John Jerome

John Jerome -- photo by Hans Teensma
Photo by Hans Teensma

Two obituaries and an appreciation.
See below for John Jerome's bibliography.



John Jerome, 1932-2002
From the Ashfield (Massachusetts) News

By Richard Todd

 John Jerome died of cancer on February 25, 2002 at home. He was 69.

          He was 69—but until the last year or two you might have thought him twenty years younger. For most of his life John seemed an insult to mortality. I doubt he ever carried an extra eight ounces on his six-foot-three-inch frame. He was a vigorous outdoorsman, devoted to canoeing and camping, and an athlete. In his late forties he took up long distance swimming, and when he turned 50 competed in “masters” meets. He wrote about the experience in his book Staying With It.

          It is one of the peculiar charms of our little town that at any one moment it harbors several people better known in the world at large than they are around the corner. John was one of those. Escaping from a career in advertising, public relations, and magazines in his late thirties, he committed the second half of his life to his own writing. He moved from New York to New Hampshire with his wife, Chris, and then a few years later to Ashfield, where he spent more than twenty quiet and productive years. He published twelve books and countless magazine articles, and from 1986 until his death he wrote Random House’s annual logbook for runners.

          Fitness was only one of John’s subjects, and he brought to it none of that messianic fervor that sometimes infects the genre, but the same wry philosophical attitude that lifted all his other work beyond its nominal subject matter. His last book, On Turning 65, contemplates aging with both science and wit, and in mood it is as mellow as afternoon sunlight. Its memorable chapter title “Why Old Men Walk That Way” neatly encapsulates the tone.

          Some writers address us from the stage, some from the pulpit; a few seize a bullhorn. But John was always sitting across the table, or walking with us on a woodland path. I cannot think of a contemporary writer who has better mastered the art of intimate, conversational prose. Of course it was an art: no one could speak so fluently (not even John) as John wrote, and he worked hard at it. But the directness and the honesty were real. He found his subjects in the world immediately around him. His curiosity was inexhaustible, and it must have been a joy for him to rise in the morning: I think he never for a moment found the world a less than wondrous place.

          My first encounter with John’s writing came in Truck, and it’s still one of my favorites of his books. It recounts his struggle to bring a derelict 1950 Dodge pickup truck back to life. This becomes, improbably, a completely absorbing tale in itself, but the real pleasures of the book lie in its thoughtful explorations of our relationship with technology. I seldom climb over a stone fence without thinking of John’s meditation on wall-building, Stone Work, and its Zen-like mantra, “One over two, two over one.” In Blue Rooms (the most autobiographical of his books), he evoked the hours he had spent on (and in) the water and its power to reunite him with himself. I quote almost at random from that lyrical book: “The thing about the ritual morning plunge, the entry into water that provides the small existential moment, is its total privacy. Swimming is between me and the water, nothing else. The moment the water encloses me, I am, gratefully, alone.”

          “There was a lot of Thoreau in John Jerome,” said his good friend the writer Bill MacLeish. And so there was; in his writing, like the master, he could find the world in a drop of dew—and in his life. Though Oklahoma-born, John was a New Englander in temperament as well as in practice. He loved the gentle wildness of the Northeast, was an avid amateur naturalist, and he had his own Walden, the beloved pond just down the hill from his house. He was the warmest of friends, but he well knew the uses and pleasures of solitude.

          When death went after him it did so ferociously, as if it knew the strength of its victim. It might have spared the malice; John was realistic about the outcome of his disease and he faced it with bravery and style. His wit was the last to go, and he was aware of its passing. “Dying,” he said, “is easy; comedy is hard.” In his last weeks he and Chris arranged for friends to stop over, and it was John and Chris, with their serenity and ease and love, who ended up doing the comforting.

          Besides Chris, John leaves three children: Martin Jerome, of San Francisco, Kathleen Jerome, of Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and Julia Crimmins, of Kyle, Texas. And he leaves friends, and readers. Our seemingly most ephemeral quality, voice, is often enough the thing that proves most enduring. John’s voice remains a part of all who knew him, and happily it is preserved not only in memory but in the prose he left to us and to generations to come.

Richard Todd is a magazine and book editor, and a writer.


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Obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
for The New York Times
[did not run]


John Jerome—a nonfiction writer who recounted his offbeat pursuits in books about rebuilding an old truck, about moving a stone wall, about becoming an athlete at an advanced age, among other subjects—died on Monday at home in Ashfield, Mass. He was 69.

          The cause of death was lung cancer, his wife, Christine, announced.

          His aim in these books and others like Staying Supple, Blue Rooms: Ripples, Pools and Other Waters and On Turning 65: Notes from the Field, was often to get outside of his head. In the middle of his career, he and his wife fled New York City for the country to escape what he called in Stone Work the “jokey, aggressive, distractd life” of magazine work, “wrestling with words and paper in tall buildings under fluorescent lights.”

          But even in the country he found he was still a writer, working inside his head. “The head is an airless, stuffy place to work,” he continued in Stone Work, so he felt compelled “to go get some kind of sensory reconnection with the physical world.” In his books he found ways “of working the sensory apparatus.”

          Mr. Jerome was born on November 7, 1932, in Tulsa, Okla., the younger son of Ralph Jerome, a draftsman for oil-drilling companies, and Gwendolyn (Stewart) Jerome. He attended public high school in New Braunfels, Texas, and in 1955 graduated with a B.A. from North Texas State College (now University). In 1952, he married Nancy Sellman. They had three children, Kathleen, Martin Stewart, and Julia.

          After teaching grade school in West Texas, he went to work in 1959 as an editor for Sports Car Digest in Odessa, Tex., then as a technical writer for the Martin-Marietta Corporation, in Denver, Colo. In 1962, he moved east, first to New York City to serve as managing editor of Car and Driver magazine until 1964, then to Detroit to write automobile ads for the Campbell-Ewald Company until 1967. In 1965 he divorced his wife, and a year later married Christine McCall, a writer and editor.

          In 1967 the couple moved to New England, where Mr. Jerome spent the rest of his life, freelancing as an editor and magazine writer, and producing some dozen books, as well as the annual “Complete Runner’s Day-by-Day Log and Calendar,” from 1986 through 2003. Yet despite all his attempts to get outside himself, he always ended up with the words in his head. “But then I’ve been using words defensively all my life, to hold off experience,” he concluded in Stone Work. “Words, I am beginning to think, are the specific barrier against seeing things clearly in these woods—and, at the same time, the only specific tool I have for penetrating the barrier. Perhaps this is the writer’s curse.”

          Besides his wife and children, he is survived by two younger half-siblings, Daniel Luer, of Boulder, Colo., and Judith Jerome, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and four grandchildren.



From “On Writers and Writing,” The New York Times Book Review,
September 29, 2002

The Most Successful Writer

By Bruce McCall

 Barside conspiracist, solitary sulker, prowler of bookstore aisles in search of what he knows he won’t find, i.e., his book—the author cheated of his rightful due in money and fame by the infamous publisher-agent-reviewer axis is an almost beloved fixture. They’re not all paranoid. I’ve read a half-dozen good books myself in the past few months that successfully eluded more than cursory notice and are probably already back to pulp by now. This doesn’t exactly unmask some tawdry Scrivenergate. Even without the eternal surfeit of sawdust-packed blockbusters, bird-brain celeb bios, conquer-the-cosmos manuals ad nauseam, the organs of the trade aren’t big or wide or quick enough to catch every rock in the nonstop avalanche of output, and if countless authors thus consigned to undeserved obscurity for their Sisyphean labors refuse to succumb gracefully, they’re profoundly human.

          Let my late friend, mentor and brother-in-law John Jerome stand for a no less disillusioned but altogether rarer breed of author. John, who died last February at the age of 69, wrote 11 books and never came within hailing distance of healthy sales, much less best sellerdom. Most of his books are long out of print. They were about mountains, about weather, about building a stone wall, about swimming, about turning 65; solid, meaty, meditative books of a terse lyricism, as remote from the publishing mainstream as Moose Jaw is from Elaine’s, so devoid of commercial sizzle as to give agents the fantods and hip editors the yawns. John inquired into the uncommonness of common things. He believed he was mining worthy insights, and early on in his career felt as ill used as any other overlooked writer by an industry that couldn’t or wouldn’t make a place for him.

          The difference was that John never let the brushoff put a hitch in his stride or acid in his bloodstream, or otherwise dent his steadfast devotion to his work. Writing his books indeed seemed almost to become John’s compensation for not selling books, until one had almost no relation to the other and he was free to turn his writing to the purest purpose of all: to explain the world he lived in to himself. Cheeseparing advances, marketplace invisibility, scant prospect of reaching more than a handful of readers—more than enough reasons for a writer not to get up in the morning, or to peel off into magazine work or teaching. Not John. He was up and at the keyboard before sunrise every day, as close to 365 days a year as he could manage, fashioning his daily thousand or more words of meticulous prose, writing away the years as if he were being paid a thousand bucks an hour.

          It came to exasperate his friends and admirers, this willful drilling of obscure veins. All that talent, all that Spartan self-discipline,lavished on the metaphysics of restoring a broken-down Dodge pickup truck, for God’s sake, or the psychological creepiness of mountains, or swimming. Swimming! A little bending to the commercial realities, an eye for the main chance, and he might have thrown off his hair shirt, made real money, joined the club.

          But John had worked out a life equation independent of money and fame. He would have made a lousy celebrity in any event. He never met a cocktail party he couldn’t bolt in a minute, hated public speaking, cultivated no connections. His frugal West Texas upbringing—“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was something of a mantra—inculcated a near phobia about material excess that perfectly accorded with the unsung writer’s necessarily modest way of life. My sister, Chris, a fellow writer, was the perfect helpmeet, his counterweight, the one person he trusted to keep him honest and on track. With Chris in his camp, wider contacts were superfluous. Then too, John was in the best sense an old-fashioned kind of writer, inspired by solitude, soothed by privacy, a respecter of his craft who couldn’t cut a corner or miss a deadline or tolerate a typo. So he and Chris lived on a shoestring, with dignity, in a rural retreat as quiet as a library but for the perpetual hum of mental industry. Yet another book would launch in a shallow arc into limbo; he sucked it up and persevered. What we second-guessers always missed was his unquenchable love of the process of writing, and it was enough.

          Then one day came cancer and, quickly, the death sentence. It can’t be said that he was ready, this athletic, clean-living, intensely aware man, with so many books still in him. But John had written over his long career exactly what he wanted to write about, so diligently and so uncompromisingly that as the end approached he seemed at ease with himself, at peace in the knowledge that he’d given it his best, done what he’d set out to do. I’ll always believe that this helped make his end infinitely less angry and tortured than it otherwise would have been. What always sustained him sustained him still. He kept on writing until the last possible day and hour, until his hands went numb and his eyes saw only mist, because it continued to give him the deepest pleasure.

          For all I know, John’s lack of literary fame may have been inevitable. Perhaps his immersion in the workings of his own teeming brain was a form of intellectual navel-gazing that pitched his work both too far over most readers’ heads and too far below their threshold of interest. Perhaps, but it’s ultimately beside the point. John Jerome, hands down, was the most successful writer I’ve ever known.

Bruce McCall is a freelance writer and illustrator.





The Death of the Automobile: The Fatal Effect of the Golden Era, 1955-1970. W. W. Norton, 1972.

Truck: On Rebuilding a Worn-Out Pickup and Other Post-Technological Adventures. Houghton Mifflin, 1977; Bantam, 1978; University Press of New England, 1996.

On Mountains: Thinking About Terrain. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978; McGraw-Hill, 1979.

The Sweet Spot in Time: The Search for Athletic Perfection. Summit, 1980; Touchstone, 1989, Breakaway Bokos 1998.

Staying With It: On Becoming an Athlete. Viking, 1984. Breakaway Books 1998.

Staying Supple: The Bountiful Pleasures of Stretching. Bantam, 1989. Breakaway Books 1998. 

Stone Work: Reflections on Serious Play and Other Aspects of Country Life. Viking, 1989; Penguin,1990; University Press of New England, 1996; Recorded Books, 1997.

The Writing Trade: A Year in the Life. Viking, 1992; Lyons and Burford, 1995.

Blue Rooms: Ripples, Rivers, Pools, and Other Waters. Henry Holt, 1997. 

The Elements of Effort: Reflections on the Art and Science of Running. Breakaway Books, 1997; Pocket Books, 1998; Recorded Books, 1999.

The Athletic Classics of John Jerome: The Sweet Spot in Time, Staying With It, Staying Supple. Breakaway Books, 1998. Boxed set.

On Turning 65: Notes from the Field. Random House, 2000.