Wednesday, October 9, 2019. Colder weather over the weekend. Grey and rainy at times, and chilly, then turning warmer (70) on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by some more rain. With more forecast for the next couple of days. Along with warmer temperatures.
It was a lazy weekend for me. I had dinner with friends each night. On Saturday, JH helped me transfer about 200 books from my “library” to Housing Works. I hate parting with them. Each book is a treasure (even if I haven’t read it). It’s totally emotional, and even funny. But true.
My burgeoning “collection” really got off the ground back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, especially when I came back to New York from California. Now I have too many for the space available. They’re piled up everywhere. I’ve donated several hundred over the past two years to HW. I’ve done it so that they’ll have a home, these books. I’ve got even more to go because I’m still on overflow. But when I look at the titles on the shelves I ask myself how am I going to part with them? I suppose it’s like people who love money, sort of. In some ways.
Going through the shelves over the weekend, I found books I’d forgotten I had. I open them to see what’s inside, and inevitably I’m learning something. Sunday it was a tome – Writing New York; A Literary Anthology edited by Philip Lopate. A thousand pages from Washington Irving to Ralph Ellison to E. L. Doctorow.
I first looked up George Templeton Strong, who was born in 1820 and died in 1875. He was a lawyer of a certain social prominence who kept a Diary that was discovered after his death, and which now provides an important portrait of New York life in the 19th century including the growth and development of the nation.
His entries were varied. He wrote frequently about the city itself, its topography, development of the entire island of Manhattan during those years; as well as the politics, the social environments rich vs. poor. There’s an air of snobbery to his descriptions but they authentically reflect the nature of the community and is differences. One thing outstanding about Strong’s entries is his fascination with the town growing into a city and even a world class metropolis on the distant horizon.
An entry from August 16, 1860.
Made my debut in the New York Club this afternoon. Dined there with Charles Strong better and more cheaply than at Delmonico’s. One enjoys, moreover, a sensation of being nobby and exclusive when one dines there, which ought to promote digestion, but it has failed to do so this time, for I’m dyspeptic tonight with cephalalgic tendencies .… My respect for the Club has greatly increased since Baron Rothschild, though illustrious and a millionaire, was immoderately given to lewd talk and nude photographs. I did not give the Council credit for moral courage enough to deny him admission.
A century after George Templeton Strong, in 1966 another New York contributor to this anthology Writing New York is Ned Rorem, the composer “noted for his art songs, (and) has achieved equal distinction as a candid, worldly, and scathing self-analytic diarist.” The introduction continues: “His willingness to be indiscreet about encounters with the famous is tempered by an alert and rather severe moral intelligence. In this entry from his New York Diary 1966, he takes us behind the scenes of the city’s gay community in the pre-Stonewall era to describe a largely hidden world of anonymous sex.”
From this we see how things change while staying the same, that Baron Rothschild had nothing on Ned Rorem’s fancies, not to mention Jeffrey Epstein’s. Although who knows what that same personality would be like at the beginning of the 21st century.
More books. I received two in the mail this week: The Contender; The Story of Marlon Brando by William J. Mann; and Jerome Robbins by Himself, which is actually by its editor, Robbins’ biographer Amanda Vaill. I naturally took a (quick) look at both. Quick enough to read a bit, to get a feel for them; a preview.
I never thought of myself as a Brando fan although I had great respect, even awe, for his ability as an actor. I never saw him or heard much about him when I lived out there, so he was entirely a screen image. You believe that’s what he’s (the character in real life) like. And according to his biographer Mann, I believe it now, too. For those interested in acting per se, as a technique, a talent, etc., (and I am a hapless one) you will learn how the legendary Stella Adler opened up the man to his talent. The other side of that is, we the audience took it more seriously than he ever did.
And as for Mr. Robbins, Ms. Vaill shows us how he did everything but actually write a memoir, or a novel, or a screenplay. His memory is very fortunate that she was his historian because this book can keep you up all night reading about his life, as he saw it. I’d never been particularly interested in a dancer’s life. Doesn’t matter; it’s bigger than that.
An interesting connection always existed between subject and Jerome Robbins’ biographer. Amanda Vaill grew up here in New York on East 81st Street between Park and Lex. When she was working on her Robbins’ biography, her mother asked her if she remembered when walking the family dog, that there was a man across the street also walking his dog about the same time?
Indeed, she remembered although she never knew him. Aha, her mother revealed, it was Jerome Robbins whom she saw frequently walking his dog on the other side of 81st Street (where he had a townhouse).
All this and New York too!