new but might have been a century old. Falling away behind it was a greensward pocked by a pond with an inviting dock. Scratch that, redundant. Below the pond ran a stream—the Little Delaware, which flows into the Delaware’s West Branch and thence the Delaware—and just behind it a mountain rising like a wall.

    It was all an obviously fake stage set for a play involving a picturesque homestead in the old Midwest of the imagination, possibly Minnesota. I had never been there, so that worked for me. I don’t know if it in fact reminded Peter of home. But he was acutely attached to the soil of this place and its rough beauty, and in the course of the twenty minutes it had taken to arrive here in the past from Margaretville, I was too.

    “There are two kinds of people: mountain people and valley people,” he said as he cut the engine. “I guess we’re valley people.”

    After our young border collie, to whom we were doting parents, jumped out of the car exuding joy from every follicle, my mind was made up. What Peter had happened to hold out—the most delicious dish on a lengthy buffet—ended up the only thing I craved. To live here too.

    My husband would soon agree. He was agreeable to a lot in those days.

    First, though, we were to enjoy ourselves. Peter had a way of simply laying out a bunch of enjoyments and nodding almost imperceptibly toward them: Go ahead. Take a walk. Nap in the hammock in that little copse. Read on the porch in a squeaking metal rocking divan. Swim in the pond, explore the river. Play cards or go for a drive. His personal moving meditation was riding a mower over the grounds and along little pathways cut through an old orchard.

    He wandered his extensive holdings like a latter-day John Burroughs, the sage of the Catskills whose presence hung over these mountains and whose words echoed from surrounding forests: “Here the works of man dwindle and the original features of this huge globe come out. You discover with a feeling of surprise that the great thing is the earth itself.”

    Peter had a mild-mannered mien but the heart of an arsonist. Which is how he wrote, too. Every line a matchstrike to gasoline-soaked tinder.

    Later that summer they invited us to return for the Fourth of July. There was going to be a party, he said. With fireworks. I spent a day helping Brooke in the kitchen. Peter crossed the Pennsylvania border to secure the entertainment, the car stuffed on return with boxes of fireworks. Friends started arriving in the late afternoon to swim in the pond and generally hang out.

    We met all sorts of nice people. Peter and a couple pals of similarly pyromaniacal leaning crossed the river over the small bridge he had built to lay out the bigger explosives. Bags bristling with roman candles, sparklers, and firecrackers were deployed around the yard for anyone who cared to dig in. It was a parent’s job to watch any seven-year-old who might have gotten hold of matches or a lighter. Or not watch. This, to Peter, was what the Fourth was about. Glorious shock and awe.

    It could not be big, loud, fiery, or dangerous enough to suit him.

    All the friends trickling in bore dishes of food: this is how I learned about the inviolable upstate tradition, potluck. We would even one day attend a potluck wedding. Our dog roamed joyfully free. Free to steal food. Whatever. Freedom was Peter’s ethos. My dog’s happiness was my happiness, which Peter also provided free of charge.

    Only in retrospect do you realize you’ve been given a peak experience, the party that is written into posterity as inimitable, the Platonic ideal of thrill. Every minute was perfect joy.

    Or almost. I was still me. So whenever I reached my alarmingly low threshold for social engagement, or felt a panic attack coming on, which was frequently then, I retreated to the room they gave us on our stays. It was actually their daughter’s. In truth, I didn’t know if they regarded us as their children or as slightly younger versions of themselves—on the cusp of potentially impressive careers, with an endless supply of ever more impressive people to befriend.

    One of Peter’s closest friends was Roger Angell (stepson of E.B. White), the great baseball writer and the New Yorker’s onetime fiction editor. So here I was, sitting between him and Peter on the first base line at a double-A minor league game, listening to them agree that this was where one saw the most exciting ball, period. It became a confident pronouncement I would later make to anyone who would listen. I said it as if I myself had conceived it.

    Lying on the bed, the curtains drawn but the screens open to the breeze and the merry voices floating in on it, I felt part of the pleasant mayhem outside while relievedly invisible to it. When panic rose to unmanageable levels—at one point I wished to go to the hospital, but I couldn’t disrupt the party so I spun in place in secret—I found in the room the closest thing to a panacea I would ever know. A whole shelf of Nancy Drew mysteries. They and they alone were to bring me back down. During my sporadic tenure in their house, I eventually read every one of them.

    When the firecrackers started in earnest, our dog vaulted the river and disappeared somewhere up the mountain. Darkness was falling. My panic now had a reason, transforming it utterly. Its purpose was her. My husband and I climbed and climbed, racketing through undergrowth and stumbling on stones. We found her, trembling, near the top. We brought her back on leash. The bedroom, with windows and door closed, became her haven as well as mine.

    It could not be big, loud, fiery, or dangerous enough to suit him.

    Each successive year the party got a little bigger. By the next we arrived from our rental house nearby, and the two following summers from different rentals. In another year I had a baby, in a house we had bought but quickly sold; the same rural solitude that had singularly attracted me when I was not fully responsible for a small human now proved difficult.

    The next year found us in a new home that was in neither Brooklyn nor the farther reaches of the unpeopled Catskills: we agreed to plant our young family in the familiar zone of the exit off the Thruway where Peter had first shown us a new world. I had no way to know it, but from that first trip we had been traveling the route through my future: where I would end up later, where things would fall apart, where I would stay after they had.

    The long lake that flashed by on New York 28’s way northwest would in four years lend its scenery to a drama in which I braked to a sudden stop on the shoulder, tearfully wrenched my wedding ring from my finger, and came close to heaving it into its dark water.

    Eleven years after that first drive my son and I would come to live in a house just up from the deli where we had unfailingly stopped for sandwiches together en route: still an hour to go. Then it had appeared to me as in the middle of a nameless nowhere, a place with a big cow atop the sign, which Peter loved. He would wander around peering into refrigerator cases as if they would surrender yet new aesthetic wonderments from the last time he had been, the week before.


    The first summer of knowing Peter, in a golden youth further burnished by having met the kind of person I used to dream up when I was a kid in Ohio—at ease with celebrity so long as it is coupled to excellence, a perennial child with the brain of a master, someone for whom unleashed fun was the number one rule for living, I exulted in the sense that I was on the way to becoming a legitimate member of the storied group surrounding the Schjeldahls.

    My first book was to be published. It seemed both unreal as well as simply what one did: one foot in front of the other. One weekend I was bedeviled by a problem that had attained urgency. I had to come up with a subtitle. By next week. I had written and crossed out what felt like a hundred possibilities. They all sucked.

    Peter and I were strolling circles on the lawn by the river. “Well, ok,” he said. “Tell me what the book is about.”

    No matter what he said, what he wrote, Peter always slapped you into new awakening.

    It’s everything I could think of to say on the subject of motorcycles, I replied. It’s their history, my experiences with them. It’s their social and cultural meaning. It’s what it is about them that makes them so alluring.

    “There’s your subtitle,” he said.

    What? What subtitle? I was practically on my knees.

    “‘What It Is About Motorcycles.’”

    I was dumbfounded. Right there, the book’s essence, its simple heart. I had no idea I already possessed it. It took Peter to brush it off and hand it back.

    No matter what he said, what he wrote, Peter always slapped you into new awakening.


    My book got reviewed in only one major paper, by its top critic. I stopped reading after the second line. I felt like I’d been cold-cocked. The sneer was audible: I was a member of a “literary cabal,” that which preemptively disqualifies one’s book. For the life of me, I’ll never know how this guy found out I was friends with the likes of Peter Schjeldahl. For me it was not calculated. I don’t think it could have been. But for me these were the naïve years. To them, there were ends.


    “77 Sunset Me” relates a story about meeting Susan Sontag, and Peter’s assumption that her overture of praise for his work meant she was actually interested in further conversation, an exchange about other things. He was brought up short. The only act she intended to perform was bestowing her benediction. “I had presumed on it,” he realized. I would come to do the same to Peter.

    Before he could learn that my husband and I had separated, thus before I could be evicted from all sorts of mailing lists, Peter sent an invitation I pretended was meant for me. It was, but only inasmuch as I was still packaged with my more illustrious husband. I quickly replied. I was no longer with ____ , but I would be happy to attend, and I was bringing a guest.

    I had no intention of withdrawing from the foyer of New York’s belles lettres when I had only so recently advanced through the door, just because I was no longer with the man who first held it open for me. I wanted to belong there on my own account.

    Of course, I didn’t. Apart from my husband I in fact no longer existed. But this party, to celebrate the publication of Peter’s collected writings on art, was to be held at the fancy apartment of a very fancy editor. I was dying to go. I was also, at this point in time, temporarily insane. Grief and the sudden revelations about someone I thought I knew unglued me, made me blindingly selfish. But in my mind I had received the invitation fair and square. Notwithstanding that I had basically picked it up off the sidewalk when it fell out of someone else’s pocket.

    Even more ill-advisedly I asked a girlfriend who was herself an artist and writer. Also a bit eccentric. We had both written for the same weekly to which Peter had once contributed; we sort of, tangentially, ok proximately, belonged in this cabal. We met outside the building to go to the party, and I noted with a flash of dismay—why?—her party attire was eminently suitable for a Lower East Side party in a tenement apartment circa 1978, the kind of garb they just didn’t understand above Fourteenth Street.

    He wandered among the crowds who didn’t know him, looking as he frequently did a little lost—although he never was.

    The elevator deposited us directly into the apartment, where a tuxedoed attendant turned a skeptical eye. He was polite society’s version of a bouncer. But we were on the list.

    As soon as I was able—a phalanx of friends and admirers surrounded him like the palace guard—I approached Peter. He looked momentarily stricken, as if he couldn’t place me, or didn’t know what to say, or wished I hadn’t come, or wished I hadn’t brought the too-bubbly friend. I congratulated him, he mumbled thanks. About a lasting friendship, “I had presumed on it.” It was the second to last time I saw him.


    The last was again a Fourth. Now in my eighth house since Peter had first pulled back the curtain on the heartbreaking Catskills—three rentals, two purchases pre-divorce; one rental and two purchases post-divorce—I headed to the party once more. Friends said you didn’t need an invitation anymore. It had become a public event, a backyard Burning Man for those in the know. And only people who didn’t read the glossies or the New York Times were still ignorant. It had been, when I first experienced it, the best party in all recorded time.

    Now, I was told, “buses from Brooklyn” brought revelers. I thought this had to be hyperbole until we approached Brooke and Peter’s house. Half a mile away both sides of the road were already lined with closely parked Subarus and Volvos. In the driveway just before the house, Brooke and an assistant sat at a table with sign-up sheets for tasks. The cost of admission was a dish and a job. You could be on clean-up, resupply, recycling. The lawn was already carpeted end to end with territory-marking blankets.

    Peter had, as ever, built the mountain of brush (and the occasional bit of plastic, having years before dismissed my shocked remonstrance about toxic fumes with a roll of his eyes) that would cap the evening in an explosive roar. Peter had a mild-mannered mien but the heart of an arsonist.

    Which is how he wrote, too. Every line a matchstrike to gasoline-soaked tinder.

    He wandered among the crowds who didn’t know him, looking as he frequently did a little lost—although he never was. It was the rest of us who were.

    This creation, finally, would be what was lost. It had become too fabulous, their generosity in sharing it too expansive, and like every such pinnacle event it would topple from the weight of its own greatness. A year later the Times would run an item about its demise. I would never see Peter again.


    Except in the pages of The New Yorker. There I was arrested—Peter’s specialty—by one line in particular. “To start a critical essay,” he wrote about recent experience, “I must prod myself until the old mesmerized flow returns.” Belatedly Peter brings me again into an important circle—this time, those who feel anguish over “an impermeable block” to writing. It had lately become torture for me to start a critical piece. I was afraid, and alone in my fear. Until he, in his forthright fearlessness, stated the truth. “Writing is hard, or everyone would do it,” he says. “You’re reading an exception, which is pouring out of me.”

    This, too, is pouring out of me.

    Large things may be given unawares. The giver remains innocent of knowing he has changed someone’s life. The receiver does not realize these are things that changed her, until the moment she learns the giver has maybe half a year before lung cancer will do him in.

    Then, on reading a friend’s auto-epitaph, “77 Sunset Me: Notes on an Ending,” stray memories, and not a few regrets, start falling like snow on her head. Soon she wears a cap so heavy and wet she can’t but become conscious of what it is: small chance happenings unified into a single big thing, as weighty as a turning point

    Melissa Holbrook Pierson
    Melissa Holbrook Pierson
    Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of The Place You Love Is Gone and The Perfect Vehicle, among other books.

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