Donald Fiene died, earlier this month, in Oakland, Calif., at age 84. Even people who never took Russian heard Don Fiene stories. One about his astonishing house on the western end of Fort Sanders. He was a remarkable guy, and the house at 2215 Clinch Avenue reflected its longtime resident. Fiene’s collection of offbeat relics awed visitors, but what made it unique was the fact that one visitor he allowed into the house was a live wisteria vine. It came in via his basement. Fiene showed it all the way through the house, and out the back. The long vine just got thicker with the years. His parties were legendary. It’s my loss that I never attended one.
The other Don Fiene story was that he was the guy who knew Kurt Vonnegut. The usual conflation was that Fiene had known Vonnegut during Vonnegut’s short career at UT. That wasn’t true, though Fiene had known Vonnegut and Vonnegut had once been a student at UT. The two details were coincidental. Fiene didn’t come to UT until 30 years after Vonnegut’s brief adventure here. The two became close friends and sometimes associates.
He explained all that to me when we met late one afternoon at the brewpub on Gay Street, by whatever iteration it was then. In the 1990s, when Knoxville was just getting used to the idea of a pub, a place where adults go and have long conversations with people they didn’t necessarily know when they came in. The brewpub was that kind of place, and still is. But back then, you’d walk in and there were just 20 or 30 people in there and they were all interesting, each one just bold or peculiar enough to come to a place that wasn’t mainstream yet, and it was still quiet enough for a long, long talk. It seemed a crazy idea, in the ’90s, and when I bragged about how well it was working, I often mentioned Don Fiene. His national expertise ranged from his idol, Fedor Dostoevsky, to counterculture cartoonist R. Crumb. He’s famous in Louisville, Ky., for being fired for assigning Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye to a high-school class in 1960. He could talk about lots of things.
People always mention his famous associations, but there was a good deal more to him. This month, a closer friend described him as one of those people who keep the world from falling apart.
I learned, late, of the death earlier in the summer of Jon Manchip White, once a UT English professor. He was 89. He had the most extraordinary resume in greater Knoxville. He was a Cambridge-educated Egyptologist and race-car driver. He was an author of thrillers and an expert on the 17th-century Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. He was a Royal Navy veteran of World War II and, more or less, a secret agent, an executive in Her Majesty’s Foreign Service. There were things he couldn’t talk about. But he could talk about the Aztecs, at length, and Southern Africa. And Maurice Comte de Saxe, the hero of the Austrian War of Succession.
I met him under unusual circumstances. It was the late 1980s, and I was an editorial assistant working for one of Whittle’s high-flying magazine projects, a fiction magazine, and we were trying to put out a mystery issue. Whittle’s philosophy was to learn the hell out of everything fast, with every resource at hand, and then proceed. I got word there was a mystery author who lived here in town, and he could tell us all about the business.
I called Dr. White, expecting a phone interview. He wanted to meet in person, and gave me a time and a date and a place. The place—our subject being literary intrigue—was the old train station. Specifically, it was a restaurant at the L&N. The complicated old building still had some of that whiff of the exotic, with lots of dark angles and nooks, and Dr. White liked it. “They have the most excellent scones,” he said.
It was a rainy, cold afternoon. He was at a corner table, a well-dressed gentleman with white mustache, a bit of Burl Ives, but only if you can imagine Burl Ives as a friendly but potentially dangerous character in a Graham Greene novel. When the scones arrived, I couldn’t help but note they were what I would have called biscuits. For the purpose of our meeting, they were scones.
We had an extraordinarily long conversation about the craft of the mystery. I took notes, but remember the scene better than whatever intelligence I gathered.
Later, Jon Manchip White kept popping up in unexpected places. Rifling through used books in an odd used bookstore downtown, I found a slim volume of his vivid poetry. At work, I got a review copy of a major new history of Southwest Africa, and one of the experts who blurbed it on the back was Jon Manchip White. At the end of an old ’60s science-fiction movie, there he was in the credits. And he was always announced as the winner of WUOT’s classical-music quizzes.
Though I had met him in person, I began to doubt he existed. But in 2001, on another rainy afternoon, in another now-defunct restaurant, he was gracious to allow a profile for this publication.
The Contemporary Authors series at the public library is a bare-bones sort of resource, usually very short entries for all notable authors in English. Most rate no more than a dictionary-style definition. White’s entry includes his own autobiographical essay, 23 pages long, and within it are pictures of White in interesting places, like a prairie in Namibia. His essay described his pagan rituals concerning dogwood trees and Longstreet’s Confederate siege, which interested him, in part because his home on Cherokee Trail was part of the story.
It includes a list of his reasons for living. You’ll have to read them. But the last one is, “To walk the woods and mountains and deserts...or along unfamiliar roads in search of antiquity, or history, or some majestic spectacle.”