Only in America

Being Bernard Berenson

by Meryle Secrest
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 473 pp., $15.95

Bernard Berenson
Bernard Berenson; drawing by David Levine

“If small, lithe tigers could speak, they would have the voice and intelligence of this feline Pole. He has velvet paws and killer talons of steel. He’s let his beard grow to cover up the fact that he is only half a man. His eyes are blue, the better to deceive…. His ambition, which is consuming, is to be recognized as the world’s greatest expert on the Italian primitives; and he achieved his goal about three years ago. He is a dying man, but he’ll go on for a long, long time. He doesn’t do business or accept commissions, but he shares in the profits. ‘Here are 25,000 francs, M. Berenson.’ ‘Merci, Gimpel.”‘

This entry from the 1918 diary of the art dealer René Gimpel is the best thumbnail sketch of Bernard Berenson yet written. It was a curious fact of cultural life, and perhaps a tribute to the old serpent’s powers of intimidation, that nobody else could deal with him in such terms, catching his epicene grace, deviousness, hypochondria, greed, relentless ambition, and ophidian charm in a few lines. It is now twenty years since Berenson died in 1959, and it seems longer, partly because of the fuzziness and piety of his memorialists, and partly because of his own remoteness from modernist culture. And yet he is still an extraordinarily interesting, even a legendary, creature. Berenson’s success story was one of the most spectacular in the history of art—the poor Jewish boy from a Lithuanian shtetl who became a millionaire dictator of taste; the Harvard scholar who rose, by the end of his life, to be regarded as a latter-day Goethe; the neurasthenic youth who outlived nearly all his contemporaries, dying at the patriarchal age of ninety-four in the elaborately plain Tuscan villa where, for fifty years, dealers, collectors, historians, minor nobility, princes, kings, and politicians had paid assiduous and often slavish court to him. Berenson was one of the wiliest and yet most self-deluded men that ever lived, a great connoisseur, but also a master of opportunism who came to believe in his own fictions. He was, to put it mildly, a hard nut to crack, and is a harder one to write about.

Of the many pieces written on the Sage of I Tatti, as Berenson was routinely called in his old age, few have biographical value and most are silly. One need not count the articles which had become, by 1950, a subgenre of American journalism all on their own, written by the hordes of Luce staffers and CIA spooks on holiday who made the trek up the hill to Settignano and were rewarded by the sight of Berenson, trundled out like a reliquary by his companion Nicky Mariano, with some rich young man being groomed for a future in the art world—Carter Brown, William Mostyn-Owen—in attendance. It was one of the sights of Florence and,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.