Thomas E. Kennedy can’t recall how often he has eaten “three unspecified pieces” of smørrebrød at the Hvide Lam on Kultorvet in central Copenhagen.
“At least a hundred,” the novelist shrugs as a waitress slides a stacked platter across the table.
The Hvide Lam has been one of the American’s favourite watering holes ever since he moved to Copenhagen in 1972. It even appears in his novels. Indeed, Kennedy is one of the best chroniclers of Copenhagen’s bar culture. His characters are forever licking their wounds in the dark corner of a serving house, often with just a drink and a cigarette for company.
In the 2000 novel Kerrigan in Copenhagen, for instance, his eponymous hero sets out to visit a hundred of the capital’s drinking dens for a book he has been commissioned to write.
“He has no idea what might happen in each of the places he visits, what adventures he might encounter, what dark nights of the soul he might descend to, what radiant bodies he might win with a flattering tongue,” Kennedy writes.
Yet many of his beloved bodegas are long gone. Kennedy sips his Julebryg and summons up ghosts.
“Long John’s is a dress shop, Café À Porta became a McDonald’s – a lot of poets went there…” his voice softens, drowned out by the stereo.
A girl from Poughkeepsie
Traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches, smørrebrød, have been the staple meal at pubs such as the Hvide Lam for years, and we are presented with a selection of fried fillet of plaice, pork sausage, shrimp and egg, plus something that looks like ham with cress and aspic.
“They say you should swim before you fly, and fly before you walk,” Kennedy says, referring to the traditional order of procession when eating smørrebrød.
Not a lot of flying, I say, unless you count the egg.
“Just a lot of pork,” Kennedy replies and reaches for the fried plaice. “But these are good. They’re made by the organic butcher across the square.”
Kennedy was born in Queens, New York, in 1944. When he was 18, he joined the US army, and was taught stenography and typing. He was very good at it, and was assigned to the White House communications department in 1962. He left Washington in October 1963 – a month before Kennedy was assassinated – and went hitchhiking across the country. He made it to California, where he met a young woman from Poughkeepsie, New York.
“The gas-pump cowgirl,” he says. “I met her in a gas station in San Diego. She was wearing a cowboy hat and hot pants.”
Earlier this year, Kennedy abandoned a novel set in downtown Copenhagen. Instead, he threw himself into a book tentatively titled The Consolations of Jazz, or My Life With Women.
It starts with the story of the gas-pump cowgirl and may yet prove to be his defining work.
“It is automatic that I would write about jazz and women,” he shrugs. “It is a creative non-fiction.”
What does that mean, I ask. “I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but it’s about the various women that I’ve been involved with – and I’m not merciful to them or to me.” It sounds like a warts-and-all account, I say. “Well, attractive warts.”
Every chapter will be named after a jazz piece. The first is called ‘Jazz on a Summer’s Day’. That doesn’t sound like an especially warty one, I suggest. “Well, it’s a long book.”
The warts make an appearance in the chapters based on his one and only marriage, to a Danish woman he wed in December 1974, a couple of years after moving to Copenhagen to work for the Danish Medical Association. They remained married for 22 years and had several children together.
“I don’t know how my kids will take it,” Kennedy says, choosing his words carefully. “My wife was very special. I change her name because I don’t want her to come looking for me.” Might she? “She doesn’t read my fiction.”
Eighteen months ago, doctors discovered a cyst on Kennedy’s brain. Though it is not cancerous, it presses down on the area responsible for his speech, slowing his conversation. He has since retired from teaching, but with his ability to write undiminished, he remains as busy as ever.
“I am able to write perfectly well,” he says, adding that it’s always come easily to him.
“When I worked, I wrote all day. I once wrote a short story in a management meeting – in shorthand.”
Every morning Kennedy sits in his courtyard to drink coffee and smoke cigars. The muse arrives “around my second cup of coffee.” He writes longhand with a Mont Blanc pen and types up hundreds of pages of notes months later.
He is a voracious reader, too. He likes the New Yorker, literary journals, and contemporaries such as Junot Diaz and Alain de Botton, who got in touch after reading Falling Sideways and became a friend.
These days, too, Kennedy reads newspapers “frenetically to see if the world still exists.” A lifelong Democrat who supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, he was “astounded” by the election of Trump. “That madman in the White House,” he mutters, prodding his smørrebrød.
Kennedy has two older brothers who still live in New York. One has senile dementia and did not vote, and the other cast his ballot for the Republican president-elect. The political gulf between them must sadden Kennedy. He credits his brothers for introducing him to his other great love – jazz.
“My older brothers played jazz records. I grew up on Charlie Parker and Stan Getz.”
Will his brother read his new book? “When I last saw him he said he was proud of me, so maybe. But it’s laced with democracy and socialism.”
At a quarter to three, our waitress thumps an ashtray on the table. Kennedy recalls the time when a typical værtshus permitted smoking at mealtimes. Hvide Lam permits it only after it has stopped serving smørrebrød. Others, such as Palæ and Rosengårdens Bodega, have banned tobacco altogether.
“I prefer smoking, but it’s a thing of the past,” Kennedy says.
He lights a cigarillo and reels off a list of Vesterbro bars that permit smoking, Blomsten, McKluud, Café Snork, Skipper Bodega. The itinerary echoes lines from Dan Turèll’s elegy Last Walk Through the City, one of many poems that Kennedy translated with the permission of Turèll’s widow.
“I’ll walk through Vesterbro’s poets’ quarter in the gloaming and I’ll stop in someplace in one of the serving houses, maybe Café Guldregn, and savour a bitter and nothing else,” goes one of the poems
Through his translation of Turèll and his own novels, Kennedy established himself as a Copenhagen writer – not just one who lives in the Danish capital, but one who explores it on the page. With the afternoon light stretching shadows across Kultorvet, I ask if the city will play a significant role in his coming book.
Kennedy looks fondly at his cigarillo and stubs it out. “I’m getting away from identifying Copenhagen lore,” he says. “I’ve done that.” M
Lunch at Hvide Lam
2 x 3 unspecified pieces of smørrebrød: DKK 170
4 x large Tuborg Christmas beers: DKK 252
TOTAL: DKK 422
1175 Copenhagen K