CARPINTERIA, California – The last time Barnaby Conrad saw Sinclair Lewis, three years after he served as Lewis’ personal secretary, they were at a bar in Paris and, by Conrad’s account, Lewis was thoroughly drunk.
But not so drunk that he couldn’t chastise his former secretary for failing to execute a book idea that Lewis had handed him one morning at breakfast: a novel based on the conceit that John Wilkes Booth had escaped capture after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln and had embarked on a secret life in the American frontier.
“You are never going to be a writer unless you write that book,” declared Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Elmer Gantry” and “Babbitt,” as Conrad recounted the moment recently.
Talk about pressure.
“It was always on my mind,” he said.
That was 1950, shortly before Lewis’ death. And now, 60 years later – this must set a record for late authors – Conrad has published “The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth.”
The novel follows the arc of the story Lewis sketched out: from Booth’s escape from the barn where history has him cornered and killed by Union soldiers, to a frontier town where, after being goaded into playing Lincoln at a county pageant, he was assassinated by a drunken fellow Lincoln hater.
The conversation in the bar was no idle talk. Lewis and Conrad had signed a contract dated Aug. 7, 1947, stipulating that upon publication Lewis would collect 30 percent of the earnings.
It seems safe to say that Lewis’ warning was not borne out. “The Second Life” is Conrad’s 35th book, part of a variegated career of writing, painting, sculpture and bullfighting. (That ended at 36 when he was gored in Spain and almost died.)
And, not incidentally, Conrad spent 10 years as the proprietor of one of the great celebrity hangouts in San Francisco – El Matador, named after his 1952 book, “Matador,” his single best-seller.
When asked what took him so long to finish, Conrad nearly bounded from his chair.
“What took me so long to start it!” he shot back, correctly, eyebrows arching.
When Lewis hired him to work at his home in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Conrad was 25, struggling with his first book, about an affair with his housekeeper in Spain (don’t worry if you missed it) and thrilled to land an assignment with such an acclaimed writer.
“I had to drive him around, and I had to have three meals a day with him,” said Conrad, an intellectually spry 88, settling back in his chair on a warm day of crystalline beauty in this community south of Santa Barbara. “He could be pretty irascible. But he was a character.”
His service to Lewis lasted five months. Lewis fired Conrad and left for Europe, taking as his escort (in Conrad’s telling) the young woman that Conrad thought he had been dating.
Conrad wasn’t entirely smitten with the Booth idea. Even the Paris run-in couldn’t get him going.
What moved him was his son, Barnaby Conrad III, a writer and magazine editor who in 2009 had joined Council Oak Books and was hunting for new acquisitions; a year later, 59 years after Lewis died, he signed his father for an advance of $5,000.
“I basically lit a fire under him again,” the younger Conrad said.
As a rule family members probably should avoid editor-writer collaborations – the writer-editor relationship is fraught enough as it is – but the son did some fairly hands-on editing to help achieve this difficult birth.
“I’m more into the highbrow intellectual style,” said the younger Conrad. “Dad is more into being the tale teller. So he’s fun to work with. You’d think he’d be, ‘Hey don’t tell me what to do.’ But no.”
Lincoln’s assassination has been the subject of as many conspiracy theories as John F. Kennedy’s; in December descendants of Booth said they wanted the body in his grave exhumed to determine if it was genuine.
Despite having written “The Second Life,” Conrad is not among the skeptics.
“No, no,” he said when asked if he thought Booth had escaped. “People love to think that.”
He does subscribe to another theory: that the assassination was a conspiracy hatched by Edwin M. Stanton, who was Lincoln’s secretary of war.
His home here – a beach cabin that he and his wife, Mary, built 45 years ago and that has been extended into a ramble of rooms and studios – attests to the sheer diversity of his pursuits.
The walls are heavy with paintings by Conrad: a languorous one of Mary hangs in the dining room, and a stern and intimidating portrait of Lewis is in the living room.
There are the framed telegrams from John Huston and Jose Ferrer proposing to turn “Matador” into a movie, which never happened.
There are photographs of the bullfight where Conrad was gored.
There are also telegrams from another writer and bullfight enthusiast, Ernest Hemingway, with some passing criticism of Conrad, reflecting a rivalry between two men who never met.
And there is the doormat from El Matador. For all his books Conrad has been feasting on those years as a celebrity rustler – playing piano with Merv Griffin, vacationing with John Steinbeck or throwing back drinks with Jack Kerouac – since the day he sold the club in 1962; he not surprisingly wrote a book about it. In the course of an interview he offered an affectionately lisping imitation of Truman Capote and the gravelly drawl of John Wayne, who also wanted a piece of “Matador.”
“He called me up and said, ‘Hey, pilgrim, I want to make that book,”’ Conrad said. “And I said, ‘Who is going to play the main part?’ There was a pause and he said, ‘Who do I see in the main part?”’
Conrad laughed at his blown opportunity. “He was 55 years old and paunchy!”
Approaching 90, he has no intention of slowing down. He still writes in longhand, doesn’t own a computer and neither knows nor seems to care how the Booth book is selling.
Just as well: On the day of the interview his Amazon ranking stood at 559,985.
But no matter. He is on to book No. 36; the subject is his time with Sinclair Lewis. And more than anything, he is glad this 60-year-old writing assignment has been completed.
“I feel relieved,” he said.