A true fairy tale told by Carol and Steve Bowman
Steve and I wrote this as our contribution to the Memorial Book assembled for Ian Ballantine's memorial service, May 1995. Ian was the founder of Ballantine Books and Bantam Books. He was almost single-handedly responsible for the "paperback revolution" that made great literature and good writing available to the masses at affordable prices. He was the first, for example, to champion J.R. Tolkein in America. Betty was his business partner during his entire career. Although we had fun writing in fairy-tale style, the underlying facts of this story are all true.
I'm a sad Cinderella. Though I'm happy to be in my new palace with my new family, I'm sad beyond words that my Fairy Godfather, Ian Ballantine, had to leave so suddenly and so soon. Here is my story.
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Once upon a time—this past January to be exact—I was between agents, toiling at the word processor, scouring my network for leads, praying that someday an editor would come and read my book proposal and say, "I understand your vision about children. This book is important and needs to be published." Alas, I could only peep through the window of Publisher's Weekly and watch other authors dance at the royalty ball.
One day, a friend who had connections in the publishing kingdom called to say that Ian Ballantine had agreed to look at my proposal. Too weary to get excited, I made yet another ritual visit to the Federal Express box and made a wish as I dropped my proposal down the chute. "I have nothing to lose," I thought. "Maybe Mr. Ballantine will send it down to an editor at Ballantine Books, and that would be wonderful."
Suddenly, a couple of weeks later, the phone rang. With a curious bird-like voice, Ian introduced himself. He told me he had read my proposal and, if it was OK with me, he would like to help me get it published. "A project of this importance should be handled from the top down." I said yes, I thought it would be OK with me, as I swooned from the shock and struggled to hold on to the phone.
Ian explained that he truly understood my vision: that children are old souls born again into new bodies. And, yes, children can be very wise, but we adults aren't smart enough to hear them. He complained, "People just don't understand children. They perceive children as being like those kids in the 'Our Gang' comedies. And they're not!"
Who was this man on the phone with this thin, aged voice? In one moment he spoke like a sage and mentor, offering guidance and protection. Then, in the next he was squealing like a five-year-old, inviting me to "play in his corner of the playground." I was under his spell. Could I meet him in New York in a few days? I said I thought I could arrange it.
A few days later my husband, Steve, and I approached the towering castle on 45th Street for our appointment with Ian and Betty. They welcomed us in.
The instant our eyes met, I felt wonderfully at ease with both of them. In the first minutes, as we talked excitedly about their books and my book, I sensed a deep familiarity, as if we were picking up the thread of a conversation we had begun long, long ago. Where? When? I don't know. A wordless voice whispered in my ear, "Oh yes, here we are again. Let's get on with it."
We talked for a generous two hours. Ian repeatedly referred to the people at Bantam as "family", and clearly he was thrilled that I was willing to entrust my book to his family for nurturing and care. Suddenly he looked at his watch and announced it was time to "march off to battle and slay the dragon." I thought I heard him giggle as he led us down the winding corridors to Irwyn Applebaum's office. Precious hardback books lined the walls at every turn. I knew I was in the right place.
Ian sat quietly for most of our long meeting with Irwyn and his wisepersons. The few times he did chirp in it was always at just the right moment, and always with a story or comment that illustrated a dimension of the project the rest of us had yet to see.
Afterwards, Ian and Betty and Steve and I retreated to a regal lunch to celebrate our pending success and our new friendship. I toasted Ian and Betty as the "Fairy Godparents" of my book [this is literally true], thanking them for their protection and patronage. Within days Irwyn and I came to terms, and Irwyn decreed we had a deal. "Poof", I was a member of the Bantam family. A dream come true.
With one stroke of his wand, Ian—magician, sage, gnome, and Patriarch of Publishing—granted me my greatest wish: My ideas about children would be communicated to all the land.
Over the following weeks I looked forward to Ian's frequent phone calls. I loved to hear his chirpy voice, his irreverent quips, his pixilated teaching stories. He sprinkled me generously with wisdom and insight. So, this is what it's like to have a true mentor.
In one of our conversations, Ian mentioned that he had hurt his leg chopping wood. Chopping wood? The old body, he lamented, just wasn't keeping up with him; he was frustrated. It must be difficult, I thought, to have so much drive and spirit trapped in a worn-out body.
In early March my contract with Bantam was in the final stages of negotiation. Ian had a great idea: why don't I visit Bantam and meet the department heads so I could see first-hand what kind of support I would get from the Bantam family. "It's never been done before," he squeaked with delight. "Great," I agreed, "I love doing new things."
"Why don't you and Steve meet Betty and me in New York on Wednesday, the 8th of March? We'll spend the day at Bantam. It'll be great fun." I couldn't believe that he was ready to resume his full stride just days after he had extensive oral surgery. I suggested we meet the following week, after he had time to recover fully. "No," he insisted. "We must do it on Wednesday." So be it.
On Tuesday, Steve made a special effort to buy a new camera with a flash so he could take pictures of the folks at Bantam. I couldn't understand his urgent need for the camera, but I was too busy to protest.
That Wednesday we met Ian and Betty for only the second time. Ian ushered us from office to office, introducing us to the people we would be working with at Bantam. We chatted at length with the Bantam attorneys who were handling our contract negotiations. I told them about my research: about the very young children who tell of their past lives and deaths. These children who remember, I explained, are witnesses to the truth that death is a transition, not an end. Our consciousness continues and returns in the new body of an infant. During all this Ian sat quietly, smiling, nodding, taking it all in.
At one point, to emphasize how young these children are, Ian wordlessly offered out of his briefcase photographs that I had given him in January of two- and three-year-olds from my cases. I'll always remember the proud look on Ian's face at that moment: he was beaming.
At about two-o'clock we saw that it had started to rain in Times Square. Ian decided that he and Betty should leave early and go home. The roads were getting slippery, and they wanted to beat the traffic. But first, Steve insisted we pose for pictures (he hadn't had a chance to use his new camera yet). We three lined up for a hasty picture, then we walked the Ballantines to their car. We said thank you and good-bye, and watched their white Saab disappear down 46th Street.
Ian Ballantine, Carol Bowman, Betty Ballantine, 3/8/95
This is the last photo of Ian Ballantine
Steve and I set off to have fun in the big city. But a strange feeling came over me. I was suddenly depressed and disoriented. It felt like the sidewalk was shifting under my feet. The magic and bright colors I had been feeling all morning were gone. I tried to understand this dark signal. "Did I say something wrong?" I asked Steve repeatedly. "No, you did great," he answered each time. But I couldn't shake the feeling. Maybe something was wrong with our kids. A visit to the Guggenheim and a nice dinner didn't change my mood either. I couldn't wait to get home.
On our way down the New Jersey Turnpike, driving through heavy rain and ominous darkness, we saw a fiery apparition in the opposite lane. A car had flipped off of an overpass and lay upside down, the top smashed in, totally engulfed in orange flames. State Troopers watched helplessly from their cars. The scene passed by our window in a few seconds, like a surreal image in a German movie. Was this an omen? I was twisted with dread and worry about our kids until we finally arrived home and found them safe in bed.
The next morning, I couldn't raise myself out of bed. I felt like I was wearing a lead suit. "You must be tired," Steve offered. No, I wasn't tired. But I dragged around all day. I couldn't get focused, couldn't write, couldn't work. Late that afternoon, Betty called to tell us that Ian had died. Everything in my world stopped.
In that moment, I felt I had known Ian all my life. The ache in my heart couldn't be measured in time. The wise mentor and friend I had found only weeks before suddenly vanished as quickly as he had appeared. The clock struck twelve; the spell was broken.
But the story doesn't end there. An envoy of the Prince, in the garb of the Federal Express man, came to my door two weeks later with a completed contract from Bantam, looking for the rightful owner. Yes, here I am—but sad without Ian around to share this happy ending.
Now I sit writing, writing in my third-floor tower. Ian's photo—the photo that Steve took of me posing with Ian and Betty on his last day—sits in front of me. If I am very quiet and still, and keep my ear to the magic, I can hear Ian comfort me, "You are a member of the Bantam family now. They will help you."
"But," I whine, "it just won't be as much fun without you."
Ian laughs and says, "Just put on your new glass slippers and dance, dance! It'll be great fun!"
* * * * *
Thank you, Dear Ian, for inviting me to the Ball.