NEW YORK — Since you're the reporter, you want to ask all the questions. But Eddie Ellis won't stick to this plan. He's got questions of his own. In no time, he'll have half-crawled inside your skin.
It's part of his charm, if a little unexpected.
Unexpected because, well, this guy is the most prolific diarist ever, according to the Guinness Book of Records. He's filled 40,000 pages with more than 20 million words about his life. You can't help imagining that he's got to be, well, (how to put this nicely?) seriously self-absorbed.
But that's the thing--the most wonderful thing--about Edward Robb Ellis. His long life has been about so much more than himself. By trade he was a newspaperman but, more than that, he's been a kind of Everyman quester, questioner, quick-to-laugh seeker of truth.
"Ellis," he occasionally says to himself, "it's been quite a ride."
Take a look in his eyes. A merry twinkle glints through the thick dark rims of his glasses. When he tips his head back to laugh, which he does often, a whole faceful of hair ripples along with the smile.
Focus for a moment on his wild silver mane. You can almost glimpse the razor-sharp part that once was, the kind of part made by raking a rat's-tail comb through his slicked-back 1940s hair.
He's 84 years old now and bothered by emphysema, but nonetheless it's all right there: the after-hours drinks and swinging fox-trots at grand old hotels; the love affairs with great books and leggy women; the full-course Depression-era meals for 30 cents followed by vaudeville for a quarter.
In her smoky voice, the actress Talullah Bankhead once showered him with "Dah-lings." The great poet e.e. cummings sat by politely as Eddie read aloud. Irving Berlin listened to him croon a Berlin ballad, and Harry S. Truman let the young reporter tag along on his morning walks.
His late wife, Ruthie, the woman he can't forget, predicted decades ago that Eddie would someday be noted as a "someone," that his life and diaries would matter. The other day, he came across a book she gave him on his 50th birthday. In it was inscribed: "For Mr. Potential of the 20th Century." It damned near made him cry.
Now, in the twilight of his life, comes publication of "A Diary of the Century: Tales from America's Greatest Diarist." Maybe all his scribblings, most of which are now among New York University's archives, were worthwhile. Maybe Ruthie was right.
As his friend, the veteran columnist Pete Hamill, writes in an introduction to the book, "There are human beings who will be helped in understanding our times through the diaries of Edward Robb Ellis.
"That is his accomplishment. That is his triumph."
It started out as a lark, a bet with a few childhood pals. Who could keep a journal going the longest? While his challengers soon lapsed, Eddie kept on, chronicling everything from his first talkie movie (Al Jolson's "The Singing Fool") to TV reporter Diane Sawyer's 1994 paycheck ($19,000 per day, twice as much as he'd earned per year as a reporter).
Ellis closed his first diary entry, misspellings and all, on Dec. 27, 1927, at the age of 16:
"Kewanee, Illinois, Hog Capital of the World: "Well Christmas is past and everyone happy. I got a wristwatch, billfold, DeMolay pin, and the usual hetregenous collection of sox, ties and handkerchiefs. Went to the students' dance at the Kewanee Club last night. Took Barbara. Not so hot."
Not so auspicious, either. But as the boy grew, so did his art.
He wrote about everything: the railroad coal car he shared with sooty-faced men ("jobless and hopeless, not college kids on a lark"); incoming enemy fire somewhere on Okinawa ("for years I had wondered what fear feels like); even his first sexual adventures ("Well, today Mamma dusted under my bed and found my diary . . .").
On March 15, 1934, back when young Ellis only had time enough to write on the fly, he observed: "Lately I've realized that in this diary I confess things I otherwise might not even admit doing. Every day I have to face myself and my sins. . . . If I were to take the time necessary to rewrite my diary, it would be like a snake swallowing its own tail."
A thin stream of midday sun plays along the windowsill in Eddie's brownstone apartment, a cozily unkempt place on a quiet downtown street. Various busts and statues, original paintings and heavy pieces of Victorian furniture are scattered about. But books and bookcases are clearly the decorator's chief motif.
Stretched from floor to ceiling are multiple volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, World Book Encyclopedia, Collier's Encyclopedia. Doted-on biographies and histories, dog-eared collections on art, music, science, philosophy, math. They spill onto nearby couches, straddle the refrigerator and stove, dance along the corridors, stand sentry all around his bed.
Each morning, the ritual psychic strip-search begins again.