Gary Lehmann - Author

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Twisting the Tale of Richard Cory

Late one weekday evening in 1968, I was singing the song Richard Cory at the Yankee Rum Shop coffee house in Kennebunkport, Maine, when an ambulance pulled by the shop, siren blaring, headed for a mansion on the cliffs overlooking the sea. The next morning, we discovered that the ambulance was responding to a call for help from the biggest mansion of them all, owned by a man who was reputed to be a part-owner of Saks Fifth Avenue. He had a vintage Rolls Royce and had threatened to drive it off the cliff so many times that people had stopped paying much attention to his threats.

Sure enough, this time, he did it. Not the Rolls Royce, but “a bullet through his head,” just like in Paul Simon’s song. It was uncanny. Here was a man who arguably owned “one half of this whole town,/ with political connections to spread his wealth around.” He supposedly owned a yacht in the Mediterranean to which he took a local farm boy who was his play thing for the summer, together with a large assortment of caged birds, mostly nightingales as I recall. I don’t know that any of this was true. Kennebunkport in the summer of 1968 was not a good place to carry on conversations in the street if you expected to get straight answers. It was 1968, the summer of love, man!

But here he was a legitimate multi-millionaire with a larger-than-life reputation for “orgies on his yacht” who “went home last night and put a bullet through his head.” It was too spooky for words. We stopped singing the song.

Years later, I discovered that the lyrics to Richard Cory were adapted by Paul Simon from a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935). When I stumbled across a copy of the original poem, I was amazed at how much Simon had altered it.

Richard Cory poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Richard Cory lyrics by Paul Simon
They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society, a banker's only child,
He had everything a man could want, power, grace, and style.

But I work in his factories
and I curse this life I’m living
and I curse my poverty
and I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory

The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes.
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at the show.
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he's got.

But I work in his factories
and I curse this life I’m living
and I curse my poverty
and I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory.

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch,
And they were very grateful for his patronage and thanked him very much,
So my mind was full of wonder when the evening headlines read,
"Richard Cory went home last night, and put a bullet through his head."

But I work in his factories
and I curse this life I’m living
and I curse my poverty
and I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Richard Cory

Simon did more than adapt Richard Cory to music, he actually reconceived the poem and added an entirely new emphasis. He took out arcane words like “crown,” “arrayed,” and “favored,” and altered awkward phrases like “schooled in every grace.” He omitted the one truly dead line, “So on we worked, and waited for the light.”

Instead, Simon added a chorus that emphasized the personal animosity that Richard Cory’s wealth and privilege engendered in the common people. He hit on the envy that lay beneath that anger and heightened Cory’s social aloofness by adding details like “born into society, a banker’s only child.”

Finally, Simon added the killer line, “he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.” That’s the key to the new version, because it refocuses the attention of the poem/song on the deadly sin that has killed the soul of the narrator, envy.

We never actually learn anything to explain why Richard Cory killed himself. That’s not the point. Rich people have their problems. The point is that in the narrator we have a man with a good job and friends who kills his love of life because of envy. In the end, he may even be saying he wishes he were dead like Richard Cory. What sent him off the deep end? The simple act of gazing on a wealthy man who lives a life of apparent ease. Richard Cory is not the tragic figure any more. Instead, the narrator creates the tragedy by his envious reaction to Richard Cory’s aloofness and power. He is almost suicidal because of it. He has allowed his self-esteem to tumble because people like Calvin Klein, David Letterman, Ralph Lauren or Bill Gates glitter when they walk in ways he cannot. It’s an all too American tragedy.

In fact, the original poem by Robinson is a much weaker piece overall. Simon caught the implications of the phrase “We people” and used the envy in their gaze to pull out the power to be gained from shifting the poem’s point of view.

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in 1869, the son of a wealthy timber baron, in Head Tide, Maine, just 75 miles northeast of Kennebunkport where my mysterious happening occurred. Robinson grew up in a household with money and prestige, but things started to go wrong. In 1892, his father died. In 1893, a financial panic sent shock waves through the timber industry. Edwin was forced to leave Harvard. In 1896, his mother died suddenly of black diphtheria, a disease so contagious her sons had to bury her themselves because no mortician would touch her. His brother Dean, a doctor, became a morphine addict and died in 1899. His elder brother took to drink. These disasters bankrupted the entire family but gave Edwin wisdom beyond his years.

In the face of all this tragedy, he decided not to fight his fate, but to embrace his life as a poor poet rather than try to make himself into a struggling junior timber merchant. He had seen both sides of power. He knew what it felt like to be observed, glittering as he walked, but more importantly, he knew what it was to be excluded from that world. It was during this period that he wrote Richard Cory for his first book of poetry, The Torrent and the Night Before [1896]. The rich ironies Robinson wrote into the poem come from a genuine understanding for he knew all too well the many ways that wealth and its removal had to bewitch the spirits of his family members.

Paul Simon’s story is different but comes to a similar place. He was born in Newark, NJ but grew up in Queens where his father made a living as a radio musician while his mother worked as a music teacher. He was not exactly poor, but he certainly was not born with wealth and all its trappings. His father’s career put him on the outside of the celebrity world.

Paul started singing while still a teenager with his boyhood buddy Art Garfunkel. When their hit song Schoolgirl sold 100,000 copies in 1958 while they were still high school seniors, they were suddenly catapulted onto the Billboard charts, and their lives changed forever. Suddenly, they were stars, pushed before they were really ready into a world of “power, grace and style.”

So both Paul Simon and Edwin Arlington Robinson understood the ruthless power of money and envy to affect personal visions. They both had wrestled with these monsters, seen sudden wealth, and its lack, and they both chose lives based on poetry and performance, whatever the consequences. It’s fair to say they both added something from their own lives to Richard Cory.

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