Jeremy Larner grew up in Indiana in the 1950s, and had some playground rep as a basketball player in Indianapolis, where he encountered Oscar Robertson and other future stars on the playground courts of that city.
Education and influences
Larner graduated from Brandeis University in 1958 (where he was close to Herbert Marcuse, Irving Howe, Philip Rahv, and a fellow student named Abbie Hoffman, who later, running a small bookstore in Worcester, Massachusetts, became an early champion of Larner's first novel.)
In 1959, Larner began a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at UC Berkeley, but finding himself unsuited for academic life he left graduate school in his first year and came to New York City at 22. He stayed there throughout the 1960s, writing five books in that period.
In 1962, Larner was assigned by Dissent magazine to cover the teacher's strike, and spent several months going to elementary school classes in Harlem. His long account of what he discovered was widely anthologized, having come to the attention of Michael Harrington, author of the book, the Other America: Poverty In The United States, which inspired John Kennedy & Robert Kennedy.
Larner's first published piece was a critique of J.D. Salinger, published in Partisan Review in 1961. Also in that year he journeyed south to cover the lunch-counter sit-in strikes organized at black universities, and wrote several pieces for The New Leader and Dissent.
In '63, Larner edited a taped collection of interviews with heroin addicts at the Henry Street Settlement in New York. The harrowing stories told in these interviews became the basis of one of the first books from tape: The Addict in the Street, which remained in print for 20 years. Grove Press celebrated its publication in early '65 with a party for Larner and William S. Burroughs, where Norman Mailer challenged Larner to a fight.
First novel, Drive, He Said; Writing prizes
Larner's first novel, Drive, He Said, won the Delta Prize for first novels in 1964. The prize had gone unclaimed for several years and by then had reached $10,000. The judges were Walter van Tilburg Clark, Mary McCarthy and Leslie Fiedler. For the title of this novel, Larner chose a line from the poem I Know a Man by Robert Creeley.
The heroes of Drive, He Said were a college basketball star who has mixed feelings about his stardom and what is expected of him and his revolutionary roommate, who eventually burns the campus down. The reviewer in Playboy magazine echoed the establishment verdict when he said, "Nothing like this could happen in America."
In 1964, Larner won the Aga Khan Prize from The Paris Review, for the best short story of the year, "O the Wonder!"
After 1964, Larner worked as a freelance journalist and published articles, essays and stories in many magazines, including Harpers, The Paris Review, and Life.
Larner reported on the trial of Dale Noyd, a decorated fighter pilot who had refused to train other pilots for the war in Vietnam. The account, which ran in Harper's, was selected for an anthology of the best journalism of the year.
In 1965, Larner began teaching in the English Department at Stony Brook, State University of New York, although he had no degrees beyond the B.A. He taught classes in poetry and in the modern novel from '65 through '69, taking the year off in 1968, when he won an N.E.A. grant in the first year they were given to individual artists. He would later teach, for one year, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
Eugene McCarthy campaign, 1968
In March 1968, Larner became a principal speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy in his campaign for President, working with him closely from the Wisconsin primary (when LBJ, knowing he was about to lose, announced he would not run for re-election), through the California primary (at the end of which Robert Kennedy was assassinated), through the convention in Chicago, where the police were rioting in the streets as Larner wrote and faxed the famous seconding speech which Julian Bond gave for McCarthy, just in time to save Bond (who had never met McCarthy) embarrassment, and help to put him on the map politically.
Afterwards Larner wrote a book, Nobody Knows, about his travels with the McCarthy Campaign, and most of it was serialized in Harpers Magazine in April & May 1969. This book got good reviews and was widely read by many who participated in the campaign and wondered what happened to McCarthy after the assassination of Robert Kennedy.
Drive, He Said: The movie
In 1971, Drive, He Said, was made into a movie directed by Jack Nicholson, who collaborated with Larner on the screenplay. This film constituted Nicholson's directorial debut, and is available as part of the Criterion edition "America Lost and Found: The BBS Story."
Vietnam Peace Movement
Larner continued his work with the peace movement in 1969. During the Moratorium which mobilized hundreds of thousands of people around the country, he wrote speeches for Sam Brown, the chief organizer and spokesperson of the Moratorium, and also for Paul Newman, who gave a statement on behalf of several actors who were advocating that war protesters miss a day of work.
During this time and afterwards, Larner spoke at many college campuses, first in behalf of the anti-Vietnam-war movement, later on movies and politics. He has spoken at one hundred universities around the country.
In April 1971, Larner wrote a documentary-style script for a feature film directed by Michael Ritchie and starring Robert Redford about a campaign for Senator of California. The Candidate was released during the election of 1972, and was critically acclaimed; the film holds a score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes based on eighteen critical reviews.
In 1973, Larner got an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for his script of The Candidate.
Some politicians, like Dan Quayle, did not seem to realize the movie was ironic. Quayle spoke frequently about how the movie had inspired him, causing Larner, during the 1988 elections, to write an op-ed for The New York Times, saying, "Mr. Quayle, this was not a how-to movie, it was a watch-out movie. And you are what we should be watching out for!"
During this time, Larner occasionally wrote speeches for politicians, like Bill Bradley, when he gave his basic position on Israel, or stars like Robert Redford, when he spoke in behalf of environmentalism.
In 1987 Larner began to write poetry, and in 1989 began to have public readings. In 1992, he wrote a long story, titled "Rack's Rules", the only piece of fiction in an anthology titled Sex, Death & God in Los Angeles. After losing his home in the 1991 Oakland Hills fire, he contributed an article to Fire in the Hills, a compilation of responses to the fire, and became a regular contributor to New Choices magazine.
Larner moved back to New York City in the 90's, where he reached a point of severe disorientation before being diagnosed with sleep apnea, and wrote an article about the condition (not diagnosed or treatable until the 1980s) and his experience of it, that caused many people to recognize and recover completely from a state that otherwise can lead to sudden death.
Chicken on Church
It was in New York that Larner was inspired to write Chicken on Church, both a mock-epic and a love poem to the city, particularly to the neighborhood on the end of Manhattan Island, Whitmanesque but full of specific detail and classical allusions.
He first wrote the poem in 1992, and has revised it frequently since then. "Chicken on Church" and selected other poems have recently been published by Big Rooster Press.
Jeremy Larner now lives outside of San Francisco, continuing to write poetry, finishing a Hollywood novel based on "Rack's Rules", and making notes for his memoirs.
- Corman, Cid. "On 'I Know a Man.'" http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/creeley/man.htm
- Canby, Vincent. "Drive He Said" [Review] New York Times (June 14, 1971)
- "The Candidate". Retrieved 23 June 2013.
- Larner, Jeremy. "Politics Catches up to 'The Candidate.'" New York Times (October 23, 1988): p. E23.