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Now, Gentle Readers, On to the Matter of Hollywod Manners and Commerce...

In Which the Author, Equipped Only With the Latest Collection of Insider Tomes, A Keen Sense of History and Much Imagination, Considers the Personal and Profession Custons of the Inhabitants of the Motion Picture Industry.

September 15, 1996|Verlyn Klinkenborg | Verlyn Klinkenborg is the author of "Making Hay" and "The Last Fine Time." His last poece for the magazine was a profile of Martha Stewart. He lives in Housatonic, Mass., and considers himself a consummate Hollywood outsider

The following letter was found several weeks ago in a Federal Express box placed on the desk of a New York publicist who had gone out to lunch and who has asked to remain unidentified. (The air bill was missing). Besides this letter, which is written on paper of mid-19th century manufacture, the box also contained decrepit galleys of three books: "Hello, He Lied--and Other Truths From the Hollywood Trenches," by Lynda Obst; "The Vipers' Club," by John H. Richardson, and "Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood," by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters. The condition of the galleys is puzzling because the titles are current this season.

This letter is addressed to Richard Henry Dana Jr., author of "Two Years Before the Mast" (1840). Dana sailed for Southern California in 1834 and spent several months there, gathering and preserving hides for the Boston leather trade. To the topmost galley in the box, "Hit & Run," a note was pinned. (The pin had rusted, discoloring the note and the title page of the galley). The note, in Dana's hand, said only: "Delivered to me, 5th Oct. 1835. Santa Barbara. RHD." How these galleys could possibly have come into Dana's possession and why he never mentioned them in "Two Years Before the Mast" remains a mystery.

The author of this undated letter was a man named Justus Beryl, a Princeton-trained philologist--i.e., linguist--and correspondent of George Eliot and Victor Hugo among many others. Beryl spent the better part of his career working on a glossary of American slang, which was never published. He disappeared in 1877, age 61, while researching the patois of oyster men on the Chesapeake Bay. His wife Eleanor is said to have burned his notes and scattered the ashes--as though they were her husband's ashes--in the waters of Lake Champlain. She moved to Sarasota, Fla., and never remarried.

The text of Beryl's epistle to Dana is here reprinted in full.

My Dear Dana,

Your letter came in the afternoon post last Thursday. It would be ungracious not to thank you for the extraordinary privilege of examining these books--if only I could be certain that it is a privilege. Rumor of your discovery had penetrated even to this remote village, and rumor, for once, did not exaggerate. What are we to think of such things? To steady my mind I have been rereading Sir Thomas Browne's essay on the ancient custom of urn burial. He observes--using what is, for him, not an extravagant metaphor--that even America lay buried for thousands of years, remaining in the urn unto us. Yet who could imagine that America should contain not only its rude and as yet undelineated fate but also these artifacts, which give the appearance, against all reason, of belonging to a year lying more than a century in the future?

I cannot envy the men who must sift these texts for evidence regarding the material civilization of that distant and till now unimaginable year. Still less do I envy the men who must riddle out the meaning of your stumbling upon these relics of the future in that future's past. It would be easier to believe that this is all a hoax. Yet how many discoveries that later proved genuine have been called a hoax at the time of their first publication?

You say that you have consulted me first as a philologist and second as a man of reason. Philology shall wait upon reason in this instance. After Reynolds had gone, I carried the box into my study, removed the books and, when I had once ceased wondering at their physical appearance, began to read. As I read, I made notes, but soon I laid down my pen and merely read. (Eleanor tells me that she carried food to my chair and that I ate, while reading, but I have no memory of it). The text--for I have almost come to think of these three books as a single work--presented many difficulties to my understanding, some of them insuperable, and yet I read with an appetite that felt at times like salaciousness. Indeed, when at last I had finished reading, my first act was to walk into the hall and study my reflection in the mirror that hangs there. Outwardly, I had not changed. I tell you, it was a relief, and it was a relief, too, to watch the dawn waken this retired corner of the 19th century, where a future such as these books suggest disturbs the dreams of no one but myself.

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