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To become a successful New York lawyer, an icon in international law, is usually enough of a career for one lifetime. Long hours, unexpected crises among clients and few vacations in such a high-stress profession frequently lead firms to award extended vacations to senior partners—intended as a brief reprieve, or at least a welcome change of pace.
For one such lawyer—a former member of the Harvard Advocate, and an English major once as devoted to the drama of Yeats as he would become to the annals of French law—his firm’s sabbatical offered a rare opportunity.
Louis Begley ’54 says he used the first day of his leave to start his first full-length novel. Three months later—the firm offered him the choice of a three- or six-month sabbatical, but Begley preferred the shorter—he had finished a draft.
He published Wartime Lies, the partially autobiographical account of his childhood escape from Nazi-occupied Poland using forged Catholic papers. And the book met international acclaim.
Begley says that he hadn’t written much since his Advocate days, but the sabbatical jump started a second career in literature. He has published seven novels since Lies in 1991, including Mistlers’ Exit, The Man Who Was Late, and About Schmidt—all of which, Begley says, he wrote in the evening hours and over weekends in his country home on Long Island.
“I always gave priority to my legal work,” Begley says. “I only wrote upon weekends and vacation. I worked like a dog.”
His colleagues and friends were not surprised at the intensity with which Begley pursued his long-standing passion.
“He has a restless intellect and you can only channel so much of that into legal work, and he has found a terrific secondary outlet for it,” says George Andreou ’87, Begley’s editor at Alfred A. Knopf. “I don’t have a vision of Louis snoozing in a hammock on Memorial Day weekend.”
Begley’s friends describe him as soft-spoken but constantly alert, and characterized by an observant nature which lends itself to both legal work and fiction writing.
When he was a student at Harvard, Begley didn’t pursue creative writing with full intensity because he felt he had nothing to say; after 45 years as a high-powered international lawyer, he has become an unusually prolific and acclaimed writer of fiction.
FROM WARSAW TO CAMBRIDGE
As a Jew hiding in Nazi-occupied Poland, Begley did not attend school until he was twelve. He says he read constantly and learned Romance languages under the tutelage of his mother and a local university professor.
“I was a somewhat precocious child, and I had been reading...I have always had a book in hand and I spent time reading alone with my mother,” he says. “My mother tried to teach me languages and what she knew, but she had no method.”
Nonetheless, Begley said that he didn’t have much trouble academically once he arrived in the United States.
Begley moved from Europe to Brooklyn, where he attended Erasmus Hall High School. Despite his relative inexperience with English, he won a borough-wide short-story competition. He was admitted to Harvard at age 16, and without having visited the campus, accepted the offer.
America had surprised Begley with its comparatively limitless freedom, he says, and Harvard even more so.
“It was wonderful, absolutely mind-boggling,” Begley says of first moving to Brooklyn. “Where shall I begin? It was the scenes of extraordinary plenty. Poland was a desert state, even France was a pretty grim place to be in 1947—dark shortages of everything, an immense kind of fatigue.
“And certainly to be in this country, where everything was abundant, where there had been no destruction, there were no bombed buildings. And of course, the contrast between the liberty of the kids in Brooklyn high schools and a boys’ Gymnasium in Poland. It was a century of difference,” Begley says.
Harvard then offered him the next level of freedom—relief from his parents.
Begley says that before college his independence was stifled by parents who, in rescuing him from the war in Poland, and educating him themselves, had entwined their day-to-day lives with his to the point of near suffocation.
“I have this memory of the phenomenal freedom because I had been sat upon by my parents, for perfectly understandable reasons, during the war,” he says. “My father was actually in Russia during the war so my mother actually had to sit on me to make sure I was safe.
“Then after the war they sat on me because I needed to do well in school...I think I was suffocating,” Begley says. Life at Harvard, then, was a “phenomenal business of being able to do exactly what you wanted and not having to do what you didn’t want to do.”
Left to his own devices, his first year in Thayer South was an eye-opening experience—even from the first day, when his roommate introduced him to the joy of bagpipes.
Begley joined the Advocate in his freshman year, and wrote both poetry and fiction. He has kept his ties to the organization, and serves now as chair of the Board of Trustees.
Yet he says that in college he didn’t consider a career in professional writing or criticism, and even dropped the one creative writing course in which he enrolled halfway through one semester.
“I had come to the conclusion that I had absolutely nothing to write about,” he says.
Many of Begley’s peers at the Advocate entertained vague literary ambitions. But according to James Chace ’53, a historian and writer who knew Begley from their time together on the magazine, classmates perceived that something was a bit different about Begley—an unusual maturity which they attributed to his European upbringing.
“Louis was very watchful, and he always spoke quietly. He was not particularly shy, but I could always see Louis observing things,” says Chace, who has remained close to Begley since graduation. Because Begley was new not only to Harvard but to the United States, he says, “I always sensed that Louis was observing a lot....He was very astute in his judgements.”
Chace says that Begley’s college writing demonstrated European “flavor,” and that the intensity and style of his stories set him apart from his fellow Advocate editors.
“Louis already had an extreme talent as a writer, which reflected his upbringing in Poland,” Chace says. “His experience and background was, of course, so different from ours.”
In the April 1951 issue of the Advocate, Begley contributed a page-long, three-part poem entitled “the Crowing of the Cock.”
The free verse examines some of the complicated relationships of a red-stockinged girl and discusses thoughts scribbled on “a scrap of paper yellow as the sweetness of cake.”
And one of his first stories, entitled “Krzysztof,” describes a young cowherd, likely in Poland, who encounters the effects of Nazi occupation. A soldier deduces from Krzysztof’s nervous manner that his identification papers are false, and so the boy must flee through the countryside, seeking refuge in a haystack. The soldier pokes for him with a bayonet:
“The steel did not search him again, and he remained in such a tacit communion with the fragrance he drank, that he feared to move lest he break it. He could not notice when the air which had soothed him became hot and bitter, or the darkness to which he clung turned into a cage of burning wire.”
Chace added that he sees shades of European influence even in Begley’s current writing.
“There is a tone to his books which is also very French,” Chace says, noting particular resemblances to Balzac. “His novels are extremely worldly.”
Andreou, Begley’s editor, attributes this worldliness to Begley’s fluency and comfort in multiple languages and countries.
Chace credits Begley’s work for a law firm he helped make transnational, which also sharpened his understanding of “very very moneyed powerful people, and the way in which they live.”
NOT JOHN GRISHAM
Begley says that he had not planned as a college student to become a lawyer. His father had hoped he would become a doctor—but when he realized that he didn’t enjoy hard science or medicine enough to pursue that path, he found himself without much of a career map at all.
He graduated Harvard summa cum laude, and rather than immediately take a job, decided instead to join the army.
“I didn’t do it because I was bellicose,” Begley says. “I thought [the draft] was a marvelous way to avoid taking any decisions.”
Upon graduating, Begley thought he would advance on the academic track, perhaps to graduate school. But the army gave him some time to think about his next step, and he found that that life didn’t particularly excite him.
“As I thought about this in the army, and I tried to visualize what that would be like, I found it harder and harder to picture myself sitting in my Widener cubicle with all the nice graduate students,” he says. “So what do I do?”
He decided he would try to attend law school, and from his army post cabled the Harvard Law School (HLS) admissions office, who cabled back his acceptance. Immediately after graduation from HLS in 1959, Begley joined Debevoise and Plimpton, and became a partner in 1968.
In his 25th reunion class notes, Begley wrote that his life had taken an unusual turn.
“The professional side of my life is totally different from anything I had even remotely imagined at college. My head then was full of Yeats, Dante, Spenser and Beaudelaire, and, if I thought of any occupation at all, I suppose it was teaching and writing,” he wrote. Instead he had found his professional niche in international law—an area which he found “surprisingly exciting and satisfying.”
“On the assumption that one must work,” he wrote, “there is nothing I would rather do.”
He says today that he turned to literature not because he had become bored with law, but that he had merely revived a long-standing interest.
His colleagues say that they were not particularly surprised when his novels appeared in print. His wife, Anka, and three children have all adopted artistic careers, and he himself has pursued some pro bono projects relating to the arts.
John S. Kiernan ’76, Begley’s long-time associate, says that the senior partner’s presence around the office suggested a “formidable intellect.”
“His writing of legal prose has a clarity and spareness and precision that fit the part,” Kiernan says. “It’s not an amazing proposition that someone with that kind of writing capacity would also be able to write fiction.”
Kiernan adds that Begley became an “iconic figure” by helping the firm expand internationally, working in Paris and with clients across the globe; Kiernan says he seemed to have an “Olympian perspective” while never missing a detail in his work.
Androeu says that Begley’s career as a lawyer has made him “remarkably efficient” in his writing and revising.
“I think it comes from being a lawyer; it’s the wonderful organizing paradigm of billable hours,” he says.
The editor also credits Begley’s unusual eruditon to his late start, which afforded him time to become more widely read.
“Sometimes first-time writers, whatever their strengths, are not sufficiently well read to know against quite which predecessors they are struggling, but I think Louis knows very well,” Andreou says. “I think that it has given his writing a kind of certainty that a younger writer might not possess.”
Those predecessors, according to editor and critic alike, include Edith Wharton and Henry James—writers who, according to Andreou, similarly address the ambiguity of men and women’s relationships to both their careers and their social circles.
In the class notes to his 35th reunion, Begley wrote, “When I squint at the world I find it extraordinarily beautiful, I wish it were not so fragile.”
Last year he retired from Debevoise and Plimpton, and published his seventh novel, Shipwrecked—about the life of a writer who comes to find his art unsatisfactory.
—Staff writer Alexandra N. Atiya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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