The two most interesting things in life are metaphysics and gossip.
Consider gossip in its bare bones, the mechanics of it, how it works. One person tells another person something about a third person that may or may not have a basis in fact. Like as not, what the first person has to tell goes to the absent person’s reputation. Dealing with his personal life, it usually serves to diminish or tarnish that reputation. Why did the first person decide to tell it? Perhaps because he bears the absent person a grudge. Perhaps because the absent person’s behavior, the subject of the item of gossip, angers or strongly puts him off. Perhaps because he finds the behavior he is describing too amusing or freakish or astounding to withhold telling. Perhaps because he is reasonably confident that he will be charming the person to whom he is relaying the gossip, who will be indebted to him for a few moments of entertainment. Perhaps because he senses that conveying this bit of information will increase the intimacy between him and the person with whom he is gossiping.
Listening to gossip can be likened to receiving stolen goods; it puts you in immediate collusion with the person conveying the gossip to you. Sometimes the person who initiates the gossip asks the person to whom he is telling it to keep it to himself. Sometimes secrecy is implied, sometimes not. If the gossip has an element of real excitement to it, the request that the item go no further is unlikely to be honored. Some of the best gossip is intramural, taking place within a smallish group: an office, a school, a neighborhood, a village or small town. My first encounter with gossip of this kind had to do with stories of sexual exploits that teenage boys at my high school told to other boys about the girls they went out with. Kissing and telling is the traditional term for this sort of gossip. There was during that time, to be sure, a fair amount of not kissing but telling anyway, or of obviously heightening and dramatizing one’s rather pathetic conquests, a clear case of enhancing one’s status by retailing false gossip.
In less intramural settings, often one’s social perspective or one’s politics will direct one’s interest in gossip. Whether one thinks oneself liberal or conservative, one’s field of gossip interest is likely to be very different. Conservatives were blown away by Bill Clinton stories, liberals made uneasy by them. Two persistent bits of gossip about Martin Luther King Jr. are that he amply plagiarized his doctoral thesis and that, though married, he had lots of love affairs, including a steady liaison with a woman who was a dean at Cornell. If one is an admirer of Dr. King’s, one doesn’t want to hear such stories; if one is not, or even if one is skeptical about public heroes generally, such gossip has its natural appeal in bringing down an ostensibly great man. An even better story has King determined to fire Jesse Jackson just before the end of his life—better, that is, for all those people who consider Jesse Jackson essentially a fraud. The same applies to John F. Kennedy stories; if you care for him, you are likely to be less attentive to all those upstairs-at-the-White-House stories with movie stars and Mafia molls, and if you don’t much like him, bring on more such stories. Gossip, as the old New York Post gossip columnist Earl Wilson once put it, “is hearing something you like about someone you don’t.”
Not all gossip need be malicious, mean-spirited, vengeance-seeking, status-enhancing, though much of it is. All gossip starts out as people talking about other people. The distinction between gossip and rumors is that the latter are more often about incidents, events, supposed happenings, or things that are about to happen to people, and generally not about the current or past conduct of people; rumor tends to be unsubstantiated, events or incidents whose truth is still in the realm of speculation. Cass Sunstein, in his On Rumors, writes that rumors “refer roughly to claims of fact—about people, groups, events, and institutions—that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another, and have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them.” Compared to gossip, rumors are also less specific, more general, more diffuse, less personal in content and in the manner in which they are disseminated. Rumors can lead to gossip, and gossip can reinforce rumors. But gossip is particular, told to a carefully chosen audience, and is specifically information about other people.
Other people is the world’s most fascinating subject. Apart from other people, there can only be shoptalk, or gab about sports, politics, clothes, food, books, music or some similar general item. Talk is possible about the great issues and events and questions, both of the day and of eternity, about which most of us operate in the realm of mere opinion and often don’t have all that much—or anything all that interesting—to say. How long, really, does one wish to talk, at least with friends, about the conditions for peace in the Middle East, the probable direction of the economy, the existence of God? For most of us, truth to tell, not very long.
So much easier, so much more entertaining, to talk about the decaying marriage of an acquaintance, the extravagant pretensions of in-laws, the sexual braggadocio of a bachelor friend. Most gossip, or most of the best gossip, is about dubious if not downright reprehensible behavior. The best of it is about people with whom one has a direct acquaintance. Served with a dash of humor it can be awfully fine stuff, even if one has never met the person being gossiped about.
Years ago a friend in London told me that the playwright Harold Pinter wrote rather poor poems—my friend called them, in fact, “pukey little poems”—that he sent out in multiple Xerox copies to friends, then sat back to await their praise. One such poem was about the cricketer Len Hutton, the English equivalent of Joe DiMaggio; the poem, in its entirely, runs: “I knew Len Hutton in his prime / Another time / another time.” After Pinter had sent out the copies, its recipients, as usual, wrote or telephoned to tell him how fine the poem was, how he had caught the matter with perfect laconic precision, how touched and moved they were by it—with the single exception of a man who made no response whatsoever. When Pinter hadn’t heard from this man after two weeks, he called to ask if he had in fact received the poem. “Yes,” said the man, “I have indeed.” Unable to hold back, Pinter asked, “Well, Simon, what did you think of it?” Pausing briefly, the man replied, “Actually, I haven’t quite finished it.”
This is gossip on the model of a joke—gossip with a punch line. What is of greatest interest about it as an item of gossip is the continuing need on the part of its subject, a world-famous playwright, a Nobel Prize winner, for these driblets of praise. It is a story about pathetic vanity. One might think so successful a writer had already had more than his share of praise, but no scribbler seems ever to have had enough of what Thomas Mann called vitamin P. This is gossip as analysis, or test, of character, with the character, as in almost all good gossip in this realm, failing to pass.
I’m not sure that merely insulting someone behind his back, a variant of the catty remark, constitutes gossip. Another friend of mine not long ago wrote to me of an acquaintance of ours that his “appalling wife Janice made him the most famous cuckold in New York, but who can blame her?” I had known about my acquaintance’s wife leaving him for another man, so this insult scarcely constituted news. Yet it is unclear whether the material of gossip always has to be new. Some gossip, of the species known as backbiting, can be about no more than two people rehearsing the already well-known failings or sad tribulations of a third person.
“Well, I do a lot of talking and the ‘I’ is not often absent,” the writer Elizabeth Hardwick told the man who interviewed her for the Paris Review. “In general I’d rather talk about other people. Gossip, or as we gossips like to say, character analysis.” Isaac Rosenfeld, a writer who was one of the New York intellectuals of the 1940s and ’50s, used jokingly to call such gossip “social analysis,” and in this group the analysis was of a kind that took the skin off the person being gossiped about. The New York intellectuals brutally mocked one another’s ambitions, sex practices, self-importance, and pretensions, all done behind the back, of course, and with much vicious inventiveness.
“Who is more devoid of human interest than those with nothing to hide?” asks a character in Frederic Raphael’s recent novel Fame and Fortune. Some of us have grander things to hide than others; others may have very little to hide; but very few of us are free of being gossiped about, at least insofar as being criticized behind one’s back constitutes gossip. Not long ago I was with a man who said that he had arrived at a point in life—he was soon to turn eighty—where he feared no gossip. True, he had no addictions, unless that of collecting books; had never cheated on his wife; was a good father; no scandal of any kind attached to him; he was modest in his pretensions—in all, led an honorable and quiet life. Yet, as I told him, he wouldn’t in the least like it if I went about behind his back saying that his taste in food was atrocious (he prided himself on finding excellent, generally inexpensive ethnic restaurants), that his intellectual judgment was poor (he had enormous admiration for five or six writers, all social scientists except for Samuel Johnson), or that his opinions about music and movies were hopeless (he would not infrequently report on how much he enjoyed a concert or a new film). I can of course easily see people doing a similar job on me, attacking my writing, the way I dress, my own less than modest pretensions. If it were to get back to me that someone said that I was ungenerous, or coarse in my aesthetic judgments, or disloyal, it would sting, however low the truth quotient of the accusations. Nobody, the point being, is impregnable to gossip.
One definition of gossip is “bits of news about the personal affairs of others.” These personal affairs are a man’s or woman’s stock of secrets; their ostensible secrecy is after all what makes them personal. Georg Simmel, that most brilliant of sociologists, claims that the secret is “one of the greatest achievements of humanity.” By this I assume Simmel means that societies have erected rules, implicit and explicit, so that we are permitted freedom from intrusion on the part of others into our lives, and without this freedom to protect what we hold personal and most dear, all our lives would be a vast deal poorer. That which is most secret to us—our dreams, our hopes, our small vices, our fondest fantasies, however outrageous or unrealistic they may be—is often what is most significant to us. Intrusive gossip, given the chance, would make a sloppy meal of these, which is why it can be so damaging.
Not all gossip is engaged in for the purpose of hurting people. Gossip can be wildly entertaining. Sometimes analyzing the problems, flaws, and weaknesses of friends, even dear friends, sweeps one up and carries one away in sheer exuberance for the game. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, not everyone’s idea of a whimsical fellow, thought gossip trivial and shallow and falsely authoritative, denying that it had much educational value. Yet I have been in gossip sessions where people delved into the motives of others in a manner that provided more in the way of knowledge than the highly opaque works of Herr Heidegger. Heidegger himself—notably his siding with the Nazis and then trying to cover it up, his love affair while married with his student Hannah Arendt—was the subject of some scorching, demoralizing, and highly entertaining gossip, and there was even more so after his death.
If ever there was a mixed bag, gossip provides it: it can be mean, ugly, vicious, but also witty, daring, entirely charming. It can be damning, dampening (of the spirits), dreary, but also exhilarating, entertaining, highly educational. It pops up in backwater villages among primitive tribes and in great cultural capitals. The only thing missing from the Garden of Eden was a third person for Adam and Eve to gossip about. Despite much railing against gossip, it doesn’t look to be going away, not now, probably not ever.
Marcel Proust and his beloved mother, when gossiping together, which they did frequently, used to refer to “the full biography” when talking about people they knew. The full biography meant the real story, the reality behind the appearance, the true dish, the richest gossip. Proust’s appetite for personal details, conveyed with the greatest precision, was unslakable. He loved gossip in and for itself, but he also had a professional interest in it, for he was a novelist, the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, and he understood that gossip and the novel were inextricable, that gossip undergirds almost all novels.
Many novels turn on gossip—that is, on characters in the novels finding out things that they are not supposed to know about other characters’ secrets, hidden opinions, hitherto unknown motivations. This information causes blinders to fall away, so that insights result, with the consequence that some characters grow wiser, and narratives march off in unexpected directions, making it possible for novels, or at least the better ones, to come to unpredictable though plausible conclusions.
Each of Jane Austen’s six novels, set as they are mainly in smallish English towns, pivots on some crucial piece of gossip that, once revealed, changes the action of the novel decisively. “Indeed, Mrs. Smith, we must not expect to get real information from such a line [from gossip, that is],” exclaims Anne Elliot, the heroine of Austen’s Persuasion. “Facts or opinions which are to pass through the hands of so many, to be misconceived by folly in one, and ignorance in another, can hardly have much truth left.” Although some say that the character of Anne speaks as much as any of her characters for the author herself, my advice is not to believe what I have just quoted Anne Elliot saying. Even when gossip is mistaken, its importance cannot be gainsaid, and Jane Austen knew it. The same Mrs. Smith reports to Anne: “Call it gossip if you will; but when nurse Rooke has half an hour’s leisure to bestow on me, she is sure to have something to relate that is entertaining and profitable, something that makes one know one’s species better. One likes to hear what is going on, to be au fait as to the newest modes of being trifling and silly. To me, who lives so much alone, her conversation I assure you is a treat.” Now that sounds closer to Austen’s true view of gossip. And in Persuasion it is just such a bit of information, which begins in gossip but turns out to be truth, that resolves the complication of all that has gone before in the novel.
Elizabeth Gaskell, the Brontës, Edith Wharton, and Henry James, novelists who had a strong interest in gossip and made good use of it in their fiction, understood both gossip’s attractions and its literary value. So, too, did writers whom one doesn’t think of as primarily social novelists. Gossip plays a strong hand in War and Peace and Anna Karenina, as it does in the novels of Balzac, Dickens, and Flaubert. A critic named Homer Obed Brown has gone so far as to say that “it is probable that part of the pleasure we derive from the classic novel is a pleasure similar to that derived from gossip.” Speculation on character, curiosity about other worlds, an interest in social status, the unveiling of secrets, nice discriminations, revelations of secret motivations, moral judgments—so many of the constituent parts of gossip are also often at play in novels. One difference, of course, is that novels sometimes have didactic purposes, but then, who is to say that sometimes gossip mightn’t, too?
Like gossips, writers of fiction do not always entirely make things up, at least most of the time they don’t. Science fiction, horror tales, romances, detective stories, fantasies, and a few other genres may be almost wholly imagined, but much serious fiction is drawn from life—sometimes from actual events, ofttimes using actual people as life models on whom to create fictional characters.
As a writer of stories, I prefer to invent characters and situations, and often do. But perhaps just as often I have borrowed my stories from events that have taken place in my life, or that I have heard about, and draw characters from acquaintances or people about whom I have heard extraordinary or touching or frightful things. I try to disguise my characters’ origins in so-called real life—some I disguise more carefully than others—and sometimes put someone I know through a series of incidents that I know have been undergone by someone else. I have written stories in which only one character is based, however roughly, on someone I have known, while every other, along with the plot of the story, are wholly the work of the imagination. Or I will give an invented character the occupation of someone I know only slightly. Not uncommonly readers have told me that they recognize characters in one or another of my stories; and more often than not, they are wrong. At such times, I try to let them down gently, because when they think they recognize a character as someone they know or have known, they feel a pleasure in it, as if they have broken a code, or, better still, been let in on a juicy bit of gossip.
Many writers of fiction do not go for the minimum disguise of their characters. Saul Bellow seems not to have invented many characters, only to have invented sins to give to characters who, for those in the know, have real-life analogues. Connoisseurs of his novels can point out that this woman was a girlfriend of the author’s at Tuley High School, that lawyer botched Bellow’s third divorce, this misery of a woman was one of his wives. Bellow was a literary bluebeard, murdering his former wives not in life but in his fiction, and doing so without mercy. He regularly used his fiction to settle old scores. In his last novel, Ravelstein, he has his main character say of another character, who happens to have been a friend of mine, that he was homosexual and smelled bad. Both items are utterly false, but Bellow was repaying my friend for what he took to be many slights when he was still alive. Under the cover of fiction, this is gossip with the clear motive of vengeance behind it.
Biographers and critics of Proust eagerly point out that this character is based on Mme. Georges Aubernon, that on Robert de Montesquiou, another on Comte Henry Greffulhe. The supposition is that in reading about Proust’s characters drawn from life we also learn about their life models. Sometimes we do, but sometimes not, as Proust transmogrifies certain of the models on which his characters are based, and sometimes, for his own good artistic reasons, does the reverse, making them less monstrous than they might actually have been in life.
Then, of course, there are the straight romans à clef, or (literally) novels with a key, which are only very thinly disguised portraits from life, meant to fool no one, with knowledge of the real-life characters supplying the key. Whenever the spirit of roman à clef is at work in fiction, the all but irresistible temptation is to extrapolate from the book back into life. The pleasure is in feeling that one is getting the real inside view of famous people, truth that cannot be spoken except through the veil of fiction—a purely gossipy pleasure.
Often such fiction serves as scarcely more than a legal prophylactic against libel. The first roman à clef I encountered as a younger reader was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, a novel based on the French existentialists of the 1940s, including most notably Jean-Paul Sartre, de Beauvoir herself, and Albert Camus, and others. The Chicago novelist Nelson Algren, with whom de Beauvoir had an affair on a visit she made to America, also appears, all too transparently, in The Mandarins, a fact that Algren came to view as little more than an embarrassment and a nuisance, suggesting on more than one occasion that the affair seemed to mean a lot more to Mlle. de Beauvoir than it did to him. E. I. Lonoff, the key figure in Philip Roth’s novel The Ghost Writer, is everywhere taken to be the novelist Bernard Malamud—so much so that a recent biographer of Malamud’s takes it to be a life drawing, even though much else in the novel is invention. E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is about the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for spying for the Soviet Union. In this instance, the obvious roman à clef permits the novelist to make his case for what he feels: the injustice and terrible human consequences of the execution.
The possibilities for mischief here are considerable. Being portrayed as a vile character in someone’s novel cannot be a pleasant experience. Impotent anger must be the result if one is portrayed as villainous, mild distaste even if one is portrayed favorably yet vulgarly. Isaiah Berlin was apparently used as a model for the central character in a series of detective stories by the writer Jocelyn Davey (the pseudonym for Chaim Raphael), which much put him off. “To appear in a novel of this kind,” Berlin wrote to a colleague, “is rather like appearing in other people’s dreams: and one cannot exactly avoid doing so, nor is one responsible for the shape one takes, and yet the results inevitably offend one. I wish people left one alone.” But people won’t leave one alone, especially if one is famous, even mildly so—at least they won’t in the new era of widening gossip.
Soon enough the roman was dropped, making the clef unnecessary, and in the late 1960s a group of writers began to employ the techniques of fiction to write about famous people in a novelistic way under their true names, usually to their detriment. The enterprise was called the New Journalism, and though it is now far from new, and hasn’t, truth be told, worn all that well, the phenomenon greatly lowered the bar on privacy and what it was permissible to say about people in print.
One of the most famous early pieces of the New Journalism is Gay Talese’s Esquire article “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966). Immensely readable, it gives the feeling that one is a privileged member of Sinatra’s entourage. Talese is careful to show the deep contradictions in Sinatra, his generosity and his cruelty, his loyalty and how easily he slips into the role of bully. One assumed Sinatra was a monster, but after reading the article one feels certain he was. My guess is that what probably most excited readers of the article is the bits of gossip that arise out of it: Sinatra’s manner with women, his twenty-six hairpieces (and the then-impressive four-hundred-dollar-a-week salary he paid a woman to tend them, toting them around in attaché cases), the Mafia don–like relations he has with so many people who seem to fear and revere him in roughly though not quite equal parts, his relations with his ex-wives and other women. All this is the stuff of good gossip, and the chief impression the article conveys—and this may have been the reigning virtue of the New Journalism generally—is that it was purveying the behind-the-scenes truth about real lives, which is of course what gossip claims for itself.
Another early specimen of the New Journalism is an article that the movie critic Rex Reed wrote on Ava Gardner (also in Esquire, in 1967, and later published in Reed’s collection Do You Sleep in the Nude?), just as the beautiful movie star’s career had begun its slide. In the piece Reed seems to be just hanging out with Miss Gardner, to have earned her trust, which he will soon enough betray by writing about her in a gossip-feeding way. He records the extent of her drinking, which is prodigious, and her sense of her own failure as an actress, which is sad. Here is a sample paragraph:
She rolls her sleeves higher than the elbows and pours two more champagne glasses full [one with cognac, the other with Dom Pérignon]. There is nothing about the way she looks, up close, to suggest the life she has led: press conferences accompanied by dim lights and an orchestra; bullfighters writing poems about her in the press; rubbing Vaseline between her bosoms to emphasize the cleavage; roaming restlessly around Europe like a woman without a country, a Pandora with her suitcases full of cognac and Hershey bars (“for quick energy”). None of the ravaged, ruinous grape-colored lines to suggest the affairs or the brawls that bring the police in the middle of the night or the dancing on tabletops in Madrid cellars till dawn.
Reed has caught Ava Gardner drunk—later in the evening she will down three iced tea–size glasses of tequila, hold the salt—which gives him an opening to ask her about her famous husbands: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. When he mentions Sinatra’s marriage to Mia Farrow, she laughs: “Hah, I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a boy.” She allows that her accomplishments as an actress have been pitiful: “Hell, baby, after twenty-five years in this business, if all you’ve got to show for it is Mogambo and The Hucksters you might as well give up.” When Reed jots something in his notebook, she retorts: “Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who always go around scribbling everything on little pieces of paper. Get rid of that. Don’t take notes. Don’t ask questions either because I probably won’t answer any of them anyway. Just let Mama do all the talking.” And she does, alas, to her own ruination. A gentleman, a standing for which not many writers qualify, would never have permitted so beautiful a woman, or even a homely one, to expose herself to such sad disadvantage and then recount it for the public.
Tom Wolfe, who with Gay Talese is (or perhaps was, since he has long since turned to the novel as his genre of choice) one of the chief progenitors and exponents of the New Journalism, wrote what is perhaps its most famous single composition, “Radical Chic,” about the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia’s party at their thirteen-room Park Avenue penthouse to raise money for twenty-one Black Panthers in prison for allegedly planning to blow up five New York department stores, New Haven Railroad facilities, a police station, and the Bronx Botanical Gardens in the late 1960s. The result is as close as journalism is permitted to come to genius, dazzling in its detail, devastating in its effect. For some people, “Radical Chic” put an end to the rich un-self-consciously displaying their empty virtue by siding with the very people who, should their dreams come true, would be only too pleased to lead them to the guillotine.
That evening at the Bernsteins’ apartment was an occasion on which some of the richest and most celebrated New Yorkers demonstrated how far from reality wealth and celebrity could place one. A journalist in the middle of the apartment—fellow name of Tom Wolfe—diligently taking notes on their foolishness, would eventually let everyone not there in on just how silly they were. He named names, some quite glittering names: Otto Preminger, Jean vanden Heuvel, Peter and Cheray Duchin, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Richard Feigen, Frank and Donna Stanton, Elinor Guggenheimer, Julie Belafonte, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, and many others. At the end of Wolfe’s account one is glad—delighted is more like it—not to have been among them.
Social hypocrisy has always been one of Tom Wolfe’s great subjects, and it was never more perfectly placed in his kitchen, as the baseball sluggers say, than when he found himself in the Bernsteins’ living room that evening. His fine eye for the nuttiness of social status was given an exhilarating workout. Here’s Wolfe on the problem of finding the right servants for a party to raise money for a radical black organization:
But it’s all right. They’re white servants, not Claude and Maude, but white South Americans. Lenny and Felicia are geniuses . . . Obviously, if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers, as Lenny and Felicia are this evening, or as Sidney and Gail Lumet did last week, or as John Simon of Random House and Richard Baron, the publisher, did before that; or for the Chicago Eight, such as the party Jean vanden Heuvel gave; or for the grape workers or Bernadette Devlin, such as the parties Andrew Stein gave; or for the Young Lords, such as the party Ellie Guggenheimer is giving next week in her Park Avenue duplex; or for the Indians or the SDS or the G.I. Coffee Shops or even for the Friends of the Earth—well, then, obviously you can’t have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating through the living room, the library, and the main hall serving drinks and canapés . . . Anyway, [the Bernsteins] have a house staff of three white South American servants . . . Can one comprehend how perfect that is, given . . . the times? Well, many of their friends can, and they ring up the Bernsteins and ask them to get South American servants for them, and the Bernsteins are so generous about it, so obliging, that people refer to them, good-naturedly and gratefully, as “the Spic and Span Employment Agency,” with an easygoing ethnic humor, of course.
In an earlier day, a writer, coming upon a plum of such high human foolishness of the kind Tom Wolfe encountered at the Bernsteins’ penthouse, might have turned the same material into fiction, providing a key for the knowing to unlock and thereby discover the true personages at the event. But in fiction it would be nowhere near so successful, so perfect, so, to choose an adjective that often appears before gossip, juicy.
The element of self-abasement on Leonard Bernstein’s part is nicely captured by Wolfe when he overhears the conductor say to one of the Panthers: “ ‘When you walk into this house, into this building’—and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front—‘when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!’ ”
Bernstein’s reputation—not as a composer but as a serious person—never survived Wolfe’s account of that evening. His music is still played on classical music stations, where anniversaries of his birth and death are duly noted. His place in the line of twentieth-century composers and conductors remains reasonably high and has not been altered. But the journalistic account of his and his wife’s behavior that night set him for eternity into that saddest of all social categories, a damn fool, too rich and famous to have the vaguest sense of how the world really works. “Radical Chic” is great journalism, but also gossip to the highest power. In fact, the two, in the hands of the New Journalists, seemed one and the same thing.
Tom Wolfe could of course have been crueler, for he left out altogether Leonard Bernstein’s homosexuality, a well-known but not then generally proclaimed fact, for the date of “Radical Chic” was well before the age of outing, though I suspect Wolfe is too much the gent to have gone in for gay-bashing, especially when so much richer material was at hand.
In the loose form of literature known as the memoir, many people have taken to outing themselves, and not just on the subject of sexual preference. The memoir, as a form of self-gossip, taking time out to gossip about others, has become one of the common forms of recent years. In a notably egregious example, a former female associate of Bernard Madoff’s not only admits to a love affair with the Ponzi specialist but informs us that his sexual apparatus was less than impressive. Charmant! A failed novelist describes his nervous breakdown. A woman writes about being sexually abused by her father. Another woman discourses at book length about her lifelong bout with depression, sparing no details. There’s a lot of it going around, and it doesn’t figure to end soon, the confession in which one often ends up confessing other people’s sins, which comes to little more than gossip in a self-serving form. The phenomenon is reminiscent of a story I heard long ago of a man getting up in church in a small Arkansas town, the spirit upon him, confessing to having an affair with another woman, also in the congregation and sitting only a few pews away. He was saved for the Lord, but she, poor woman, had to leave town.
Late on the dark afternoon of a cold day, I stepped into the Peets coffee shop down the block from my apartment. Book in hand, I was expecting to read while sitting alone drinking my coffee. But then I saw S. L., the one person I taught with in the English department at Northwestern University for whom I retained a high regard. Still attractive, she had been twice divorced and had no children. She had a reputation for seriousness and for fearlessness; for academics, fearlessness meant saying precisely what one thought, a rare thing. She was said to be a no-nonsense teacher of whom students were at first terrified and then came to revere. Although we were never close—never met alone for lunches or drinks, never really engaged in extended conversation—I hoped that she respected me as I did her.
She was by herself at a table near the window. She spotted me, and I waved from my place in line. When I was given my coffee, she signaled me to join her, which I did. I had retired from teaching four years earlier. She, though my contemporary, was, I gathered, still at it.
“Miss teaching at all?” she asked after I had taken off my coat and sat down across from her.
“Not a bit,” I said. “I had a fairly decent run, but enough is enough. A teacher, as I suspect you’ve noticed, is a person who never says anything once.”
“I have noticed,” she replied with a slight sigh, “though I prefer the definition of a teacher as someone who talks in other people’s sleep. Auden said that, I think.”
“The same cast of immensely attractive characters still at work in the English department?” I asked.
“Yep,” she said, “the three D’s, as I like to think of them: the depressed, the disappointed, and the deranged.”
“Speaking of the latter, is it true that poor Ardis Lawrenson committed suicide?” I asked.
“Yep. She’d been an alcoholic for years, and they found her dead in her bathtub. Like Seneca, she had opened her veins.”
“Yes, Jesus, mother, and Mary. I thought she was merely another secret academic drunk. I wouldn’t have guessed she was wacky enough to take her life.”
“Is Baumgartner still around?” Louis Baumgartner was one of the great figures in the department, a short man with muttonchops, a Renaissance English scholar whom a fatuous dean had been able to pry away from Stanford twenty or so years ago.
“Yes,” she said. “Baumgartner and the missus, the Bummies, the dreary duo.”
“Did you know that the students used to call Lily Baumgartner, with her considerable avoirdupois and her black bangs and her more than a hint of a mustache, ‘Ollie,’ after Oliver Hardy?”
“I never heard that one,” she said. “The little bastards can be cruel, but here is a touch of creative cruelty I much admire.”
“I suppose Baumgartner is by now too old to arrange for further offers from other universities, which he used to do to leverage up his own salary.”
“No man—or woman either—is ever too old to be greedy and crummy,” she said, “especially academic men and women. But did I ever tell you my story about Erich Heller and the Baumgartners?” Erich Heller was a Czech literary critic, Jewish and gay, of deep Teutonic culture, who taught in the German department and until his death was one of the most distinguished people at the university.
“No, never. I liked Erich a lot. Toward the end of his life, I used to go to lunch with him every three weeks or so. Even his snobbery—he used to talk about his good friend Isaiah Berlin a bit too much and with too great reverence for my taste—didn’t bother me. But tell me about Erich and the Baumgartners.”
“We were at lunch together not long after the Baumgartners arrived at Northwestern. Erich leaned over and asked me if I knew the Baumgartners, which in his thick accent came out sounding like ‘the Bum’s Gardeners.’ I said yes, that I had met them a time or two.
“ ‘Last night I was with them at Rudy’s [the dean of the arts college at the time],’ Erich said, giving the R a pretty good workout, ‘and I was seated next to this Mrs. Bum’s Gardener. An excruciatingly boring woman, let me assure you. What a creature! I am not an unimaginative man, but try though I might, I couldn’t imagine making love to such a woman. I couldn’t imagine it, I tell you, I just couldn’t.’ His voice grew shrill. He seemed terrified at the prospect of being thrown in bed with Lily Baumgartner. I patted his hand. ‘Don’t worry, Erich,’ I said to him. ‘No one is ever going to ask you to do so.’ ”
“The story suggests to me,” I said, “that perhaps Baumgartner deserved all those raises for nothing more than sleeping with Mrs. Baumgartner all these years.”
We went on to talk about the other people in the department. S. L. knew where all the bodies were buried. She anatomized the extravagant vanity of the poets—turning out, as she said, “their hopeless little dribblings.” I mentioned the poet who regularly sent out e-mails announcing he had won some new negligible prize.
“God, yes,” she said. “All his dubious achievements must be made known. I keep waiting for him to send a university-wide e-mail announcing that he had an excellent bowel movement over the previous weekend.”
She went on to puncture the exaggerated pretensions of the “so-called” (her qualification) scholars in the department. She knew who had attempted suicide, who was living with a lesbian partner, who had a secret drinking problem, who spoke against a putative friend at a closed meeting who was up for tenure, who attained to new heights of pomposity and unreality in his or her behavior. I added my own, on the whole less rich, bits to this splendid stew of gossip.
We were at this game for perhaps an hour and a half. S. L. served up her items with a fine rinse of cold irony. I laughed as I listened to her take the air out of many of my former colleagues’ pretensions. (Had she ever, I couldn’t help for a fearful moment wondering, turned in a similar demolition job on me?) Over ninety or so minutes not a positive word was uttered, no attempt at fair assessment ventured; it was purely slash and burn, with lots of salt poured on wounds.
I couldn’t remember when I had had such a delightful time.
Photo: Hulton Archive