My Orthodontist Immortalized by Mona Simpson!

“Open a little wider, Honey,” Dr. Spritzer said. He looked even better than he had at the cake sale. His good face seemed to pop out of the tight-necked green smock.

“So, how did you survive your cake?” he asked my mother over my head.

“Ours was very tasty, actually.”

“Let’s see here.” He moved something suspiciously like a pliers in my mouth. “Well, it looks like she’s going to need some braces for da teef, I’m afraid.”

Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here

Three decades after enduring one of the more agonizing rituals of adolescence, Chatterbox has no difficulty recognizing in Dr. Josh Spritzer–the vaguely caddish Beverly Hills orthodontist who seduces and abandons Adele August (played by Susan Sarandon in the just-released movie)–Chatterbox’s own orthodontist. By this, Chatterbox doesn’t mean that Simpson’s novel captures certain universal truths about Beverly Hills orthodontists. Rather, Chatterbox means that Simpson captures one specific Beverly Hills orthodontist, named Nathan Seltzer, who straightened Chatterbox’s teeth during the Nixon administration.

Anywhere But Here is, of course, a novel (and a very good one; the movie is only so-so). That said, it should be noted that Simpson, like most people who create works of the imagination, has been suspected now and then of drawing on the lives of real people. Her mother, Joanne Simpson, is widely assumed to be a prototype for Adele August, the exuberantly selfish mother in Anywhere But Here; her brother, Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs, is similarly thought to be a prototype for Tom Owens, the biotech mogul in her last novel, A Regular Guy. (To read an ambivalent Harvard Advocate article by Simpson’s niece, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, about her own story’s being appropriated in the latter work, click here.)

Not even the tiniest of the small literary magazines, however, has likely given any consideration to Simpson’s apparent use of Dr. Nathan Seltzer as a prototype for Dr. Josh Spritzer. Here is how, in the novel, Adele August describes to her teen-age daughter Ann her first date with Dr. Spritzer (the scene in the movie is nearly identical):

“He did something last night that grown-ups do sometimes that show you really, really care about someone.”“What?”“Oh, honey, it’s something adults do in bed. But not many people ever do it. It means you really, really like the woman. You’ll know when you’re older. It just means they’re really, really serious about you. They wouldn’t do it with just any woman.”

But a few chapters later, Ann overhears her mother talking on the phone to Dr. Spritzer, and

I could tell from the way her voice rose in waves of enthusiasm–too much music, nerve and light–that Josh Spritzer didn’t want to be listening. Her breath gathered as she began each sentence.

A few chapters after that, Adele is taking Ann on rides past Dr. Spritzer’s apartment and saying things like “I’d like to tell his psychiatrist a thing or two.” A few chapters after that, Ann observes, “Josh Spritzer seemed to be dropping my mother.” And a few chapters after that, he does. (In the movie, Dr. Spritzer hangs up on Adele the morning after their first date because she tells him she loves him.)

Although Dr. Spritzer’s reluctance to get enmeshed in Adele August’s life is presented in both book and movie as entirely rational, given Adele’s extreme neediness, both emotional and financial–Ann can’t wait to be old enough to leave home–there is also the sense, in both the book and the movie, that Dr. Spritzer is a little bit of a jerk. Since first encountering the novel a dozen years ago, Chatterbox has assumed the sexual relationship in the book was entirely made up, but nevertheless has wondered how Dr. Seltzer felt about being portrayed as a love-’em-and-leave-’em ‘70s swinger. Chatterbox figured Dr. Seltzer would be flattered to be described in the book as handsome, and even more flattered by the hunky portrayal of him in the movie by an actor named Hart Bochner. But Chatterbox also figured Dr. Seltzer would consider the moral dimension of the Dr. Spritzer character somewhat wanting. Here was a man who’d devoted his life to making crooked things straight. Was Simpson taking something straight–the uprightness of Dr. Nathan Seltzer–and making it crooked? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed to Chatterbox that Dr. Seltzer, no less than Lisa Brennan-Jobs, had a right to tell his side of the story.

The morning after seeing the movie, Chatterbox excitedly rang up Dr. Seltzer’s office, where, according to the phone book, Dr. Seltzer was still straightening teeth on Wilshire Boulevard. But the receptionist who answered announced the office as that of another orthodontist named Joseph Cannon. Dr. Seltzer, she explained, had passed on eight or nine years ago–possibly not even aware of the literary fame that Simpson had foisted upon him.