NEW YORK—Twenty-two years or so ago, I wrote a column for The New York Observer, a weekly paper owned by a tycoon named Arthur Carter. He had come up the hard way and made his fortune in Wall Street but retained his loathing for those who had made it the old-fashioned way, mainly by inheriting and the old-boy WASP network. Graydon Carter (no relation), a good friend of mine who went on to become the big poobah at Vanity Fair, hired me to write the column. Mind you, what I wrote made Graydon very nervous. Arthur Carter was climbing the greasy social pole and complained nonstop to his editor about the cheap shots a columnist of his took at such social icons as Mercedes Bass, Henry Kravis, Michael Bloomberg, and the social moth, one Jerome Zipkin, who is no longer with us. Graydon nevertheless stuck by me even after I committed the greatest of sins—as a joke—writing that Si Newhouse, the honcho of VF, Vogue, and every other glossy that counts, was the only man who buys two tickets when he visits a zoo: one to get in and the other to get out.
Graydon used to have his assistant—a pretty, extremely capable, and charming girl called Amy Bell—make sure I was held in check when he was away. The trouble was Amy and I were buddies, and when Graydon left for a brief holiday I wrote how if Abe Rosenthal, the ex-editor of The New York Times and a Times columnist after his retirement, made love the way he wrote, I felt very sorry for his wife. (Rosenthal was a terrible writer but a very good editor. He was also the first columnist to be fired by the Times.) By the time Graydon got back to the Big Bagel, all hell had broken loose. Abe’s wife Shirley Lord took it personally. I had referred to Abe as “Abie,” which she considered anti-Semitic, which was news to me. Yet again Graydon stood up for me, and soon after he was named editor of Vanity Fair. I was fired from the Observer forthwith. Having written that Arthur Carter—who dyed his hair and eyebrows in the most egregious way—had bought all the shoe polish in the city, preventing me from getting a proper shoeshine, did not help. End of story.
But not quite. Throughout the three years I wrote for the Observer, my column appeared next to one by a woman named Anne Roiphe. She was described as a novelist, which I’m sure she was, although I never met anyone who had read her fiction. I never read her column, either. One look had convinced me not to “go there,” to use a modern Americanism. Roiphe was a rich Jewish Park Avenue girl who specialized in “high art”—namely, writing about misery, despair, angst, the widespread dismissal of women’s efforts, and how exhilarating it was to find a man absorbed in his work who did not embody the traditional safety the fairer sex looked for in a man. In other words, she was someone spoiled but with enough knowledge and solipsism to be really f——- up.
I had forgotten all about Roiphe until this week, when I read a review of her book—a memoir, of course. She dismisses her first husband as someone who “now writes non-fiction.” Ouch. But that’s not all. Her husband turns out to be a great man, a friend of mine, a drunk, a fortune hunter, a braggart, a phony who seduced her with his perfect upper-class English accent, although Jack Richardson was born in Queens, Noo Yawk. The more she trashes him, the more I love him.
Let’s take it from the top:
Roiphe is culture-hungry and reading my bible, Tender is the Night. She meets Richardson at age 12, and they dance the Charleston together. She’s told by an English prof not to give up the day job in favor of writing. Crushed but determined, she decides to be “a muse to a man of great talent.” In reality she’s fixated on fame and glory, and then my buddy Jack comes back into her life. She revels in musehood, especially when JR tells her that “If I am not as famous as Keats by the age of 26, I will kill myself.” She writes, “He wanted to be a giant among men.”
Jack was a giant, all right: a giant at Elaine’s, our watering hole, a giant among competitive, hard-drinking writers who under the influence would expound Demosthenian speeches, Periclean in scope, about absolutely nothing. I adored him, and it’s safe to say he loved me, too. Roiphe writes how she waited for him to come home, how she typed his manuscripts, and how he disappeared for days during their Paris honeymoon looking for women. “My nerves are shot,” he told her. “I need the comfort of prostitutes.” What a cad! What a bounder!
Nurturing a fragile male artist led to an older, bitter Roiphe. But accepting to live off someone else’s written words, as she admits, is a youthful mistake. No big deal. She writes eloquently about my buddy Jack “coming to life, like Dracula,” surviving on Scotch, Bourbon, and German philosophy—“I am a logical positivist” was his opening line—and how he woke up “trembling and bloodshot.” Who hasn’t? Cool it, Roiphe. Just think what Hadley, Pauline, Zelda, and Norris could say about their men and their Jack-like shenanigans.
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