The land of the free: https://view.email.fortune.com/?qs=c17e7d63f5877b3e91a2888a967dcf74f5f69f0797f964f4554625cefe35c53ef0aee53927b6d1c47380121659f0029e84aa410acf298e54905268764476b9505cf405141fa50c33What “they” say must really be true. The only people interested in going into politics are either crooked (Dreckstuck, leaders of Congress) or too stupid to do anything else.
I let the weekend slip by and there’s a bunch of things to catch up on. Let’s start with this commonsensical commentary on Facebook by Gerry Stiebel, a New York art dealer ( and a very good one!) now based mainly in Santa Fe. He asks the right question. I mean – look! – nobody apart from yourself and your ego, id etc. forces or drives you to post on FB. I never put on anything that I wouldn’t happily express to the person on the adjacent barstool. Or in print when I had columns at Manhattan Inc and The New York Observer. But I have issues of self-control when it comes to curiosity, and for me the problem was that once started I couldn’t stop. Not couldn’t stop posting. but couldn’t stop hopping from one lily pad to another, usually simply to see how far and in how many varieties human stupidity, showing-off, tastes etc. could find expression. It became an intolerable waste of time and attention. Twitter was even stupider, and carried triviality – my conviction that the internet gives millions with nothing to say a place to say it – out past the darkest star. Anyway, here’s Gerry Stiebel: http://www.geraldstiebel.com/2018/04/facebook.html
https://www.alternet.org/why-racist-america-cant-stop-fighting-civil-war?src=newsletter1091067Work of this quality is why I’ve added AlterNet to my “Must” list. On this particular topic, what really happened after Appomattox, I found Chernow’s Grant a complete eye-opener and have put Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States) at the top of my list.
Sometimes my computer goes all weird on me and with a terrible rattling drags digital skeletons out of some closet tucked away on the hard drive. Here’s why Dominick Dunne stopped speaking to me. It appeared in Spectator in 1989. Rereading it after almost thirty years obliges me to confess that my pen was dipped in envy as much as vitriol:
Keys that turn in too many locks
Michael M. Thomas
PEOPLE LIKE US by Dominick Dunne
Sidgwick & Jackson, f12.95, pp.403
It is difficult to judge what a British reader will make of this novel of New York manners or lack of them. In America, its bestsellerdom was assured by a very artful pre-publication publicity campaign de- signed to pre-empt any consideration of the book on its merits. Not once, but twice, first through an ‘unaccountable’ leak of `purloined’ pages to a fashion weekly, then through provision of a somewhat revised MS (earlier, biting characterisations are believed to have been ameliorated) to the city’s leading gossip columnist, prospective readers were tantalised with a gossipy `Who’s Who’ of real-life prototypes for the dramatis personae. Whether the `hook’ of gossip about a group of well-known, well- fixed but in the main way of things inconse- quential New Yorkers having lunch together will snare London readers seems on the face of it questionable. To put the matter another way, is there a London audience ready to pay, so to speak, 95p for the roman and £12 for the clef — which strikes me as a reasonable apportionment of the novel’s price between its literary and tabloid virtues?
The matter of the book is familiar: the comings and goings of a social set — united by enormous wealth, mainly new, and a desire to go out in society, in which some are rising, some falling, and others simply trying to stay abreast — seeking what Fitzgerald in Gatsby called ‘the comforting proximity of other millionaires’.
The evisceration of these in a novel is surely a worthwhile task, but it has its risks. Truman Capote did it, motivated, it seems, more by self-destruction than an obsession with literary or moral truth, and paid for the resulting obloquy and ostrac- ism with his mental health and, ultimately, his life.
For all the talk in the tabloids, Dunne’s view is not nearly so tough. His roughest punches are the literary equivalent of what is elsewhere known as `beating up on the cripple’. With the big, juicy targets, he hedges his bets. That is the problem with the roman a clef as a literary form, and why perhaps Edith Wharton, who knew how to write about New York society best of all, described such novels as the lowest form of fiction. I would not go quite that far, but very definitely the form has limitations which require an extra leap of moral and artistic imagination; otherwise no involve- ment, no bonfire, if you will, is kindled in the reader’s mind. Genius can transform a Sadleir into Merdle, or Charles Haas into Swami, fully-realised creatures of the im- agination cut loose from their prototypes; lacking that genius, the characterisations must stay pretty close to the bone, or lose their reality and thus their point.
While Dunne has invested many of his characters with the triviality I know most of them to possess in the flesh, triviality left to its own devices soon degenerates into sheer boringness, a muddled hash of de- tails. Take Dunne’s Elias Renthal who, with his wife Ruby, storms the citadels of fashionable society and then is disgraced. Elias Renthal seems physically to suggest Sotheby’s proprietor Alfred Taubman, with hints — by reference to certain possessions, such as the famous Sargent from Londonderry House — of Henry Kravis and Saul Steinberg, and these are all men of power and moment and display, and at the centre of things, socially speak- ing, or so the newspapers say, but in the end Renthal goes to gaol for the sins of Ivan Boesky, who never — but never went out in society. Thus is created a basis of identification which transforms one of us Into a stock figure of them. Thus are the fangs of the novel’s notional social criticism pulled. A roman a clef must at the very least engage its audience and outrage its targets with its specificity; what we have here are characters that are diffuse walking mosaics of other people’s attributes: often in terms of their possessions as much as their personalities, a la Judith Krantz.
For some, it undoubtedly helps to be told that loelia Manchester’ is probably the mining heiress Annette Reed rendered blonde, or that man-about-town connois- seur Jamesey Crocus ‘is’ man-about-town connoisseur-scholar John Richardson. The trouble is they aren’t. The Loelia of the Page is a whingeing bore; the real-life Original is a bright and lively riot. When Jamesey Crocus speaks of art, he does so with an expertise and eloquence that the average cow in the field would find simplis- tic. Some portraits are closer to home. The Butterfield, the swank men’s club to which Renthal is admitted by WASP patri- cians grateful for stock-market tips, may Possess the Knickerbocker Club’s stair- case, but otherwise it more closely resem- bles the Brook, which used to be a good club, but now consists principally of men who seem to be trying to sell each other life-insurance.
The social rise and fall of the Renthals, the death of an old money son and heir from Aids, and the tale of his own vengeance on the murderer of his daughter are the principal storylines from which the laundry is hung. The novel is narrated, in a manner of speaking, by Gus Bailey, a man-about-meals journalist who is very like Dominick Dunne himself; indeed Bailey seems to be the only character to whom more than the most cursory autho- rial consideration has been given. The revenge leitmotif is poignant if you know Dunne, whose own story it is, but while I don’t consider its use here as shameless exploitation, as did one American review- er, its point in this tangled web seems conjectural. There’s a great deal of busy- work here, often to little effect. The book lacks the narrative drive of Dunne’s earlier novel, The Two Mrs Grenvilles, although there the writer had the advantage of having his plot provided by fact and by Truman Capote.
And so it goes throughout the book. There is simply not one character about whom it is possible to care one way or the other.
Every now and then the book descends to depths which, since no literary point is made, I find morally offensive. Let the book speak for itself.
In Paris, attractive Greeks had always en- joyed a popularity, because, as Bijou McCord Thomopolous, the great hostess, who had married several Greeks, said, ‘They are such wonderful dancers, and they know how to treat their women.’
This last assertion, pace High Life, will come as a revelation to several women of my acquaintance. These citations also give an idea of the style in which the novel is written. Consid- er this:
Justine was fastidious about herself, not only in her neatness of grooming, but in the care of her body, which always carried the expen- sive scents of deodorants, and bath oil, and powder, and perfume.
It is difficult to reconcile prose on this level with the lucid, workmanlike style of the essays under his name in Vanity Fair with which Dunne has become celebrated as a chronicler and analyst of America’s top people.
Still, stylistic crudeness, not to mention unspeakable editorial slovenliness (on p.187, ‘the final of the nineteen coats of persimmon lacquer . . .’ becomes, a mere eleven lines below, `. . . the twentieth and final coat . . .’) can be overlooked if harnessed to vision and passion, although it helps, as in the case of Proust and Mrs Wharton, if the prose is as elegant as the banlieue.
In another passage, “…a workman, Julio Martinez . . . fell (nine stories) to the ground. As if aware of the exclusiveness of the neighbourhood he uttered no sound as he plunged to his death.”
Perhaps this is meant as a joke, but — as I found myself obliged to ponder over and over again — I don’t, in the end, think it is, not if in the author’s voice. What does strike me as a joke is a generalisation like this: skilful novelist of high manners, Gore Vidal correctly observed that to portray a class accurately from within must consti- tute a form of betrayal. People Like Us resounds with pulled punches, muted jibes, inexpensive shots at stereotypes (the WASP patrician too feckless to grieve for her dying son; lower orders, servants and workmen, who are without exception Puerto Rican). To write effectively of people like these, the writer must have filed for divorce from them and shown us that he intends to make it stick, even if a few regrets attend his leavetaking. That does not seem to be the case here.
Michael M. Thomas writes The Midas Watch,’ a weekly column in The New York Observer and is the author of four novels.
Now: back to the real world. I expect people are talking about “60 Minutes”‘ report yesterday on Allegiant Air. Based on reports of in-air and on-ground malfunctions, Allegiant must have the most offhanded maintenance procedures of any airline. They must have the greatest pilots in the world, however, because the airline has never had a fatality, despite all the stuff that’s gone on. And the plane Allegiant flies, the MD-80, must be as tough as its workhorse ancestor, the Douglas (that’s the “D” in “MD”) DC-3. No fatal crashes in the airline’s 20-year history (same as Jet Blue, regarded as the gold standard), and on top of that, based on the people Steve Kroft interviewed for the segment, Allegiant would appear to have the fattest passenger loads going. I wonder whether Allegiant’s “in spite of” safety record may have something to do with a budget-minded management’s reluctance to invest in the kind of fancy “fly-by-wire” technology that can go tragically haywire (no pun intended). Steve’s interview with John Duncan, head of the FAA’s Flight Standards division, was amazing. Duncan sure sounded like a guy who’s in the pocket of a member of Congress who in turn is in the pocket of Allegiant or its lobbyists. A web search reveals that Washington Post was on this story two years ago: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/allegiant-air-with-ultra-low-fares-draws-faas-attention-over-safety-concerns/2016/09/01/08c0f202-28f5-11e6-ae4a-3cdd5fe74204_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f46b5f191921
Comey vs. Trump. Yet another iteration of Oscar Wilde’s famous characterization of fox-hunting: “The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.”
Late last week, we saw the Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear, starring Anthony Sher. We liked it enormously; NYT’s Elizabeth Vincetelli, a critic I respect, not so much. Lear is often played basso profondo tragico, infused with sorrow and the notion that here is a larger-than-life mortal brought low by his own failings. This production is, well, lighter, less grave. From the outset, Lear is obviously not thinking clearly, which isn’t the same as early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, and his mind becomes more confused and helpless as the action proceeds. In a way it’s like a poker game in which the player with the money doesn’t understand the game as well as the other bettors.
On Saturday, thanks to my stepson Mickey, I was led to a Henry St. hole in the wall, Lillo, where I enjoyed as noble a cacio e pepe as could be imagined: sublime down to the last flake of cheese and peppercorn. The sort of place that exists by the dozens in Italy: think of a food cart without wheels. Five-star.
Saw “Coney Island” Cosi fan tutte at the Met last night.Musical values terrific – especially the blending of the two pairs of voices – but as usual at Lincoln Center, far too much stage busyness – which is tiring to watch. One of our quartet wasn’t feeling well, so we left after one act, but that sufficed for a most pleasant evening, including dinner and dessert at Grand Tier restaurant.
Turning 82 today. God help us!
A lovely birthday meal en famille last night at Meadowsweet.
A few posts ago, I mentioned Richard White’s The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford History of the United States) as on the top of my reading list. I’ve gotten into the book, and it is extraordinary; the parallels between the era of Reconstruction/Gilded Age and today are breathtaking. A must for anyone interested in seriously considering how we are today and we got here. And yet (p.59): “It never occurred to the vast majority of Americans that property was beyond public regulation or control or that its use should be left solely to private arrangements.”
The swine are circling the sties: https://www.politico.com/story/2018/04/19/giuliani-to-join-trump-legal-team-538371
Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-20/hedge-fund-titans-pull-money-from-funds-to-pay-massive-tax-bills
I’m interested in the gender-pay-gap issue because I have a slightly different take on how pay differentials became what we might call a “human resources culture.” Back around 1970, when I was co-head of the corporate finance department at Lehman Brothers, I decided we should add women to our investment-banking strength. This was not an initiative to which our senior partners reacted favorably. After all, these were men 50 and older, for whom it was an article of faith that a woman’s place was by the stove, planning that night’s dinner with “Cook” or waiting by the phone to be available for a little cinq a sept action. To them the idea of sending a young woman to make new business calls in, say, Texas or Los Angeles, was truly mind-boggling. To convince them to go along, I argued (and here I am not making a sexist pun) we could get more bang for our buck, in that it was a given that we could pay newly-minted female MBAs a bit less than their male counterparts. My argument carried the day, and what was a hiring gambit pretty quickly hardened into policy. Within five years, I was gone from LB and could have no further influence in this matter.