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.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
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
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
by Kitty Kelley
Nothing sells like sex, diets, and the Kennedys. A book entitled How JFK Made Love to Marilyn Monroe on 150 Calories a Day would zoom to instant success. Just ask J. Randy Taraborrelli, who’s been mining two of those veins for the last 20 years and claims “many New York Times best sellers” to his credit.
In 2000, he wrote Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot, which became a two-part TV series on NBC in 2001. He wrote After Camelot in 2012, and he now offers Jackie, Janet & Lee: The Secret Lives of Janet Auchincloss and Her Daughters Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill.
Spoiler alert: He adores Jackie and abhors Lee. The big reveal, according to his publisher’s press release, is that (supposedly) their mother performed do-it-yourself artificial insemination to get pregnant twice after she divorced their father and married her second husband, Hugh D. Auchincloss.
Janet was 37; Hugh was 58, and he had had three children by two previous wives. Yet we’re told to believe that Mr. Auchincloss was incapable of impregnating Mrs. Auchincloss in 1945 and again in 1947. And — hang on — we’re told why: “Even though Hugh was not able to sustain an erection, he was able to produce sperm…[and Janet] used a kitchen utensil along the lines of a turkey baster — though it would be incorrect to say that this was the specific instrument she used; no one can quite remember…”
With eyes popping, I turned to the chapter notes for documentation on this “never before revealed secret.” Under source notes for “Janet’s Unconventional Pregnancy,” Taraborrelli writes: “Because of the sensitive nature of this chapter, my interviewed sources asked to remain anonymous.”
With Mr. and Mrs. Auchincloss deceased for many years, I wondered what possible “sources” could’ve been interviewed about the intimacies of their bedroom. No documentation is provided, other than the author’s note that he recycles sources from his previous books. Then, like a bird feathering its nest, he snatches twigs and wisps from newspapers, magazines, and tabloids while plucking from the vast trove of other published lore, which Jill Abramson, in the New York Times, once estimated to be 40,000 Kennedy books.
In this book, some readers might be troubled by the lack of attribution for “she felt,” “he thought,” “said an intimate,” “revealed an associate,” “confided an employee,” and “reported someone with knowledge of the situation.”
Others might be puzzled by the personal quotes Taraborrelli does attribute, particularly a story about Janet giving Lee a check for $650,000, saying: “For any time I ever let you down, I’m very sorry. Maybe this small gift will make your life a little easier. I love you, Lee.”
Taraborrelli follows with: “We don’t know Lee’s reaction; she’s never discussed it and only she and Janet were in the room at the time the gift was presented.” So how is it that Taraborrelli, who was not in the room, can gives us Janet’s exact words?
Perhaps the quotes come secondhand from Taraborrelli’s main source for this book: James “Jamie” Auchincloss, the 71-year-old son of the aforementioned parents and the half-brother of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Lee Radziwill, although Taraborrelli tells us: “[H]e never refers to Jackie and Lee as ‘halfs.’”
Full disclosure: I interviewed Jamie Auchincloss several times in 1975 when I was writing a biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. That book, Jackie Oh!, received attention because my interview with former Florida senator George Smathers was the first time a Kennedy intimate had gone on the record to discuss the president’s extra-marital affairs.
During our three-hour interview in his law office, Smathers also confirmed that Jacqueline Kennedy had received electroshock therapy for depression after losing her first child, Arabella, in 1956. Published 20 years later, my book also revealed for the first time the prefrontal lobotomy performed on the Kennedys’ eldest daughter, Rosemary, who was severely diminished by the surgery, and, as a result, spent the rest of her life in the care of the nuns at St. Coletta’s in Wisconsin.
While Jamie Auchincloss was not the source for those revelations, he did speak openly about his famous relatives and, unfortunately, he paid a price. Appearing on Charlie Rose’s local DC talk show a few years later, he said that Jackie stopped speaking to him after my book was published, much as she had with others whom she felt had shared too much personal information about the late president, including Ben Bradlee, who wrote Conversations with Kennedy, and Paul “Red” Fay, JFK’s Navy buddy, author of The Pleasure of His Company. When Fay sent his royalty check to the Kennedy Library, Jackie sent it back.
A few years ago, Jamie Auchincloss plunged from the height of being the 6-year-old page boy who carried the wedding train of his sister’s gown when she married John F. Kennedy to the scandal of being jailed at age 67 for the possession of child pornography. In 2009, he pleaded guilty to distributing what prosecutors called lewd and lascivious images, and was charged with two felony counts for encouraging child sexual abuse.
He spent Christmas 2010 in jail. Failing to cooperate with his court-ordered sex offender treatment program, he was sentenced to eight months in jail, serving just over half the time behind bars and the rest in home detention. He was put on probation for three years and ordered to stay away from children for the rest of his life and to register as a sex offender.
Taraborrelli writes that “this unfortunate turn in Jamie’s life in no way impacts his standing in history or his memories of growing up with his parents…and siblings…Or his brothers-in-law, Jack, Bobby, and Ted Kennedy. The times I spent with Jamie were memorable; I appreciate him so much. He also provided many photographs for this book.”
If you’re a reader who requires corroborated information and credible sourcing in your nonfiction, this book may give you pause. Then again, if your requirements are less stringent, you might enjoy the photographs.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
If you’re into pop culture, you’ll inhale Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson, which drops more names in 700 pages than a prison rollcall.
If you recognize Kate and Naomi and Veruschka and Christy as first-name fashion models, you might pay $40 for the book, but you won’t see any of Richard Avedon’s acclaimed work for Bazaar or Vogue in it. You’ll read about “his iconic image of Dovima and the elephants,” but you won’t see why the image is iconic.
You’ll learn that Calvin Klein paid Avedon “three million in 1980 dollars” ($9.6 million in 2018 dollars) for the famous ad campaign showing a young Brooke Shields in an unbuttoned blouse and blue jeans saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
But, again, no photo.
Astonishingly, this biography of a world-renowned photographer contains none of his photographs.
Avedon was as celebrated for his black-and-white portraits as his fashion photography, but unless you know his work, you won’t understand why these portraits raised the ire of some of his subjects, like Truman Capote, whose “puffy-faced” image is described but not shown.
And neither are Avedon’s “vaunted picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor,” described as “two people without a country and without a soul,” and the photographer’s “highly controversial” and “fraught” portraits taken “relentlessly” of his terminally ill father during the months he was dying.
There are snapshots by others throughout the book, but none by Avedon himself. Apparently, this omission is because his images are controlled by the Avedon Foundation, which did not bless the book. In fact, the foundation issued a statement blasting the biography as filled with factual errors (some 200) and fantastical stories, which it claimed could damage Avedon’s legacy.
His son, John, called the book “a collection of half-truths or outright falsehoods,” particularly the last scene in which he prepared a meal and mistakenly sprinkled his deceased father’s ashes, rather than oregano, on the food.
A high school dropout who gravitated to intellectuals, Avedon was the beloved only son of an adoring Jewish mother. He loved theater and film and appeared to have read widely, as was evidenced by the nameplate on his building, which identified him as Dr. Aziz, the emotional character in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, whose quicksilver moods lifted him to heights of exuberance and cast him into the depths of despair.
“Avedon chafed at being defined a ‘fashion photographer,’ and longed to reign in the pantheon of artistes. To this end he published heavy books of his portraiture, staged gallery exhibitions and mounted museum openings, his proudest being twice honored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet by the age of 75, he felt burned out creatively. He agonized over losing his focus, drive and energy, despite daily infusions of amphetamines and sleeping pills. Still, he never lost sight of his financial worth, saying: ‘Money is the only power in the world, and that’s my belief.’
“He once billed the New Yorker for over $1 million in expenses and sent his collected receipts in a large Tiffany box. He considered Qatar’s Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani to be his own ‘ATM on legs,’ and charged him ‘many millions’ for personal photography.”
The book’s most startling revelation is the 10-year love affair between Avedon and the director Mike Nichols. Despite their marriages to women (two wives for Avedon; four for Nichols, including his widow, Diane Sawyer), the men once considered leaving their spouses and running away together.
Avedon later confided to author Stevens that he could not publicly declare himself as gay because his self-proclaimed stature as “the world’s greatest photographer” would be diminished, and there was nothing he cared more about than his star in the stratosphere. “You do it, after I’m gone,” he told her. Stevens obliged — and then some. She retold his stories about “innocent kissing” with James Baldwin and youthful sexual encounters with his sister and his cousin.
This intimate biography draws on the recollections of Stevens and her 30 years with Avedon as his studio director and confidante, as well as oral histories from friends, associates, and a few disgruntled employees, all of whom acknowledge his creative genius as well as his relentless drive for national recognition.
Despite the bad blood between the foundation and the authors, which comes across clearly in the former’s public statement, nothing contested by the foundation rises to the level of libel, even allowing for no chapter notes indicating where the facts in the narration come from — no diaries, journals, or correspondence are cited as documentation.
Consumed by his legacy, Avedon counted the words in the death notices of his rivals and wondered if he’d get more or fewer. Particularly sad was his obsession over how the New York Times would cover his final exit. “Will I make the front page…Will I be above the fold?” To this end, he sent the newspaper annual but unbidden obituary updates listing his latest shows and exhibits.
Richard Avedon, 81, died of a cerebral hemorrhage while on assignment in San Antonio, Texas. The Times reported his death on the front page — below the fold.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
If Linda Greenhouse is “just a journalist,” then Secretariat is just a horse. With a Phi Beta Kappa key from Radcliffe (1968) and a Pulitzer Prize (1998) “for her consistently illuminating coverage of the United States Supreme Court” for the New York Times, Greenhouse is the gold standard of journalism.
(Full disclosure: Greenhouse is a friend, and I admire her — personally and professionally. She’s the woman so many would like to be: smart, accomplished, and principled.)
Her book, Just a Journalist: On the Press, Life, and the Spaces Between, not so much memoir as treatise, took root from a set of lectures she delivered in 2015 at her alma mater about the role of a journalist as a public person and a private citizen. She used herself as an example to pose provocative questions about the shifting boundaries in journalism and whether the old shibboleths remain effective in the 21st century, especially prescient now that we’re in the era of Donald J. Trump and his “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Sparking her reflections on the subject was her personal experience following a speech she gave after receiving her college’s highest honor, the Radcliffe Medal. It was 2006, during the second term of George W. Bush, when, she told her audience, “Our government had turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib…and let’s not forget the sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.”
She also talked about how the world had in some important ways gotten better, especially in the workplace for women and through the Supreme Court’s recognition of gay men and lesbians’ rights to “dignity” and “respect.”
Greenhouse took heat for expressing herself on these matters of verifiable fact, all part of the public record and covered in depth by the media. She did not reveal state secrets or endanger national security. She simply offered her opinion on the world at that time. Still, her peers pounced.
National Public Radio’s website ran a story headlined “Critics Question Reporter’s Airing of Personal Views.” Among the critics was the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, who was shocked — shocked! (Like Claude Raines in “Casablanca.”) The dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland pronounced her remarks “ill-advised.”
The former chair of the Pulitzer Prize board executive committee said, “The reputation of Greenhouse’s newspaper is at stake when the reporter expresses her strong beliefs publicly.”
The coup de grace was delivered by her own newspaper, whose public editor recommended she not cover the Supreme Court on topics she addressed in her speech. “Ms. Greenhouse has an over-riding obligation to avoid publicly expressing these kinds of personal opinions…[and] giving the paper’s critics fresh opportunities to snipe at its public policy coverage.”
They all sounded like Chicken Little, convinced the sky was going to fall on the New York Times because one of its reporters had expressed herself on public policy. Actually, the sky had fallen two years before, when Jayson Blair was forced to resign from the newspaper for fabricating or plagiarizing half of the 72 stories he had written.
The newsroom was still reeling from that debacle, which may have been why no one stepped forward to defend Greenhouse for telling the truth. She was like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale who called out the emperor for not wearing clothes. (To the Times’ credit, she continued covering the court until she retired in 2008, when she accepted an offer to teach at the Yale Law School.)
Greenhouse blows holes through the current theory of objectivity that journalists are expected to maintain — to have no private opinions or support any private causes. According to these old rules, journalists should not contribute to their community because it might reflect negatively on their employer or tempt others to see bias in their work. Leonard Downie took this to pious extremes when he was executive editor of the Washington Post and announced that he would not vote and would stop having “private opinions about politicians or issues.”
He felt that would give him a completely open mind in supervising the newspaper’s coverage, and I suppose it would in Brigadoon. But what about the real world, where journalists might want to participate in parent-teacher associations, volunteer for community organizations, contribute to nonprofits, and — God help us — register to vote?
Greenhouse asks how journalists can be objective in their coverage by adhering to “he said, she said” reporting, as if there are only two sides to every story, when, in fact, there are usually several. Under deadline, reporters, trying to be neutral, frequently run to official sources to get their quotes for “on the one hand, on the other hand” presentations. The advocates’ words could be lies or, to use the newspaper euphemism, “factual untruths,” or benign lobbying for their particular causes.
If their words come to the reader without context or correction, they gain credibility for simply being quoted in the news. Hardly neutral reporting. In fact, just the opposite, as these journalists, striving to be fair and balanced, are, according to Greenhouse, doing what they most dread —deferring to power.
Normally, a journalist writing about journalism is like a golfer writing about golf; interesting only to those who play the game. In this case, though, we’ve got a Babe Didrikson Zaharias holding forth on a subject for which she holds the field, and her subject is not “just” journalism, as if journalism is a mere incidental that can be shrugged off with indifference.
In arguing for more context in reporting, Greenhouse echoes the wisdom of Felix Frankfurter, who said: “The responsibility of those in power is not to reflect inflamed public feeling but to help form its understanding.”
While her questions are provocative and meant to be pondered, her style is cool, analytical, and without hyperbole. She writes with restraint and offers no harsh criticism of her former employer. To the contrary, she recognizes the premier position the New York Times holds and wants nothing more than for the paper of record to excel in its mission to inform.
Journalism affects all of us — locally, nationally, internationally. For it’s through journalists that we learn what’s happening in our world and how to traverse its shoals. Journalists are our eyes and ears, and without seeing and hearing, we’d be blind and deaf, unable to function. Linda Greenhouse’s little 192-page book is a big contribution and deserves our attention.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
Hotels can intrigue, even captivate. In the pantheon of places, nothing tantalizes so much as a good story situated in a hotel, particularly a luxury hotel with hot- and cold-running bellhops, genuflecting valets, and chandeliers that drip with crystal. (Think the Metropol in A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.)
Built on superstition, few hotels have a 13th floor — most elevators go from 12 to 14 — but each floor can hold secrets, whether dreadful or delightful. As such, hotels have been the subject of movies (“Grand Hotel” with Greta Garbo; “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” with Judi Dench); novels (Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner); children’s books (Eloise at the Plaza by Kay Thompson); a rollicking BBC television series (“The Duchess of Duke Street,” the story of the king’s mistress, who owned the Cavendish Hotel in London); and even an Elvis Presley classic (“Heartbreak Hotel”).
Hotel sites beguile, possibly because they provide escapes from the real world and adventures for the escapees, which translates into vicarious pleasure for the rest of us.
Whether fact or fiction, the standard recipe for a good hotel story contains basic ingredients:
1 lb. Scandal
1 c. Sex
2 c. Eccentric guests
1 dash Crime
1 pinch Skullduggery
For added spice, mix in two cups of chopped celebrity and bake for 350 pages. Voila. You’ve got the perfect hotel-story soufflé.
Joseph Rodota followed this recipe to write his first book, The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address. For scandal, crime, and skullduggery, he provides the 1972 burglary of the Democratic National Committee, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon, which, in turn, spawned a great film, “All the President’s Men.”
For eccentricity, Rodota showcases Martha Mitchell, wife of Nixon’s attorney general, and her midnight phone calls. Freshly sprung from a psychiatric ward in New York to move to Washington with her husband after Nixon’s inauguration, Martha soon gave hilarious definition to drinking and dialing. Belting back bourbon late at night, she frequently called Helen Thomas, UPI’s White House correspondent, to unload on “Mr. President.”
For eccentric good measure and a smidge of sex, Rodota also tosses in the Chinese hostess (cue Anna Chennault) who served “concubine chicken” at her Watergate dinner parties.
From John F. Kennedy to John Mitchell to the johns who paid for prostitutes, this book drops more names than a prison roll call. With the exception of Monica Lewinsky, who lived in her mother’s Watergate apartment in the 1990s, where she hung the blue dress that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, most of the dropped names are Nixon-era Republicans (Senators Elizabeth and Bob Dole), Rosemary Woods, and cabinet members like Maurice Stans, John Volpe, and Emil “Bus” Mosbacher.
With skillful research from old newspapers and magazines, oral histories from presidential libraries, and a few interviews, Rodota has fashioned an interesting story about the white concrete edifice that looks like a giant clamshell. With three buildings of wrap-around co-op apartments terraced with egg-carton balustrades, the Watergate, facing the Potomac River, sits adjacent to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
To tell his story from the beginning, Rodota burrows into the complicated bureaucracy that surrounds any major construction in the nation’s capital. He whacks through the weeds of proposals and counter-proposals from the financiers, architects, and developers to the National Capital Planning Commission, the DC Zoning Commission, the National Park Service, the Commission on Fine Arts, the committee overseeing the National Cultural Center (later to be named the Kennedy Center), the U.S. Congress, and, finally, the White House. All had to reach agreement before a shovel broke ground.
Beginning in 1962, numerous hearings were held to discuss plans for Watergate Towne, a complex that would include a gourmet restaurant, spa, beauty salon, grocery store, liquor store, cleaners, florist, bakery, and a boutique of designer clothes for women. Still, there was concern, especially over the project’s financing and what the Kennedy White House called “the Catholic problem.”
As the first Catholic to be elected president — and only by 100,000 votes — John F. Kennedy knew his religion was problematic to many. As president, he genuinely wanted to make Washington “a more beautiful and functional city,” which the Watergate project promised to do. But he would not sign off on the $50 million proposal because it was largely underwritten by the Vatican, then the principal shareholder in the developing company Società Generale Immobiliare.
The formidable columnist Drew Pearson stoked controversy over “popism” with a syndicated column headlined: “Vatican Seeks Imposing Edifice on Potomac.” A group called Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State mobilized its members.
Within weeks, the White House received more than 3,000 letters opposing construction of the Watergate and, according to one, “having Miami Beach come to Washington.” Most voiced outrage that Kennedy would be under clerical pressure to do the bidding of “the world’s richest church.” The Vatican soon divested its interest in the project, and, by November 22, 1963, most objections were muted.
Probably because there is no breaking news in Rodota’s book, his publisher sent a letter to editors and producers trying to burnish the fact that “The Vatican, the coal miners of Britain, and Ronald Reagan have something in common: They each owned a piece of the Watergate. Ronald Reagan held a financial stake in the Watergate complex shortly before becoming president, a fact that has never been made public before this book.”
Wowza! Stop the presses!
Yet the author does a good job of mixing historical facts with personal anecdotes to tell the story of what was both the most famous and most infamous hotel in Washington, DC, until the presidential election of 2016. Perhaps Rodota will follow this book with another hotel story entitled Tales from the Trump International, which might indeed provide some needed wowza.
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
by Kitty Kelley
The British excel as diarists, the most famous being Samuel Pepys, followed by James Boswell (the biographer of Dr. Johnson), and Virginia Woolf, the beacon of the Bloomsbury Group. Currently, Alan Bennett, 83, reigns supreme.
Now comes Tina Brown pawing at that pedestal with The Vanity Fair Diaries: 1983-1992, which chronicles her glory days as the English editor who came to America to revive the magazine, and later to resuscitate the New Yorker. For this she deserves heaps of Yankee praise.
Once I got my mitts on her book, I did what everyone will do: I turned to the index. Back in 1989, I was lucky enough to be selected along with Ted Turner, Diane Sawyer, Steven Spielberg, and others (plus the tombstone of Andy Warhol) as part of “the Media Decade” in Vanity Fair’s Hall of Fame. Each of us was photographed by Annie Leibovitz, who signed and sent originals of the shots as Christmas presents. I was curious to see if the diaries mentioned that 40-page spread in the magazine.
Flipping to the back of the book, I see one entry on page 347 about “the biggest media influencers” of the era. Wowza. There I am. Whoops. “Trashy Biographer Kitty Kelley.” But I’m not alone. Similar smackdowns await others.
Brown zings Jerry Zipkin, “always in high malice mode” as “Nancy Reagan’s viperish portly walker.” She cuffs Charlotte Curtis, the New York Times editor, as “unbearable,” adding, “What a bogus grandee she is, a coiffed asparagus, exuding second-rate intellectualism.”
She bashes Oscar de la Renta as a “conniving bastard,” but after a kiss-and-make-up lunch, she sees “a nicer side of Oscar at last.” Arnold Scaasi is “the dreaded frock miester,” and Richard Holbrooke “an egregious social climber.”
After inviting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to a dinner party in honor of Clark Clifford, Brown dings the former First Lady (“Jackie Yo!”) as “crazed,” writing: “I felt if you left her alone, she’d be in front of a mirror, screaming.” Then she zaps Onassis for “understated malice” in not “writing me a thank you note.”
Midway through these diaries, you might think that most of Brown’s roadkill has been gathered up and gone to the angels. Given the passage of time, some attrition among the grandees of Gecko greed is understandable, but one wonders if Brown would’ve disparaged Si Newhouse, her billionaire benefactor at Conde Nast, as “a hamster,” an insecure “gerbil” frequently in “chipmunk mode,” if he were still alive. Safely dead, he gets blasted for having “no balls at all” because he caved to Nancy Reagan’s request to see Vanity Fair’s profile of her and the president before publication.
Read on, though, and you’ll see that Brown’s slingshot takes equal aim at those not yet consigned to the cemetery. Kurt Vonnegut’s photographer wife, Jill Krementz, is zapped for “extreme pushiness”; Henry Kissinger “is a rumbling old Machiavelli”; Peter Duchin “name drop[s] at deafening volume”; Robert Gottlieb, Brown’s predecessor at the New Yorker, is “a preposterous snob”; and Clint Eastwood is an excruciating bore.
“How could one be bored after one course with the world’s biggest heartthrob?” she asks. “I was.”
She cuffs her former friend Sally Quinn for disinviting her to Ben Bradlee’s birthday party because of Vanity Fair’s book review by Christopher Buckley, who characterized Quinn’s first novel as “cliterature.” Sally was “wild with fury,” Brown writes, a bit puzzled that “the sharpshooter journalist,” who had once libeled Zbigniew Brzezinski, would be so sensitive.
(In a profile for the Washington Post, Quinn wrote that Brzezinski, then national security advisor to President Carter, had unzipped his fly during an interview with a female reporter from People, which Quinn claimed had been captured by a photographer. The next day, the Washington Post retracted her false story: “Brzezinski did not commit such an act, and there is no picture of him doing so.”)
Brown does not chop with a cleaver. She wields her scalpel with surgical precision, blood-letting with small, incisive cuts. She doesn’t linger over the corpse, either. In fact, in these diaries, she jumps from mourning the death of a friend one day to tra-la-la-ing the next as she sits with Vogue’s Anna Wintour, drawing up guest lists for yet another dinner party.
Brown makes intriguing entries about New York’s new-money barons, particularly Donald Trump, who keeps a collection of Hitler’s speeches in his office. On February 23, 1990, she writes that Trump, in between wife number one and two, is “having a fling with a well-known New York socialite. If true, this could give Trump what money can’t buy — the silver edge of class.”
Alas, she doesn’t reveal the name of the silver belle, but she does relate that Trump, enraged by Marie Brenner’s 1988 takedown of him in Vanity Fair, sneaks behind her at a black-tie gala and pours a glass of wine down her back.
One marvels at Brown’s indefatigable energy as she sprints from breakfast with Barry Diller to lunch with Norman Mailer to dinner with the Kissingers. Every day, every night: the parties, the premieres, the galas, the spas, the stylists, the hairdressers, the designers, the limousines. Even she admits exhaustion at her frantic drive to see and be seen — all in service to her role as editor, of course.
These diaries are a celebrity drive-by of the great and the good and, sprinkled with high and low culture, are written with style but little humor, save for the night the newly arrived London editor attended her first Manhattan cocktail party and met Shirley MacLaine.
“What do you do?” Brown asked the movie star. This is laugh-out-loud funny, except to someone who’s laughed in many previous lives. MacLaine was not amused. Upon meeting Lana Turner when the MGM siren was 62, Brown, then 29, decides to “get a piece done that uses her [Turner] as a prism for all the glamorous stars who age without pity.”
The British writer Graham Boynton, who applauds Brown’s high-octane journalism, wrote affectionately in the Telegraph about her early days editing Vanity Fair. Reading a submitted draft for the Christmas issue, she scribbled, “Beef it up, Singer.” Boynton recalled, “It had to be tactfully explained to her that Isaac Bashevis Singer was a Nobel Prize winner for literature.”
I’m knocked out by these diaries, marveling that they were written at the time in such perfect prose. Do all her sentences fall to the page like rose petals in a summer breeze? No editing? No rewriting? No tweaking? If so, this “trashy biographer” genuflects. (My own diaries read like the daily romps of an unhinged mind scrambling for cruise control.)
Diaries provide a psychological X-ray of the diarist, an unintentional autobiography of sorts, and these entries show a woman of immense talent consumed with her dazzling career. And as tough as she is (and must be) in a man’s world, her feminist self resents being dismissed.
When Ad Age demeans her as a “starlet wanting to play Juliet,” she punches back. It’s “fucking sexist crap,” she writes. “Women get stuck with being trivialized and just have to smile.”
Flicking off such criticism like a fuzzball from cashmere, Tina Brown smiles all the way to the bank and then rockets upward, leaving the rest of us in her high-heeled wake
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books
Vanity Fair December 1989
The 1989 Hall of Fame – The Media Decade
Star Sleuth Kitty Kelley
“Catty Kitty stalked the four great beasts of the celebrity jungle—Jackie, Nancy, Liz and Frank. Doing it her way, she clawed past hostile flacks and stonewalling cronies….”
by Kitty Kelley
This slim novel by Gaute Heivoll, translated by Nadia Christensen, presents the life of a couple we know only as Papa and Mama, who built a home in southern Norway for themselves, their two children, and several “boobies,” the term used by the children’s mentally deficient uncle, Josef, to describe the five deranged siblings who come to live with them at the end of World War II.
The siblings — two sisters and three brothers — barely able to function, are taken from an apartment heaped with garbage, mouse-eaten mattresses, and piles of human waste after their parents are declared unfit.
They are saved from being institutionalized when Papa and Mama sign a contract to provide for their care in exchange for a small stipend from the state. The children arrive on a cold snowy evening in February 1945. Watching them get out of the car, Uncle Josef says, “So these are the new crazies.”
Telling the family’s story 50 years later, after Papa and Mama have died, is the surviving son, who knows that working with the mentally disabled was what gave meaning to his parents’ lives, particularly to his father, who had worked for 11 years at a psychiatric hospital.
“That was when I felt alive,” Papa said about the time he spent caring for youngsters, who howled like wolves, and adults could not sit up or feed themselves. It was also where he met Mama, a nurse working in the women’s unit. After they married, they dedicated their lives, according to their son, to caring for the mentally incapacitated “in a Christlike spirit of love.”
At that time, Norway was considered a Christian country, even though statistics show that regular church attendance was, and still is, as low as five percent. Although no longer formally designated as Christian, the Viking kingdom is progressive on issues of morality, and this novel, translated from Norwegian, is a powerful testament to humanity — a tribute to those unique individuals who care for the most fragile among us.
That noble grace of charity is rarely found, even among princes of the church, as the novel underscores when a new minister visits Papa and Mama at home. The pastor is so shaken by “the madhouse” he sees that when he stands at the pulpit the following Sunday, he tells his congregation, which includes Papa and Uncle Josef, about his visit, and suggests that the drooling, incoherent people he met were sub-human-like animals:
“The incident made Papa furious…After that he often spoke about [it]. Still indignant, yet lenient, as if the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. Of course, they were human. They were happy children. God wanted them to be happy children.”
Stipend or no stipend, how many people of modest means living in a harsh climate with no amenities would open their homes to the deranged and fold them into their family? Answering that question for yourself will draw you into the heart of this story, with its small joys and immense tragedy.
Soon, you begin to care about the characters, including the man-child who sits in the yard under an ash tree in the same spot on the same stool staring into space every day for more than 20 years. “No one took his spot, and no one knew what he had seen. The shimmering light from imprisoned souls. Or only clouds and sky, wind and nothing.”
At times, I caught my breath in sadness over the mentally impaired in this story who grow old but never grow up, especially a young girl named Ingrid, one of the five siblings, who cannot speak but listens intently and seems to comprehend on a visceral level.
She howls when she feels psychic pain like she does when told her older brother and sister are being taken to be sterilized. “We understood that an important event was going to occur, but once the word was mentioned, it wasn’t explained or discussed further.” Neither to the children nor to the reader.
For those unfamiliar with Norway, the places mentioned — Tordenskjoldsgata, Brandsvoll, Naerlandsheimen, etc. — might require a map, but the atmospheric descriptions of majestic glaciers, deep fjords, and dense, snow-laden forests suggest a country of wondrous nature which author Heivoll obviously loves. He tells his story with unadorned prose that sometimes shimmers. When Uncle Josef sees snow falling from the sky, he says, “The angels are dancing until their feathers fly.”
The title of the book comes from a crate filled with oranges that came across the China Sea and ended up in the attic of Norway’s psychiatric hospital, where Papa finds it and decides to use it as a bed for the children he has with Mama. Perhaps that sturdy crate is a metaphor for the patchwork family that manages to endure one of life’s greatest tragedies and find a patch of blue sky.
When I came to the poignant end of the novel, I thought of William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize address in which he spoke of “a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something that did not exist before.”
Crossposted with Washington Independent Review of Books.