I can’t resist writing about Bill Lederer as the first installment of my series on Meetings With Remarkable People.
In 1975, or around then, I was living in Plainfield, Vermont, and eking out a living by various means, including teaching classical guitar. It was my first full winter in Vermont — I had been spending summers living out in the woods and returning to Madison, Wisconsin, in the winter because I could make some money there, teaching guitar or waitering. I remember it as an extraordinarily cold, snowy, and beautiful winter.
I could stay in Vermont that winter because I had gotten an adjunct teaching job at Lyndon State College. I’d drive up two days a week from Plainfield, 40 miles or so each way, navigating my $125 Chevy flatbed truck through what felt like the Arctic wilderness. My students and I would sit in a tiny practice room; I’d have each one make pile of books on the floor to put his or her left foot on, the correct posture for classical guitar, and we’d plunk through the lessons.
I was glad for the money and happy to have a warm, clean place to hang out, a desk of my own, and a telephone — twice a week, anyway.
One day in late January I was at my desk when the department head came up and asked me if I ever took private students. He said he’d just gotten a call from somebody who wanted classical guitar lessons but couldn’t come up to Lyndon for them; he wanted them at his own house.
“I think he’s somebody pretty famous,” he told me rather vaguely.
The caller turned out to be William J. Lederer, the co-author (with Eugene Burdick) of The Ugly American, a novel that in 1951 generated intense controversy its criticism of American foreign policy — and cultural attitudes — in Asia. He was also the author of A Nation of Sheep, All the Ship’s at Sea, Ensign O’Toole and Me, and many other fiction and non-fiction books. The Ugly American had been made into a movie starring Marlon Brando, and Ensign O’Toole and another book, McHale’s Navy, were adapted for popular TV shows in the 1960s.
I knew about The Ugly American, but not its author or any of his other accomplishments. I didn’t care about them, either. I wasn’t impressed by fame, and anyway his fifteen minutes of it had come and gone a decade ago. I just needed the bucks. So, yeah, this guy was going to get classical guitar lessons at his home out on the back roads of Peacham.
He proved to be a rare and remarkable man who became a dear friend for the next 25 years. From him I learned a great deal about accepting yourself as an unusual and contrary human being, which I certainly was, and about living life on your own terms, which I certainly wanted to do.
I called him from the college. The voice at the other end sounded gruff and old and had a difficult stutter that required a lot of patience. We figured out the logistics, and the next day I drove my clanking rust-bucket over the frozen ruts outside Danville, guitar case bouncing in the seat next to me, trying to follow the directions he’d given. This was well before the age of cell phones and GPS, and I spent an hour or so lost in the Arctic before I found his place.
It was a low, classic Vermont farm house overhung by two gigantic maples, with a big barn; on the other side of the road, a huge meadow opened to a sweeping view of the hill falling away to the distant church steeples of Peacham and the piedmont beyond.
I parked the truck and crunched across the driveway just as Bill opened the door and made an expansive welcoming gesture. He was of middle height, in his mid-60s, curly white hair starting to recede, a white grizzle on his chin, a pipe in his jaw, dressed in canvas pants and checked shirt, thickening in the middle, but hardy-looking.
“Maestro!” he called.
I was no maestro, and his tone was ironic, but I was flattered: He had a sense of humor, anyway.
I had only been playing guitar for ten years and wasn’t particularly accomplished. My professional good fortune had been due to the vicissitudes of American culture: in those ten years, the classical guitar had gained huge popularity, thanks to the prodigious talent of Andres Segovia. People couldn’t get enough of it, there weren’t enough classical guitarists to go around. So, though I had never played in a bar or coffeehouse, by my early twenties I had played at Carnegie Recital Hall and other major venues and had spent a year as a guest artist at a Midwest conservatory.
Bill had some hot tea ready, and we sat in his living room and introduced ourselves. He was not reticent about his own history, just not that interested in reciting it for me. Instead, in his sometimes agonizing stutter, he told me of his reasons for taking up the classical guitar at the unlikely age of 64 and then of his interest in a wide range of esoteric topics — dowsing, holistic health, the healing power of musical sounds, Chinese culture, unusual fitness regimens, a pagan belief in magics in the trees and the earth, in electromagnetic fields and auras, in Taoism and Buddhism.
I wasn’t sure at the time whether these really were as important to him as they were to me, or whether he had somehow discerned aspects of my psyche and was kindly accommodating me. I reciprocated with a comparable catalog of interests, and I challenged him here and there, which I think he appreciated. We would have similar conversations for the next 25 years.