Three Things about Matt

As many of you know, my eldest brother Matt died sometime between January 27 and January 30, when police broke into his apartment and took his body to the coroner. We think the cause of death was a heart attack, but we won’t know for sure until we get the toxicology report.

My most recent post on this blog was written January 27, the last time he was seen alive by the door-people at his apartment in Kansas City. By February 3, Todd and I were in Kansas City, helping my siblings dispose of Matt’s belongings.

I learned a lot about my brother that week. First of all, I saw his apartment, and I took pictures of it, which I still need to edit and send to my family. My brother was an intensely private person—so much so that none of his family had ever seen his apartment before he died—so I won’t post those photos here. To do so, in my opinion, would violate his privacy. He would dislike the fact that I’m writing about him, but I justify it by telling myself that his death is part of my life, too.

Matt lived in a library. Every available bit of wall in his two-bedroom apartment had a bookshelf, filled to the brim with books and magazines containing articles on the same subject as the books. He had a large fiction section, including many mysteries; 4 shelves of art books; and many nonfiction titles. We estimated he had 7,000 books. I did a little figuring in my head, and decided if he started collecting these books 30 years ago, he would have had to read 1 book every 2 days for the past 30 years.

I couldn’t help but look for my own novel. It wasn’t there. I know I sent it to him in 1998, so I can only conclude it was culled to make room for other books.

The area on and around his large desk contained the research he had been doing for a book about Harry Truman’s early years in Kansas City, a subject on which I knew him to be an expert.

That was the second thing I learned about Matt: that he had written a book proposal and was getting ready to send it out. Matt saved his check-out slips from the library, and I found one from January 2012 with such titles as “How to Get a Literary Agent” and “Making the Perfect Pitch.”

It’s hard to express how sad that slip of paper made me feel. I have had my own struggles with publishing, but I know why I’ve written 3 books and published only 1: definitely a lack of follow-through, and partly a lack of desire. I might have turned the novel and short-story collection into publishable books if I had spent more time revising them. But I got tired, possibly because I had no critique group to nudge me. So to learn that Matt had been working on a book for 8 years, had been so close to finishing it, and then had died really hurt.  He spent most of his life as a lawyer when he should have been an academic. If he had gone back to school for his PhD when he wanted to, in the early 1990s, he might have already published this book.

I decided one of my jobs that week would be to box up all of Matt’s research and save it until I could figure out what to do with it. I thought 10 boxes might do it, but we filled about 20 boxes with his black binders full of microfilm printouts. He had 7 such binders on the police, with articles from Kansas City newspapers dating from around 1918 to the 1940s.

Todd and my brother Russ and my sisters helped so much.

I don’t know how to get this material to researchers. Even if all the copies were good copies (some are barely legible), I assume posting a bunch of old newspaper articles online may violate copyright. Maybe they’re all in the public domain. But then the question becomes, “Who is going to do all the work of scanning 20 boxes’ worth of newspaper articles?”

Me? Some graduate student in history?

Here is a short excerpt from my brother’s book proposal:

…the biographies and other works about Truman have the history of his time in Kansas City politics backwards. In fact, the history was actually put backwards in the 1930s–1940s. That was done by frustrated election opponents of Truman and other Democrats, by an equally frustrated and virulently Republican Kansas City Star, and by William Reddig, a Star editor and the author of Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend. Reddig’s book was a campaign attack-history aimed at helping prevent Truman’s reelection in 1948, by implicitly portraying him as a knowing and willing beneficiary of the corruption, crime, electoral fraud and violence which, according to Reddig, pervaded and sustained the local Democratic coalition. Spread widely by biographers, who mistook Tom’s Town for a true history of Truman’s part in Kansas City politics, Reddig’s stories have kept that history backwards for decades. My book will put that history back around to straight forward.

Pretty bold claim, isn’t it?

I am no historian. I can’t write my brother’s book for him, based on his research, even if I wanted to. The best I can do is put his book proposal and research on the Internet, where Truman historians could access it to support their own work. I’d love to see this book proposal cause some controversy among historians, make them rethink their research. I think that was what Matt wanted. But first I have to get it out there. Any ideas?

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A third thing I learned about Matt: he had at least one close friend in a man who worked at his apartment complex. George told my sister that he knew Matt had a father but didn’t know he had any siblings. Unfortunately, George wasn’t at work when I dropped off the funeral notice, so he didn’t get to attend my brother’s service, though another staff member did attend.

If he had other friends, I didn’t find them when I took his obituary to the UMKC Law Library and the Plaza branch of the KC Public Library. People there said they recognized him, but as one woman at UMKC said, “He didn’t need a lot of help.” She meant he was self-sufficient. But I think Matt did need more support than he got in life. I just wish I could have figured out how to break through his reserve. I would have loved to discuss mysteries with him or hear his progress on his book, but I never asked the right questions.

My siblings have hired a company to auction Matt’s books and his 350-or-so model car kits and his furniture. It frightens me to see how easy it is to dismantle a life. I didn’t feel that way after my mother’s death because my father kept most of her possessions—in fact, her books and household goods are still in my father’s house, even though he doesn’t live there. But Matt didn’t have a spouse to keep his possessions after his death, and he didn’t make a will. Perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of giving away all the things he collected, so instead he concentrated on his new obsession: the book he was writing.