Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM
One evening last May, the UCLA Extension Writers' Program honored longtime instructor Phyllis Gebauer. The occasion? To celebrate her generous donation: the only known complete set of personally inscribed first editions of the work of renowned, reclusive author Thomas Pynchon.
"It was a highlight of the year for her," says friend Alice Dworkin '66.
Unfortunately, Gebauer died just weeks later, on June 15, at 82. A widow with no children, she left behind an extended family of former students and UCLA Extension colleagues saddened by her passing, yet grateful for her one-of-a-kind gift that will be used to benefit future writing students.
How Gebauer and her husband, Fred, acquired signed copies of the seven novels penned by the ultra-private, camera-shy Pynchon goes back to their time in Seattle in the early '60s, when Fred was a mechanical engineer at Boeing and Pynchon was a technical writer for the company. The couple met the scribe at a party and hit it off. A friendship blossomed, but Pynchon never let on that he wrote fiction in his spare time — until he sent the Gebauers an inscribed copy of his first book, V.
In the summer of '65, Pynchon — "Tom" to Phyllis and Fred — followed the couple to Los Angeles. Later, when Gebauer started writing — first fiction, then a memoir about life as a widow after Fred's death in 1998 — Pynchon graciously read her manuscripts, offered suggestions and support, and wrote back-cover blurbs for her two published books. She spoke sparingly to others of their relationship until a few years ago, when she contacted Linda Venis '70, M.A. '74, Ph.D. '78, program director of the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, for advice about her unique book collection.
"I was floored," Venis says. "A lot of people mention they know famous writers, but I really had not a clue that their friendship was that long and enduring."
With Pynchon's blessing, Gebauer donated her collection, including 1974 National Book Award winner Gravity's Rainbow, to the Writers' Program.
"I want to give something back to the Program that has given me so much for over twenty years," she wrote in her mini-memoir, Tom and Us, which was handed out at the May 4 celebration. "I can think of no better way to honor Fred's and my friend, and also benefit the Writers' Program, than by making this gift."
"The goal was to do what [Phyllis] did as a teacher: further the writing education of adult learners," Venis says, noting that the eventual proceeds from Pynchon's work could either fund scholarships, endow a chair in writing or revive a former student literary journal — or result in some combination of the three. "We will honor her wishes."