The Friend

by Kitty Kelley

If The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a 2018 National Book Award winner, slipped under your reading radar, run — don’t walk — and grab this 224-page treasure, which you’ll gobble in joyous gulps.

Your reward will be an elegiac read about love and life and death and grief. The sparse prose sparkles and draws you in, making you feel as if you’re reading intimate revelations from the diary of a woman who’s been slammed with horrific news: Her beloved friend, mentor, and one-time lover has committed suicide.

The deceased has left behind three wives, many former lovers, no children, and one huge dog: a Harlequin Great Dane named Apollo — the only named character in the book. Wife Three foists Apollo off on the narrator, who, against her better judgment and the “No Pets” rule of her New York City apartment, takes the 180-pound hound, but vows the custody is temporary.

As a writer, the narrator uses her journal to try to understand the awful why of suicide, and the reason her friend, who was not suffering from a terminal disease, chose to end his life. She seeks answers from Wife One, Wife Two, and Wife Three, but, getting none, she begins to read about suicide.

She learns that those who drown themselves for love in the Seine tried to scramble out of the water, but those who drown because of financial ruin sank like stones. She is taken aback when she learns that writing in the first person, as she is doing in her journal, is a known sign of suicide risk. Another predictor is knowing a suicide victim.

Desperate to shake off the tentacles of grief, she turns to a therapist and explores her relationship with the deceased. We never know the dead man’s name, but we learn that he was a handsome professor with hazel eyes who could not bear to be alone. He spoke with a BBC accent and regarded his classroom as his sexual playpen.

In her journal, the narrator quotes W.H. Auden, who said he did not like men who leave behind them a trail of weeping women. She then addresses the dead man: “Auden would have hated you.” She chides him for being “restless, priapic,” and for allowing his sexual romps to threaten his career, his livelihood, and his marriages.

She speculates that his mirror might have presented the ugly truth he could not accept, and the blow to his vanity proved to be fatal. Seeing that he had aged beyond his ability to seduce, he lost his will to live. “A power has been taken away, it can never be given back again,” she writes.

Then she pauses to wonder “why we call a womanizer a wolf. Given that the wolf is known for being a loyal, monogamous mate and devoted parent.” She writes that beyond his self-conceit, the deceased was out of step with his students, especially the young women he called dear,” who did not revere literature as he did, and certainly did not revere him.

She posits that perhaps his suicide saved him from being shamed by the #MeToo movement, and she wonders if he decided it was better to exit life by his own hand than continue living in a world that no longer valued him or his work.

There is no intricate plot that holds this lovely book together other than the bond that develops between a dog and his owner, which eventually leads both to comfort and consolation over their shared loss. Their immutable connection is something all animal lovers will understand.

As a writer in residence at Boston University, and having taught writing at Princeton, Amherst, Smith, and Columbia, Nunez allows her narrator to hold forth on writers and writing, and her narrator does not hold back. She raps students from top schools who cannot write a sentence, and thumps those who refuse to read a writer who has a bad habit or a tiny eccentricity:

“I once had an entire class agree that it didn’t matter how great a writer Nabokov was, a man like that — a snob and a pervert, as they saw him, shouldn’t be on anyone’s reading list.”

Such provocative observations will make the book intoxicating for some, while others may find too much exclamation about writers and writing and writing seminars, but that is the life shared by the narrator and the deceased — their love of literature and the books that enriched their lives.

I was enthralled by Nunez’s many literary references and the way she folds in Isak Dinesen and Toni Morrison on the subject of grief and, a few sentences later, glides into Henry James and Philip Roth on the agony of writing.

In between, she summons insight from Milan Kundera and his interpretation of Genesis. She traverses from Tolstoy to Lady Gaga with style and grace, and fittingly quotes Flannery O’Connor, who said: “Only those with a gift should be writing for public consumption.”

Sigrid Nunez has such a gift.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Rising Out of Hatred

by Kitty Kelley

The cover of Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist grabs your attention, and the not-so-subtle design suggests the message within: HATRED jumps out in bold black letters from a parchment cover that starts with white at the top, seeps into grey, and, at the bottom, melds into a dark ash, an achromatic color that means a “color without color.”

The schematic design seems to be a metaphor for the gradual conversion of a white supremacist to multicultural humanity where the color of a person’s skin no longer determines acceptance.

Within the body of the book, Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post, guides readers through Derek Black’s journey as the leading trumpeter for white nationalism to finally renouncing his place in that orchestra of hatred.

An only child homeschooled by white supremacist parents, Derek’s bedroom was festooned with Confederate flags. His godfather and mentor was David Duke, a former member of the American Nazi party, who describes African Americans as “basically primitive animals” and taught young Derek that “our clear goal must be the advancement of the white race and separation of the white and black races. This goal must include freeing of the American media and government from subservient Jewish interests.”

An avid student, Derek absorbed every word. As a child, he designed a website for children featuring racist games and anti-Semitic songs that attracted more than 1 million visitors. Later, he launched a 24-hour online radio network and hosted a weekday show with his father, Don, a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and founder of Stormfront, the first hate website, that claimed more than 300,000 registered members by 2015, most of whom supported Donald Trump for president.

On their daily radio shows, Derek and his father advocated for interests from a whites-only country to skinheads and neo-Nazis. Four days after Barack Obama was elected president, Derek, then 19, announced to his listeners: “We can take the country back. The great intellectual move to save white people started today.”

Given his full commitment to white supremacy and Holocaust denial, plus his natural ability to communicate at white supremacist conferences, especially by singing songs while playing his guitar (he once entertained fellow extremists by performing the 1972 song, “The Monkey that Became President”), Derek was considered a prodigy and was pushed by his father and his godfather to be their heir apparent.

Then Derek entered the New College of Florida, a liberal-arts honors college in Sarasota, where he befriended a dark-skinned Peruvian and dated a Jewish girl. He continued doing his daily radio shows with his father, but from a secret place off campus, never mentioning his life as a white supremacist to anyone at school. Soon, though, he was exposed by a student, who posted Derek’s racist articles and anti-Semitic radio shows on the school forum, sparking a campus-wide controversy.

Most students shunned him, flipping him off publicly, and some even dropped classes he attended. The exceptions were two Jewish male students, who invited him to Shabbat dinners on Friday nights in hopes of enlarging his world vision.

Here enters the heroine of the story — Allison Gornik, who also attended those dinners but tried to avoid talking to Derek because he represented everything she opposed. Over time, though, they developed a relationship and, with spectacular patience on her part, plus saintly compassion, she managed to lead him from darkness to light, to recognize the wrongs he’d committed and the need to try to set them right.

At her urging, he eventually emailed an open letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group that battles racism and hate groups. He admitted that his past actions had been “harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent.” He disavowed white nationalism and promised never to participate in any form of discrimination in the future. With that letter, he broke with his family and tried to put distance between his past and his future by changing his name.

There is no happily-ever-after ending to this story, as the rise of white nationalism seems to be firmly established in the White House, where Donald Trump advocates a border wall harking back to the Klan Border Watch that David Duke suggested in 1977.

That same xenophobia and racism are surging throughout Europe in Hungary, Poland, France, Germany, and Scandinavia, which makes Allison Gornik the only bright light in Saslow’s dark story. She proves that one principled person can make a difference in depriving hatred its abhorrent advance.

She represents the audacity of hope, that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul” and, according to the Belle of Amherst, “sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Who Is Michael Ovitz?

by Kitty Kelley

The bright red book cover blares its question in big white letters: “WHO IS MICHAEL OVITZ?” You might answer: “WHO KNOWS OR CARES?”

Unless, of course, you’re interested in Hollywood agents and the backstories behind such movies as Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, Tootsie, Dances with Wolves, Gandhi, Out of Africa, and Rain Man. Then you’ll want to read this memoir of the wunderkind who co-founded Creative Artists Agency, Inc., the colossus that turned Hollywood on its ear and reconfigured the bottom line of the entertainment industry.

Who knew that Paul Newman’s legendary career once needed to be saved? Or how David Letterman made it to late-night television? What movie did Steven Spielberg give up in order to direct Schindler’s List and why? How did Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols, Barry Levinson, Al Pacino, and Robert DeNiro come to be represented under the same tent? How was Tom Cruise’s early profile as a Scientologist minimized? And why was Robert Redford considered “such a pain in the ass”?

Michael Ovitz answers these questions and more with flair and no false modesty.

Born a yeoman, he yearned to be a knight. He depicts himself as a poor Jewish kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of California, where he envied “eastern-educated guys who grew up on Park Avenue” with “rich parents and fancy cars.” Early on, he knew he wanted more than his salesman father’s “boxed-in life” could provide. His blunt and bitter grandmother, who lived with the family, spoiled him, saved him from spankings, and told him constantly: “You can be better than your father.”

Years later, when Ovitz, worth millions, was being hailed as “the most powerful man in Hollywood,” his “sweet” father was being forced to retire after 44 years of selling liquor for Seagram. Ovitz went to Seagram’s CEO: “I’d like…a favor and I’ll owe you,” he said. (Ovitz and his CAA confreres had mastered favors.)

He asked that his father be kept employed and offered to pay his salary, plus taxes. The CEO said, “Your dad’s a wonderful guy and everybody likes him…you don’t have to pay us anything.” His father worked for Seagram until he was 80 and never knew why the company had made an exception for him.

Unfortunately, Ovitz did not possess his father’s warm personality. To the contrary, he describes himself as “the iron fist” who never wanted a velvet glove. “I was the all-business tough guy,” a “driving control freak…calculating and determined and tightly wound.”

As a youngster, he was a head shorter than his classmates and a target for bullies, so he studied martial arts. “I hated feeling powerless and vulnerable,” he writes. “Bullied as a child, I spent my life bullying back.” He also became a social mountaineer (“I was an effective brown-nosing kid in a hurry”), which got him elected president of his 10th-grade class and later his college fraternity.

His immigrant parents, who never went to college, wanted him to become a doctor, but Ovitz became obsessed with the movies and the heroics of John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Errol Flynn. “I’m a frustrated artist. I couldn’t paint or sculpt. I wasn’t musical and I sure couldn’t act…So I did the next best thing with my life. I spent it around artists.”

After graduating from UCLA in three years, Ovitz got a job in the mailroom of the William Morris Agency, which had produced other tycoons like Barry Diller and David Geffen. Soon, he realized that the fast track there was too slow. So, with four other WMA agents, Ovitz started CAA in 1975, which revolutionized Hollywood by upending the powerful studio system and seizing control for the artists — actors, directors, and writers.

He became the public face of the world’s leading talent agency and reigned supreme for 20 years, making the cover of Business Week and the New York Times Magazine. He assembled a world-class art collection, socialized with David Rockefeller, and was courted by President Clinton to raise money for the Democrats.

Ovitz resigned from CAA to become president of the Walt Disney Co., where his best friend, Michael Eisner, was CEO. Ovitz lasted 15 months, during which time his friend circulated emails calling him a “psychopath” and “a habitual liar” and then fired him, which may explain why Eisner comes off here as Judas Iscariot.

After a lawsuit by Disney shareholders over his severance pay, Ovitz walked away with $38 million in cash, plus $100 million in company stock. One imagines him licking his chops while writing this section and quoting the judge, who called Eisner a “Machiavellian” CEO who “enthroned himself as the omnipotent and infallible monarch of his personal Magic Kingdom.” Eisner was forced out a decade later.

For those who enjoyed The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans and Indecent Exposure: A True Story of Hollywood and Wall Street by David McClintick, this book is delicious, and, yes, a bit malicious, as it settles scores.

The writing engages and amuses throughout, even the sideswipes. Ovitz recounts how devastated his CAA partner Ron Meyer was when Michael Douglas and Cher won Oscars and did not thank him in their public remarks. “Cher did thank her hairdresser, though.”

Now, does this book tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Well, it’s a memoir, one man’s burnished recollections of his glory years, the famous friends he made and lost, the vengeful enemies he acquired, and the high price he paid.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Tuscan Child

by Kitty Kelley

Rhys Bowen is the pen name for the British woman who has written The Tuscan Child, and she appears to be a writing machine, having churned out 40 mysteries, including the Constable Evan Evans series, the Molly Murphy series, the Royal Spyness series, the Red Dragon Academy series, and the Boyfriend Club series for young adults.

In addition, she’s written two volumes of short stories for the Molly Murphy series and the Royal Spyness series. Under her own name, Janet Quin-Harkin, she launched the Sweet Dreams series, plus wrote 11 more novels, including Wanted – Date for Saturday Night, The Boy Next Door, Who Do You Love?, and Love Potion.

Perhaps the frothy titles led to the pseudonym, which has rocketed her into stupefying levels of productivity much like her counterpart, Barbara Cartland, who published 723 romance novels by the time she died at the age of 99. Bowen is only 77, so maybe her female fan base can look forward to yet another series springing from the heroine of The Tuscan Child, who sets out to solve a mystery à la Nancy Drew.

Unfortunately, Bowen’s heroine does not have the style and panache of Carolyn Keene’s: no roadster, no loving lawyer father, and no devoted boyfriend named Ned. Instead, Joanna Langley is the poor child of an unloving father, and the girlfriend of a swinish boyfriend with whom she’s been living until he dumps her for someone who better enhances his career.

This break-up comes on the heels of a car accident that causes Joanna to miscarry a pregnancy that she has embraced but the swine has insisted she terminate. Tossed out of his London apartment, she moves her battered self, her broken heart, and her few belongings in with a girlfriend and sleeps on a cot. A short time later, her father dies and, as her mother is also dead, Joanna is now an orphan — or so she thinks.

Joanna travels to her childhood home in the English countryside to arrange her father’s funeral. In going through his personal effects, she finds a small box containing a strange religious medal and a love letter he had written to a woman named Sofia, which mentions hiding “our child.” The letter had been returned to him in 1944 marked “addressee unknown.”

Joanna knew her father, a former RAF pilot, had been shot down over Italy toward the end of WWII, but she knew nothing else because he never shared that part of his life, or much more, with her. So she decides to head for Tuscany to solve the mystery of the hidden child and to see if she might have a sibling, which she hopes might give her a semblance of family and bring her closer to her aloof father.

We follow her into the lavender hills of central Italy to the fictional village of San Salvatore, where we delight in her discovery of food — real food with fresh ingredients. Accustomed to boiled meat, blanched vegetables, and plastic carryout, she stays with an Italian woman, who introduces her to the glories of sun-kissed tomatoes, warm olives picked ripe off the tree, oven-baked biscotti, and sweet wine pressed from garden grapes. In these scenes, stolid prose starts dancing as Joanna savors the abbondanza of a Tuscan kitchen.

As we know, Bowen is no rookie; she’s mastered the rules of her genre. First: Hook them from the get-go. So she opens with: “He was going to die, that was quite obvious.” Second: Tease with cliffhangers. Most of hers are formulaic (“He had no idea how dramatically things would change by morning”).

But midway through, when Joanna can’t get water from her shower, Bowen sends her to — the well. What does she find? (Bowen asks a lot of questions to push her plot forward). “A man’s body jammed head-first into the well.” Move over, Nancy Drew. Joanna now has a murder to solve, as well as the mystery of the child.

Third: Give them a fairytale romance, which Bowen dutifully delivers when Joanna meets Renzo, who — surprise, surprise — is single, impossibly handsome, immensely wealthy, and who wants to be a chef. What could be more delicious for a young British woman who didn’t know the difference between paste and pasta?

The book alternates between Sofia’s chapters during WWII and the sleuthing of Joanna almost 30 years later. In the first chapter, the British pilot is hiding in a bombed-out Franciscan monastery, where he finds an underground chapel full of relics, statues, prayer books, and magnificent paintings, including (hint, hint) Leonardo da Vinci’s “Madonna with the Child.”

The airman has been saved from starvation by the food Sofia sneaks to him on midnight visits unseen by the villagers. He shows Sofia his amazing discovery, which they decide must be concealed from the Nazis.

Religiosity pervades this book from the beginning. Sofia’s a devoutly Catholic woman who lights candles, goes to confession, and believes in a retinue of saints for every disease and dilemma: St. Blaise for sore throats; St. Rita for wounds; St. Clara for weather.

Joanna, unlike Sofia, makes it clear that she is not a believer, particularly in Catholicism. She says she “finds Catholic churches to be frightening places — one step away from black magic.”

Now, some Catholics who believe in the sacred seal of Confession might be more offended when the mystery is solved due to a priestly judgment (or misjudgment) on saving the village from the Nazis. They had discovered the crashed plane and knew the British pilot had escaped and was being hidden by someone in San Salvatore. What then transpires provides the twist needed to solve the mystery.

The result: Sofia is last seen being carted off by the Germans; the pilot escapes to England and, never able to find Sofia, he marries his family’s charwoman, who gives birth to Joanna. She, in turn, becomes the protagonist of a book that can best be described as a Hail Mary pass.


Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

The Library Book

by Kitty Kelley

As a writer who reveres libraries and genuflects to librarians, I was predisposed to embrace The Library Book by Susan Orlean. I just didn’t expect to fall in love so quickly. But by page three, I was head over heels when I read how she made magic of the mundane. Strolling through the grounds of the Central Library in Los Angeles, she noticed: “Pigeons the color of concrete marched in a bossy staccato.”

God really is in the details.

Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was onsite in downtown L.A., “a glassy landscape of office buildings,” to research the cause and effect of the single biggest library fire in U.S. history, which occurred in April 1986. You may not recall reading about the library disaster; it occurred the same day as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, when most of us were waiting to see if we were about to witness global incineration.

The Library Book is not simply an investigation into a fire that burned for seven-and-a-half hours and left 400,000 books in ashes and 700,000 more covered in soot and slime from the over 3 million gallons of water sprayed to extinguish the flames. In addition to the mystery of who or what started the inferno, the book becomes a fascinating mix of crime and history and biography and investigative journalism, all told by a superb storyteller who holds you in thrall to the pathology of arson, a subject you might not realize you care about until you pick up this book, which the publisher has generously bound in red paper-over-board and embossed in gold.

Orlean takes you on her journey as she interviews detectives, policemen, and firefighters. She gives you the physics of fire and the terror of libricide. You become engaged; you want to find the culprit; you agonize for the traumatized librarians; you cheer for the hundreds of volunteers who rush to help remove the smoked wreckage from the Central Library; you applaud the man — the wonderful man — from ARCO who opens his corporate headquarters across the street to warehouse the damaged books, and then helps raise $14 million to rebuild the library.

With this book, Orlean wrote a love story to her mother, who first introduced her as a little girl to the pleasures of reading at the Bertram Woods Library in Cleveland, Ohio. Sadly, her mother slipped into dementia and died before she could read her daughter’s tribute to libraries and her homage to librarians, who stand as the citadels of civilization.

Orlean makes music with her words; they warble and trill across her pages and sing straight into your heart. She writes about the mission of a library as “a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

She makes you see a library like a giant oak tree spreading its branches to give shade and comfort and beauty to a community. The destruction of either tears an ugly gash in the landscape, leaving a crater of dashed dreams. Yet, as she reports, there are more than 200 library fires in the U.S. every year — and most are set on purpose.

If it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, it’s a crime against humanity to burn a library, because, as the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote in the 19th century: “Where they have burned books, they will burn human beings.” World War II proved that prediction by destroying more books and libraries than any event in history, and killing over 60 million people, making that war the world’s deadliest. The chain that links books and libraries and human beings is indisputable.

Orlean opens her book by quoting from William Faulkner’s Light in August: “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” So, it seems fitting to conclude here with a quote from Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address, in which he talks about the writer’s duty to write from the heart “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Susan Orlean has done her duty with The Library Book

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

A History of France

by Kitty Kelley

Imagine you have an 88-year-old grandfather who lives in London and is crossing the pond to tell you about his newest book. Besotted by all things French, he intends to take you from Gaul to de Gaulle in 400 pages, and your mother insists you give him respectful attention. After all, he’s written 23 history books, edited 11 more, and narrated 30 television documentaries. He’s also hosted the BBC Radio game show “My Word!”

On top of that, he’s a viscount.

(That’s a British title that confers immense prestige on a man, who gets to be addressed in the U.K. as “Lord.” In the five degrees of British nobility, viscount is less than duke, marquess, or earl, but higher than baron. At royal investitures, each nobleman wears a coronet and a crimson coronation robe with a white miniver fur collar.)

So now you’re prepared for John Julius Norwich and A History of France, which is the viscount’s Valentine to Francophiles.

“I have loved every moment of the work on [this book],” he writes in his preface, “and see it as a sort of thank-offering [sic] to France for all the happiness that glorious country has given me over the years.”

He indicates this may be the last book he writes, and, sadly, he’s right; he died this year, a few months after its publication. He ended his French history at 1945, leaving the Fourth and Fifth Republics to another chronicler.

The preface intrigues as Norwich begins with the first words Charles de Gaulle wrote in his memoirs: “Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idee de la France.” (“All my life, I have had a certain conception of France.”)

Lest you think the author identifies with Le gran Charles, be assured that he applauds him as “one of the greatest men in all [French] history,” but lambasts him for “almost unbelievable pusillanimity and small-mindedness.” To underscore this point, Norwich writes: “No wonder Churchill used to say, ‘The heaviest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine.’”

Being the son of Duff Cooper, for whom the title Viscount Norwich of Aldrich in the County of Sussex was created in 1952, the author casually drops the names of de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, men he had met through his father when he was a teenager.

He recalls meeting de Gaulle at a commemorative luncheon on the third anniversary of the D-Day landings. Young Norwich had arrived late after all the plates were cleared, except for de Gaulle’s plate of apple pie, into which he was tapping his cigarette ash. The hungry young man asked the general if he might have his dessert, and the general immediately pushed the plate over, apologizing for the ashes.

The teenager replied: “I said that it would be an honor to eat the general’s ash — a remark that proved a distinct success. It was my only conversation with the great man; but unlike most of those he had with my father or Winston Churchill it could hardly have been more friendly.”

The author’s preface becomes even more intriguing when he mentions spending Christmas 1944 in the British embassy in Paris, where his father was serving as ambassador. There, the young man meets the poet Louise de Vilmorin, “my father’s mistress,” whom, he claims, “my mother loved…almost as much as my father did,” adding that his mother, Lady Diana Cooper, “had no conception of jealousy” about his father’s many lovers.

And we’re still only in the preface!

If you’re as curious as I was, you might be tempted to Google Duff Cooper, whom you’ll find described by London’s Telegraph as “a legendary womanizer” whose “many…early liaisons left his wife in tears but as his health failed, she accepted them.”

In addition to the aforementioned poetess, these liaisons included Singer sewing machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, socialite Gloria Guinness, fashion model Maxine de la Falaise, and writer Susan Mary Alsop, with whom Cooper had an illegitimate son.

Now the author’s family history is looking as interesting as any of the 58 French kings he writes about, including Charlemagne, with his “five legal wives and four supplementary spouses.” I confess: I ran to Google again to learn that “supplementary spouses” are “an important but often unrecognized relationship” in a marriage, rather like the third leg of a tripod.

After reading the preface, one almost wishes Norwich had written his own memoir and left the history book to French scholars. He states that he did not write his book for professional historians, and certainly none would nominate him for a Pulitzer.

He breezes through the Crusades in a few pages, dusting off two centuries’ worth of battles, from the Fall of Jerusalem to the Fall of Constantinople. Along the way, he introduces a variety of regents, from Clovis I to Napoleon III, with 18 Louises in between, plus an odd duck named Dagobert I, who wore his trousers inside out. (Why? We’re not told.)

You may have difficulty keeping separate “King of Franks” (as France was originally called), “King of France,” “King of the French,” and “Emperor of the French,” but, remember, you’re getting your history in one drive-by gobble rather than dainty little sips.

You can’t help but be amused as you meet various kings, including Robert the Pious (he liked to pray), Philip the Amorous (he was excommunicated for adultery), Louis the Fat (he weighed a lot), John the Posthumous (he lived just five days), John the Fearless (he loved waging war, but then, all French kings did), Charles the Bold, Philip the Fair, and Philip the Good (he founded the Order of the Golden Fleece).

You’ll appreciate the author’s Oxford credentials when he writes that King John of England “was responsible for the murder” of his nephew, Prince Arthur of Brittany, which, Norwich adds, provided “Shakespeare with one of his most poignant scenes.”

(The Groucho-glasses-wearing duck will drop down and pay you $25 if you can name the Shakespeare play to which Norwich refers, because he doesn’t tell. He assumes you are as educated as he is and will know the Bard’s “The Life and Death of King John.”)

Far be it from me to question an esteemed viscount, but I was startled to read that when St. Denis, third-century bishop of Paris, was beheaded, he “calmly picked up his severed head and walked several miles to the site of the abbey that bears his name while preaching a sermon on repentance.” No documentation, but in a sly footnote, Norwich quotes Madame du Deffand: “It’s the first step that counts.”

Regarding Madame: Again, consult Google and then — Ça Alors — continue your merry romp through A History of France.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

by Kitty Kelley

The book cover shouts “rollicking, irresistible, un-put-downable.” The blurbs trumpet “original, hilarious, memorable,” even “a level of genius.” Even if all that praise for Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown comes from his pals in London, including the exalted likes of novelist Julian Barnes — who pronounced the book “roistering” — I could hardly wait to start reading.

Having never heard of the author or the 18 books he’s written, I raced to remedy my ignorance. Apparently, Wikipedia has the same problem, because information is scarce. Brown identifies as “a parodist and a satirist,” and his books appear to be in that genre: The Private Eye Book of Craig Brown Parodies, The Craig Brown Omnibus, This Is Craig Brown, and, of course, Craig Brown’s Greatest Hits.

This man definitely understands the art of branding. The British comedian Stephen Fry claims Brown is “the wittiest writer in Britain today,” and an example of that wit from his 10th tome, The Little Book of Chaos, presents his advice on coping with vexation: “Regain your inner child: Pull a colleague’s hair.”

Not roistering enough for you? Well, never mind. In this somber era of Trump, I long for any amusing escape, and what could be more humorous than reading about our betters across the pond, especially the princess who teased her hair to helium heights, wore platform peep-toes, and wrapped herself in parachute silks?

So, I looked forward to a joy ride with this book, imagining myself breezing along in a sleek, vintage Jaguar XK convertible — top down, laughter rising to the skies.

But midway through, I felt stuck in a dilapidated jalopy, gears jammed with sludge.

My fault, I’m sure, for not finding humor in the grotesquerie of a spoiled brat so blinded by entitlement that she flicks cigarette ashes into a servant’s hand because she can’t find an ashtray; who announces at a dinner party that the host’s food looks like upchuck.

She derides Jews, detests Americans, denounces the Irish as pigs, and despises politicians of all stripes. “I hate them,” she said. “They never listen to anything I say or answer my questions. Even Sir Winston Churchill would just grunt.”

I don’t doubt the accuracy of Brown’s unsparing characterizations of HRH, the Princess Margaret, whom he refers to as “the royal dwarf” and labels: short, fat, rude, blunt, boorish, acid-tongued, boozy, haughty, chain-smoking, and gauche. But “hilarious” and “rollicking”?

Brown gives many glimpses into the supposed amours of Queen Elizabeth’s errant sister, including an affair with Pablo Picasso, when he was 85 and she was 26. Brown also writes that “Ma’am, Darling” — as his book is titled in England, a cheeky reference to “ma’am,” the day-to-day form of spoken address used with an adult female royal — did not sexually limit herself to men:

“After [the] death [of singer Dusty Springfield] rumors circulated that she and Princess Margaret had once been an item. This seems improbable, but then again improbability is no barrier to gossip.”

Continuing, he provides a list of “those with whom Princess Margaret was…rumored to have had sexual relationships.” In alphabetical order, he names two women and 21 men, including Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, David Niven, Peter O’Toole, Prince Philip (the queen’s husband), Peter Sellers, and a former prime minister of Canada.

For me, this book becomes a glimpse too far when Brown makes forays into the bathroom. He writes about one man’s pride in being able to sit on the same lavatory seat vacated by a member of the royal family, and then reports another who fishes a royal elimination from the toilet, which he proudly displays in a specimen jar in his home. Yech!

Perhaps Brown’s Ninety-Nine Glimpses is intended to be an indictment of the British monarchy and its pernicious class system. If so, he’s written a masterpiece, especially for those disinclined to crack a knee and curtsy to the crown. He is highly skilled at dissecting the cruel crevices of class in the U.K.

For instance, before you become too impressed by the distinguished photographs of Lord Snowdon, the princess’ former husband, Brown cautions: “The social status of a photographer [is] roughly on a par with that of a tailor — above a hairdresser, but below a governess.”

What Brown has accomplished with his book is a new form of biography — a hybrid of sorts. His “glimpses” are the literary version of mating a donkey to a horse and getting a mule: nothing short of jackass brilliance. He dodges the drudgery of cradle-to-grave chronology, avoids time-consuming interviews, and disregards all documentation, including chapter notes.

Instead, he scours the public record — books, newspapers, magazines — skims the froth off the top, and tra-la-las to publication with a colorful collage of cut-and-paste bits from previously published sources. No index, no bibliography, and, not to put too fine a point on it, no need.

With the princess safely departed (she died in 2002), Brown does not have to contend with the draconian laws of his country, where an insult can be libelous and, if litigated, the loser pays all — judgment, plus lawyers’ fees for both sides.

As sad as Margaret’s wastrel life was her lonely death at the age of 71. After a series of strokes, she boarded herself up in her residence at Kensington Palace, spent most of her time in bed, and refused to see anyone, especially men. “I look so awful now. I don’t want them to remember me like this.”

On the morning HRH Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, died, the queen’s office consulted the prime minister’s office and, with bone-chilling cynicism, discussed “the appropriate level of grief and how to stage manage it.” Between them, they kept tributes to a minimum.

Years later, Margaret’s two children staged a two-day auction at Christie’s to sell her worldly goods. Among her royal possessions was a tiny porcelain box inscribed with the words: “May the King Live to Reward the Subject Who Would Die for Him.”

R.I.P., ma’am


Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Eunice: The Kennedy Who Changed the World

by Kitty Kelley

Eunice Kennedy Shriver longed to be Daddy’s little girl. “You are advising everyone else in that house on their careers, so why not me?” she wrote to her father. Joseph P. Kennedy did not ignore his daughter, but he directed his fiercest attention to his sons, determined to invest his millions in making one of them the first Irish Catholic president of the U.S. He accomplished his life goal in 1961 with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy.

Still, “puny Eunie,” as her brothers called their gawky, skinny, sickly, big-toothed sister, refused to be ignored, and with determination and persistence, she finally forced her father’s admiration: “If that girl had been born with balls, she would have been a hell of a politician.”

Some might dispute any such lack as Eunice Kennedy Shriver barged into a man’s world and grabbed her rightful place alongside them, although she sometimes — but not always — considered them to be her betters.

She founded the Special Olympics, which spread to 50 countries, and because of her, those with physical and intellectual disabilities are no longer locked away. Society now educates them, employs them, and helps them thrive.

Eunice used her father’s vast connections and immense fortune to her best advantage. (She got admitted to Stanford because Joe Kennedy asked his friend Herbert Hoover to make it possible.) Through her father, she landed a job in the Justice Department as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Tom C. Clark. “Joe Kennedy had secured Eunice’s job the same way he had engineered a U.S. House seat for Jack,” McNamara writes, “with good connections and cold cash.”

During that time, Eunice and her brother Jack lived together in Georgetown, where they had an Irish cook and numerous friends, including Senator Joseph McCarthy and Congressman Richard M. Nixon of California. In her unpaid position, she developed interest and expertise in juvenile delinquency and appealed to her father for help in setting up a scholarship program.

Joe responded that the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation, established to honor his firstborn, killed in WWII, “would be glad to defray any expenses…in Boston.” Perceptively, McNamara notes “the random nature and mixed motives of the Kennedy Foundation’s early philanthropy. Solving social problems did not preclude advancing his children’s careers.”

Within a few years, Eunice commandeered the foundation and directed its resources into the field of mental retardation, perhaps in expiation for the plight of her sister Rosemary, the family’s special-needs child.

Recognizing Rosemary’s severe disabilities in London, when he was serving as U.S. ambassador, Joe Kennedy decided his daughter should undergo the experimental psychosurgery of a prefrontal lobotomy, which went horribly wrong, rendering Rosemary unable to function on her own.

Afraid that the stigma of mental retardation might affect the political ambitions he had for his sons, Kennedy sent Rosemary to be cared for by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi at St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Jefferson, Wisconsin. Her absence was not mentioned by her parents or her siblings for 30 years, until Eunice began “reintegrating her sister into the family that abandoned her.”

Like her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver was a zealous Catholic who accepted all the tenets of her church, including the sanctity of marriage and the abomination of abortion. Yet she turned a blind eye to the marital infidelities of her father and her brothers.

In 1980, when Gloria Swanson published an autobiography and revealed her long affair with Joe Kennedy, who took the Hollywood actress on family vacations with his wife and children, Eunice took umbrage. She fired off a blistering letter to the editor of the Washington Post, which McNamara does not mention. Extolling her mother as “a saint” and her father as “a great man,” Shriver lambasted Swanson’s revelation as “warmed-over, 50 year old gossip that accuses the dead [my father] and insults the living [my mother]…The closeness [my father] shared with my mother and her obvious devotion to him inspired his children to revere the values of home and family as well as public service and dedication to others.”

By that time, the sexual romping of the Kennedy men — father and sons — had become proven fact. The only marriage of Rose and Joe Kennedy’s nine children which still seemed intact was that of their fifth child, who adored the Blessed Virgin Mary and wanted to become a nun before she was persuaded, after a seven-year courtship, to marry R. Sargent Shriver.

That 1953 wedding was as grand as a coronation, with Francis Cardinal Spellman celebrating the nuptial Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, assisted by three bishops, four monsignors, and nine priests. The 32-year-old bride wore a white Christian Dior gown made in Paris, and 1,700 guests danced to a 15-piece orchestra on the Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria.

But the wedding might not have occurred without the intervention of Theodore Hesburgh, the charismatic young priest from the University of Notre Dame who was prevailed upon by Joe Kennedy to persuade Eunice not to enter the convent, which Joe felt would be detrimental to JFK’s political career.

Because of Father Hesburgh’s high esteem for Sargent Shriver, he agreed to be Joe Kennedy’s heat-seeking missile, summoning Eunice for “a frank and honest exchange.” He told her that her vocation was not the convent but to marry Shriver, have his children, and continue the work she was doing with the mentally challenged.

He later told McNamara that Sarge “was the best, the very best of the bunch. I knew her not as well as I knew him, but she was a great gal. There are a lot of Kennedys. They come in all shapes and sizes. But who did the work she did? Who cared for Rosemary as she did? It took a lot of strength, I will tell you that. The men tend to outrank the women in that family, but she had as much or more to offer as any of them.”

Eileen McNamara writes with grace, elegance, and diplomacy, never making moral judgments on harsh facts. If she were not doing laudable work as chair of the journalism program at Brandeis University, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer would make an excellent secretary of state. Her fine biography of Eunice Kennedy Shriver champions the overlooked sister, who deserves as much, if not more, applause than her celebrated brothers in establishing the family’s monumental legacy.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books

Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World

by Kitty Kelley

I had no idea until I read Picasso and the Painting That Shocked the World by Miles J. Unger that Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was so shocking. After visiting the Musée National Picasso in Paris last week, I would’ve pinned that ribbon on “Guernica” (1937), his mammoth evocation of the horrors of war. (Obviously, I missed the memo proclaiming sex more shocking than man’s inhumanity to man.)

Strictly translated, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” means the young, unmarried women of Avignon — the ancient town in southeast France in the Vaucluse, on the left bank of the Rhone. But elementary French does not capture Picasso’s revolutionary painting meant to rivet and revolt. As he said, “Art is not made to decorate apartments…It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy.”

In 1907, Picasso’s enemy was “the centuries-old tradition” of art, which he attacked with his full artillery, producing a wall-size painting of five androgynous nudes with knife-sharp breasts, misshapen heads, and hollow eyes that looked fatigued and fed up with the sexual demands of their paying customers.

For Picasso, “Les Demoiselles” encompassed a narrative of lust and rage and repulsion and illicit desire. He stripped sex of all romance and displayed the brothel business as a basic transaction of cash for services rendered.

“Indeed, the dynamic interplay between the constructive and destructive principles, Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, was the key to the artist’s creativity,” states the author. At the time, those accustomed to the idealized nudes of Botticelli’s “Venus” and the soft Madonna curves of Raphael did not see Picasso’s masterpiece as creative, but rather as dark, disruptive, and dystopian.

In fact, he was shunned by his adoring bohemian disciples (aka, bande a’ Picasso), who were horrified when he pronounced the painting his glorious “exorcism.” Henri Matisse, his main rival among avant-garde artists in Paris, denounced “Les Demoiselles” as a crime against art, an elaborate hoax, and a personal affront. Dealers and collectors fled, showing only disgust for the painting.

One left Picasso’s studio practically in tears, telling Gertrude Stein, the artist’s biggest patron: “What a loss for French art!” Gertrude’s brother, Leo, once a Picasso patron, called the painting “a horrible mess.” Picasso so scandalized the art world by his depiction of these hard-edged prostitutes that, after one studio showing, he rolled up his canvas and stashed it under his bed for nine years until the world caught up with his vision that introduced the school of painting known as Cubism.

Given the heaving shelves of Picasso books, and the fourth and final volume of the artist’s life to be published soon by Sir John Richardson, one has to applaud Unger, an art historian, for carving his own niche in the adoration wall that surrounds Picasso’s genius.

While the author genuflects to the artist’s protean talents, he does not spare the man holding the paintbrush. Unger describes Picasso’s whorehouse as “the great battlefield of the human soul, an Armageddon of lust and loathing but also of liberation, the site where our conflicted nature reveals itself in all its anarchic violence.”

Some might wish Unger had grappled more vigorously with Picasso’s misogyny and his well-documented cruelty to women, but his savagery remains palpable on the page. “An unrepentant male chauvinist,” Unger calls him, Picasso used and abused women, discarding wives, mistresses, and lovers like a snake shedding its skin. His art was his first priority in life. Everything else — family, friends, children, even pets — was sacrificed on the altar of his raging ambition.

At one point, Picasso and Fernande Olivier, his first true love and mistress of many years, decided to adopt a 13-year-old girl from a Paris orphanage. Within weeks, we learn, “Picasso’s feelings veered dangerously far from the paternal.”

A sketch he titled “Raymonde Examining Her Foot” shows her spreading her legs to Picasso’s devouring gaze. “There’s no indication that Picasso ever abused Raymonde,” writes Unger, “but it’s clear she aroused feelings in him that might have led to disaster. His attraction to adolescent girls, at least later in life, is well-documented.”

The youngster lived with Picasso and Fernande for four months, during which time he was working on “Les Demoiselles.” Then they decided a child was too much of a strain on his art and their relationship, so they returned Raymonde to the orphanage, discarding her along with her dolls.

One of the artist’s most despicable acts occurred in 1944, when Picasso, a Spaniard living in Paris during World War II, was spared military service. Famous and influential at the time, he refused to help his lifelong colleague Max Jacob, Jewish and homosexual, who, the author tells us, “died at Drancy while awaiting transfer to Auschwitz, after Picasso failed to intervene on behalf of his old friend.”

The young prodigy from Barcelona lived to be 91 years old. He became rich beyond his imaginings and made himself the most renowned artist of the 20th century, but he was hardly a man beloved. Like his art, Pablo Picasso never tried to please.

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books




by Kitty Kelley

Shakespeare set the gold standard for honoring a beloved comedian no longer alive. In Act 5 of Hamlet, when the Prince of Denmark sees the skull of his father’s court jester, he nearly weeps: “Alas poor Yorick…A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…”

And now, in Robin, we come to another man of merriment — a comedic genius who has, unfortunately, been buried in a turgid biography. Melancholy suffuses this book like a shroud, but perhaps that’s because the 2014 suicide of Robin Williams still saddens those of us once dazzled by his ricocheting brilliance, his hilarious humor, his raucous one-man shows, and many of his movies, particularly Good Morning, Vietnam, Mrs. Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, and Good Will Hunting, which earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor.

As his friend Billy Crystal said the first time he saw Robin Williams perform: “Oh, my god. What is this? It was like trying to catch a comet with a baseball glove.”

Alas, poor Robin. While your star shines, your biographer shambles.

Granted, the challenge of writing about someone of sparkling talent is daunting, but there’s no excuse for plodding prose from “a culture reporter for The New York Times,” which is how the author, Dave Itzkoff, identifies himself on the back of the book.

On page eight, Itzkoff describes a photograph of Williams’ mother: “Even in this black-and-white image, the soft sparkle of her blue eyes is unmistakable.” Later he writes: “Still, there were lessons that Juilliard could not teach Robin…itches it could not scratch.”

Itzkoff continues scratching in another chapter: “After all the extravagant ambitions he had chased in show business and all the self-indulgent itches he had been able to scratch, none of which had led to his finding fulfillment, maybe this was what he truly wanted in life — maybe becoming a father is what would finally make him happy.”

The first few times Itzkoff mentions Williams wearing “rainbow suspenders,” I noted the colorful detail and remembered he had made them a fashion trend in 1978 with his breakout performance in the sitcom Mork and Mindy on network television.

By the fifth and sixth mention of “rainbow suspenders,” I wondered what I was missing. Was Itzkoff perseverating? His editor dozing? Were “rainbow suspenders” supposed to be Robin’s Rosebud? Did he wear them for good luck? To support the LGBTQ movement? I still don’t know.

By the age of 35, Dave Itzkoff had written two memoirs about himself, recalling his father’s cocaine addiction, his own drug use, and his attempted suicide, which presumably sensitized him to the addictions that plagued Williams, who was open about his struggles with drugs and alcohol, and frequently used them to fuel his comedy. He told audiences:

“I believe that cocaine is God’s way of saying you’re making too much money.”

“The only difference between me and a leprechaun is I snorted my pot of gold.”

“An alcoholic is someone who violates their standards faster than they can lower them.”

By contrast, discussing his decision to finally get sober, which he was for the last eight years of his life, Williams said: “I had to stop drinking alcohol because I used to wake up nude on the hood of my car with my keys in my ass. Not a good thing.”

When his second wife divorced him because of his extra-marital affairs, Williams said, “I’ve learned this: There’s (sic) penalties for early withdrawal and depositing in another account.”

Itzkoff covers all the biographical bases: Williams’ lonely childhood, his family’s many moves, his imaginary playmates, aloof parents, different schools, bullying, and the fear of disapproval and rejection, plus a bottomless need to please and perform, to be noticed and applauded.

No surprise that the best lines in the book belong to Williams, who psychoanalyzed himself better than anyone could: “I don’t think I’ll ever be the type that goes, ‘I am now at one with myself’…therapy helps…it makes you reexamine your life, how you related to people. How far you can push the ‘like me’ desire before there’s nothing left of you to like.”

Williams joked that he had to work nonstop because divorce was expensive, but the book makes clear that he worked for the same reason a dervish whirls — he had to. As one friend said, “He operated on working. That was the true love of his life. Above his children, above everything. If he wasn’t working he was a shell of himself. When he worked, it was like a lightbulb was turned on.”

Robin Williams turned the lightbulb off on August 11, 2014, when he hung himself by a leather belt. Months before, he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, leading many to assume that depression prompted his suicide. But three months later, the Marin County Sheriff’s office released the autopsy report, showing that Williams suffered from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,” a toxic, devastating brain disorder for which there is no cure or control.

“Robin was aware that he was losing his mind and there was nothing he could do about it,” said one of his doctors. Billy Crystal said: “My heart breaks that he suffered and only saw one way out.”

Williams left behind one widow, two ex-wives, three children, and an estate worth $20-$50 million, which was litigated by some of the above. He left the rest of us a legacy of laughter but feeling as desolate as Hamlet over Yorick: “Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table in a roar?”

Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books