remembering Lonne Elder, III, mentor

Years ago, I asked the writer, Lonne Elder, III, what it was like to start on a blank page. This is the sort of thing that one writer would ask another writer.

He said,

“It is like being caught, at high noon, in the store front window of Bloomingdales, making love to my mother…”

I worked for Lonne in the early years of my career. He isn’t a household name for the masses, but within the national Black community that grew out of the sixties, he was a lion, revered by the Black intelligentsia. He is most famous for his movie, Sounder, for which he was one of the first two African Americans to be nominated for an Academy Award and for his brilliant play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, which was nominated for a Pulitzer. He was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company where the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, and Lou Gossett, Jr. began their careers. He championed of a whole generation of black performers who broke through into mainstream entertainment during the sixties and the seventies.

Lonne Elder, III

I met him one day when someone sent me over to his house to help him with some typing. I was 23, bouncy and very white. He met me at the door with his signature Swisher drooping out of the side of his mouth, grunted then turned around and walked back into the house. Since he didn’t slam the door in my face, I assumed that I was supposed to follow him. He was built like a small bear and he lumbered more than walked. He showed me a desk and a typewriter, gave me some blank paper and a manuscript. When he finished explaining whatever it was that he wanted done, I realized that I had not understood a single word he’d said. This was the beginning of my ebonics education, long before that term was ever coined.

It was a test. Would this skinny, white girl tough it out until the eloquent Lonne emerged?

Well, I did. He left me alone in that little room in his house with the first draft of what would become Splendid Mummer, and that day, I fell in love with his words.

I don’t know why he kept me on as a typist in those early days. I’ve never been able to type. Back then, before computers, before even the correctable Selectric, I had to be hooked up to a 55 gallon drum of Liquid Paper. His drafts looked better than my re-typed ones. I used to marvel at the sound of his typing in the next room, bursts and fits of machine-gun fire. But, for some reason, he tolerated me and I tolerated his shuck and jive until the manuscript was done and I moved on to my next project. In those days, as a baby-writer, I was working with a co-writer/comedian, and living a bi-coastal life between L.A. and New York, which may sound glamorous, but it was just the way everyone in ‘the biz’ lived: work like hell and then move to the next job.

Within months, he called me and somehow, I guessed through the thick jive and stuttering that he wanted me to come and work for him again, this time on a made-for-television movie, Thou Shalt Not Kill, for Warner Brothers and NBC. From that point on, I became part of his team for the next 3 movies, and although the work was irregular, and I was busy working on a million other things, we fell into a rhythm and pattern of working that became the foundation of my own writing career.

Every day, I’d do clerky things for him until about 4 in the afternoon, when the typewriter would go silent. “Ah, ah, ah, ha, Sweetheart…” he’d call out, “come here,” was my signal that the grunt-work was done and it was time to discuss the writing of the day.

Elder with Jimmy Carter

That is when I got to know the eloquent, erudite Lonne Elder, III, not just from the page, but in the flesh. It became tradition for him to pour us both a healthy glass of Cognac, chop up a few lines of coke, and talk until 10 at night, discussing character development, language, human psychology, and anything else that came up. This Lonne I had no problem understanding for the ebonics disappeared as his natural eloquence emerged. He’d trained as an actor at Yale and knew the power of speech better than anyone I’ve ever known, before or since. I treasured those talks. They taught me the essence of drama, the discipline of writing, and the brutal honesty that a writer has to achieve on the page.

We did three movies, a mini-series (A Woman Called Moses) and a play together, and during that time, I became his story editor. My love for his words grew as I watched him work. He made me aware of my own intuitive understanding of people as he relied more and more on my opinions in his character and story development. This was a good thing because I was a hopeless typist.

My favorite expression

He came to visit me in 1988 when my husband died, and asked me to come back and work with him again but I was too destroyed in my own grief at the time to even consider it. That was the last time I saw him, for he died a few years later in 1996.

His standard of being brutally honest on the page was the most vital mentoring I could ever have received. It set the bar very high. Unless I was terrified of saying what I wanted to say, I wasn’t telling the truth.

THAT is what it is like for a writer to face a blank sheet of paper.

© 2011 Stephanie Ericsson