A Letter for the Books

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Crossing paths. Photo: JH.

Thursday, July 4, 2024; Independence Day. Nice weather, sunny, warm but not too; no rain yesterday, and more of the same fair weather predicted for today. 

Written on 4/20/96; from the same letter to my sister published about the auction of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate items at Sotheby’s 25 years ago. What follows is my report from another party I attended that week:

At the book party at Sam and Judy Peabody’s for Sarah Bradford who’s just published a popular biography of Queen Elizabeth II. The Peabodys are a couple in their sixties, grey and aquiline. The money is hers and the provenance is Sam’s. His sister was Marietta Tree, one brother was once governor of Massachusetts; his grandfather started the Groton School and was immortalized by Louis Auchincloss in “The Rector of Justin.”

The evening’s hosts, Sam and Judy Peabody pictured here in the early 2000s. Photo: Patrick McMullan

The Peabody apartment is a duplex, on Fifth Avenue overlooking the Met. The drawing room is large and tall with lots of sofas and chairs, done in shades of pink and green, with enough gilt and shining veneer and glass reflections to add to the lustre that summons up richness.

A collection of pink jade elephants cover the mantelpiece. Stripes and chintzes with a shimmering soberness, walls and screens of chinoise scenes. Vast and pink, or white azaleas and other flowering branches. Several women, including the Peabodys’ daughter who is tall and stately and forty-ish, wore bright red. Mrs. Peabody wore a soft lime green suit that fit perfectly and looked expensive.

Meeting an author. They completed the glamorous look of the room with their colors.  The men looked undistinguished in their greys and blues. I met Leon Uris, the novelist who wrote “Exodus” which was made into a popular movie by Otto Preminger.  Leon said if Otto weren’t a Jew he would have been a Nazi. He said his Alzheimer’s didn’t come soon enough. When I told him that Otto was a loving father to Erik, the son he didn’t meet until Erik was in his mid-20s, Leon replied that Otto was just showing off because Erik’s mother was Gypsy Rose Lee; in other words, a big deal.

Leon was otherwise an engaging fellow of seventy-two with two sets of children, the eldest being fifty and the youngest being ten.  He is portly and admittedly with weak knees so that he can’t stand for any length of time. The butler passed cucumber sandwiches on a tray; cheese puffs, little triangles of smoked salmon on rye bread, standard fare as cocktail party hors d’oeurves. Leon said he was going to eat his dinner here.  I didn’t because I knew I was going on to dinner.

Leon Uris around the time we met.

He wanted to know the origin of my name, saying what most people say, that it seemed Latin in some way. I told him it was Irish and then we talked about the origins of the black Irish. We talked about the civilization. I said that we were at the end of something and that it was hastening more quickly, things changing faster and faster into what might be regarded as the technological age, or, presently, the atomic age. I gave him my usual schpiel about how I think we’re getting prepared to evacuate the planet in the next century or so.

Leon reacted as most people do wondering why we’d want to do that. It doesn’t occur to them that there is no reason for us to do anything, that life is all the process of existence. We are merely, by our nature, like our ancestors who migrated and called it “discovery,” doing our exploring galactically, and inter-galactically. It seems so obvious.

Dominick Dunne came over to say hello to Leon, and to tell him how honored he was to meet him, and to thank me for putting him on the Quest 400 List. Two of the biggest selling authors of my lifetime. I was reminded of a time in my life, now seemingly long past, when I’d never met a professional writer, a real writer. Except myself, and I didn’t regard myself in the category of the aforementioned, accomplished and successful, for I am still a child, a boy to these men, and therefore slightly awed by the distinguished temporary company.

The feted author, Sarah Bradford.

Sarah Bradford came over and sat down next to Leon. She is also Vicountess Bango in Northern Ireland.  She and Leon exchanged writers-talk.  She was not happy with the review in the Spectator in London a couple of weeks ago, although she was delighted with the review that John Updike wrote this week in the New Yorker. I read both.  The British are naturally nettled by current biographies of their monarch, tarnishing the image that is desired to be austere and gilded as the very crown that sits upon her eternal head.

Everyone says she is not important anymore, that the monarchy is not important anymore, and yet everyone (or almost everyone) pays attention to any talk about her or any of the Royals. She is important. And she is odd, compared to most of us because she has lived her entire life in what we call a royal existence. She and a handful of other members of the human race have experienced something very rare: being the center of a culture. And she lives in a palace and assorted castles when she leaves town.

She is the Queen of England and her domestic family is a mess like a lot of other families, rich and poor, a lot of which may have resulted from all the inter-marriages. Poor white trash and Royal inter-marry. Everyone else seems to know  better but she evokes the same fascination we have with the queen bee. Her family has a history of being a mess, of individuals brought with excessive fanfare and a childhood paucity of human intimacy.

There is nothing they can do about it anymore than there is anything anyone can do about their own lives. Except try to stay in charge of one self. The Queen’s children live in the late twentieth century, the great age of Democracy and yet they must be addressed as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” symbols of respect, not the symbol of an oafish and blowsy ego and privileged that they themselves have come to be. They’re mere mortals like most of the rest of us. All this from a book party.

Leon Uris asked me for my card. I don’t have them. I told him I’d get his number through Harper Collins, his publisher; and call him. I was flattered that he wanted me to call, but not surprised because we had a stimulating rapport.

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