Friday, September 14, 2012

James Harold Flye

It was one of those notices left on the bulletin board in the old lobby of the General Theological Seminary.  A lot of notices tended to get left there; most of them would be ignored even though they invited people to such scintillating events as the Anglo-Catholic Reading Society's cracker and apple cider social, the Gay Hispanic Womyn's self-defense class, or the latest menu from the Cuban-Chinese diner across the street.

It said simply "Retired Priest Needs Help: The Rev. James Harold Flye, retired priest-associate of St. Luke's, Hudson St., would like someone to read the Office of Evening Prayer with him three nights a week."  Father Flye was not someone known to the General Seminary population, not even the faculty, probably because he had graduated nearly seventy years before.  He had been retired, I learned from the Episcopal Clergy Directory [it used to be called "the stud book"] officially since 1954.  As that was twenty-nine years before the notice was posted, he had become just another retiree in the vast sea of Episcopal clergy in Manhattan in those still relatively-affordable years.

But I knew his name, mainly because I was a student of American literature, although Flye's connection to it was through a writer who had been all but forgotten, too.  I took the notice, called the number, spoke with Father Flye's nurse [he was, after all, 99-years-old], and made arrangements to meet with him.

Although I haven't been to that section of Hudson St. in over twenty years, there used to be, and may still be, three rather handsome townhouses that were owned by the parish of St. Luke's.  Flye's residence was in one of them.  He was, as I came to discover, mostly blind and partially deaf; could no longer walk, but was always nattily dressed in a black suit and clergy collar, very much the representation of the men of his time in the Episcopal Church.

We would read the evening office together with me serving as officiant and lector and Fr. Flye joining in on the responses.  He no longer needed to consult a prayer book, knew what the scripture readings were to be, and had all 150 of the psalms memorized.  As flawed as was his body, his mind was sharper, without question, than mine could ever hope to be.

One evening, as we would begin around 5:30pm and conclude no later than 6, he had me stay a little longer to talk about parish ministry and how it had changed.  He told hilarious stories of life as a curate and, later, rector of some parishes in the South, including St. Stephen's in Milledgeville, Georgia, which was notorious as having served as a stable for General Sherman's horses during the Civil War.  Union soldiers had even gone so far as to pour molasses into the organ pipes.

"Some people in this world," said Flye, "are just plain cussed."  [Yankees should understand that's a two syllable word, as in "cuss-sed".]

I put off my major question about his past, though, for some weeks, as I didn't want to seem like another lit major asking prosaic questions about, well, another portion of Flye's life.  One evening in winter, after walking from Chelsea Square down Ninth Avenue to Jimmy Walker Park in the West Village in 15 degree weather, Flye and his nurse invited me to stay after Evening Prayer for some hot chocolate.  It seemed like the right time to ask.

"Father, I was once a high school teacher and hope to work in one of the Episcopal schools one day.  I know you served at St. Andrew's School in Tennessee and wondered if you had any helpful memories of students or...."

"Ah, you want to talk about Jimmy."  He turned to the nurse and smiled.  "He wants to know about Jimmy."  She smiled back at him and then at me and then Fr. Flye told me about Jimmy, the brightest ten-year-old he ever met, and one of St. Andrew's most famous students.

I'd never heard him called Jimmy; he has always been James Agee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Death in the Family and the father of film criticism in the United States, whose reviews and essays about films graced Time-Life magazines in the late 1940's and early 1950's.  He was also, with John Huston, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of "The African Queen".  Encouraged by his alcoholism, he had died of a heart attack at the age of 45, in the back of a Manhattan cab in 1955.

"As you know from his novel, he lost his father when he was a child," said Flye.  "So, he found two surrogates.  I was the one with whom he talked of educated matters and faith; John Huston was the one with whom he spoke of films and...the drinking."  He spoke for another hour about their friendship until he started to get fatigued, certainly a little wistful, and the nurse signaled to me that it was time to go.  He was asleep before I got my coat on.  I never asked about Agee again.

We continued to read Evening Prayer together for the remainder of the term.  That summer, Flye moved back to the South to spend his final months.  He died in 1984, just a few months shy of his 101st birthday.

His papers were left to Vanderbilt University, which offers this biography.  He is also the editor of a book of correspondence, titled Letters Of James Agee To Father Flye, and a great collection of photographs from his days as an educator.

James Agee's A Death in the Family is still in print and is now a Penguin Classic, although his collected essays about film are also very interesting; so much so that I even got a sermon out of them once upon a time.  Another novel, The Morning Watch, about a boarding school boy keeping the vigil during Holy Week, is out of print, I think, but well worth picking up for a used book price.

Sometimes, when it's the dark of winter with wisps of snow, in the comfort of a warm house, my memory slips back nearly thirty years and I think of Flye, his student, and those whom I have served as a teacher.  I hope I served them with at least one-tenth the intention and faith as he served his.  Especially the one who broke his heart.