Beatle assassin Mark David Chapman stayed in its psychiatric ward. Victims of 9/11 were treated in its emergency room. And the hospital went Hollywood in 1945 when the movie “The Lost Weekend” was filmed there.
Now the 271-year-old Bellevue Hospital is producing literature — and not just the medical kind. Among the first titles of the Bellevue Literary Press, released this spring, are a novel interweaving themes of sickness and recovery into a 1940s family drama, a collection of editorial cartoons by an accomplished physician-artist and an experimental nonfiction work that explores the mind-set and meaning of awkwardness.
The press plans to release four more books, including another novel, in the fall.
Publishing insiders say the move from medicine to manuscripts is unusual and possibly unique. The renowned Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and some other medical institutions produce health guides and other such work, but nothing as literary.
And none carry the particular weight of Bellevue — the nation’s oldest public hospital but a name freighted with near-Gothic images of its once dark, gloomy atmosphere, although the publishers see some benefits.
“The advantage is that people are curious about us,” says editorial director Erika Goldman. A veteran book editor, she manages the donation-funded operation from a small office in Bellevue’s rambling complex off the East River in Manhattan.
Bellevue and the affiliated New York University School of Medicine have long boasted physician-authors. The late Dr. Lewis Thomas, at various times the school’s dean and the hospital’s medical department chairman, won the 1975 National Book Award for “The Lives of a Cell.”
The medical school, which considers city-owned Bellevue the core of its clinical training, now requires all third-year students to write essays about experiences with patients, medical chairman Dr. Martin J. Blaser said.
Literary journal debuted in 2001
At Blaser’s urging, the medical school’s writerly bent coalesced first into the Bellevue Literary Review, a twice-yearly poetry, fiction and nonfiction journal. It debuted in 2001, and plans for the Literary Press soon followed.
Bellevue’s history is marked with medical milestones, including the nation’s first maternity ward and hospital-based ambulance service. It’s the designated New York facility for a sick or wounded U.S. president, although most New Yorkers hope never to set foot inside its renowned trauma unit.
The late rapper Tupac Shakur was rushed to Bellevue when seriously wounded by gunfire in 1994. Rocker Courtney Love was taken there, handcuffed to a stretcher, for what her attorney described as a medical problem in 2004.
The hospital’s lineage includes a dark side. Tabloid headlines followed the 2004 rape of a 13-year-old patient and the 1989 killing of a pregnant doctor by a former Bellevue mental patient.
No tales from the wards have yet appeared in the Bellevue Literary Press’ books, though NYU medical professor Dr. Gerald Weissman’s “Galileo’s Gout: Science in an Age of Endarkenment” includes an admiring chapter on Thomas.
Goldman says works about the hospital are neither encouraged nor barred, but they would need to meet the press’ goals: not institutional history, health advice or individual accounts of illness, but pieces that “tell us something about the human condition.” They look for pieces like Mary Cappello’s “Awkward: A Detour,” where the University of Rhode Island English professor knits strands of memoir, literary and film criticism, linguistics and travel writing into a meditation as intricate and singular as a spider web.
$500,000 donation helps fund press
Both Goldman and Cappello see it as a perfect, if unpredictable, fit for the nonprofit Bellevue press, financed by contributions that included a lead gift of about $500,000.
“I think of my book as a wandering and a straying, and I certainly think (large commercial) publishers are not interested in wanderings and strayings,” Cappello said.
Bellevue’s books start with an average printing of about 3,000 copies; the recently released “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” began with 12 million. Nonetheless, Bellevue’s offerings generated some attention, including a Los Angeles Times review that helped propel Cappello’s book onto the newspaper’s best-seller list in June. The books are sold in bookstores and online at Amazon.com.
“There’s a real need for good, literary material that has to do with issues of health — not how to lower your cholesterol, but good literature,” said Bellevue press publisher Dr. Jerome Lowenstein, a published essayist himself.