Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Last summer, Gerri Jones called to tell me that Cornell Professor at Large John Cleese would be coming to Ithaca in September for a week. She told me that she had scheduled me for a public talk with Cleese on September 11th at Bailey Hall that would become the last chapter of the book we were working on together.

Since joining this amazing Press in 2015, moments like this seemed to occur with some regularity. I attended a poetry workshop at Olin Library café with a former leader of the SDS at Cornell, a Nobel Laureate and an A.R. Ammons biographer. Today, I am surrounded by correspondence rejecting Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in verse and a ledger that holds the 1939 pencil-written royalty entries for the publication of The Nature of the Chemical Bond. I am also keenly aware at times of Cornell founder Henry Sage and his wife Susan who initially occupied the mansion where I work. Gerri Jones fit right in as part of an emerging entourage.

A small family of deer mingled outside my window looking in my direction as if waiting for an answer. Surely someone else would want the opportunity to have this conversation. Gerri confirmed that she had cleared it with the Provost’s office, and that the Provost would be introducing us both. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen.

cleese cover

More than one year after that call and the event that formed the final chapter of Professor at Large: The Cornell Years, Gerri Jones passed away on August 10th, 2018. She was 68. She died from an infection in the hospital while being treated for leukemia.

This mystical and extraordinary woman who first alighted upon the second-floor landing of the Sage House during a folk concert never got to see her book get published. It was Gerri who brought one of the world’s most impressive and hilarious minds to Cornell over a span of seventeen years.

“Start thinking about a plan for the conversation,” she instructed me.

 

As it always was with Gerri, I knew what she meant. Avoid the cliched version of the Professor. Don’t spend a lot of time on Python—which I already knew anyway. If my words didn’t energize Gerri—she became bored and disinterested. She’d make a face. You had to elevate your game to be on the field with her. Those words reverberated in the weeks after the call. I dove into the Cleese canon of books, movies, and television shows. His mind came first. I read the manuscript of lectures and talks over and over.

While studying the Minister of Silly Walks, I recalled Gerri’s return to Sage House after the folk concert wearing knee-length boots and John Lennon shades. She carried a white shopping bag of Cleese talks and lectures on CDs. She told us about the never before published lecture entitled “The Sermon at Sage Chapel” that included a passage about “The Psychopaths for Christ.”

I received word of her passing and attended her funeral. She was supposed to be in remission now.

Through her friends, I came to discover that this whole episode was another glorious chapter in the amazing life of Gerri Jones. She could tilt the universe in any direction. She brought the Dalai Lama to Ithaca twice as the house mother to the Tibetan monks. She carried Kurt Cobain’s ashes back to Courtney Love after the monks had prepared them. She had even used one set as a door stop. She broke Reagan’s blockade of Nicaragua. She was the pride of Central Islip High on Long Island. To everyone there, she was simply “Ger.”

She loved Mardi Gras, dogs and Professor Cleese fiercely. They trusted each other and their chemistry was telepathic. She engineered a schedule that both challenged and protected him and left him with enough space to be creative. “I can’t read him,” he told Gerri during our second meeting after trying to discern the meaning of my facial expression. I can tell you that in that moment I felt absolute joy. My preparation for the talk had been rigorous and thorough. Professor Cleese had been talking about the brain and I leaned back in my chair and smiled. Yes, I had a little secret. I had known exactly what he was going to say before the words came out but I didn’t want to tell him that in the aftermath. Getting to know John Cleese is like learning how to play guitar. The chord structures are accessible, but they merely serve as a launch pad into an endless galaxy of improvisation.

I was ready for the public conversation and had enough confidence in his presence to suggest how the show was going to begin. After nearly falling off the chair with laughter, he agreed. Until now, Gerri was the only one I told this to in the hallway after we left Cleese that day. She and I have other secrets related to the book. Those we will keep. She swore me to it.

“We make a good team, don’t we?” She pinched my arm.

GERRI
Photo courtesy of Slade Kennedy.

 

About the author of this blog post: Dean Smith is the Director of Cornell University Press.

Gerri Jones, Professor Cleese, and Me

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

Escher-good.jpg
Mapping the directions of John Cleese’s Escher-like mind. Drawing by Julia Smith.

By Dean Smith

In the fall of 2015, Cornell University Press hosted a folk concert in our offices at Sage House with author and Cornell history professor Richard Polenberg to celebrate Hear My Sad Story, his new book about the true stories of folk songs like “Casey Jones,” “Stagger Lee,” and “John Henry.” Sixty people showed up for the free event. Folk music enthusiasts jammed the foyer and sat knee-to-knee on the staircase all the way to the second floor. Polenberg played four songs on his acoustic guitar and the crowd sang along with him—a magical Ithaca moment—as the sunlight shafted in from all sides after a cold rain.

After the concert, I noticed three women at the top of the second-floor steps. We’d roped off access to the offices on the second and third floors. I asked if they wanted a tour of what had been Cornell benefactor Henry Sage’s mansion and the university infirmary for most of the twentieth century. I showed them our carved oak bats and owls, stained glass windows, and fireplace tile sequences featuring fairy tales such as Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin. Our managing editor’s fireplace is adorned with Arthurian characters such as Lady Guinevere and Sir Lancelot.

At the end of the tour, one of the women, Gerri Jones, told me that Professor John Cleese would like a place like this. At first, I didn’t think I heard her right. Continue reading “Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book”

Something Completely Different: Working with John Cleese on a Public Talk and a New Book

Director’s Cut: It’s a Wonderful Life of Books

cornell-guideI stopped into The Bookery on Tuesday after lunch at The Moosewood Café a few blocks down from our offices at The Sage House here in Ithaca. I discovered a book on Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud for $1.00 that I pulled from the discount rack. It referenced a friend of mine from my days in New York City. Ben Edwards lived in Chelsea and was a Broadway set designer. With his hickory-tinged Alabama accent, Ben would hold court over martinis with hints of ice skimming the surface in his brownstone telling stories about Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan and Gielgud.

I noticed another book as I reached for my wallet. On the table was the “Guide to the Campus of Cornell University” published in 1920. The Cornell Press was on hiatus at the time, reopening in 1933. The trim size and feel of the book resembles our recent title, “The Inauguration of Elizabeth Garrett.” The “Guide” was advertised for fifty cents during its time. In 2015, the price had risen to $15.00. I gladly paid it.

The book contains many entertaining passages about the town and the university. We learn that it took seven hours to reach Ithaca by train from New York City in 1920 in the section entitled, “General Directions for a Stranger.” During the winter an “automobile omnibus plies daily from Elmira to Ithaca.”

There’s a section on “The Infirmary.” The Sage House was once an infirmary that contained “rooms, offices, and rooms for convalescent cases.” There were 75 beds in the house and “the number can be doubled in an emergency.” This is good to know for expansion possibilities.

In the “Biographies” section, Henry Williams Sage receives more than a page of copy for his contributions to Cornell. At the inauguration of the university in 1868 with tears in his eyes he told John McGraw, “We are scoundrels to stand doing nothing while those men are killing themselves to establish this university.”

It’s Christmas Eve 2015, and the Sage House is bustling with activity. It feels like seventy degrees outside. Our editor Roger Haydon is busily preparing manuscripts that will bring accolades to the university in areas that Cornell is known for and others that it is not. Mahinder Kingra is plying metadata as though he is wrapping gold chocolate coins to stuff in stockings. Ange Romeo Hall is readying her desk for another 50 or more titles to be published this Spring. Betty Kim is waiting for me to finish writing this.

In today’s volatile publishing industry, these folks and many others are striving to ensure the long-term survival of the Press. It’s an honor to work with them.

Please support your university press and have a tremendous 2016 filled with exciting literary discoveries.

—Dean Smith, Director

Director’s Cut: It’s a Wonderful Life of Books

Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band

Never Forget the Voices by Dean J. Smith, Director, Cornell University Press

As I read Dr. Susan Ball’s memoir, Voices in the Band, about working in the trenches of the AIDS crisis, I remembered the searing lines from Henri Cole’s poem “Paper Dolls” that was published in The New Yorker in 1995: “Straight as candles/His legs exposed/The eroding candelabrum/That was his body.”

Ball’s account brings back the patients she cared for in all of their tragic beauty. You accompany her on daily rounds and inside the group therapy sessions where doctors were trying any technique possible to deal with a deadly contagion that had become a national health crisis. You learn that many hospitals and doctors didn’t want to deal with these patients. She arrived to find the shoddy work of medical residents who were afraid to touch them.

On some days, she’d had enough:  Continue reading “Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band”

Director’s Cut: Voices in the Band