Saturday, October 21, 2017

Kit Reed, 1932-2017

(I first posted this on Facebook on Sept. 29, 2017.)

Sydney and Andy Duncan, Kit Reed and David G. Hartwell at ICFA in Orlando, Fla., March 2012.
I keep trying, and failing, to write about the remarkable fiction writer Kit Reed, who died five days ago. By “remarkable” I mean her fiction – satiric, savage, funny, powerful, deeply felt, and as unclassifiable as Shirley Jackson’s – but I mean Kit herself, too. Maybe my loss for words springs from the fact that Kit always strongly reminded me of all the long-gone aunts who helped raise me: smart, fierce, loving, generous, and unapologetically in my business all the time. I am better for their existence, and hers.

Was any luminary in our field ever easier to know? Years ago, at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Florida, a distinguished-looking older couple, he much taller than she, strolled across the patio and sat down at our table in the outdoor bar. Sydney and I had no idea who they were. "Hello," said the woman. "I'm Kit Reed, and this is Joe." “Hello,” said Joe, which was just about the last word he managed to get in, for the next hour, because Kit had begun yakking away as if she had known us all our lives, and there it was, as simple as that: We’d been adopted – by THE Kit Reed! Holy moley!

I was shocked to learn that at her untimely death, Kit was 85 years old. She always seemed about a half-century younger. In my photos of her through the years, she tends to be in blurred motion, and always talking. She loved good conversation, and gossip, and anecdotes told and retold, and long dinners with small groups of friends. I guess it was appropriate, then, that the news of her death came as I sat in a crowded booth at the Lost City Diner in Baltimore, wedged between Sarah Pinsker and Scott Edelman, whereupon we immediately began telling Kit Reed stories. But our conversation was much duller, without Kit there to help us.

She and Joe had me as a houseguest once, at their big, cozy, eclectic Connecticut home. After dinner, Kit played with the dogs, Joe painted – from an easel and palette attached to his easy chair, a startling cantilevered affair – and we all watched that week’s episode of True Blood. The Reeds kept up a running sardonic commentary, especially during the sex scenes. "True Blood is all about the sex, really," Kit said. "That’s not just True Blood, dear," Joe said, daubing his canvas. "That’s everything."

On one of our rare visits to Manhattan, the Reeds took the train into the city so that Kit could treat us to lunch at her club, the Century Association on 43rd Street (founded 1847). As we prowled the library, where I kept expecting Phileas Fogg to walk in at any moment, Kit offered to sponsor me for membership, one of the few occasions when I’ve actually been speechless; after some discussion, Sydney and I agreed we’d better keep paying the mortgage instead. When the World Fantasy Convention was in the D.C. area in 2014, we played hooky one night with Kit and David G. Hartwell for dinner at the Cosmos Club on Massachusetts Avenue, where Century members have dining privileges. Even David, that dazzling urbanite, seemed a bit cowed by the sumptuous Beaux Arts surroundings, but Kit cheerfully criticized every aspect of the joint as clearly inferior to the Century, which after all had a 31-year head start on the jumped-up wannabees of Dupont Circle. Weeks later, I called Kit just to report that the Cosmos Club comb I had pocketed as a souvenir in the gents’ already was losing its lettering. “You can barely read it,” I told her. “It’s all rubbing off.” She crowed in triumph: “That’s D.C. for you! Shoddy at every level!”
Kit Reed and Sydney Duncan on the Century Club's rooftop patio in Manhattan, with the Chrysler Building in the background, January 2015.

An hour with Kit was an hour of total involvement. She really wanted to know what you thought, and asked follow-up questions. She dug deep. Once I was traveling cross country, I forget why: one of those long weary days of planes, shuttles, taxis, moving sidewalks. Every time I looked at my smartphone, there was a fresh text message from Kit, who was obsessed that week with some mutual friends who seemed to be breaking up with one another and hooking up with other friends. Kit had opinions and speculations about all these people, was handicapping the outcome in all directions, and demanded to know what I thought. At the luggage carousel, as I typed out my 15th reply, I giggled and thought, well, this is it, this is my life now: I’m Kit Reed’s co-host. That wasn’t true, but it would have been a good life, I think.

The last time she was able to attend ICFA, she and I walked a few blocks to Sonny’s BBQ, because Kit wanted “a lot of meat.” I gently said that driving might be better than walking, a suggestion she vetoed. “I’ll tell you what you can do for me, though,” she said. “Whenever we approach a curb, let me just touch your arm with one hand. I won’t grab it. I won’t hold on. I’ll just touch it. It’ll help my balance.” So that’s what we did. At each curb, her fingertips barely grazed my arm, like a butterfly alighting, and she kept walking, and talking, and was fine. I can feel her fingers still.

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