Anne Stinson - August 2007

Glamor and Gossip in Gotham


Anne Stinson

The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman. Edited by Stephen Pascal. Alfred A. Knopf Publishers. New York. ISBN-13/EAN: 978-1400-4439-9. 736 pages. $35.

   Oh, to have been in New York in its Golden Age of art, theater, music and literature – the period from the 1930s through the 1980s! Better yet, to have been in the circle chronicled by Leo Lerman, bon vivant, wit and indefatigable journal keeper.
    Lerman (b. 1914- d. 1994), a free lance writer during most of that fabulous era, took readers of Vogue, Mademoiselle, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, The Saturday Review, the New York Herald Tribune, Harper’s Bazaar, Dance Magazine, Playbill and a host of other publications along on his rounds of what was happening in the ferment of the cultural scene for forty years. He served as editorial adviser to Conde Nast Publications until his death.
    Leo knew and was known by everybody who was anybody in the exciting life of the city. He was also a legendary host whose Sunday night parties were a luminous mixture of celebrities and society. On his first forays into entertaining in the late ‘30s, he was so poor that the refreshments consisted of “jug wine and a wheel of rat cheese,” which guests only reached after a breathless climb to his fifth-floor walkup in Manhattan, but his small rooms were quickly crowded with the overflow mingling in and out from the landing and the stairs. His wit and conviviality were the draw.
Because he was ubiquitous at all events and wrote about them, from concerts to opera to opening nights and art openings, the man-about-town was friends with the best and the brightest.
    This collection of his journals and letters is revealing for more than his reviews. It more clearly reveal the private lives, loves and foibles of his own life as well as the cultural scene. Full of candor and affection, as well as private conjecture about the players in this life drama of observations, his record brings alive an era now gone.
    He was openly homosexual, as were many of his friends and the performers he wrote about, but some of his very best friends were women. Marlene Dietrich and Maria Callas were buddies and confidants for years. His apartment and Dietrich’s were in the same building and they frequently dropped in on each other or talked on the phone.
    Dietrich was intrigued by the actor Yul Brynner, then appearing in the Broadway musical The King and I, and lusted after him. She confided in Leo, of course, but although Leo had met the actor when he arrived in this country with The Chekhov Theater Studio several years previously, Noel Coward beat him to the introduction.
    Nonetheless, Leo became the emissary between the lovers as Marlene, utterly impassioned, bought lavish gifts for Yul – expensive shirts and trinkets and baked German doughnuts full of apricot jam, which Leo delivered to the stage door. Brynner’s actress wife, Virginia Gilmore, knew of the affair and excoriated Leo for his involvement. No matter: He was Marlene’s friend and that excused his participation.
    And in another entry about his gossip with Marlene, Leo quotes her catty remarks about Greta Garbo, by this time (1953) living as a recluse near Leo’s apartment. Leo wrote, “Marlene says Garbo has only two sets of underwear. They are made of men’s shirting. She wears one for three days, then washes it, does not iron it. Then she wears the other. Marlene says she doesn’t mind the not ironing, but three days! Garbo uses only paper towels in her bathroom, has two pairs of men’s trousers, two shirts, and little else in her wardrobe. She is very stingy. Marlene says John Gilbert hated Garbo.”
    It was all grist for Leo’s journal, although none of it ever was used in his public pieces. The second of Leo’s famous women friends was the opera sensation Maria Callas. Leo revered her singing voice, especially after hearing her American debut at Chicago’s Civic opera House in 1954. The locale was not Leo’s regular beat; he made the trip at Callas’s invitation. His response, like the audience’s was rapturous. For the next 23 years they remained loving friends.
    Along with Callas’s success came an open affair with the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. When she arrived to visit Leo in 1961, she stepped off Onassis’s yacht in New York harbor (she refused to stay on board a minute longer in the company of Winston Churchill – “So boring!”) and after seeing Leo briefly, rushed off to join Onassis at El Morocco, a popular night club. “This person is the center of her life, not music,” Leo observed.
    Leo’s loyalties were sorely tested a few years later when Callas’s rival became Jacqueline Kennedy, courted by Onassis after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. To end his affair with Callas, Onassis gave her a gift – a tanker. Callas was not amused.
    When the highly publicized marriage between Jackie and Onassis turned sour, Callas resumed her role as Onassis’s mistress. She nursed a grudge, however, with Leo for becoming friends with the former president’s widow, who had enlisted his help in tutoring Caroline on art.
Self-invention was Leo’s great gift. Although his formal education ended with high school graduation, he had been teaching himself all through childhood. He was born into an Orthodox Jewish family – third generation – in what is now Spanish Harlem, the second of two sons in an extended and close family. Surrounded by equal measures of tumult and love, Leo was a loner with his nose in a book.
    Aware of his preference for his own gender from an early age, he preferred books to street ball. He immersed himself in the long novels of Russian and English literature, combined with his favorite French author, Marcel Proust. From this writing, he patterned the ideal persona, one that identified with the manners and gentility of 19th century Europe. The outbreak of World War II brought a deluge of European Jews to New York, many of them from literature, music, art and theater backgrounds. Leo became their friend and mentor – he was, in his own mind, already one of them.
    But to step back a moment – after high school, Leo spent a semester at Feagan School of Dramatic Art, a stepping stone to three adolescent summers in charge of the theater program at Grossingers, the legendary resort in the Catskill mountains with a wholly Jewish clientele. His practical experience there in stage sets, lighting, reading and selecting plays was invaluable for his future reviews. In addition, many of the neophyte performers in the summer shows went on to Broadway fame. The links remained firm in future years.
    What will remain firm in the minds of readers of this insider’s view of New York, aside from the glittering cast of characters, is a marvelous sense of Leo’s genuine warmth and amusement at his friend’s quirks. The book is highly seasoned with spicy quotes. Following are a few noted to persuade the reader to balance a heavy book (736 pages) on a sandy, sunburned knee under a beach umbrella for the best company around.
In a letter to a friend, Leo described one of the dinner guests of a previous evening: “ elderly woman, (very Boston and crusty, belongs more in a herbaceous border than in a drawing room...”). And quoting Noel Coward on his opinion of Mary Martin: “The only two grown-up things about her are her age and her son.”
    Leo’s own assessment of Elizabeth Taylor: “She has nothing in her head except vanity.” Lilian Gish, the silent screen star, chatting with comedienne and actress Lily Tomlin : “I became disenchanted with Hollywood when I discovered the greatest movie star in the world was a mouse.”
    And so it goes on, jumping out of every few pages like bursts of laughter. Leo: “An organ playing jazz is like an elephant doing the soft shoe.” And the account from a friend who took Danny Kaye and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor out to dinner at a restaurant where credit cards and personal checks were not accepted. The host was highly embarrassed and had no cash with him. The Windsors don’t carry any money, so Danny Kaye had to settle the check. “...the Jewish boy from Brooklyn paying for the ex-King and the ex-Baltimore girl who cost him his throne, in a Chinese restaurant run by an ex-vaudeville acrobatic dancer, an Oriental from San Francisco.”
    Private, salacious gossip was one thing; public vulgarity was anathema. Of a concert by Ike and Tina Turner, Leo wrote, “Tina and Ike are primitive, outdoor water-closet, behind the barn pornography. She has great energy, seems old, and turns them on with stupid smut. {The audience} were turned on by her non-sexuality, her whore’s manipulations.” And on Joan Crawford: {She} made us all laugh. She never quite knew how much hilarity she gave with her larger-than-life self, her belief in her Movie Queen infallibility.”
    Darker, but just as candid, Leo commented on the number of great talents – composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal and many others, who were either homosexual or married bisexuals.
    Some of them were openly gay (a term Leo hated. He maintained always that he was homosexual and also gay, in the meaning of savoring life and joy) and others indulged in their desired furtively. Leo had arranged the provocative photo shoot for the cover of Capote’s first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, but he considered the author “excessively immature and selfish. He needs to be hit on the head.”
    Three sections of period photos (one in color, two in black and white) reveal the enormous range of Leo’s acquaintances, ranging from colleagues in the writing business to friends in the limelight. There he is with the luminaries, looking jovial, natty in his beard and Mittel Europe-cut topcoat, living the life he cultivated, wrote about and loved.
    Highly recommended.