Lives and Letters
This essay collection by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb pairs insights on art with a taste for scandal.
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This sort of enthusiasm is what first got Gottlieb involved with the New York City Ballet. He recalls attending performances while still a student, back in the early '50s: What was important, he writes, "was the way Balanchine's dances and dancers made me feel…. I was released from the tyranny of words and filled with joy. I can remember rushing out of the City Center after countless performances and chunkily jeté-ing up Sixth Avenue, to the tolerant amusement of my not-yet first wife and my closest friend, Richard Howard." By the '70s he was helping to plan the ballet's season programs and providing many other useful administrative services. "I saw myself during this period," he writes, "as a part-time messenger of the gods, and I found this kind of uncomplicated service to two great men [Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein] and a noble institution highly satisfying."Skip to next paragraph
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Years of devoted fandom turned Gottlieb into a real expert on ballet, and his long and informed dissection of "The International Encyclopedia of Ballet" is one of the most interesting pieces in this collection. In six extra-large, double-column volumes, originally priced at $1,250 (!), the encyclopedia is a monument to the multicultural and multidisciplinary spirit of our era. Gottlieb's largely negative review of the work amounts to a considered critique of that spirit and its fruits. After all, for whom, he asks with some justification, was the encyclopedia written?
Surely any intellectually curious reader should be able to browse with pleasure and profit through an encyclopedia. I find it difficult to imagine someone without a predisposition to read about such matters as Azerbaijani folk dance ("One type of yally has various forms known as kochari, uchayag, tell, and galadangalaya; another type is a dance mixed with games called gazy-gazy, zopy-zopy, and chopu-chopu") browsing profitably through Oxford's many hundreds of pages of such information. This is writing by specialists for specialists, and is all too likely to confuse, if not intimidate, the general reader. Perhaps more important, the only principles that apply to this kind of scholarship are those of accuracy (of course) and inclusivity: Everything is by definition as important as everything else. But this is not true of art….
As this demonstrates, Gottlieb is good on art – but he is just as good, it turns out, on gossip. His comments on a book by Christopher Wilson about the sleazy Duke and Duchess of Windsor and "his/her/their gay lover, Jimmy Donohue" set the tone: "Mr. Wilson forthrightly declares, 'Some may consider it prurient to delve into the mysteries of the bedroom, but in the case of Jimmy and the Duchess there is a vital need.' I second that emotion and I'm sure you do, too, so let's delve right in after him." I was right with him on that one, and nearly as much so on his piece about Porfirio Rubirosa – one of the great playboys of the 20th century.
Wide-ranging interests indeed! Perhaps the collection should have been called "Lives, Letters, and Scandal."