Penelope Gilliatt

Penelope Gilliatt is a critic and writer of fiction who works for the New Yorker.

From culture to couture

Penelope Gilliatt, 21 February 1985

There are three Vogues, published in New York, London and Paris. They are known to Condé Nast people as ‘Vogue’, ‘Brogue’ and ‘Frog’. Their characters have nothing in common. In order of hauteur, Frog is housed in an ambassadorial house in the Place du Palais Bourbon, and has long been edited by a handsome woman of diplomatic family, Edmonde Charles-Roux. When I was Brogue’s features editor, Frog still revolved around the couture collections; Frog being frog and grand, Condé Nast’s photographers had first and private access to the collections. Though I had nothing to do with fashion, it was once arranged that, as a 19-year-old of mature authority, I should be the courier for the precious photographs, ferrying them across the Channel and through Customs at almighty speed to get them to the layout department, who would deliver them to the printers in Watford where the formes were being held at vast expense. I was allowed to take a taxi for once, and left the invaluable things in the cab at one in the morning. I realised what I’d done as soon as I had paid, yelled as the taxi sped off, took others to go to police stations, went to the lost-and-found bureau over the river in case it was open while my contemporaries were dancing the Wedding Samba at the Four Hundred, went back to the lost-and-found the moment it opened the next morning, and the huge envelope of D-notice movement in hemlines had been handed in. Better luck than for Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Miz Peggy

Penelope Gilliatt, 15 September 1983

From Anne Edwards’s biography of Margaret Mitchell, we know that Peggy Mitchell had ‘sailor-blue eyes’. We also know that she stood four feet eight, which is mighty small for the militant author of Gone with the Wind. At this size she mounted, or climbed up a ladder to, a large horse. Wheeling him (fervently: her whole life was led in adverbs) and crying ‘Look at me!’ to the South in general, she fell off. The horse landed on top and she had a leg injury that forced her into orthopaedic shoes for the rest of her life. She wore a bow on one side of her hair for the premiere of her film: infant star, around forty. By this time, her book was well over a thousand pages long, but she was no taller. Even if this Minnie Mouse of a figure was wearing stiletto heels under her orthopaedic shoes, which one suspects in the light of her many disguises, she would never have stood more than four feet eight. She liked dancing the tango in those shoes, in a black satin dress slit up to her knees. One wishes there were a photograph of this wild Depression sight.


Penelope Gilliatt, 19 May 1983

By God, America is great, and so are its scholarly books. This one is 572 pages long and it took the author twenty years to write. Longer than Katherine Anne Porter found to write the whole of her resplendent work. Joan Givner’s book might be called light plane reading, except that it is heartlessly grave, gravid though fruitless, and would take the most receptive astronauts a moon-flight to try to sleep through, its dulled prose keeping them tossing and turning all the way.

Chez Tati

Penelope Gilliatt, 30 December 1982

Film buffs, a new mutant breed that can see only in the dark and that arranges unlike things in even rows of bestness, have collared the word ‘pantheon’. They have in mind – this species that seems to have learnt English by German gramophone record in an igloo – a holy order of film directors. This word is easily confused with Parthenon, of which the Goons said that it would be nice when it was finished, so it seems best to say ‘favourite film directors’ instead – Renoir, Gance, Eisenstein, Ray, Truffaut, Keaton, Vigo, Tati. Tati has lately died after a career triumphant beyond compare in comic quality, apart perhaps from Keaton. Both could have made films in broom cupboards. Keaton used his august and stoic profile as a sort of mainsail, braced against great winds in search of the compass direction of a moral order. Tati seemed to regard his own face as a trodden-on mishmash of which he was not on the side, because it belonged to him and he was not particularly in favour of himself, though otherwise his loyalty was indeed to mess. Apart from Renoir, he is about the only man I have ever known who has not complained about the calibre of busy women’s washing-up.

Romeo and Tito

Penelope Gilliatt, 5 June 1980

When I was ten, in 1942, I won five shillings for the Madame Chiang Kai Shek short-story prize, and went straight to the bank to put the money into my Tito fund, muttering left-wing slogans against the bullying gracious lady of the Orient. I saw her as shrouded in jewels, but not in my five shillings. By the time I was fifteen, when I had considerably added to the fund by writing a radio play on a typewriter swiped every night from my school’s secretarial department, the savings amounted to more than enough to buy the £25 train fare to Belgrade by the Simplon-Orient Express. I wanted sorely to talk to Tito.


Marilyn Butler, 22 January 1981

The short topical review-article is a literary discovery of the last two hundred years or so – the age of mass literacy and the mass-circulation newspaper. A good review column is read by...

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