After 60 Years, a Promise Kept to Sinclair Lewis

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CARPINTERIA, Calif. — The last time Barnaby Conrad saw Sinclair Lewis, three years after he served as Lewis’s personal secretary, they were at a bar in Paris and, by Mr. Conrad’s account, Lewis was thoroughly drunk. But not so drunk that he couldn’t chastise his former secretary for failing to execute a book idea that Lewis had handed him one morning at breakfast: a novel based on the conceit that John Wilkes Booth had escaped capture after assassinating Lincoln and had embarked on a secret life in the American frontier.

“You are never going to be a writer unless you write that book,” declared Lewis, the Nobel Prize-winning author of “Elmer Gantry” and “Babbitt,” as Mr. Conrad recounted the moment recently. Talk about pressure. “It was always on my mind,” he said.

That was 1950, shortly before Lewis’s death. And now, 60 years later — this must set a record for late authors — Mr. Conrad has published “The Second Life of John Wilkes Booth.” The novel follows the arc of the story Lewis sketched out: from Booth’s escape from the barn where history has him cornered and killed by Union soldiers, to a frontier town where, after being goaded into playing Lincoln at a county pageant, he was assassinated by a drunken fellow Lincoln hater.

The conversation in the bar was no idle talk. Lewis and Mr. Conrad had signed a contract dated Aug. 7, 1947, stipulating that upon publication Lewis would collect 30 percent of the earnings.

It seems safe to say that Lewis’s warning was not borne out. “The Second Life” is Mr. Conrad’s 35th book, part of a variegated career of writing, painting, sculpture and bullfighting. (That ended at 36 when he was gored in Spain and almost died.) And, not incidentally, Mr. Conrad spent 10 years as the proprietor of one of the great celebrity hangouts in San Francisco — El Matador, named after his 1952 book, “Matador,” his single best seller....

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