Lerman’s contributions to the world of the arts were large and varied: he wrote on theater, dance, music, art, books, and movies for publications as diverse as Mademoiselle and The New York Times. He was features editor at Vogue and editor in chief of Vanity Fair. He launched careers and trends, exposing the American public to new talents, fashions, and ideas.
He was a legendary party host as well, counting Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, and Truman Capote among his intimates, and celebrities like Cary Grant, Jackie Onassis, Isak Dinesen, and Margot Fonteyn as part of his larger circle. But his personal accounts and correspondence reveal him also as having an unusually rich and complex private life, mourning the cultivated émigré world of 1930s and 1940s New York City, reflecting on being Jewish and an openly homosexual man, and intimately evoking his two most important lifelong relationships.
From a man whose literary icon was Marcel Proust comes an unparalleled social and emotional history. With eloquence, insight, and wit, he filled his journals and letters with acute assessments, gossip, and priceless anecdotes while inimitably recording both our larger cultural history and his own moving private story.
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Chapter 1: Call It Friendship, Call It Love RICHARD HUNTERThe first time I saw Richard was in October 1933 at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art, in New York, where my in-theater life had started. Miss Lucy Feagin began our day, at 8:30 in the morning, with readings from the Bible. Miss Feagin, for all her activity on the gaudy fringes of one of the world’s most ancient professions, was a god-fearing Southern lady. One day while we were all gathered in the greenroom, I saw a pair of brown-suede shoes and a young man whom I had not before noticed. There was something different about him: He did not look actorish. He looked removed, apart—there was no tempest in him. We became friends. He wanted to be an actor; I did not. He was interested in designing for the theater, so was I. So he became part of a little group that sat up all night talking about the plays they wanted to do, or the plays they loved, and the actors they loved. We reveled in every aspect of being from, and almost of, The Theater. We fenced, we tap-danced, we painted our faces, we put on beards, we disguised ourselves according to play. We led strenuous theatrical lives. And, of course, I achieved one of the main goals of my becoming a scholarship boy at the Feagin School of Dramatic Art: I spent many, many nights in Manhattan and yet remained for a long time the respected, seemingly respectable son of an intensely organized Orthodox Jewish household. Since the Feagin School, Richard and I have been devoted friends: First, my friend to whom I told all my love woes. Then, with a kiss (and a robin’s song) in Central Park on Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23, 1936, he became my permanent love woe. That lasted until 1948, with 1939 to 1941 the time of Laci. (1993) APRIL 14–15, 1939 • JACKSON HEIGHTS, NEW YORKTO RICHARD HUNTERI was listening to the Delius In a Summer Garden for the first time, which seemed lovely . . . a bit Debussy. I say “seemed” ’cause my bitchy relatives decided they couldn’t shout at one another against so exquisite a background. They loudly said for quite some time, “I don’t see what you hear in this noise! What do you get out of it! My Eddie listens to the [radio show] Make-Believe Ballroom and does he shake! What do you hear in it?” Since I didn’t take the hints, they acted on their own behalf and done it in. I sat on the front steps and grouched a time. It is now past midnight, and I am extremely sleepy, but they show no signs of departure. In fact, Momma is about to serve a midnight meal, after which they will go back to the carouseling [sic], and she will wistfully murmur, “I wish somebody”—with a bleeding look in my direction—“would do these dishes! I’m so sick . . . My head . . .” Howsoever, I will seal this missive, drop it into the mailbox, take me my pillow, and plant me on Jerry’s bed. Fortunately, that monster is out dancing. Good night. I’m starting a new set of verses—about being afraid of the dark . . . LACI CZETTELIn the late autumn of 1939, while I was hanging a costume-design exhibit in the basement of the New School for Social Research, I saw a short, stocky, elegant—almost too elegantly dressed—man come swiftly into the room, moving with the pert steps of a boulevardier in a French play. Coming to me, he handed me a portfolio of sketches. His large, brown, amused eyes—slightly the eyes of a dog wanting to be loved—peered at me as through a veil, seeking some sort of information, flashing signals. Suddenly, he clutched me, drew my head down, kissed me deeply. Then, drawing away, “Come to dinner . . .” I was already in love with the dress he had designed for Wendy Hiller in [the movie] Pygmalion (the white dress she wore to the ball). I was now enthralled. Some days later, as Laci looked down at me, he murmured, “How will this end?” his words coming, I realized years afterward, out of an immense sadness. I did not care. I no longer was able to care about anything except being with the strange, plump, exigent, manipulative, sex-ridden little man, being with him in the world he already represented and in which he was more and more involving me. So began my re-Europeanization (and that world’s Americanization?) and my finding a new family. (1993)JOURNAL • MAY 28, 1941 One should never pick himself up and go away in the night, after he has lain beside his beloved, his body all arranged until morning. It leaves an empty space. It is impossible to fill this space. It is how I so clearly see my life, and how it will always be, basically: no ability to pick myself up and go away in the middle of the night. Laci is a magnificent example of how one can be a child, an infant, all one’s life, and make a talent of it and survive. I wish I could be a mother with these two men [Richard and Laci] for sons. I could then love them and they could always come and I would never have to choose. Laci is sick. One does not hate one’s child for cancer. How can I cease loving him because of his sickness? JUNE 12, 1941 • NEW YORK CITYTO RICHARD HUNTER • MIDDLETOWN, NEW YORKIlse [Bois] and Eleonora [von Mendelssohn]’s performance [in La Voix Humaine] turned out the most conspicuously and brilliantly distinguished audience in the year, with Countess Yorck drooping about in her fur-lined bedroom slippers, and everyone unmentionable standing in coves. The best were Hélène Fischer (an Amazon like unto the Empire State Building sans its erection) embracing Spivy [LeVoe, nightclub singer] and both shouting “Daaaaarling” and Noël [Coward]’s momma, Violet, looking like an old English duchess and scratching her rear, and Princess Paley in a hat that hid, completely, the front of her face but left her back hair naked, and [milliner “Mr. John” of] John-Frederics surrounded by gilded youths in golden chairs and really everyone who ever was, or tried, and a few will-be anyones. [John] Latouche reminding me that he met me six years ago, when I was about to be the white-haired boy of Broadway, but then I didn’t have any hair at all. On the stage, Miss Scarlet Mendelssohn—unusual, frequently superb, and absolutely magnificent in the last two minutes—very uneven—no direction. Ilse bad in her act, but marvelously heartbreaking in the badly written scene which surrounded it. The audience yelled and screamed and it was a succès fou, a succès d’estime, and a succès good-evening-friends.ELEONARA VON MENDELSSOHN La Voix Humaine . . . I seem to have had endless years with remarkable women who waited for men by whom they were ensorcelled to call. There was Marlene Dietrich who waited for Jean Gabin to call. There was Penelope Dudley Ward who waited for Carol Reed to call. There was Maria Callas who waited for Aristotle Onassis to call. There was Alice Astor who waited, at the end of a tumultuous life, for John Latouche to call. Before all of these, there was Eleonora von Mendelssohn who waited and waited and waited for Arturo Toscanini to call. Eleonora . . . Almost half a century I have been haunted by Eleonora. Death does not still, nor does it diminish, love. I exist every day of my life in her climate. Her life (which she gave bountifully, without seeking payment at any point for it—except love) was spent like the waters of a great river. In my life, she was such a river, and I have yet to see the end of what came to me on its floods. Eleonora had flung open the door—apparitional, all glittering brown and gold, twined and twisted taffeta, lace low around her white, white shoulders, her hair tossed about any old way, tendrils floating freely and charmingly, her sea-green, short-sighted eyes tight with withheld tears. The door was in a room where Laci and I were sitting, in his apartment in an East Sixty-seventh Street mansion. “Liebling!” She advanced with a sort of duck-footed gliding step (she seemed to swim as she moved, more a water creature than a land-locked being) directly to Laci, peering at him closely, “Liebling!” Her voice had a sound of deep bells in it and, at this moment, they were speaking full peal. “Liebling! What should I do? He’s gone! He disappeared! Even his trunks are gone! They were in storage. . . . The storage is empty!” “You think,” asked Laci, “that he went back?” “That is what is frightening me. If he goes back, what will they do to him?” “Nothing. They want him. He is one of the most famous of German stars. They need him. He will probably live in his little house outside of Salzburg, and they wouldn’t dare to touch him. He will probably play in Vienna and in Berlin and he will make movies. . . .” “But they know that he escaped with me. They tried to get me. They wanted to kill me!” “But I am sure that they do not want to kill him. They want him to make movies for them.” She, who had heard of me but never seen me, suddenly in one swift swooping motion bent over and kissed me on each cheek. I was lost forever. “Do you want me to look for him somewhere?” I asked her. “Oh . . .” (This “oh” was more moan than expletive.) “Oh . . . I want you to very much. . . . He lived in Yorkville in an old, awful house. I have the address here. . . .” She opened a little bag made out of some intricate Fortuny fabric. “But, liebling, you do not even know what we are talking about. . . .” “Yes,” I said, “I know a little bit. . . . You are talking about Rudolf Forster, your husband. I have seen him in the movie of the Threepenny Opera. I saw him when Max Reinhardt brought him here with the company. He is a great actor. . . .” I was not talking in the overemphatic, extra-loud voice one uses when talking to the hard-of-hearing or foreigners: I was talking in the comforting, reliable voice one uses to soothe, to assure a frightened old friend. “But,” murmured Laci, “such a child and so Austrian. He could not exist anywhere else but in Austria.”So, I—in many ways a craven beast—found myself in a very dark house in the upper East Eighties in New York’s Nazi Yorkville. I stood in the shadowy, cabbage-smelling lower hallway and on the landings above me so many frowzy-haired, scarf-headed, smoke-mired women leaned over banisters, all shouting in German, “Go away! We know nothing! We don’t know what you’re talking about! No Mr. Forster was ever here! Go away.” Was this The Blue Angel or M? There is something exhilarating in being frightened. I went down the brownstone steps, and ran back to the house on East Sixty-seventh Street and told them that Rudolf Forster, I thought, had been in that house and was no longer there. Late the following morning I heard, “Forster got on a boat and he is on his way to Austria now.” I did not know, then, that I was to have at least twelve sometimes terrifying, sometimes exhilarating years entwined with Eleonora Mendelssohn’s life. I am jolting north, in the early-wartime forties, in a ramshackle cab driven by a Mr. Miller, whose head under a floppy black cap (I never saw him without that cap) was mostly two enormous jutting ears, his laggard speech a rich seedcake full of jokes and malapropisms. He waited day and night to serve Eleonora, no matter how penniless she was. He waited, he served. She was also his excitement. We were, stealthily, at one or two or three or four in the morning, on our way to sit under a tree in Maestro [Toscanini]’s garden in Riverdale. Eleonora existed in a grand tradition of women madly in love. Such women breathe folly. They are protected. How else to explain Eleonora, who, having somehow secured a latchkey to Toscanini’s house, would leave me sitting under a tree in his garden while she crept soundlessly into the dormant house, crept to his bedroom door, there to crouch, listening to his coughing in the night, his breathing, his very being. Having accomplished this madness, she would return to me, under my tree, fall down beside me in what I could only call an orgasmic state, crying, “Liebling! Liebling! You should hear him! He is like a great storm! He is an element! You should hear him!” And, truth to tell, I did hear him, even there, out in the garden. I could hear him coughing, sometimes calling out, sometimes even moving about, sometimes—oh, ecstasy for Eleonora—coming to a window and peering out. How to explain this woman? How to explain any legend, for she was essentially legend. Born into the fabled Mendelssohn family, descended from musicians, bankers, scholars, hostesses, madmen, collectors of prodigious works of art and of exquisite furniture. Generations mingled their blood with Italians, Basques, Russians, and fellow Jews (some of them converted) of many classes. Eleonora somehow became for us (and this “us” included some of the most distinguished minds and creators of this century’s first six or seven decades) a symbol of European culture and civilization then fast being trampled. She assumed heroic stature, for we knew she could, in her frail, star-driven person, endanger herself out of loyalty, she having ventured, with her name high on Nazi lists of those wanted, in and out of Germany, helping friends and ex-lovers in peril. Duke or dustman’s daughters, none of that much mattered to Eleonora. What mattered to her was genius. She was a pushover for genius and, of course, for charm. She was Duse’s goddaughter. She married four times, not even once for love. She married Edwin Fischer because he was such a glorious pianist; she married [cavalry officer] Emmerich von Jeszenzky because he bullied her into it; she married Rudolf Forster because he was such a great actor and charmer; she married her last husband, actor Martin Kosleck, because there was no one else around to sit up all night talking to her. She was a night person. She slept in dribs and drabs. Ela had a way of laughing uncontrollably, peal on peal welled up from somewhere deep inside. She screamed with laughter, until she cried hilariously. And sometimes, like Niobe, she was all tears. Her life was crescendos: The diminuendos—sometimes they were not pretty. NOTES Eddie Goldwasser was one of Leo's scores of cousins. Samuel Lerman (1886?-1958), Leo's father, was one of eight siblings to survive childhood; his mother, Ida Goldwasser Lerman (1898-1980) had five brothers. Jerome Bernard Lerman (1921-2002), Leo's brother, was seven years younger and his only sibling. After returning from army service in World War II, he would become a plastics entrepreneur who often worked with toy manufacturers. Hungarian-born costume designer Ladislas "Laci" Czettel (1894?-1949) worked in Europe until 1938, then in New York at the Metropolitan Opera and on Broadway (in Rosalinda). In the mid-forties, Leo helped him begin designing women's clothes for New York department stores. Ilse Bois (d.1961) had been a comic actress in German silent films. Ruth Landshoff-Yorck (1904-66) was a novelist and a playwright, a quintessential Berliner of the Weimar Republic. A 1930 marriage to Count David Yorck von Wartenburg (1905-85) had afforded her, a Jew, some protection from the Nazis, but eventually she immigrated to Paris, and then in March 1937 to New York. Leo and she disliked each other at first meeting, but they grew very close, and she became Leo's most trusted critic. John Latouche (1914-56) was a lyricist (Cabin in the Sky), librettist, and poet (Ballad for Americans). In La Voix Humaine, a one-act play by Cocteau, actress Eleonora "Ela" von Mendelssohn (1900-1951) played a woman pleading on the telephone with her disenchanted lover. "She played La Voix Humaine in her own bed linens, on furniture with which she had grown up. The telephone aws an erotic instrument for Ela." Journal, February 2, 1971. The events Leo recalls probably occurred early in 1940, when Rudolf Forster (1884-1968) returned to make films in the Third Reich. Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was the preeminent German theater director and producer between the wars, with whom many of Mendelssohn's friends had worked, including two of her husbands, Forster and the German-born actor Martin Kosleck (1907-94). The Italian tragedienne Eleonora Duse (1858-1924) had been a lover of the banker Robert von Mendelssohn. He and his wife, the pianist Giuletta Gordigliani, named their daughter for the actress.
Table of Contents
Call It Friendship, Call It Love 1
I Knew I Had Come Home 65
Everyone's Giving Parties 141
They Have All Hurried Away 205
The Migration of Treasures 259
Opening Night Every Day 321
A Glorious Sojourn 407
Rather Like Being Jilted 467
Who Do They Think I Am? 517
The Other End of the Street 569
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
"The Grand Surprise" consists of selected journal entries and letters by Leo Lerman, writer, editor and manager in the Conde Nast stable of magazines ("Vogue", "Vanity Fair") for nearly 50 years. He was also an avid arts enthusiast and culture-vulture, famed for his social connections and his charmingly diverse parties. Lerman became an important participant in the New York social scene from the 1950s to the 1980s. I like how the book includes several sample invitation lists from his famed soirees. For instance, a typical gathering from the late 1940s brought together Carol Channing, W.H. Auden, Truman Capote, George Balanchine, Walker Evans, Margot Fonteyn and Jeanette MacDonald.There's a lot of fun gossip in the journals. Lerman cultivated celebrity friendships with the likes of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. He was acquainted with - and wrote about - cultural figures as diverse as Lincoln Kirstein, Elizabeth Bowen, Isak Dinesen, and Arturo Toscanini. Lerman always wanted to write a novel, but never did. In effect, the journals, which have been lovingly edited and annotated by Stephen Pascal, are his legacy. There are dry patches in the journals; Lerman complains a lot about his health; and it becomes frustrating to the reader that he never writes that great novel which he plans for over 50 years. But there are beautiful "arias" about the passage of time and the fraility of human happiness. I'm sure that this is one of the journals which will be widely quoted in years to come. "Each of us is an archeologist. From the day we are born, we are engaged in Personal Archaeology, and we are born again and again, many times in a lifetime. We are constantly excavating the mansions of our dreams, the imagined palaces of our minds, the monuments dedicated to forever passions, to eternal loves as ephemeral as the towering cities in which they so impermanently stood - all now staunchly substantial, each solid stone, each love-laved face, in the moonlight of memory. . . "
If Leo Lerman were alive now, he would have given one more of his grand parties to celebrate the book¿s publication. This book is so magnificent and expansive, and filled to the brim with startling, captivating, and amusing anecdotes and candid observations about an assortment of celebrities, divas of operas, movie stars, writers, and people who were famous for giving grand parties and also for being only rich, and written with such humor, candor, sarcasm and wit that it reads as if it were written by Truman Capote while he was sober. Leo Lerman dreamed of writing some day a grand novel. But he never finished it. Well, it¿s obvious that he wrote in his diaries and note books enough humorous anecdotes and juicy tidbits to fill this most captivating book. Stephen Pascal, who was Lerman¿s assistant for more than 12 years, has assembled these journals, memoirs and correspondence and bits and pieces, ¿stretching from the months before his first Vogue assignment 'in 1941' to a year before his death,¿ in 1994. During his 80 years long life and 40 years long career in the publishing world, at Vogue, Mademoiselle, Harper's Bazaar, Glamour, and as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, and also at the parties he gave and was invited to, Lerner met and befriended innumerable celebrities. Celebrities such as: Diana Vreeland, Leonard Bernstein, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, the Kennedys, Louise Hirschfeld, Helen Hayes, the Newhouses and Paleys, and writers such as Yukio Mishima, Isak Dinesen, Eudora Welty, Truman Capote, W.H. Auden, William Faulkner, Al Hirschfeld, Anaïs Nin, Gloria Steinem, Lionel Trilling, and movie stars such as John Gielgud, Cary Grant, and Yul Brynner, Julie Andrews, Louise Rainer, divas such as Leontyne Price and Maria Callas. This long list is certainly not exhaustive. Before the end of his career, however, he was thoroughly disillusioned by what he observed in the glamorous world of celebrities: ¿I had arrived, I soon discovered, in a world of surface glamour supported by hard, almost unceasing endeavor.¿ It isn¿t surprising that even in his early teenage years Lerman knew that he was homosexual, but it is surprising, however, that his mother not only knew, but also accepted, that her son was gay. This was in the late 1920s, nearly 80 years before the acceptance of civil unions and even gay marriages 'in UK and Spain, for example'. When he was a teenager, he overheard his mother tell his aunt on the phone, ¿He will never get married.¿ Her prediction came true indeed. Leo Lerman never married. He lived first with painter Richard Hunter, and after his romance with Hunter ended, with his longtime companion, the artist Gray Foy, in a sprawling duplex in Manhattan. Like his friend Truman Capote, Leo Lerman was a gifted writer. This is what he wrote to his second love, Gray Foy: ¿Now my heart is whole again - richer, fuller. It has been made whole for me, because I have been and I am loved.¿ Only a very few times in my life have I been inspired by a book to sing so much praise and urge readers to run to the store and grab a copy. This book will captivate and enthrall you. Because this book dazzles, after reading it you will reach for it again, perhaps on a dark and gloomy day to bring some cheer and laughter back into your mind. But it must be savored, as you would a precious glass of rare burgundy.