Although Aline Bernstein, the subject of Carole Klein's biography, was known as one of the finest scene and costume designers from the 20s to early 50s, she probably will be remembered best for her relationship with Thomas Wolfe.
As the daughter of Joseph Frankau, a flamboyant actor, Bernstein grew up with a fascination for the theater. Her innate visual talents led her to create settings for major institutions like the Neighborhood Playhouse, that starting ground for many great theatrical careers. And it was not unusual that she came into contact with Wolfe, who first hoped to become a playwirhgt.
But if similar interests would make a liaison of some sort predictable, the way Bernstein and Wolfe actually came to know each other was dramatic from the start. One of Wolfe's plays was submitted to the Neighborhood Playhouse just before the still unknown writer left for a trip to Europe. Greatly impressed by the work, Bernstein took it to England to show to a Playhouse board member staying there. On the way back, the writer and stage designer accidentally met and were immediately taken with each other.
The combination of physical attraction and coincidental uniting of the artist with his anonymous patron made for a passionate affair from the start. But the relationship came to be built around an even deeper connection. Wolfe was to build his career on autobiography, and a deep concern with memory and the past were two of Bernstein's most salient traits. When she was a child her father had remarked proudly, "'I see a million faces, and I can't remember one. But she sees one and remembers a million!'" Recognizing that the expansive novel form was more akin to Wolfe's talent than playwrighting, she encouraged Wolfe's interest in the autobiographical mode.
Though she was almost 20 years older and married, Bernstein threw herself into Wolfe's life with abandon. She, motherly-looking, and he, 6 feet 7, were a colorful couple, barnstorming across Europe and appearing in public at major social events at a time when such flagrant behavior was hardly tolerated. They were the kind of people who live like characters out of some majestic novel. Needless to say, they eventually came to make themselves the subject of several books - Bernstein appears as the character Esther Jack in Wolfe's "The Web and the Rock" and "You Can't Go Home Again," while Wolfe is a figure of importance in several novels Bernstein wrote.
Though the relationship had an undeniable glamor and richness, it eventually came to a bad end. Wolfe's childish need for total love and his dependency were almost as great as his desire to break away. His temper was uncontrolable and affection could become rage in a moment. Bernstein like his first editor, Maxwell Perkins, gave an enormous amount to Wolfe only to see herself rejected in the end.
The loss left Bernstein exhausted and heartbroken. In despair she attempted suicide. If self-destruction seems incomprehensible for such an independant woman the explanation may lie partially in the extreme romanticism of her personality. Bernstein's imagination seemed to kindle an almost insatiable lust for intense experience. The story of her life, especially during her years with Wolfe, appears predicated on a preference for fantasy over the necessary limitations anything real might pose.
Still it is hard to believe Bernstein didn't realize that, as Carole Klein points, out, "the very story he (Wolfe) would write, the story of his struggle to break free of dependency, was playing itself out in their life together."
Understandably, this biography concentrates primarily on the fascinating story of Bernstein and Wolfe. There also lies its greatest problem. The biographer is in competition with her subjects who probably do a better job of describing things themselves. In addition, the author rarely discusses with any depth Bernstein's contributions to design.
But the book does outline Bernstein's acquaintances from political activist Emma Goldman to sculptor Alexander Calder and the American cultural scene at one of its most flourishing times.