Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Life and Leo Lerman

Leo Lerman, by John Koch

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.


  1. Muscato, do start jotting down notes for the book that is just begging to be set free from your memory.

    Gilded Ages, be it the 1880's or 1980's, never last. Celebrities and notables blaze so brightly, reach a zenith and then begin to fade with time. Your tales of Saul & Gayfryd and the others with whom you rubbed elbows would make for a delightful read.

    In simpler terms: Dish, Girl, dish!

  2. I agree with Bill; Muscato, you must write a book.

    I love this post of yours, and I'm equally gaga over the Lerman book. I finished a month ago. It's been on my desk ever since and I pick it up several times a day to read half a page. It really affected me. I read "Beaton in the Sixties: The Cecil Beaton Diaries As He Wrote Them, 1965-1969" at the same time, which was fun as the names and gossip often overlap. I don't like Beaton the man as much as Lerman, but it's still a fantastic read. Yachting with a crabby Garbo makes for especially juicy reading.

  3. you'll never be accused of name dropping here darling!

  4. I'm anxiously awaiting the galleys for the Muscato Diaries, myself. I'm thoroughly obsessed with those who experienced the "gilded ages," and one wonders... will someone look back at this decade and say, nostagically to some rapt, wide-eyed Young Gayling, "Ah, you can't imagine it, but I was there when Lindsay Lohan flashed her vadge, made out with Samantha Ronson, and then puked on the banquette, with Perez Hilton licking cocaine off of a comatose Pete Doherty's limp penis not 20 feet away. Oh, honey, you can't describe it, you just had to be there!"

    Personally, I think not.

  5., our host and the like will be far more likely remembered than the flotsam you mentioned.

  6. I,too, have lived in a time, in a place where I saw things and knew people. I'm always so delighted and so grateful to meet or read from someone who was there, where I was, when I was. I love hearing their perspective on the scene. It reawakens the experience and validates that my life has, while not necessarily been important, been important to me.

    Write about your experiences or not, whichever brings you the most happiness. But if you do, know that you may be offering that validation to someone else.

    I'm terribly happy to have found Cafe Muscato three months ago.

  7. You write the book I'll read it, on that you can depend and never worry.
    Thank you for all the work you put into Cafe Muscato. I also love and share your love for Judy. You would appreciate that I was not only at Carnegie Hall but my voice is also in the recording. At the end, "and you will never guess where." That little voice pipping in with "Where?" is mine.