Photography by Joe Johnson
George Hodgman is showing me around town. Paris, Missouri, population 1,220. There’s Jonesy’s Cafe, where he eats breakfast some mornings. There’s the church where Betty, his mom, played piano. The Dollar General where he just bought a $12 sweater.
In Manhattan, when he was thinner and blonder and an editor at Vanity Fair, he wore lime green Helmut Lang pants and a black T-shirt to visit Madonna in her townhouse. Will Lippincott (of the old-money Philadelphia book publishing Lippincotts) still remembers the first time he saw Hodgman, at a party in the ’90s. “If there was a ‘New York top magazine editor’ look,” Lippincott says, “he had it: curious, haughty, and disdainful all at once.”
These days, Hodgman mocks his paunch, his pants sag like a teenager’s, and his cleft chin looks more like a dare than a mystery. When he moved back to Paris six years ago, resolved to care for his feisty 90-year-old mother, his New York friends were incredulous. Leave Manhattan for Paris? Paris, Missouri? Career suicide.
“There’s Monroe Manor,” he says, slamming on the brakes and pointing. “Betty always said, ‘Do not put me in Monroe Manor.’ And if we were having a bad day, I said, ‘You are so going to Monroe Manor.’”
We drive to nearby Madison, where they lived until he was 12. “This is where I would walk with my boots and my cowboy hat to play with Billy, and his mother told me every time she saw me coming, she took a nerve pill.”
Hodgman reels off all the residents as we cruise past their houses: “That was Flossie. Thelma lived there, but her house exploded. This is where I got my full-immersion baptism. I just pulled out in front of that car. This was Swindles’. They were big in the Saddle Club. That’s the ball field where I underwent every possible humiliation. There’s the church where Betty was practicing alone and a hobo came in and she threw her shoe at the homo. Hobo. Freudian slip.”
Back at his house, he boils water in a saucepan to make me tea. Then he shows me around, dragging, with every step, a long strip of fabric no doubt torn from his trouser hem when he stepped on it. In a corner of the den is a comfy recliner, at sharp odds with the house’s old-fashioned femininity. This is where Hodgman sat, his laptop in front of him on a card table, writing Bettyville to stay sane.
Funny and tender and sarcastic and profound, the memoir debuted at No. 9 on the New York Times bestseller list. The Times of London named it one of the best books of 2016. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it’s already been translated into Italian and German. Paramount Television has optioned the book for a “dramedy” starring Shirley MacLaine as Betty and Matthew Broderick as Hodgman.
“And Viking didn’t think it would do this well, right?” I prompt, like a kid who wants to hear the story again.
“It’s about a fat man and an old lady in a small town,” Hodgman says. “It’s not anybody’s idea of a blockbuster.”
Hodgman's father was the kind of man people—including his son—called “Big George.” And Betty was always Betty.
“His mom was beautiful,” remembers Kim Diaz, who taught young George social studies at Paris R-II High School. “Both of his parents were very striking, and they were characters, almost larger than life. Betty was not an ordinary housewife in any sense of the word. She was more…cosmopolitan.” Meaning snooty? Diaz says no, but when I ask whether Betty was an integral part of the community, she hesitates. “I’d say a satellite.”
She’d been voted Miss Legs at the University of Missouri–Columbia. After graduation, she’d lived in St. Louis, staying with her aunt in Webster Groves and taking the streetcar to her secretarial job at Union Electric. She fell in love with George Hodgman, the son of a St. Louis attorney.
Big George wound up working at the lumberyard that Betty’s family owned, so Betty wound up home again. She surrounded herself with ruby glass and pink rose demitasse, imitating the life she knew she wanted.
I ask Hodgman whether his parents were in love. “They were married 50 years,” he points out. “They were everything from Romeo and Juliet to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? My father was, in a way, more romantic. My mother was an always-there kind of lady; she never failed people.”
George was their only child, but he wasn’t indulged, his longtime friend Shirley Sokolosky assures me, “Betty adored him in an honest way. She could say, ‘Now, George, you are’—whatever. Some families don’t talk about anything, but they just put it right out there.”
Except if it was mushy, or involved sex.
Neither Betty nor Big George inquired once, or made a single veiled dig, about their son’s sexual orientation. If people at school or in town thought he was gay, they never said; one didn’t, in the 1970s. Especially not in Paris.
I did not fit, exactly; but this was my home, he would write. I loved my home.
At Paris R-II High, the boys played sports and the girls tried out for cheerleading. George…cracked jokes. He kept up a caustic running commentary during school assemblies, Sokolosky hissing, as she tried desperately to keep a straight face and avoid the teacher’s eye, that he was incapable of whispering.
As yearbook editor, he wrote to celebs, asking for their thoughts on individuality. Katharine Hepburn wrote back and said, “I don’t have time to write you,” which he and Sokolosky thought was hysterical. Gilda Radner of their beloved Saturday Night Live responded. Robert Redford’s sign-off was “May your skies be blessed.” Neil Diamond wrote, “It is only when we try to be what we are not that the God given gift of uniqueness is wasted.” George Carlin wrote, “Best of luck to the graduates of Paris R II High School—1977” then scrawled, “R II????”
Carlin was an urban creature, part of a world that George craved.
Now we're in St. Louis, and he’s barreling east on Park. The lanes are divided by a landscaped concrete median. And we’re going the wrong way.
He’s looking, he’s pretty sure, for a place to live. Because when he was growing up in small-town Missouri—before those glamour years in Manhattan—St. Louis was where he felt like he might belong. And now, when he can’t quite bring himself to leave Paris or give up his apartment in New York, St. Louis is feeling like the middle ground.
He turns onto Tucker, and I finally let go of the armrest. Of course he’s rattled, I think. After years marking up the raw manuscripts of some of the best writers in the country, he risked his own, a memoir so honest, it knocks the wind out of you. And that has changed everything.
“I love old houses,” he says. “I think it’s in my blood. My mother’s family built houses. My father built houses. All over an old house, there is craft.” You live a different kind of life when you’re surrounded by those artful details, he says. And he’s yearning for space, for places to put all the odd sentimental bits he’s collected. “For 25 years, I had a refrigerator that slept under the counter. I had dollhouse ice trays and a Murphy bed. I liked my Murphy bed—it seemed kind of secret. But New York has begun to feel like a really big, expensive mall for very rich people.” He gestures the excess, steering one-handed. “Hamilton tickets were $800—that’s what you pay for a suit! It’s the new American greed. Everything has an added layer of how it will be perceived, and that adds a lot of unnecessary money into everything. I like the old prewar New York.”
He drives west to Grand and turns down Flora Place. “In Boston, you would pay $10 million for these houses! Of course, to take care of them would probably take a considerable amount of Mop & Glo.”
He skids to a halt. “Look at that grillwork!” A van nearly rear-ends him. “Sorry!” he calls, then shakes his head. “These people and their annoying need to actually use the street. I am contemplating a real estate parcel!”
There’s excitement in his voice; it sounds like a moment a dog should be part of, so Raj uncurls himself from the back seat and rests his chin on Hodgman’s shoulder. A black Lab as sweet and glossy as licorice, he was Bettyville’s relief. Against all common sense, in the middle of this exhaustive caretaking adventure,
Hodgman adopted him. The dog, the old woman, and the man took turns taking care of one another, and Raj’s goofy, uncomplicated adoration steadied the humans. Hodgman reaches up to pet him.
Photography by Joe Johnson
Hodgman with Raj, who saved many days.
“I love the streets around Shaw’s Garden,” he remarks, “and I love reading about Mr. Shaw. Look at these—” he points to the gingerbread houses on Alfred. “There’s a certain uniformity. Is that where Mr. Shaw put people when he brought them over with their plants?”
In Paris, Hodgman tried to garden. “I had a little flowerbed and two baskets, and you would have thought I’d started an arboretum.” He loves the heat of summer. “I remember as a kid how it felt like you could see the air, that shimmer. My mother always made me take naps, and I would lie in bed and think. They would run the fan, and it had a certain sound, like whispers. Or sshhhhhhh.”
The thought of a fan makes me shudder: The air’s wet and cold, like a gray Army-issue blanket thrown around your shoulders soaking wet, and my teeth chatter every time he rolls down the window to take a picture.
“You want ice cream?” he asks hopefully.
We stop at Clementine’s. Turns out he has a fundamental distrust of anyone who refuses ice cream. We talk about fantasy and pretend games and whether a parent should let a child live in his imagination. “I don’t think it’s a choice,” he says. “If you’ve got a kid who’s a fantasizer, you better just go with it.” On the other hand, he adds, “rebellion is a good thing for a writer to have to develop. It’s hard to make yourself go sit in your room and work. But it’s a hell of a lot easier if you think somebody doesn’t want you to.”
Eyes lit with sudden panic, he checks his phone: “The library sold me for a dinner. I have this mad fear that I’m going to get the date wrong and it’ll be tonight.”
It’s next week. Relieved, he turns down another divided street and sighs with pleasure. “These houses should be embassies.” He comes to a dead stop. “This one is huge. You could raise llamas.”
As a kid, he came to St. Louis a lot, visiting his grandmother, his allergist, the zoo. “The first show I saw at The Muny was The Music Man, with Eddie Albert,” he says. “What could be more thrilling than to see the star of Green Acres?!”
When Lauren Bacall came for Applause, his parents heard his plea and looked at him blankly, so George, not yet 10, persuaded a family friend to take him. “A good deal of my life was spent trying to talk people into taking me to St. Louis,” he admits, “or to R-rated movies. All we had was the drive-in. I would tell my mother, ‘I’m very mature,’ and she’d be, like, ‘You’re 9.’”
When the whole family came, they went to Henrici’s for fried chicken and Bevo Mill and Westroads shopping center, where George threw his pennies in the fountain, wishing for a life he couldn’t yet articulate.
They’d eat in the Garden Room of what was then Stix, Baer & Fuller, and his dad would stage-whisper, “This place is full of damned old ladies.”
Decades later, when Big George was gone and Betty had become one of those old ladies (although not really, not ever), he’d bring her to St. Louis.
“We would ride around, and she’d look out the window, and every once in a while she’d say, ‘This looks kind of dicey,’” Hodgman recalls, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “We’d stay at The Chase—I wish they’d get those rooms a little less musty!—and I’d walk across the street and look through the gates of the private places, wondering how the hell you got in there. Talk about Bonnie and Clyde—my mother and I were two steps ahead of the law only. Once we got stopped by the security guard, and I said, ‘You have no right not to let people look at these houses. They are beautiful!’ He threatened to take me in for a Breathalyzer. My mother said, ‘But I have bridge on Tuesday.’”
Now Hodgman has made a few friends who live in the private places. One evening he dropped in on one and realized that he’d crashed a retirement party…for the security guard.
“Gotta run,” Hodgman called, making a quick U-turn.
In 2001, home to celebrate his mother’s 90th birthday, Hodgman learned that she’d lost her driver’s license. He’d loved driving with her as a kid, both of them singing louder than the radio as Betty soared far above the speed limit, a scarf wrapped around her hair as the wind rushed in. Now she had to face the euphemistic “slowing down” of old age, and she couldn’t outrace the dementia that was trying to steal her piece by piece.
He canceled his return flight and started looking for assisted living facilities. But Betty wasn’t about to let him pluck her from her home.
He got it. Coming home to that cozy nest felt good to him, too. He’d eaten stress (and Xanax and other compensatory substances) for decades. “Madonna’s diary was 120,000 words, and Graydon [Carter, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair] wanted to publish 10,000, and I was stuck between the two,” he recalls. “I wound up in the doctor’s office at 6 a.m. ’cause I couldn’t breathe.”
He learned tact and patience (although he did throw the talented and difficult journalist Tessa Neeley’s pink Chanel jacket out the window while she was in the ladies’), and he had great fun privately satirizing the characters of the Manhattan literary world (he’s a class A mimic). He returned to book editing at Henry Holt and Company, working with Anthony Shadid, whom he considers the finest foreign correspondent of the century, then went on to an even more prestigious post at Houghton Mifflin.
Then, in a “reorganization,” he got fired.
Freelancing alone in his apartment, he’d listen all day, wistful, as the elevator doors wheezed open, the postal carrier came and went, an opera singer practiced the scales… He was realizing just how much the banter and bitching of a work community had steadied him.
But he was also realizing how backward he’d gotten it, living in a city where, as he’d later write, it is normal to work 24/7, tapping away on your BlackBerry for someone who will fire you in an instant, but crazy to pause to help someone you love when they are falling.
Though she’d never admit it, Betty felt bad about his giving up his life in New York to take care of her. But Hodgman wanted to make the move. New York had meant brilliance, intensity, intimate working relationships with some of the era’s most creative minds. But it had also meant years of drug use and striving and therapy and stress and all that relentless keeping up. In Paris, he’d have a house to live in, a routine, and three regular, convivial mealtimes. He’d have company. He’d be—and this was both the summons and the fear—needed. Was he up to it? Could he, a 50-year-old man who’d never even tended a cactus, hold another adult’s life in his hands, monitor her health, ease her fretfulness and frustration?
He had to try.
Courtesy of George Hodgman
George with Betty a few years ago.
In New York, Hodgman had made only glancing references to his mother; Lippincott got the sense of Betty as a little crazy and all-powerful, inspiring “love and fear all wrapped up in one.” Now that power had shifted to her son, and with it came gusts of impatience and tenderness, doomed attempts to make her hew to a schedule or reform her with sensible shoes. His interactions with Betty were not of the patronizing kindergarten teacher variety so common to eldercare. They bore a closer resemblance to hostage negotiations.
Betty raged at her son for her own limitations because he knew her well enough to name them. Their roles switched back and forth at lightning speed, Hodgman tiptoeing to avoid intrusion, Betty wary of ceding control. One day, he wrote that she turns on the overhead light in my room, wrinkles her brow, and peers in like a camp counselor on an inspection tour, as if she suspects I might be entertaining someone who has paddled in from across the lake. She must keep an eye out. I am a schemer.
And he was scheming, still trying to find a place where she could go, when she was ready, and receive the right kind of care. But for now, he found himself absorbed into a 90-year-old woman’s life: So prevalent are references to bladders in my mother’s circle that I have come to think of them fondly, like a quirky, hard-to-control family who might soon be arriving for dinner.
He knew he couldn’t cure her cancer, restore her youth, or file her mind sharp again. But he could pay attention, be with her, devise treats that made her laugh or brought her comfort. When dealing with older women, a trip to a hairdresser and two Bloody Marys goes further than any prescription drug.
The dog helped, too: This woman who’d never been sure she could mother properly, who held babies gingerly because she was terrified she’d break them, who’d shown her love with actions but seldom with soft words…took to cuddling and doting. As the world she’d known faded, Raj was a reason to stay interested.
“There’s nothing worse than when they say, ‘Oh, I want to die,’” Hodgman blurts. “If I saw it coming, I would just look at her and say, ‘Don’t say it.’” What he could never be sure of was whether she actually wanted to die or just thought it was appropriate for her to want to die. Either way, her body wasn’t convinced. “As Redd Foxx says, there’s nothing harder to kill than an old white woman, and if you add Midwestern to that—there are some pretty strong ladies out there on the prairie. I think it’s just really like all the other feelings we have in life, mixed up in feeling all kinds of things at once. I wish I could die—but what if I wind up in Cleveland?”
I ask what he learned, in all those days he spent worrying about his mother’s sandals, moisturizing her skin, throwing her blanket in the dryer to warm it up when her feet were cold.
“What did I learn caretaking? That it was an extraordinary relief to be relieved of the great problem of me.”
The book began as jottings. Facebook posts. Outbursts typed on a card table in the living room. One day he made a list of “Things My Mother Does Not Do”: 1. Complain. 2. Dispose of almost anything, including years-old margarine tubs possibly hoarded for the dispersal of emergency rations. 3. Ignore a coupon. 4. Put anything away. 5. Allow me to talk “long distance” for more than three minutes without yelling in the background. 6. Give up without a fight.
Over months, the jottings coalesced into a book. And because for years he’d been editing the work of journalists such as Katherine Boo and Adrian LeBlanc, reporters who captured intimate details to lay bare social injustice, he looked around at the place that had formed him.
His great-grandmother had grown up on a farm: Think of wrinkled faces, mischievous eyes, hands in immaculate white gloves, wistfulness, innocence, worry over money, or crops, or sickness.
Her house turned into a meth lab, for a while—you can see the shingles stained from an explosion—and a man was murdered there.
Bit by bit, he captured the place and the people. Early morning in Missouri: fog billowing around the grain elevators, streets slick with ice, blue windows, big women in aprons behind the diner counter beating the hell out of egg yolks.
He’d come back a grownup, keeping no secrets. I am not exactly the black sheep of my family, but it is not like I am grazing in pastels. And so he became the de facto Dear Abby of anybody whose secrets shamed them. One day, a woman from his high school class stopped him to say she was stuck in a trailer with a son who thought he had a black woman living inside him.
“Well, tell him to let her out,” Hodgman replied.
As he recounts this, he looks impish but sad, too, and maybe just a little bit resentful. “I think people who have always felt OK in the world will never understand those of us who haven’t,” he says quietly.
Passionate about politics and cut off from his tribe, he went to neighbors’ houses for dinner and surreptitiously hid their Glenn Beck books. Ducking into a garage to deposit the latest ravings of Ann Coulter into a bag of aging peat moss lifts the spirit as unfailingly as a summer tent revival. But I am trying to behave.
Paris came to life in the book, bleak and solid and enduring and poignant. Against that backdrop, he set Betty, all flash and verve, and their relationship, and the secrets he’d never fully shared with her. The toughest revelations were the drugged-out years, screwing up at work as a result, embarking on relationships that cracked and broke, loving someone who didn’t love him back.
Betty told him his father could never even bring himself to mention his son’s homosexuality. That stung. Yet as the months went by, an ease came over them; Hodgman knew Betty knew, and love had outlasted the silence.
Bettyville is redeemed on every page by the indomitable Betty and her wickedly funny son, and you’re laughing in such perfect empathy that you forget he’s baring his soul. But for people who’ve adored the sarcastic, self-assured George Hodgman for years, the pain he revealed came as a jolt.
“We went to movies—Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, A Star Is Born—George waited months for A Star Is Born,” says Sokolosky. “We’d stop the car in the middle of the road and do the antler dance [from SNL]. We didn’t talk about the hard stuff. So to read the book felt like another planet.”
When friends from New York said, “I didn’t know how much Missouri meant to you,” he bit back a retort: “That’s because every time I brought up Missouri, you went totally blank!”
Meanwhile, back in Paris: “You see those ladies in the grocery store: ‘Ah liked your boo-ook’”—he gives it a twang—“and the woman she’s with will go”—his face freezes, a dead stare. “Or you’ll go a few feet past and then you’ll hear, ‘...well e-nough.’” His relatives were appalled by “all the sex” in the book (in other words, by Hodgman’s admission that he is gay). With j’accuse fervor, they exclaimed, “This was only supposed to be a book about your mother!”
Betty never read the book, but she heard parts when Hodgman did readings. “I thought, ‘If I read it to her in public, she won’t be able to freak out,’” he explains.
“She didn’t really say anything. She responded in a kind of Betty way, indirectly.” On the few occasions when she mentioned the book, she called it “Bettyland.”
Minor characters are thinly disguised, but Hodgman says nobody’s had the nerve to ask. “In New York, they’d say, ‘That’s me, isn’t it?’ Here, you have committed the ultimate intrusion, and they are afraid they are going to intrude on you!
“Of course, the great fantasy is that the people you loved the most who cast you aside are going to call you and say, ‘I was so wrong!’” he adds. “And what you get instead is, they call and say, ‘Can I have some money?’”
Memoir is so intensely personal, even the reactions of strangers can sting: “They will read the book, and if there’s something they dislike, they tend to link it so some sort of character deficit,” he says. “Well, the problem is, it’s supposed to be true.”
In rehab, an alcoholic priest once told him, You must always, always tell the truth. If you are mad, say so. If someone asks you anything, try to find the exact words to describe what you have to say. If you try to tell the exact truth, always, you will ground yourself, become yourself. The truth connects you. It hooks you back up.
When I read back the quote, he doesn’t crack a joke, just nods: “I believe the truth does hook you to yourself. But it takes so long to get in the habit of saying it out loud.” Now the crooked grin. “I like a bit of camouflage to spruce things up a bit!”
Toward the end, Betty took a dementia test, and Hodgman fully realized just how altered her perceptions were. All these months, he’d kept her supplied with Nicholas Sparks, so relieved that she had the pleasure of reading. Had she even been able to parse the sentences, or was she just pretending?
These, I fear, are her last days as herself.
One day Betty remarked, “I don’t care where I go, as long as they don’t stick me anywhere near Nixon.”
“She didn’t even know she was funny,” he tells me, shaking his head.
She remained Betty almost to the end. But in July 2015, she slipped into a twilight state, almost unconscious, for nine days.
“The little child inside you keeps thinking she’ll wake up,” Hodgman says.
Instead, on July 26, 2015, two months shy of her 93rd birthday, she died.
The moment he’d dreaded his entire life.
At first, he could barely feel it. “When somebody dies, it’s sort of arranged where you have too much to do.” There is no time to poke at the edges of that jagged new hole in your life.
I ask how fresh the grief feels now, whether it broadsides him or hides, ambushing when he’s least ready.
“I don’t know how most people grieve,” he says. “For me, it’s just like I’m riding in the car and she’s not there, in her place. It’s those moments every day or so. I don’t try to get past it. Addicts are usually people who’ve spent their entire life wanting to run away from bad feelings, and mine are always connected with loss. Only children are scared of loss. They’re scared of being left alone, scared of being the orphan.”
There’s something else. Psychologists talk about “a second stage” of grief, a yearning and a searching. I can sense that restlessness, watching Hodgman hunt for the house in North St. Louis where his grandfather grew up, the apartment in DeMun where his grandmother lived, a neighborhood where he could comfortably settle, the right material for his next book…
I ask whether he’s really going to move to St. Louis, or go back to New York, or stay in Paris. “I keep waiting for some adult to make the decision,” he quips. “See, it’s hard, because I don’t want to be in New York, but I don’t want to actually leave New York, because I don’t like loss and I don’t like leaving and I have a lot of people there I love who seem to take it as an insult. But I’m too sloppy to live in New York anymore.”
I raise an eyebrow. Granted, there’s a lacquer of melted ice cream on his sleeve. But is that really his criterion?
“A lot in New York is about style points,” he says. “Maybe here, too.”
A solemn nod. “To the people it matters to here, it may actually matter more.”
I'm waiting for him at Dressel’s when my phone buzzes. To cap off a series of minor catastrophes, the hotel has locked his keys in his car! He shows up in a taxi, looking frantic. The waiter asks about his bad day.
“Word has spread?”
“All over,” the waiter assures him. “Bums are talking about it.”
Hodgman lifts his palms—whaddya gonna do?—and orders an iced coffee, not milky. I watch as he pulls himself out of his mood, babbling happily about World’s Fair Donuts. “There is an old woman there with hair like Donald Trump’s mother, a kind of side sweep.”
The iced coffee appears. “It looks kind of milky,” I whisper.
“Yeah, but we’re just gonna let things ride.”
Hoping to cheer him up, I ask whether he likes the idea of Matthew Broderick playing him. “To be true to me, it should be someone who is much more of a sex symbol,” he deadpans. “I was thinking Ryan Gosling. But I’m much more worried about what the character is going to do than who is going to play him. In the screenplay, they had me mowing the lawn in my mother’s sunhat and singing ‘Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little’ from The Music Man. I thought I was going to have a relapse.”
The casting call that really interested him was for the woman who’d play Betty. “I knew from the get-go that it should be Shirley MacLaine. When I was in fourth grade, we went to New York. We stayed at the Hotel Dixie—there was a Shirley Temple drag queen show in the lobby—and outside there was one of those huge billboards, Shirley with her purse thrown over her shoulder as Sweet Charity. We went to the show, and for years, if something went wrong, I’d come home and throw my lunchbox on the table and say, ‘I’ve got to get out of the Fandango Dance Palace.’”
Now, he’s the star. All this unexpected furor over his poignant, funny, lyrically written book must be a rush?
“I’ve only been waiting 50 years to be interviewed. When I was 5, I was talking to Barbara Walters about my marital difficulties.”
What’s the best part?
He shrugs. “The older you get, you realize that the nicest thing about anything, in one way or another, is the people.” He waits a beat. “Of course, the worst thing is always the people.”
I ask whether he believes in fate. Was this the book he was destined to write?
“I believe, strangely enough, that sometimes you are kind of on story, or you are off story. Like maybe there was a planned narrative somewhere, but you could, quite frankly, f—k it up.” He gulps the last of the milky coffee. “And there were certainly a lot of years when I was off narrative.”
Now he’s back on track, but he’s not sure where the plot will take him next—what he’ll write, where he’ll live.
“My father used to say, ‘When you’re building a house, never skimp on the windows,’” Hodgman remarks. He loves windows, real or figurative. Listen awhile, and you realize that he sounds like he’s forever standing out on a wet lawn, peering in, watching other people’s lives unfold. Partly it’s a writer’s disease; partly it’s growing up gay in the Bible Belt. He has been vigilant for a very long time.
I ask whether he thinks the curse of the perpetual outsider can be broken.
“No, but you can reach the point where you don’t care,” he says carefully, positioning the words as though he’s gluing them in place. “Then you wouldn’t want the curse to be broken, because you know that’s who you are.”
Except, of course, that though nobody who knows him well sees him that way. He’s too aware, and he’s far too deft at the give-and-take of emotional intimacy. Hodgman can’t walk with his shoes tied, says Sokolosky, and God knows he can’t whisper, “but as a friend, he’s darn near perfect.”
Somebody that honest isn’t easy to be friends with, though, she adds. “He does not tolerate fakery,” she says, “and he does not tolerate thoughtlessness. It’s a great relief to be around him, but it doesn’t free you up to be stupid.”
Where he loses that clarity is in excesses of self-deprecation. In the book, for example, he presented himself as an unlikely guardian. A month ago I thought the Medicare doughnut hole was a breakfast special for seniors. Sokolosky wasn’t buying it. His heart’s always been soft, she says. “When he visits my mom, he shows up with a stack of books and some ice cream. He figures out what people need.”
Betsy Lerner met Hodgman when they were both eager young juniors at Simon & Schuster; she is now a partner at Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency, and as Hodgman’s agent, she’s come to know him, in his words, “too well.” What she finds most extraordinary is “how tender he is”—with people he loves, and with life itself. He inclines toward nostalgia, she says: “He has a great love of things that will be lost. Maybe it’s somewhat Midwestern, too. George is just able to slow things down and see things really carefully.”
After reading Bettyville, Alison Bechdel—famous for her own bittersweet memoir, Fun Home—wrote, “As George and his mother come to terms with one another at the end of her days, the book begins to shimmer with something much more rare than love: a boundless, transcendent, and simple kindness.”
It’s not confined to Betty: He pays attention in Paris, notices all the people quietly doing so many things that are hard. Rather than claim the trait, though, he writes of his gratitude: Kindness may be the most difficult of virtues, but when I have encountered it, it has meant everything to me.
“I’m in my dotage,” he tells me now. “I watch things like a serviceman being reunited with his dog.”
On cue, Raj looks up, and Hodgman goes over to give him one of his frequent, fervent hugs. Lightly, I ask whether Raj is a substitute for having a child.
“I guess he’s an everything substitute,” Hodgman says. “I seem to be missing every possible definable human relationship.”
Does he ever feel sad that he won’t have someone to give him the tender care he gave his mother?
“Nuh-uh. Well, not exactly in that way. I think about what’s going to happen to me, whether I’m going to be able to afford to be old. I kind of see myself shuffling around in a robe with a lot of books and some wild dogs that have taken over the house. I’ll let the dishes pile up and watch movies and just go quietly crazy.”
He's not selling the house in Paris—that much he’s decided. For now, it’s still Betty’s house. Her stoppered glass perfume bottles still sit on a tray in the powder room; china plates carry the pink roses she loved; there are stalky bouquets of her antique hatpins. The little Chinese ceramic figures are meant to sit with their legs over a shelf’s edge, but he’s tilted them back: “I feel like they are too vulnerable.” Slowly, he’s prying pictures she didn’t care about out of lavish frames and replacing them with his photos of Venice, of Raj, of Betty herself, with her wide-set eyes and high cheekbones.
“When you are sort of alone, you need more to be in a place where you feel totally rooted,” he says. “I seem to be trying to ignite some kind of domestic existence.” He sounds surprised. “I’m trying to cook. I think I have three or four recipes now. Almost all of them involve small packets of prepared things that I think are carcinogens. I make a Mississippi roast—you put French’s gravy and ranch dressing in.”
I smile, thinking of Lippincott’s comment: “An entirely new life has opened up for him in Missouri, and it’s better and richer and healthier. In Bettyville, he revealed so much about his own life. He faced those fears, and now he doesn’t have to lie to anyone. Not that he ever lied, but we all hold things in. Now he is fully himself.”
He’s started his next book, but he made the mistake of showing it to someone. “They didn’t like it,” he says. “It’s not funny, not yet at least.” When Westport, Connecticut, did a community read, he saw again why people love Bettyville. But he can’t write that book again. He’s ready to move on, but the future’s inchoate.
After his mother’s death, Hodgman asked a psychic whether Betty liked the lavish sprays of pink roses he’d ordered for her funeral. “They were too expensive,” came the answer. But she did like that he buried her with her indispensable purse, stuffed with tissues, eyedrops, a pair of glasses—and a copy of Bettyville. She’s happy about the warm response to the book, the psychic assured him: “The unhappiness you always sensed was that she felt like she really had not done much, and now she feels like she has accomplished this for people.”
We talk about happiness and how a friend of his has set out, at midlife, on a quest to find it. “Well, good luck,” Hodgman says. “I mean, you get to be happy for, like, 10 minutes.” He pauses. “Although I have to say, I’m pretty happy right now. I think I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been, in a lot of ways.”