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is dedicated to the enjoyment of audio and visual stimuli. Please visit our archives where we have uncovered the true importance of nearly everything. Should you want to reach us, e-mail alex dot carnevale at gmail dot com, but don't tell the spam robots. Consider contacting us if you wish to use This Recording in your classroom or club setting. We have given several talks at local Rotarys that we feel went really well.

Pretty used to being with Gwyneth

Regrets that her mother did not smoke

Frank in all directions

Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais

Simply cannot go back to them

Roll your eyes at Samuel Beckett

John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion

Metaphors with eyes

Life of Mary MacLane

Circle what it is you want

Not really talking about women, just Diane

Felicity's disguise

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Thursday
Jan132011

In Which Fairfield Porter Looked So Young For His Age

Insolent Love

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Use your ego as much as possible for creative efforts because though love is mostly ego, much more than it is sex, right now you are frustrated egotistically in the love direction, so you have to find some substitute. It will not make you any happier, for sublimation is not possible, but it will count in the future.

— Fairfield Porter, letter to Larry Rivers

This past summer, the Michael Rosenfeld gallery exhibited a few of Fairfield Porter's paintings of places surrounding his family's summer home in Great Spruce Head, Maine. It was a little underwhelming. For I have always thought that beneath Porter's ostensibly placid paintings lurks something more, evidence of his greatness in the form, if you know the right places to look. Although literature is often easy to enjoy without knowledge of its author, visual art is a different story, and Porter lived passionately in an interesting time and place.

The Roofs of Cambridge, 1927

He was born to a great American family in 1907. Despite the fact that half of Harvard was related to him by blood, Porter ignored his studies during his years there. He resented the introductory art class that allowed him to move on in the field, complaining to his mother that the course "was all theory about colors and so forth and we do silly little painting exercises like making circles of gray, red and blue, etc, varying in value and intensity. And I had to buy $16 worth of apparatus for even that."

with his mother in 1910

That he was failed by our country's educational system doesn't make Porter an iconoclast. Most genuises do terribly in American schools, no matter their background. Nevertheless, he continued his art history education, and near the end of his time at the school decided to become a painter.

Later he reflected on that decision, saying, "When I decided to study art, art was considered of peripheral importance; the artist or poet was thought to be outside of the mainstream of life. I remember a neighbor whom I respected very much, who was disturbed by my decision, and told me so. This man was a businessman, and at the same time an inventor and a poet. He told me that his first reaction to anyone's wanting to be an artist was the thought that this meant deciding in favor of triviality. Then he thought of the Vatican Torso, the piece of antique sculpture which Michelangelo said was his master. Triviality meant to him decorative objects."

After school, Porter immediately went to Greenwich Village. He met many influential figures in the art world, but soon grew tired of so many poseurs. Coming from a distinguished, upper-class family, he had no need to limit himself to pretending that's all he was. Fairfield was also shy. The woman who was to become his wife described first meeting her future husband:

I liked him. He was very simple and direct. Very unaffected. Most Harvard boys talked about how many beers they could hold; Fairfield and I talked about Dostoyevsky. I remember he had a penknife and he was using it on the table, working at it, trying to make the table fall apart. I remember I got on the other end to see if I could do the same. Not to be destructive, just to see if it was possible to make the picnic table fall apart.

Anne Channing also came to be disgusted by higher education, in her case, life at Bryn Mawr. She transferred to Radcliffe and finished her studies there near her parents' Wareham home.

Meanwhile, Fairfield explored the edges of his sexuality on an extended trip through Europe. He always considered himself bisexual, and many of his later friends would be homosexual poets. His first emotional love relationship with a man was with the athletic, fit Oxford student Arthur Giardelli. Much later, he wrote Giardelli reflecting on their time together in Florence:

I think of you very often. You meant a great deal to me, and it means much to me that you remember and write. I don't think that I will write more now. I would like to, but I have lost the sense of who and what you are, and any letter in such a case is like a message in a bottle. You get it but who are you now and did I ever know who you were? Does one ever know another person?

And the doubt must be greater when there is such an inarticulate intimacy as we had; we were shy with each other. I think our importance to each other came from something each of us had to give in the way of support that the other needed and had not really found before. For instance I, as an American, had no interest whatsoever in the social concerns you could not avoid as a poor boy, a scholarship student at Oxford, where as you told me your grandparents' humble origin would have made a curiosity of you if your friends knew it. And what you gave me was something equal and opposite; if you had been an American I would have been afraid of you and considered you beyond me because of your good looks and ordinary athletic abilities. I hadn't such a friend as you at home; but suddenly I had one in Florence, the unattainable became simple. For this I am always grateful. These things count, I hope you know, and I hope what I say will not seem strange to you. I loved you, and I think you loved me.

For Porter to write of this experience endured in his youth again in 1957, says that a part of him never really changed. And, indeed, Porter's combination of callousness and concern for others lasted throughout his life. He hated small talk, and received much from his intellectual equals, including the woman who would become his lifetime companion.

During his travels through Europe, Porter continued to write to Anne. He fell in love with her through her letters, and perhaps his experience with Giardelli helped in allowing him to truly empathize with another for the first time; especially one outside his social class. He was also coming into his own. A young painter named Frank Rogers recalled a chance remark of Porter's made on the high speed train: "Don't you sometimes feel that you're just wonderful? I do. Sometimes I'm so wonderful I want to tell everyone; they ought to know it. It isn't right that they don't."

In May of 1932 Porter returned to New York. He attempted to feel closer to Anne, but soon after they spent a few weeks together he told her "we aren't clicking at all." Nevertheless he proposed to her later that summer at his family's compound, in a rather annoying way. Anne recalled him asking, "Do you think if we got engaged they'd let you stay all summer?" As they pulled away from their September wedding, the car stalled.

Porter's artistic career began in earnest soon afterwards. It was the middle of the Depression, a fact that kept down their rent and buyers away from Fairfield's early paintings. Anne suffered a miscarriage, and was surprised at how little sympathy her husband showed her. Eventually the Porters found they were happier, for a time with Anne in New England, and Fairfield freer to express himself sexually and artistically in New York.

A young Trotskyite, Porter affiliated himself with various associations of artists, but when he was not in the studio, he tried to instruct himself in painting by copying the classics in the Met. Two years after their wedding, Anne had a child, John, and Fairfield was a father for the first time. Although Porter was initially attached to the child, the boy's sickness involved excessive crying, and it drove him out of the house, into various leftist political causes. Among his friends, Fairfield was a rarity — married with child while other bohemians constantly fucked around. The young family moved to the Chicago suburb of Winnetka because of their son's health situation, which would torment the family throughout his schizophrenic adolescence, and even after that.

Porter's first artistic successes came about primarily because of his mother Ruth's influence. His early work in political murals had started to give way to watercolor, however, and his development reached a turning point when he saw the work of Edouard Vuillard.

A 1938 exhibition of Bonnard and Vuillard had a tremendous effect on Fairfield. Porter later told Paul Cummings that "I looked at the Vuillards and thought...Why does one think of doing anything else when it's so natural to do this? ... When Bill was first influenced, you know, by modern art, it was Picasso he was emulating. With me it was Vuillard."

In Justin Spring's fascinating biography of Porter, he describes how the artist also felt a similar kinship with the work of Pierre Bonnard: "They say it's too nice. What do they meant by that? They mean it's too pretty. They might mean it's saccharine. They might also mean that they can't approve of the emotion it gives them." Porter's paintings began to focus on bringing out that same kind of emotion.

In 1940 the Porters returned to New York, now with two children in tow. Anne had thought herself unable to conceive again as a result of Malta Fever, but she became pregnant again. Fairfield was less than pleased by this development, finding the responsibility of the children interfered with his work. Then Porter met the beautiful, flirtatious Ilse Hamm. Hamm was a younger, more exciting version of his wife — they even looked alike. Porter never entered in serious romantic congress with Hamm, but nevertheless told his wife he loved her. (Anne was pregnant at the time with their son.) Hamm enjoyed Porter's attentions, but had no desire to sleep with him.

Fairfield's relationship with Hamm was a precursor to the many nonsexual — and sexual — intimacies he created outside of his marriage. Unexpectedly, Anne Porter and the Jewish refugee Hamm bonded as outsiders to the Porter family, and when Fairfield went to California the following summer, Anne wrote to Ilse and asked for her help with the children. Ilse Hamm later married Fairfield's friend Paul Mattick, causing Porter to slash his own portrait of Mattick with a knife. Fairfield's plan to live with Anne and Ilse "in a triangle way" had died, and then his mother Ruth did, too. 

Anne and Fairfield settled into a new life at E. 52nd Street, in a three story house. She began sleeping with another man, and Porter began pursuing the philosophy of free love. He rented an apartment in Chelsea to serve as his studio/getaway. The couple let out the upstairs rooms of their Midtown house to two black students, and the Porters began to lose some of the trappings of their previous lives, as Fairfield's interest in Communism died the true death. For a time, the house was a kind of commune.

Porter took a few lessons from the Belgian painter Georges Van Houten, but his latest inspiration was the paintings of Diego Velazquez. Of the Spanish master, Fairfield commented, "I admired what might be called understatement. Although I don't like that word, really.... He leaves things alone. He is open to it rather than wanting to twist it. I think there's more there than there is in willful manipulation.... I used to like Dostoyevsky very, very, very much. Now I prefer Tolstoy, for the same reason."

By the time Porter was 40, he and Anne were together again in spirit as well as body, for they never stopped having sex even during his affairs. A lack of recognition in the art world bothered him, but he was reassured by the attitude of his friend Willem de Kooning, who dismissed fame as the caprice of idiots and sycophants. Porter tremendously admired de Kooning and purchased many of his paintings, as well as writing the first reviews of his work that would appear in print.

At the end of the forties, the Porters moved to Southampton, buying a seven bedroom home for $25,000. The house met Fairfield's aesthetic approval and would become the scene of many famous paintings. Porter's political views and bohemian lifestyle during his youth had amounted to a rejection of his patrician background, but now he seemed to be making a move towards the bourgeois. As a nod to his former lifestyle, he rarely repaired the house or kept up the substantial grounds. As an artist, he still felt like an utter failure.

Fairfield kept an apartment on Avenue A, and began to integrate himself into the next generation of poets and artists. His attraction to the young gay poet James Schuyler verged on romance, and Fairfield began to explore his bisexuality. The younger crowd looked up to Fairfield and admired his work, and Elaine de Kooning recommended him to Art News, where he began his second life as a critic. Fairfield's politics had influenced the faux working-class realism of his first paintings, but the attraction of the art world to Abstract Expressionism was, in part, a rejection of those communist ideas. Now the painter began creating a new critical vocabulary similarly absent from political value.


Already nearing his late 40s, Fairfield was still pursuing a doctrine of free love, but in this case his target was (for a short time) the poet John Ashbery. Encouraged by his new buddies, Fairfield began writing poetry again, penning the following about Ashbery:

Young man with the narrow waist and thin
Arms, and heavy beautiful thighs of youth,
Whose green eyes under a foxy brush of
Fair hair regard me with insolent love

Porter's friendships with Ashbery and the painter Jane Freilicher would last through his life, but it was the schizophrenic Schuyler who would become a part of Fairfield's young family.

Fairfield enjoyed having the young clique at Great Spruce Head, and his children were particularly fond of Frank O'Hara. With Fairfield's six-year old daughter Katharine, Frank composed the following poem:

They say I mope too much
but really I'm loudly dancing.
I eat paper. It's good for my bone.
I play the piano pedal. I dance,
I am never quiet, I mean silent.
Some day I'll love Frank O'Hara.
I think I'll be alone for a little while.

James Schuyler
became a particularly constructive/destructive figure in the life of the Porters, in some ways playing the identical role than Ilse Hamm had filled in the family. The proverbial honeymoon was lovely, but the impoverished poet eventually took advantage of Fairfield, manipulating his affections for financial and emotional gain. Despite other people's opinions of Schuyler, the Porters continue to welcome him as a guest in their many homes.

breakfasting with schuyler in 1942

When Fairfield had an important opening at Tibor de Nagy in March of 1959, O'Hara and Schuyler didn't even show up. Porter responded to this snub by approaching Frank later and telling him, "You're a shit," according to a letter Freilicher wrote to John Ashbery. 

Like Frank O'Hara, the Porters were eventually turned off by the 'sleazy' Schuyler's need for control, although he returned to their good graces later in his life. This partial disillusionment with the poets who had been his friends seemed to force a change in Porter's life. He stopped reviewing for Art News in favor of writing for The Nation (they paid twice as much), and began to teach. He sold a few of his de Koonings for a small fortune.

Schuyler's first mental breakdown in 1960 brought him closer together to the Porters for a time, but it would ultimately only set him on a more destructive path. After leaving his New Haven Hospital, Fairfield picked him up. They would get on tolerably well until Schuyler reviewed Fairfield's 1962 exhibition from a psychological perspective. No doubt he could not help it, seeing demons even in places of light that the paintings held. Porter responded to Schuyler's article in a letter: "There is always psychological content. The psychological content may be what it seems, or it may be the opposite. There is psychological content to a slap in the face, or a smile at a baby, but it does not follow from this that there is art." Of Porter's close relationship with his critics, Justin Spring writes that, "Had Porter been more successful during his lifetime, the question of influence might have been raised. But he was not."


Politically, Porter's growing hatred of government, borne out of the way European cultural institutions were treated during World War II, resulted in him refusing a commission from the Art in Embassies program. He was relatively hard up for cash at this point, what with his wife, four children and Schuyler to support, but as was his custom, he never let common sense get in the way of his convictions. He even declined a university appointment in Illinois because he didn't like the architecture of Carbondale.

When Anne came down with hepatitis in 1963, Porter's paintings moved indoors, capturing the play of light in the interiors of his home. These were the most successful paintings of his career, both financially and artistically, feeding off the influence of the artist Alex Katz, who he admired and had reviewed. His masterpiece The Screen Porch became one of his most famous works - in the Porter family it became known as "The Four Ugly People" - and it is a frightening painting, incredibly resonant in its emotional complexity and as revealing as a church confession, with his wife outside watching her children and Schuyler in an homage to Velazquez.

Though there was some critical blowback to what some believed was Porter's bourgeois subject matter, Porter's creative process was anything but lax. He burned so many of his paintings that he had a special incinerator built for the purpose in his backyard. This was something of a blessing to history; for it is only his best works that survive, those imbued with the quiet passion of a man who could set his art in order easier than he could his own family life.

By the end of the 1960s the Porters had their fill of Schuyler and Fairfield asked him to leave the house. (The poet demurred.) His wife felt increasingly uncomfortable around the poet's depression, and made plans to replace him with a golden retriever, Bruno. Walking the dog was recommended for the aging Fairfield's health, but he tripped over Bruno's leash in 1967 and broke his arm, which temporarily limited his ability to paint. At the same time, Fairfield was reaching a mental wall. Spring attributes his lack of new work to his success - he now had money enough to live without worry, and his reputation had to a certain extent "plateaued."

napping with Bruno

Schuyler's behavior became increasingly more erratic. While staying in Fairfield's Southampton home with the poet Ron Padgett, he threatened to kill the Padgett's young son. Friends committed him to the state mental institution, but it wasn't long before he had to be escorted back there, with John Ashbery keeping him company in the back of a patrol car. Ironically, Schuyler wrote some of his finest poetry during this period, but he also wrote savage letters to Fairfield and Anne, criticizing them in the harshest possible terms and then asking them for $5,000 for his married lover's "business."

As he transitioned into old age, Porter's interests became more eccentric. His wife had become a Catholic many years earlier, baptized on the Upper East Side, but, as a subscriber to Fate, Porter's new tastes verged more on the mystic and spiritual. He viewed the rise of technology with some concern, as most seniors do, and he became interested in the paranormal. Still his command of his interests remained fully within his intellectual control. Rather than blame himself for the troubled life of his first born, he blamed science!

The Harbor - Great Spruce Head 1974

And yet when it came to the visual arts, he found much to admire in his contemporaries, harboring a special appreciation for the work of David Hockney. He wrote to a confined, drugged-out Schuyler that "I have painted several sunrises, with the sun in the picture, from the rocks below the house, except one from the porch. It works, more or less. I was trying to emulate the David Hockney painting I saw a few years ago, that amazed me." During a walk with Bruno in September of 1975, Porter suffered a massive coronary and died immediately. He had looked so young for his age of 68 that it came as something of a shock to his friends and family. Schuyler didn't attend the funeral, just as he had not after O'Hara's death in car accident.

A Sudden Change of Wind, 1975

Fairfield's dual role as an artist and critic was something of a rarity. He was as talented a writer as he was an artist, and his collection of art cricitism, Art On Its Own Terms, has become a classic in its own right. His textured renderings of light approach and even exceed the grasp of his Abstract Expressionist peers. His many admirers and friends, many of whom became more famous than he could have imagined at the time of his death, have helped burnish his reputation as an artist.

Even after Schuyler had done many, many unpardonable things to him, the Porters did much for the troubled poet. This is an impressive testament to their good nature; Anne Porter even earmarked money for Schuyler's medical care after Fairfield had passed, as did Kenward Elmslie and many others. In a way, the fashion in which the group treated Schuyler was an attempt to erase guilt that generation felt at living as they did.

Fathers improve with age, and Fairfield's later children for the most part fared better than his early ones. So it was with his painting. He got better at life over time, and this is no small thing to say about a person, let alone an artist whose talent ran against the grain of the non-representational work of the time in which he lived.

Yet calling Fairfield Porter a realist is off the mark. His work does the opposite of abandoning the spiritual, it embraces the mystical, in the everyday expressions and places of his life. He had no other. So many of the finest painters of Porter's generation were immigrants from Europe who became impressive Americans. Despite not having to strive, he strove, working towards a recognition he would achieve only in death.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Sofia Coppola's Somewhere.

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ashbery and schuyler at Great Spruce Head, 1966

"Down by the Water" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"All Arise" - The Decemberists (mp3)

"This Is Why We Fight" - The Decemberists (mp3)

Back row, from left: Lisa De Kooning, Frank Perry, Eleanor Perry, John Bernard Myers, Anne and Fairfield Porter, Angelo Torricini, Arthur Gold, Jane Wilson, Kenward Elmslie, Paul Brach, Jerry Porter, Nancy Word, Katharine Porter, unidentified woman. Second row: Joe Hazan, Clarice Rivers, Kenneth Koch, Larry Rivers, Miriam Shapiro, Robert Fizdale, Jane Freilicher, Joan Ward, John Kacere, Sylvia Maizell. Sitting and kneeling in front: Stephen Rivers, Bill Berkson, Frank O'Hara, Willem de Kooning, Alvin Novak. Photo by John Jonas Gruen.

Wednesday
Dec222010

In Which We Realize We Hated Lost In Translation In Retrospect

Is That It?

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Somewhere

dir. Sofia Coppola

98 minutes

Were you possibly among the many millions of people dying to hear another story about a jaded rich guy living in Los Angeles who reinvents himself due to the presence of his wonderful young daughter? You are in luck. Star actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff, in the 101st role he was not at all suited to play) has clearly never seen Californication, because it is loosely based on his life. Does every single man in Hollywood go around half-shaven, divorced, with a daughter of the same age (Dakota's younger sister Elle Fanning)? The answer is yes, and it is a relief.

Somewhere, which gets its U.S. release today, is Sofia Coppola's latest film, on the heels of the tragically boring Marie Antoinette. No one who has to work for a living could possibly feel sympathetic for the tribulations of an actor who lives on hotel room service, and no one who paid to see this film could possibly walk away feeling anything but pity for its creator and disgust for its hero. The drudgery of Johnny Marco having to watch twin strippers in his bedroom is only exceeded by the cruel vicissitudes of being a popular Hollywood star. If having a daughter makes people so warm and appealing, how come Harvey Weinstein has three and he's still a complete piece of shit?

Somewhere not only has the worst title of any movie this year, it also takes itself more seriously than Inception, which many scientists believed was impossible. Most grating about Coppola's directorial style is her obsession with long takes. Granted, extended periods without rapid cuts and reverse angles distinguish her films from say, Hawaii Five-0. But really, her exhausted Los Angeles scapes aren't visually stimulating enough to be engaging; images like those of Dorff's daughter figure skating on an open rink and Dorff's head ensconced in a foam mask for his new movie only pretend to be novel. We've seen these places before — nothing about the locales is exciting or unfamiliar.

Once Johnny Marco almost chases a woman back to her house after making eye contact at a stoplight, but when he gets to her gate and it closes on him, he drives home. For the briefest of moments we feel something like excitement, but then we retreat to the next long take. Quentin Tarantino and Catherine Breillat can get away with two minute takes because at the end of their scenes, Jews flee the Nazis or Caroline Ducey has sex.

Somewhere follows the basic cinematic outline of all such father-daughter partnerships. In the real world, teen girls are a thousand times more intelligent than their parents, operate high level machinery and text at a PhD level. In Coppola's world, they retain the innocence of Anna Paquin in The Piano. It's impossible to watch this film and not think about Katie Holmes, what with the masculine, half-shaven man-boy's total lack of concern for how his treatment of women might influence his daughter or anyone he cares about. Johnny Marco is such a misogynist that he makes his daughter's mother abandon them both, which is just about the cheapest trick in the screenwriting book, right after killing your main character's trusty german shepherd (Michael J. Fox).

All the serious misogynists that I have had the good fortune to encounter are unabashed and unapologetic. Only a truly deluded person could create the so-rare-it-doesn't-exist-in-the-wild empathetic womanizer. In the real world, there's no such delicate balance between sensitivity and insensitivity in one male body. When Ryan Reynolds was politely let go by Scarlett Johansson, he whined to his friends about her lack of effort in their marriage. Hasn't Sofia Coppola read Men in Revolt? The most masculine person in the world is Mr. Rogers, and he passed some time ago. Every other man in the world is more reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw if he dyed his hair brunette.

One morning Johnny wakes up for breakfast in Milan and both his daughter and his one-night stand are looking at him with the same expectant eyes. It's the kind of absurdly simple joke Coppola loves to play — every irony pretends to be new, as if she had recently discovered hypocrisy for the first time in recorded history and wanted to share it with everyone. Dorff's face, while far too inexpressive to ever make him anything more than a slightly classier Christian Slater, begs us to become sufficiently disgusted by how famous people are treated. On a scale of relevant or important lessons, this ranks somewhere between "don't put your hand in dog shit" and "being white is pretty hard."

In her most vacuous film, Lost in Translation, Coppola managed to make some people feel sorry for two of the least sympathetic people in the world. The fact that it is even worked at all is a credit to how effective she can be at convincing you the most uninteresting monsters are partly human. But we have a different attitude towards waste and excess than we did in 2003. Back then we could watch the husk that used to be the actor known as Bill Murray make vaguely racist comments about Japanese people for no reason and applaud afterwards. Maybe for the international audience this was like watching the National Geographic Channel. I really don't know, I am pretty sure even they think Twilight jokes and playing "I'll Try Anything Once" over a guy swimming with his daughter in a pool are overdone.

One of William Goldman's best ever essays was about why most plays were about putting on a play. He didn't have to account for the poverty of ideas that led to Broadway about Broadway, because it was obvious — people who spent their entire lives in theater naturally had no other life experience to draw on. Somerset Maugham's edict to write what you know is among the dumbest pieces of advice ever given about writing, and it has recently become more harmful than even he realized. The maxim of 'write what you know' is revolting self-help propaganda: you're good enough, you don't need to keep learning, your experience of the world is valid and complete in itself.

The number of possible life experiences is dwindling. Eventually we will all have one life experience, distinguishable only in small moments not accounted for by communal art. What draws divergent backgrounds into the Americam amalgam is the shared experience of life reflected in art, but the people who create this perception in the film medium are drastically limited by their own surroundings. The last thing you have to do is start making films about people markedly different from yourself, but the first thing you have to do is stop making films about people identical to yourself.

Here we have a life stretched generically over the same old surroundings. It is not simply the characters or the action or the sets or the dialogue that is so ubiquitous and familiar. It is the shots themselves — Stephen Dorff has looked in a mirror in every movie he has been in since 1995. The metaphor of a swimming pool is now a common sight in Tyler Perry sitcoms, let alone in films that purport to be taken seriously. The cliche of a man falling asleep while having sex was recently featured on an episode of Spongebob Squarepants. Wide angle views of cars driving down the Los Angeles freeway while subdued trance music plays in the background are about as entertaining as a colonoscopy.

The fact that Johnny Marco has a cast on his arm for most of Somewhere is so pedestrian a symbol I would expect it in some undergraduate's romance novel. The film's interminable 98 minutes roll on so uneventfully that outside of the occasional presence of Johnny Marco's cell phone and Guitar Hero, the entire plot might have taken place in 1970. The idea that this incredibly dull, prosaic movie won the Golden Lion (or as I call it, the Flying Aslan) in Venice is only slighter sadder than the possibility that Avatar made more money than the GNP of Michigan. (Thought: was the audience simply so relieved they didn't have to sit through Marie Antoinette that they gave her the award out of gratitude?)

The specter of Heath Ledger looms over the proceedings, since the resulting cinematic apologia resembles something like what a simplistic mind thinks when a father takes his own life through a combination of otherworldly excess and outright stupidity. Coppola's film is like looking at a squirrel that got run over by a car and vainly trying to bring the creature back to life with a screenplay. After Johnny Marco drops his daughter off for summer camp in a helicopter, our hero becomes uncontrollably sad, complaining, "I'm nothing." He moves out of his residence in the Chateau Marmont Hotel and leaves all his rich person gear behind. You see, wealthy and famous people believe they aren't the real heroes, they are just very close to the real heroes. They admit that their lives are essentially meaningless, and that the true pleasures can't be purchased by money, but as long as they have it, they don't really need it. They are so out of touch with reality they think a silly movie like this is reality.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about the life of Mary McCarthy.

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"Babylon" - Angus & Julia Stone (mp3)

"Lonely Hands" - Angus & Julia Stone (mp3)

"Little Bird" - Angus & Julia Stone (mp3)

Friday
Dec172010

In Which Mary McCarthy Was A Legend In Her Own Time

You can read the first part of this series here.

Our Mary, Right or Wrong

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Meeting the great influx of immigrants from Western Europe during and after the war changed Mary McCarthy's mind about American involvement in the conflict. She found herself in a new circle of intellectuals, many of whom were Jewish and had faced the horrors of fascism and communism firsthand. She began teaching at Bard College to support herself when checks from The New Yorker proved insufficient. She fell in with a New Yorker grunt, the twenty-five year old Bowden Broadwater, who was eight years Mary's junior, and he began visiting her at Bard on weekends. They eloped a year later — his first, and her third. As Gore Vidal once snidely put it, "Women like Mary marry for a purpose."

with bowden broadwaterFor the first time in her life, Mary was both stable and happy. But her writing was soon to cause the trouble in her public life that has dissipated from her private one. Her take on the Partisan Review crowd, a novella titled The Oasis, incensed Saul Bellow and fellow Partisan Review contributor Harold Kaplan, who wrote that

Bellow and I spent half the night talking about Mary McCarthy's alleged story. Perhaps there is something an outraged masculine reaction involved (as I believe there was in much of the critical reaction to her first book) but we believe this thing is so vile, so perfect an example of everything that is nasty in New York and everything that is sterile in recent American writing, that we came to the conclusion that something should be done about it.

As usual, the males in her crowd proved to be the truly humorless ones, but that didn't account for the response to McCarthy's short novel completely. It was primarily that she had no problem with putting the people in her life in her writing, and that they were never flattered by her portraits of them. One person, however, called McCarthy's novel a gem. That was Hannah Arendt.

with arendt, dwight macdonald and robert lowell (not pictured)

The two had met earlier, but Arendt had been shocked by what she perceived as sympathy for Hitler's desperate desire to be loved by the French during his occupation of Paris. After the publication of The Oasis, the two began a lifelong friendship. Although Arendt was mostly unknown at this time, the publication of her The Origins of Totalitarianism launched her into prominence in 1951 at the age of 45. A sexual relationship with Martin Heidegger was already in Hannah's past, and McCarthy was drawn to her worldliness and the fact that they seemed to agree on everything.

arendt

Mary experimented with more journalistic writing, penning a series about the homosexual underbelly of Greenwich Village that ran in the New York Post. She was paid $800, and it attracted publishers to a collection of her essays, which Robert Giroux would eventually publish. Her college novel The Groves of Academe was published in 1952, a stinging satire of both Joseph McCarthy-era politics and the insulated liberalism that indoctrinated college students. As usual, men found the work incomprehensible, with Dwight MacDonald writing, "Why does she have to be so goddamned snooty, is she god or something?" The problem with writing about how boorish some men are is that they will be writing the reviews of the book where you are saying that.

Upset with the disopprobrium from the Partisan Review crowd, McCarthy planned to start her own magazine. Before the founding of Critic (which never published an issue) she wrote that, "The truth, at its simplest is that people, not just liberal intellectuals but ordinary liberal people, teachers, doctors, lawyers, and so on, are made restless at seeing their own opinions mirrored week after week in the journals that are written for them. What they object to is not lack of agreement with their own political conclusions but the sense of mechanical repetition that drones from these familiar pages." Her criticism of how liberal magazines took on Joseph McCarthy himself was the source of her anxiety. Instead of simply tearing down a conservative icon, she thought they should try to understand his appeal among the populace.

Her failure with Critic paralled her failing marriage. Most people never saw Broadwater and McCarthy as something that would work long term. McCarthy always said exactly what she was thinking, and Broadwater was very much the same. The two were a fearsome sight at parties and events. Her next novel, A Charmed Life, did the work of breaking up the marriage, because after its publication Broadwater suggested it would be impossible to return to their home in Cape Cod after what Mary had written about the people there. (The women of Wellfleet stopped going barefoot to the supermarket because of A Charmed Life.)

During a trip to Europe, Mary stayed behind in Venice to research the book that would become Venice Observed. While Broadwater holed up in a fleabag motel in New York, a succession of friends visited her. Once back in the U.S., she longed to return to Italy, and eventually, accompanied by a black Chevy, went to Naples. In Rome she began sleeping with the English critic John Davenport until her husband arrived on the scene. This time of personal turmoil was also the moment of her finest artistic success, as her collection of memoirs Memories of a Catholic Girlhood received the best notices of her career.

with her brother Kevin

When she met the man who would become her fourth husband James West, she was still married to Broadwater. The forty-six year old West was the public affairs officer for the American Embassy in Warsaw, with a young wife and three young children himself. Getting away from their respective spouses was tricky business, but as usual, McCarthy could talk a man who was captivated by her into most anything. When Broadwater phoned the Paris hotel where she was shacking up with West, the older man answered the phone. Mary came clean and asked for a divorce just minutes later.

Although her soon-to-be ex-husband was aware of his wife's previous dalliances, he found himself shocked into a weird kind of submission — the nasty Harvard man was turned into a meek puppy. Hannah Arendt wrote Mary to say, "He never was so nice before, never." West found obtaining his divorce more problematic, and he convinced McCarthy to sequester herself in Warsaw during a time of upheaval in that city.

It is ironic that under such dramatic circumstances that she began work on The Group, for as worldly as her current love affair was, it is a most domestic novel. Following the lives of a number of Vassar women, the novel reads like a strained picaresque today, more like warped Jane Austen than worldly Emily Gould. Its simple pleasures were perhaps fueled by her love affair with West, with whom she rarely argued as she did with her previous husbands.

To Arendt she wrote, "My love for Jim is increasing till I am quite dizzy. I find myself changing or perhaps that is not the right word, coming to life in a new way, like somebody who has been partly paralyzed. And I've become conscious in myself of a certain shrunken or withered character-traits that I never reckoned with before. Quite unpleasant they are too. You remember me telling you that my marriage to Bowden was just two people playing, like congenial children? Well, I slowly realize that all my love affairs and marriages have been little games like that — and snug, sheltered games."

With her private life more in order, The Group appeared in August of 1963. Her most readable, accessible novel, it was a sensation for the general public and was turned into a film by Sidney Lumet. She was invited on The Tonight Show. The upscale, WASP subjects of her satire were as per usual, not as amused, but Mary could care less. (Once, at a party on West End Avenue while she was at Vassar, one particularly snobby gentile had entered into a laughing fit at the idea of socializing with an Irish woman.) If her novelistic writing wasn't overly artistic, the deftness of her satire was. Everyone wanted to know what Vassar girls really did think about, how they experienced the rigeurs of sex and even marriage for the first time — and Mary spared no one.

Yet she was not as tough as she required her friends to be. When Robert Lowell's wife Elizabeth Hardwick penned a savage parody of the book in a piece titled "The Gang" that appeared under the byline Xavier Prynne in The New York Review of Books. Mary sent off an angry letter to Lowell:

I think it's easier to forgive your enemies than to forgive your friends, and that is not just a remark. With your enemies you don't feel a sense of betrayal, and what is at the bottom of a sense of betrayal but bewilderment a loss of your bearings? I would not know how to act with Elizabeth yet; that is, I feel I would start acting falsely....

from the 'How I Grew' typeYou can forgive an enemy because that immediately puts you on a fresh basis with him; the slate is wiped clean. But with a friend, you can't wipe out the past because the past includes your friendship as well as the injury you felt you've been dealt. So you have no basis on which to start again, neither the old one or a brand-new one. The practical way of coping with this is to revise your opinion of the friend, in a downward direction. In this way you have a new friend. But I don't want to do this with Elizabeth.

in north vietnam in 1968Among critics with integrity, some of those writers imagine the public forum as a place where anything can be said and then subsequently forgiven. But for McCarthy, her ideas about other people's writing were from a rigorous place, not from a spirit of open and fun inquiry. She took criticism extremely seriously whether she was dealing it out or taking it in. In the case of The Group, the real judge was the marketplace: the book sold over five million copies around the world.

mary smoked her entire life. Arendt's influence pushed McCarthy towards more political topics. Her forays into the political issues of the day, Vietnam and Watergate, were not as well received. In the first case, her hagiographic portraits of the North Vietnamese didn't age particularly well; in the second, the story was already obvious and no one really needed to read Watergate Portraits. When Arendt died of a heart attack after executing the estate of Karl Jasper in 1975, McCarthy flew to New York to execute her will.

In 1980, during a televised interview with Dick Cavett, she made her infamous statement about Lillian Hellman: "that every word she writes is a lie including 'and' and 'the'." Despite the fact that Hellman was the textbook definition of a pathological liar, she sued McCarthy and CBS for libel. Hellman, a devoted Stalinist and professional fabricator, was more damaged by the resulting lawsuit — most people never took her seriously again, and a litany of non-admirers came out of the woodwork to prove McCarthy right. But it also had, as Hellman perhaps intended, a negative financial effect on the defendant.

Mary never thought of herself as a feminist. Her time in various socialist and political groups had made her jaded about belonging to such an association, and on a personal level, she took equality with men as something of an absolute. As an ultimate outsider who reversed the polarity of her life completely, she proved by her simple existence that it was possible for an outspoken woman to survive, even thrive, in a men's world.

As McCarthy and West entered into a comfortable lifestyle, they took up residence at James Merrill's apartment in Stonington, CT, and then began alternating between homes in Maine and Paris. Mary continued to teach at Bard. West's income allowed her to continue her free-spending ways. Her publisher William Jovanovich recalled booking her onto a flight out of Paris, and watching her upgrade herself to first class with cash: "Out of her capacious handbag came fifty-dollar bills, splaying onto the linoleum. She turned to me and said, 'Don't look.'"

from the typescript to 'How I Grew'Her lawsuit with Hellman took its toll. She suffered headaches and sleeplessness, but resisted going to the hospital because of her desire to outlive Hellman. When her enemy finally died in June of 1984, she had an operation to relieve the pressure on her brain from ataxia. As West put it, "I had encouraged her to pay more attention to her health and of course she tried as hard as she could, but she was more interested in ideas than in her health." In 1989, she died of lung cancer, survived by her husband.

When we remember how far American letters has come, it is easy to forget the people who brought it there. Saul Bellow once recalled Mary ticking off a list of names of people she planned to go after in reviews while dressed to the nines at a downtown party. He thought it indecent, but because McCarthy said exactly what she thought, we do not have to suffer from the poverty that public acclamation of sexists and bigots provides us.

You can find the first part of this series here.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He is a writer living in Manhattan. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about his time at summer camp. You can find an archive of his writing here.

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"Stuck" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Not the Drinking" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)

"Hanging Up" - Lauren Pritchard (mp3)