Still, Fowler became one of the highest-paid screenwriters of the era, and befriended the likes of W. C. Fields and the Barrymores. When he died, in 1960, his famous friends contributed reminiscences to a pamphlet paying tribute to his life and legend. In it, you can detect ambivalence toward the movie business: “Occasionally Fowler found himself pressed for cash, though he had made fortunes during his career. At these times, he went to work for the movies, driving down early each morning and taking up the ridiculous stance in one of the overdressed cubicles, poised, always, for a ‘conference.’ But before he started the drive, he customarily threw up, out of distaste for the day’s nonsense to come.” Hollywood was run by the sort of people who attacked one another behind closed doors, and I can’t imagine Fowler ever felt completely comfortable there.

When he first came to New York, Fowler lived in an apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, right down the street from Columbia University. The apartment looks out at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—the largest cathedral in the world, a mad, ambitious attempt to outdo the Gothic churches of Europe. One hundred and twenty years after construction began, the cathedral remains unfinished, like a stunt suspended in time.

Now and then, when work is slow, I will sit on the cathedral’s steps and eat lunch in its ludicrous shadow. I picture Fowler doing the same thing 100 years ago. And I wonder if, sitting there, he too was reminded of Bonfils and Tammen and the time before subtlety, when glory lay in the regions where most men dared not go, somewhere up beyond timber line.


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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.