by Philip K. Jason
[Hollis Alpert was one of the most distinguished literary figures ever to live in Naples. When he passed away in November of 2007, it seemed as if an important era in American letters passed with him. What follows is my profile of Alpert that appeared in the March 2000 issue of N Magazine.]
I was so pleasantly surprised, upon arriving at a luncheon meeting of the Naples Press Club last summer, to sit at the same table with a man whose name I immediately recognized as that of a major voice in American letters. This tall, casually elegant figure was Hollis Alpert, whose Saturday Review film criticism I had read as a young student of film and literature. After we chatted for a while, I realized that he had shaped my reading (as well as that of millions of others) through his various editorial roles on major magazines.
In December, we sat down in the living room of his comfortably decorated home in The Vineyards. Like the man himself, it expresses a casual elegance. On the bookshelves, as one would expect, are copies of many Alpert titles mixed in with other books of interest to a man so intellectually lively, a man whose life had intersected with the lives of so many other important figures – shapers of post-World War II American culture. During our conversation, I felt as if I were accompanying him on a multi-decade stroll through powerful editorial offices of major magazines and publishing houses, through sound studios and movie lots, through preview showings, through Broadway buzz and glitter, and through the dynamic struggles and victories of the celebrity artists whose lives and works he has chronicled and explored.
In preparing for our meeting, I discovered that Alpert’s accomplishments extend beyond the world of creative and critical nonfiction. He is also the author of nine novels (three under a pseudonym) and dozens of short stories. Although calls himself lazy, clearly he has set a high standard of industry. Alpert has a quiet, reserved pride in his achievements. Measured against the egomaniacs who have accomplished far less, he seems extremely modest.
HOLLIS ALPERT was born in Herkimer, New York into what he calls an unlikely family for a future writer. His father ran a grocery store and his mother manufactured and sold ladies’ undergarments. After Herkimer, the family lived in Philadelphia. Alpert finished high school there, following which he attended an adult education advanced composition course taught by a man named Bertram Lutton. Lutton was Alpert’s first mentor-challenging him, shaping his reading, and encouraging his writing. Alpert fondly remembers his mother’s business office as the site of one of a series of typewriters that he could use for his writing.
During and just after World War II, Alpert served in the army (1942-46). His first assignments had to do with chemical warfare testing. Although he had entered the service as an enlisted man, Alpert was soon commissioned as an officer. As such, he once again found that he could avail himself of a typewriter. During his army years, he began successfully placing short stories in national magazines. Soon, his abilities as writer helped him gain a sought-after assignment as a combat historian. This job required training in military intelligence, liaison service with General Patton’s Third Army, and eventual relocation to Paris. In his role as a combat historian, Alpert developed the research skills and the respect for fact that later made him a successful writer of nonfiction. His mentor in this assignment was the master combat historian S. L. A. Marshall, best-known for his Korean War narrative Pork Chop Hill. Hundreds of thousands of words by Hollis Alpert have become part of official army histories of World War II.
Upon leaving the army, Alpert began his career as a book reviewer and film critic. He wrote for the Saturday Review, the New York Times, and other influential publications beginning in 1947. He also attended the New School for Social Research from 1947-49. During the 1950s, Alpert became one of the premier critics and magazine editors in the United States. He worked as a fiction editor for the New Yorker (his own successes in pleasing New Yorker editors helped him get this position), as contributing editor to Woman’s Day, as managing editor of World Magazine (the successor to Saturday Review), and as editor-in-chief of American Film, the flagship publication of the American Film Institute. All the while, Alpert continued to write free-lance articles and reviews for top publications. He co-authored, with Arthur Knight, Playboy magazine’s “Sex in Cinema” series.
During three decades of nonstop productivity both writing for and editing periodicals, Alpert also launched his career as a book writer, with many successes in both fiction and nonfiction. Best know, perhaps, for his film criticism and his biographies of giants in the film industry, Alpert “ghosted” the “autobiography” of Lana Turner published in 1982 as Lana: The Lady, The Legend, the Truth and edited Charlton Heston: The Actor’s Life, Journals 1956-1976 (1978). These two efforts gave him financial independence.
During the period of his peak success as a writer, the mid-1960s through the early 1990s, Alpert first vacationed and then lived full-time on Shelter Island, a short ferry trip from Sag Harbor, Long Island. However, when he was launching American Film, he lived in Washington, D. C. in the shadow of the Kennedy Center where the American Film Institute has its home.
Though he has no college degree, Hollis Alpert’s real-world credentials have enabled him to lecture and teach at Southern Methodist University, Yale University, and New York University. In the late 1960s, he founded, with Pauline Kael, the National Society of Film Critics. In part, this new group was born in reaction to the New York Film Critics Circle’s policy of only including newspaper reviewers. Soon after the new group was founded, Alpert and Kael were suddenly invited into the established circle. He chaired the National Society of Film Critics during1972-73. The meetings of these groups were inevitably small wars of opinion. Alpert remembers taking historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. to a meeting. Schlesinger, briefly a film critic for Vogue, commented on the ferocity of the exchanges. He hadn’t witnessed anything like it before, even though he had been-as a member of the Kennedy White House-instrumental in the tense negotiations that followed the Cuban Missile Crisis. For his achievements as a film critic, Alpert has been honored by the Screen Director’s Guild of America.
Since moving to Naples in December of 1994, Alpert has kept busy not only with his writing but also by teaching courses at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts and at Florida Gulf Coast University. His subjects have been film classics and fiction writing. He also writes entertainment articles for The Phil. Excited about resuming his career as a novelist, Alpert has three projects in mind. One will return to the Paris setting he explored in Some Other Time; another will be a suspense novel; and the third will concern the kinds of adjustments that people make in later life in a community like Naples.
This aspect of Naples is one of the things that Alpert values. Many Neapolitans are people who have had to let go of some part of their pasts, whether it be prominence in a career or a loved one whom they outlived. They are open to new adventures and new relationships. Sharing this desire to find new points of balance, they appreciate each other’s circumstances and make the process easier. Alpert also enjoys the increasing cosmopolitanism of this small but growing town. He only wishes that one could find places to view a wider range of films and that the literary arts were given as much attention and support as the performing and visual arts. For such opportunities, he misses the rich urban culture of New York, but he doesn’t miss the competitiveness or the insistence that youth must be served.
Besides doing the preliminary planning for these novels, Alpert is shaping a manuscript of about half of his more than forty published short stories in hopes of finding a book publisher for such a volume. I can’t imagine that he will be other than successful in this quest. It will be one more success for a writer who has been in print for the full second half of the twentieth century and is ready to keep things going in the twenty-first.
Aside from the titles mentioned in the article, Alpert has also published the following:
FILM CRITICISM AND SHOWBIZ BIOGRAPHIES
The Dreams and the Dreamers: Adventures of a Professional Movie Goer, 1962.
The Barrymores, 1964.
Film 68-69 (edited, with Andrew Sarris), 1969.
Fellini, A Life, 1986.
MUSICAL THEATER HISTORY
The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic, 1990.
Broadway! 125 Years of Musical Theatre, 1991.
The Summer Lovers, 1958.
Some Other Time, 1960.
For Immediate Release, 1963.
The Claimant, 1968.
The People Eaters, 1971.
(As Robert Carroll)
Champagne at Dawn, 1961.
Cruise to the Sun, 1962.
A Disappearance, 1975.
How to Play Double Bogey Golf: The Art of Being Bad at a Great Game, 1975.