Blair Fuller, a celebrated writer, groundbreaking editor and esteemed educator who was born to East Coast aristocracy, passed away on July 23 from complications due to lung cancer. He was 84.
Blair was a gentleman’s gentleman. A kind, educated, brilliant man who wrote his own life on his own terms, Blair spent his last years in Tomales married to his beloved wife, Arlene.
“Blair never said, ‘I want to be remembered as a writer,’” Arlene said. “He said, ‘I want to be remembered as someone who was a good man.’”
Blair was born on January 18, 1927 in Bedford, New York to Charles Fairchild Fuller and Jane Sage White Fuller. Charles was a renowned architect and Jane was a sculptor. They lived in the expansive Crowfields Estate, a 6,000-square-foot Georgian home surrounded by gardens and complete with domestic staff.
“He was a boy who grew up with enormous privilege, but not a lot of support for who he was, the creative part,” Arlene said. Charles was an alcoholic, who would oscillate between being a loving and good-humored father to an intimidating and unstable tyrant at a moment’s notice. “One evening, in other company, he told me I was the least ‘bright,’ the least ‘interesting,’ in fact the least of his [three] children,” Blair later wrote.
“My father’s father was an extraordinarily damaging person. He did a lot of harm,” said Blair’s daughter, Mia. “It was important to Blair to not be[come] his
Coming to accept and forgive his father was one of Blair’s greatest challenges. “He wrote a lot about his childhood, and one of the main themes throughout his life was his relationship with his father, and working that out,” Arlene said.
Blair later wrote that, “He was at least as good as most men, sympathetic, understanding and generous. Without the help of the drug he could scarcely be bad at all. Simply, he could not accept his own goodness (or mine), any more than I could accept my own badness (or his).”
Jane could not take Charles’ unstable temperament. She sought the advice and friendship of Charles’ best friend, Cass Canfield, the longtime president and chairman of Harper & Row Publishing House. “Then, as Blair’s father became more and more alcoholic and estranged from his wife, she took up with [Cass] and married him,” Howard said. Through his stepfather, Blair was exposed to an endless world of literary genius and society, further encouraging him to become a writer.
Surprisingly, Blair did not receive much encouragement to develop his creative talents from his mother, an artist. “She had one son, and I think she saw him becoming a lawyer or a banker,” Arlene said.
Blair was a lifelong fan of the Giants baseball team, originally in New York and later in California. As a child, Blair struggled with mathematics until his father promised him that he would take him to more Giants games if Blair mastered baseball statistics.
Blair attended Harvard University where he studied the liberal arts, and was captain of the hockey team. He spent a year abroad in Paris, where he became a lifelong Francophile. In his junior year, his education was delayed again when he volunteered for the United States Navy towards the end of the Second World War.
“He was very proud of the fact that he had been in the Navy, in the pacific,” Arlene said. He was assigned to a destroyer, but never saw battle. “But he was ready, with so many other men, to help in the invasion of Japan,” said Blair’s friend and collaborator Howard Junker.
After he returned to the United States and graduated from Harvard, Blair took an entry-level position at Texaco, stationed in Côte d’Ivoire, Accra, Dakar and Abidjan, in Africa. Though Blair found he disliked the oil business, he fell in love with Africa. “He was always interested in Africa, which he considered the most happening place in the world,” Arlene said. “Blair wanted to be where the excitement was, where the world was happening, and he felt like Africa was the place where real change would be.” He took several more trips to Africa throughout his life, including one to Algeria on a Fulbright scholarship.
Blair spent three years working for Texaco before quitting the industry and moving to Paris, where he helped found The Paris Review, a literary quarterly, along with legendary journalists, writers and editors George Plimpton, Harold Humes, and Peter Matthiessen. In its first few years, The Paris Review published works by many literary celebrities like Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, Philip Roth, Adrienne Rich, Italo Calvino, Samuel Beckett and Robert Bly.
The Review also started collecting personal interviews with writers like Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. It was the first such journal to feature writer interviews. “They were some of the most incisive and well read [articles] of the time,” Arlene said.
George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen were Blair’s suitemates at Harvard. “They were all writers, all going out in the world to have adventures and write,” Arlene said. “They all ended up in Paris, and The Paris Review was George Plimpton’s doing with his pocket money. They were crazy young men, and some women, who were eager to see if they could [create a literary journal].”
Blair returned to New York after being managing editor of the Review for a year. There, he took a job teaching writing at Barnard College. His experiences in Africa led him to pen his first novel, A Far Place, in 1957. The novel, featuring a diamond-smuggling oil company employee and lost wanderer named Reed Hodgins, attracted high sales from readers and a respectable amount of praise from literary critics.
Soon after A Far Place was published, Blair took a teaching position at Stanford University. “Blair did teach, but not in the kind of MFA, grubby, grinding-it-out kind of thing that exists now,” Howard said. “He had a desire to teach writers, to be with writers.”
Blair loved to teach. “He never saw himself as good a writer as he was. He saw himself as an enabler, someone who enables people to do their best work,” Arlene said. “Not a month went by that he’d get an email from a former student at Stanford, talking about the influence [Blair] had, what the student published. That would delight him.”
It wasn’t just students who were perpetually enamored with Blair. Throughout his life, Blair maintained an easygoing, earnest likeability that charmed everyone he met. “Distinguished is a word you have to use, and aristocratic, and elegant and gracious. He exemplified all of those qualities,” Howard said.
Blair took his teaching philosophy and enthusiasm to help burgeoning writers and co-founded the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, an exclusive writers group that offers workshops, conferences and lectures. The group has produced such writers as Michael Chabon, Janet Fitch and Glen David Gold.
Blair’s writing career continued to flourish. After writing a second novel, Zebina’s Mountain, he wrote numerous short stories for which he won two O. Henry awards.
For the first 40 years of his life, Blair struggled with alcoholism. “From my perspective—and for for me this is the most striking thing of all—he was not a happy person when he was drinking,” Mia said. “I think he was frustrated, writerly. He came from a generation of hard drinking writers.”
By 1972, Blair decided to give up alcohol for good, for the sake of himself and his three children from two previous marriages. “His decision to give up alcohol and acknowledge his alcoholism…he was a different kind of guy,” said Blair’s son, Anthony. “He didn’t want to be the same father to [us] that his father was to him.”
Blair embraced sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. “Sobriety really changed things for blair, and certainly extended his life beyond the longevity he would have enjoyed otherwise,” Mia said. “It changed his outlook, and over time he became a very happy guy. He became so at ease, and interested in life. It made him more than just a better father, but a better person.”
Blair became a truly dedicated father. “Whenever I got in trouble, which was plenty, he never gave up on me. It was never ‘Game Over,” Anthony said. “He was the parent that you were relaxed with, that you ate all the crappy food with. He was not exactly a disciplinarian, but he had a morality, a code of ethics that he [imparted to] you.”
Blair liked to take his children on one-on-one trips around the world. He took Mia to Egypt and Israel, his daughter Whitney to the Galapagos Islands, and Anthony to Russia. “The thing he was most proud of was that he had three great children,” Arlene said. “They were always first in his discussion about his accomplishments.”
One of Blair’s true passions was his silver BMW R75/5 motorcycle, which he took all over the world. “He had a really remarkable appetite for life,” Mia said. “He rode that motorcycle until he was 75 years old.” Once he took the BMW to Eastern Europe on a long, meandering journey behind the Iron Curtain.
While teaching at Stanford, Blair took frequent trips to West Marin to sail around Tomales Bay. He eventually bought a dilapidated Victorian house in Tomales, which he restored to beautiful condition. He met his neighbor, an accomplished headmistress named Arlene, and they were married in the restored house a year later, in 1997.
“My father truly loved Arlene. It was probably the happiest he’d ever been in his life,” Anthony said.
Tomales was an ideal place for Blair’s final years. He adored sailing in the bay, and when he no longer possessed the strength to sail, he traded his sailboat in for a small motorboat. “He was so smitten with [West Marin] that it pleased him until he died. Every time we went out on the little motorboat, in the bay, he said, ‘It’s the most beautiful place in the world.’”
Blair started a small writers group that met in Tomales every other week. “He truly loved living in Tomales,” Howard said. “He liked the small-town intimacy of life, he loved the West Marin Review and his small writers group.”
He became a trustee of the Cinnabar Theater, a small theater in Petaluma that trains young people in the performing arts. “That was a love of his,” Arlene said. Blair also became a trustee of the American Conservatory Theater, and was a supporter of many environmental causes in West Marin, including the Environmental Action Committee.
“I can honestly say that he was the best human being I have ever known,” Arlene said. “People say 84 is a long life, but it really didn’t feel long enough.”
Blair is survived by his wife, Arlene; his sisters, Sage and jill; his stepbrother, Cass Canfield Jr.; his daughters, Mia and Whitney; and his son, Anthony. In lieu of flowers, donations in Blair’s name can be made to the Cinnabar Theater Youth Program, at www.cinnabartheater.org, or by calling (707) 763.8920. A private memorial at the Cinnabar Theater will be held in September.