August 26, 2016
Jim Mitchell, who died last Saturday of an apparent heart attack, really connected with people, and as his publisher and friend I was graced by his great ability to express goodwill through friendship on many occasions, and in many different ways. The proposal for the book he wrote for Seven Stories, The Walrus and the Elephants: John Lennon’s Years of Revolution, arrived in the mail unagented and was read by an intern who became so enamored of the project and of Jim’s writing that she fought hard for it and won over the entire editorial department at Seven Stories. We were all kind of taken aback at first that an unsolicited proposal had been acquired, except for Jim himself, who wasn’t surprised at all.
As Jim’s editor, I asked a lot of him and the finished manuscript when it came in then went through four or five substantial re-writes. I remember yelling on at least two occasions. Jim never held this against me. Always heard me out. And always listened. He told me afterwards that our collaboration on The Walrus and the Elephants was when he really learned what it meant to write. But he was being his usual generous self when he said that. He knew how to write beautifully already, from his years as a metropolitan reporter, from his previous book, and from the uniqueness of his serene vision of life and all he had lived through that had led him to it.
Jim’s way into the Lennon story was through the music. He had struck up a friendship with the guitarist from Lennon’s New York band, the Elephants, and at first he was going to write that story. But at some point he came to understand that the bigger story, the one about John Lennon’s early flourishing here after the breakup of the Beatles, working as a solo musical artist, as a producer, as Yoko Ono’s life partner and musical collaborator, and as a political and social activist focused on ending the Vietnam War and bringing down Nixon—using his enormous celebrity for a greater good—was the better story. It isn’t easy to write a John Lennon book that is going to be worth anything because so much has already been written. But Jim found the precise historical moment, from 1971 to ’73, when everything inside and around John Lennon was changing in kaleidoscopic fashion, and that was the story he told. The book was well received, especially among Lennon insiders, and now there are also German, Brazilian, and Japanese editions in addition to the English language version.
I didn’t meet Jim and Linda until after the book came out, even if by then Jim and I had probably spent weeks together already on the phone and on email. He was coming into New York for a Lennon conference and festival, and we agreed to meet there at the end of the second day of the conference. There was a gentle discovery for me in that meeting. It wasn’t that he was different from how I expected him to be. The discovery was that the same gentle bearing, the same considerateness and quiet joyousness of Jim’s that I’d enjoyed so much in our back and forth online and by phone was in his physical bearing and his touch when we hugged and grasped each other’s hands. I can’t tell you how rare that is, since almost everyone I’ve ever met either vanishes or crowds you on a first meeting. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in the same way someone standing next to me and feeling so much like a sonorous voice, a creature of spirit, as when I first met Jim.
Authors are fortunate when they die, because they die knowing you can go converse with them anytime by picking up one of their books and that the conversation will always flow like a river. I learned just enough Latin in college to know the proper expression for farewell, but almost never get the chance to use it. Vale, Jim.