Tag : biography

Victoria Wilson (BSS #531)

Victoria Wilson is most recently the author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True, 1907-1940.

Author: Victoria Wilson

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Subjects Discussed: Stanwyck shifting from being known as “Frank Fay’s husband” to being the dominant breadwinner in a matter of years, when Frank Fay was a washed-up actor spending Stanwyck’s money, Jimmy Cagney taking his inspiration from Frank Fay, Stanwyck learning how to simplify her acting, Fay’s alcoholism, Stanwyck’s initial hatred for Hollywood, Fay being ahead of his time, Frank Fay as the origin point of standup comedy, Stanwyck’s early fractious relationship with Frank Capra, the frustration of endless screen tests, Meet John Doe, Ladies of Leisure, Stanwyck’s defiance and resentment, how Fay helped Stanwyck get her big break, Stanwyck’s near-affair with Capra, difficult actors, Stanwyck’s aversion to parties, Stanwyck and class distinctions, how Stanwyck closed the iron door on a lot of people, Stanwyck shutting out Mae Clarke, Clarke and Cagney’s grapefruit, Stanwyck’s conservative politics, anti-Roosevelt actors, Republicanism vs. modern conservatism, the gold standard, Stanwyck becoming more discerning with her politics with Robert Taylor, Stanwyck’s acts of generosity, unemployment during the Depression, Stanwcyk’s literacy, being an autodidact, Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn, how Stanwyck cultivated her modernity, how Stanwyck networked, reading a book at a party, Stanwyck’s shyness, Frank Fay’s attempts to kidnap his adopted son, how Wilson tracked down Dion Anthony Fay (Stanwyck’s son) in the pre-Internet age, mysterious investigators, sinister methods of finding sources, Stanwyck’s clothes, motherly love, when Stanwyck accidentally wore a dress backwards, the moral assaults on unmarried Hollywood couples living together, Clark Gable’s forced marriage to Carol Lombard, how Stanwyck and Robert Taylor were encouraged to marry, the Hays Production Code’s hold on the private life of actors, Stonewall, Olivia de Havilland’s resistance, Stanwyck teaching younger men how to act, Stanwyck’s relationship with Robert Wagner, Joel McCrea, Stanwyck identifying herself as the masculine presence in relationships, what contributed to the dying years of the Stanwyck/Taylor marriage, Stanwyck’s monogamy and possible affairs late in the Taylor marriage, Harry Hay, a secret anecdote from Anthony Quinn, Stanwyck’s involvement with Gary Cooper, Stanwyck’s unexpected nude appearance before a crowd at a surprise birthday party, what conditions cause a biographer to trust a source, Stanwyck and Joan Crawford, Al Jolson’s assault on Stanwyck, editorial forensics, determining authenticity, how Wilson used her editorial background to determine the accuracy of a fanzine report on Stanwyck, the balance between facts and imagination, Wilson’s set of rules, avoiding movie star biography tropes, the difficulty of getting Richard Chamberlain to talk, the differences between today’s media-trained actors and yesterday’s more open actors, Robert Stack, when actors once drove to their own screenings, building trust with sources, Wilson’s formidable fanzine collection and her efforts to preserve it, some details about the second Stanwyck volume, the end of the studio system, Stanwyck’s willingness to work in television, and how talent makes you larger than the time.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So let’s talk about Ruby Stevens, aka Barbara Stanwyck. She had one of the most formidable work ethics I think I have ever read about of any Hollywood actress of that time. I mean, she worked after she fell down the stairs, her right leg shorter than the left during Ten Cents a Dance. She toiled through that. She toiled through a painful leg injury that she had in Ever in My Heart. She would run lines with other actors when she was completely exhausted, after a long shift.

Wilson: Ed, I’m happy to say that I can see you’ve read the book.

Correspondent: I have read the book. Yes. She kept her costume and her makeup on, even when she was asked to go home for the day because she figured that a director would ask her to work. So my question — and this is a good way of getting into her origins here in Brooklyn. How did this work ethic originate? I mean, I’m wondering if she had some sort of incident in her early showgirl days or her early Broadway days where she may have flubbed a line and she figured that committing everything to memory and also always being there was going to be the absolute advantage that she would have over everyone else. So I was hoping you could talk about this and unpack this incredible ethic that she had.

Wilson: Well, let me see if I can unravel this mystery. To begin with, Stanwyck knew — what she did learn — you’re right in that she did learn in being in shows on Broadway and being in other kinds of shows. Revues. Which she said. She could always be replaced. And she understood that. But what she got, well, it wasn’t really one specific incident. I think, given the childhood that she had, the most important thing to her, speaking of Baby Face, was for her to be able to get out. She wanted to get out and she didn’t want to go back to that. And her sister brought her into her world — the sister who was an actress and who was a dancer, etcetera etcetera. She loved her sister. And she loved that world because it allowed her to escape in her head what the circumstances were of her life. And that world, that theater world, that world of working actors was her way out. It was her road out. And combining that with a need to understand that she could be fired or replaced at any time, over time she and the people who she admired were serious workers. And I think it all combined to give her that work ethic.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering. Obviously this book only goes up to 1940. Did this particular work ethic ever dissipate in her later years?

Wilson: Never.

Correspondent: Never. Wow.

Wilson: And at a certain point in the early ’50s, when she absolutely could not get a job, it was a torment to her. Because it was an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. And that was what you did. And it didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees and she had on all this makeup. At one point, Mitchell Leisen said, “For god’s sake, loosen that corset.” “No, you may need me.” And when she had to do a scene over again because another actor — there’s a story, again, in Volume 2, when she’s making Clash by Night and Marilyn Monroe keeps screwing up the line. And she has to pack that suitcase. She unpacked that suitcase in exactly the way that it had to be packed before the prop men could get there. But it was all perfect. And that was another thing that interested her about radio. Because the voice had to be perfect. And it had to be so modulated to express everything that had to be expressed. But she had that discipline.

Correspondent: I alluded in this question to the fact that she would memorize the entire script, transcribing it out multiple times, and she would know not only her lines, but everybody else’s lines. And this Marilyn Monroe story you mentioned, which is in the next volume, has me curious about the level of tolerance she had for other actors. I mean, she was pretty brutal on Joel McCrea, which I’ll get into later on. But I’m wondering how this method originated and why knowing every single angle like this was essential to her. And also, in light of the fact that she did a lot of improvisation, how that worked into this steel memory. This almost military-like work ethic which we’ve been discussing here.

Wilson: Well, actually, she didn’t do improvisation in terms of veering away from the script. She was absolutely disciplined about that. But I think that there’s one word to describe why she did what she did and that word is fear. Not something that people associate with Barbara Stanwyck, but there was a lot of fear around her and, over that, there was the overlay that drove her. And I think that she thought she needed to get it perfect. I mean, at the beginning, she was thrown by the way these movies were made. And she wanted to be in command, in control, so that she could be able to pick it up at any point and also I think she got something out of the fact that she knew everybody else’s part. But I do think, at the heart of it, it was fear.

Correspondent: Fear. This is interesting. Because I was kind of curious about these early Broadway days. She has great success with The Noose. But I’m wondering, given that it took probably another decade or two for her comedic instincts to really come out in, of course, The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire, I’m wondering how that particular play reinforced certain acting tics or certain acting methods. Were you able to find out anything through your very meticulous research about what that play did to get her going and to get her adjusting?

Wilson: Well, now that’s a very interesting story. Because what she has always done — and the thing about working with Barbara Stanwyck for fifteen years is that she was not a liar. She was honest. I’ve caught her in a couple of inventions, which were self-protective. I suppose most lies are.

Correspondent: Such as what? What were those particular lies?

Wilson: Well, she said that she could not have children because she was a bleeder. Okay, let’s put it this way. If you’re a bleeder, you’re not doing your own stunts. You’re not riding horses the way she rode horses. You’re not taking falls the way she took falls. You’re just not doing that. She had an abortion at a certain age and it was a terrible abortion. And she couldn’t have children.

Correspondent: At twelve?

Wilson: (pause, unanswered) So there’s that. I mean, but other than that, in another few instances, she was somebody who basically was straight up honest. Steel true and blade straight. And so what I started to say was in The Noose, she always reported that it was Willard Mack who taught her everything she needed to know for that play. But it wasn’t just Willard Mack. It was Mrs. Harris. Mrs. Renee Harris, who was the widow, the last surviving person, which I write about, to get off the Titanic as it was sinking, who was the person who spotted her and who gave her the larger part and who worked with her until Willard Mack came back from New York, where he was looking for another actress and had sent up Francine Larrimore, who was going to take the part. Once Willard Mack came back to work with her to join the show, and said, “Alright, you can do it out-of-town until we get to New York,” he was the one who worked with her and really just taught her everything. And, you know, I write about what happened to theater after the First World War, where it became much more naturalistic. The Noose itself, written by Willard Mack, was an attempt to be more naturalistic in terms of showing the realities of how people talked and how people in nightclubs talked and how lowdowns would talk. It was like this was supposed to be the real thing. And that’s what he was interested in capturing. It wasn’t artifice anymore. Or melodrama. I mean, the play is somewhat melodramatic. It is still of its time. But I do think that it was a combination of Willard Mack and then, when she goes to make burlesque, unless I’m getting ahead of you.

Correspondent: No. I’m hearing you.

Wilson: When she goes to make burlesque, she’s working with Arthur Hopkins, one of the great directors and producers, who also was very involved in naturalism. And again, he helped her strip herself down and simplify her work. And then, of course, who does she end up with and who was she in awe of? Long before she met him? That was Frank Fay, who was as simple and unadorned as a performer as you could possibly be.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, I’m wondering. She is operating off of fear, as you say. The book regrettably does not get as far as Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder basically cajoles her into the role by saying, “Are you a mouse or are you an actress?” So it seems to me that she was still driven by fear in terms of what her range was likely to be. Is that safe to say?

Wilson: Well, I don’t think — look, when you’re asking me that one question, I say she wrote it down because of fear. She did this because of fear. I mean, yes, in a way, it was fear. But it was fear coupled with a whole range of other emotions. And one of them was determination to get the hell out from where she came, to make sure she never had to go back there. So I think that it wasn’t just fear.

Correspondent: Well, in terms of developing a range, when do you think she became aware that she could more than either cry on stage or be a very physical performer? I mean, did she know this fairly early on? Based off of what I mentioned about Billy Wilder, it seems that even after being nominated for Stella Dallas, she still didn’t realize what she could do. Or did she?

Wilson: No, she did. Because it was earlier, before Stella Dallas. I mean, people didn’t know this, but what I discovered and what I put together is that it was Zeppo Marx, who basically said, “You can do comedy,” and who pushed her roles in those minor movies where it was Breakfast for Two or The Mad Miss Manton, which was later. But it was those. The Runaway Bride, which was supposed to be a kind of Frank Capraesque, It Happened One Night, which, believe me, it wasn’t. But it’s an interesting movie for a lot of other reasons. Where she tries to do a kind of screwball comedy. And she was terrified of that. But she tried it. And the one thing she understood was, if you’re going to do just one thing and you’re just going to play it, you’re screwed.

Correspondent: It’s also interesting, this period where she’s at Columbia, where she’s about to jump to another studio. But, of course, she has to fulfill her contract. And she is quite adamant, even during the Great Depression, about sticking for that $50,000 figure. And I was curious about that. I mean, money was certainly a drive for her to act in the pictures. But how did that interplay with this range that you say she knew she had and that was actually urged on later by Zeppo Marx, who was her manager.

Wilson: Well, I don’t know at that point, when she was fighting for that contract at Colubmia Pictures, for that raise, that it was about her range. It was about her…

Correspondent: Respect?

Wilson: Well, I think it was about her looking at Constance Bennett and Ann Harding and seeing what they were making and saying, “I can damn well do that too.” I mean, the thing about her is that she didn’t have — from a very early age, there was nobody who was really fighting her battles, except for Ruby Stevens. And even after she married Frank Fay, he says to her — one days, she’s upset — he says, “You can tell me. I’m here for you.” It wasn’t a natural impulse for her. It wasn’t the kind of thing that she could rely upon a mommy or daddy. She had no mommy or daddy. And so when you do that, which is the perfect training for her in terms of the choices she made in Hollywood, which was living outside of that studio system as much as she could. And then, by that point, she could rely on Frank Fay. And she could see what she was doing. She could see the response. She could see how her career was building. And I think she just said, “Screw this. This is what I’m going to do.” And I also think that there’s something to be said about the bond that she had with Frank Fay, which basically was a bond that brought them together and excluded the rest of Hollywood. Because they were excluded and they became isolated and more isolated and this reproduced itself. So I think her attitude was “Screw this. I don’t need you. We’re onto ourselves and we’re going to be just fine.”

Categories: Film

Blake Bailey II (BSS #530)

Blake Bailey is most recently the author of Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. He is also the author of the forthcoming The Splendid Things We Planned, to be published in March. Both books, along with every Charles Jackson volume ever published, were read and consulted for this comprehensive conversation. He previously appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #284.

Author: Blake Bailey

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[PROGRAM NOTE: In Farther & Wilder, Blake Bailey mentioned an extraordinary radio program called The Author Meets the Critics, in which authors confronted their critics live on radio. After a diligent search, I was able to locate 46 episodes of this program and I’ve collected them at the Internet Archive, where they can be downloaded for your enjoyment.]

Subjects Discussed: Jackson’s need for money, how The Lost Weekend‘s success freaked him out, Jackson’s self-perception as a misfit, becoming an unintentional spokesman for dipsomania, Jackson’s block after The Lost Weekend, Seconal addiction, Jackson’s hospitalization, Mary McCarthy’s fictionalized version of Jackson, McCarthy’s unfinished manuscript The Lost Week, John P. Marquand, vacations in Truro, the friendship between McCarthy and Jackson, why one shouldn’t read all of Charles Jackson, Jackson vs. Cheever and Yates, the perversity of reading A Second-Hand Life, prosaic sexual affairs in Jackson’s later work, Jackson’s obsession with Shakespeare busts, Adam Kirsch’s review of Farther & Wilder, average writers who long to be geniuses, literary failures, the origins of Farther & Wilder, Calvin Kentfield, Nathan Asch, Flannery Lewis, Jackson’s death by overdose at the Chelsea, undiscovered papers at Dartmouth, the impossible-to-find TV adaptation of Waugh’s “The Man Who Liked Dickens” directed by Nicholas Ray and written by Jackson, Jackson’s involvement with radio and television, the nineteen years when Jackson didn’t publish a novel, William Inge, how television affected Jackson’s storytelling abilities, comparisons between “The Outlander” and The Fall of Valor, the way that Jackson wrote about writers, the stories that Jackson wrote sober, Jackson’s writing difficulties when stoned on Seconal, how Jackson’s fiction explored writing ego, Jackson being ahead of postmodernism with “The Sunnier Side,” what literary biography can do, The Author Meets the Critics (in which Jackson appeared three times), Dwight Macdonald’s “By Cozzens Possessed,” when literary critics had the power to destroy a career, James Agee’s A Death to the Family, the mid-20th century war on midcult, why Jonathan Yardley is a terrible critic, Yardley’s negative review of Norman Rush’s Mating, John P. Marquand’s overlooked novels (The Late George Apley, Sincerely, Willis Wayde, and So Little Time), Roger Straus financing Jackson’s life, Philip Wylie, Wylie’s futile attempts to respond to The Fall of Valor‘s terrible qualities, when critics used to give talented writers a fair pass for sophomore slumps, Daniel Mendelsohn’s attempted takedown of Mad Men, Rhoda Jackson’s tolerance for her husband’s behavior, how the Jacksons managed their money, the many literary people who got their start at Fortune Magazine, Ron Sproat, Rhoda’s acceptance of Charlie’s sexuality, Jackson coming out of the closet, the weirdly limited way in which Jackson’s fictional wives were portrayed, D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Max angling for motive about David Foster Wallace, the importance to double source details and relate it to a writer’s career, Mary Karr’s response to D.T. Max on Twitter, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, Bailey’s work on the Roth biography, how to ensure that people don’t come at you with pitchforks on Twitter while working on a literary biography, Karen Green’s Bough Down, DFW’s saintlike image, Infinite Jest, DFW’s nonfiction, literary biographers addressing issues of posterity, the DFW death porn industry, J.D. Salinger’s legacy held hostage by commercial interests, the collaboration between Roth and Bailey, Bailey’s access to Roth’s papers (sealed through 2050), coaxing Claire Bloom to talk, Philip Roth’s retirement, Bailey’s forthcoming memoir The Splendid Things We Planned, similarities and differences between memoir and literary biography, how hard you need to be on yourself when writing about yourself, Blake Bailey’s appearance diminishing somewhat in the second half of The Splendid Things We Planned, and writing about family.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I basically surprised you by pointing to the fact that I think you and I may be among the few people in America who have actually read all of Charles Jackson’s work.

Bailey: Living people. You know, Ed, probably the only two. His own daughters, who are alive and well, they have not read the oeuvre of Charles Jackson.

Correspondent: Wow.

Bailey: No. It’s you and me.

Correspondent: That’s it? Wow. So let’s talk. Charles Jackson, best known as the author of The Lost Weekend. Let’s get into what he did. I mean, he was adamantly determined in his early days to write what he knew, as you outline in your biography of him. Don Birnam, the protagonist of The Lost Weekend, many of Jackson’s short stories, and also the hero of this unfinished multivolume book project, What Happened? — this is basically Jackson’s life. This is what Jackson drew heavily on for his fiction. But then you have Jackson’s later fiction — The Outer Edges, A Second-Hand Life, and “The Outlander,” which I’m happy to argue with you about. These are adamantly determined to suggest deviance or behavioral aberration in common everyday fallacies, often out of step with the cultural mores of the time. And then, of course, you have “The Sunnier Side,” this story in which Charles Jackson himself appears and is commenting upon various people in Newark. So just to get started here — and that’s a lot to talk about — why do you think Jackson was so terrified of his own life in fiction? And so willing to castigate himself? Why did he need to pit his real and his fictional selves against each other and against society?

Bailey: Well, it’s interesting. You mention Newark. And I want to clarify for your listeners that is not Newark, New Jersey — the hometown of my current subject, Philip Roth. That is Newark, New York in the township of Arcadia. Up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. It was a little town of about six thousand souls where Charles Jackson led a very tortured childhood and idyllic childhood. It was a little of both. Beautiful region. And people are kind to you in a sort of condescending way there. Charlie and his brother Fred, known always throughout his adult life as Boom, were the town sissies.

Correspondent: There’s also a beefcake shot of Boom in the book as well.

Bailey: A gorgeous beefcake shot of Boom taken by the famous gay photographer George Platt Lynes. There are photos by Man Ray of Boom at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth. Anyway, Charlie kind of deplored the way that people gossiped maliciously in small towns such as Newark and yet put a good face on things. And when the worst catastrophes happened — for example, Charlie was molested by the choirmaster of his church; a man named Herbert Quance, who appears in Charlie’s first published story, “Palm Sunday,” which was a pioneering work. It appeared in Partisan Review in 1939 and nobody was writing about pedophilia. And it’s quite frank in its treatment of that. It’s a terrific story. And it caused as much of a ripple at Partisan Review as Delmore Schwartz’s “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”. So he was molested at age 14. The year before, his 16-year-old sister Thelma and 4-year-old brother Richard were killed by a train. And the egregious phony kindness with which he was treated — and meanwhile people knew about this pedophiliac choirmaster, but nice people didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You didn’t talk about touching little boys and what not. So he was tolerated, even though they knew that their own children were in danger of being molested. So long story short: Charlie regarded this as a deplorable state of affairs and he thinks that human beings should face up to their vagaries. And so that’s what he chose to write about. The vagaries in himself, which were considerable, and in humankind very much at large.

Correspondent: But, with “The Sunnier Side,” he’s there to castigate these three real-life women in Newark, which is also quite interesting. And that also is sort of a You Can’t Go Home Again/Thomas Wolfe type of thing too. But at the same time, with The Outer Edges, this book is utterly bizarre. Especially the guilt of the dog. That whole incident. This protagonist. He runs over a dog. And then he’s comparing himself to this true sociopath. So there’s this weird impulse going along in Jackson’s fiction as well. On one hand, he wants to go ahead and out the truth. On the other hand, he wants to hold everybody, including himself, accountable for every conceivable moral failing — even putting it up there and comparing it with a rapist and so forth. He’s a really bizarre guy.

Bailey: Okay. Let me explain The Outer Edges. It is based on the Edward Haight murders. Edward Haight, when he was sixteen years old, gave a lift to two kids — two girls, 11 and 9. Not only did he rape them, he tied them up, put them in the street, ran over them repeatedly. I mean, it was horrific. And Charlie was deeply disturbed by that. Now Charlie was disturbed by the viciousness of Edward Haight. Because Charlie was a married father of two girls and a homosexual. These days, people don’t understand the opprobrium in middle-class, mid-century America. Especially gay men, who presumed to get married and lead a normal life and were still seeing men on the side, as Charlie certainly was. So he did feel this kind of horrifying kinship with this child murderer Edward Haight. So how to acceptably portray that in fiction? He comes up with a Charlie-like character who, like him, is married to a long suffering woman and he’s a doting father, as Charlie was. And he feels a kinship with the murder in the book because he’s having an affair. Heterosexual with this tootsie. And because he inadvertently runs over a dog, now that, of course, is the fatal flaw with The Outer Edges. It doesn’t work and everyone told Charlie it doesn’t work.

Correspondent: But also there’s that weird phone call heard through the gas station restroom, which makes absolutely no sense. Like this is the reason why the wife decides to leave. Because she’s speculating upon a phone call. Just as he’s actually more concerned about driving over the dog than this particular affair. He just has a really bizarre moral compass.

Bailey: Yeah. Well, but I don’t want to dismiss The Outer Edges out of hand. Because certainly Charlie wrote worse books than The Outer Edges.

Correspondent: [looking at the stack of Jackson books on the table] He looks at A Second-Hand Life. (laughs)

Bailey: Oh my god. Let’s save that. What does work in The Outer Edges is the portrayal of the murderer himself, which really captures this whole Hannah Arendt notion of the banality of evil in a way that I think is sort of pioneering and very effective. And it’s a very episodic book. The French, Bovary-esque woman whose stuck in the boring marriage and tries for her maids not to see her having nothing to do. All that was very astute. I mean, again, no less than — I’m blanking on his name, which is terrible. A great British novelist. Sort of out of favor now. Anyway, he reviewed the book in The Listener and said, “Charlie Jackson is the man to write the Great American Novel of suburban ennui.” And if he wasn’t such a complete pill freak, he might have pulled it off.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about this. Okay, so he’s an alcoholic. And he uses this to write The Lost Weekend. Then he becomes this big AA spokesperson. But he’s also this go-to guy for Spencer Tracy, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker. He chronicles this problem — alcoholism — and, as you say, at the time this had not been pursued to this depth in fiction. And then this is interesting. He pitches his Uncle Mr. Kinbar to Roger Straus and he writes, “This book has everything. Humor, pathos, real social comment.” There’s the story idea that Jackson conveys to Sandy with the wife as “a shock absorber between him and the world around him.” Given Jackson’s keen interest in Thomas Mann, I’m wondering why he felt the need to mimic or outperform his better. I mean, the Fitzgerald passage in The Lost Weekend, where he just speaks glowingly about Fitzgerald, you would think that Jackson could have figured out that one of Fitzgerald’s fatal flaws was trying to actually reproduce Gatsby. So why was he just not self-aware enough to realize that masterpieces just kind of happen by accident?

Bailey: Well, I think that Charlie had a taste for fine things, which was very much like Scott Fitzgerald. Scott Fitzgerald had a very big nut. He liked to live lavishly and that meant writing trashy stories for the Saturday Evening Post and not writing great novels. So there it is. Charlie, his great surrogate parents in Newark was the Bloomer family in town. And he wrote a story, Charlie did, called “Tenting Tonight.” In the midst of this dreary provincial place, here are people with real tastes, who have culture, who have this opulent house. And this is something that Charlie aspires to. And then later, this man, this gay bachelor, this Wall Street lawyer with a fabulous fortune whose father was Edith Wharton’s best friend, Bronson Winthrop, takes Charlie and his brother Boom under his wing and really gives them a taste for fine things. You know, they both had tuberculosis. Bronson Winthrop sent them to these luxury sanitoria in Davos, Switzerland. So Charlie said, “I want to live like that.” And he managed miraculously — we’re condensing a lot, but he went through this period of horrific alcoholism where he miraculously got sober. He wrote The Lost Weekend, which was not only regarded critically as a masterpiece. That’s the very word that The New York Times used.

Correspondent: I’d call it a masterpiece.

Bailey: I would too. I think that Don Birnam is still the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature. And he goes to Hollywood and suddenly he’s this alcoholism guru, which you pointed out. People like Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Parker and Benchley and so on. And, you know, he wants to keep living like that. He wants to still have the celebrity friends. He wants Judy Garland to remain his pal. And he buys this ridiculous federal mansion in New Hampshire and finds that he can’t keep it up without writing dreck. And pretty soon, he falls into the same trap that poor Fitzgerald did, which was writing terrible short stories for the slicks.

Correspondent: Was it Hollywood that forced him to have this yardstick to measure himself by? Or was it the success of The Lost Weekend? Because that sold like crazy. Like Franzen style at the time.

Bailey: It did sell like Franzen style. But what happened was — he goes to Hollywood. Everything’s going Charlie’s way. He’s the most popular man in town. He was very endearing and very charming. Everyone invited him. He never had to dine alone in Hollywood. All the stars loved him, especially all the alcoholic stars. Which was every one of them. What was the question again?

Correspondent: I’m trying to get from you why he felt the need to be this great social novelist and I gave you a hint with the Thomas Mann thing.

Bailey: Right. Charlie had a terrible need to be loved. And he adored the work of Thomas Mann. And Mann — they had sort of an Eckermann/Goethe-like relationship. Mann met him in Hollywood. And they became correspondents and friends who saw each other maybe three times. It wasn’t misguided for Charlie to aspire to write great books. He’d written one. And to his credit, he terminated his contract at MGM. He didn’t want to stay in Hollywood and be this hack. He wanted to write The Fall of Valor, which was the first mainstream novel about homosexuality in American fiction. 1946. Two years ahead of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. The problem was it wasn’t that great of a novel. Now if you want to talk about what the real reason that Charlie’s fiction never equaled The Lost Weekend, we can do that.

Correspondent: Well, sure. Feel free. We’re getting into some really high-end reading geek things.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, ozzi, 40a, and bedenney.)

Categories: Fiction

J. Michael Lennon (BSS #523)

J. Michael Lennon is most recently the author of Norman Mailer: A Double Life. This conversation also references essays contained in the new Mailer collection, Mind of an Outlaw.

Author: J. Michael Lennon

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Subjects Discussed: Mind of an Outlaw, Jonathan Lethem’s thoughts on Mailer, why Mailer couldn’t control his expressive impulses, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” Gary Gilmore, addressing thoughts raised by Richard Brody concerning why Mailer didn’t mine from his boyhood, Mailer’s relationship with Brooklyn, the difficulty of finding out about Mailer’s high school days, Mailer vs. Bellow, Mailer’s mayoral results vs. Anthony Weiner’s mayoral results, the formation of Mailer’s politics, how Mailer was manipulated by the Kennedys, Mailer’s bizarre filmmaking career, the “Oh god! Oh man!” moment from Tough Guys Don’t Dance, the Rip Torn/Norman Mailer brawl during the filming of Maidstone, D.A. Pennebaker, the spirit of assassination summer, Mailer as Norman T. Kingsley, when Method acting goes too far, Rip Torn’s Mailer-like qualities, Mailer taking out ads where he quoted from his bad reviews, William Buckley’s joke on Mailer, how Mailer was played as a fool by the literary community before The Armies of the Night, writing An American Dream as a serial novel, Mailer’s hot streak during the late 1960s, Mailer’s battle to write during The Deer Park, prolificity and deadlines, Mailer’s convoluted form of writing discipline, Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain as model, sprint writing, Mailer’s inability to fulfill his ambitious multi-novel project in the 1970s, setting crazed ambitions, the sporadic quality of Mailer’s fiction, Lethem’s “Mailer is parts” assessment, Mailer’s sense of humiliation, Jack Henry Abbott, why Mailer’s efforts to spring Abbott weren’t as influential as people thought, how Mailer left Abbott to be cared for by Norris, why people believed in Mailer, the belief culture of the 1970s, Abbot’s murder of Richard Adan, Mailer’s famous “culture is worth a little risk” remark, Mailer’s belief that there was a morsel of good within very evil people, literature as a way to save your soul, Mailer’s willingness to appear foolish at a press conference after Abbott vs. Dave Eggers’s silence in response to Abdulrahman Zeitoun, Cynthia Ozick’s famous response to Mailer in Town Bloody Hall, Germaine Greer’s desire to sleep with Mailer, Mailer’s disastrous positions on feminism and women writers, Mailer’s simultaneous fury and chivalry, Mailer’s forthcoming letter collection, the stabbing of Adele Morales, why Lennon didn’t reveal details about his telephone conversation with Adele, responding to Louis Menand’s criticisms, The Last Party, how Adele has lived in recent years, other first-hand accounts of the party, Mailer’s diary, why the literary community forgave Mailer easily and ganged up on Adele Mailer (and blamed her for the stabbing!), what men were able to get away with in the pre-feminism days, Mailer’s bizarre pattern recognition schemes, his interest and Reich and the orgone box, the Kakutani file, Mailer’s attempt to connect biorhythms to a football team’s success, why Mailer was receptive to charlatans, how Mailer detected bad omens in rooms, transcendentalism, Mailer’s numerous accents, Dwight Macdonald, Brendan Behan, Mailer’s love for The Sopranos, Mailer’s attempts to escape his identity, why people kept coming back to Mailer, Mailer’s desire to know other people’s stories, Mailer’s sensitivity to interruptions, serving as Mailer’s bartenders, Mailer’s relationship with Gore Vidal, Mailer referring to himself in the third person in his nonfiction, Occupy Wall Street, how The Armies of the Night came about, Picasso’s influence, Henry Adams, early stylistic versions of The Armies of the Night, the difficulties of putting yourself in a story, Mailer’s formidable memory during The Armies of the Night, Robert Lowell, the 1967 March on the Pentagon, Noam Chomsky’s influence on Armies, how Alfred Kazin and Joan Didion’s reviews saved Mailer’s reputation, the contemporary decline of culture, cultural engagement, and contemplating whether today’s conditions could allow for a Mailer type today.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to get into this book by tying it into this recently published collection, Mind of an Outlaw, which I also have right here and I have also been reading. Jonathan Lethem’s introduction contends with thoughts he had previously voiced in an essay that was collected in The Ecstasy of Influence. He points out that he “buried the man before I even began to try to figure out how to praise him.” Part of accepting Mailer, I have found in both reading the biography and in reading the essays and in reading various other work, is that you have to put up with the fact that he will say something utterly brilliant one minute and then he’ll say something utterly foolish the next. He will trash Waiting for Godot without actually bothering to see it. He will dig himself out of a hole of his own making. So why do you think Mailer could not really control these expressive impulses? Why did he need to court disaster?

Lennon: Well, you know, some questions answer themselves by being asked. He couldn’t control his impetuous nature. He was — I’ve said it many times — the most impetuous person I’ve ever met in my life. If he felt the instinct, he followed the instinct. And that’s part of it. His notion of the existential life was “Listen to what’s going on inside you. Don’t preplan everything. Don’t have guidelines and rules and restrictions and guide ropes. Jump into life.” And what did he say? He said, “It’s better to expire as a devil in a fire than an angel in the wings.” So it was part of his nature to be that way. And so he got himself in a lot of trouble. With the feminists, with literary critics, with his friends. By being impetuous, outrageous. In his literary criticism, I felt that it was sitting next to him in a little bar in Provincetown, drinking bourbon with him, and listening to tell stories about Gore Vidal and James Jones. Because his literary criticism can’t be separated from his intimate personal knowledge of them.

Correspondent: This is the rare case where you actually have to know his life to know his work.

Lennon: Yes, I think you do. I really do.

Correspondent: Well, the title of this book comes from a famous passage in Mailer’s essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” where he points to how American history was moving along two rivers: one visible, the other underground. Mailer also spent much of his life trying to wrestle with this saint and the psychopath duality, which he was later to apply to Gary Gilmore. You’ve traced the origins of this to Mailer reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and I’m wondering to what degree Mailer’s dualities come from concepts that he read and he wished to hold onto in his mind and he wished to play around with in this elastic, impetuous nature of expression.

Lennon: I think that the reading came a little bit later, but it was a confirmation. He was forever finding confirmations for what he sensed were the two people living inside him. And where did that come from? Well, I think initially it came from the fact that, when he was a young boy growing up in New Jersey and in Brooklyn, he was the center of attention. Everything was focused on him. And yet when he went out into the Brooklyn streets, he was a skinny little kid. There were a lot of Irish tough guys around. He was fearful. He was timid. He was small. And he realized that there was this gap between the two sides of his life. He was no one on the streets and he was everyone at home. I think that was the beginning of it. And then he looked for confirmation of that in places. And when he read Kierkegaard, seeing that there were a lot of connections between the saint and the psychopath and in their passionate way of living their lives, he realized there’s the clue. That was one of the clinchers for him. Absolutely.

Correspondent: What’s interesting though is that you point out that there really isn’t a lot of information about his high school days.

Lennon: Right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering. What searches did you do to try to find something out? I mean, was it just that everybody was dead? Or nobody wanted to talk? What happened here?

Lennon: My chief sources for his high school years were some of the other biographies where people interviewed some of his friends, but also his sister. His sister and her best friend Rhoda: two young women who were a couple of years younger than Norman, but who watched him. They knew his girlfriends. They knew what was going on. They found him to be an utterly charming person. But Mailer said that his life was kind of quiet. He’d go to high school. Everybody thought he was studious, quiet, boring. And when he went home, he had to do homework. He had to go to Hebrew class, religious classes which he loathed, but he went anyway for a long time. And there wasn’t really that much time. I mean, the friends that he had said Norman didn’t get out much. They kept him on a close leash. I know that somebody just wrote a piece on the New Yorker blog.

Correspondent: Richard Brody, yeah.

Lennon: Richard Brody. Wonderful piece. But he said Mailer never wrote a Brooklyn novel. He did. He wrote a novel called No Percentage and it’s set in Brooklyn. He also wrote thirty short stories about Brooklyn when he was in college. So, you know, writing thirty short stories, writing an unpublished and unpublishable novel which is set in Brooklyn, and then, of course, The Naked and the Dead has a couple of real Brooklyn characters in it. Writes Barbary Shore, which is also a Brooklyn novel. I think he was sick of Brooklyn by the middle ’50s and he didn’t want to write about it anymore and he felt that not much happened to him in high school. There wasn’t an awful lot to write about. He was a good student, but good students were boring. I mean, athletes were the heroes.

Correspondent: But it was rather curious. I thought Brody’s essay was extremely interesting.

Lennon: It was.

Correspondent: Because he seemed to think that, because Mailer couldn’t actually look backward in adulthood, this crippled his ability to write fiction. And he had a lot of trouble writing fiction between the years of The Naked and the Dead and The Armies of the Night.

Lennon: Yes, he did.

Correspondent: So is there any kind of biographical information to sort of back that up? Did he make any kind of plunges into his boyhood after these stories you mentioned in later years? Or anything like that?

Lennon: No. Brooklyn was always a touchstone. When he wrote Miami and the Siege of Chicago, he compared Chicago to Brooklyn. He said that they were very similar, that there was a lot of life, that there was a lot of reality, that there were authentic people. He liked that about both Brooklyn and Chicago. Of course, he wrote An American Dream in 1964 and 1965. That was a Manhattan novel. But it was still a quintessential novel. And you got the feeling that Rojack was a guy who had escaped from Brooklyn and made it in Manhattan. And, of course, in those days, that’s what everyone wanted to do if you came from Brooklyn. They wanted to make it in Manhattan. So I think that Brody makes some wonderful points, but I feel that Mailer didn’t want to get bogged down in Brooklyn. Oh, there’s another point too. I was talking with Mailer’s sister about it this morning. And she said, “I can tell you another reason he didn’t want to write another novel about Brooklyn.” She said he read Meyer Levin’s novel, The Old Bunch. And while it’s set in Chicago, he read it and he goes, “This is it! He’s caught the middle-class Jewish family. I can’t ever improve on this!” And he loved that book. So there were multiple reasons for it. But also I think the fundamental reason was that Mailer wanted to play on a bigger stage. He wanted the New York stage and that wasn’t big enough for him. He wanted America to be his stage. He didn’t want to be seen as merely a Brooklyn writer.

Correspondent: It’s interesting how he really admired Meyer Levin, but actually dissed Augie March, which to my mind is the quintessential American novel.

Lennon: I couldn’t agree with you more. But I think Mailer was so competitive with Bellow. He rarely had a good word to say about Bellow until the ’80s. Everything he said about Bellow: Bellow was basically a professor who was spewing out his old ideas from his classes on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and he wasn’t really getting out and experiencing life. Which Mailer felt he was doing. Did he have a good word? You know, in his literary criticism, he finally admitted when he read Henderson and the Rain King, he said, “Alright. I’m going to eat crow. This is a hell of a character worthy of Huckleberry Finn.” So he had that generous streak, but it vied with the competitive steak.

Correspondent: I wanted to actually get into Mailer’s politics. I’m sure you’re familiar with this, but I noted this. It’s worth pointing out that when Mailer ran for Mayor of New York in 1969, he received 41,000 votes in the primary. 5% of the vote. That is actually a good deal more than Anthony Weiner, who received a mere 34,192 votes in the recent primary. Times have changed. But you point out in your biography that Mailer came to politics late. You have Jean Malaquais. He prepares this political tutorial for Mailer that he engages in between October ’48 and March 1950. And before this, he’s relying very much on Spengler as his guide.

Lennon: Yes.

Correspondent: He was spurred on to run for Mayor because of the success of “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” which has actually large sections that don’t have anything to do with politics and is more almost a continuation of “The White Negro.” So I’m wondering about this. Why didn’t politics factor into the Mailer psyche earlier than this? Did he need to actually be ushered in with the attention and the adulation? Is that how this worked with him?

Lennon: Yes, it is. You’ve put your finger on it. He found out that he could be a player. Remember in 1948, he campaigned hard for George Wallace. Made thirty speeches.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Lennon: In Hollywood and mainly in New York City. He put his heart into it. He thought that the progressive elements were going to win. Wallace got slaughtered. He got a couple million votes in the entire country. Mailer was completely alienated. And that’s, of course, when he began to go underground. The Village Voice and all the years moving into the country. Trying that out. Moving to Perry Street in the Village and trying that out. Flirting with the Beats and so forth. And then when Clay Felker said, “You know, Mailer’s got huge ambitions. He says he wants to be President of the United States. Maybe he’d be a good guy to cover the 1960 campaign and so forth.” There was no plan to write an essay about Jack Kennedy. It was supposed to be about the Convention. Well, Mailer was just blown away by Kennedy’s good looks, his charm, his war record, and all that. And he wrote the piece. And then he gets a letter in the mail from Jackie Kennedy telling him it’s the best political writing she’s ever read in her life and it’s fantastic and why can’t anybody write like that. And Kennedy wins. And Mailer immediately says, “Well, you know, I helped win this election for Kennedy. I might have shifted some votes.” And it’s possible that he did. Because Esquire was a hot magazine then. People were reading it. Based on that, he decided on the spur of the moment, within a week or two after that article had appeared, he decided to run for Mayor of New York City and jumped in two feet. His sister told me, “You know, we thought he was crazy. You know, we’re a middle-class family. He has no political connections. No ties. We thought he was nuts.” Everybody thought he was nuts. But this was in the period where he had Napoleonic aspirations. He was right on the edge of going really nuts.

Correspondent: Well, the other interesting thing about Kennedy, which is actually quite funny, is that Mailer is very insistent in that essay, “I highly doubt that Kennedy would have planned to say that he had read The Deer Park before The Naked and the Dead.” But we learn. Au contraire. He was advised, “Hey, Jack, if you really want to impress him, why don’t you mention that you read The Deer Park rather than The Naked and the Dead.” So he was so willing to believe that he was the king.

Lennon: That’s right.

Correspondent: And I’m wondering if just having those blinders on is what propelled him. It’s really fascinating that a figure like that could last. I mean, it’s inconceivable today that a figure like that, operating off of pure impetuous blinders, could still be fairly revered. Even in this wandering period where he’s writing all these crazy columns for the Voice and all that.

Lennon: Well, you know, the question of whether Kennedy read The Deer Park is a very vexed question. On the one hand, Kennedy says it. But we know he was briefed to say it. Mailer said, “Well, even if he was briefed, that shows that his advisers had good instincts. And Kennedy hired them. So I like him for that.” But then he got the letter from Jackie Kennedy. And she said in the letter, “I remember Jack reading it on the second floor of the house in Hyannis Port. And he did read it.” I mean, I don’t know whether someone prompted her to say that or whatever. She said, “And then I read it. I read it when I was out on the campaign with Jack.” So whether he actually read it or not, I don’t know. But it doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing Jackie Kennedy would make up. I mean, how important would it be to do that? But maybe she did. The Kennedys were notorious for attention to detail.

Correspondent: My theory is that Jackie actually read it and Jack did not. She’s covering his ass basically, saying, “Well, I happened to read it too!”

Lennon: (laughs) That’s right.

Correspondent: And then she can talk about it with Norman. Because guess what? He’s not going to talk with Kennedy again.

Lennon: That’s a good appraisal. It’s very possible it worked out that way.

Categories: People

Lisa Cohen (BSS #479)

Lisa Cohen is most recently the author of All We Know.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Working his obsolete connections.

Author: Lisa Cohen

Subjects Discussed: Spending years conducting book research, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland, Garland’s connection to Virginia Woolf, Virginia Woolf’s diaries, the early history of British Vogue, the side effects of spending considerable time in archives, letters exchanged between Greta Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta, befriending Sybille Bedford, Janet Flanner’s considerable connections, Allanah Harper, Olivia Wyndham, Edna Thomas, Flanner’s Letters from Paris, Flanner’s lifelong fear of de Acosta, women who moved in the same Sapphic circle, London, Paris and New York as 1920s cultural termini, conveying the feeling of group life, Garland’s involvement with the peace movement in 1939, Betty Penrose’s excoriating editorial letters, Garland’s abandonment of politics later in life, The Peace Pledge Union, Dick Sheppard, Aldous Huxley, strange friendships with Ivy Compton Burnett predicated on not talking, Garland’s unpredictable qualities, Dorothy Todd’s ostracization from the 1920s social circles, what it took to get ostracized from 1920s social circles, Edna Woolman Chase and the “Nast formula,” the grip that commerce had on 1920s magazines, how the best days of British modernism were in opposition to business, Listen: the Women (a now forgotten radio show that discussed women’s issues long before Friedan), Martha Rountree, Dorothy Thompson, attempts to find radio transcripts, how phonetics journals were instrumental in digging up research, copy editing titles that have an uncertain provenance, Murphy’s vulnerability and volubility, drinking and anxiety during the early 20th century, records of Listen: the Women at the Library of Congress, searching through private collections when public records were sparse, developing a good research filter, how writing a massively ambitious book can change your life, chasing after papers in Melbourne on a calculated whim, getting on a plane to chase one shard of research down, dead ends of superabundance, Edmund Wilson, Chester Arthur, Murphy’s loquacity, being known as a brilliant talker, Murphy spending an entire life working on a study of Madame de Maintenon, Hilton Als’s thoughts on All We Know, Dawn Powell, Murphy’s need to perform, talking and uncontrolled excess, writers ruined by drinking, functional alcoholics, conversational culture predicated upon drinking, whether or not de Acosta was “the world’s first celebrity stalker,” assessing de Acosta’s poetry and fiction, thinking critically about your obsession, distinctive people who arouse strong feelings in others, quirky word usage of “consummate,” de Acosta’s affairs with many leading ladies, the fashion holdings at the Brooklyn Museum, de Acosta’s shoe collection, the desire for a higher education, how education forms character, the pros and cons of passionate engagement, Michael Holroyd’s thoughts on biography, Richard Holmes’s ideas about the rhythm of falling in and out of love with a biographical subject, scholarly frustration, Murphy’s crush on Natalie Barney, movers and shakers on the Left Bank, promiscuity in 1920s Paris, when brilliant people have blind spots, writing quasi-fiction instead of confronting the facts, Dawn Powell’s idea of “piling up facts like jewels,” living a life when all of your friends are literary characters, the dangers of living through books, class and perceptions of Australians, and whether there are any comparable figures today who could match up to Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: So I was flipping around the endnotes in this book. And I noticed that you had actually conducted interviews with some of the surviving members of these various circles as early as ’96, ’97, ’98. I was really impressed by this.

Cohen: Now you’ve seen my dark secret. Not as early as ’96, but…

Correspondent: ’97. I’m sorry.

Cohen: ’97.

Correspondent: Just to be clear.

Cohen: Yes.

Correspondent: But this seems as good a time as any to ask you, first of all, how you found out about these three women. And also perhaps alert our listeners — because these are fairly obscure figures in history, semi-obscure figures in history, Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland — who these people are and how you first found them. I was really curious about that.

Cohen: So the question isn’t about why it took me so long to write this book.

Correspondent: No, no. The question is really — well, look, there are people who have spent decades on books. That’s a given. The question is when you first heard of them.

Cohen: I first heard about Madge Garland even before the distant date that you first mentioned. Even several years before then. I was writing an essay about fashion and Virginia Woolf. And I had read around Woolf’s diaries before then. But I hadn’t actually read them as a whole work.

Correspondent: Did you do that from beginning to end?

Cohen: So I read the diaries from beginning to end. And when I got to the mid-’20s, I found that Woolf was in touch with, getting to know these very interesting two women — Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland. Todd was the editor and Garland was her assistant and then the fashion editor of British Vogue in the mid-1920s. And they were remaking the magazine into this, well what you now know, really interesting place.

Correspondent: While we’re on the subject of Dorothy Todd, I was wondering. Because she’s such a prominent supporting character, did you figure that she might be a fourth part? How did you come up with the three part structure here?

Cohen: Okay. Well, that is part of the whole story. Who are they? How did I find them? Why these three people? Why three and not four or not five? In fact, originally, I thought I was writing a book about Madge Garland. As time went on, I realized that I wanted this to be a different kind of book. And I wanted to show her in conversation with, in the context of — neither of those words is quite right. But I wanted to be able to think about the issues that her life brought up in a broader way. And I also wanted to think about the genre, about biography, in a somewhat different way. I became obsessed with this woman — Madge Garland — who was in the fashion world, for your listeners, in England beginning in about 1920, when she started working at British Vogue, almost until the end. She lived into her mid-90s. She died in London in 1990. She was still publishing in the 1980s. Not hugely, but she was writing book reviews and giving interviews and so on. Until really late in her life. So a fascinating figure and a fairly elusive one and someone who told a lot of stories about her life that didn’t quite add up. Which was part of why I got really, really interested. Because I didn’t know what really had happened. And she was making it a little hard for me to find out.

Correspondent: But you were pretty stubborn and seemingly obsessive about getting it.

Cohen: I was pretty obsessed with her. I really wanted to know what had happened in her life. Because I was really moved by her and interested in her. And she was also a way for me to learn about things that I wanted to learn more about. As were all of these women. In any case, it became clear to me that writing a single subject book wasn’t the way to go for somebody like this. And along the way, I wrote a magazine profile of Mercedes de Acosta. So I spent time in the archive in Philadelphia. The Rosenbach Museum and Library, to which she gave and sold her quite voluminous collection of papers.

Correspondent: This was around the Garbo release?

Cohen: No. It was well before that.

Correspondent: Okay.

Cohen: I was invited to the press conference for the Garbo release because I had spent a lot of time in that archive already and had written this profile and got to know the curators and librarians and educators. The really wonderful people who work in that archive. So, no, well before that. Anyway, the third part of this was that I was getting to know — as a result of having interviewed her about Madge Garland, I was getting to know the wonderful writer Sybille Bedford, who talked to me a lot about Esther Murphy, who was her lover and then her very, very close friend until the end of Esther’s life. And who, as I said in the book, was really in many ways haunted by Esther until the end of her life. Sybille Bedford died — again, also when she was in her nineties — in 2006. And I thought that I wanted to bring Madge Garland into contact with these people who were also in her life. They weren’t her lovers. They were her friends. They were sometimes close friends. These women all knew each other. They were all moving in Venn diagram circles. They all had things to say about each others’ lives. They were more or less intimate with each other. They were not lovers. But they were careful and interesting observers of each others’ lives. And by juxtaposing them, I thought I could say something, again, about the genre. I could do something that was challenging and interesting to me as a writer. And I could try to talk about these questions about failure and success, about importance and triviality, about what work is, what it means to produce, what it felt like to be living through that modernist moment. I thought I could give a richer, more complicated picture of that.

Correspondent: Through pure obsession.

Cohen: Through a lot of obsession and a fair amount of self-doubt and persistence.

Correspondent: Yes. Well, I would imagine, since there’s probably nowhere nearly as much information on figures like these three as say somebody else. You mentioned trying to find specific figures who connected the three. And Janet Flanner, who seems to show up and is familiar with all three, is perhaps the most prominent of your supporting cast. What do you think it was about Flanner that allowed her to know these three women? And were there any other links that you tried to incorporate in the book that weren’t actually there of specific people who were connectors or networkers and so forth?

Cohen: You mean, links who don’t end up showing up in the book?

Correspondent: Yes, exactly.

Cohen: Well, I actually did think about that. There were other women I thought about writing about. One of them is Allanah Harper, who is there, but has a much smaller part. Somebody should write about her. Her papers are at the University of Texas at the Harry Ransom Humanities Center there, as are many other amazing writers. And she was part of that lesbian scene in London in the ’20s. And she was close friends with Sybille Bedford. As a result, she was in Esther Murphy’s life. In the ’20s, she and Madge Garland knew each other. There are lots of other really interesting women. Barbara Kerr Seymour, who was a photographer. Olivia Wyndham is another, who also was a photographer. They worked in the same photo studio for a while in London in the ’20s. Olivia Wyndham had an amazing life. She came from this upper-class or upper middle-class English family and basically ran away from home. First to get a job to work as a photographer and live a kind of wild life in London in the ’20s. And then she fell in love with a woman named Edna Thomas, an African-American actress and singer, I think, who was in London performing. And Olivia Wyndham fell in love with Edna Thomas. She moved to New York. She lived the rest of her life in Harlem and in Brooklyn. She actually joined the WACs and worked as a photographer in the U.S. in the army. I think she was sent to Australia in the ’40s during the war. I mean, a really, really interesting life. She has a tiny little part in my book. But someone should write about her. Her half-brother, Frances Wyndham, has written a story that is partly true, partly fictional about her. She appears in Julie Kavanagh’s book about Frederick Ashton. I mean, there are all kinds of women. And Madge was interesting to me originally because I really wanted to try and think about how to write about fashion, which is this non-narrative thing, right? You pop in your clothes. You appear and you make an impression. But I wanted to try and think about how to write about that phenomenon, about style and about fashion, in the story of somebody’s life. In a way that was about the profound effect of how we make our surfaces.

Photo: Madge Garland, circa late 1920s; the Madge Garland Papers

Categories: Ideas