Character Sketch

So who was this John Bellairs guy, anyway? For years all we knew was that he was chiefly known as the author of a number of supernatural mystery novels and that he was born in Michigan. Occasionally there might something said about his past, such as his graduation from Notre Dame or the University of Chicago or that he taught at a few colleges here and there. This character sketch of sorts was inspired by and references a 1985 article entitled John Bellairs’ Favorites that appeared in the Haverhill Gazette. We’ve expanded on their premise with the addition of some more biographical information.
  • Name: John Anthony Bellairs.
  • Birthplace: Marshall, Michigan.
  • Occupation: College English instructor; Full-time children's author.
  • Education: University of Notre Dame, University of Chicago.
  • Politics: Democrat.
  • Religion: None.
  • Favorite restaurant: Locally, Friendly's on upper Main Street. Outside the area, I prefer Vin Wood's Eagle House in Roawley.
  • Favorite food: Fried clams.
  • Favorite beverage: A good imported beer.
  • Favorite car: Honda Civic.
  • Favorite Form of Relaxation: Taking long walks around Haverhill and listening to classical music.
  • Favorite entertainment: Watching old movies on my VCR.
  • Favorite entertainer: Luciano Pavarotti.
  • Favorite music: Classical.
  • Favorite song: La donna e mobile from the opera Rigoletto.
  • Favorite film: The Lady Killers.
  • Favorite actress: Joan Collins.
  • Favorite actor: Alec Guinness.
  • Favorite Televsion show: The A Team.
  • Favorite book: Bleak House by Charles Dickens. It's being serialized now on Masterpiece Theater.
  • Favorite quote: "Depend upon it, sir. When a man's to be hanged in half an hour, he concentrates his mind wonderfully." -- Samuel Johnson.
  • Pet peeve: Massachusetts drivers. They leap at you from all directions.
  • Favorite hobby: Studying architecture and collecting children's drawings.
  • Favorite sport: Baseball.
  • Favorite vacation: A trip to London. I've been there six times and continue to admire the churches, museums and old-fashioned pubs.
  • Favorite pet: Cat.
  • Proudest accomplishment: Writing nine children's books which have done well on the open market. The latest is The Revenge of the Wizard's Ghost, published in November.

Artwork


Myers says that even though Bellairs' handwriting was lousy, he made up for it by being a wonderfully witty doodler. "He had a real talent for cartooning, and had he so chosen, I think he could have made something out of it by attending art school. However, such an idea was never even remotely on his personal radar screen. In all my years of knowing John, I never knew him to do anything so ambitious with his cartooning talent. His 'Mariner' drawings definitely reflect the influence of another untrained artist, James Thurber."

Oddly enough, Myers confirms Bellairs was a big time Edward Gorey fan during his college years. Even though Gorey would go on to illustrate twelve of John's books across eighteen years and they both resided in Massachusetts, we’re told the two never met.

Some of John’s cartoonish creations, such as Louis XI, were included in autographed book dedications and in letters.

 

Awards/Honors


Scholastic honors:
  • Woodrow Wilson fellowship (1959)
  • Wilson Special Grant (1960)
  • La Verne Noyes Fellowship (1960)

Literary honors:

  • See list of awards.

 

Autographs


Samples of John's autographs as seen in hand-written book dedications and correspondence with friends and fans.

 

Career


  • University of Indiana Northwest, Gary Indiana
    • Part-time instructor of English, 1961-63
  • College of St. Teresa, Winona, Minnesota
    • Instructor of English, 1963-65
  • Shimer College, Mount Carroll, Illinois
    • Member of humanities faculty, 1966-67
  • Emmanuel College, Boston, Massachusetts
    • Instructor in English, 1968-69
  • Merrimack College, North Andover, Massachusetts
    • Instructor of English, 1969-71

 

Education


  • Marshall High School, class of 1955
  • University of Notre Dame, A.B., 1959
  • University of Chicago, M.A., 1960

 

Fears


Like everyone else, John had his share of fears and anxieties that pestered him throughout his life. Many of these formulated in his youth and stayed with him through his adult years, though he was able to poke fun of his own phobis by writing about them in his letters and eventually his books. Some of the fears John harbored as an adult included:
  • Being afraid of getting cut by rusty nails or pop-tops from soda cans and the resulting tetanus or lockjaw that surely must follow.
  • Being poisoned by spoiled mayonnaise that had been left out of the refrigerator for more than five minutes. We're told this trait was drilled into him by his mom, but the concern was probably based on fact - mayonnaise in those days really was made from eggs and people got ill from potato salad left out in the sun at picnics.
  • Sleeping in strange beds because they might have bed bugs.
  • Choking on the bones of fish, thereby refusing to ever eat it.
  • Driving on highways and being terrified of semi's tailgating him.
  • A fear of flying, which made for extended travels to England, especially during his six-month stay in 1967. In a 1990 interview, Bellairs said he finally overcame it in 1975 "and then familiarity breeds contempt. In fact, my son and I flew in the summer of 1986 in the midst of terrorism scares and when all the hotels were empty and there were no lines anywhere and had a lovely time. So the fear is really irrational."
Thusly some of the above fears (plus others) were revealed in his novels, most notably through his young protagonists:
  • Lewis, while snooping on his uncle, steps on the protruding head of a nail; it is noted he has a fear of tetanus [The House with a Clock in its Walls, 28].
  • Aggie Sipes tells Rose Rita about the things she was worried about: "like rabies and tetanus and electrical shock and mayonnaise that had been left out of the icebox too long" [The Letter, the Witch and the Ring, 110].
  • After breaking his arm after being chased by a dog, Anthony had a fear of dogs [The Dark Secret of Weatherend, 12].
  • Sir Bertram Crabtree-Gore, first seen in The Pedant and the Shuffly, was slated to return to print in the short story, The Paranoid Sunglasses. In it, Sir Bertram wears vomit-colored sunglasses that revealed and ridiculed that character's paranoid peculiarities about leaving mayonnaise out in the sun, getting tetanus from rusty nails, and more.

 

Film


Myers says it was no surprise that John picked Alec Guinness as his favorite actor as he and Bellairs often visited South Bend area theatres for Guinness’ latest picture, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Horse's Mouth, and their all-time favorite, The Lady Killers.

"I was gratified to find that Joan Collins was his favorite actress, though I would have bet Sophia Loren would have been a close second." John’s remembrances of Collins in Land of the Pharaohs and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing – possibly the first movie Bellairs and Myers attended together off-campus – may have provided some influence for his later character of Saint Floradora.

 

Handwriting


Bellairs was left-handed and held his pen or pencil with the thumb and all four fingers wrapped around it in “a torturous manner,” recalls Myers, who goes on to say John’s handwriting was “atrocious.”

Keturah Haab, a classmate of John’s at Marshall High School, remembers their eleventh grade history teacher, Henry Cunningham, saying to John, "You must learn to type, because no one will ever be able to read your writing." And John did learn to type: most of his work – be it in college assignments or writing his books – was completed on the same portable typewriter that he used throughout his life.

Myers says that John wrote him during his time in the Navy. “For some reason he had written his letter out by hand instead of typing. The guy next to me glanced over my shoulder and asked, 'Let me guess, six years old?' I had the pleasure of replying, 'Nope. A doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago!' Just one more aspect of his quirky character!"

It’s possible John was somewhat sensitive to comments about his less-than-perfect handwriting, as Professor Childermass confesses he hates people that comment on how bad his handwriting is [The Spell of the Sorcerer's Skull; 8].

Samples of John's handwriting as seen in autographed book dedications and letters.

 

Pets


John says in the 1985 article that his favorite type of pet is a cat. Other than that, all we know is that after he was divorced he and his son lived in Haverhill with their cat, Edna.

 

Politics


Bellairs described his political affiliation as Democrat [Something About the Author, 1971] although growing up in Marshall he may have considered himself to be a Republican, perhaps atypical for Catholics of that era, notes Myers.

"I get the idea that this was planted in his family by his grandfather, though I'm not sure. In any event, John had a particular dislike of the then-reigning governor of Michigan, G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams (1949-1960), though I'm not sure exactly why."

Despite the predominant Republican tilt of the Notre Dame student body, Myers says that Bellairs switched to liberal Democratic side early on at college. "He had all the usual attitudes that that implies: reverence for Adlai Stevenson, fervent support for civil rights, loathing for McCarthy, Nixon, John Foster Dulles, J. Edgar Hoover, and so on. I particularly remember his fondness for Frank O'Malley's wisecrack when Richard Nixon visited the campus in the fall of 1956. O'Malley released his class that afternoon so they could see Nixon with the remark that, 'It's not every day that the Beast of the Apocalypse comes to the campus.'"

Bellairs' enthusiasm for Democratic politics peaked with the election of John F. Kennedy but, like most Democrats at the time, harbored a subliminal resentment of Johnson and his ascendancy after the assassination. "Nevertheless he fervently supported LBJ in 1964 and loathed Goldwater. His 'Ramses the Second' cartoon that he sent to my mother that year was a satire on Goldwater. However Bellairs' anti-war fervor solidified fairly early in the Vietnam period and by 1968 he was solidly in the 'Dump Johnson' camp." Myers says that Bellairs mentioned once that if Johnson hadn't dropped out of the race gotten and was re-nominated, he would have had to vote for him in the general election. Naturally not the street demonstration type, Bellairs wrote to the Fitschens in June 1968 saying that attended a Eugene McCarthy rally where Alan Arkin read from Catch 22.

Another politician Bellairs was not enthusiastic about was Hubert Humphrey, who spoke at a commencement ceremony at the College of St. Teresa when Bellairs taught there. Later, Myers recalls Bellairs' amusement over a 'Dump the Hump' sign at a rally.

"Strangely, I don't remember any specific attitude he had about Robert Kennedy, though we to some extent regarded the Kennedys as a unified entity in that era. However, John could do a hilarious, spot-on imitation of Bobby's speaking style, capturing perfectly his Boston accent."

Myers says that Bellairs' dislike of Nixon strengthened after the election of 1969. After that, Bellairs and Myers did not see each other often and can only assume Bellairs continued to vote Democratic, if at all. "He once mentioned that the Democrats and their candidates made no impression on him at all. In general, his enthusiasm for politics had waned and had hardened into cynicism."

 

Reading


John Bellairs acquired his reading habits, as we all do, in his youth with his love for literature and history originating from books originally belonging to one of his grandfathers. Bellairs told Edward Recchia that his books feature a number of elderly, eccentric characters befriending the young heroes "because my grandfather was very close to me when I was little; he taught me to read and was a model of kindness and friendship that inspires me even now" [You Can Take the Boy out of Michigan, But..., 1987].

Myers describes John as "a slow but very retentive reader" who as a teenager read a lot of science fiction, with Ray Bradbury being a particular favorite. Bellairs even assigned Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles to one of his classes at the all-girls college in Winona. Myers also thinks Bellairs came to Notre Dame already a H.P. Lovecraft fan.

Robert Yaple, a fellow student from John's Chicago days in the early 1960s, recalls John saying he wanted the following inscribed on his tombstone:

John Anthony Bellairs
He read most of the books that were worth reading
and all of those that weren't."

Yaple also recounts some stories of John's love of not just reading but collecting books, especially when visiting the many second-hand book stores in Chicago’s Hyde Park – O’Gara’s in particular – and the time Yaple, Bellairs, and Bernard Markwell unearthed a large cardboard carton of books shoved under the shelves:

Joseph O'Gara had the most desirable books -- but they were also the most expensive. O'Gara told us these were books he was discarding as unsaleable and invited us to take any we fancied. Now, "free" and "books" were the sweetest words in the English language to us, and we descended upon that box like the 4th Crusade upon Byzantium. I walked off with a 3-volume set of The Correspondence and Diaries of...John Wilson Croker (London, 1884). And John went into raptures over Fighting the Devil's Triple Demons (which, as I recall, were alcohol, narcotics, and Catholicism). As we left in triumph, I noticed O'Gara regarding us somewhat askance. Sure enough, the following day the box was empty, and the books that even we hadn't taken were up on his shelves for sale.

John spent more on books (not to mention booze and tobacco) than most of the rest of us, and he was often in financial straits. One year, around the Ides of March, his check for something reasonably important (like tuition or taxes) was about to bounce, so he went to a finance company and took out a personal loan. Unfortunately, just down the street from the loan office was a bookstore. Inevitably, he walked out of that store with a load of books, but broke again. His friends passed the hat and bailed him out. And since it had thus become a matter of honor, not just money, he put himself on a strict budget (temporarily) and paid it all back promptly.

John read Shakespeare, as any literature major would have, and liked J.R.R. Tolkien "very much." In a 1983 autobiographical sketch, Bellairs confessed to "read[ing] and re-read[ing] Dickens, Henry James, history by C.V. Wedgwood and Garrett Mattingly, and the ghost stories of M.R. James" [Fifth Book of Junior Authors, 1983].

When asked if he liked the Stephen King brand of horror, Bellairs said no, replying that, "some people think horror is to be grossed-out by these really disgusting things. But for me, horror is suggestion and what might happen and the old-fashioned haunted house movies" [Author's Imagination Stuck at 10, 1990].

Of M.R. James, from whose ghost stories Bellairs occasionally borrowed motifs to work into his own fiction, Bellairs said that he agreed "that spooky tales are most effective when the ghastly things happen to people who are going about their business in an ordinary" [Locus, 1991].

Other favorites include James Thurber, who Myers believes was one another of Bellairs' absolute favorite authors, "which is not a bad choice at all." Another favorite was Will Cuppy's marvelous sendup of European history, 1066 And All That.

For all his young-adult writing, Bellairs said in 1990 that he was not a big children's book reader [Author's Imagination Stuck at 10, 1990].

Bellairs probably did not care much for the work of author Saul Bellow, if only that this legendary Chicago-based writer snubbed The Pedant and the Shuffly back in 1968. It was reported by a few of John's friends that Bellow entered Staver's Bookstore in Chicago during an autographing session, picked up a copy, riffed through it and gave it a derogatory snort before moving on.

However the author Bellairs disliked the most was John Updike. Gerald Kadish says that Bellairs once gave him a walking tour of Newburyport, New Hampshire, a "very well-informed tour about specific houses and John was negative only about John Updike's house; John loathed John Updike, both the man and his writing."

 

Television


John apparently had a varied range of television viewing: besides "The A-Team," John admits to watching a serialized version of DickensBleak House.

"I have to come up with a big zero on the subject of John's favorite television programs," says Myers. "During our college years neither one of us watched much TV at all on a regular basis. In those pre-transistor and pre-chip days, television sets were too big, bulky, and expensive to lug around to a college dorm. Although the Notre Dame residence halls and the International House in Chicago all had television lounges, we would only bother with them for special programs - such as Oscar Night."