In 1976 I was the founding editor of St. Louis, a high-gloss monthly magazine. Libby Ferguson, the publisher was a wonderful woman, married to an eminent heart surgeon, who had purchased a country-club throwaway called Replay and set about repurposing the magazine’s mission as a profit center and literate guide to the city’s political and arts scene, gossip, and restaurants.
As an editor who has also written on a wide range of topics, as well as several books, I have met and published all kinds of writers—hardcore professionals, not a few mediocrities, and assorted other strays of the literary firmament.
But the supreme—and most tragic—example of a one-of-a-kind writer, in my limited experience, was Marvin Florence, who had a touch of genius. He was also an ex-convict.
I met him one spring morning in 1981 when I gave a talk to a group of writing students at the University of Missouri. In that roomful of youthful white faces, Marvin stood out—Black, older by at least ten years than his classmates, and at six-foot-four powerfully built. Yet his eyes were gentle, and when we were introduced I was somewhat surprised by the softness of his grip—odd, as I later learned, for a man who had also worked for years in the steel mills of Granite City, stoking the blast furnace.
After my talk was over, Marvin asked if he could stop by the magazine office in a few days to pitch an article idea. We set a date. When he showed up, I took him to lunch and learned that he and his older brother had committed an armed robbery, were apprehended, and both sentenced to six and a half years in the Missouri penitentiary in Jefferson City. Marvin proposed to write an article for St. Louismagazine about the city’s pimps in the 1950s and early 1960s. I had never tried to tailor, much less censor, an editorial feature so as not to upset our affluent, virtually all-white suburban readership, or our advertisers, but I was skeptical that such an article would really be of interest to anyone. Nevertheless, I gave him the go-ahead if only because Ella Rena Chapman, the wife of the rector of my Episcopal church and Marvin’s writing instructor, who had dragged me out to the university campus in the first place, had assured me that he was the best writing student she had ever come across.
Sometime later the manuscript arrived. Titled “The Game: St. Louis had a golden age once, but you probably never heard about it,” Marvin’s piece was a marvelous mix of personal reminiscence, sociological insight, and evocation of a lost subculture involving players (the then-current euphemism for pimps); their “associates”—drivers, lackeys, and student pimps; hustlers, con men, and hos; and “boosters” (women who were professional thieves). Then, of course, there were the tricks—“those doctors, lawyers, and businessmen—mostly white—who pay to have sex with a prostitute like any other trick, but are big enough to know where the in-crowd goes and cool enough or powerful enough to be accepted by them.” The “set” where all the beautiful people in their furs, leathers, cashmeres, and silks gathered each night, back around 1960, was the Circus Bar in a North Side hotel. I published the piece—it was a genuine small masterpiece, in my opinion—and urged Marvin to write another as soon as possible.
Several months went by and I did not hear from him. After some inquiries, I learned that he had been admitted into Malcolm Bliss, a state-run hospital that treated women and men suffering from psychiatric disorders, and drug and alcohol addictions. On the morning of Thanksgiving Day, 1981, I went to see him. He was sitting in a room with about forty other men—all Black and poor, just passing the time sitting in a large circle and not saying a word.
We retired to his small, immaculate private room and he said, “I guess it’s no use hiding it,” meaning his heroin addiction, which had begun in prison. Marvin confessed that he thought, once he had a college degree, a newspaper would hire him. Now he even had a published article in a magazine to show as a further credential, plus an assignment from me to write about the time he worked in a steel mill. I tried to explain that working for a newspaper was only a small part of the world of journalism, and told him that many years earlier I myself had been turned down for a job by both local papers. I suggested he concentrate on writing freelance for a while and see where that might lead. I handed him a hundred dollars and we made plans to talk soon.
A few weeks later Ella Rena told me that Marvin was back in City Hospital. The next day I visited him again, this time in the cancer ward. He was in good spirits and had a stack of books beside him on the nightstand. He told me he was hoping for a diagnosis of benign nodules resulting from arthritis, or, “at worse, tuberculosis.”
At 1 a.m. that morning, though, Marvin called me. He was overwrought and in tears.
“I have three tumors—malignant—on each lung,” he said. “I took it in a rush, but I’m feeling calmer now.”
When he added, to my surprise, that he was going to be released the next day, we made an appointment to have lunch the afternoon following. When we met, he was still in good spirits and determined to fight the cancer. I told him my employer, Libby Ferguson, had volunteered the services of her surgeon husband Tom. We talked about writing, spiritual matters, and this and that, and I realized how much Marvin and I had in common—not counting his prison sentence. But there was a bond between us. Somehow, I hoped, our friendship could endure. I also gave him another hundred dollars, knowing he did not yet have a job.
Two days later an elated Marvin called to say Dr. Ferguson assured him he did not have lung cancer. The X-rays were merely recording past lung infections. He was overjoyed and told me he could not wait to get back to writing.
Snow fell heavily during this period—fourteen inches on the last day of January, then another six inches, then two more inches, until I lost count. The transmission of my car blew out when I tried unsuccessfully to maneuver out of a snow bank.
In early March Marvin was back in the hospital, dying of some kind of apparently untreatable lung disease. When I went to see him in the intensive care unit of City Hospital, his mother and a girlfriend, Judy, were there. Bill Chapman, the rector of Trinity, also showed up. Marvin looked terrible and was in great mental anguish. He knew he was dying and remained mostly silent.
The next day, I visited Marvin again, and a nurse told me he had only a few days to live.
Late the next morning Judy called to say that Marvin died at 8:05 a.m., ten minutes before she arrived at the hospital. A few nights later, Pat and I, Ella Rena and Bill Chapman, and two of Marvin’s classmates drove to the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in North St. Louis. The choreography of the funeral service was a spectacle to behold. In the audience were three separate corps of uniformed usherettes, “nurses,” and widows, the latter all dressed in white with black trim. The singing by the choir, the minister’s preaching, and the communal mourning all verged on the theatrical, even spectacular. Marvin’s brother led the public mourning, standing before the open bier until he had to be led away in tears. He was followed by an elderly woman whose lamentation grew so intense it led to an epileptic-like seizure. She, too, was led away.
The service itself, though, offered no prayers, commentary, or reflection on the meaning of death. Nor was Jesus—who had said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me shall live, even though he dies”—even mentioned. The emphasis was solely on the heavenly city paved with streets of gold, and members of the congregation were repeatedly urged to repent and “get straight.” Both Bill Chapman and I were asked to say a few words. He got lost in a somewhat complicated parable about a whale that nobody, including me, knew what he was talking about. He earned only two or three polite “Amens.” I talked about what a promising, wonderful writer Marvin was and garnered at least eight “Amens” and a few “Look ups.”
Only a year later did I realize that Marvin had died of a new scourge about to engulf the nation—AIDS. At the time of his death, it was a disease that still did not have a name. Almost certainly he contracted it from his heroin habit.