David Milch, the creator of the television series NYPD Blue and Deadwood, is fabled among the entertainment set for how his first TV script won an Emmy. But that episode—Hill Street Blues’s “Trial by Fury”—also won a Humanitas Prize. Established by the Paulist priest Ellwood Kieser, the award is meant to “honor and empower film and television writers whose work explores the human condition in a nuanced and meaningful way.” In his new book, Life’s Work: a Memoir, Milch reports how, by then a long-time drug and gambling addict, he took the $15,000 cash prize to the track and bought a racehorse with it. Hill Street Blues would win the prize again the next year, and Milch told Fr. Kieser from the podium that he intended to spend that prize money on yet another horse. Life’s Work repeatedly invokes a line penned by Milch’s teacher and mentor, Robert Penn Warren: “The filth of self, to be loved, must be clad in glory.” Milch’s recollections evince how, often as not, it works the other way around. Sometimes the glory of being one’s self, to still be loathed, must be clad again and again in filth.
Life’s Work is not short on gloriously filthy selves. Milch’s father, Elmer, came from a prominent but mobbed-up Jewish family in Buffalo, New York. He paired a successful daytime career in surgery with a nighttime vocation for gambling, inebriation, and adultery. An acid dealer in a cape and tophat named Floyd appears briefly. Featured too is Eddie, the toothless prostitute who, after delivering Milch his methadone at Yale, would set up shop in Sterling Memorial Library to “read the gay poets in the original” Latin and Greek. There’s also David’s childhood best friend, Judgy, a person who “sustained a compelling innocence” while at the same time “was a mess down to the ground…a hope-to-die alcoholic.”
Judgy’s death, drunk in a car accident, inspired Milch’s first real shot at writing, a novel about the aftermath he doesn’t report having ever finished. Writing would come to earn Milch his millions, even as in time his compulsions would part him from them (as detailed in a 2016 Hollywood Reporter story about his prodigious tax and gambling debts). Life’s Work portrays his mentorship from Warren and some other big literary names as the more valuable compensation. Lillian Hellmann toted him to parties. R.W.B. Lewis fabricated positive course reviews. These teachers accommodated Milch’s “self-division” enough to initiate him into the life of the mind. “They sufficiently respected the effort I was making to behave honorably, generate the work I was to do, never showing up obviously loaded, that the subject wasn’t exposed.” Milch would soak in American literature during this time, achieving special familiarity with the James family, William in particular. Presaging his later career, with Lewis he even pitched a TV show about the subject to PBS.