Lives and Letters

This essay collection by former New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb pairs insights on art with a taste for scandal.

Lives and Letters By Robert Gottlieb Farrar, Straus and Giroux 448 pp.

Back in the late 1980s, during Robert Gottlieb's tenure as editor of The New Yorker, I remember that there appeared a magazine spread on Gottlieb's museum-quality collection of – of all things – plastic purses. (He subsequently produced a lavish coffee-table book on the subject.) Now here, I thought, was a man of truly broad interests.

Twenty years later I find myself confirmed in this judgment, for Gottlieb's new collection of essays and reviews, Lives and Letters, testifies to the catholic nature of his tastes: In its pages we are treated to a plethora of informed and opinionated discussions on everything and everyone from ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev to wife-slayer Scott Peterson. It's the kind of book that ideally finds its way to the bedside table in the guest room, for it seems to contain at least one or two items that will appeal to any reader's inclinations.

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Gottlieb has served as editor-in-chief at both Simon and Schuster and Alfred A. Knopf as well as a The New Yorker, and he was for many years a very active board member of the New York City Ballet. He knows (or knew) many of his subjects personally, and has even acted as editor for a few of them. For professional reasons one might have expected him to favor the "Letters" portion of the collection, and indeed his essay on the long friendship between legendary editor Maxwell Perkins and novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is moving and deeply felt; there are fine pieces, too, on Dickens, Kipling, Thurber, and even the trash novelist Judith Krantz, with whom Gottlieb claims to identify. He is particularly interesting on Steinbeck and the question of that author's greatness or lack thereof: "The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck," Gottlieb throws out as an opener, "is how good he can be when so much of the time he's so bad." (Steinbeck would seem to have agreed with this assessment: when asked by a reporter whether he thought he actually deserved his Nobel Prize, he answered, "Frankly, no.")

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:

"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."

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."

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."

Brooke Allen writes for The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Barnes & Noble Review.

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