Big bash at the Styrons – Lennie Bernstein in an orange shirt, some sort of exotic ‘prayer’ shawl draped over his expressive shoulders, smoking away, talking to eager young girls. Mike Nichols, the serpent in the garden … Claggart to the life, said not enough money was coming in just now, wanted to get unused to the money. Arthur Miller a bit tight addressing me as usual on the subject of his latest openings. Benevolent, even comradely in a Jewish-1915 way, but would never think of saying a word, asking a word, about anyone else’s work … Caroline Kennedy (Schlossberg) was there. The Pete Gurneys, daughter a graduate of the Yale English school, now a financial officer at the ad agency whose long name still ends in Benton and Bowles. That little rat, Jerzy R. Kosinski, thought Conrad was a good subject to bring up with him, but it didn’t interest him very much. All the while, host Bill Styron looking a bit subdued as usual these days; we talked about Randall Jarrell’s possible suicide, Bill’s own depression. And I talked to him about William James’s own breakdown and his resuscitation through faith.
What in hell am I doing with all these theatre types?
Alfred Kazin’s journals, 26 December 1986
Discount Kazin’s weary, load-bearing sigh in this characteristic entry from his journals, which record him enduring party after party, decade after decade, as if it were his suffering duty, a Calvary of cocktails and canapes.[*] Had Kazin not been invited, he would have been even sorer, nursing a fine, bitter grudge, his other favourite hobby. Guest lists meant something then. The novelist William Styron and his wife, Rose (respected worldwide as a human rights activist), had drawing power as party hosts, the cultural cachet to net composers, playwrights, directors, ratfink fabulists and a former president’s daughter to toast the holidays and air out their egos. Such dos were among the last hurrahs of the postwar literary era dominated by heap big novelists now facilely grouped as a cetacean school of Great White Males (Styron, Norman Mailer, James Jones, John Updike, Saul Bellow, Gore Vidal, J.D. Salinger, Joseph Heller, the recently retired Philip Roth), whose ghostly father and bearded Neptune disturbing the liquor cabinet deep into the night was Ernest Hemingway. Even those least influenced by Hemingway’s style couldn’t fail to register the impact of his hold on America’s consciousness: he established the co-ordinates of celebrity and masculinity that turned literary life at the highest level into a spectator sport. Styron would enjoy his first taste of fame at a party thrown in 1952 by Leo Lerman, who decades later became the editor of Vanity Fair and whose own journals, The Grand Surprise (2007), are the aesthetic flipside of Kazin’s. Lerman, who had written about Styron’s clarion debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness, for Mademoiselle, asked the young author to a little thing he was hosting. Who was there? Oh, you know, the usual crew: Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, and Hemingway’s great chum, the one he called ‘the Kraut’: Marlene Dietrich. ‘You could have knocked me over with a pin,’ Styron wrote to his aunt Edith, ‘when Leo took me over to meet Dietrich and she took my cold clammy hand in hers and said she had not only “rad” LDID, but “lawved” it! It was pure Elysium, I can tell you that.’
LRB 24 January 2013 | PDF Download