General

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 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

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

 

 

Robin

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

“Martin’s Dream Day” is Woodson Honor Winner

National Council for the Social Studies “established the Carter G. Woodson Book Awards for the most distinguished books appropriate for young readers that depict ethnicity in the United States. First presented in 1974, this award is intended to ‘encourage the writing, publishing, and dissemination of outstanding social studies books for young readers that treat topics related to ethnic minorities and race relations sensitively and accurately.’”

 
 
 

2018
Elementary Level Honoree

Martin’s Dream Day
by Kitty Kelley
Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Avedon: Something Personal

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

Just a Journalist

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