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The Ghost Writer’s Mistress

New York psychoanalyst and novelist Arlene Heyman recalls her youthful relationship with Bernard Malamud

Dusty Sklar
May 09, 2022
Courtesy Arlene Heyman
Arlene Heyman in her early 20sCourtesy Arlene Heyman
Courtesy Arlene Heyman
Arlene Heyman in her early 20sCourtesy Arlene Heyman

The subject of this interview, Arlene Heyman, is a New York-based psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and writer. She has published a short story collection, Scary Old Sex, and a novel, Artifact. In 1961, she began an affair with the noted writer Bernard Malamud, which turned into a rich friendship that lasted until he died. The interviewer, Dusty Sklar, is the author of Gods and Beasts: Nazis and the Occult, and numerous short stories and articles.

Dusty Sklar: When did you attend Bernard Malamud’s class? Why did you choose his particular class?

Arlene Heyman: In 1961 I was a sophomore at Bennington College, 19 years old, when I first heard that Bernard Malamud would be coming to Vermont to teach creative writing. He had already won the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel so he was known and respected in the literary world—which was the only world that mattered to many of us. As I remember it, there was at Bennington, simultaneous with respect for Malamud’s accomplishment, a distrust of prizes. It was probably just envy, but the idea was that a Bennington faculty member after a full day’s work could give as good a lecture as any visiting academic or artist, as any luminary. Yes, this guy Malamud is a fine writer, but how do we know what kind of teacher he will be? And so a friend of mine and I, toward the end of our sophomore year, asked Stanley Edgar Hyman if he would give the two of us a fiction tutorial. Now Stanley Edgar Hyman was a heavyweight at Bennington—literally, he was over 250 pounds. He was a well-known critic and he was the husband of Shirley Jackson, though he was also known to have affairs with his students.

Although I had wanted to be a writer for as long as I could remember, I hadn’t written anything I thought suitable for submission and so I had to figure what to write. But Stanley Edgar Hyman read my friend’s submission and rejected both of us before I wrote anything at all. Months later, he apologized to me, but my heart had hardly been broken. It might even be said that I owe my subsequent affair and lifelong friendship with Bernard Malamud to that fortuitous rejection.

So I applied to enter Bernard Malamud’s class. Many applied—I don’t know how many—and 10 or 12 of us were accepted. He told us on the first day that one submission was the best he’d ever gotten from a college student and one was borderline. He asked if Arlene Heyman would stay after class; he wanted to talk to me. This Mr. Malamud evidently wanted to run a civilized class.

I can hardly remember what he looked like to me that first day; he was not a handsome man but he was pleasant-looking, studious-looking; 5-foot-8 or 9 or 10, with gentle brown eyes and dark brown hair that was already beginning to recede. He seemed slightly nervous and determined to run a good class. He was very intense, fervent about fiction and about teaching us. He probably read a published story aloud that first day. (Not one of his own. He was not a narcissist.) He may have had students read from their submissions. I don’t remember. I was in an alarmed state over my probably borderline manuscript and had spent the entire class worrying.

After class, he met with me, and he told me that my manuscript was the best writing he’d ever read by a student (It was a short story called “The Priest” about a Spanish Jesuit who gets defrocked and ends up in New York City in bed with a prostitute from whose breasts come blessed drops of milk.) I was relieved and exhilarated. I was excited by him and by myself and the future career I imagined lay ahead of me. I invested the two of us with honor and power. Every two weeks I wrote my heart out for him.

Before the Christmas break Bern said that he’d like to meet me in New York. I knew immediately that this meant more than lunch or dinner; he wanted to have an affair with me and I was frankly thrilled—with him, with myself, with the prospect that a man of his accomplishment could be interested in me. I was not sexually naive but I had no experience with a man 28 years older than I and none at all with a famous writer. I didn’t even know any other famous writers. It was truly an adventure for me.

I don’t fully remember the first date. It was a lunchtime date, I think, and I kept him waiting—in those days, I kept everyone waiting and I still have immense trouble being on time—and we ended up at a hotel and made love. I was ecstatic—he must have been 46 or 47 at the time and it seems to me now he was always teaching me about something or other and I was excited to learn about the wide world. And I was happy to make love with him. He found me beautiful, mind and body, and I basked in his admiration. The fact that he was married and this had to be an undercover affair, I didn’t mind that, I may have even liked that. I was hardly looking to marry anyone, and while I had a pang or two about his wife and family (and I would say now that I was blind to myself, to what I might be doing to his family, to what was motivating me psychologically—I’m now a psychoanalyst) I was truly infatuated. I greatly respected the man, I admired him for all he knew that I longed to know, and he was really taken with me. I Iearned about literature, which mattered more to me than anything else; we went to museums—he met me several more times in New York, I think, during that first nonresident term, and he wrote many letters to me which are in the literature collection at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

Courtesy Arlene Heyman

DS: Do you know whether he had previous affairs with students? Or subsequent ones?

AH: I didn’t know whether he had had previous affairs with students and I really didn’t think about it. He had been at Bennington for only a few months when we began our affair and he was really enamored of me. And I was in my confused 19-year-old fashion in love with him. He had a wife. He was always writing. You could hear him pounding away on his typewriter in his office in the Barn. It didn’t cross my mind that he had time to be involved with anyone else. Also I never doubted that he truly loved me so why would he see anyone else?

After the sexual part of our relationship was over, I also never thought about did he have other lovers. I don’t think I ever asked him during the many years of our friendship. He told me that since he’d met his wife, he’d never loved anyone as much as he loved me. And he continued to care about his wife. He wasn’t a promiscuous man. I actually learned more about his love life from reading the wonderful biography Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life by Philip Davis, which came out in 2007, 21 years after Bern died.

DS: Had you ever met any members of his family?

AH: Yes, certainly. His wife, Ann, was at Bennington and I once said to her, “Your husband is a great man.” She said, not unkindly, “Who? My Bern?” She was not aware of our affair until many years after it was over. I went to dinner parties at his apartment in New York City and I met both of his children. His son actually called me one evening to ask me a medical question. And his daughter and I corresponded after his death when she needed permission to quote from one of my letters to him (I was very honored that he saved all my letters) for a memoir of her father she published the year before Philip Davis’ biography appeared.

Ann, who died in 2007, was always decent to me, although reserved. When I was a psychiatry resident at Jacobi Hospital in the Bronx, Bern called me at work one day—Ann was out of town—to say that his brother had died of a heart attack, he was writing a eulogy, and when he paused to do some exercises, he started having pains in his chest. Wouldn’t I agree that these were “sympathetic” pains, nothing to worry about, and he should go on exercising? I conferred with my fellow psychiatry residents and we told him to stop exercising immediately and get over to a cardiologist in Manhattan, whose name we provided. Bern was hospitalized that afternoon with a heart attack. Ann called to thank me.

Ann and Bern and my first husband, Shepard Kantor, and I went out together a few times, the four of us. I was now and then at their house taking his blood pressure or my husband was. On the day Ann found Bern dead in their New York apartment of a heart attack, years after that first hospitalization, she called to let me know. By then she was aware I’d had an affair with him. And when Philip Davis called to interview me for his biography (I keep wanting to write “marvelous biography” because it is; it’s so intelligent and sensitive, he understands the life and the fiction in considerable depth and he got Bern’s relationship with me exactly right), I called Ann to find out what she wanted me to do.

I didn’t know if she wanted me to speak to a biographer and I was prepared not to answer Davis’ phone calls if she didn’t want me to. She told me that she had given Davis my name and that what had gone on between me and her husband was so long ago after all (she asked me how old I was right then and I said I was 62 or 3 or 4, whatever I was, and she said she couldn’t believe it) and I should tell it like it was and also that I should use my good judgment. To tell it like it was and also to use my good judgment—these two instructions were contradictory. But at least I knew she wanted me to cooperate with Philip Davis and I felt freed by her to do so with an open heart.

DS: Did you hope or expect that he might leave his wife for you?

AH: Oh, we occasionally talked about living together, marrying, having a child, but those were fantasies and neither one of us made a serious move in that direction. Bern once said that being married to me might destroy his writing life; I wasn’t faithful to him nor could he expect me to be—he was married. And I honestly didn’t think about marrying him or anyone else. I didn’t marry until I was 37 years old. I am extremely lucky to have married and to have had my two sons and now three grandchildren.

DS: Were you concerned about your age differences?

AH: Not at all. I think I got a kick out of it. Bern was a father, teacher, lover, friend. Later when he had a minor stroke during bypass surgery, I suppose I might have wished he were younger, but I don’t remember wishing that. I just wished he had not suffered the stroke. I remember my husband saying “They ruined a national treasure.” Bern got past the stroke but it was hard work for him; he felt diminished as a writer; although many of his capacities came back. He worked as diligently at physical therapy as at his writing, but he felt he couldn’t fully get the depth and richness of what he wanted to create, what he used to be able to create. And then he had a heart attack and died alone in his apartment. I cried a lot of the time after he died. I remember my 6-year-old son saying, “I think you loved Bern more than you love me.”

Arlene Heyman in 1970
Arlene Heyman in 1970Courtesy Arlene Heyman

In my opinion, what’s behind the questions “Were you concerned about the age difference?” and “Did you expect him to leave his wife for you?” is the widespread, conventional idea that all erotic love has to be between two people roughly the same age, that older bodies can’t be attractive and that one party or the other must expect or want the affair to end in marriage. Otherwise, it isn’t love. Obviously, I don’t agree.

DS: Your affair lasted a couple of years, but your friendship lasted until he died. How deep was your friendship?

AH: We spoke or exchanged letters weekly until his death. He was very interested that I became a physician; I half-asked his permission before applying to medical school and he gave it. I would be a writer, we had no doubt of that, but I had to earn a living. I saw him in New York but he came down to Philadelphia to visit me at least once when I was in medical school. The two of us got into a cab and the driver said, “You’re Bernard Malamud, aren’t you?” And Bern said, “Who, me? I’m an accountant. I’m so honored you thought I was a writer.”

It was a little cruel of Bern but it was funny—Bern had a wonderful wit and I got some of my best jokes from him (and I use them in my fiction.) And truth was that although our sexual affair was long over, there was something illicit, some feeling that we were illicit, still going on between us, there was until his death, and he might not have wanted to be recognized. We spent many afternoons in New York going to museums; we would take walks in Central Park and Bern would identify different kinds of trees for me—“you’re a real ghetto girl,” he told me as if I’d grown up in an enclosed concrete area rather than the suburb of West Orange, New Jersey.

But he knew much more about nature than I did. He was deeply interested; I wasn’t; he was interested in everything. We went to a lot of restaurants: “You can’t order just steak or lobster. Come on!” he told me. He was teaching me in the best-humored way and I enjoyed being taught. He would often phone to read me a paragraph he’d written that day.

And he gave me manuscripts of his to criticize. And criticize them I did. Once, standing in front of me in his apartment, he tore up the page of criticism I’d written about one of the stories he was working on. Later he told me he’d picked up the pieces, taped them together, and taken my advice. Of course, I gave him everything I wrote and took his criticism very seriously. And I saved it all. I found out from reading the Davis biography that when Bern died, he had on his desk a psychoanalytic article I’d sent him by Martha Wolfenstein, an analyst who had taught in my residency program at Einstein; the article was titled “Loss, Rage and Repetition” about the impact on a child of losing a parent early in life or as an adolescent, (and Bern’s mother had died—she probably killed herself—when he was a teenager) and he had a draft of a note to me alongside the Wolfenstein paper: “Thank you for letting me read your paper. It was like being allowed to look into a forbidden room. I saw more than I had meant to.”

DS: Did your husband get to know him? How did each regard the other?

AH: I’ll tell you a funny story that I told Philip Davis but begged him not to use because I was worried how my sons would take it. But now my sons are almost 37 and 41 and married with children and might be able to see the humor in it. Or maybe it has nothing to do with my sons and I’m just more comfortable with what I’ve done in my life. I had never told anyone about my affair with Bern right up until I got married and beyond. (Well, maybe I told my sister. I’m not sure now and she’s dead.) When I married my first husband, Shepard, it was my first marriage, his second. We had our wedding in our apartment and Shepard didn’t want anyone at the wedding whom I had slept with. If you don’t get married until you’re 37, there are quite a few men you’ve slept with and some of them became our friends. At any rate, I didn’t invite anyone I’d slept with but I knew I couldn’t get married without Bern being there. I didn’t want to. My father was dead. Bern was as important to me as my father. So I didn’t reveal to Shepard that I’d had an affair with Bern (it was 19 years earlier, after all) and we invited him and his wife. They came. Bern wrote me that he “felt he was giving me away without parting from me.”

Months and months later, Shepard and I were in bed and Shepard was reading Bern’s book Dubin’s Lives, in which the main character, a middle-aged married biographer is having an adulterous affair with a very sensual, much younger woman named Fanny. Shepard turned to me and said, “I wish you were more like Fanny.” I smiled. After he read a little further, he came upon a detail, an attribute Bern had given the character—I think Fanny kept a glass of ice water on the night table next to her when she made love—that was characteristic of me. My husband turned to me and said, “You are Fanny!” That was certainly a great oversimplification, but there was certainly enough truth in it that I had to explain everything to Shepard, how the affair had been over in 1963 and here we were in 1979 and I now had a long rich complicated friendship with Bern and I couldn’t get married without him. We were up late but before we went to sleep, Shepard forgave me for not having told him and having invited Bern. I think early in our marriage Shepard wondered, like our 6-year-old son, whether I loved Bern more than I loved him but midway through the marriage, he had no doubt. He liked Bern, he respected his writing and he never got in the way of my outings with him.

DS: What did you learn from M about writing? About living?

AH: Bern worked very hard at writing and he told me you had to do it every day, if only for a little while, or you ended up at a distance from it. He did many drafts and he said that his agent practically had to pull whatever he was writing away from him or he’d just keep rewriting. He also did his own editing; “I think a writer has to work pretty much by himself, otherwise he may begin to depend on others for his ideas. The only way to strengthen your back or your book is to do your own exercises,” he’d say.

A version of what Bern taught me about writing appears in a short story of mine “In Love With Murray,” which appeared in my 2016 collection titled Scary Old Sex. In that story a very young female painter is in love with an older celebrated artist, and I lifted some of the advice he gives her about painting almost directly from letters I received from Bern:

“I know you’re not seeking advice but the thing about painting is, you have to create a rhythm for it. It’s rough if you work and quit, work and quit. You have to stay with it almost every day if only for a little while. The quitting seems to check the flow, and then you have to break through into the rhythm all over again. Having a bad time at the beginning is almost necessary. It’s a struggle and a struggle and a struggle, but if you keep at it right, the struggle can become a dance.”

Truth is, I’m nowhere near as disciplined as Bern but I’m always hoping to become more like him including right up to now, when I’m 79—seven years older than Bern was when he died, of course.

What did I learn from Bern about living? It’s really difficult to summarize what one gets from a 21-year-long intense friendship. But here’s something: although he suffered—read the Davis biography—Bern was against suffering. I’m against it, too.

Arlene with Bern at her first wedding, in 1979 to Shepard Kantor
Arlene with Bern at her first wedding, in 1979 to Shepard KantorCourtesy Arlene Heyman

DS: Who were the writers Malamud most admired?

AH: Chekhov. I remember his reading me “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and his eyes flooding. I think Chekhov was his favorite writer. He also loved Yeats’ poetry and we got into a fight over letters about Yeats’ lifelong unrequited love for Maud Gonne. I was, stupidly, putting down Yeats as a poet because of his lifelong love. He also had me read Bellow’s Seize the Day and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

DS: Did you decide to become a writer because of his influence?

AH: Nope. I always wanted to be a writer since I was 5 or 6 years old. The summer after I graduated from high school, I typed out in quadruplicate—with carbon copies—whole chapters of Crime and Punishment and Look Homeward, Angel and I mailed them to friends as if I’d discovered these writers. (I forgive my 17-year-old self for not realizing that Dostoevsky and Thomas Wolfe were not of the same ilk.) But meeting Bern, with whom I liked to think I had much in common, meant to me somehow that I could really do it. We were both Jews and atheists; his family was very poor, mine was sort of middle middle-class—my father was a salesman of men’s clothing, my mother a grade school teacher and I was at Bennington on a full scholarship. There were a few books in my house although not very good ones. My father hadn’t finished eighth grade and was very humble; my mother had a two-year college degree she wanted people to think was a four-year degree but she didn’t lie about it. Bern’s family was less educated and had less money and his mother and brother both suffered from schizophrenia. Anyway, somehow I felt (rather foolishly) that if he could become a writer, so could I. He always treated me as if I were on his level and I, with the arrogance of youth and Bennington, believed it.

DS: What are your most treasured memories of him?

AH: I’ve already said so much, haven’t I? Here are some more memories, I can’t tell you which are “my most treasured ones.”

One memory I get a kick out of was that we would go into bookstores and when we’d find his books, we’d put them in more prominent positions.

In college, I was a heavy smoker—two packs of Pall Malls a day. He told me he’d been a heavy smoker, too, and he’d had a very hard time giving it up. I found out later he’d never smoked a cigarette in his life. He was trying to encourage me to give up smoking.

I remember how upset he was by a bad review by John Leonard in the New York Review of Books. I couldn’t believe that Bern was upset. I said, “You’re a wonderful writer. He’s nobody.” Somehow this showed me early on, I was still a Bennington student then, that he was human. Although he was so celebrated, bad reviews hurt him.

On campus one day he showed me a story that had been accepted by a magazine, maybe The Atlantic or The New Yorker, but they wanted him to cut out some “dirty” words. What should he do? The story was “Black Is My Favorite Color.” I told him to drop the words, they weren’t that important. He said to me he wouldn’t do that. Younger, less experienced writers wouldn’t have a chance of publishing their work intact if he caved. Bern stood his ground—he was good at standing his ground—and the magazine published the story as it was.

He was truly interested in my life. He liked the man I married. When we married, Shepard started reading all the important Shakespearean plays. Bern wrote, “He reads Shakespeare to tell you he loves you. How wonderful!”

Bern wrote a letter of recommendation for my 4-year-old son Jacob to get him into a New York private school, I don’t remember which school. They weren’t impressed.

And he told me whenever in life I doubted myself to remember how much he loved me.

Dusty Sklar is a novelist and writer.