1995 The Jerusalem Post
The Jerusalem Post - October 20, 1995, Friday
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
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.
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.
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."
Whittemore, the quintessential WASP, began assembling
the exotic characters and obscure histories that would
realize the visions he had while visiting Jerusalem.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?"
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
its disorder and perplexing to the edge of madness.
Circular and unchronicled and calmly contradictory,
suggesting infinity". - from Sinai Tapestry
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."
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.
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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."
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."
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