On the morning of March 3, 1972, readers of The New York Times were detained by a front-page story somewhat longer than the account of the Nixons’ final day in China. With no little astonisment I noticed that the face on page one, replacing the perpetually amused Mrs. Nixon’s, was my own.
The shook of recognition absorbed, I girded for enlightenment; but am still in the dark about the scoop: why the story was considered of any, let alone national and international, importance. What it pretended to be about was a book of ex-secretary-type memoirs by a former employee of Stravinsky’s impugning the impression I had given of his later years. But since this Book of Revelation had not yet been published, since most of the writings in which “my” Stravinsky had been formed were either remaindered or out of print, and since the story itself was a lot less than compulsively readable, why was it treated as “hard” news?
Why, above all, since the story patently avoided any claim to credence, had the Times failed to check the facts—the erroneous statement concerning Stravinsky’s will, for example, that being a matter of public record? After all, when a newspaper publishes a wholly irresponsible piece in a comparatively specialized field, one wonders how reliable it can be in the chaos of public affairs. But instead of verifying its informant’s facts the Times offered a paragraph of her rodomontade (a “Wellesley graduate, cumlaude“) and affidavits by two character witnesses, one of whom testified that the author, Lillian Libman, “seemed to know Stravinsky quite well,” the other that she and Stravinsky “were devoted friends,” a conclusion he had had singularly little opportunity to reach.
To conclude the personal side of my adventure, I am bound to say that somehow interest in me was not sustained, and that by March 4 I was both demoted to page 18 of the Times and abandoned by the Daily News.
Publication of books by synopsis in the Times is not an ideal method. The author’s purpose is inevitably bent to the paper’s, whose dupe he or she becomes. Thus, in synopsis, Miss Libman’s book Music at the Close appears to be about everything but. A new trend in publishing may have been born, however, as other authors follow Miss Libman retailing first drafts to the Times, and in effect scooping themselves. But how do publishers obtain such books in the first place? How do they delude the never-before writer into trying that opportunistic book whose indispensable condition is the betrayal of trust? Is it merely by preying on a susceptible ego?
Not that it is considered unethical any more for a confidante to sell the confidences of her employer, to expose the weaknesses and imperfections which for some reason are always more reprehensible in accused than accuser. Nor is the bond of the paid relationship the only one no longer honored. Consider the thriving literature of kiss and tell—although “My Love Affair with Garbo” might still have been thought in dubious taste, for a Knight of the Realm, if it were not unbelievable anyway.
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I must begin by saying that the Stravinsky of Miss Libman’s first title, The Man Without the Music, did not exist. Neither did the Stravinsky of the Times synopsis. “When Bob met him,” Miss Libman says, “Stravinsky had resigned himself to old age.” The truth is he had not yet resigned himself to old age on his deathbed, and anyone who failed to see that much could have understood little else about him. When I met him he was the youngest man I have ever known, a third of his creative life was ahead, and he had not yet begun his largest work. By what process of divination-in-reverse did Miss Libman, coming along eleven years later, make such a deduction?
“By 1962,” she goes on, “Stravinsky was making concessions to old age….” Well, in 1962 Stravinsky, then eighty, conceded to old age by composing The Flood and part of Abraham and Isaac; by traveling to Africa, Israel, the Soviet Union, Italy (twice), Venezuela, the United States, Canada (twice); by conducting more concerts and recording sessions than in any other year of his life; by supervising and conducting festivals of his music in Santa Fe and Hamburg; by “opening” the Seattle World’s Fair; by taping two television programs; by writing a book. This is the Stravinsky Miss Libman sees as “permitting life to be lived for him by others.” The truth, of course, is that the others could not keep up with him. But Miss Libman saw little of Stravinsky in that year, and understood even less.
Miss Libman does not recognize the “dominating, stabbing, extraordinarily witty figure who consorted with the great only.” And reasonably enough, for she was not present when Stravinsky was with the great. Her qualifications to sit in judgment on his wit are likewise drastically reduced when the reader learns, first, that she never accompanied him outside the American continent (where the largest part of his public life took place), and second, understood only one of his languages and that evidently not in the way he used it. Orchestras, audiences, friends, and acquaintances throughout the world found him devastatingly witty, however, and though wit and laughter are not necessarily interdependent, the audience at his last taped public interview, in Cincinnati in 1965, can be heard laughing at almost everything he said. Similarly, University of Texas students showed a no less lively appreciation of this aspect of him on a televised interview earlier in the same year. One wonders if Miss Libman’s idiosyncratic view could be explained by some deficiency in her own endowments. In the sense, that is, of “it takes one to recognize one.”
In the last twelve years of his life I was with him more than anyone other than Robert Craft and Mrs. Stravinsky.” Well, if Miss Libman was with him, she was also with Mrs. Stravinsky, and must in that time have gained her trust. Could Mrs. Stravinsky not then have been trusted in turn to read and correct the book’s innumerable errors both of fact and opinion before it was gushed to the Times? But once again, Miss Libman’s claim is wrong. Stravinsky’s daughter, for one, was “with him” more than Miss Libman. So was his Hollywood-Viennese doctor, with whom he discussed Marxist philosophy, Freud, and the “contemporary events” that, according to Miss Libman, did not interest him.
Still another friend, “with him” more than Miss Libman, is a musician to whom Stravinsky dedicated a work, an authority whose book on the composer, now fifteen years in the making, will contrast strangely with Miss Libman’s hearse-chasing account. Further, when Stravinsky no longer conducted concerts, after May, 1967, and Miss Libman was absent more and more, the “third closest person to him” from then until his death was a modest young man who would not dream of publicizing the claim. And, anyway, being “with” Stravinsky and being in communication with him, or even aware of him, are very different.
Stravinsky “cared little about feuds, personal or professional,” Miss Libman announces, blithely unaware that his correspondence often seems to consist of nothing else. Yet even she should know that some of his most celebrated friendships, including that with Diaghilev, ended in feuds, and that his running feuds with critics—Ernest Newman, for example—and conductors, such as Toscanini, were lifelong. Aldous Huxley’s remark in a letter that “Stravinsky had something of the elephant’s memory for slights real or imagined” is more intelligently observed and, regrettably, nearer the truth.
The Times vouches for “Miss Libman’s place in the inner circle…by the fact that she witnessed Stravinsky’s last will.” But so did a part-time nurse. As a witness, Miss Libman explains, she “could not be a beneficiary of the will.” But the implication that otherwise she might have been is one of her zanier fantasies. Then abruptly about facing, she says that “at the end of the composer’s life pains were taken by the inner circle to maintain the pretense that Stravinsky was still functioning at the brilliant level of the books and articles.” Miss Libman wants it both ways. But was she or was she not part of that inner circle? And if she was did she not “take” any of those “pains” herself? Above all, why didn’t she demur at the time, rather than going along with it and pocketing her salary? Of one thing I am certain, that of Stravinsky’s inner life in the late years, as distinguished from his inner circle, Miss Libman knew nothing.
A mind so unceasingly creative as Stravinsky’s can hardly be apprehended through its epiphenomena. But has Miss Libman ever examined any of these? For she appears to have had no awareness of the continuing force of that mind until the end. (And not only the end. How can she insult the composer by saying that, twenty years ago, “Mr. Craft persuaded Mr. Stravinsky of the validity of serial music,” as if he were incapable of deciding that himself?) His final sketchbook is pasted with clippings, about a wide range of subjects, interleaved with musical notations for a work of greater intellectual complexity than the Variations. The book also contains passages that he copied from Ulysses, which even I did not know he was reading. Nor was I aware, in the last month of his life, that one of his Russian nurses was reading Akhmatova and other contemporary Russian poets to him almost daily, at his request. Isn’t the answer to Miss Libman the same as Goethe’s answer to “no man is a hero in the eyes of his valet”?: “Yes,” Goethe said, “but not because the hero is not a hero, but because the valet is a valet.”
As for Miss Libman’s preposterous statement that Stravinsky “cared little about talking,” I can say only that she must be hard of hearing. But then, she rated Stravinsky’s English as “poor.” It was, by any measure, rich, original, inventive, and grammatically incorrect. At least some of this comes through in bits of filmed conversations—in, for example, a discussion with Nicolas Nabokov of the difference between “assiduous” and “diligent.” But Stravinsky loved language as much as any poet I have known. His use of words was always discriminating, in contrast to Miss Libman’s blend of Paul de Kock, Leonard Lyons, and the breathless chambermaid at the inquest.
Miss Libman also assures the reader that “the stream of [Stravinsky-Craft] writings helped to provide a sizeable income.” Well, hardly in fees. But $150 from The New York Review was worth a thousand times that in tax deductions. All of Stravinsky’s household costs were deductible so long as he continued to produce, which fact is one of the few indiscretions Miss Libman does not permit herself. It was, however, the chief reason Stravinsky labored with me to put that “stream” of two articles together in the last year of his life.
These writings, the quid pro quo of Miss Libman’s exposé, draw from her the peculiar allegation that Stravinsky “did not write as much as he is supposed to have written—other than music.” And in one instance she is correct. At her insistence I wrote a review of Boris Kochno’s picture book about Diaghilev (Dance News, December, 1970), to which, unbeknownst to Stravinsky or to me, she ad-Libbed his name as co-author. This, obviously, is a case of “projection,” of condemning one’s own fault in another. What Miss Libman appears not to have been aware of is that Stravinsky’s and my joint journalism was the result of hundreds of hours of, above all, listening to music, and of the most painstaking piecing together, on my part, of his thoughts and reactions. I hardly expect the Pulitzer Prize for the results, but I do think it is time to read this work for what it says.
Finally, Miss Libman brutally informs me—I learned of it for the first time in the Times—of an error of fact in my account of Stravinsky’s death. But she typed that error for me. Why did she not draw my attention to it at the time? As surely as I was in a state of shock, that morning of April 6, 1971, so Miss Libman was well collected when she called the Times to announce the death. Why, then, did she tell the Times that “with Stravinsky at his bedside were his wife, Vera, his musical assistant and close friend, Robort Craft, Lillian Libman, his personal manager, and his nurse, Rita Christiansen”—when Miss Christiansen was blocks away in a midtown hotel?
The answer, I am convinced, is that Miss Libman finds it difficult to recognize the truth. I am also convinced that this incapacity is an occupational one, the result of professional training. For Miss Libman is a graduate (cum laude, naturally) in Public Relations, and therefore a mistress of that hyperbole which obliterates such quaint distinctions as “true” and “false.” I think the reader recognizes that when, for example, she threatens to “buttress her points” [sic] with “more than 140 letters from Stravinsky,” she can have fewer than half as many messages that, without greatly stretching a point, could be called letters.
Similarly, when she dramatizes Stravinsky berating the greatly overberated Leonard Bernstein for his performance of Le Sacre: “I do not agree with your tempi. All wrong,” the reader senses the truth, which is that Stravinsky criticized one or two tempi, and certainly not rudely. Finally, when the Times says that Miss Libman’s version of “a Stravinsky dinner at the White House in 1961 [wrong year] amplifies Mr. Craft’s,” and that the amplification consists of a story about the President helping the composer to the bathroom to pee, the reader readily recognizes the added untruth.
But it is all somehow so pathetic, these desperate claims to have been close to the great man, to be recognized with that beam of reflected glory. And pathetic the Berkeleian argument that because she was excluded from the great man’s “dazzling” social and intellectual life, he did not have any. And pathetic, too, the competitiveness, of which she seems so wholly unaware. “I loved Stravinsky very much,” she feels it necessary to say, “but Bob loved him more deeply in a different way.” Well, there we were, neck and neck. The declaration, of course, reduces belief. What Miss Libman did unquestionably love about Stravinsky was his prestige, his fame, his publicity. If she had loved him “truly,” as she would put it, she could not have cashed in on his private life during the lifetime of the woman who shared it with him. Stravinsky himself, I am compelled to say, would have been dumfounded by his former employee’s day in court. But then, March 3 was the first day since the composer’s death that, for his sake, I did not regret he was no longer here.
April 6, 1972