This month’s West Village Original is journalist, author, and WestView contributor James Lincoln Collier, born in New York City in 1928. While probably best known these days for his still-successful children’s novels, Collier sees himself primarily as a humorist and has published many articles in that genre. A resident of Barrow Street for the past forty years, Collier is also an accomplished jazz musician who plays the trombone professionally.
“I come from a family of writers,” says James Lincoln Collier. “My father was a writer and an editor, mostly of pulp westerns. He came from an old New England family but he ran away and ended up working as a cowboy on cattle ranches out West. Henry David Thoreau had been in love with his grandmother, Ellen Sewell, so there was a kind of literary way of thinking in the family because of that connection. In addition, my uncle and e.e. cummings became very close friends when they met in Europe during World War I while in the Ambulance Corps. Hart Crane was also very close to my family. In 1925 my parents bought a summer cottage in Pawling—which I now own—and all of those literary people used to go up and have parties and drink a great deal.”
One would think that with such a pedigree, Collier would have naturally taken up writing himself. But it took him a while to decide on that as a career. “I wasn’t drawn to it particularly,” he admits. “I think in a way I had seen too much of it. There were always writers around the house and none of them ever had any money. And they were never a particularly cheerful bunch. It was only when I was leaving the army and finally starting my life that I thought to myself ‘now what?’”
That’s when it came to Collier that he was, indeed, going to write. “I didn’t look forward to that career with great joy, but it just seemed I was fated to do so,” he says. “So I tried to make a go of it. I got a job, got married, had kids, and all the time I was writing. After a while I realized I could do it, so I quit my day job and started freelancing. By that time, I was really cranking out the magazine articles at a great rate. For 25 years I guess I was one of the busiest magazines writers in the country. I did all right and supported my family quite well.”
For Collier, what turned out to be the best part of writing for magazines was the research. “If you’re going to do a proper job as a writer, you’ve got to do the research,” he says. “You can’t fake it. I was always careful to make sure I had done my homework. In those days magazines had the money to send their writers around so I was traveling a lot as well. I interviewed all the top people in their fields as a result and ended up learning a great deal. That part of it was really very interesting.”
When asked how the Village has changed in the course of his lifetime, Collier is quick to reply. “It’s very simple. It used to be cheap!” he says, laughing. “Back in the 50s you could get apartments for $25 a month. These were small apartments, mind you, but cheap rents meant that the Village housed the kind of people who were drawn here because of its reputation as a haunt for artists and writers. Then the rents all began to go up in the late 80’s and people like that had to move out.” Now he feels the landlords are running everything. “There’s never been any sense that the Village had a certain tradition or ambiance to be maintained,” he says. “The real estate people are just looking for the biggest buck they can get and nowadays the person who can afford that isn’t the guy sitting home writing his novel.”
Nevertheless, Collier says he still feels at home here. “I feel this is a natural, comfortable place for me to be,” he says. “My dad and mother lived on Waverly Place for a while, and my uncle and aunt were also in the Village. My boys grew up here. So the family has had someone in the Village for about 100 years. Physically it still looks almost the same as it always has and I think I’ll probably stay here. But I’ll be glad when Chumley’s opens again!”