Oscar Hijuelos died this weekend (Oct 12, 2013). His Thoughts Without Cigarettes: A Memoir (2011) provides an excellent account of McLuhan’s New York City life when he (McLuhan) visited during the 15 or so years after WW2. McLuhan is mentioned only in passing, but Hijuelos grew up on W 118th St between Columbia and Morningside Park right across the street from the large (eight kids) Muller-Thym family. His best friend was Richard Muller-Thym. So the Muller-Thyms and their complex life is front and center throughout the memoir.
Bernard Muller-Thym and his wife Mary had been close friends and role models for McLuhan and his wife Corinne, since standing as their witnesses in their last minute 1939 marriage. A letter McLuhan wrote to them when Muller-Thym was on his death-bed in 1974 fondly recalls their years in St Louis together, from 1938 to 1942 or 1943:
Naturally, we are thinking of you day and night and remembering all the wonderful times we had in St Louis. Your home was the super seminar of all time, in which young instructors were taught the mysteries of cuisine, avant garde music, new liturgy and metaphysics. It was very rich and heady brew that formed and was shared by your delighted friends. I pray that other other such centres exist even now, and that others will be as lucky as I in sharing them. The fact that you [Mary] and Bernie had such a wonderful musical background [she was a pianist whose father was the conductor of the Kansas City Symphony and he was an accomplished violinist], to say nothing about your knowledge of SLU, the Jesuits, and the city of St Louis, was like knowing James Joyce himself! (June 11, 1974, Letters 498)
Muller-Thym regarded his activities as a business consultant (which he had begun already in St Louis when he was teaching at SLU as a means of supplementing his meager professor’s salary) as applied Thomism. Since McLuhan was well aware of the deficiencies in his knowledge of classical philosophy and of scholasticism, and knew nothing about business organization, Muller-Thym became his adviser and muse on all these fronts. The considerable role these topics play in McLuhan’s work testifies to Muller-Thym’s extraordinary influence on it from the late 1930s onwards.
McLuhan stayed with the Muller-Thyms whenever he was in New York. His stash of The Mechanical Bride (purchased at considerable discount from the publisher when it was decided to pulp it) was kept there and John Muller-Thym (whose bed McLuhan took over on his visits) remembers pushing grocery cart loads of it up to the Columbia University Bookstore whenever The Bride was featured in some course.
Hijuelos’ memoir provides a touching entrance into this small world, as well as the larger one in which it was embedded.