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Obituaries

John Espey; Author, UCLA English Professor

September 30, 2000|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Espey, the Shanghai-born son of a missionary who became a scholarly author and UCLA English professor but also wrote delightfully about his upbringing and collaborated on such popular epic novels as "Lotus Land," has died. He was 87.

Espey, who often wrote with his longtime companion, Carolyn See, and her daughter, Lisa See Kendall, under the joint pseudonym Monica Highland, died Tuesday of congestive heart failure at their Pacific Palisades home, See said.

"His interests were wide, his mind amazing," See said Wednesday. "But what made him unique was his giddy love of life, which approached heedlessness at times, and the high esteem in which he was held by his family, friends and students."

The son of a severe, strict Presbyterian minister who forbade strong drink and language or talk of sex, Espey devoted a much-loved chunk of his eclectic writing to witty memories of his unusual childhood. His affection for the man he called "Father" was as clear in his writing as his reasons for choosing a freer lifestyle in Los Angeles.

"I loved this man," he told The Times in 1991, at the same time conceding that he had often required a courage-bolstering snort from his whiskey bottle before entering his parents' retirement home in Pasadena. "I felt greatly hurt that, even at the end of his life, we didn't communicate. He felt that my work was frivolous. I really should have been out there converting souls."

Espey first came to Los Angeles in 1930 to study at Occidental College, and returned after his Rhodes Scholar years at England's Oxford University to teach English at Occidental from 1938 to 1948 and then, for the next 25 years, at UCLA.

Espey first set his childhood recollections to paper in a series of articles for the New Yorker, which were collected in three books published by Knopf, "Minor Heresies" in 1945, "Tales Out of School" in 1947 and "The Other City" in 1950.

When "Espeyites" tired of combing used-book stores for the long out-of-print volumes that one 1990s Times reviewer still considered "highly polished gems," Espey collected "all the chapters I wish to preserve" from the trio and recycled them. The resulting volume, "Minor Heresies, Major Departures," was published by the University of California Press in 1994.

His musings had weathered the intervening half-century quite satisfactorily. A Washington Post reviewer praised the renewed "beautifully written memoir," citing "two distinctive qualities of this quite remarkable book . . . the elegance of Espey's stately, self-confident prose . . . [and] the delicate balance he strikes . . . between the voice of the mature memoirist and the viewpoint of the boy whom he is recalling."

That essential balance, the reviewer added, "is so difficult that only the rarest writer achieves it; Espey is that writer."

Rare, yes, and prodigious. Espey waited more than two decades after his parents died to write two stronger memoirs, the nonfiction "Strong Drink, Strong Language" in 1990 and the sequel-type novel "Winter Return" in 1992.

His father the minister, Espey told The Times in 1991, "simply would not have liked to have anything personal about his life mentioned." Espey had already "embarrassed" his parents, they told him, with one of the New Yorker articles revealing that he had gone to a Shanghai nightspot as a teenager.

He also wrote scholarly tomes, including "Ezra Pound's 'Mauberley': A Study in Composition" in 1955; with his friend Charles Gullans, "A Checklist of Trade Bindings Designed by Margaret Armstrong" in 1958 and "The Decorative Designers" in 1970; and, with Richard Ellmann, "Oscar Wilde: Two Approaches" in 1977. See said that at the time of Espey's death, he had been working on a bibliography of American publishers Stone & Kimball.

Espey wrote two California novels, "The Anniversary" in 1963 about a 19th century Pasadena patriarch, which a Times reviewer then called "first-rate reading," and "An Observer" in 1965 about a college professor that another Times reviewer called "fine fiction" with a "beautifully limpid and lucid" style.

In 1980, Espey published a diverting satirical series of haiku poems, complete with tongue-in-cheek academic commentary, titled "The Empty Box Haiku." See said later that the whimsical book was simply Espey's gift to a depressed colleague.

And Espey wrote with See, with whom he lived after the 1973 death of his wife of 35 years, Alice Martha Rideout. In 1991, they wrote what one reviewer rated a "touching, hilarious book" outlining their disparate perspectives on their mature relationship: "Two Schools of Thought: Some Tales of Learning and Romance."

And then there were the Monica books, written with See and her author daughter--historical novels that the trio came to view as "airplane literature for smart people." They got the idea after watching a television mini-series and figuring they could do better.

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