Exley, Frederick Earl

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Exley, Frederick Earl

(b. 28 March 1929 in Watertown, New York; d. 17 June 1992 in Alexandria Bay, New York), autobiographical writer best known for his first novel, A Fan’s Notes (1968).

Exley and his twin sister, Frances, were two of four children born to Earl Exley, a telephone lineman, and his wife, Charlotte Merkley, a homemaker. A local hero basking in his high school athletic triumphs, the elder Exley raised his family at 393 Moffett Street in Watertown. Frederick attended public school and was confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Like his father, he enjoyed football and basketball, but he always seemed to play in the shadow of Earl’s fame.

Shortly after Exley entered Watertown High School in 1943, his father was diagnosed with lung cancer. The death of this seemingly indestructible athlete at the age of forty marked Exley for life, causing him to brood on his own mortality. A serious car accident in May 1946 exacerbated his fears. Hospitalized for six weeks, Exley failed to finish the school year and, as a result, did not receive his diploma until January 1947. After graduation Exley attended a postgraduate course at John Jay High School in suburban Katonah, New York, where he attempted to raise his grades for college while playing on the interscholastic all-star basketball team. His grades at John Jay earned him admission to the pre-dental program at Hobart College in Geneva, New York, in the fall of 1949. A year later, however, he transferred to the University of Southern California after a soured love affair with a high school sweetheart. There Exley changed his major to English, developed a taste for liquor, and had a chance meeting with the All-American football great Frank Gifford, whose success Exley contrasted with his own sense of failure in A Fan’s Notes (1968).

After completing his B.A. degree in 1953, Exley worked in public relations first with the New York Central Railroad and then with the Rock Island Railroad in Chicago. Fired for drinking and poor work habits, he traveled around the country supporting himself at odd jobs, including brief stints as a bartender in Baltimore and a dishwasher in Miami, before returning to Watertown in the fall of 1957. He spent the next six months in his mother’s house lying on the davenport, drinking, and losing touch with reality. Recognizing that Exley was having a breakdown, his family persuaded him to commit himself to Stony Lodge, a private mental hospital in Westchester County, New York.

At Stony Lodge, Exley met Francena Fritz, an attractive social worker and Skidmore College graduate, who continued to visit him after he was hospitalized for a second time at the Harlem Valley Hospital in Wingdale, New York. After Exley’s release, the couple married on 31 October 1959 in a civil ceremony at the Hotel Woodruff in Water-town. They settled in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut, where Exley found a teaching position in nearby Port Chester. Temperamentally unsuited for teaching, he soon gave it up, though he later taught for several years in upstate New York, driven by the need to support himself and his family (in 1960 he and his wife had a daughter). He drank heavily and was sometimes abusive to Francena, who, at her father’s urging, filed for a Mexican divorce in 1962.

Over the next five years Exley was at loose ends, dividing his time between upstate New York and Florida and returning for a final time to the Harlem Valley Hospital, where he found much of the material for A Fan’s Notes. While he was in Florida, he met Nancy Glenn, who helped type the manuscript for his first book. They married on 13 September 1967 and had a daughter before divorcing on 8 January 1971.

Fourteen publishers rejected A Fan’s Notes before Harper and Row issued the book in 1968 to generally favorable reviews. Hailed as the best novel written in English since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it was praised for its humor, its fierce honesty, and its unflinching criticism of the American Dream. Nominated for the National Book Award, it won the William Faulkner Award for best novel of the year as well as the National Institute of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award for a book “which, though not a commercial success, is a considerable literary achievement.” While Exley’s first year’s royalties were modest, his related earnings were sizable. He sold the film rights to Warner Brothers for $35,000, received a Rockefeller Foundation Award for $10,000, and obtained a $50,000 advance on his next book.

In June 1969 Exley moved into a borrowed apartment on Nineteenth Street in Manhattan, and he spent most of his time at the Lion’s Head, a literary bar at 59 Christopher Street. In the fall he fled to the Seaview Hotel on Singer Island, Florida, where he began work on Pages from a Cold Island (1975). Despite good intentions, he was more inclined to drink than to write, and he became so depressed he came close to suicide. Through the 1970s, Exley earned money lecturing on college campuses, including the University of Iowa, where he was invited to teach in the Writer’s Workshop in 1972. In 1974 Playboy paid $4,600 for “St. Gloria and the Troll,” an article based on a disastrous interview with Gloria Steinern, which won the magazine’s silver medal. In 1975 Random House published Pages from a Cold Island, which included the Steinem material as well as an extensive tribute to the late literary critic and writer Edmund Wilson. The reviews were mixed and decidedly less laudatory than those for A Fan’s Notes. Exley was stung by the critical response, particularly Alfred Kazin’s attack in the New York Times Book Review (20 April 1975). The book sold poorly and did little to enhance Exley’s reputation.

The 1980s were a difficult period for Exley as his drinking began to take its toll. Suffering from high blood pressure, angina, and liver disease, he retreated to Alexandria Bay. His social life, he complained to Esquire (March 1986), was “circumscribed within the length of a football field.” Nevertheless, there were some bright spots. Exley improved his relationship with his daughter Alexandra, and Frank Gifford invited him to the January 1987 Super Bowl, where his beloved New York Giants defeated the Denver Broncos, 39-20. In 1988 Random House published Last Notes from Home, the final volume of Exley’s trilogy, which centered on the death of his brother, William, a retired army colonel, in 1972. In 1989, Exley’s mother, who had always been his anchor and refuge, died. In October 1990 he was hospitalized for congestive heart failure and remained in poor health until, at age sixty-three, he died of a massive stroke at the Edward John Noble Hospital in Alexandria Bay. An Episcopal memorial service was held at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church on 28 June 1992. Exley was cremated, and his ashes are buried at Watertown’s Brookside Cemetery.

Exley’s reputation rests primarily on A Fan’s Notes. Ironically, its publication brought Exley the fame he despairs of ever knowing at the novel’s end, where he concludes: “It was my fate, my destiny, my end, to be a fan.” While Exley never achieved the popular or critical success of such contemporaries as Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer, A Fan’s Notes earned him a loyal cult following and the respect of his fellow writers James Dickey, William Styron, and John Cheever, among others. At the age of sixty, Exley regretted that his literary output had not been greater, that more time had been devoted to drinking instead of writing. Nevertheless, he managed to turn a troubled life into art and to carve for himself a unique niche in American literature.

Exley’s papers are at the University of Rochester. Given their autobiographical nature, Exley’s own writings are a valuable source of information on his life. Jonathan Yardley’s Misfit (1997) is a reliable if somewhat unconventional biography. Magazine articles containing biographical information include Mary Cantwell’s interview, “The Sad, Funny, Paranoid, Loving Life of a Male American Writer—Frederick Exley,” Mademoiselle (June 1976), Jane Howard’s portrait in People (14 Nov. 1988), and Cantwell’s posthumous profile in the New York Times Book Review (13 Sept. 1992). Obituaries are in the New York Times (18 June 1992) and Washington Post (29 June 1992).

William M. Gargan