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Artists in Exile’

In response to:

Falling Stars from the May 15, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

According to Robert Gottlieb’s review [NYR, May 15], “much of the confusion” in my Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts arises from misuse of the words “refugee” and “exile.” But I acknowledge using these terms loosely in a title calibrated—as titles must be—to stir interest. (When Gottlieb and I called my second book Understanding Toscanini, Robert Craft equally took issue with that title in The New York Review.)

In fact, my main topic is not exile but “cultural exchange”: how the symphonies or ballets or films or stage designs of my subjects—all born abroad—mix New World and Old World traits. I write at length about Murnau’s Sunrise, or Weill’s Street Scene (I go “on and on,” Gottlieb complains), because European traditions here intermingle with the mores of Hollywood and Broadway in ways I find fascinating and revealing. “The only thing about Stokowski’s life and achievement that reflects his having emigrated here is that America gave him tremendous opportunities, and he grabbed them,” writes Gottlieb—as if this were a marginal point. What distinguishes Stokowski from other maestros is that, not unlike Greta Garbo or Cary Grant, he here reinvented himself—his name, his past, his hair, his speech, his style of performance—to a degree unthinkable abroad, whether in his native England or in Poland, where he sometimes claimed to have been born.

Gottlieb treats the Broadway designer Boris Aronson as a product of America. No less than Frank Rich, whose The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson Gottlieb approvingly cites, I treat Aronson as a Russian/American hybrid with roots in Russian Constructivism. In the case of Ernst Lubitsch, I argue, this productive New World/Old World dialectic doesn’t go very far. Gottlieb merely ridicules my immunity to Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner. I write: “Stewart’s gangly frame and informality of gesture (hitching up his pants), ingenuous countenance and slow drawl, clash with an undercurrent of worldly despair: if this movie is more than charming, it is because it subtly conveys the tenuousness of a job, or a business, or a marriage, or of life itself.”

Even the most casual reading of my book would disclose central themes unmentioned by Gottlieb, in particular my finding that German immigrants in the performing arts were mainly a colonizing presence whose high-culture pedigree, centuries old, was united and fixed, whereas the Russians, who preached no Russian bible, assimilated to a greater degree. Serkin, Schoenberg, Hindemith all exemplify the German template; Balanchine and Aronson, Mamoulian and Koussevitzky are adaptive Russians. I conclude by comparably juxtaposing Thomas Mann and Vladimir Nabokov.

Joseph Horowitz

New York City

Robert Gottlieb replies:

Mr. Horowitz has confused his intentions and his “themes” with his actual performance. As I believe I demonstrated in my review, he simply doesn’t have the in-depth knowledge to justify the broad scope of his ambitions. But modesty is not one of his strong points.

He does indeed drop in on literature as well as music, dance, film, and theater, juxtaposing Mann and Nabokov in what is the weakest section of his book. I forbore discussing it, just as I forbore touching on his prose (see his letter).

As for his title: titles should, indeed, stir interest, but not at the expense of misleading the potential reader. If his main topic is cultural exchange, not artists in exile, his title should have reflected that.

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