Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On Being the Child of a Writer

I have met a few writers who are children of writers. I believe that all of us with writer parents live with our progenitors’ careers and work as constant companions. It’s both a huge advantage and a somewhat of a burden to have a writer in one’s ancestry. On the one hand, it legitimates one’s claim to being a writer—this isn’t the first time that a literary career has emerged in this family. In a way, it’s as if your dad is a tailor and you want to become a tailor. If he could learn the trade, why can’t I? But of course, there are fewer good writers than good tailors. Or are there? The disadvantage: you are constantly comparing yourself and being compared to your parent.

My dad, Lee Rogow, was a successful writer. 

Lee Rogow, serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II
My dad wrote short stories for magazines in the U.S.A. that published fiction in the early 1950s. His stories, many of them based on our family life, appeared regularly in Esquire, Harper’s, Colliers, Ladies Home Journal, and other magazines. Rarely in the New Yorker, though he did publish in the Talk of the Town section. His short stories weren't quite edgy enough for that magazine, or maybe he never tried to publish his most artistic stories, since they were on topics that he might not have wanted to write about publicly. My dad wrote an interesting story about adultery, for example, which he told from the viewpoint of the other woman. He never published it.

My dad also wrote many reviews of plays, books, and movies. For years he was the drama critic of the Hollywood Reporter, and during that period he and my mom attended every opening night on Broadway. After the final curtain, they hurried to the Western Union office in Times Square and my dad telegraphed his hastily drafted review to the West Coast—where it was three hours earlier—in time for his article to appear in the morning paper in Los Angeles.

After my dad’s theater review was done, he and my mom would have a late supper and sip martinis at Sardi’s on West 44th Street, where all the reviewers and producers would congregate till the newsboys burst in with the early edition of the New York Times, the Herald Tribune, The Sun, and the Mirror with their reviews, which usually determined if a show would be a hit or a flop.  

Lee Rogow writing
Based on my dad’s experiences reviewing opening nights, he also wrote the draft of a screenplay. The story was inspired by Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, and her relationship with her mother. Maria Riva appeared in a Broadway play that my dad reviewed. To avoid comparisons with her mom, Riva never used the name Dietrich or mentioned her mother in her bios. Her mother was equally circumspect, trying not to overshadow her daughter. Of course, their connection was well known. At the daughter’s opening night on Broadway, Dietrich couldn’t resist making a grand entrance in a beautiful dress when the audience was already seated, eclipsing her daughter. My dad based the screenplay on that incident.

Tragically, my dad, Lee Rogow, died in a plane crash in 1955 at the age of 36. His career went unfinished, as did his screenplay. My dad had sold his screenplay to a Hollywood studio, but he never had a chance to complete it.  He also had a draft of a book of short stories he was planning to send to publishers.

Part of my motivation for being a writer has to do with a need to complete my dad’s career. I think that desire also motivates to some degree my first cousin, Steven V. Roberts, who has written many books, including My Father’s Houses, where he writes a lot about my dad; and From This Day Forward, which he coauthored with Cokie Roberts.
My dad and I in a photobooth, circa 1954
One thing about having a parent as a writer is that, even though I lost my dad when I was three years old, I feel I know him well. Reading his writing, I see his sparkly wit, at moments a bit forced. I sense his intellect, and his deep and complex feelings for his role as a father. That’s one distinct advantage to having a parent or ancestor who is a writer: you get to know that person through the writing in a way that is extremely close, closer than any other occupation could bring you. Here’s a passage from that story I mentioned earlier, the one about adultery that my dad never published. This occurs near the end of the story, where the other woman finally has it out with her married boyfriend, whose name is Spence:

“You just want to be charming, irresistibly charming, so that everyone loves you. Your talent for this is high octane, my boy. You can charm the birds from the trees. But you cannot be all things to all men—or to all women. You can’t have it all your way, flitting between two worlds, and finding them waiting for you, unchanged, every time you arrive. Sometimes, Spence, it’s kinder to have a scene. Have it with me, or have it with her, but have it.” What a strong female character! And this was in the early 1950s, when almost every TV show showed women in aprons baking chocolate-chip cookies around the clock. My dad was a man who appreciated a strong woman, and in that, I take after him.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka


  1. Gosh, Zack, I had no idea! You must have been very young when he passed away. It sounds like he would have had quite a spectacular career had he been able to continue.

  2. Thanks for your comment, C.M. I think my dad might ultimately have become a writer for the screen, since that was the direction he was heading. His greatest dream, I believe, was to write the script and lyrics for a Broadway musical.

  3. Zack, what a wonderful post about your father! I can see him in your features too. . .and maybe even a bit in your temperament.

    I also LOVED the passage from your dad's story. Classy, edgy writing. He not only knew about the human heart but about how to write it clearly.

    Thanks so much for this one.