Teller's When I'm Dead, All This Will Be Yours Uncovers a Father's Secret Life
(Blast Books, 144 pages, $24.95)
Teller laughed when I said this.
"They're very likable, first of all," he told me from Las Vegas, where he was preparing to head out for a month of touring with his partner, Penn Jillette. "They're very unselfish people. Part of the whole thinking behind this is that if my father hadn't been so unselfish and my mother hadn't been so unselfish, these things would've been published years ago. But instead, y'know, they thought the immediate thing was to take care of The Kid. So my father went into commercial art, and my mother went into selling art supplies, and they never really pursued the possibility of getting their own work shown. And so that's part of my objective here?to pay back some of that."
What he's talking about is his latest project, a charming new book (disclosure: published by my friends at Blast Books) about, and in many ways by, his parents, Joe and Irene, aka Pad and Mam. Teller's been connected with books before (and movies, and television shows and thousands of stage performances) but almost exclusively as Penn's silent partner. And in a strange way, though his name's on it, he's pretty silent in When I'm Dead, too, stepping back and letting his parents do the talking.
Last year, Teller was visiting his father and mother (now 87 and 90 years old, respectively) in Philadelphia. While rummaging around the cluttered basement he came across a box he'd never seen before. Inside was a portfolio of cartoons. He brought it upstairs to the kitchen table, asked his parents about it, and discovered that they had all been drawn by his father 60 years earlier.
When he started asking about the various characters in the single-panel cartoons?bums, shoeshine boys, family members, commuters, cops?his parents started pulling other dusty boxes out, too?the Hobo Shoebox and the War Trunk?and for the first time, Teller (then 51) began to learn who his parents were before he was born. How Joe rode the rails around the country in the 30s, keeping in touch with his family through a stream of postcards detailing his adventures. How Joe and Irene met in an art class and later eloped because their families were feuding. The hundreds of paintings they'd both done over the years. Joe's letters to Irene during WW II. Before he found that first portfolio, Teller had been aware of none of these things.
"It's just very strange," he told me, "that you could live your entire life in a house and not know about a shoebox full of hobo letters."
I asked him if, when he was a kid and looked at all the other kids and their families, he ever got the sense that his family was a little, well, different.
"Yeah...I got the impression that my family's values were way different from even my relatives'," he said. "My family's values had to do with making things?with, for want of a better word, artistic expression. My parents would always say, 'Well, you'll probably not be able to earn a living doing this, but go right ahead.'"
So they didn't panic outright when you decided to leave teaching to become a professional magician?
"What they did?what they always did?was to say, 'You're safe. If you have a problem, you can always come back to us.' But they encouraged me to do smart things. When I left teaching they said, 'Why don't you do it in a safe way? Take a year's leave of absence.' And I did. It's just that the year's leave of absence has extended to the present day."
Much of the text of the book is composed of the postcards Joe sent home as he bummed his way around the country, looking for work, not looking for work, trying to figure out how to eat, hanging out with other hobos, getting busted and trying to figure out how to sneak across the Canadian border.
So how do you react when you find out your dad was a hobo?
"Oh, I was thrilled," he said with undisguised pride. "There is about him the pleasant tinge of adventure. Any time that we had the opportunity, any time as a kid that we could afford to get in the car and take a three-week vacation driving around the country, we would always do that. Always with our little budgets. Sometimes I would be in charge of keeping track of that. No motel more than $10 a night. Thus and so amounts for food every day. We still have the records of all that stuff, too. But within that realistic budget, there is a wanderlust that's still a part of him."
In 1929, at age 16, Joe hit the road for the first time, for no particular reason, and without bothering to tell anyone that he was leaving. A week or so later, his first postcard home began:
No doubt you were wondering why I didn't come home Monday. Well, it was like this...
He returned a few weeks later, but only stayed for a bit before heading out again. This time, he left his family a note that read, simply:
I will be away for a few days. Please bring the 3 little books of mine back to the library.
That "few days" turned into, off and on, about four years. But he wrote almost daily?sometimes to report on his circumstances (Goddamit! Got another job!), sometimes to say hello or send a little poem, sometimes, it seems, just to keep notes for himself.
The backwoods road is lined with French houses. The people here are good and kind. Watched them skin a pig.
I mentioned to Teller that his father was a mighty fine writer. Much of the prose here is very simple?all his notes had to fit on postcards?but very rich at the same time.
"Yeah!" he replied, "I was stunned, sitting at the kitchen table, reading these things, with him doing his little annotations on them. And actually some of the poems are quite good."
Teller makes the point in the book that his grandfather had been a voracious reader, and that his love of books rubbed off on Joe.
"He loved the formal essay type of lingo," he said of his grandfather. "I think what my father was doing was embracing that love of language, and at the same time making fun of it. He really writes like a hipster. All I can think of is that it reminds me faintly of the hipness of the Three Stooges' dialogue?except that it's informed with this wonderful, rich vocabulary... When kids went to school in those days, they actually learned how to read and write. At one point I asked him whether the urchins he hung out with were literate or not. He said, 'Yeah, that's what we went to school for. If you didn't do that, your parents whacked you over the head.'"
Tying the postcards together in When I'm Dead are contemporary scenes of the Teller family sitting around the kitchen table, as Mam and Pad explain who these people were and what was going on back then, as they make dinner, wash dishes, pore through the notes and the cartoons.
"What I would do was have a conversation at the table, often making notes very inconspicuously, because I didn't want to cramp anybody's style. Like the Truman Capote style of interviewing?you lock phrases into your memory. I'd finish, and they'd go to bed. Then I'd stay up until 4 in the morning recording every twist and turn of the dialogue that I could. So the result is that you're not getting a literal transcription, you're getting a through-the-person's-mind recollection."
Scattered throughout the book are several dozen examples of the cartoons that started it all?beautiful, richly detailed cartoons?sometimes hilarious, sometimes touching, sometimes just plain weird portraits of Philly street life in the late 1930s. They could have very easily found a home in The New Yorker, but not a one had ever been published until now.
Joe and Irene may be getting on in years, but the portrait their son presents is of two people still quite full of life, still painting, still laughing even as their health begins to fade some. I wondered if they were tickled about the book?and for finally receiving some of the recognition they both should have received decades ago.
"They're tickled in a very typical way," he told me, "which is they say, 'Well, it sounds like that book should do well. Whatever we can do to help you promote it, that's fine.' My father has said, [in an unbelieving voice] 'You got my whole life in here!' But having said that, they now regard it as another project of The Kid's to stand behind."
For the record, Teller is splitting the royalties from the book 50/50 with his parents.
"I just love the idea of my dad receiving royalty checks," he said.
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