Writing in his journal, magazine editor and writer Leo Lerman once remarked that dining with Rebecca West was like “lunching with the most brilliant gossip column in the world—everything from hating George Bernard Shaw to the sex life of the Askews—staggering.” He could have been writing about himself. Lerman, who died in 1994, counted among his friends and antipathies many of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists and intellectuals, and he wrote about them in the witty, sometimes mordant, and often revealing diary he kept for more than 50 years. These journals—excerpts of which were recently published, along with some of Lerman’s correspondence and unfinished memoirs, in a volume called The Grand Surprise—make for dishy reading. After dinner with a “plastered” Henry Green, Lerman writes of the novelist’s boozy repetitions: He was “making a Greek chorus of himself to himself.” Of allowing Maria Callas, one of his closest companions, regularly to polish off his dessert, he quips, “Maria was a prodigious eater who thought she never really ate anything.” And of Marlene Dietrich, another cohort-muse, on whose behalf he once delivered doughnuts to a married Yul Brynner, he writes, with an astringent sort of affection: “Adoration nourished her the way health food sustains others.”
Yet Lerman’s journals, titillating as they are, amount to more than a miscellany of star-centric gossip. The Grand Surprise is also a chronicle of artistic Manhattan during the postwar years, written by a man who was not only a figure at the heart of this milieu, but a tastemaker who had a hand in shaping its evolution. Lerman evokes a time when it was possible to live in Manhattan on very little money, which meant creative, bohemian sorts like himself—the impecunious but intaahhrresting—could rub shoulders with the famous and wealthy. This was also an era before blogs and Amazon rankings and advance-guard PR agents, when the apparatus of influence was less fragmented and bureaucratic, and thus, one might argue, more transparent and easily navigated. Indeed, in his various cultural doings, Lerman has a degree of license and access that seems extraordinary today.
To say, as is often said of a man about town like Leo Lerman, that he “knew everybody” does not quite capture the sweep of his social connections or the force of his social libido. (“Mass flirtation,” to use his term.) “I had a lovely, lively encounter with Princess Margaret at Cecil Beaton’s party for Audrey Hepburn …” reads a typical celebrity-heavy entry. Several sentences later, Lerman mocks his own triviality: “That is the end of my society column today.” But one man’s society column is another man’s address book, and when Leo Lerman threw his infamous “at-home” gatherings—in memoirs of the era, he appears as a consummate host, a male Clarissa Dalloway—the invitees, who came for cheap wine and sparkling talk, might have included Woody Allen, Leonard Bernstein, Diana Vreeland, Candice Bergen, Henry Kissinger, Faye Dunaway, George Balanchine, Max Ernst, and Peggy Guggenheim. At an intimate fete for 200, Lerman was pleased to overhear Lionel Trilling ask Joan Sutherland for her autograph, and she for his. During quieter moments, when he chatted “on the blower”—the phone, in Leo-speak—it was often with the likes of Anais Nin or Cary Grant (“What a flirt”).
How Lerman came to run with such an elite crowd is explained partly by his wit and charm and vigorous extroversion—everywhere on display in his journals—and partly by the position of cultural sway he occupied for more than half a century as a freelance critic and a features editor, first at Mademoiselle, then at Vogue. Of course, saying that Lerman worked in magazines is like saying Richard Avedon snapped a few photographs. Lerman was an arbiter of aesthetic matters with a knack for sniffing out the next phenomenon. (Lerman’s longtime assistant, Stephen Pascal, who edited the book, notes in his excellent introduction that Lerman was one of the first critics to highlight the works of Margot Fonteyn, Edward Albee, John Updike, and Betty Friedan, among others.) As a friend and unofficial adviser to many in the fashion, ballet, theater, and literary worlds, and, in his later years, as editorial director of Conde Nast, he was a kind of gray eminence, a connector long before Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term. It was Lerman who recommended Carol Channing to Anita Loos for the lead inthe musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was Lerman who helped Alex Liberman place a painting in the Guggenheim show that effectively launched his art career. It was Lerman who suggested Martha Graham wear Halston to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, an introduction that so pleased Graham she asked the designer to create costumes for her company.
Though Manhattan society seems like his natural habitat, Lerman was not born to that rarefied world. Growing up in a Jewish immigrant family in East Harlem and Queens, Lerman, who knew from an early age he was homosexual, yearned for glamour; he set out to inhabit the sort of enchanted reality he found in the “smart” magazines and “social columns of the rotogravures” he pored over. He writes of gazing longingly into the “mansions” on Fifth Avenue when he chanced upon an unshuttered window or an open door. “I was to pursue it all my life, this glitter of power, of lavish dress and house.” As a child, his only access to this lofty sphere came through accompanying his house-painter grandfather and father on various jobs in genteel homes. (The book’s title, The Grand Surprise, derives from the name of a rare butterfly he glimpsed during one of these trips; the moment would remain for him symbolic of his fascination with, and desire to capture, all things beautiful.) Eventually, fashion magazines would provide not only images of the beau monde but a practical way in. And still, even as an insider, he remained, to some extent, an outsider in awe. Of a dinner in the 1950s attended by Elizabeth Bowen, Alice Astor, and John Latouche, he writes, “[I]t’s a long way from Momma’s.” It is, in part, this enduring delight in his circumstances, this pleasure in his surpassing good fortune, that makes these journals such buoyant fun.
Yet Lerman’s outsider status, along with his connoisseur’s sharp eye, also made him uniquely alert to the pomposities and pretensions of the characters he encountered. “It’s wonderful how Truman acquires bits of information and then passes them off as his own,” he writes of Capote, whom he befriended at Yaddo. Frequently, he brings deities down to human size simply by repeating their own absurdities. He tells us, for example, that Dietrich gossiped mercilessly about Garbo, disparaging her for using “only paper towels in her bathroom” and for wearing her underwear “for three days.” Callas, for her part, refused to remain alone with Winston Churchill on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht—”too boring,” in her words. Nearly always Lerman sums up a person with a pithy, trenchant remark. Tennessee Williams had a “dirty-sheets mind.” Gore Vidal is “big, complacent, pompous, assured that every platitude is an apothegm, a witty wisdom.” Capote, in his later, dissipated years, was “the Marilyn Monroe of literature.” One can’t help but feel relieved that most of these figures are dead.
Throughout his life, Lerman maintained that his relentless socializing was a means of gathering material for the panoramic novel of society he hoped one day to write. The book he had in mind was more Remembrance of Things Past than Answered Prayers—think grand roman, not roman a clef—and the view he took of his journal-writing, which he deprecatingly called his “scribbling,” is key to understanding the scope of his ambition. The diary was not an end in itself, true-life jottings to be published under the Saran Wrap guise of fiction, but the raw material he would hone and craft and ultimately transfigure into his life’s work. “This scribbling is temporizing. I must start. I get very tired—but only at sudden low moments do I doubt. I have not ever lost faith in writing this book.” That notion, self-deceiving though it may have been, seems to have benefited his writing. The prose here is immediate, spontaneous, candid, funny. It is almost completely free of the self-conscious posturing and operatic tone that mars so many diaries intended for the ages.
Lerman never realized his literary aspirations. His magazine work, his crowded social calendar, his exhaustive note-taking on it all (at 600-plus pages, this volume represents 10 percent of all the material he produced) left little time to write his novel. It may also have been, as Pascal suggests, that Lerman was more impressionist than synthesist, his gifts better suited to the short, dashed-off form. Whatever the reason for his inertia, Lerman berated himself throughout his life for his failure to produce a novel. In his later years, his regret became pervasive, his self-examination ruthless. “Perhaps the Grand Surprise isn’t finding oneself in the ‘great world’ of society, fashion, arts, and entertainment, but discovering that one has made an almost comical mistake, which for years has deflected one from his true purpose,” he writes. By the end of his life, despite his many accomplishments, he came to regard himself as a kind of maestro of the ephemeral—the parties, the articles, the witticisms—and worried that he would fade away unremembered, a footnote in the lives of his celebrated friends. “Who knows of Stark [Young] today? And who will think of me? No one. This fashion-magazine world, this world of reviewing…and the world of entertainment—television, LP—all even faster mortality.”
His regret points to the irony at the heart of the journals. Had Lerman written his novel, it is unlikely he would have kept such voluminous notes on his life, social and otherwise, and we wouldn’t have this remarkable book. Most people will read The Grand Surprise for its tales of celebrities and their foibles, for its portrait of postwar cultural aristocracy—and why not? But it is also a de facto autobiography of an immensely charismatic man. The considerable glamour of his life was, of course, bound up with the dailiness of that life, much of it fascinating but little of it, on its own, particularly quotable. The ceaseless whirl of parties necessarily existed alongside Lerman’s regrets and fears and romances and infirmities. Taken together, it all constitutes a story that is novelistic in its detail and half-century scope. In the end, it might be said, Leo Lerman wrote his novel in spite of himself.