Forward to: Highlights of a Lowlife: the Autobiography of Milan Melvin

by Peter Laufer

Milan and I were friends for over thirty years. I was on the list of those who received that sobering and sad message. As was the case with so many of us, for me, Milan dying was difficult to believe. Not only was he relatively young, but he had led a death-defying life of mad adventure since before I met him. Perhaps he wasn't going to outlive us all, but it was beyond his living legend to consider he was about to succumb to something as mundane as sickness.
Had I heard he had been shot by smugglers and bandits, pushed out of a CIA helicopter by his superior officer, was rotting in a Third World prison charged with fomenting revolution, or had simply disappeared, it would have been much easier to accommodate than this pancreatic cancer diagnosis.
Milan was a Zelig-like figure for the latter half of the twentieth century. He seemed to be everywhere and do everything -- and be there and do it first. From the post-War tedium of the paranoid Fifties, through the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll Sixties, on to the world-trekking Seventies, the self-reflective Eighties, the capital-building Nineties, Milan was a player, a teacher, and always a student on the world stage.
In many ways, as his autobiography makes clear, he lived the Baby Boomer fantasy life: rarely compromising, highly political, self indulgent, seeking enlightenment and instant gratification simultaneously.
A few weeks after that death-sentence e-mail, I was stuck in Washington, DC with all flights home to California grounded. It was September, 2001, and I was wandering around looking at Hum-Vees and National Guardsmen on patrol in Georgetown, watching the Pentagon smolder from the Key Bridge, when my mobile phone rang with a call from Milan in Mexico. He was dying faster than he had expected. In the midst of the national tragedy, he and his friends and family were suffering a personal tragedy.
He told me he wanted me to come to Puerta Vallarta and debrief him. His memoirs were unfinished. He wanted these interviews to complete the story and then he wanted me to compile and edit the material.
"I don't want this job," I complained, still stunned at his diagnosis. For me, Milan was always like an invulnerable older brother.
He reminded me that when he first became sick I offered to do whatever he needed.
"Here's a lesson," he advised. "Be careful what you offer."
Over the next few weeks I made two trips to see him in Mexico. He talked as long as his strength lasted. Once in a while we laughed. He took me up to his dream ranch, where the workers were putting the finishing touches on his new house.
He told stories, ancient and contemporary.
Pointing to the laborers, he remembered when they were taking a break while finishing the roof. "Come on you assholes," the foreman had yelled at them, "we're not up north!" Milan clearly loved Mexico.
At his apartment in Puerto Vallarta he gave me a Zip drive filled with his stories, letters, e-mails, and other notes for his autobiographical works. He asked me to retrieve boxes of more letters, photographs, and other ephemeral material from his sister's basement in California.
We agreed I would compile the collection into the memoir he had always planned to write, adding commentary only when necessary to provide context, editing only for clarity.