Man of Letters

To whom it may concern: The Western History Department archives our past for the future.

No one would know this story if my dad hadn't told approximately everyone. I heard it in answer to the question "Why is your dining room table covered with plaster?"

"Okay," he says, "but there's a difference between stupid and really, really, stupid. Like that girl on that train." I wait. "I was only seventeen," he reflects. Then he tells me the rest of the story, which I will not repeat, not even to the Western History Department. There's a difference between private and really, really private.

My father writes the best sympathy letters in the world. Never "I can imagine just how you feel," or "She's surely gone to a better place," or "Death is a mystery."

Blair Chotzinoff pauses in his paper chase.
Mark A. Manger
Blair Chotzinoff pauses in his paper chase.

"How do you do that?" I ask.

"How long is a piece of rope?" he counters. "How fast is quick?"

"Is this fun for you, going through all this paper?"

"Yes," he admits. "Some of it is very amusing, and sometimes the writing is good. But I still don't know why the library wants it."

"My job is to acquire material on the history of the American West," says Barbara Walton of the DPL's Western History Department. "We have an interest in the papers of journalists, which your father certainly is. For one thing, they write well. You don't have to pick apart their sentences to figure out what they were talking about. Anyone interested in music at the turn of the century will be interested in this collection. Also, he has this expansive personality and a huge circle of friends. His life experiences are incredible. And he's outgoing.

"He's not exactly unwilling to share."

In the ensuing conversation, Gloria Steinem comes up again, as do some of the "really important people" my father grew up around, a lot of them connected to the classical-music world, since my dad's dad directed the NBC orchestra and his uncle was eminent violinist Jascha Heifetz. None of it is particular to the American West, nor was my father's first journalism job, writing a nightlife column for a New York newspaper. Walton knows this. In her line of work, she explains, you never know exactly what you're looking for or who might find it interesting fifty years down the road, so she tends to collect it all.

"When I ask for people's papers, they usually say, 'I didn't know anyone cared,'" she says. "They're happy I do, and they want me to convince them it matters."

That's not a problem, she adds, because it does matter. Not just papers filled with the great and brushes with greatness, but everyday details. "Even famous people write about those things -- the weather, family, children, schools," Walton says. "Only rarely do important people write about important things."

I'm assuming the subjects in my dad's papers fall somewhere between the weather and important things. The Western History Department will catalogue and preserve them all. "For you," Walton says, "and anyone else who wants to see them."

I like to imagine that person's first glimpse of my father's bequest to the DPL collection. I picture this future scholar unearthing the last word on rye bread, chopped liver, how not to cook ice cream sauce and other matters loosely (or not at all) related to food at the turn of the 21st century.

This Is the End, for instance, Unless It Isn't.

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