I remember being in Biarritz with Jim and Gloria Jones. I had half a dozen beautiful Havana cigars on the table in my room. I came in one afternoon and found that Kaylie, who was about 6, had slit every one of them down the middle with a razor. I was very angry.
Anecdotes were flying about in the Doubleday suite overlooking Fifth Avenue, making the occasion seem more like a summer reunion than a fledgling author’s publishing party. There was Kurt Vonnegut chatting with Broadway composers Adolph Green and Betty Comden; Pat Kennedy Lawford with authors Styron, John Knowles and George Plimpton. It was the group that once had formed a merry band around the late novelist James Jones. Now they had come together again to celebrate a rite of passage, the publication of a first novel, As Soon As It Rains (Doubleday, $16.95), by Jones’s daughter, Kaylie.
“Where’s the mother of the book?” called one guest across the room to Gloria Jones, who beamed and pointed out her flaxen-haired daughter, the focus of hugs and fond reminiscences. “I first met Kaylie when she was 2½,” recalled Comden, chuckling. “I had gone to Jamaica to visit Jim and Gloria, who came to pick me up at the airport with Kaylie in tow. Gloria’s car had been attacked by some Rastafarians the day before. So Kaylie’s first words to me were the ones she had heard jeered at her mother, ‘F—-you, white lady.’ ”
For her part, Kaylie, 25, had a wealth of memories to draw on for novelistic inspiration. In 1958 James and Gloria Jones moved to Paris, where Kaylie and her younger brother, Jamie, were raised. It was seven years after the stupendous success of Jones’s first novel, From Here to Eternity, a raw portrayal of enlisted soldiers leading up to the apocalypse of Pearl Harbor. Ensconced in an elegant house on Paris’ Tie Saint-Louis, the Joneses became famous for Sunday night dinners and poker parties that attracted such luminaries as the Styrons, Irwin Shaw, Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, Lauren Bacall. Kaylie remembers gleefully sneaking downstairs in her pajamas to watch.
In her book, Kaylie’s heroine, Chloe Raymond, an aspiring actress, is like the novelist trying to come to terms with the death of her famous playwright father. Chloe seeks solace in the Paris of her idyllic childhood, only to find the city littered with ghosts. Though the New York Times cautioned, “Miss Jones comes shy of the conviction needed to confront the questions she asks,” it added, “the absence of irony and affectation in the book is as rare as Chloe’s unmannered innocence, and as welcome.”
The same could be said of Kaylie, who recalls that Jones was “an excessively good father. He had a devastatingly bad childhood, so he would do things like get the biggest tree in the neighborhood at Christmas. He once bought my brother [now a banker] an intricate train set that went around the tree. He set it up and said, ‘Don’t play with the goddamned train, you’re going to break it.’ Then he played with the train and gave himself the Christmas he never had.”
In 1975 Jones, whose subsequent novels never equaled the success of his debut, moved the family to Sagaponack, N.Y. When he suddenly died of congestive heart failure in 1977, his survivors were devastated. “I didn’t believe his death was possible,” says Kaylie, who was about to enter Wesleyan University. “I went through a self-destructive thing my first semester. I got drunk every night because I couldn’t deal with my feelings.” She eventually settled down, studied English and Russian and began to write short stories. After graduation she took creative writing at Columbia University. There one of her teachers suggested she develop her stories into a novel. Fortuitously, Gloria Jones had become a publisher’s scout and steered Kaylie’s draft to Doubleday. “A natural writer,” says editor Carolyn Blakemore. “She’s James Jones’s daughter. She has those genes.” “The day I signed the contract,” Kaylie says, “I broke down in tears, thinking, ‘I can’t possibly write this book.’ ”
Nonetheless Kaylie holed up in her small West Side apartment and set to work. “I did go to Irwin Shaw for help early on,” she says of her father’s late close friend, “but my mother warned me away from showing it to too many people.” Kaylie tends to agree. Even after the book was published, other of her father’s friends offered to advise. “Peter Mathiessen wrote me saying he’d like to discuss what was wrong with the book. But I figure it’s like having a moron child,” she says. “After it’s born there’s not much point discussing what went wrong with the DNA. It’s finished. I’ll work harder at the next one.”
In fact, while taking postgraduate Russian courses at Columbia, Kaylie is already at work on her second novel. “If my father had lived, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to write,” she says. “His Armageddon was the war. It destroyed him, and writing was his way of dealing with it. His death was my war, and I thought I had something to say to people.”