Addiction, obscurity and how Walter Tevis’ childhood experience at Stanford shaped Beth Harmon’s backstory.
If you’re having a hard time purchasing a chess set for Christmas this year—blame Walter Tevis.
Yes, the surge of interest in the age-old game (and the ensuing retail run on chess sets) has been squarely attributed to the recent success of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which is based on the novel that Tevis published in 1983. Although he passed just a year later, Tevis —an avid chess player throughout his lifetime—would likely have been thrilled by all of the Queen-to-Bishop-6-style mania that has now spread worldwide from his writing.
“He spent a lot of time playing chess,” says Tevis’ daughter, Julia McGory. “I think he would absolutely love everything that is happening with this.”
Yet while the the current chess craze bears a straightforward, rook-like trajectory stemming directly from the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit, Tevis’ obscurity remains a far more complex formation to ponder. Over the course of his career, the San Francisco-born author had written six well-crafted novels (which are now translated into 18 languages) and published more than two dozen short stories. But ask a bookstore employee if they carry any of his work and they’re not likely to register his name. The film adaptations of his work, on the other hand, which were anchored around A-list talent like Paul Newman, David Bowie and Tom Cruise, are far better known than the books they’re based on: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Color of Money. So even as his stories and their adaptations now span across more than a half-century of popular culture, Tevis somehow still remains widely unknown as a notable American author.
This is particularly true here in the Bay Area, where Tevis has been forgotten as a native son, despite the fact that his life—and therefore his writing—was profoundly influenced by the formative, and sadly traumatic, experiences that he had while living here as a child. In this regard, it doesn’t take a chess grandmaster to surmise that the orphanage origin story of his protagonist Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit was largely autobiographical and rooted in Tevis’ time at the Stanford Home for Convalescent Children in 1939.
So who was Walter Tevis? And more importantly, why doesn’t the Bay Area already know?
Bay Area origins
Born in 1928, Walter Tevis grew up in San Francisco’s Sunset District in a house on 16th Avenue directly across from Golden Gate Park. He attended nearby Jefferson Elementary, made frequent trips to the movies, fished in the Bay and developed a love of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. At the age of 7, he learned to play chess. In interviews years later, Tevis would often express a deep affection for his time living in the city, even as his childhood in California was marked by trauma.
Tevis recalled the atmosphere on 16th Ave as a “feelingless, uptight, middle class home.” His father, who worked as an appraiser in a downtown California Street office, was an alcoholic, yet neither of Tevis’ parents would acknowledge it. When he was nine, Tevis was diagnosed with a rheumatic heart and suffered from Sydenham’s chorea, a neurological disorder that results in involuntary jerking movements of the body.
In response, his parents admitted him to Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home for treatment, where—in an effort to keep the kids sedated—he wastranquilized on a daily basis with three doses of Phenobarbital, a barbiturate used for epilepsy, but also employed as a sedative. “And I loved it,” Tevis later recalled in an interview. “That may be one reason I became a drunk.”
During this time, Tevis’ father lost his job amid the economic collapse of the Great Depression and the family soon departed San Francisco for Kentucky to live with relatives. Ten-year-old Walter was left behind at Stanford to continue his treatment.
In addition to his sustained state of sedation and a newly-instilled orphan’s sense of abandonment, Tevis also suffered from an assortment of archaic medical practices that were commonplace during the time period. “When he had a fever,” explains Tevis’ son Will, “they would immerse him in ice water. Imagine doing that to a child whose mom and dad aren’t even there?”
After a year at the convalescent home, Tevis was sent a train ticket to make the trip back to Kentucky…by himself. Upon arriving, he was sent to “a tough Appalachian school” where he was left feeling like a perennial outsider in a foreign land.
The many facets of these collective childhood experiences would surface in various forms in Tevis’ writing for many years to come, beginning with his first two novels: in 1959, via the talented outsider of “Fast Eddie” Felson in The Hustler; and then, in 1963, with Newton, the well-intentioned but beleaguered alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth.
One of his most dynamic characters — an unlikely heroine — was still many years off.
The end game (as middle)
In late March of 1981, Tevis gave a lively interview to the San Francisco Examiner while promoting Mockingbird, his first new novel in the 17 years since he published The Man Who Fell to Earth. The candid insights and dark humor that he brings to the interview are immediately apparent via a pull quote beneath his photo, that reads, “The thing is to go ahead and change. If it doesn’t work, you can always kill yourself later.” On the topic of change, Tevis was referring to what would ultimately be the last chapter of his life, but also his most prolific and successful as a writer.
By relocating to New York during the late 1970s, Tevis had re-committed to his writing career via a sweeping reconfiguration of every aspect of his life: he left his established post teaching English literature and creative writing at Ohio University, divorced his wife of 20 years and finally got sober after years of alcoholism. Despite only producing three short stories in the previous 15 years, Tevis’ all-in (“go ahead and change”) move to New York resulted in him publishing four novels in just four years (including The Queen’s Gambit), before passing away at the age of 56 from lung cancer mere days after the final one—The Color of Money—arrived in bookstores.
The output of his New York years bookends with a similarly prolific period earlier in his career, during the late 1950s and early 60s, in which he published a wide range of short stories for the likes of Esquire, Playboy and Redbook. More notably, he had written two well-received novels during this era—The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth—which were adapted into films and appeared to set him on a trajectory as one of America’s most promising young writers. Yet, Tevis published fairly little in the years that followed: his opening moves as a literary star had become bogged down in a protracted middle game that involved raising a family, keeping up with his career as a professor and, above all else, grappling with deep bouts of alcoholism.
“He was bright and had a capacious mind,” explains KQED’s Michael Krasny, who studied under Tevis at Ohio University. “He was a very generous, kind man and was someone who had talent, but I think he was somewhat of a tormented soul.”
Krasny’s sentiments are shared with many of Tevis’ others students from his tenure at Ohio University, who typically describe him not only as funny and brilliant, but as a profound influence on their careers. (In fact, while recently on vacation, Krasny called in to his own radio show to pay homage to Tevis’ memory during an episode of Forum on the topic of The Queen’s Gambit and the current popularity of chess.)
Although his students never directly encountered Tevis’ struggles with alcoholism, they weren’t entirely oblivious to them either. “He just had a great heart and was a wonderful human being,” says Jim Gorman, another of Tevis’ students, “but he had all sort of demons.”
In that 1981 Examiner interview, Tevis didn’t shy away from acknowledging his protracted issues with alcoholism. In fact, he not only explained that his latest book was attempt to address them head on (“I wanted to write about the experience of waking up after years of diddling my head with alcohol”), but also that the source of those demons originated during his childhood in the Bay Area.
And although it is true that Tevis wasn’t writing much fiction during his time as a college professor, it’s not to say that he wasn’t writing at all. Oddly enough, Tevis occasionally worked as a sort of chess correspondent in his free time during those years, traveling to cover a variety of different competitions (including a national tournament in Las Vegas, which is re-created in The Queen’s Gambit). Much in the same way that he had observed the character and characters of pool hall culture to create The Hustler, Tevis soon had a similar sense for the finer points of formal chess competitions.
“My feeling was that chess tournaments,” Tevis said in a 1983 WCBS radio interview, “have more competitive excitement, more aggressiveness crackling around that dumb little high school gymnasium or third rate hotel ballroom…than I have seen in any other kind of activity.”
This field observation combined with his obsessive history of the game and his deep love of playing had presented him a new and unique template to explore very personal issues of talent and addiction.
“He is the character in all of his books,” says Will Tevis, “so, he is Beth Harmon.”
It is a common assessment for those who know Tevis’ biography and his books, but still one that poses the question—how did he settle on a female protagonist?
“I tried to take the best thing about chess players,” Tevis explained, “a sort of high speed aggressive intelligence, and I tried to present that in the body of a young girl, which meant a lot to me. I think sometimes while doing this book I was wrapped up in the intelligence of women, for which I have a tremendous respect and kind of awe.”
Even as this was a departure from Tevis’ previous all-male lineup of main characters, Beth Harmon was in many ways a logical choice for protagonist when considering the subject matter.
“First of all, Tevis is always interested in the underdog,” says Gorman. “So how do you create a chess player that is brilliant…but also an underdog? The world of chess did not embrace women for a long time. So he changed himself into a woman.”
After the book was first published in 1983, Tevis was confident that it could be effectively adapted to screen. Better yet, he already had plans for a sequel, which would—appropriately enough—ponder Beth’s life as an adult, many years after her successes at a younger age.
Hard earned books (from a literary soul)
Whether Netflix’s success with The Queen’s Gambit will finally gain Walter Tevis proper notoriety as an author remains to be seen. This is not the first time one of his books has met with newfound attention through a high profile adaptation. Over 50 years ago, the film version of The Hustler sparked a pool room renaissance much like the current Queen’s Gambit-driven fervor for chess. In fact, every successful adaption of his work also seems to spark a new round of inquiry into why Tevis remains a literary obscurity. In the weeks before the 1987 Oscar ceremony, the LA Times ran an editorial that began, “If Paul Newman wins Best Actor tomorrow night [he did], he’ll owe a part of it to Walter Tevis.”
Ask a fan or a colleague or a family member or one of his students…and they all have a theory on Tevis’ lack of notoriety.
Krasny, who puts Tevis’ versatility and story-telling prowess in league with Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula Le Guin, suspects that Tevis was perhaps too blue collar for the literary world. “Walter was kind of an outlier in some ways,” he explained to The Six Fifty by phone, “a book about pool hustling and then a science fiction book — those don’t make the grade in terms of the elite world that the arbiters of great American literature fixate on. … But he was a great storyteller and he had a literary soul.”
Tevis’ daughter, on the other hand, chalks up his obscurity to the disjointed timeline of her father’s career. “It’s different generations. Now, people know about The Queen’s Gambit, but my kids don’t know The Color of Money or The Hustler. I think if he would have written those three closer together it may have made a difference.”
Here locally, Tevis still remains unknown as a native San Franciscan. Interestingly enough though, in early 2019 (again, well before Netflix’s adaptation) the Stanford “Another Look” book club held a panel discussion moderated by author Tobias Wolff in celebration of Tevis’ “overlooked masterpiece.” In this regard, perhaps the book may begin to be embraced as a locally-inspired work. (After all, it would file in nicely next to two other celebrated books that were also born of unorthodox drug use in unique Peninsula settings—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.)
In the meantime, Tevis’ work has surfaced in the spotlight again, as it has tended to do over the past six decades. Thinking back to the last time that it had happened, the LA Times may have summed up the long view on Tevis’ work best, concluding their editorial with a sentiment that is as apt today as it was over a quarter of a century ago when it was written: “Walter Tevis wrote like a dream and he told some wonderful stories. May his hard earned books continue to find readers who deserve them.”
Listen to Walter Tevis’ first interview after the publication of The Queen’s Gambit, with WCBS in 1983, where Tevis speaks extensively on his views of chess and the possibility of a sequel.
Check out the full episode of KQED’s forum, titled: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Spurs Renewed Interest In Chess (Michael Krasny calls in at 49:50)
Listen to the full 2019 panel discussion of The Queen’s Gambit with Stanford’s ‘Another Look’ Book Club.
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