The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman
edited by Stephen Pascal
Knopf, 654 pp., $37.50
At the beginning of a 1953 New York Times review of a memoir by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, Leo Lerman—identified as “contributing editor of Mademoiselle,” a description that hardly did justice to the thirty-nine-year-old’s already significant social and cultural influence in New York City during the midcentury—expatiated on the pleasures of reading other people’s autobiographies. “The most delightful thing about reading a book of recollections,” he wrote,
is getting to know the person who is doing the recollecting. When this person also has total recall about at least fifteen other engaging persons, the whole book becomes at least fifteen times as delightful. And when the recollector backward-glances wittily, with love and that nostalgic understanding which permits no mawkishness; when the rememberer of things past writes humorous prose, detailing the long ago, the ensuing document may well be a little masterpiece.
The book in question, entitled Period Piece, was hardly the only autobiography that Lerman reviewed for the Times. He seemed, if anything, to have taken special pleasure in reading and reviewing memoirs and autobiographies, and he reserved his highest praise for those who are able to conjure the lost past in minute detail—a not unsurprising enthusiasm from someone who had a lifelong reverence for Proust. In his review of Period Piece he approvingly quotes, verbatim, a list of the fourteen items worn by a female houseguest; elsewhere he praises the “documentary” quality of a memoir by a minor European royalty.
In the piece of literary journalism of which he was particularly proud, a front-page article for the Times Book Review in 1960 about the newly reissued three-volume edition of Francis Kilvert’s journals, Lerman was ecstatic about the way in which the Victorian vicar’s keen eye for detail and sense of “wonder” about the world seem to bring him to life before our eyes:
It is wonderfully reassuring when, out of the vast anonymity of the past, a man who did not fire the world with art or, by a talent for disaster, set it blazing, again puts on his own face, fleshes his bones, sets his blood coursing and, eluding, for a pitiful moment, mortality, walks straight into our lives.
At the time he wrote those words, Lerman was famous less for being an “editor of Mademoiselle“—he would go on to become features editor at Vogue (where he published Rebecca West, Milan Kundera, and Iris Murdoch), briefly editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, and, finally, editorial consultant to all of Condé Nast—than for having made himself the center of a kind of a celebrity Who’s Who of his age. People like Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas—his two closest girlfriends—Lincoln Kirstein, Philip Johnson, Carmel Snow, Noel Coward, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Indira Gandhi, Henry Kissinger, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Luise Rainer, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, and many others seemed happy to crowd into his various apartments over the years to be included in the haut and heady fun …