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—happy despite not only (in the case of his first apartment, on upper Lexington Avenue) the five flights of stairs, but also the fact that the fare often consisted of nothing more glamorous than jug wine and rat cheese.
A sense of what it was they were coming for may now be gleaned from The Grand Surprise, a massive and engrossing collection of Lerman’s own autobiographical writings. “Writings” is an awkward term, but one that must suffice here. Although Lerman published three books during his lifetime (biographies of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and a hundredth-anniversary commemorative volume about the Metropolitan Museum of Art), he was never able to surmount his anxiety about writing the memoir that he had long planned (and was under contract) to write—to say nothing of the grand novelistic recherche du temps perdu which, increasingly poignantly, this worshiper of Proust continued throughout his lifetime to claim that he was preparing to compose, long after it was clear that he was incapable of doing so.
The Grand Surprise is a selection from the journals that he kept for over half a century, from 1941 until eight months before his death, at eighty, in August 1994 (they were discovered and transcribed only after his death), as well as from hundreds of letters to his many friends, lovers, and ex-lovers. There are also sharp-eyed “vignettes,” as the editor of this volume describes them, recounting this or that episode, some written toward the end of Lerman’s life as part of the unfinished memoir, others adapted from eulogies or tributes that he gave, still others inserted into the journal to amplify various entries long after the fact.
These have been ingeniously braided into a persuasive whole by Stephen Pascal (working closely with Gray Foy, Lerman’s partner for forty-seven years), who for twelve years served as Lerman’s assistant at various Condé Nast postings. As such, The Grand Surprise, a compendium of essentially casual records of Lerman’s extraordinarily rich life, will have to stand in for the polished literary work he was never able to commit to paper. But then, Lerman himself, who consistently deprecated both his journalism (“the emptiness, the waste”) and his journal- keeping (“scribbling”), had always suspected, and indeed predicted, that his life was going to crowd out whatever art he was capable of. “I realize that the novel I have wished to write, I have written. My life is that novel. I have been writing it all my life.”
The Grand Surprise certainly possesses the qualities that its author so lavishly praised in other autobiographies. The least significant of these, to my mind, is the one that has drawn so much attention to the book: the glittery ubiquity of what Lerman, in his review of Period Piece, called “engaging persons”—the bold-faced names whose presence on every page is bound to suggest that his life amounted to little more than one long soiree. (The front-page Times Book Review article of the book was called “Life of the Party.”) To be sure, given Lerman’s tenacious adherence to the worlds of theater, glossy magazine publishing, dance (a friend to Balanchine and Kirstein both, he was a regular contributor to Dance Magazine), art, music (for years he wrote for Playbill and wrote the program notes for the Young People’s Concerts at the Philharmonic), fashion, and Society—along with his knack for quickly making friends with the celebrated and the talented whom he met seemingly every night (Judy Garland in 1954, at the party she threw to celebrate the premiere of A Star Is Born: “a warm and loving girl with devastating charm)—his journal entries often read like a guide to fashionable New York culture from the 1940s straight through to the 1990s.
For that reason alone, the book qualifies as a useful resource for those interested, as many now are, in the Manhattan midcentury, with its giddy vitality and sense (so it seems now) of boundless possibility—a period from which we are now as distant as Lerman was from the gaslight era, which he so fondly romanticized.
But what the Journals make clear are the extraordinarily interesting qualities of Lerman himself—the magnet that drew all those famous names over so many years, in combinations and configurations one might have thought unlikely. (The Grand Surprise features guest lists to some of Lerman’s more dazzling parties: one of these, for a New Year’s Eve party in 1976, includes both Henry Kissinger and Charles Ludlam.) In his review of Period Piece, Lerman endorsed “wit” and “humor” in books of recollections, and there is no shortage of either here. Whatever his perceived limitations as a writer, he had an extraordinary gift for the amusing yet devastatingly telling character sketch; in a single sentence, he can memorably capture the supremely talented and the merely well-born. (Princess Margaret in 1965: “She’s kind of jazzy and looks like her father struck it good in the female-shoe business.”) These are always shrewdest when Lerman is describing performers; a born critic, he had a remarkable feel for the stage and those who trod it—actors, singers, dancers. Joan Sutherland is “a cross between Margaret Dumont and a high school pageant”; Carol Channing’s “art” (the scare-quotes are his) was “based on that look of apologetic, hopeful anguish seen on the face of a little girl who has just peed in her pants.”
What is remarkable about Lerman’s wit is that it is entirely lacking in cattiness—and, perhaps even more remarkably in the case of a gay man immersed in the arts at midcentury, entirely lacking in camp attitudinizing. (Or self-aggrandizement of any kind, something Lerman abhorred in Cecil Beaton’s diaries, by which he felt “so embarrassed.”) The emotion that pervades these journals is, if anything, the “love and nostalgic understanding” that their author so admired in the recollections of Darwin’s granddaughter. This undoubtedly has a great deal to do with his deep and loving connection to his family. Lerman, who was born in 1914 and grew up quite happily in a roiling immigrant Jewish milieu in Harlem—the same milieu that produced the perennially dyspeptic Henry Roth—was more than fortunate in his “Momma” and “Poppa” (the latter a house painter) and indeed the rest of his exuberant and memorable family, fond and highly colored reminiscences of whom occur increasingly, perhaps unsurprisingly, in the journals as Lerman grows older.
In particular, their early and seemingly unquestioning acceptance of his homosexuality—rare for the times, to say the least—seems to have given him an admirably balanced emotional constitution. The journals bear moving witness, from an opening love letter to his first serious lover, the painter Richard Hunter, to its closing tributes to Dietrich and above all to Gray Foy, to relationships both Platonic and erotic of impressive depth and longevity. As sophisticated as he was, his feelings were strong, and often disarmingly naked. “Please do not die,” he wrote, only half-jokingly, to his great friend Ruth Yorck in 1951.
And yet there is never a hint of “mawkishness,” a quality Lerman abhorred in his Period Piece review. If he can be severe with others—“I resent Tennessee [Williams]’s evil, sure masturbation of audiences”; “Martha Graham is the Mae West of the dance”—he is never less than severe with himself, too: a welcome quality in a diarist in general, and particularly in one whose writing extends to such great length. “The surface coruscates,” he wrote, in 1945, of his work at Harper’s Bazaar, “but it is sterile.” As if in rueful acknowledgment of the possibility that it was a judgment on his life as well, he went on: “How to live?”
The lack of mawkishness, despite the intensity of feeling throughout, owes much to a stringent (and often astringent) self-consciousness, which was itself, it’s hard not to feel, deeply indebted to Lerman’s lifelong reading and rereading of Proust. (A 1972 entry begins, “Having just finished (for the eighth or ninth time) the “Overture” to A la Récherche [sic], I am overwhelmed….”) Lerman identified with the aesthetized self-awareness of Proust not least because he liked to think that, as with Proust, his sensibility was founded on his outsider’s sexuality and his outsider’s religion: “The richness of being Jewish, the very specialness of being queer—these are two of my foundations.”