Soul of David
David Goodis surrounded by
Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. Note the lines of
B&B's clothing and Bogart's real hairline. Photo
courtesy of April Feld Sandor.
What made David Goodis write as he did. A peak into his
mind is offered by his cousin, April Feld Sandor, who was
16 years old when David died. I interviewed her on August
19, 2008. When young, April wanted to be an actor. It was
still a time when girls were pushed towards traditional
careers such as being mothers, secretaries and nurses..
David, however, gave different advice. "David believed that
anyone who wanted to rebel, should rebel. He told me don't
be scared." With David's encouragement, April pursued her
dreams, going on to a career as actor, disc jockey on WMMR
and WCAU-FM in Philadelphia, voice over artist and
director. She has performed in New York, London and
April said that David tried to straddle two worlds---the
world of obligation to family and his own world of career
and personal desires. He was loyal to the traditional world
of his parents and extended family. He took care of his
mentally ill brother Herb. He attended all the family
gatherings. After a stint in Hollywood, he returned to
Philadelphia and lived with his parents until they died.
However, David was not traditional. "He did not have a
traditional life plan such as getting married and settling
down to a stable profession such as being a doctor, lawyer,
teacher or merchant. There would have been someone in the
family who could have pulled him into a field and helped
him out. He didn't want that."
"Instead, David chose a professional that would be 'iffy'
as to what would happen," She referred to writing "pulp
pieces" rather than "lofty stuff in the beginning."
"At heart, I
think David was an actor. Had he not become a writer, I
think he would have become an actor. He had a desire to
observe others. There was a chameleon aspect to him," she
"David used his observation skills very well and could
become anyone -- taking on the role he needed in order to
gain perspective and the information he sought. That's why
I think he could have been an actor. Actors observe human
nature and then present that to others," April said.
"David just chose to do it in writing. Ultimately, however,
I think so many of the stories that go around about him are
because he went out there and 'played' a part in order to
understand. Plus, I think he was just interested in
exploring humanity. It wasn't false behavior -- it was very
genuine," she said.
"Honestly, in reality, we are ALL so many 'roles' insides:
students, teachers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins,
friends, lovers, haters, questioners. We are fearful,
respectful, loyal, and disloyal, and the list will go on,"
"Ultimately, the biggest thing I think about David is that
the readers of his books want to pigeon-hole him and make
him 'ONE' thing or another. As humans, we are NOT one thing
or another. I totally can understand the respect and
curiosity about a writer -- the how and the why. I guess I
just feel bottom line that the more you chase the nuances
and try to 'define' someone, the more you will discover
that you cannot 'define' a person. I don't think any one
person KNOWS another completely. Nor should we," she said.
April said the key to David's personal mystery is his
mentally ill brother Herb. "At the time, there was so
little understanding of mental illness. There was a need to
keep it secret," April said.
writing was a truth below an exterior. In a lot of ways,
his writing was a way to write the truth he saw in life. He
saw suffering in all classes and it was a time period where
no one talked about suffering. Think about the time period.
Among first generation Americans, there was an ethic of
closing ranks to hide things they did not want people to
know," she said.
"Today we are the opposite. Everyone wants to spill their
guts on TV or compare suffering. We use it to make excuses.
I don't think we can judge a time period -- it just was --
and it needs to be considered in understanding the human
nature of the time," she said.
"As a little girl, I thought Herb was retarded because he
seemed 'slow'. Now I understand it was his medications,"
"Later on when I was older, I was told that Herb could be
dangerous to himself and others. He was kept super-sedated
with heavy duty drugs. It must have been frightening with
Herbie. David was a little guy and Herbie was big. Herbie
could be great one day--a sweet lovely man, a gentle giant.
Herbie was very funny. He had a wicked sense of humor like
David. And another day--boom," she said.
April explained, "Long after Herb died, I found out what
the deal was, but when I was young, no one explained it to
me. No one was ashamed of Herbie. He was not kept hidden.
He was great, actually -- I remember how sweet he was. The
family just would not talk about what was 'wrong' with him,
at least to us kids," April said.
Herb died in
1971. April thought that today he would be diagnosed as
schizophrenic or bipolar. "In the 1950's, mental health
issues were suppressed and also not much was known. Mental
illness was thought to be the responsibility of the mother.
I am sure that David and his mother did not really
understand what was happening with Herbie," April said.
"It was David's responsibility to take care of the family
and he straddled the world of obligation to his family and
himself," she said.
the concept of brother---the 'other' brother in David's
writing. Maybe David was trying to understand Herbie's
world," April said.
interested in the truth," April said. "He was fascinated by
possibilities. I wonder if David was ever concerned about
mental illness striking him? Did David want to explore
"This had to have been a big issue in David's life," April
"David was such an observer of life. He was curious about
all facets -- and here, in his own life, there was this
uncertainty, this man who for a certain amount of years was
one person growing up with David, and then suddenly became
another," she said.
someone is going to -- or at least it would be interesting
to -- do critical analysis of all David's books just from
the viewpoint of Herbie. How accurate I am about all of
this, who knows? It is just internalized supposition.
"David's observation skills enabled him to seek the world
outside the closed ranks of the family," April said.
"Herbie may have been the start of David's fascination with
the unspoken world. He didn't write about the world he
lived in. He tried to get to the root of what he did not
understand," she said.
novel was "Retreat From Oblivion." I asked April if David's
writing was not a retreat from oblivion but rather a search
for lives lost in oblivion. She said, "Yes, I think that
could be part of his search."
"The real sadness is if David could have lived a little
longer he could have found answers. It was the next 20
years that things unveiled enough that you could understand
your world and put things in perspective," April said.
"I think Herbie is the key. Imagine going through your own
adolescence -- dark enough -- and there is now this drama
around/within you. You are a sensitive and observing
person. It must have been frightening for Herbie and
frightening in a different way for David and Aunt Mollie
and everyone in the family," April said.
"And so, there's David, loving writing, wanting to make a
living from it, and loving his family, and now there is a
'stranger' so to speak in his life. The Herbie he knew has
irrevocably changed. I imagine that the inner questions had
to move from there and begin to reshape your own world. I
think that some of the stark differences within -- seeing
these sides of Herbie, wondering about his own human nature
-- helped him to look at the stark differences outside the
world he knew -- and explorations into a darker side of
life held fascination," she said.
"David was a great guy. So was Herbie. And, my Aunt Mollie
was lovely and lively. I remember David with happiness,
with music, with jokes, with laughter, with honesty, with
courage, and with trust. I wish I could have known him
longer and I'm glad the books are around because they show
me other insights about him that I was too young, at the
time, to appreciate. Those insights don't change what I
knew about David," she said.
Sitting in the living room of the house she grew up in,
April Feld Sandor pointed to the area where David Goodis
performed his pranks at family gatherings and told jokes.
"He was a person I loved, a cool person. It was a lot of
fun to be with him," she said.