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.”
There are, indeed, episodes in The Grand Surprise that, whether consciously or not, uncannily recreate episodes in À la recherche. Not the least striking of these is one recounted in a 1972 entry, in which Lerman, attending an art opening, is bewildered to find himself among “an assortment of elderly women who greeted me with joy”—only to realize that they are all old friends from thirty years past, now made unrecognizable by Time:
Only when I somehow unfocused these seamed, other-shaped faces, so confidently presenting themselves for friendly kisses, did I perceive within each quite unfamiliar visage the face of some other person I had once known well. Here were women I had seen or chatted with daily—a danse macabre…[they] have become those anonymous old women and men who make up lamenting choruses in verse plays.
This is a recreation (perhaps conscious but all the more moving if it was unconscious: a testament to the extent to which Lerman had internalized Proust’s novel) of the narrator’s climactic experience at the Princesse de Guermantes’s matinee in Le Temps retrouvé.
The title of the present volume is an allusion to the object that was, for Lerman, something like the famous madeleine: a magnificent butterfly, called a Camberwell Beauty, that he caught sight of as a child and that aroused in him the intensest desire he’d ever known, and which forever after represented to him the thing he sought in life: a sense of wonder, of the swoony and unexpected possibility of sudden beauty. “Thirty-five or so years later,” he wrote in a 1956 journal entry, “I read about this butterfly and discovered that it has another name. Sometimes it is called the Grand Surprise.”
And so The Grand Surprise exemplifies the qualities that Lerman himself sought out in the autobiographies and life recollections that he—an astonishingly successful autodidact with no more than a high school education—so avidly read: wit, respect for time past, profound feeling, a lack of cheap sentimentality, and above all an abiding sense, when others might have become jaded, of deep “wonder” at the haut monde (as he liked to put it) of Art and Society to which he had struggled so hard to gain access. (This latter was the quality that Lerman, the Harlem-born Jewish homosexual, responded to so strongly in the diaries of Francis Kilvert, the English clergyman: “Kilvert was radiant with wonder. It was his Golden Fleece, his mighty mite, God given.”)
To my mind, what makes The Grand Surprise most worth reading for anyone interested in the substance, rather than the coruscating surface, of the times and culture it describes is the scintillant quality of Lerman’s critical acumen. To read this book is, as it were, to witness a meteor shower of casually tossed-off insights into the dance, theater, film, music, art, and literature of his day, and of the past. These often take the form of thought-provoking throwaway lines: Marlene Dietrich is “the permanent symbol of beauty’s decay”; Barbara Bel Geddes was “very good” as Maggie in the 1955 Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but Miriam Hopkins would have been “extraordinary”; the “curvaceous line” of the melodies in Tosca—he is writing about Callas here—suggest to him that Puccini’s music is, in fact, “very Art Nouveau.” Often, he tosses off eccentrically fascinating ideas that you wish he’d spent more time working out: at one point he remarks that he thinks of Emily Dickinson and Lizzie Borden as “identical, actually as one woman. They represent to me the two schools, as do Duse and Bernhardt, of the same art.”
It’s in the extended reflections on this or that opera or book or performer that Lerman’s genius for impressionistically conjuring the qualities of art, or artistic people, is fully revealed. Here he is, in 1972, listening to Das Rheingold:
Wagner made audible the caress. Yet his tensions, even when small by design, are monumental. Listening to Wagner is always like traveling through ranges of mountains, each more overwhelming, through size or beauty or sheer being, than those traversed—the sudden, sweeping vast forests—the shimmer, the sheen, all sunlight fluttering—a vastness of soaring, wings in motion—running, that happens in Wagner constantly—the sound of a single bee enlarged to a magnificent thunder—sense of alarums. In Proust’s opening pages, night—hurrying through the night. Certain pages of Proust, Beethoven, and Wagner are linked by this sense of distant hurrying, by carriage, by horse, through night.
Here he is in 1951, after seeing Olivia de Havilland’s Romeo and Juliet in London, on the character of the Nurse:
I realized that the Nurse was a wicked, genuinely immoral, lazy woman, and that she is, actually, the Mrs. Danvers who permits Juliet to undo herself, and even abets her, in what the Nurse must know is a fatal act. This Nurse lives in the moment, is spoiled, lewd…. I have never seen a production which has been staged to present her this way.
Here he is, in 1984, making what seems at first like an improbable, even silly—and yet ultimately persuasive—comparison between Jane Austen and Judith Martin (“Miss Manners,” whom Lerman saw as “more Jane Austen than Emily Post”):
How Miss Austen strikes flint on stone, and how sparks fly, sometimes igniting small, astonishing fires, sometimes bursting into conflagration…. The amusement and shock of joy comes from how she views commonsensically, from some sharp eminence. She startles realistically—there’s the link with Judith. The view from the same sharp eminence.
And to finish this necessarily too-brief catalog, here he is on his beloved Proust, reading Jean Santeuil in 1955, three years after its posthumous publication:
In Jean Santeuil, Proust works with a whitewash brush, in frequently crude strokes and slashes. In Remembrance, the brushes used are the finest sable, the most expensive in the world, so sensitive that the fiercest storms are minutely impaled. Here [in Jean Santeuil] we move gradually through milky Whistlers of damp fog and starry lights, glowing sharply in the blue-white, skim milk light. This is Proust’s sketchbook and should be exhibited with Degas’s and Manet’s and Saint Aubin’s….
Lerman had some interesting brushes of his own.
Judged by Lerman’s own standards for autobiographical recollections, then, the document that was the product of all of his talents—as a man, as a diarist, as a critic—might be considered “a little masterpiece.” Yet the question that begins to form itself early on in The Grand Surprise, and which hovers, increasingly uneasily, over the otherwise festive, even dazzling goings-on here like (as Lerman might put it) the unwelcome fairy godmother, Carabosse, at Sleeping Beauty’s christening, is why a person of such talents, appetites, and ambitions was unable to produce a big masterpiece—the “enormous book I want so much to do,” as he described it as early as 1946. If the question lingers, it’s primarily because Lerman himself keeps referring to his unwritten masterwork (always “my book”); as late as 1989, as he put it in a glum journal entry, he had “not given up the refuge of that dream.” And yet by then, if not indeed much earlier, it was surely obvious that he could not muster himself for the task. Why?
Here again, Lerman’s early review of Period Piece sheds an interesting light. The review, it must be said, is somewhat top-heavy. Lerman, well known as a raconteur, liked to start off his articles with grand, attention-getting flourishes—“I write of the raptures in reading dictionaries, the pleasures in perusing lexicons, chartularies, enchiridions, omnium gatherums…,” one 1957 review begins. But in this piece, as indeed often in his journalistic work, you feel that, once he’s inside—once he has your attention—his interest flags. The middles, the parts where he’s supposed to be engaging the work at hand, tend to feel scanty and superficial, hazily summarizing rather than incisively exploring the contents which, however trivial they may be, he claimed to find both fascinating and worthy of his “study.” (You never do get a real feel for what most of Period Piece is like, apart from the fact that the author “takes the reader right back into the Cambridge of her childhood.”) This seeming inability to translate his brilliance onto the published page was a flaw of which Lerman himself was ruefully aware: “I say such wonderful things about books and people,” he confided to his journal in 1949, just after he’d begun writing and editing for Mademoiselle, “and… when I come to write it’s all gone.”
As you make your way through The Grand Surprise, it is hard not to think that the reason that Lerman was incapable of writing the book he had in mind was, in the end, temperamental. “I am very good at creating atmosphere,” he wrote in 1966, pondering his inability to complete a book he’d been contracted to write about Sotheby’s, “and rather blithe”; elsewhere, more devastatingly, he acknowledges that he lacks a certain kind of “content”: “I am decoration, not great art.” In the end, his knack for savoring atmosphere wherever he might find it, for finding the next grand surprise, for being, when all is said and done, a connoisseur rather than a creator, was what he had to offer.
And offer it he did, in coruscating flashes; but beyond that, there is a curious lack of engagement with the larger world, the world that was more than sensibility and beauty. The Grand Surprise is a document that begins in 1939 and ends in 1993, and yet as you read it you cannot help but be struck by the fact that there is virtually no mention (let alone discussion) of World War II, of the Holocaust, of McCarthyism, of the Stonewall Riots, of Watergate, of the Reagan years—apart from a complaint, apropos of Mrs. Reagan, that “everything save her shoes [was] wrong”—which is to say, most of the history that Lerman lived through.* This seeming indifference to the world outside of the glistening bubble he inhabited is, I think, noteworthy, because it suggests a failure to appreciate the deeper “content” of things—a failure that, in turn, might account for that lack of a certain profounder “content” in Lerman himself, as he himself understood.
And that content, in the end, is where art, as opposed to decoration, derives from. It may well be significant that a passage in Proust that Lerman delightedly singles out for praise is one in which the Duchesse de Guermantes talks about decor; but of course, what Proust is also about is decay: the deep, rotted mechanics of the society that had such perfect taste in decor. Of this Lerman, too, was aware; but out of that awareness, he would or could not create anything—not least, because he himself (as he also well knew) was part of the mechanism of superficiality, of what he calls “the false, generated gaiety,” of the ephemeral, “the mighty for a moment.”
It’s hard not to wonder whether Lerman’s melancholy self-consciousness about his lack of deep content, together with his tormented awareness of his complicity with what he himself saw as an inconsequential industry, was responsible for his lifelong case of writer’s block—a block that prevented him not from writing altogether, as we well know, but from writing what he had the vision to understand was serious but not the nature to undertake.
What he couldn’t do, finally, was absent himself from the worlds, haut or otherwise, that he’d worked so hard to be part of—to leave the theater or the party and to be alone in the way that writers must, at some point, be alone, to “giv[e] up just existing, just riding on the tide from moment to moment” and “shoulder a burden,” as he put it in one anguished 1950 entry. Ten years later, he goes into a depression when, after an Israeli author asks if Lerman is a writer, Gray Foy responds, “Not for some time”:
If I had written what I should have written these years, even failing at it—but no one is to blame. I am the only one—having written and published millions of words for some twenty-three or so years and to no deep, abiding avail…. What wrongs I have done to such talents as I have (had). What self-indulgence and waste…. I lack all discipline. This comes of wanting to be loved and admired and be made much of.
What gives The Grand Surprise an undercurrent that is, in the end, almost melancholy is Lerman’s understanding that the substance of a real writer’s life—“just [to] write it and then rewrite it until it’s good”—was something he was temperamentally unsuited for. “What a difficult life that is,” he wrote mournfully; it was more pleasant to be loved and admired. (In this respect it’s worth noting some of the many serious midcentury writers and thinkers who do not appear on Lerman’s guest lists: Edmund Wilson, Elizabeth Bishop, Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, Meyer Schapiro, Philip Roth, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Hannah Arendt.)
You could say, of course, that The Grand Surprise itself is the great work that Lerman wanted to produce; but I’m not sure that even Lerman, with his rigorous insistence on self-knowledge, would agree. He knew well what character he had and what choices he had made. He may have warned himself, as he did in 1954 leaving a party at Nathan Milstein’s, that it wasn’t “important” to “enter that world,” but enter it he did, as we know; he may have complained, that same year, that Marlene Dietrich’s late-night phone calls were “consuming my reading and writing time,” but a person whose ambition was to be a writer, rather than a persona, would have hung up the phone long ago. Lerman’s tragedy, if it may be called that, one that makes itself felt throughout this remarkable volume, was that he kept private, or never was able to bring off, the work that ought to have been public, while devoting his working life, his public life, his enormous talents, to the glossy worlds—parties, magazines—that he knew enough to disdain.
The irony is that today’s culture of superficial glitter, of knowingness without any real knowledge, is sustained by the very magazines Lerman, however lofty his tastes and talents, devoted his working life to. And when you lie down with dogs, even greyhounds and Lhasa apsos, you may well get up with fleas. As I savored every page of his remarkable private writings, I couldn’t help noting that nearly every historical, literary, artistic, or biographical allusion had to be footnoted or explained, from Saint-Simon to Sainte-Beuve, from Gustave Moreau to William Hogarth, from Aubrey Beardsley to Ned Rorem—the intimates of Lerman’s fervent inner life, now apparently presumed to be wholly unrecognizable to readers at large. These, it’s perhaps worth noting, are the very readers on whose behalf the reviewer of Lerman’s book, in the Times Book Review, felt compelled to ask rhetorically, in her own introductory flourish, “Who is Leo Lerman?” Poignantly, Lerman himself anticipated this question. “The mortality of the fashion world,” he lamented in 1970. “Who will think of me? No one.” Here, as often, he knew how to spot a trend.
August 16, 2007