December 15, 2010

Somebody is home and reading.

Dubravka Ugrešić is a novelist and academic, born in the former Yugoslavia, officially Croatian but living in self-imposed exile since the early 1990s.

It is clear from these two collections of essays that Ugresic does not take kindly to being labelled – especially with national labels – but the facts above explain her main preoccupations. In Nobody’s Home she writes about home (or lack thereof), globalisation, identity, exile in its many forms, alienation, ‘Ostalgia’ and the weight of history in former Eastern bloc countries, Europe and its problems with orientation – political, geographical and cultural. I especially like her thoughts about culture as a spiritual euro, and how politically correct respect for different cultures and cultural differences is often a mask for closet chauvinism. Ugresic begins with entertaining anecdotal pieces about flea markets and the nature of luggage, and gradually the pieces become longer and more serious, as she weaves history and politics into her personal reminiscences and tales of people she has encountered - most of them uprooted cosmopolitans as she is. She has the knack of reaching macro insights through the micro-narratives, and convincing with her tongue in cheek.

Most of these preoccupations pop up on a smaller scale in Thank You for Not Reading, though here Ugresic writes about being a writer in the global literary marketplace – specifically, about being a writer from a small country, a female writer, and a writer of serious fiction in an age of frivolity. The structure is similar to that of Nobody’s Home: semi-humorous personal anecdotes make the essays what they are, she begins with musings about Joan Collins, and the pieces get gradually longer and more theoretical. There is no shaky ground here she certainly knows what she is talking about. Ugresic admits in her foreword that the essays are ‘half fact and half fiction’, and she has adopted a persona to mediate between the light-hearted and the serious. If the quality of essays is determined by the number of individual ideas and flashes of brilliance per page, then these get top marks: my little reading notebook is now full of quotable passages, relevant page numbers, and thoughts and questions these books raised in my mind. It is thought-provoking reading, they give no answers, but rather encourage you to take up a pen and write down your own.

December 7, 2010

Since you ask…

…about a previous post, “Yesterday is ‘His’tory”.  In dozens of inquiries (from our “younger generation” no less) you ask what do I remember about John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, here goes...

My first clear memory is of a funeral, the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

I know it is a personal recollection, not of news clips, but of a horse, a horse named appropriately enough Black Jack.
News clips seldom show that part; it is always little John-John saluting, his mother, Jackie, looking elegant in her grief, the flags fluttering. I remember all of that, but the clearest thing to me is that black horse with the empty saddle and boots backwards in the stirrups.

There were more funerals, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Kent State, always ending in flag-draped coffins on black and white TV.

Nearly ten years after watching President Kennedy’s funeral, I discovered a book called The Torch is Passed which was full of photos from that event. Midway through the book was a picture of Black Jack. The backward boots I found out, is a tradition from the American Civil War to honor a fallen hero.

The book is large, coffeetable format, but quite thin. It is full of news photographs, beginning with the landing of JFK at Dallas airport an hour before the shooting and ending at the grave in Arlington Cemetery, four days later. As well as photos of the mourning public and visiting dignitaries, there are pictures of the moments after the president was shot, and Lee Harvey Oswald being killed by Jack Ruby. The photos are not captioned, but accompanying text gives a full report of the events staunchly in favor of the “Oswald acted alone” viewpoint.

Because this event loomed large in my youth, I subsequently read many books, saw movies and documentaries to help me understand what was behind those fuzzy black and white images I witnessed as a teenager. Later, analyzing the Zapruder film, I arrived at my own conclusions, based on my own extensive rifle practice (I grew-up German).

After finding The Torch is Passed, (the title is from Kennedy’s inaugural address), I found no more copies in book stores, so it must have been a special printing? I can understand people wanting it as a memento; though I doubt that anyone having company would ever say, “here is a new book we just got, would you like to revisit the time of a great national tragedy?”

I do not think we will ever know what really happened or why. To a young person, it was shocking. The Torch is Passed expanded those images I remembered.   It was so much more than a horse with his boots on backwards. The impact sharpened my political consciousness.

AP Productions 1963 100 pp.

November 30, 2010

Yesterday is ‘His’tory

Evan Lattimer, daughter of the late prominent Columbia University urologist, John Lattimer, has to sift through her father's estate of over 3,000 eclectic items. When John Lattimer, died in May of 2007 at the age of 92, Ms. Lattimer knew her inheritance would include more than the family tea set, he was a renowned collector of relics, many of which are considered quirky and macabre.

Dr. Lattimer’s collecting initially centered on his childhood passions of aviation, ships and Native American culture. His earliest acquisitions were pilot helmets, arrowheads and relics from the U.S.S. Constitution, a ship he’d built a model of as a boy.

As his career flourished and he found himself interested in moments of historical importance, however, he began to collect objects associated with them.

After World War II, he served as a medical officer at the Nuremberg war tribunals, treating several Nazis who were held as prisoners, including Göring. Two hours before his scheduled execution, Göring killed himself with cyanide. Years later, the canister containing the poison became part of the Lattimer collection, along with other Göring memorabilia, including a pair of boxer shorts.

A decade later, he became chairman of Columbia University’s urology department, a post he held in 1972, when the Kennedy family asked Dr. Lattimer to examine X-rays, photographs and other materials from John F. Kennedy’s autopsy. His conclusion that Oswald was the sole shooter was front-page news, and his research stimulated a burst of collecting that included the acquisition of a brick from the Texas School Book Depository, a swatch of leather from Kennedy’s car in Dallas and Lee Harvey Oswald’s letters to his mother and Marine Corps target-practice score book documenting his accuracy.

Evan recalled that when she and her brothers were adolescents her father put them at the correct distance and angle to fire a rifle at a cadaver from the barn roof, to demonstrate the lone gunman theory, she said. “He’d say, ‘Well, there’s your target, see how you do,’ and we could do it when we were kids!”

Over the course of seven decades, he amassed more than 3,000 objects that ranged in age from a few years to tens of millions of years. “He was like a classic Renaissance collector,” said Tony Perrottet, a writer specializing in historical mysteries who spent time with Dr. Lattimer before his death. “Anything and everything could turn up in the collection, from Charles Lindbergh’s goggles to a bearskin coat that belonged to Custer.

Abraham Lincoln’s glasses were particularly sought by Dr. Lattimer.

W. C. Fields loved a good top hat. He wore this one during the filming of "Poppy" (1936).

Several of the relics have a certain notoriety, like the bloodstained collar that Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was shot, or the severed penis that may or may not have belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. For decades, though, much of the collection has been sitting in boxes and disorganized piles. Now his daughter is undertaking a task that even a Smithsonian curator might find daunting: researching and cataloging every item, in a kind of extreme version of the trial many people go through upon inheriting the contents of a parent’s household. It is a labor of love, albeit a strained one.

Each item, no matter whether it is priceless to her, has a declared value to the I.R.S., and, is subject to an inheritance tax of about 53 percent. The family has entrusted her to choose what to keep and what to sell. A large group of eager collectors awaits her decisions.

Within a week of Dr. Lattimer’s death, the family received an unsolicited call from someone offering $120,000 for the cyanide canister of Hermann Göring. More recently, another caller offered $100,000 for the ostensible Napoleonic phallus. The offer stunned one of her brothers, who had suggested she throw it away.

Ms. Lattimer believes her father began to see some of the objects associated with these events as a means of solving the mysteries surrounding them. Lurking in the mundane details of everyday things, he believed, might be overlooked clues that could shed light on a pressing question.

Dr. Lattimer was known to avoid self-reflection, but some who knew him speculate that there was something more behind his drive to collect. “He was an only child of two only children and grew up in a very isolated, lonely place,” said Mr. Perrottet. “It’s often said that the collecting passion is an unwillingness to let go of the past. For him, I think it was an attempt to hold onto his past. He had a long, rich past, and he wasn’t immune to the solitariness of human existence.”

He acquired items through auctions, dealers and, later, directly from their original owners. Ms. Lattimer recalls her father receiving calls from his war pals’ widows, offering him their World War II mementos. Once his collection became well known, some of his patients began contributing to it. “Actresses would come to his office with something of theirs in a paper grocery bag and say, ‘Hey, doc, you want this?’ ” his daughter said. One such patient, Greta Garbo.

Most of the items destined for auctions have been sorted. But Ms. Lattimer is still sifting through relics that the auction houses weren’t interested in. Though family and friends have encouraged her to hire helpers, she has resisted; she feels uniquely qualified for the job. “I’ll come across a cuff link, and I will remember seeing a matching cuff link years ago in a different room,” she explained.

Ultimately, Ms. Lattimer said, she finds a sense of peace in cataloging her family’s strange legacy. “I’m glad that he never had to do this,” she said. “But it’s been so intriguing that it loses its aura of sadness, you know... it becomes more a collaboration with him.”

sic transit...

November 20, 2010

Mais, c'est pas vrai! (as Holly Golightly might say)

It is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. I say this with some confidence because, just before reading it, I spent an evening flipping through book catalogues. I started eager, but after a while, I set the pencil down. Finally, I lowered my face to my hands and wept. Okay, I didn’t cry. But I could have, for after wading through all the catalogues, I had marked only two books.

I’m tired of hearing about the death of publishing and reading how the fault lies in some toxic combination of blogger and social networking. Sorry. It’s the books. Too many books, too many boring books, too many unedited books, too many overlong books that announce, more bluntly than anything else, publishing’s nearly universal refusal to recognize how the Internet has changed reading habits.(Note to publishers: the neighborhood library thanks you for every book you publish that’s more than 300 pages).

But “Fifth Ave, 5 AM” is the kind of book that could keep me home, and that’s odd, because its nominal topic -how the film of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came to be made, and why Audrey Hepburn was so crucial to that effort -concerns a film I’ve never watched all the way through.

The cool thing: you don’t have to care about any of that to love the book.

You just have to like back lot gossip (and who doesn’t). Paramount’s head of production hated the theme song -“Moon River.” Babe Paley smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, using an ivory holder. Marilyn Monroe lamented that she never had a home, “not with my own furniture.” Colette “discovered” Hepburn. Akira Kurosawa hated Mickey Rooney.

You have to be interested in how things really work. In this case, how, at a time of prudery and censorship, two smart producers, one savvy director and a sharp screenwriter figured out how to take “a novel with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama and an unhappy ending and turn it into a Hollywood movie.”

You have to be interested in a book that has an idea at the center of the narrative - how Audrey Hepburn, a “good girl princess” as pure as Doris Day, helped to change the American distaste for “bad girls” with a single movie. And, just as much, with “a little black dress” that even a mouse of a secretary could afford.

And, finally, you have to respond to a writer who can tell a complicated story in 200 crisp pages -and who can, at will, fire off zingers like “Truman needed her [Babe Paley] too. She looked good on him.” Or this, also about Capote: “If you could measure a man’s ego by the length of his ego, then this one had no end.”

This is a book that’s very inside Hollywood. George Axelrod? Major screenwriter and playwright, almost certainly unknown to you. Mary Jurow and Richard Shepherd –a lunch if you can name, without Google, another movie they produced. Not important stuff, but fun.

What’s especially satisfying: where the story begins. Which is to say: much earlier than you think. In 1951, when Audrey Hepburn was not yet magic. With George Axelrod’s 1950s efforts to get sex -as an adult topic, and rated as such -into Hollywood movies. With Truman Capote becoming Himself. In short, as in real life, the back story is key.

“Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman”, by Sam Wasson, “it’s a good thing”.

October 25, 2010

Into the cold.

You can read John le Carré as the author of spy thrillers -not just today’s gold standard, but the best there ever was -and enjoy his books as escapist fiction.

Or, you can read them -the last few, in any event -as slightly fictionalized but absolutely authoritative news stories you won’t read anywhere else because traditional media sources don’t dare.

How should you read him? Inside copies of his new book, he includes a reprint of a December 13, 2009 piece from The Guardian.

The headline: “Drug money saved banks in global crisis, claims UN advisor.” The subhead: “Drugs and crime chief says $352 billion in criminal proceeds was effectively laundered by financial institutions.”

The inescapable conclusion: Our most respected bankers will take money from anyone in order to prop up their failing institutions. Translation: The fix is in.

But I don’t want to spoil “Our Kind of Traitor” for you. Forget I’ve told you even this much. You can’t? Trust me. You will. Once you start caring about the people, the last thing on your mind will be How It Ends.

Anyway, there’s no mention of money laundering in the beginning. Peregrine Makepiece literally: a foreigner who makes peace is vacationing on Antigua with Gail Perkins, his live-in girlfriend. Perry was, until recently, a tutor in English Literature at Oxford; Gail is a barrister with a future. She’s satisfied with the trajectory of her career; he’s so turned off by academia he wants to teach secondary school in some deprived English slum.

Perry plays a wickedly good game of tennis. The pro introduces him to Dima, “a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties.” Dima and Perry play three brisk sets. An invitation to a party follows. There, Perry and Gail note the presence of an entourage -and bodyguards.

Dima is fond of the young couple - or is it that the guy who describes himself “the world’s number one money launderer” is just very good at sizing people up? Because Dima deputizes Gail and Perry. That is, he hands them this note:

Dmitri Vladimirovich Krasnov, the one they call Dima, European director of Arena Multi Global Trading Conglomerate of Nicosia, Cyprus, is willing negotiate through intermediary Professor Perry Makepiece and lawyer Madam Gail Perkins mutually profitable arrangement with authority of Great Britain regarding permanent residence all family in exchange for certain informations very important, very urgent, very critical for Great Britain of Her Majesty.

In theory, this should be easy. Dima has information. He wants asylum. It’s not like getting him across borders will be a problem -this is 2009, not 1955.

Now we hear the story again. Perry’s version. Gail’s. As told to middle-level English spymasters in London. Who, likewise, deputize Perry and Gail -as short-term spies.

Unlikely? For you and me, perhaps. But Gail and Perry have their reasons, and le Carré drops them along the pathway of the novel like bread crumbs. So they’re off. To a meeting with Dima in Paris at the French Open. And an even more exciting meeting -by now, we understand that Dima believes his Russians colleagues are watching him - that is diabolical in its layers of deception.

The clock ticks. The anxiety mounts. What’s the hitch? Well, perhaps Dima is a bit too big for easy assimilation. His information might lead somewhere. And we can’t have that.

Here’s how it works, an English spymaster explains: “Catch the minnows, but leave the sharks in the water. A chap’s laundering a couple of million? He’s a bloody crook. Call in the regulators, put him in irons. But a few billion? Now you’re talking. Billions are a statistic.”

Getting the idea? At the top the snooty bankers in London, Russian crooks, the Russian government, and Lord knows who else are all connected. Black money turns white.

Do you care how that happens? That it happens? How could you? You don’t know about it. And, if told, you won’t believe it. In which case, just enjoy the ride, just marvel at the writing, which is astonishing.

Spies used to operate on the margins, at checkpoints, in lonely towns with names you can’t pronounce. Then they were soldiers in the Cold War. Now, le Carré tells us, they exist for much darker purposes.

Of all of le Carré’s novels, this is the one that makes me feel like a child. I mean, I know we’re all under surveillance now. Photographed often. Every keystroke, every e-mail, every Tweet saved illegally, but saved. At any moment, the President can declare an American citizen an enemy combatant, a threat to the security of the Republic, and without judicial review or formal charge, he can order that American to be killed. But although I know all that, I hadn’t quite realized that when large amounts of money are involved, none of the old words -honor, truth, empathy -matter at all.

What le Carré is telling us here is that there is something that might be called the country of money. It has no boundaries. There are no “sides.” The government of Russia has made a pact with the Russian Mafia -or is it the other way around? -so criminal fortunes are appropriately shared. (When things go wrong, blame the Chechens.) And the cash-starved West? Our bankers? Our CEOs? Our statesmen? Bought. All of them

How good is John le Carré? Good enough to make you care about Dima, Perry and Gail -and the people they care about. Good enough to make you angry at their difficulties. Good enough to surprise you, no matter how cynical you are, at the end. In short, the best.

Paris Review interview with John le Carré

September 3, 2010

Lesley Blanche’s wilder shores

When the writer Lesley Blanch died in 2007, just a month short of her 103rd birthday, the world lost a formidable literary ornament.
Something about the intellectual climate of the early 20th century proved especially favorable to the flourishing of literary women. Many forgotten now, it was their personality, their capacity for self-invention, intrigue and, sometimes, invective, that made them so enthralling. Shades of Violet Trefusis, Louise de Vilmorin and their like haunt the indexes of the biographies of more substantial literary figures, creatures of fantasy, glamour and, quite often, ridicule.

Blanch outlived the lot of them, and by surviving so long contrived to stage-manage her own myth until almost no one was left to contradict it. Her unofficial biographer, the journalist Anne Boston, notes ruefully that her “biographobic” subject recoiled from authorizing anyone else to write an account of her life. “She wanted to be left to the portrait that was truer, rather than real, which no one could do better than herself.” “My account,” Boston adds, “is more real than true, in the manner of conventional biography.”

But Lesley Blanch's big personality is just icing. As “The Wilder Shores of Love” attests, she was a very good writer with a gift for telling remarkable stories, many of them probably true. And she was the ideal writer to profile four 19th century women who defied convention and went off to make fresh starts in North Africa and the Middle East. Or, as she called them, “four northern shadows flitting across a southern landscape.”

Her focus was as exotic as her prose: “love as a means of individual expression, of liberation and fulfillment within that radiant periphery.” Her women were not head-in-the-stars about love; they were “realists of romance.” And the book works brilliantly because, though the lives of Blanch's women were only superficially similar, their priorities were the same -breathing the oxygen that was only available on the wilder shores of love.

painting Cy Twombly

Isabel Burton: Blanch chose her because she was “the supreme example of a woman who lived and had her being entirely through love.” From the minute she saw them, she craved the East and the famous Victorian traveler, Richard Burton. (He spoke 28 languages. Blanch writes, one of them pornography.) Once she got him, their lives became a Greek drama: She colonized him and destroyed him, and, in the process, destroyed herself. But to what astonishing heights destruction took them --- Isabel worked tirelessly on Richard's behalf and, more or less singlehandedly, turned him into a celebrity. “I have undertaken a very peculiar man,” she wrote in the early days of the marriage. He could have said the same: She traveled with 59 trunks, stayed for days in harems, and, meeting her wayward husband by chance in Venice, said hello and shook his hand.

Jane Digby: “She smashed all the taboos of her time,” Blanch writes. “Hers was a life lived entirely against the rules, reasons and warnings, and it was triumphantly happy.” You may disagree --- Digby experienced the ultimate tragedy when her beloved six-year-old son slid down a balcony, miscalculated and fell to his death at her feet. But the rest? One fabulous love affair after another, culminating in the marriage to Sheik Abdul Medjuel El Mezrab. Jane was always a great horsewoman; now she mastered dromedaries, and often raced at the head of a Bedouin tribe. She prepared her husband's food, stood as he ate, washed his feet. And the outcome? She never became old. “Admiration and love,” Blanch notes, “are the best beauty treatments.”

Aimée Dubucq de Rivery: Romantic? How's this: captured by pirates, flung into a harem and enslaved. Her first sight in her new life in Turkey was “a great pyramid of heads, some so newly severed that they reeked and steamed with blood. ” She became “the French Sultana,” the mother of Sultan Mahmoud II (who helped create modern Turkey) and a force for freedom and justice -quite the tale.

Isabelle Eberhardt: She dressed as a man. She turned Arab. A Russian, she converted to Islam and died --- actually: drowned --- in the desert. “She adored her insignificant husband, but her sensual adventures were without number,” Blanch writes, matter-of-factly. “Her behavior was outrageous; she drank, she smoked hashish, but déclassée, she remained racée.” No one who met her ever forgot her. You won't either.

Subjects and author rarely had been better matched. For despite her sympathies with travel and romantic adventure, Lesley Blanch was a serious writer. She worked hard from a young age, first as a book illustrator, then as Features Editor of British Vogue. Over her career, she wrote 18 books, all in longhand. The combination of a good education, intense research, remarkable subjects, and a vivid style is irresistible - “Wilder Shores” has never been out of print since its publication in 1954.

August 9, 2010

Ghostly re-collections

I have relished Robert Harris’ novel, The Ghost, (and the movie that followed) about a man sent out to help a former British Prime Minister to complete his memoirs after the disappearance of the previous ‘ghost’. The ghost’s various adventures include being caught in the vigorous embrace of the former Prime Minister’s wife, a phrase I feel sure he enjoyed creating. (Viewers and readers have all had fun spotting likenesses, too…which the author modestly denies).

I too have been involved in ghostly exercises and re-collections, none of which led to vigorous embraces of any kind (at least none I will disclose here), or publications.

To wit. In 2004 I was invited by an old family friend, let me call her Sabine, to share a summer together and enjoy her ‘life’s recollections’.

“I have decided to impose my presence upon you”.

We stayed at a beach house in Malibu, California. Sabine would greet me in the morning with a giant Bloody Mary, followed by a delicious breakfast during which she re-collected. After supper we sat and admired the sunset over the Pacific and by sunrise Sabine had managed reams of ‘re-collecting’. This continued until September.

Sabine’s life was extraordinary by any yardstick. Short of money when young, her aristocratic background assured her a fine marriage.

“As far as marriage was concerned I had made a grave mistake. When I married, I was in love with another man. I had agreed to marry in order to have somebody with me. Now I did have him with me–all the time. What could be done? I could not just kill him. There were no other women, nor men in his life. I thought, and thought”…

After which, she slipped into the good life like a quail into aspic. Her world had revolved around lunches and dinners at the Connaught, Claridge’s, Mark’s Club and Harry’s Bar, and their counterparts in New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo. She was an exacting diner. Pity the waiter who asked ‘Is everything all right, Madame?’

“There are just no standards today. Society does not vanish for any mysterious reasons; it crumbles because of lack of standards.” She mused and critically surveyed a dining room.

"The love of money is an accursed thing, but our entire civilization derives from a moral concept based on evil. Without original sin, there would be no religion. Because of that, money should be squandered. I judge people according to the way they spend".

"I am, people frequently remark, unconventional". (Glory be.)

"A publisher asks me, some time ago, to write my memoirs. I started writing, but I got bored with myself".

"I think the greatest gift life gave me, is not to love those who do not love me, and a complete lack of jealousy. The only two men I have loved will remember me, on earth and in heaven, for men always remember a woman who has caused them many anxieties".

"I provide contrasts that interest me alone. I am the shyest and the boldest person, the gayest and the saddest. Opposites fascinate me".

"Boring people are poisonous and boredom has a paralyzing effect on me". (Amen)

"I will make a very bad dead person, because once I am disassembled, I will grow restless and think only of returning to earth to start all over". (Ditto)

"Anyway, that is the person I am. I am also the opposite of all that.”

Naturally, I enjoyed her company just as I enjoy all unconventional people, they amuse me more than others. They have wit, tact, a charming disloyalty, a well-bred nonchalance, and an arrogance that is very specific, very caustic, always on the alert; they know how to arrive at the right time, and to leave when necessary.

My friend Charles commented at Sabine’s memorial service; “I loved her very much; she was a great courtesan, four centuries behind her time”.

Alas, the kings have gone, and the courtesans with them.

…“don’t forget, pepper your strawberries”.

July 30, 2010

Music For Chameleons-

Truman Capote died a month and six days before his sixtieth birthday. At the time of his death, he had been on a long decline of notoriety, alcoholism, and drug use. The Beautiful People and jet set who sought him out and coddled him for decades; who had vied for his company and an invitation to his Party of the Century – the famous Black and White Ball, had long turned away and ostracized him. Even worse, his talent, which had taken him to great heights, had finally eluded and escaped him. He had had a good ride, even a great one, but his ending obscured his talent.

I was first aware of Capote as a teenager when I read his “Other Voices”, followed by “Breakfast at Tiffany”. Every girl imagined herself to be another Holly Golightly. Followed by the movie with Audrey Hepburn, which spoke to a whole generation of even non-readers idealizing grown up life in the big city.

In the mid-1960s appeared “In Cold Blood”, serialized in four parts in the New Yorker. The first sentence: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” A terrible murder of an upstanding, plain, and simple family by two aimless screwed up thugs from the underside of the same America.
I discovered it accidentally, thumbing through a new (for that week) issue of the magazine and seeing Capote’s byline at the end of the piece. (In those days, the New Yorker had no table of contents and bylines were always at the end of a story or article.) I began to read and soon found I could not stop. For the next three weeks, I lived with religious anticipation from week to week, when I could devour the next segment.

“In Cold Blood” was the most exciting, most horrifying, most compelling read of the moment and the intense public interest that it created lifted Truman Capote’s image into the stratosphere. He became one of those public characters who seemed to be blessed with wit, wisdom, glamour, and more than a touch of the offbeat.

The persona that later became a kind of mid-20th century version of Oscar Wilde, was a good a looking youthful man in a grey flannel suit. Blonde hair, high smooth brow and a very boyish face, and then there was the sashay. Despite the conventional style of dress, there was already something quite far-out (although not quite in-your-face) about him, at least for those pre-Liberation times. Then, of course, there was the voice, which on first hearing, came as a shock.

It was a whiny squeak, a drawling, lips-pursed, tongue slipping sibilance. Like some hipped up Baby Huey. No one in public life talked, or sounded like that, let alone would have wanted to. No one dared, it was so outrageously effeminate. So “Out There” with all the markings of a serious put-on. Despite the distracting timbre and mannered-ness of the man’s voice that seemed almost something of a joke, he was listened to very carefully, and taken very seriously. Far more seriously, in retrospect, and on certain matters than he deserved to be.

The talk show hosts would ask him about Jackie Kennedy. Taking a deep breath, looking up at the ceiling, then languidly looking around himself, as if to see who was listening, finally, he would say: “Waaaaal, all right, if you really want to know about Jackie,” and her name rolled quietly off his tongue. Then he’d let out a few pearls of dish. He was never a man of bon mots, or a man of letters. He was a gadfly, who could talk up a storm.

He was one of the most talked about men in America, lionized and worshipped by the press and the television interviewers who took his every word (mainly gossip and fantasy) as gospel; and was, as well, adored by his fans while envied by many of his peers for his brilliant success. He was also a genius it was often said and written, at publicizing himself.

Although it was never discussed (as far as I know) in his interviews, he was also one of the first openly gay celebrities. This was quite an accomplishment for the times, although they were “a-changing’.” There were others whose sexuality came into question (Liberace, for example, who always denied it right up to his dying day). Capote matter-of-factly let it be known to anyone who wanted to know, that his longtime companion was a man named Jack Dunphy – a man who had been married when Capote met him, and who had left his wife for him, and remained his partner for the rest of his life.

Then in 1966 came The Party, The Black and White Ball. Ostensibly for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, although no one paid much attention to that fact. Exercising his “genius” for PR, Capote titillated the public and his legions of friends and acquaintances with so much advance notice that by the night of the event, practically the whole country knew what was going on at the Plaza. The following morning, the New York Times published the guest list; and the celebrity magazines oohed and ahhed over it for months. Now he was glorified by, and glorying in it all.

Of course, after the incredible success of “In Cold Blood”, and the ballyhoo of the Black and White Ball, the insatiable maw of the star-making machinery wanted to know what was next. How was he going to top himself? What would the book be, and who would star in the movie?

In 1975, he published two short stories in Esquire magazine: “Mojave” and “La Cote Basque 1965.” By now, he was known more as a social gadfly. “La Cote Basque,” however, was reported to be a “chapter” in his upcoming novel. “Answered Prayers”, chronicled the conversations at various tables in the once socially fashionable restaurant. It caused a sensation, and the subsequent suicide of a socialite, Ann Woodward. A long-time-ago showgirl who married the blueblood heir to a banking fortune who had shot her husband to death in their house in Locust Valley, Long Island twenty years before. Whether or not Capote’s version of the story was true, Ann Woodward did indeed kill herself with an overdose after having read the galleys to the story.

Capote now, in the opinion of some people had blood on his hands. In another incident in “La Cote Basque”, which featured a restaurant full of well-known women gossiping about each other, the storyteller recounted a thinly disguised William Paley, well known to be a womanizer, having a fling with a thinly disguised Marie Harriman (first wife of Averell Harriman) in his hotel bedroom. The Paleys were, up to that moment, Truman Capote’s “Best Friends”. The knife of betrayal cut both ways. Capote’s sensational story ended his relationship, not only with the Paleys, but many of their famous friends.

He was a pariah overnight, although his celebrity social life became more famous through his friendships with Andy Warhol, Halston, Liza Minnelli and the whole “Studio 54” crowd. His drug-taking and his drinking became more prominent as well.

By 1980, he published, “Music for Chameleons,” a collection of short stories and writings including the “Mojave” chapter which was originally said to be part of the still anticipated novel “Answered Prayers.” One of the stories in the new collection, “Handcarved Coffins,” was a grisly murder case, purported to have actually occurred in some unnamed western state.

By this time, it was said that Truman Capote was something of a broken man, even in the eyes of the feasting celebrity media. There were incidents of drunkenness during his television appearances including one where he was so incoherent he had to be removed from the show. There was continued self-promotion about this novel-in-progress “Answered Prayers” although no hard evidence of it.

That same year, 1980, I was invited to a party that included Truman Capote. What was he really like? I was studying the room full of guests and had to strain to spot the man. I approached him and introduced myself. He paused, looking blankly up at me for a moment as if in the midst of a trance, and then said, “oh… yes …Rudolf,” with a wan smile of reverie. “We had some wild times ...”( I may not repeat what he told me) he guffawed, a remarkable, rolling, guttural laughter a couple of octaves below his famous speaking voice, with an energy in sharp contrast to his dazed comportment. I sat and Truman talked. It was all unsolicited, stream of consciousness. None of it was really for my benefit. He was on automatic pilot. He continued, dreamily gazing at me, “I’m going to tell the story of Studio 54.”
“Yup,” he replied with the confidential assuredness of a teller of tales.

In “Music For Chameleons”, he admitted that the spiritual beliefs that he had learned from Cousin Sook as a child, had fallen away as he grew older. However, in the latter years, he had begun to think about such things again. Although he was not the worst person he had ever known, he conceded to “some pretty serious sins.”

His writing, he always said, came before anything else. He regarded his talent as a “gift from God;” one that came with a whip. Everything he ever wrote was, for him, about real life. Much of it on the edge of sadness, like so much of his own real life. The whip had remained with him, as had the gift.

July 20, 2010

Lovin’ Las Vegas.

Despite a reputation for embracing (and encouraging) bad behavior, there remain many unexpected pleasures in sin city. You may enjoy your game at the high stakes tables, but Las Vegas is no place to gamble on love.  Going home broke is one thing, but broke and alone?  That just won't do.  So, here is a surefire romance inducer that will assure that you leave Las Vegas, with your partner.

A literary love note.

For me holding an autographed copy of a first edition evokes special feelings that are hard to reproduce on a Kindle or iPhone. No one captures the spirit of romance quite like the world’s great wordsmiths, there is something about the written word that enables it to convey great emotion-from passion to ecstasy and back again.

Should you be in a loving state of mind, consider a visit to Bauman Rare Books next time you are in Las Vegas. Carrying early, hard-to-find editions of famously romantic tomes like Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Height,” John Keats’ “Endymion” and many of Jane Austen’s novels, Bauman Rare Books brings you closer to the classics than any of the chain stores could ever hope to. And what better gift for a significant other?

Countering the stereotypical image of a used book store (musty and muddled), Bauman is a large, bright and immaculately organized operation displaying the high spots in the humanities and science. You can find titles from all fields, including architecture and photography. Also printed and manuscript music, plus numerous autographed artifacts.

If your winnings from the gaming tables should be burning a hole in your pocket, and you are torn between a poker tournament buy-in and betting big on your team in the NBA Playoffs, consider this thought. How about spending that cache of cash on “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,” a first edition on the individual’s right to the free exercise of economic activity? Not interested? What if I told you that this 1776 first edition is exceptionally rare? Still no? I tried!

Bauman Rare Books in the Shoppes at The Palazzo is filled with rare antiquarian and collectible books all with a, hmmm, story to tell even after you'll leave Las Vegas.

June 2, 2010

Dear Friends,

My father was an avid reader and great storyteller with a rare ability to spin the facts he acquired into tales. His imagination and his own sense of drama made life interesting. During school vacations and frequent travels, we sat in the evenings together and he would hold us spellbound.

His objects of study were woven into our lives. Generations of cats had been named Sheba and Hephzibah. Hundreds of books lined the shelves in his rooms the titles as diversified, as my father’s many interest. I remember sitting in these rooms reading. As I remember his love of books, I feel close to him. There is a special geniality about places were discussions and perhaps storytelling takes place, nestled before a fire in comfortable chairs.

Today, I celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth. Alas, the rooms of books are gone, as is my father. Oh, how I miss his stories.

I look forward to finding, and creating, stories of my own. As I draw up my favorite chair, I invite you to join me.

March 14, 2010

Pudding Comforts

My darling goddaughter DeDe, a California Girl if there ever was one. Life’s circumstances have transplanted her to Washington D.C., which has seen one of the more spectacular winters in many decades. Now, this morning, she calls me in tears, it is pouring rain, and she cannot possibly endure another week of this. I did not dare tell her, that I just returned from Kauai, where showers were frequent but gentle and warm, and I did not have the heart to share with her the forecast for Los Angeles.

What I did remind her off was our penchant for long walks on the beaches of Southern California in the rain. She recalled. And our reward when we came home, the delicious puddings her grandmother always prepared for us.

Oh yes, she remembered.

Her grandmother was very fond of pudding, and as I recall now, it crossed my mind that she was always happy when we announced our rainy day walk on the beach. Rainy day beach walks were the occasion for her to greet us back with a tray crowned with something warm and wonderfully scented. DeDe’s parents lives were such that much of her girlhood was spent in her grandmother’s house in Santa Monica-lucky us. Born of the children of pioneers in California’s Great Valley, her grandmother was a woman whose cooking was the perfection of American plainsong. We thrived on it.

My memories of Grandmother’s pudding are intertwined with recollections of the books we were reading after we returned from our walks. Resting against a tumble of pillows we read “Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” spooning up creamy, golden rice pudding with rose sauce. The rice had simmered in milk in the oven for hours and hours, which gave it a honeyed glow. And the color and fragrance of the sauce were reminiscent of Reine de Violettes, an old French rose.

Then there was raspberried bread-and-butter pudding with nutmeg sauce. In keeping with her saving ways, we half-expected when we turned a page of “Little Women,” to find Marmee had made one as well.

There was a feathery chocolate pudding. Although few cooks steam puddings nowadays, grandmother knew that steaming keeps a pudding moist. Spooning up clouds of ephemeral dark chocolate and whipped cream, we liked to imagine that if Aunt Polly had made such a treat for Tom Sawyer, Tom might have stayed home instead of dashing off after Huck Finn and making everybody nervous.

Delmonico pudding. Grandmother sliced fresh peaches over soft custard, slathered them with meringue and baked the concoction just enough to color the meringue and warm the pudding. At that point, we were devouring “Gone With the Wind.” Oh my, yes. If Scarlett had had her wits about her and had baked Delmonico pudding with Tara peaches for Captain Butler, he might well have given a damn.

Time passed and darling DeDe found herself in her sophomore year of college, in Paris. Around March she called, telling me, how homesick she was and how she longed for one of Grandma’s comfort puddings. I called up DeDe’s landlady, a lovely woman who ran the pension (she was both a grandmother and a wonderful cook), and ask her if she knew how to cook pudding. In a trice she presented DeDe with one of the most satisfying puddings imaginable: plump prunes steeped in port and caught between crisp, puffed, brown layers. As this pudding is traditional in the Limousin, I wondered whether Emma Bovary would ever have tasted it. Poor thing; it would have soothed her frazzled nerves.

And now, here we are Sunday morning, pouring rain in Washington D.C. A homesick California Girl on the phone, but wait she has cheered up and is on her way to the kitchen to retrieve Grandma’s cookbook and prepare one of her pudding comforts. I ask what she was reading, she said “War of Necessity, War of Choice” (CFR President Richard Haass’s Memoir of Two Iraq Wars) no comfort pudding came to mind for this.

March 4, 2010

Bas Bleu (Bookseller-By-Post)

bas bleu [Fr., blue stocking] a literary woman; a bluestocking.

But, you don’t have to be to like their book selections. Bas Bleu is a well-tended deli stocked with marvelous and nourishing goodies and not a bestselling Twinkie in sight.

Arranged in no particular order Bas Bleu offers uncommon reads in fiction, travel, mysteries, language, humor, and children’s reading among others. However, its greatest strength is their spirit of discovery of literary delights, both forgotten and actual that animates every page.

El Nino season is my favorite season to read and I have stocked-up with some delightfully spooky choices for reading aloud by a roaring fire (take note Glenda).

February 28, 2010

A Collector’s Tale

Bruce Chatwin’s exotic voyages have given us delightful travel as in Patagonia and Songlines. In his wanderings, the writer collected myths, legends, and disparate cultural blocks, which he built into the masonry of his own, unique narrations. In his novel Utz, alchemy, cabala, and metaphysical pursuits are the components of a strange tale, at whose center lies a priceless collection of exquisite porcelains.

Researching the nature of compulsive collecting, the nameless narrator of Utz travels in 1967 to Prague-“the most mysterious of European cities”-where he meets the equally mysterious Utz, a part-Jewish German expatriate whose way of life is peculiarly wedded to the Meissen porcelains he has lovingly collected.

What is the strange power of these delightful pieces-Harlequin, Pulcinella, Scaramouche, and scores of others? (He knows he could never succeed in smuggling them to the West.) Utz himself has a metaphysical explanation for the potency of porcelain: it is a kind of philosopher’s stone, ”a magical and talismanic substance…the antidote to decay.”

And who is the enigmatic Utz, whose maid is also his wife? Utz is physically nondescript, yet he has many mistresses. Allowed to make annual trips to the spa at Vichy, he could defect, but he is repelled by the banality of the abundance that he sees there. Utz chooses to remain in Prague, to grovel and “live within the lie.”

The final mystery is the most unsettling: before his death, Utz destroys his precious porcelains. Is he smashing his idols?, the narrator wonders. Is he spiting the state, which would have inherited the collection? Is he disgusted with the compromise he made to remain in Prague?

Chatwin meditates in his travel books on man as wanderer. In his fiction, by contrast, he writes about people who stay put. Abel and Cain are for him the archetypes of two classes of people; in In Patagonia he writes of “Abel, the wanderer” and “Cain, the hoarder of property.” Utz is clearly one of the latter. As wryly humorous as Utz’s Harlequin, as enigmatic as Prague, this compact novel is itself a finely wrought miniature, fired in Chatwin’s original and alluring imagination.


February 14, 2010

HIS life, THE life:

The Nureyev family of the small town of Ufa in the Soviet republic of Bashkiria was so poor that at the age of five little Rudik had no shoes; he was carried to school by his mother on her back. Fifty-two years later, at a packed auction at Christie’s in New York, a single pair of Rudolf Nureyev’s used ballet slippers sold for more than $9,000.

John Dryden called dancing “the poetry of the foot,” and rarely before had a pair of feet so defined, and symbolized, this poetry. Every male ballet dancer for the past five decades has been dancing in the space charted by Nureyev’s well-worn shoes and foot.

On June 16, 1961, Nureyev defected in Paris, and fame was thrust upon the 23-year-old dancer in a worldwide news frenzy. Despite rumors, there is ample evidence that Nureyev’s defection was not a premeditated act but a spontaneous one, made in impossible circumstances. He took “six steps exactly” (the famed “leap to freedom” was, in fact, a short walk) away from the K.G.B. agents guarding him and toward two undercover French policemen who were waiting. When the agents grabbed their man, one of the Parisian officials, in a wonderful moment of French diplomacy, said indignantly, “Ne le touchez pas — nous sommes en France.” (“Don’t touch him — we are in France.”) The deed was done.

He danced with most of the eminent ballerinas of his time, from Natalia Dudinskaya, Yvette Chauviré and Carla Fracci to Lynn Seymour, Natalia Makarova and Sylvie Guillem. And then there was Margot Fonteyn.

Eight months after his defection, they danced together for the first time, in “Giselle”

— then in everything, with Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand” (based on “La Dame aux Camélias” by Dumas fils) defining them forever. Thus began a partnership that will be remembered as perhaps the greatest in all dance history, not least for its erotic Oedipal overtones. Dame Margot Fonteyn was beautiful, enamored of her young lion, with a profound passion lurking behind the ladylike exterior — and, at 42, old enough to be his mother. He was wild, and impetuous. Audiences treated them like rock stars, waiting in lines for days for tickets, scalping them at record prices, and showering them with never ending curtain calls.

John Martin, the dance critic for The New York Times, was less than approving. “She has gone,” he wrote, “to the grand ball with a gigolo.”

“Everything I have,” Nureyev said, “the legs have danced for.” At his death, in 1993, he left an estate worth $21 million — an unprecedented fortune in a scandalously underpaid profession, and a sign of his unparalleled fame. During a career of more than 30 years, those not very long legs carried this astonishing man across the stages of the world.

-photograph Richard Avedon

Nureyev was never, technically, the best classical male dancer of his era — Mikhail Baryshnikov was more agile, Peter Martins was more fluid, Fernando Bujones had better line and feet, and others were superior partners — but he led the way for them all. In his jumps, with the look-at-me preparations that signaled a heroic event (which they usually were), his turns (always a little hopping and hair-raising), his lavish, yearning reaches and his magnificent presence, he was without question the most spirited dancer. His magnetic allure made him omnipotent. He didn’t walk onto the stage. He strutted with the air of a prince and a prowler, the pride in his own beauty offset by a knowing humor. He owned his audience before he even started dancing. Energy made flesh, he brought sex to ballet like no one had before — or has since. In doing so he brought the classical art form to which he indentured himself an audience of millions who might otherwise not have been interested. In this alone, his legacy is lasting and enormous.

Julie Kavanagh, a British dance journalist who trained as a dancer and the author of “Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton,” has written a superbly researched biography of Nureyev, 14 years after his death and nine years after publication of the one other significant biography, by the American writer Diane Solway. Solway’s biography was subtitled “His Life.” Kavanagh’s, with the grandiosity of authorization by the two foundations that bear Nureyev’s name, is subtitled “The Life.”

His life, The life: either way, it was an extraordinary one.

Nureyev referred to his childhood as his “potato period,” when that vegetable was the main sustenance and “six people and a dog” lived in one room, freezing throughout the long, bitter winters. “At night,” he said, “I could never stretch out completely.” Needs born in deprivation will rarely be satisfied by any reality, and the whole globe could not, in the end, accommodate this ravenous man’s need to “stretch out.”

I remember watching him, with a woolen cap on his head to keep the heat in the furnace, standing at the barre with such focused concentration that his tendu almost seared the floor, making him the center of the room. He was possessed, lacking the filter of self-possession coveted by most dancers.

Accepted into the Kirov Ballet in 1958, he immediately began to make a mark, as both a dancer and a very bad boy. During his debut in “Don Quixote,” the last intermission extended to almost an hour while he refused to finish the ballet wearing the short trousers he likened to “lampshades.” He had seen photographs of Western dancers and, like them, wanted to wear just tights. And Nureyev in tights was a sight to see — no wonder they wanted him to keep the lampshades on.

Money became an obsession —He rarely picked up a tab, often had no cash on him and early on set new standards for fees for his performances. He established a residence in Monaco and offshore foundations in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein; he hated paying taxes. By the end of his life, he had seven properties: an apartment on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, a house outside London, an apartment in the Dakota in New York, a villa in the South of France, a house on St. Barts, an 18th-century farm in Virginia and Li Galli, three small islands in the Mediterranean on the Amalfi Coast that had belonged to Léonide Massine. He amassed a sizable collection of paintings, antique furniture and numerous Turkish kilims, reminders of his childhood. He could never get enough of anything — space, applause, money, sex.

His dislocation was complete.

Nureyev was his own man at all times, unusual in a profession where obedience to a higher order are central to the art itself.

When he defected, Nureyev stated that he had two goals: to study with Bruhn, and to work with George Balanchine. Both dreams were, in their fashion, fulfilled, but be careful, as they say, what you wish for. He called Bruhn, the love of his life — “he’s so cold he’s like ice; you touch it and it burns you.” Their affair was marked by intense love, relentless competition, long distances and other lovers. Some of Bruhn’s tormented love letters, while moving in their misery they do the sensitive dancer, writing in a language not his own, no service.

The Balanchine connection was also a tortured affair. Nureyev had pursued Balanchine from the beginning, even going so far as to offer him two months a year of his time while most other choreographers were allotted only days. But this wasn’t really Balanchine’s style. He wanted all your time; he wanted, if you were lucky, your life. “When you are tired of playing at being a prince,” Balanchine famously told him, “come to me.” But the poor Tatar boy never tired of being the prince, and therein lies the essence of why these two huge figures in 20th-century ballet, from the same mother, the Kirov, were never to merge onstage. Though both lived by Balanchine’s philosophy — “More! More! What are you waiting for?” — they represented polar opposites in terms of ethics and thus aesthetics. Balanchine celebrated women (and the Divine), and Nureyev celebrated himself.

In 1984, Nureyev was diagnosed with H.I.V. He lived and danced for nine more years, never publicly acknowledging his illness, despite the rumors. In 1987, when Nureyev’s mother was dying, François Mitterrand — times had changed — helped the dancer secure a 36-hour visa. Nureyev had not seen his mother for 26 years. After the long trip to Ufa, he found her curled up in pain on an old ottoman in an empty room. She had had a stroke and did not open her eyes or speak. He stayed less than 10 minutes. After he left, his mother murmured, “It was Rudik.” Never allowed to travel, Farida had missed seeing her only son’s glorious career in the West. The Soviet government, he later said, had delivered the “last blow.”

It is near impossible (unless you are Paul Valéry or Edwin Denby) to render the three dimensions of a dancer’s performance, however transcendent, as convincingly or dramatically as a dancer’s bad behavior in the wings. With Nureyev, the offstage offenses were as numerous as the onstage miracles, which all too often received banal descriptions. “Rudolf projected a powerful physical allure,” Kavanagh writes of his performance in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “most apparent in the hunting scene, where bedecked in lace and satin, he stalked the stage with real aristocratic command.”

“He has a marvelous engine inside him, like a Rolls-Royce,” Frederick Ashton said. “I feel he’s a mixture of a Tartar, a faun and a kind of lost urchin. He’s the Rimbaud of the Steppes.” But amid all the reportage Kavanagh offers little of her own illumination of his genius, and amongst the foliage, the great sequoia is lost.

In his final years, Nureyev insisted on literally, excruciatingly, dying before our eyes, giving performances so ragged and inept that audiences whistled and demanded refunds — which suggests something besides simple flouting of the cardinal rule that performers should know when to retire gracefully. He was ill, but the stage was his only real home, so he stayed there. He demanded, somehow, that we see the suffering human behind the Dionysian god. He continued to the end in that transparent recklessness that was his deepest gift as a dancer. Nureyev, like Maria Callas (as Clive Barnes once noted), popularized and changed his art form forever, with a combination of technique, dedication and respect for its tradition, while simultaneously blowing it wide open with a kind of divine individual desperation.

He spent much of the last months of his life on Li Galli, and was found one day lying on the floor in an echo of his childhood, sleeping on one of his kilims and eating potatoes. In the end, he was the loneliest man in the world.

“They pay us,” Nureyev once said, “for our fear.” Sure, vanity, self-indulgence and cruelty ran rampant throughout his short, tempestuous life. But he faced death with defiance. In daring to be so vehemently, disobediently alive, he faced it, for us, every time he stepped onstage. Great dancing, unlike good dancing, is an experience of beauty laced with pity, a haunted happening in the shadow of our transience. Dancers are willing slaves to the time and gravity that rule us all, and dancing is mortality in motion.

even Rudolf, was not paid enough for this courage.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich