Gossipy tales of the beau monde from a man who knew everyone.

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, April 8, 2007

THE GRAND SURPRISE

The Journals of Leo Lerman

Edited by Stephen Pascal

Knopf. 654 pp. $37.50

Leo Lerman spent his adult life working for glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue, Mademoiselle and Harper's Bazaar. Late in his career, he was briefly the editor of Vanity Fair during its difficult rebirth. Like many other gay men, Lerman was fascinated by the iconic celebrities of fashion, theater, opera and society, and essentially devoted his adult life to the New York social whirl. He regularly attended gallery openings, dance performances, concerts, plays and chi-chi dinner parties. His Rolodex was the envy of lesser mortals. Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Lincoln Kirstein, Truman Capote, Diana Vreeland and dozens of other eminences would call him up to chat. He escorted Helen Hayes to the opening of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, helped young Caroline Kennedy with her homework. He knew elderly actresses from German silent films, gay hustlers, rich Newhouses and Paleys, decadent Eurotrash, Met divas and Balanchine ballet stars, as well as actors Cary Grant and John Gielgud and writers ranging from W.H. Auden to Yukio Mishima to Eudora Welty to Isak Dinesen.

A dazzling life, it would seem, the kind that young people, growing up in Ohio steel towns or on Nebraska farms still daydream about. And yet the pages of The Grand Surprise reveal a man assailed by the conviction that he has frittered away years on over-rich lunches at the Russian Tea Room and sold his talent for a mess of pottage. He accuses himself repeatedly of the "grave misstep in writing even a word for fashion magazines."

Though he clearly worked hard at his articles, profiles and book reviews, Lerman's secret ambition was to be a novelist, possibly even a great one like his beloved Proust. Occasionally he would determine to settle down and start on a panoramic account of the way we live now. Nothing ever came of these efforts, nor of later attempts to write an autobiography. But over the years Lerman did squirrel away notes, diaries and letters, not to mention party invitations, and these Stephen Pascal has ably edited into The Grand Surprise.

Most of the time, the result is a compulsively readable storehouse of outrageous anecdote and sexual revelation, of shrewd comment and keen-eyed description. Periodically, though, Lerman also reminisces about his working-class Jewish childhood -- his father painted Clare Boothe Luce's penthouse -- or emotes about his love for his lifelong companion, the artist Gray Foy, and the loneliness he feels when they are separated. Most readers, I suspect, will find these pages dull or mushy. Certainly, they lack the irresistible appeal of gossip.

Here is Lerman on Marlene Dietrich's passion for the young Yul Brynner: "Marlene could not get enough of him. She could not give him enough. She gave herself, of course. She plied him with shirts made specially to his measure. She bought him expensive trinkets. She baked him wonderful German doughnuts full of apricot jam, and these I carried to the stage door of the St. James Theatre and these he ate voraciously." Dietrich later sighs to Lerman that "life would have been so easy if I had really been sexy."

And here is the fashion editor at a poetry reading: "T.S. Eliot is an odd-looking giant. He made these little semidry jokes (like a second-best, watered-down-for-the-children pale sherry) and the audience played right along -- rapturously. . . . He said that his two best poems were 'Dry Salvages' and 'Little Gidding.' . . . He reads in a light, faintly self-ironic voice, and he drinks lots of glasses of water . . . and he stoops and wears heavy black shoes." In the throng, he notes the presence of "Marianne Moore, googly-eyed like the crusty (but popular) professor of a girl's college (one of the big ones)."

In the early 1950s, Lerman picks up rumors of a new European singing sensation and travels to La Fenice opera house in Venice, where he attends the Jan. 8, 1953, performance of "La Traviata": "Downstage left, quite apart, in solitude to be found in dreams, sits a monumental, Titian-haired, marmoreal figure, encased in her flounced but simple white gown, as she sits there casually, almost indolently, tossing white camellias toward the dancing guests. . . . From her . . . the most haunting voice I have ever heard. It is filled with lost joys, permeated with present despairs. Here is desperate frivolity, and here is unavoidable tragedy. . . . We went away, exhausted, into the dark Venetian winter night . . . We could not talk, for each of us knew that we had seen the greatest operatic performance in years, for me years which had included Flagstad's Isolde, Lehmann's Marschallin, Welitsch's Salome. I had seen Bori, Sayao, Albanese . . . but indisputably Callas's Violetta was -- greatest is inadequate."

On April 22, 1954, Lerman drops by for lunch with book editor Robert Linscott, "where -- surprise -- was Faulkner -- minute, silent, grinning shyly and secretly at odd times, wracked by back pains. He said that he did not like to put things down, but that he went to his typewriter when a job had to be done and did it. . . . Faulkner is one of the most withdrawn of men, coming into our world only when I talked about dogs. He has some twenty. His eyes seem hazel. He ate scrambled eggs, coffee, one martini, and sat silent for endless minutes -- this silence making our talk seem utterly superfluous. He doesn't seem to read. He exists -- drinks -- writes. I could not say that he was happy to see me."

Besides such miniature portraits, Lerman is adept at capturing a passing figure with an apt simile or comparison. An unnamed count "had manners verging on tango-tea daintiness." At Truman Capote's famous Black and White Ball, "many of the women looked embalmed -- but by the most perfect morticians in the world." Colette's death, he writes, was "like the dousing of a little dependable potbellied stove that miraculously heated you all your life." He notes that at one party the novelist Marguerite Young "materialized, looking like a bloated caricature of Herodias in the Wilde play, but done by a provincial Dutch company."

Sometimes, you can hardly believe the shameless name-dropping or the catty remarks: "I had a lovely, lively encounter with Princess Margaret last week at Cecil Beaton's party for Audrey Hepburn (who looked wonderful in a short, puffed skirt, bright green, tightly bodiced dress from Givenchy)." When Aristotle Onassis first tries to seduce Maria Callas, she throws him out and screeches into the Paris night, at 3 or 4 in the morning: " 'Shame on you! And on the anniversary of your second wife's first husband's death!' This was on November 22, 1968." (Callas, who eventually does become the Greek tycoon's mistress, later tells Lerman about Onassis's favorite sexual practices.) After Susan Sontag publishes On Photography, the photographer Irving Penn complains, "She can't see. She has no eye." According to Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Zelda Fitzgerald "was always taking off her clothes -- and you know -- she didn't have a thing to show -- not a thing. . . ." Kittie Carlisle Hart coolly tells her husband's former lover, the singer Paula Laurence, "Your dress, darling -- probably very effective onstage."

The secret of glamour, says Lerman, is the ability "to give a sense of occasion." Lerman himself was famous for his legendary open houses, where one might encounter anyone from critic Lionel Trilling to soprano Joan Sutherland. Still, in the later pages of The Grand Surprise, the party begins to wind down and grow sad. Lerman undergoes serious operations, starts to lose his sight, can hardly walk. There are more and more funerals and memorial services. When the aging man about town drops by the cast party for the musical "Merrily We Roll Along," "a tide of Merrily young people swept around my chair, obliterating me. I knew none of them. I was not part of their future, as I had been so many years ago."

The Grand Surprise is full of delicious anecdotes about shallow, venal, power-mad, sex-crazed and often unlikable people. And yet these are also the same breathtaking talents who gave us "The Blue Angel" and "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the New York City Ballet and the magazines and books we read and the songs we always sing in the shower. Ultimately, as Lerman himself knew all too well, only such artistic achievements really matter. It hardly takes genius to drink, flirt and behave badly at parties. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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