Author And Artist Illustrates Life After A Sudden Death In 'Widower's Notebook'

Nov 29, 2018
Originally published on December 3, 2018 7:42 am

Five years ago, author and artist Jonathan Santlofer was at home with his wife, food writer Joy Santlofer, when Joy began feeling feverish. Joy, who had undergone outpatient surgery the day before for a torn meniscus in her knee, called her doctor's office and was told to come for her scheduled appointment four days later. That appointment never happened.

"It's hard for me to say what exactly happened," Santlofer says. "I had walked out of the room briefly to go into the back of our loft, to my studio, and when I came back, it was not that much later, but my wife was in incredible distress."

Joy died suddenly — possibly from medications interacting badly — and Santlofer was left in what he calls a "fugue state" of grief. Though he continued living in the loft that they had shared, he initially put away all of the photographs of his wife, because they were too painful to look at.

But as time wore on, Santlofer would bring out the images so that he could sketch copies of them. Over the course of about 80 drawings, he found that his sketches brought him back in time, to the moment when the photographs were originally taken.

"Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she is no longer here," Santlofer writes in his memoir, The Widower's Notebook.


Interview Highlights

On trying to find out the cause of Joy's death

It was very odd, because I could not get the autopsy. I don't know whether or not to assign blame but it was a very odd sort of continuum of circumstances where literally I would hear, "Well, the autopsy has been lost." "It was not performed here at the coroner's office." "No it was at the hospital." "Fill out this form." "We'll get it to you." I'd go back to the hospital. They would say, "Well, we sent it to you." Nothing had been sent. Then they said, "Well, it was never done." "It was lost." And that took almost two years for me to get the autopsy, and basically when I got the autopsy and read it, there was no cause of death listed at all, which was the shocking thing.

I think closure is really an overused word — that's for sure — and I wasn't necessarily looking for closure, but I was looking for the reason that my wife had died, and getting that autopsy two years later with no cause of death sort of opened up the entire thing for me again. I started to not be able to sleep again, and having similar nightmares that I had been having.

On life without his wife

I tend to think of myself, or had thought of myself, as a pretty cool, independent guy, but I had a lot of trouble being in my loft. I went out every night. I did all sorts of work. I resumed my teaching right away. I took on lots of commission painting work. So, in fact, I sort of not only went back to my life, I went back to it in a sort of bigger way, that is the activities of my life, because I needed a lot of distraction. ...

I tried very hard to resume my life in a normal way. The idea of not going to a movie — my wife was a movie addict and when I didn't want to go she would just say "Well, you just have to sit there it's no big deal." But I found that hard, the sort of taking pleasure from things that my wife and I would do together. Those were the things that I had a lot of trouble doing.

On a string of injuries after his wife's death, such as breaking his nose and foot

One could say that, "Well, these things happen," but they just kept happening for the first year, year and a half or two after my wife died. ... I just wasn't looking at things or I was concentrating so hard [on] being kind of normal and regular and presenting that face to the world that I sort of turned off another part of myself. ... I was trying to do everything I did, but then this other part of me was not quite either present or thinking, and so I was walking into walls, tripping over curbs, all this crazy stuff.

On sketching his wife from photographs to soothe his grief

Being a visual artist or being a writer or composer ... I think it's a sort of natural place to go when you have a loss, someplace to put your feelings and I think that's what I did with drawing. ... Drawing is something that comes very naturally to me, and I've been drawing since I was a kid. ... The act of drawing is very, very focused, but a part of your mind can flow and think about things at the same time. ...

I did a drawing of my wife and her mother and her sister and my daughter. It was from a tiny little black-and-white photograph, and, when I drew it, I could remember the color of each one of their bathing suits. I knew where we were. I remembered so many things about the moment. And so it was a way for me to stay close to my wife, really close to her. And it would bring back parts of our life together that sort of counteracted the intense sadness that I was going through.

On publishing Joy's book, Food City, posthumously

There was never a moment when I did not think that my wife's book would be published. It was under contract to be published, but when she died she had a 400,000 word manuscript and her contract asked for 150,000 words. I tried to do some editing on it, which the publisher asked, [but it] was impossible. I not only don't know the subject of food history, but it was way too emotional for me. I couldn't bear to cut anything. And so we actually went through about three different editors until we got a really great editor who cut it down and organized the material. ...

This was a book my wife worked on for four or five years, and it really was her life's work and it just had to be published. It was published to quite a bit of acclaim and got a James Beard nomination. I'm very proud of her work on that book. People tell me all the time that they read it and that makes me very happy.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jonathan Santlofer, was brought up to hide his feelings. His daughter once called him the most unsentimental man ever. And he writes he thought that was true on the outside, as it is for many men who are culturally conditioned to be stoic and unemotional. When his wife Joy died unexpectedly five years ago after minor outpatient surgery, he went through the motions of daily life, even cracked some jokes. But he was falling apart on the inside. He started keeping a journal of how he was really feeling - his grief and his feelings of guilt for not having been able to prevent her from dying. He also started sketching his wife from photographs he'd taken. Writing and sketching were second nature to Santlofer. He's an artist and the author of several crime novels set in the art world, including "The Death Artist."

He's adapted his journal into a memoir called "The Widower's Notebook." It includes several of his sketches of Joy. She was a food writer and historian. They shared a loft in Manhattan where they each worked, promising not to interrupt each other. Although, he says he often violated that promise. This year, Jonathan Santlofer also edited the anthology "It Occurs To Me That I Am America," collecting new stories by writers dealing with some fundamental right or principle Americans take for granted that Santlofer feared was being threatened by the election of Donald Trump.

Jonathan Santlofer, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a beautiful book, but I'm so sorry about your loss and about the reason why you had to write it. Let's talk about what happened. Your wife went in for outpatient surgery for a torn meniscus. And that's...

JONATHAN SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...In the knee.

SANTLOFER: Yes. Yeah.

GROSS: And then she started...

SANTLOFER: It was...

GROSS: ...Not feeling well, and that was on a Friday. She called the doctor's office. And they told her to wait until her regularly scheduled appointment on Tuesday. What happened after that?

SANTLOFER: I guess, unfortunately, that's the thing that's etched in my mind forever. My wife was not feeling well. And her leg was feeling twitchy. She was feeling a little feverish. She called the doctor's office. I'm not sure who she spoke to - either a nurse or a receptionist, who said, well, just wait for your Tuesday follow-up. This was a Sunday in August. And, you know, I - very quickly, this escalated. And it's hard for me to say what exactly happened except that I had walked out of the room briefly to go into the back of our loft to my studio.

And when I came back, it was not that much later. But my wife was in incredible distress. I mean, she could barely talk and was reaching out to me. And, you know, I - God. I held onto her. I told her to breathe. I called 911, which seemed like - I don't know - a Herculean effort. I couldn't even punch the numbers in fast enough. And then the next thing I knew, our loft was a kind of ER zone, you know, with all these people tending to my wife. And I try and describe it as sort of me flattened up against the wall watching this, trying to take in the reality of it because it was so unreal.

GROSS: One of the things you write about having to contend with is your feelings of guilt. What if you had stayed with her? What if you had gone back into her room just a few minutes...

SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Earlier? Could you have called the ER sooner? Could you have saved her? And I mean, you'll never know the answer to that. But it doesn't - one way or another, it doesn't mean that it was your fault. I mean, the doctor's office said, well, wait until Tuesday, which was, like, (inaudible). But did you have like a tape loop in your mind that wouldn't stop, saying, like...

SANTLOFER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...What if? What if? What if? It's my fault. It's my fault.

SANTLOFER: Yes. You know, the tape, it was sort of a kind of movie where I - my mind kept replaying the visuals of the day, you know, along with my own feelings of, had I not walked out of the room, had I not been out of the room for 10 minutes, had I gotten there earlier. I think - you know, I've spoken to a lot of people who have lost someone. And guilt seems to be a part of the package. So, you know, I doubt now that I - there was anything I could've done. But at the time, you know, I sort of - I felt like I went into a kind of fugue state where so many things didn't make sense. And I wasn't sleeping. And that movie kept playing, you know, not just the what ifs but kind of the sounds and the visuals, which took me a long time to get past, I have to say.

GROSS: You requested an autopsy. And there were a lot of administrative problems that I don't want to get into. But when you finally did get the results, it seemed like the problem that your wife had, what actually killed her, was medications interacting badly. Do you have any idea why that happened?

SANTLOFER: No, I really don't. It was very odd because I could not get the autopsy. And I - you know, I don't know whether or not to assign blame. But it was a very odd sort of continuum of circumstances where literally, the - I would hear, well, the autopsy's been lost. It was not performed here. It was at the coroner's office. No, it was at the hospital. Fill out this form. We'll get it to you. I'd go back to the hospital. They would say, well, we sent it to you. Nothing had been sent. Then they said, well, it was never done. It was lost. And that took almost two years for me to get the autopsy. And basically, when I got the autopsy and read it, there was no cause of death listed at all, which was the shocking thing.

That - you know, I think closure's really an overused word. That's for sure. And I wasn't necessarily looking for closure, but I was looking for the reason that my wife had died. And getting that autopsy two years later with no cause of death sort of opened up the entire thing for me again. You know, I started to not be able to sleep again and - having the similar nightmares that I'd been having. So I can't say since I'm not a doctor what really happened.

GROSS: So if the autopsy didn't say that medications interacting was the cause of death, what led to that conclusion?

SANTLOFER: Well, because I was having so much trouble getting the autopsy, which felt really weird to me, I hired lawyers to help me get the autopsy. And when I read that there was no cause of death, I told the lawyers. And they asked me to - they asked to look at the autopsy, which they did. And they sent it to pharmacologists and some experts who came up with that, you know, that idea and that scenario. That's what they saw. So that's where I am now with that.

GROSS: You continued living in the same space that you shared with your wife. You're still living there.

SANTLOFER: I am, yeah. Yeah. I...

GROSS: What did you try to do to make it livable and not feel - not be just constantly reminded of her absence?

SANTLOFER: Well, I think the first thing I did was I got rid of all the photographs. And some people thought that was weird and odd. But for me, I - coming across a photograph of my wife or the two of us or with our daughter unexpectedly or just turning a corner in my loft and seeing her photograph kind of flattened me. I just - I couldn't do it. So I took all the photographs, and I put them in drawers. And I put them away. And that was basically the only thing I did for a long time. And I don't know - I know other people - you know, a good friend instead put big photographs of her husband, who she'd lost. And I just couldn't do that. I just - it hit me in too emotional a way. You know, it - I guess it was - it made things too real for me. And I didn't - I wasn't ready to let that reality in. That took me quite a while.

GROSS: So you put most of the photographs away. But another thing you started doing was sketching your wife from photos that you had of her. That's - you're a visual artist in addition to being a writer. So that's one of the things...

SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you do. And there's a beautiful section of your memoir "The Widower's Notebook" in which you talk about sketching your wife after she died. Would you read an excerpt of that passage for us?

SANTLOFER: Sure. Sure. You know, being a visual artist or being a writer or composer - if you don't mind me saying this first. You know, I think it's a sort of natural place to go when you have a loss - you know, some place to put your feelings. And I think that's what I did with drawing, so I'll read this.

GROSS: And I should say the photo that you're sketching is a photo that was taken of her shortly before her death.

GROSS: Yeah. It was an author photo of my wife. But I didn't have the actual photo. What I found was a Xerox printout. And it was a kind of very bad, blurry, fuzzy Xerox. And I started drawing from it. So it just was an automatic thing for me. So I'll read that.

Surprisingly, it has not been difficult to study the facsimile and make a drawing from it. I'd look at the source material for a few seconds at a time, dissect it, then reassemble and recreate the image on the page. Without thinking, I knew Joy would want me to soften her chin and make sure her eyes did not look puffy. And I did those things while the other half of my brain concentrated on the mark, the line, the tone, as I would in any other drawing. I'm able to draw my wife because drawing is abstract, because you can't really draw something until you stop identifying it.

You can't think, this is an eye or a nose or lips, or you'll not be able to draw them. An eye, a nose, lips are all the same - simply marks on a page. Drawing has made it possible for me to stay close to Joy when she is no longer here. It is a way to create a picture of her without feeling weird or maudlin. I'm not sitting in a dark room, crying over a photo of my dead wife. I'm at my drawing table, working. Grief is chaotic. Art is order - ironic, as most people think art is all about feeling and emotion when, in fact, the artist needs to be ordered and conscious to create art that will, in turn, stir feelings and emotion in others. Artists are perpetually engaged in the act of fixing their broken worlds. And this has been the case with me for most of my life, and now more so than ever.

GROSS: I just find it so interesting that you were able to focus your mind on your wife by drawing her. And that was a process that enabled you to focus on her without focusing on your guilt and grief and being overcome by emotion.

SANTLOFER: Yeah. I felt - you know, I feel like I was - like artists are lucky. And I mean artists in the larger sort of scope of that world, as I said before. But for me, drawing is something that comes very naturally to me. And I've been drawing since I was a kid. And so there's something - you know, the act of drawing is very - you're very focused. But a part of your mind is - sort of - can sort of flow and think about things at the same time. So what happened with me - at the beginning when I was drawing, it was a way to sort of pull myself out of grief and out of the moment. But what I discovered after a while making these drawings - and I made about 80 drawings in two years of my wife and the two of us and the three of us.

And what I found was that as I would make the drawings, I would go back in time to the moment. So for example, I did a drawing of my wife and her mother and her sister and my daughter. It was from a tiny, little, black and white photograph. And when I drew it, I could remember the color of each one of her bathing suits. I knew where we were. I remembered so many things about the moment. And so it was a way for me to stay close to my wife, you know, really close to her. And it would bring back parts of our life together that sort of counteracted the intense sadness that I was going through.

GROSS: You do write a little bit about the problems in your marriage. And you don't try to make it seem like, oh, this was such a perfect marriage. And you say like a lot of couples, there were even times you talked about the possibility of divorce. You saw a therapist who helped a lot. Then you also talk about how you're a talker, and your wife was much more quiet. And so when you'd go on car trips together, you'd be having this kind of like travelogue - monologue.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And...

SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: She said that she didn't mind your non-stop travelogue in the car. And she'd say, it's like the radio. I'm only listening to half of it. And sometimes she'd ask you, is this radio talk or something I should listen to?

SANTLOFER: (Laughter).

GROSS: Did you - were you offended by that? Was that OK with you...

SANTLOFER: Oh, no. That...

GROSS: ...That sometimes, she'd only be half listening? And she'd make it clear.

SANTLOFER: No. Oh, no, no, no. That was - I was not at all offended. You know, I think it's one of the things that was sort of great between us is that I was very chatty and my wife was not. And, you know, when you're with somebody for a really long time, hopefully, you establish certain things that you can say - pretty much what you want to the other person. And Joy, for the most part, I think, liked that I talked a lot because she didn't. So, you know, there - of course, there were things, as you say, about our marriage that were not perfect by a long shot. But I think we had a pretty great marriage in many ways. But we had a lot of problems, as many couples do. And, you know, we went through those things where some years are really good years, and some years aren't good. And it's true. We did see a marriage counselor. And I think the marriage counselor was really great for us.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Santlofer. And his new book is a memoir called "The Widower's Notebook." We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is writer and artist Jonathan Santlofer. And his new book is a memoir called "The Widower's Notebook." And it's about his wife's death five years ago and what it's been like for him to have this ongoing grief. It focuses on the period soon after her death when the grief was pretty unbearable.

One of the things you made a point of doing - that you pledged to do after your wife died was to take her manuscript that she was working on about the history of food in New York and hire an editor and a fact-checker to, like, turn it into a publishable manuscript, which you succeeded in doing. So I mean, the posthumous work took on a huge importance to you when it was her work.

SANTLOFER: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You know, I'll tell you, though, you know, we make these decisions about something we have to do. I mean, I was - there was never a moment when I did not think that my wife's book would be published. It was under contract to be published, but when she died, she had a 400,000-word manuscript, and her contract asked for 150,000 words. I tried to do some editing on it, which the publisher asked, which was impossible. I not only don't know the subject of food history, but it was way too emotional for me. I couldn't bear to cut anything.

And so we actually went through about three different editors until we got a really great editor who cut it down and organized the material. And it's a beautiful book. It's a great book, "Food City." But, you know, this was a book my wife worked on for four or five years, and it really was her life's work. And it just had to be published, and it - you know, it was published to quite a bit of acclaim and got a James Beard nomination. And it's - you know, I'm very proud of her work on that book. And people tell me all the time that they read it, and that makes me very happy.

GROSS: You had problems, you know, not surprisingly, resuming your life after your wife died. And you couldn't do things that you would do together, like, you know, going to restaurants or going - you'd go to the movies and have to walk out because it hurt so much. You couldn't listen to music, and you couldn't sleep.

SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: So you were taking pills to help you sleep. I think they were anti-anxiety pills.

SANTLOFER: Yeah. You know, you'd said that I did not resume my life. And in another - I would say in some ways, I resumed my life in a sort of triple-fold way. You know, I went out to dinner every single night. And I tend to think of myself or had thought of myself as a pretty independent, you know, sort of cool, independent guy. But I had a lot of trouble being in my loft. And so I went out every night. I did all sorts of work. I resumed my teaching right away. I took on lots of commission painting work. So in fact, I sort of not only went back to my life. I went back to it in a sort of bigger way - that is, the activities of my life - because I really needed - I needed a lot of distraction.

Somebody I teach with who said to me, I can't believe you're here; you know, if my husband died, blah, blah, blah - and, you know, I didn't say anything, but I basically wanted to say to her, you have no idea what you'd be doing when and if your husband died. I - you know, this - before I went back to teaching, the school said to me, you don't have to come back; you can take the semester off. But the best thing I did was going back to teaching because, you know, I had to perform. I was in the classroom. I was with my students, and they didn't know anything had happened in my life. So it was good for me. It was the time I felt the most normal, you know? It was a big distraction for me and doing something that I'm comfortable doing and that I like doing, working with students.

And so I can't say that I did not resume my life. I did resume my life, and I tried very hard to resume my life in a normal way. The idea of not going to a movie - my wife was a movie addict, and she was - you know, when I didn't want to go, she would just say, well, you just have to sit there; it's no big deal. But I found that hard - the sort of taking pleasure from things that my wife and I would do together. Those were the things that I had a lot of trouble doing.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Santlofer. His new memoir is called "The Widower's Notebook." After a break, we'll talk about how an artistic loss changed his life. He lost 10 years of his artwork in a gallery fire. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel set in Silicon Valley. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jonathan Santlofer, an artist and writer whose new book, "The Widower's Notebook," is a memoir about how his life changed after the death of his wife, Joy, five years ago. Her death was sudden and unexpected following outpatient surgery. Santlofer also writes crime fiction set in the art world.

You had a series of injuries after your wife died. You fell on your face...

SANTLOFER: Yeah, yeah.

GROSS: ...And broke your nose. You dropped a heavy wooden painting panel on your foot, breaking several bones. You had back problems. You slid on leaves, tearing ligaments in your foot. And were you usually accident-prone, or do you think this was a combination of distraction and maybe wanting to punish yourself and suffer a little bit?

SANTLOFER: Gosh, I had - you know, I hope I wasn't trying to punish myself. But I think more than - rather than punish myself, I think it was more that I was - a part of my mind was so distracted, you know, that I would do things that I normally wouldn't do or I wouldn't think about. I mean, you know, there was this - I mainly paint on wood when I'm painting, and so I had this 10-foot-long painting on my studio wall, and I saw it suddenly falling off. Now, would I normally run up to that and put my foot under it to break the fall? I don't think so, but I did, which is how I broke my foot.

GROSS: Oh, gee.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh, no.

SANTLOFER: I mean, it was really like, what on Earth was I thinking? I was reacting. But I am - I don't know. I might be slightly accident-prone. But, boy, I just had a series of things, you know, like, tripping over something and breaking my nose. And, you know, slipping in the, you know, in the street on some leaves. I mean, one could say that, well, these things happen. You know? But they just kept happening for, you know, the first year, year and a half or two, after my wife died. And I kept looking at it and saying, what are you doing, you know? And I think it's 'cause I wasn't - a part of my brain that, you know, just - I just wasn't looking at things. Or I was concentrating so hard on being kind of normal and regular and presenting that face to the world that I sort of turned off another part of myself.

I haven't really thought about this before. But when you asked that question, I think, well, I was trying to do everything I did, but then this other part of me was not quite either present or thinking. And so I was, you know, walking into walls, tripping over curbs. You know, all this crazy stuff.

GROSS: You describe yourself as having an obsessive personality which works for you as an artist but can get in the way the rest of life. When you injured yourself time after time in the year and a half after your wife's death, did you obsess over the injuries, like, how did I do this? Or, like, it hurts? Or, like, now I can't walk well - this is really horrible?

SANTLOFER: No. Not at all. Not at all. I mean, I think that's where my stoic personality came in. And, you know, I would sort of, like, (laughter), you know, I would drop this thing on my foot, and then I'd think, ow, that really hurt. And it would take me six days to go to the doctor. You know? I just would ignore it. And then I'd go to the doctor, and he'd say, yeah, you broke, like, six bones in your foot. Or, you know, I fell down, broke my nose. Got into bed and went to sleep. You know, woke up in the morning, I had two black eyes. I looked a wreck. I had a cut.

And so then my friends decided - I was staying with friends. They were like, you have to go to the hospital. So I went to the hospital. The doctor said, you mean you went to sleep after you fell? And I said, yeah. You know? I mean, I basically - no. I didn't obsess on these injuries or these things at all. I just kept going.

GROSS: Going to sleep after you fall, if you have a concussion, is a really bad idea.

SANTLOFER: Yeah. The doctor pointed that out to me. (Laughter). He was sort of - yeah. While he was taking splinters out of my eyebrow because I had hit a table when I fell...

GROSS: Excuse me for laughing. (Laughter).

SANTLOFER: No. Listen. Yeah. I laughed, too, a little bit, you know? Because yeah, he literally said that - you could have a concussion, and you went to sleep. You could die. I said, well, it just never struck me and, you know, I just went to sleep so - now, my obsessive personality doesn't, I don't think, extends to that part of myself, or certainly didn't.

GROSS: Good. It's not helpful. (Laughter).

SANTLOFER: No. No.

GROSS: You had to change your life after your wife died. Changes were forced on you. You also had changes forced on you from a gallery fire that destroyed a lot of your artwork. How much of your work was destroyed in that fire, and how long ago was that?

SANTLOFER: That was over 20 years ago, and it was 10 years of my work. You know, when I tell people that I had this exhibition and it collected the best of my work for 10 years, plus my newest six paintings, and the show opened on a Friday and burned down the next day - the gallery burned down - you know, they gasp. And in fact, it was very traumatic for me. But it took me a couple of weeks to process the loss of those paintings. And that changed my life at that moment. And I didn't know it was going to change my life, but it did. I started writing after that.

And it wasn't easy. I also started questioning, you know, why had I become an artist? I was fairly - I can say this - I was fairly successful as an artist at that point in my life and, you know, showing my work and supporting myself through my work. And I kind of gave it up. But when I say gave it up, I gave up what I was doing, and I let my work change and I brought in all these other things. And I got attacked for that, I should say. You know, a lot of...

GROSS: You got attacked for changing your work?

SANTLOFER: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think it's...

GROSS: What was the change, and what was the attack?

SANTLOFER: Well, the change was, I was part of a group called eccentric abstraction. How about that for a name? And I did these really baroque, large, shaped paintings. And they were very incredibly colorful and really extreme and large. And I changed my work into representational work, not abstract work. And, you know, if you see the drawings in my book, you can see that I draw very realistically. And the attack was the people who had invested - and when I say invested, I don't just mean the people who bought my work, but the people who wrote about my work and sort of cared about my work - felt as if I'd betrayed them in some way by changing what I was doing.

GROSS: Why did the destruction of 10 years of your work need you to change from abstraction to representational art?

SANTLOFER: I think it's because I needed something very tangible. After the fire, I moved. My wife and my daughter was 8 years old, and we moved to - I went to the American Academy in Rome. And I really could not paint. I couldn't paint the kind of paintings I was doing at all. And what I would do is - well, actually, Joy and I, every morning, would go to - I think we went to every church in Rome. And I started doing very - what they teach you in old academies, which I had never done, which is, I started making drawings from paintings and churches. And that led me to representation. You know?

It's funny because in a way I think it brought me closer to what I'd always loved to do, which was to draw pictures. You know, when I was a kid, that's what I loved to do. You know, draw pictures. And I would make cartoons that would be of my friends and things like that. And that came into my work. But I really wanted to make something I could see and others could recognize.

GROSS: Why did losing 10 years of work lead to you writing novels?

SANTLOFER: Well, it's really simple. I couldn't paint. You know, there I was in Rome, and I was supposed to be painting. And I really couldn't do it. I mean, the drawings that I was doing from, you know, old masters and things were for myself. And they were sort of contemplative things where I was thinking about, you know, why I ever wanted to be an artist. And what happened was that - boy. I never thought about this until this minute. But there was a time - and I can remember this now. I was in the church with the great Caravaggio St. Peter being crucified upside down. And I was doing a drawing of it. And I not only realized that I loved to draw, but I also realized that I had made my decision to be an artist based on the fact that I could draw and that I didn't think I was good at anything else.

And I remember now that that day, I went back to my studio in the American Academy, and I started writing because it was something else I had always wanted to do. But I didn't think I could do it. I was not a good student - and really wasn't until I got to art school that I liked school at all. And - but somehow - I needed now something to fill my creative energy. And painting wasn't doing it for me because it was too hard for me. It was too painful.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer and artist Jonathan Santlofer. His new memoir is called "The Widower's Notebook." And it's about the death of his wife and his grief. He also writes crime novels set in the art world. And he's a painter. And he's an artist. So let's take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Santlofer. He's a writer and an artist. Some of his books are novels set in the art world. They're crime novels set in the art world. His new book is a memoir called "The Widower's Notebook." It's about his wife's death - her totally unexpected death five years ago and his grieving process since then.

So a question about your father - he had...

SANTLOFER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...A dress company in Manhattan. And you say that there were kind of like celebrity customers - Bess Myerson, who was the only Jewish Miss America, Polly Bergen, who was an actress who - she was actually in a couple of episodes of "The Sopranos." Marilyn Monroe came to his dress company, dress shop. I'm not sure what - how to describe...

SANTLOFER: It was a dress company. It was a dress company, yeah.

GROSS: What was it like for you to see celebrities on that level as prized customers?

SANTLOFER: Well, you know, I was just a young kid. And it was amazing. I mean, Polly Bergen was really beautiful. I remember Bess Myerson - you know, it's funny. I met her several times as a young kid, working - you know, I would go in and work in the summers for my father. But she didn't really make that much impression on me as much as somebody like Polly Bergen and, certainly, Marilyn Monroe, who arrived something like six hours late for her - the appointment she had to look at dresses. And I was - oh, God. She sat and talked to me and ruffled my hair.

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANTLOFER: And (laughter) it was pretty extraordinary, you know? And she spent two hours with just my father and myself trying on dresses because everybody else had gone home after...

GROSS: Wow. You watched Marilyn Monroe try on dresses.

SANTLOFER: I did. I did. It was really something. I mean, I'd written a little bit about it. But I kind of - the more I write about it, the more I remember about that evening because it was late in the day. The sad, of course, coda to that story is that she never got the dresses. This was very late in her young life. And she died about three weeks later.

GROSS: Wow.

SANTLOFER: And my father, being the very quiet and rather removed figure that he was, said nothing about her death. Though, watching him with her was really somewhat extraordinary for me as a young boy - to see my father sort of change and be kind of a flirt. And it was really something, you know? But it was - you know, it was glamorous as a young kid to see this world. My father was really just a tough boy from Queens who worked his way through CCNY in the dress business. And that's how he ended up opening his own company.

GROSS: What did he do with the dresses after she died?

SANTLOFER: Well, I remember. I have a specific image of the dresses hanging on the back of his office door, being in plastic. And they were going to be packed up and sent to her. And all I can remember is it was a Monday morning. And my father took them off the door and handed them to one of the women, one of the seamstresses, and just said, put these - something like, put these back in stock or - but he didn't say anything else, you know? And, you know, also, she had - my father had framed some of my drawings as a young kid. And they were on the walls in his showroom. And Marilyn paid a lot of attention to them and had said, oh, you must show me the next drawings that you do. And so in my head, I had conflated this huge idea that, you know, I would do these drawings and show them to Marilyn Monroe. And then she had died, you know? So I thought about that for a really long time, you know? Yeah.

GROSS: Your mother was a Roxy dancer. Was that at the Roxy movie theatre in New York?

SANTLOFER: Yeah, yeah. I remember.

GROSS: She danced in the stage shows before the movies.

SANTLOFER: Yes, indeed. She did. She also had a little dance act that she did with her brother up in the Catskills, which is how she met my father. Their story is basically "Dirty Dancing."

GROSS: (Laughter).

SANTLOFER: My mother was - she was working. She was a dancer. She was part of the entertainment. And my father was a guest. And as she said, he fooled her because he was a guest, and she thought he was rich when he wasn't. But he was working in the dress business then. And he would send her dresses all the time. That was part of their courtship, you know? So yeah, my mother, who still looks like a - you know, a 90-year-old Roxy dancer. So she was really something. (Laughter) And she used to entertain at weddings and all-family things doing her dances, which would mortify me and my sister tremendously.

GROSS: So you're in a different situation than you expected to be, in the sense that you describe yourself as somebody who had always had problems expressing emotion. You were brought up keeping emotion in and believing that that would make you a stronger person. But now, like, you've written this memoir. You've gone on a book tour talking about grief. Other people who have been grieving have come to you to share their stories. So grief has become something that's connected you to a lot of other people, some of whom you know well, some of whom you've met for the first time. And they're looking to you as somebody who's expressed so eloquently in your memoir what grieving is like. And so how have you been transformed from this person who doesn't express emotion to somebody who other people turn to to express the emotion with the right words?

SANTLOFER: Well, I think that's the biggest surprise to me, that in going around with this book - and, you know, I get dozens of emails every day from strangers who write to me that, you know, the book has - I've either expressed what they were feeling - and this is both men and women. And I never expected that. And I certainly didn't expect that when I went around with the book that it would have this kind of response, that there would be so many people coming to my events and coming up to me afterward. And I think I've been very changed by the experience and by writing this book. You know, I don't know that any of us know the right thing to say. I certainly didn't.

But I guess the other side that I've come out of is feeling that you simply have to show up. You know? It's a different - it is a kind of expression of feeling, or rather for me letting feeling in. You know, letting these people in. Just writing this book for me changed something very much in me. I don't think my outward personality's at all different. But certainly, the way I feel about things and think about things was very much changed by this book and continues to be changed by the people I hear from and the people I meet.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan Santlofer, it was really great to talk with you. I'm sorry for the occasion that led to your book, but I'm glad you wrote it. It's a beautiful book. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SANTLOFER: I really appreciate it. Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Jonathan Santlofer's new memoir is called, "The Widower's Notebook." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel set in Silicon Valley. This is FRESH AIR.

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