Tuesday, April 5, 2016

LIZ SMITH: Before La Streep, there was Meryl

A drawing from Peter Arno's Circus, 1931. From the Estate of Peter Arno.
by Liz Smith

Before La Streep, there was Meryl — Vanity Fair Tells The Story.

"FROM HERE TO ETERNITY" is the title of an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair.

It's subtitle tells us that "After a lifetime of competing — for the best toys, schools, vacations, etc. — baby boomers are looking at the ultimate challenge: death. The author goes on to have some advice for those worried about how (or even if) they'll be remembered."

This perspicacious article — by Michael Kinsley — is illustrated by a tombstone which reads "Google me."

Mr. Kinsley has delved into the example of Ozymandias, the ancient whose life is illustrated by the phrase "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Even the magazine's witty editor, Graydon Carter seizes on this historical truth in talking about Donald Trump whose name is everywhere.
IT'S no wonder that the New Yorker and Vanity Fair are the lodestone — touchstones — of my own life because these magazines keep reminding me of my own childhood aspirations. And these longings, considering my poor middle class growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, were somewhat unreal. I seem to have been wanting sophistication and glamour inspired by movies in the 1930's and by my reading lots of books I didn't quite understand.
Liz and Elaine Stritch trying to make it big in the big city, 1956.
I have already written in my memoir, "Natural Blonde" about going to the upscale Suzanne Stinnet's house with my gang of girls to play softball. And I would abandon my teammates and creep up to Mrs. Stinnet's exotic bedroom to leaf through her magazines. Here, I discovered the New Yorker. And I would sit mesmerized by the famous and near famous of New York wondering what the cartoon by someone named Peter Arno meant. I recall the first one vividly. It is of a gorgeous brunette nude woman sitting before her vanity dropping her powder puff exclaiming "My God! I forgot the men's favors!" And as time went on and I arrived in New York in 1949 I had learned a lot more about the most famous cartoonist of the post Jazz Age who was still covering the vestiges of Café Society, which was disappearing fast. Mr. Arno's life, and his death in 1964, is chronicled by Ben Schwartz in the latest Vanity Fair.
Arno, at his Park Avenue apartment, photographed for Look magazine, 1949.
Photograph by Stanley Kubrick.
Mr. Arno was the pet friend of the New Yorker's original editor Harold Ross. And he was constantly being quoted by the giants of celebrity who were still around — S. J. Perelman, Walter Winchell, Lucius Beebe, James Thurber, the Marx Brothers, Noel Coward, Charles Addams, and Robert Benchley, who calls Peter Arno "a revolution." This was the last gasp of Café Society as represented by the Stork Club, El Morocco and the Copa Cabana. My absolute favorite of all of Peter Arno's work is a dancing line of cuties where the end girl confides to a man sitting at a ring side table, "Valerie won't be around for several days. She backed into a sizzling platter."
I learned that Peter Arno was as famous on the East coast as Errol Flynn was on the West coast. He lived in his hey day in a mélange of covering his peers and dating society beauties from Brenda Frazier to Oona O'Neill. You can see Peter Arno's works in many books such as "Peter Arno's Ladies & Gentlemen" and "Peter Arno's Parade."

I am so grateful to Vanity Fair for this memorabilia, which confirms all that I thought I knew about glamour.
Peter Arno, Brenda Frazier, and Billy Livingston at New York's La Conga, 1939.
Digital Colorization by Lorna Clark; © Bettmann/Corbis.
THERE are plenty of Internet created stars and names in the April Vanity Fair and then there is a glorious Meryl Streep on the cover telling the of how she was discovered by screenwriter Robert Benton, who I went to college with. He directed her in "Kramer vs. Kramer" and the story of how her irascible co-star Dustin Hoffman tormented her and forced her to give the epic performance that won her an Oscar is all there.
Meryl Streep in New York City, 1978. Photograph by Duane Michals; from the DC Moore Gallery, NY.
And you won't want to miss the dissection of former CAA's agent Michael Ovitz. It is a story I thought only Hollywood insiders knew and they've all been talking about it for years. It's laid out by James Andrew Miller, who does a splendid job in examining Ovitz himself, plus Ron Meyer, Michael Eisner, Edgar Bronfman Jr., David Geffen and others.
Dustin Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Robert Benton, and Stanley Jaffe with their Academy Awards in 1980. ©Columbia Pictures/Photofest.

With Denis Ferrara

Contact Liz here.