Lives and Letters
This essay collection by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb pairs insights on art with a taste for scandal.
(Page 2 of 3)
But as Gottlieb points out, the boundary between "Lives" and "Letters" frequently blurs, and it must be said that he is really better on Lives – with a special emphasis on those of high-octane divas. Plenty of these have been included in this collection. There is Tallulah Bankhead, Sarah Bernhardt (the subject of a recent biography by Gottlieb), Isadora Duncan, Eleonora Duse, Mae West, Judy Garland, and Katharine Hepburn. Though Gottlieb is vastly amused by such dames, his experiences as a frequent editor of showbiz memoirs have endowed him with an admirable cut-the-crap attitude to celebrity mythologizing. He is especially entertaining on Hepburn, taking A. Scott Berg to task for making his "Kate Remembered," "the vehicle for her posthumous version of her life story. He is the ghost to her ghost." Gottlieb's Kate is pure, ruthless self-invention, and she rings true:Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"She believed in never looking back, not wasting emotion, getting on with things. She also needed to exert control, and never more so than in the calculated way she presented herself to the world – classy, even haughty, a touch hard, but never dangerous…. Because we all thought we understood Hepburn's 'aristocratic' background; because she gamely kept working on the stage, in Shakespeare and Shaw as well as in shows like "Coco"; because she was so vital and independent and apparently straight-shooting, she became a Figure as well as a star, closer in our minds to a Mrs. Roosevelt than to a Davis or a Crawford. And she never stopped working on her image. Of course, that's what people in her position do or they don't hold on to that position, but few have done it with her relish. She always knew what she wanted – fame – and she demanded, and obtained, it from the world."
As the passage indicates, Gottlieb is good at separating the person from the myth. His Bernhardt gets similar treatment: much as he admires the star's act of willful self-creation, he always sees the funny side. Of her famous portrayal of Hamlet, for example: "Far from being the Romantic era's indecisive weakling, her Prince of Denmark was virile and determined (not unlike Madame herself)." Best of all, when it comes to these ladies Gottlieb is not just a critic or a scholar but an unabashed and passionate fan. Regarding Bernhardt: eBay, he informs us, has provided him with "the 1986 'Dame aux Camélias' memorial plate (Limoges), one of several available embroidery patterns based on the famous art nouveau posters by Mulcha (stitch your own Gismonda), and a 1973 Mexican comic book called Sara, la Artista Dramática Más Famosa en la Historia del Teatro. So far I've resisted the book of Sarah Bernhardt paper dolls, the Madame Alexander Sarah Bernhardt doll, the 'asymmetrical' Sarah Bernhardt earrings, and the 'Heirloom' Sarah Bernhardt peony."