By Jacqueline Taylor Basker
A dramatic Valentine’s week presentation at Westbeth relayed the love story of two extraordinary talents in Greenwich Village. Edith Stephen, dancer-turned-moviemaker extraordinaire at 98, filmed a tribute to her late husband, the writer Alan Kapelner.
Kapelner (1914-1990) was a significant but overlooked author, whose talent was discovered by Maxwell Perkins, editor of Hemingway and Faulkner. This riveting film, The Invisible Writer Becomes Visible, surveyed both Kapelner’s career and the important history of 20th century American literature.
Perkins edited Kapelner’s first novel in 1944, Lonely Boy Blues, which was widely acclaimed as an insightful description of NYC. Its success motivated the actor Anthony Quinn to turn it into a film, but the salary Katharine Hepburn demanded derailed the project. The New York Times described Kapelner’s second book, All the Naked Heroes, as providing significant insight into the moral confusion of the 1930s generation.
Stephen’s film combined archival materials from her collection—a collage of photos, posters, and memorabilia from the 1930s to the 1990s, with documentary film clips from the Spanish Civil War (Kapelner’s brother was killed in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade) and the rise of fascism in Europe.
Kapelner was awarded a residency at the D. H. Lawrence Foundation ranch in Taos, New Mexico where he continued writing and became friends with Lawrence’s widow and Mary Dodd, the heiress who had married a local Native American and funded the project. Kapelner also produced an impressive body of artwork, mostly drawings, that reacted strongly to developments in Europe, and also satirized American society.
In the discussion that followed the film, the writer Ilsa Gilbert, who was in the audience, shared her childhood memories of her visit to Taos and her mother having long conversations with Mrs. Lawrence. Several people in the audience had worked with Kapelner, including writer Thomas McGonigle, who had not seen him since their days together at Black Mountain.
Kapelner’s personality remained ambiguous to all who knew him, but his wife Edith Stephen understood him, admitting that he was a complex, solitary personality. They gave each other space to be themselves and develop their careers. Although they were one of the first residents of Westbeth, Kapelner kept his place on King Street to write. The intrigue about Kapelner persists, including the mystery of his missing third novel.
Edited by dancers Melissa Wu and Bijan Qutub from Jordan, Kapelner’s achievements were smoothly revealed within the film. It is a moving tribute by a wife, his companion and muse, who created an absorbing story about this quixotic, inspired spirit. Edith also wanted to create a film for seniors at the centers she frequents to encourage them to treasure their memories in this youth-driven culture; she wants to give back for all she has received in her life and career. This 40-minute film will be shown again.
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