Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Life and Leo Lerman
I am still thinking about The Grand Suprise, the journals of editor, bon vivant, and aesthete Leo Lerman, into which I've been diving repeatedly in recent weeks and which I have inveigled, as a result of previous posts, at least two dear Café regulars to buy (you can, if so inclined, get one for your very own, here. I think you ought to).
Over the years, he knew everyone, went everywhere, and was caught up in the midst of what I've always thought of as The Great Wide World - Maria Callas in Venice, Princess Margaret in London, Lily Tomlin in Los Angeles, on and on, a waterfall of names and evocative locations, parties, late-night phone calls, premieres, confidential luncheons on banquettes at the Ivy and La Côte Basque. His is a sensibility drenched in love for beautiful things and interesting people, deeply informed by literature (Proust above all), music, theatre, art. At the same time, entwined all through and inextricable, are both his own inner life - wry, often unhappy, deeply hopeful - and the private life of family (extended, colorful, impossible as is the wont of families) and of love - of friends, of a small number of greatly beloveds, and of life itself. To write all of that together, as one chain of being, is to me something of an astonishing feat.
I love the book, in the end, both for the quality of the writing and the insight it gives into Lerman's life and times and also for the way it makes me think about my own life, and the life I craved in my New York days, and the ways in which that life intersected, at times, with Lerman's own Grand Surprise.
I met him, you see, now and again, long ago. Some of the people he writes about were known to me, and a very few of them fairly well. I've even stood at the door, though never, alas, further, of his beautiful apartment at the Osborne just cattycorner from Carnegie Hall. When he writes a flip, dismissive anecdote about the pretensions of an '80s trophy-wife socialite, I remember visiting her fabulously atrocious Upper East Side triplex, where an enormous and wholly inappropriate Francis Bacon triptych dominated the foyer (and the powder room had an exquisite little demi-Cranach) and not only the lady of the house but the nanny and the baby were fully made up at two in the afternoon. When he writes about the long, sad decline of Marlene Dietrich, I remember a time I sat waiting in an office while someone sat, listening to a long-distance call, with a face like stone, before softly putting down the phone and saying to no one in particular, "The Lady. Perfectly fine in the mornings, but talk to her after that and..." as he made a drinking gesture.
It still amazes me - all the more after a decade or more overseas, and living here so quietly in our little house on the Arabian Sea - that I once knew parts of Manhattan in the same familiar, intimate way as he (the stretch up Central Park West between Columbus Circle and the Natural History Museum, bits of the West Village, the restaurants and bars of 46th Street), and that I was, albeit in a vastly smaller, satellite sort of way, a part of it all as was he.
My New York is almost as much a memory as his, for the places are often gone or unrecognizable and many of my lodestone people (my own version of Capote's "swans") are, too. It seems, at times, quite unreal that I knew them (and even more so, somehow, that they knew me, if that makes any sense at all). I hardly ever talk, now, of those days; I'm always afraid it will seem like namedropping - or even worse, that no one will have any idea at all of who or of what I'm talking about.
That, really, is one of the reasons I like writing here so very much. It's a way to reconnect, to reconsider some of the people I knew either in themselves or through the people and things and phenomena they loved, and to feel - through this new, digital, high-tech medium - again a part of The Great Wide World. As far as I'm concerned, it's all still a Grand Surprise.