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Saving Seymour a Seat

August 23, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Seven years ago, shortly after the death of my father, Robert Kirsch, I found myself across a cafe table from Seymour Kern. He had been my father's very best friend--a fellow novelist, a traveling companion on jaunts through London and across the Continent, a mentor in matters of business and real estate. Their friendship had begun many years before, at another restaurant table, when Seymour discovered that the man sitting nearby was the critic who had praised his novel in the pages of The Times.

"In his passion for detail, his story-telling gift, his insight into the workings of the driving passions of human beings," Robert Kirsch had written in an early review of "Samson Duke," Kern's second novel, "Seymour Kern is more than a little reminiscent of Emile Zola."

During the first of my many lunches with Kern--the literary lunch was Seymour's true metier--he talked of his latest novel, a political satire on the unlikely political ascent of Ronald Reagan. He had labored lovingly and long over the book, and he would continue to do so for another half-dozen years. The work-in-progress--became the theme of our friendship, but I also came to know Seymour as a man of authentic charisma, a wholly self-taught intellectual and a gritty idealist, and--to use my father's highest accolade--a mensch.

To my mind, Kern was a character out of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story--a hardheaded businessman with the soul of a poet, a real estate investor who grew wealthy almost in spite of himself and who promptly turned his hard-earned leisure to the practice of the literary arts.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913, he apprenticed in his father's cigar factory and, by age 13, he was an accomplished cigar-roller. He moved to California in 1929, where he worked as an actor, a door-to-door salesman, even--when necessary--a panhandler. His superb intuition and his sturdy common sense brought him into the real estate business, that most authentic of Southern California's native industries, where he thrived and prospered. A fatalist and an idealist at the same time, he always attributed his success to blind luck.

But Seymour, an autodidact who was always far more impressed by a fine poet than by any mere real estate magnate, aspired to write his own books. With the same furious willpower that he brought to every other enterprise in his life, Kern invented himself as a novelist--and a rollicking, sharp-tongued, muck-raking one at that. "The Golden Scalpel," published in 1960, was an expose of the practice of medicine among the privileged of Southern California. (Back in 1948, Kern had managed the first high-rise medical office building in Beverly Hills.) Then came "Samson Duke," his 1972 novel of wheeling and dealing in Southern California real estate. In 1975, he pondered the agonies of reaching middle-age amid the youth culture in "Fifty."

Kern was born with a rich supply of indignation but no self-righteousness at all, and he displayed none of the huffiness that sometimes afflicts the self-made man. Cruelty, injustice, corruption, mean-spiritedness, folly or plain stupidity was enough to move him to a fireworks display of red-faced anger. During the McCarthy era, Seymour and his cherished wife, Jesse, befriended a coterie of blacklisted writers, and he made himself a mover and shaker in progressive politics. As a member of the Los Angeles County Grand Jury in the aftermath of Proposition 13, he earned a certain notoriety as the only landlord in California who said out loud that renters had been wholly neglected in the taxpayer's revolution, and that rent control was an appropriate way to let them share the windfall of the propertied class.

Now, at long last, we are able to read Kern's fourth novel, "Save Me a Seat in the White House" (Fleur-de-Lis Press, P.O. Box 4071, Malibu, Calif. 90265: $15.95, plus $1.04 tax and $1.50 shipping). It's a satire drawn obliquely but unmistakably from the Reagan political saga, driven by a sense of incredulous outrage, and peopled with precisely the kind of colorful but credible villains that Seymour knew all too well from a fully engaged life in the real world. Dudley Harrington, United States senator from California, "the poor man's Richard Nixon," is the cat's paw of kingmakers from various citadels of commerce and both sides of the law--a Reagan-like "Kitchen Cabinet" of business moguls as well as a multiethnic cabal of gangsters; both are cynical, manipulative and a lot smarter than the man on whom they put their money.

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