Copyright 1995 The Jerusalem Post
The Jerusalem Post - October 20, 1995, Friday

Edward Whittemore won critical acclaim for his "Jerusalem Quartet", but little else. Excerpts reprinted with permission of the Wallace Literary Agency Inc.

Visitors to Jerusalem's Ethiopian Church during the mid-1980s would occasionally catch a glimpse of a reclusive figure surveying the courtyard from a balcony almost hidden by trees.
His fair skin and full white beard contrasted with the black cloaks of the slight-built Ethiopians. While the monks would go off to their daily prayers, Edward Whittemore would return to his desk and the Middle Eastern fantasy he was constructing that would culminate in "the Great Jerusalem Poker Game" for control of the Holy City:

"Mummy dust. Trading in futures. Religious symbols.
With that kind of backing, the three men seemed unbeatable. Year after year, they stripped visitors to Jerusalem of all they owned, bewildered emirs and European smugglers and feuding sheikhs, devout priests and assorted commercial agents and pious fanatics, every manner of pilgrim in that vast dreaming army from many lands that had always been scaling the heights of the Holy City in search of spiritual gold, Martyr and Szondi and O'Sullivan Beare implacably dealing and shuffling and dealing again, relentlessly plunging Jerusalem into its greatest turmoil since the First Crusade with their interminable poker game in the vaulted chamber where they had moved that very first night, after the coffee shop closed. " - from Jerusalem Poker

For 12 years, he labored on his imaginary history of the ancient Orient, "The Jerusalem Quartet" consisting of the novels Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1981) and Jericho Mosaic (1987). While they generally received good notices upon publication, today they are out of print and have sunk into obscurity. Whittemore himself slipped away from Jerusalem in 1987 and moved to the West Side of Manhattan. This summer, he died there, thousands of miles away from the inspiration of his life's work.

His obituary in The New York Times bore the headline: "Edward Whittemore, Writer, 62; Set Series of Novels in Jerusalem." The article gave the cause of death as cancer and added some details out of an enigmatic life.

After graduating from Yale, Whittemore - known as Ted by friends - became an officer in the Marine Corps. He spent 10 years in Japan where his job as a reporter on The Japan Times was actually a cover for his work as a CIA agent. Later, he moved to New York City, where he was an assistant commissioner of the city's addiction services agency in the administration of mayor John Lindsay. Following this, he pursued a full-time career as a writer.

"Stern provided himself with a stack of paper and a hard straight chair. He boiled coffee and filled the ashtray on his desk with cigarettes. He tore up sheets of paper, boiled more coffee and filled the ashtray again with cigarettes. He went out for a walk and came back to begin again but still there was nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing was coming from his dreams of creation. Looking down at the heaped ashtray he was suddenly frightened. What was he going to do in life? What could he do?"
- from Sinai Tapestry

After failing to find a publisher for his first seven novels, Whittemore succeeded with Quin's Shanghai Circus, a hallucinatory 1974 spy novel based loosely on his adventures in Japan and the Far East. Afterward, he moved to Crete and visited Jerusalem to attend a friend's wedding. "It was the first time I had seen Jerusalem," he later wrote. "And I was absolutely taken by it, particularly the Old City, just this living history there, in every corner something has happened, and I was actually enthralled."

Thus inspired, Whittemore, the quintessential WASP, began assembling the exotic characters and obscure histories that would realize the visions he had while visiting Jerusalem.

Sinai Tapestry introduced Plantagenet Strongbow, an English lord who purchased the entire Ottoman Empire at the turn of the century; Skanderberg Wallenstein, the gentle and withdrawn descendent of Albanian warriors who became a Trappist monk and a Jerusalem beggar before completing the forgery of the Sinai Bible; and Haj Haroun, a 3,000-year-old Jew who ran an antiquities store in the Old City. In a slick and complex rewriting of local myths, combined with obscure facts and historical figures, Whittemore created his own fantastic reality of history.

Jerusalem Poker tells the story of the high-stakes 1921-1933 poker game in the Old City. The regular players include Joe O'Sullivan Beare, an Irish patriot who escaped the British by smuggling himself to the Holy Land disguised as a nun; Cairo Martyr, a black dragoman from Upper Egypt who controls the world supply of aphrodisiac mummy powder; Monk Szondi, a Khazar Jew and the scion of an Austro-Hungarian banking empire. These card players are the focus of an epic that deals with the twilight of the ancient orders in the Middle East.

Nile Shadows describes the period during World War II when Rommel's forces were poised in the Western Desert threatening to overrun the entire Middle East. Ahmad the Poet runs the seedy Hotel Babylon in Cairo while spies from both sides frantically position themselves for whatever the new order may bring. Stern, the frustrated artist turned passionate Zionist, is running guns through the Sinai desert for the Hagana until his mysterious death in a Cairo cafe causes an upheaval in the intelligence services.

Two men had perished in the fire, the desk clerk and his solitary guest, both of whose bodies had been recovered.

"The desk clerk, a longtime employee of the hotel and an astute observer of the Cairo social scene, had been known as Ahmad the Poet on his little street, itself known colloquially as the rue Clapsius, a mere shadowy byway of an alley and a short stroll to nowhere. Yet, although it led nowhere, it is also the place where a good part of 19th-century Cairo was said to have acquired an incurable dose of nostalgia during the long lazy siesta hours of yesteryear. This desk clerk's finely tuned social sense was a result of a thoughtful scrutiny of the Cairo scene over the years, particularly on Saturday evenings, which Ahmad the Poet was known to have devoted to undisturbed meditations on the roof of the Hotel Babylon. There in the darkness he had studied the city through a spyglass, aided by the melancholy surges of music conjured up on an ancient dented trombone." - from Nile Shadows

In the final novel, Jericho Mosaic, a game of backgammon in Jericho serves as a cover for an intelligence operation, based on the true story of master spy Eli Cohen in Damascus. The book deals with the intricacies of Middle Eastern politics that eventually culminated in the Lebanese civil war.

"Among the most powerful Maronite chieftains was one who had always been squeezed out of the presidency at the last moment, a stiff and impeccable man known to everyone as Sheikh Jean-Claude, very dapper in his dark blue French suits. Although the mask of the old man's face was now as dry and set as an Egyptian mummy's, the sheikh had begun life as a pharmacist and had been known in the 1930s as Jean-Claude the condom, because his pharmacy in the brothel district was conveniently open at odd hours, the better to do business. That was long ago, but a certain raffish aura still clung to the ancient visage of Sheikh Jean-Claude, who had seen it all so many times that his expression never changed, and whose hard-earned transformation from a condom to a sheikh in the course of a busy half century was very much in the admired Lebanese manner of achievement". - from Jericho Mosaic

Although all the books succeed as potboilers with fanciful plots and colorful characters, the stories are convenient vehicles for Whittemore's vision: Nothing is what it seems to be and the truth lies somewhere between the fantasy and the hard facts.

The intrigue and fantastic exaggerations that are part of Middle Eastern culture are only the raw material of our pompous and pious official religions. In Whittemore's world, the "true" Sinai Bible is a hodgepodge of "mutterings by a blind beggar recorded by an imbecile.....What would happen if the world suddenly suspected that Mohammed might have lived six centuries before Christ rather than six centuries after him? Or that the virtues of Mary, Fatima and Ruth had been confused by later chroniclers and freely interchanged among them?"

Whittemore's protagonist decides that "Melchizedek must have his city of peace, and men must have their Jerusalem." He decides to "become the Holy Ghost and rewrite Scripture the way it ought to be written."

And so on the wind-blown footsteps that fled across the pages of this desert manuscript where an entire fabric of history was woven in magical confusion, threaded in unexpected knots and colored in reverse patterns, the sacred shadows of belief now lengthened or shortened by a constantly revolving sun and shifting moon.

For in this oldest of Bibles paradise lay everywhere on the wrong side of the river, sought by the wrong people, preached by a prophet different than the one who had been heard, an impossible history where all events occurred before or after they were said to have occurred, or instead occurred simultaneously.

"Numbing in its disorder and perplexing to the edge of madness. Circular and unchronicled and calmly contradictory, suggesting infinity". - from Sinai Tapestry

Whittemore achieved critical acclaim with the publication of the "Quartet." The New York Times called Sinai Tapestry: "An epic hashish dream ... Cosmic ... fabulous ... droll and moving." The Nation compared his imagination of present and alternative worlds to Pynchon's and Nabokov's. Harper's heralded the arrival of "one of America's best writers ... an author of seismic talents."

Yet commercial success eluded him. The hardcover editions of the "Quartet" never sold more than 3,000 copies each, while the paperback editions of Sinai Tapestry and Jerusalem Poker sold 10,000 to 15,000 copies, according to Whittemore's agent.

He never earned very much money from his writing and died penniless. During his last years in New York, he worked at a - as he described it in a letter - "terrible" job operating a photocopy machine at an attorney's office while struggling to finish one last novel, which is to be published next year. He was still working on the final draft the day he died.

Lesley Hazelton, a writer who lived in Jerusalem in the 1970s, reviewed Whittemore for The Jerusalem Post in 1979. Picking up Sinai Tapestry by chance, she read it in one night and then went back to the bookstore the next day to buy 10 more copies "which I gave to friends whom I knew would love it." Spellbound by Whittemore's fantasy, Hazelton began an obsession with finding "the writer who had taken the absurd reality of this part of the world and woven it into a rich tapestry of realist absurdity."

After writing to Whittemore care of his publisher, she received a reply that he would be starting work on the third book of the "Quartet." "But he sends no details to unknown correspondents." Hazelton muses at the end of the article, "Sometime soon, I shall meet Edward Whittemore and find out what lies behind the impish image and the fantastic reality of his fiction."

Today, Hazelton is a successful novelist living in Seattle. Eventually, she managed to meet Whittemore in New York, before he moved to Jerusalem, and the two became good friends. But even following the encounter, in some ways, he remained no less obscure: "I remember being astonished when I discovered that he'd written Jerusalem Poker after a mere three-week visit to Israel. Where did it come from?

In speculating about the sources of Whittemore's inspiration, Hazelton called the "Quartet": "Ted's way of mending the world, his tikun olam. He was a very private person, with many demons from his past exorcised yet still haunting him. He was drawn to Jerusalem, first in virtual, then in actual reality, and the result was that lovely, wild, time and mind-bending series of novels."

Whittemore arrived in Jerusalem in 1982 to complete the last novel of the "Quartet" here. He did research at the University and National Library on the Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus and the B'nai B'rith Library on Ethiopia Street. Every morning, he would sit by the window facing the courtyard of the Ethiopian Church and work in longhand on his latest chapter.

One day, he spotted a woman artist who was sketching a street scene near the church. The artist was American-born Helen Bar-Lev and the next day, Whittemore moved into Bar-Lev's flat in the Ethiopian compound. "He could be very charming when he wanted to," recalls Bar-Lev. They lived together until Whittemore departed Jerusalem in 1987.

"Yousef peered at the painting more closely. Landscape matters in ancient places, he said, but anyway, it's an experiment that's working. Your power of suggestion is truly extraordinary. Every line is specific but the effect is timeless.

He turned to Anna, smiling.

Someday your house will be a museum, he said. Cakes and coffee will be served on the balconies and people will come from far away to experience the beauty of Jerusalem through your eyes, the way it used to be. What a grand thing to be able to give so much, to leave so much behind you." - from Jericho Mosaic

Bar-Lev - who now lives and exhibits her work in a large old house in Safed's artists' quarter - stayed in contact with Whittemore and had seen him on her last visit to New York.

The times the couple spent together in the Ethiopian compound were happy ones. She describes Whittemore as a disciplined artist who worked every day. But he was often bitter, feeling he was letting his publishers down because of his books' poor sales. When his third novel, Nile Shadows, received several bad reviews, he began to question his ability and became even more reclusive.

"He was able to charm people and later use them and move on," recalls Bar-Lev. "After five years, he felt he had been in Israel too long and one night slipped away without telling anybody." He left all his books behind; today they fill several shelves in Bar-Lev's home.

At the Ethiopian church, one of the monks, Abba Avraham, remembers that he cried when he found out about Whittemore's departure from Jerusalem. "He was a very good man," the monk says. "We loved him very much."

"From his balcony he also listened to the grave ancient chants of his neighbors, the dignified Ethiopian monks across the street, whose solemn singsong prayers soared above their lemon and cypress trees in the golden light of summer afternoons. Twice a day at 4 in the morning and again at 4 in the afternoon, a bell drew the monks from their cells to the incense-shadowed vastness of their round stone church with its great purple-black dome, where they stood leaning on staffs and swaying like stately ghosts to the rhythms of their chants, so exotic and primitive and soothing, a timeless interlude for the hidden courtyards on Ethiopia Street. At other hours an elderly lone monk might circle the church reciting devotional poems in liturgical language, the low hum of his archaic dialects as persistent as a bee busily at work in the shade"
- from Jericho Mosaic

Two writers who also focused on the Mediterranean region were pivotal influences in Whittemore's work. It was while under the spell of Nikos Kazantzakis that Whittemore moved to Crete, the setting for Zorba the Greek. He found a kindred soul in the character of the young Greek writer who is swayed from his books by lusty Zorba's appetite for living.

But Whittemore's greatest influence was Lawrence Durrell, author of "The Alexandria Quartet." There are echoes of Durrell's work throughout Whittemore's writing and in a particular homage, one of Durrell's characters makes a cameo appearance in Jerusalem Poker. Whittemore also gave credit to Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges and his sense of "the exotic, the unusual, the mysterious."

Whittemore defies any attempt to place a label on his life and work. Two of his favorite words, enigmatic and inscrutable, are the best descriptions of his legacy. He was from an old New England family of British and Irish origins, was fluent in Japanese and was obsessed with the Levant.

In a letter this writer received from Whittemore several months ago, he wrote: "I would dearly love to visit Israel again sometime. It remains a special passion for me. Unfortunately, I've had some health problems lately which are getting in the way of things, but we'll see ... Do write again. Soon!"

I didn't take the emphasis on "soon" seriously enough, and before I could reply, he died of the bone cancer which had probably already been diagnosed when he wrote to me.

His friend and literary agent, Tom Wallace, hopes to get "The Jerusalem Quartet" back into print, and is also on the verge of finding a publisher for a manuscript that Whittemore was working on before he died.

It's not unknown for the works of an obscure writer to be discovered and to enjoy great success after his death. In Sinai Tapestry, the notorious forger of the Sinai Bible is forgotten by history, but ultimately has the last laugh on the world as his forgery is displayed at the entrance to the British Museum in London as the world's oldest and most authentic Bible.

Hazelton, in pondering Whittemore's end, imagines that he would have been happier to die in Jerusalem "and have his ashes poured in a little heap on the Mount of Olives, to be blown away by the wind."

"You go for a walk with him somewhere through the streets of Jerusalem and he may be back somewhere a couple of thousand years ago, rambling through alleys no one else is smart enough to recognize. All lost it would appear, but he's not, not really. It's just that he sees things that we don't. The rest of us, we see what's around us, he sees more ... But if you want to know who the holy men were and what they thought, or better than that, what they felt in their hearts, or even the unholy Assyrians or anybody else, then you take a wander with him through the streets of Jerusalem and you'll find out, you'll know. Our gentle knight he is, watching over the eternal city ... " - from Sinai Tapestry

Contact: dreaming@jerusalemdreaming.info

©Anne Sydenham 2001-2016