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Paula Fox, Author of 'Desperate Characters' and 'Poor George,' Dies at 93

Fox used the most finely crafted prose to write again and again about breakdown and disruption, what happens under the "surface of things."
Paula Fox
In this March 24, 2011 photo, author Paula Fox poses for a portrait in New York. Fox, known for the novels "Desperate Characters" and "Poor George" and the memoir "Borrowed Finery," died Wednesday, March 1, 2017, at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. She was 93 and had been in failing health.Victoria Will / AP

NEW YORK — Paula Fox, a prize-winning author who created high art out of imagined chaos in such novels as "Poor George" and "Desperate Characters" and out of the real-life upheavals in her memoir "Borrowed Finery," has died at age 93.

Her daughter, Linda Carroll, told The Associated Press that Fox died Wednesday at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. She had been in failing health.

Abandoned as a girl by her parents, a single mother before age 20, Fox used the most finely crafted prose to write again and again about breakdown and disruption, what happens under the "surface of things."

In "Poor George," her debut novel, Fox told of a bored school teacher and the teen vagrant who upends his life. "Desperate Characters," her most highly regarded work of fiction, is a portrait of New York City's civic and domestic decline in the 1960s, a plague symbolized by the bite of a stray cat.

Paula Fox
In this March 24, 2011 photo, author Paula Fox poses for a portrait in New York.Victoria Will / AP

"It seems to me that in life, behind all these names and things and people and forces, there's a dark energy," Fox told The Associated Press in 2011.

Her work was out of print for years, but she enjoyed a late-life revival thanks to the admiration of such younger authors as Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Lethem. She lived for decades in Brooklyn and was a revered figure in the New York City borough's thriving literary community.

Her other books included the novels "A Servant's Tale," ''The Western Coast" and a memoir about living in Europe after World War II, "The Coldest Winter." Fox also wrote more than a dozen children's books, including "The Slave Dancer," winner of the Newbery medal in 1974. "Borrowed Finery," published in 2001, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

She might have written more novels, but a head injury sustained from a mugging in Jerusalem in the 1990s left her unable to write long fiction. She instead began working on memoirs and shorter pieces.

Born in New York City in 1923, Fox was the daughter of novelist-screenwriter Paul Fox and fellow screenwriter Elsie Fox. Paula Fox remembered her father as a drunk given to "interminable, stumbling descriptions of the ways in which he and fellow writers tried to elude domesticity." Her mother was a "sociopath" who kicked her out of the house as a young girl. Fox lived everywhere from a plantation in Cuba to a boarding school in Montreal.

"My life was incoherent to me," Fox wrote in "Borrowed Finery." ''I felt it quivering, spitting out broken teeth."

If only she could have gathered all the people she met and placed them in a single room. Living in Hollywood in the 1930s and '40s, she danced with John Wayne and encountered John Barrymore, "yellowing with age like the ivory keys of a very old piano." Marlon Brando was a friend and Courtney Love is her granddaughter, born to the woman Carroll) whom a 19-year-old Fox gave up for adoption. Her brother-in-law, Clement Greenberg, was among the 20th century's most influential art critics.

Although a devoted reader since childhood, she didn't publish until past 40. She worked for years as a teacher and as a tutor for troubled children and was married briefly for a second time, to Richard Sigerson, with whom she had two sons. She finally settled down with her third husband, translator and Commentary editor Martin Greenberg, whom she met after he had rejected a story she submitted for the magazine.

In "The Coldest Winter," Fox wrote that living abroad had liberated her mind, "showing me something other than myself." Her early fiction included the stories "Lord Randall" and "The Living," narrated in colloquial style by black characters and published in the mid-1960s by Negro Digest. In "The Slave Dancer," a young boy is captured and forced on to a slave ship.

"I've never been a slave. I've never been black. I was never on a ship. But I have a certain narrow understanding of certain kinds of characters, and of evil and kindness and goodness and tenderness," Fox told the AP.

But by the 1990s her work was forgotten by all but her most determined admirers — one of them was Franzen. The future author of "Freedom" and "The Corrections" came upon "Desperate Characters" while at the Yaddo writers colony in 1991. In a Harper's magazine essay about American fiction, he called "Desperate Characters" an overlooked masterpiece.

Author Tom Bissell, then a paperback editor at W.W. Norton, read the essay and wondered why he hadn't heard of the novel. He looked in stores, without luck, and finally got in touch with Fox, who sent him one of her copies. Norton has since reissued all of Fox's adult novels, with introductory essays by Franzen and others.

"I'd never heard of Paula Fox, except as an author of children's books, before an editor pushed 'Desperate Characters' at me three years ago. Three years later she's a favorite, and an influence on my own work," Lethem wrote in his introduction to "Poor George," re-published in 2001.