Not Enough Delilahs

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Picture by Lillian Ross
    NYRB, 219 pp, £14.99, June, ISBN 978 1 68137 315 7

I’ve never met anybody who hated as many people as Lillian Ross did. She would count their names off on her fingers, regularly within spitting distance of them, and her voice wasn’t quiet and she wasn’t shy. Bending back each digit and making a face, she’d offer a defining word after each name:

Gloria Steinem – phoney
Janet Malcolm – pretentious
Renata Adler – crackpot
Susan Sontag – nobody
Nora Ephron – liar

Other hand:

Kenneth Tynan – creep
Truman Capote – leech
George Plimpton – slick
Tom Wolfe – talentless
Philip Roth – jerk

It was a mercy she only had two hands. To be fair, there were some men she liked. They tended to be showbusiness people. She liked Robin Williams, Charlie Chaplin, Tommy Lee Jones and Al Pacino. She also liked Salinger. (‘Jerry’ had been a friend since the 1950s and Lillian could sometimes sound like a female Holden Caulfield, railing against the phonies.) She got a fine awareness of ‘the penalties of making it’ from Salinger and quoted from a letter he wrote to her in the 1960s, summing up the horror. ‘I don’t mean just the pretty obvious penalties, I mean the ones that are just about unnoticeable and that do really lasting damage, the kind the world doesn’t even think of as damage.’ Like Salinger, she mainly disliked other writers for being vain and puffed up. She thought all intellectuals were bullshitters. She didn’t like suck-ups or girls who got above themselves. She didn’t like people who thought they were closer to William Shawn than she was.

We were friends for a few years – you could say I was briefly her lapdog – and saw each other every time I came to New York. She had written me a number of very nice letters and given me signed copies of her books. She wanted to warn me off ‘all those magazines full of phonies who are going to try to use you up and kill your talent and make you write bullshit’. I was delighted to be liked by her. She had written some of my favourite pieces of journalism and there were things I could learn from her. There were others who’d walked in my shoes, but that was fine. She liked boys who were nice to their mothers. And I liked old ladies who’d led interesting lives.

One night in January 2002, she took me and some friends to see Saturday Night Live. (She’d been working on a New Yorker profile of the producer, Lorne Michaels, for thirty years.) It was the night Monica Lewinsky was doing a special guest appearance. What I remember most about Lillian that night is that she didn’t take any notes from the moment we arrived at the studio until the moment we left. She didn’t use a tape recorder. (Edmund Wilson said she was ‘the girl with a tape recorder in her head’.) We watched the live recording from Lorne Michaels’s office, and she went in and out of people’s dressing rooms and availed herself of the catering, but there were no interviews, and she only smiled when called a ‘legend’ by some of the people wandering in and out, including Chevy Chase, who spoke to her as if she were Mark Twain or the Statue of Liberty. Michaels made a huge fuss of her, too, and she was, in truth, the stellar opposite of the unobtrusive, silent reporter who keeps her distance and haunts the blind spots. At the party afterwards, at Barolo on West Broadway, she sat surrounded by Lewinsky and the other stars and didn’t ask any questions. She ate her supper and remarked at one point that the new pop star Ricky Martin looked like a fake. A director who was with us had been the subject of two of her pieces for ‘Talk of the Town’. He later told me he realised at the party that Lillian didn’t think of him as a friend. ‘In a perfectly nice way,’ he said, ‘I had only been a story to her.’

She was the sort of person who rated the people from her past so highly that all living people faced a struggle from the start. If you were lucky enough to say something funny, she’d smile for a second and then tell you Thurber would have made it funnier. If – heaven forfend – you tried to pinpoint a social nuance, she would look at you somewhat pityingly before telling you that her friend Joseph Mitchell could have made poetry out of it. She hated the New York Review of Books with a vengeance, resenting its ‘assumption of power’ and its ‘critical faculties’, and she told me there was no real writing in it and I should stop associating ‘with people like that’.[*] She argued, not convincingly, that pieces which did not appear in the New Yorker probably had something wrong with them. It would be natural to think Lillian just felt left out of the senior common room, where someone like Janet Malcolm – respected and published across the campus – appeared to have bigger subjects. But these writers weren’t better than her, they were simply other writers. ‘Other voices, other rooms,’ I said.

‘Oh, don’t quote that baloney book at me,’ she said. ‘Capote spent the whole of the 1950s collaring me to “pick my brains”, as he called it.’

I admired the book she wrote about her long affair with Shawn, mainly because I feel that writers should write, and let other people argue about whether they like what they’ve written or not. If your editors advise you against it then you should listen, but only bad writers strategise about their possible critics before they choose how to write a story. Lillian was in her eighties and it was her life, too. She appreciated my saying that, of course, but she carried a Rolodex in her head of all the people who thought the opposite. Funnily enough, it would be Janet Malcolm, eight years after the memoir’s publication, who wrote most soothingly about it. ‘The book came as a shock to many people who had known William Shawn,’ she wrote:

Shawn guarded his privacy as if it were his most precious possession, and Ross’s heedless chronicle of their forty-year-long affair (with photographs to buttress her words in case anyone doubted them) seemed an especially brutal violation of trust. Today, 14 years after Shawn’s death, the book reads differently. The waters have closed and Shawn has entered the ranks of the illustrious, unmortifiable dead. Ross’s revelations about Shawn’s intimate life that seemed distasteful when he was freshly dead now seem merely – interesting.[†]

But to Lillian that was all just ‘crackpot stuff’.

After the trouble with the memoir, I tried to bring her out of it a little, and threw a dinner for her at the Café Loup on 13th Street. She was in one of her moods when she arrived and told me I was shallow for having asked so many intellectuals and snobs who didn’t talk the way she talked or see the world ‘plainly’. For reasons I should probably look into, I didn’t find her behaviour very offensive: I found it funny and typical and just about right for a tough little bird out of Damon Runyon. She went at her Cobb salad like a demon. She had little gold earrings made like shirt buttons, and they glinted in tune with her eyes, which slid from side to side while these ‘European intellectuals’ talked about wine. The film director Karel Reisz was there, and his wife Betsy Blair, who had been in Hollywood at the time Lillian had written Picture, but she thought they were insufficiently reverent and snubbed them. Some people believed that Lillian actually hated actors, like she hated most people, but made an exception for the ones who paid homage. The humourist S.J. Perelman said that Picture was a book written by someone who hated the industry. He knew a lot of those people, and said the book was ‘a ratty job, vicious in a professional sense’.

I think he was wrong. People just wanted Lillian to be much nicer than she was, and they weren’t interested in the possibility that her meanness could be a vital energy in her writing. (Only men are allowed that privilege.) Not that I always saw that myself: I was increasingly in two minds about her. She was quite often rude and difficult and it wasn’t always fascinating. One night we went to the theatre, and had tea first at the Waldorf Astoria, where she spent the whole time berating Nora Ephron. She thought Ephron was slightly worse than Timothy McVeigh. Or was it the Unabomber? Anyhow, all the way to the theatre and all the way through the play: Nora. The night ended with a lecture, with examples, demonstrating that Ephron was the world’s worst writer, even worse than Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal and Renata Adler. A few years later, I would understand the hatred when Ephron wrote a very funny account (‘The Legend’) of her mother throwing Lillian out of a party.

Great reporting isn’t usually harmed by the reporter having a poor character. It may even be improved by it. Lillian just happened to be hard-bitten in the right way. Her pieces relied on a ruthlessness, sometimes a viciousness, that she didn’t try to hide and that other people liked to comment on. She talked a lot about not being egotistical and so on, but reporters who talk a great deal about not obtruding on the reporting are usually quite aware, at some level, that objectivity is probably a fiction, and that they are most present when imagining they’re invisible. (Lillian was in at least two minds about this, possibly six. One minute she’d say a reporter had to let the story be the story, the next she’d say it was ridiculous: a reporter is ‘chemically’ involved in the story she is writing.) By the time I knew her, Lillian was struggling against a sense that she had caused pain to Shawn’s widow, Cecille, who was still alive, and permanently changed the public view of that most quiet and dedicated of New Yorker editors. Though I liked the book, I believed she was fooling herself if she thought there wasn’t something more than candour at work in her portrayal of Shawn’s family and the reality of his life with them. She claimed she was his ‘real’ wife and that her adopted son, Erik, was ‘theirs’. She knew this was tendentious and took out her anxiety on people who pointed it out.

Being friends with Lillian made you her material. That’s the way she saw it, which explains why she had a hard time with most writers. I was fine with it. I never doubted that one day she would be my material, too, and here I am. She thought like a reporter. It wasn’t her job to be loyal and it wasn’t her thing to be nice. And yet, on the downside, she could be very pious about friendship, as if her conscience wanted to make promises her writing couldn’t keep. It’s a problem for all writers, if they are serious about what they do. But few reporters, especially debunking ones like her, could see their way clear to writing a statement of principles such as the following from her book Reporting:

As soon as another human being permits you to write about him, he is opening his life to you and you must be constantly aware that you have a responsibility in regard to that person. Even if that person encourages you to be careless about how you use your intimate knowledge of him or if he is indiscreet about himself or actually eager to invade his own privacy, it is up to you to use your own judgment in deciding what to write. Just because someone ‘said it’ is no reason for you to use it in your writing … Anyone who trusts you enough to talk about himself to you is giving you a form of friendship.

Her entire career was spent ignoring the force of that passage. She spoke about her ex-friends as if they were research that went wrong. Norman Mailer had been ‘nice’ in the early days but he got above himself and had too many big ideas. To her, he was just a boy rolling at her feet, and she disliked the idea that journalism could be about analysis and penetration, as well as the work of eyes and ears. She spoke of Hemingway as a friend, and used his name for years against those who felt that her famous portrait of him was underhand, saying he’d ‘approved it’. But that’s not quite what he did. In 1951 he wrote that ‘Lillian Ross wrote a profile of me which I read in proof, with some horror. But, since she was a friend of mine and I knew that she was not writing in malice, she had a right to make me seem that way if she wished.’ The truth is Hemingway indicated a number of different feelings about what she wrote: horror, pride, embarrassment and admiration. He knew it was a take-down but he couldn’t fault the prose and didn’t think it malicious. Others disagreed. The matter was taken up by Irving Howe in the New Republic. ‘Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer,’ he wrote, ‘than the Lillian Ross interview, a scream of vanity and petulance that only a journalistic Delilah would have put into print.’ Friend or ex-friend, she had got the story she wanted and it was a cracker.

If you ask me, there aren’t enough Delilahs. (And there are too many Samsons.) It’s no use pretending Lillian’s long pieces are meekly observant. She is a 20th-century master of the selective quote and the well-furnished non-fiction scene, and Picture has now been rightly reissued as a classic. She went into those assignments very much as the person she was: very ambitious and slightly spiteful, which turned out to be a useful combination when it came to creating on the page the kind of men who interested her. She couldn’t write about powerful women, not in any depth, because they were all a bit like Shawn’s widow, in a position to make claims for themselves that Lillian would much sooner be making for herself. Her malice had everything to do with her talent, and it rendered her more suited to the job than anybody near her. Most men don’t have any trouble with that concept when it comes to men like themselves. Hemingway, for instance, that wounded bird who was disturbed that Lillian caught his ‘injun-speak’ and his many drinks and his fabulous ego blinking in the sunlight, had no hesitation, when his own typewriter was hot, in calling attention to the size of Scott Fitzgerald’s penis. Hemingway had broken with almost every one of his friends and the impulse was native to him.

*

Picture is a dazzling realist confection. It’s not greatly mysterious: it’s written in scenes that go from the beginning to the end of the story, and in each one there is something new and the dialogue is perfect, with pace and tension steady. That is what she set out to do when she was invited by the film director John Huston to come out to Hollywood in the summer of 1950 to write about his adaptation of Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage. She just stuck with the project from beginning to end. If you know how to report in a certain way, by seeing people and circumstances as you might see them if you were writing a novel, then access becomes a daily means of literary supply, and the task is then to make peace, if you can, between the warring truths that come at you from reality. Lillian invented new and bold ways of doing this by dramatising people’s motives, rather than merely describing them, or by quoting people’s attempts at concealing them. Picture tells the truth as the writer found it to be, and, by steady accumulation and good writing, we see all the things about the movie business that lie beyond publicity. I dare say that if Dore Schary, the production head of MGM in 1950, had been around today and living on Twitter, along with the dozens of others who feature in the book, then Ross’s freedom to see them independently might have been curtailed by a million yelps of self-interest. People speak to you because they have their own story in mind and want you to write it.

Ross went her own way with the detail, but the reader will trust it if the work is done and the sentences are good.

The door of Huston’s suite was opened by a conservatively attired young man with a round face and pink cheeks. He introduced himself as Arthur Fellows. ‘John is in the next room getting dressed,’ he said. ‘Imagine getting a layout like this all to yourself! That’s the way the big studios do things.’ He nodded with approval at the Waldorf’s trappings. ‘Not that I care for the big studios,’ he said. ‘I believe in being independent. I work for David Selznick.’ … He broke off as Huston strode into the room. Huston made his entrance in the manner of an actor who is determined to win the immediate attention of his audience.

‘Hel-lo, kid,’ Huston said as we shook hands.

I’m happy to accept that the young man had pink cheeks and that he said those things and that Huston strode in just so. Why not? But the thing we might also accept is that nobody – no matter what they agree to – is truly happy to become someone else’s creation, to have their involuntary actions captured and their words noted. Lillian’s avowal of friendship is like the black widow offering her mate a kiss as she eats him: anybody who speaks to a reporter is being devoured, whether they agreed or not. If the message goes their way they will applaud your accuracy and forgive your intrusion. If not, they will tell you they didn’t know you were recording them or didn’t agree to participate, not like that, not when the message wasn’t to their taste, and they didn’t understand that you would go ahead and describe their curtains and sum up their feelings and give them away to your readers.

But it’s exactly this sort of ruthlessness that made Ross great. For all her words about loyalty, she was never the friend of any of her subjects – she was the reader’s friend. The studio people behind The Red Badge of Courage never really had any faith in the picture as a commercial prospect, and some of them didn’t give a damn about its artistic merits, but the artists struggled on, Huston especially, and that’s the story Lillian tells, from soup to nuts. It’s unlikely that at any point in the writing of the story Ross worried that a revelation would embarrass anyone. To take a random example, the producer of the picture, Gottfried Reinhardt, whom Ross describes as having ‘an expression of profound cynicism on his face’, is quoted as telling her that, at MGM, where you have your office, and what kind of bathing facilities you have, denotes your importance in the company. When she wrote that, she knew Reinhardt would wince, and when she later used his letters to show his double-dealing, she knew he would blush to the roots of his hair. But she didn’t hesitate to publish it, and she was right not to. Reporting is about being there. You see what you see, and record what you record, and it might not be what others would see and record, but if you’re there for the whole ride then the story will be yours. Sooner or later, life falls into chapters, and Lillian could see her story coming down the track with Picture. If she double-crossed people, then she double-crossed them equally, just as she’d done on the Hemingway story.

The difficult thing for Lillian was that one can’t live on the page. You have to live out in the world where you don’t control every turn in the narrative, and where other people will have their say. She really loved the world of the old New Yorker because it seemed to her like a place where you could live in columns, all those writers like characters and editors like artists, all of them obsessed with the magazine, as if its traditions and its language and its restraint and its sense of humour constituted a better principality. When Shawn was fired, when they all got old and the world went wrong, Lillian didn’t like it, and she behaved like an exile the whole time I knew her, like the Russian émigré her father was, finding fault with everybody else in order to be somebody.

The last time I saw her, I’d fallen in love and wondered if she’d come to a party this new girlfriend was having in a clothing store on Park Avenue. She came, saying she might write something about it, and she walked the room of party-goers in her little silver Nikes. She was surly and looking for somebody to hate: ‘Gore Vidal,’ she said – he wasn’t there – ‘now there’s the biggest nobody in the entire history of nobodies. Let me tell you for sure. I’ve met a lot of phonies but I’ve never met anybody who has a clue what he’s talking about. If you ask me he’s the worst writer in America.’

‘The worst?’

‘Worse than Sontag. Worse than Gloria Steinem. Oh, God. Worse than Renata Adler. And that’s saying something.’ I introduced her to my girlfriend and she looked her up and down before going off to look at some coats on hangers. She later wrote to me to say the woman wasn’t for me and was probably a pretty nasty person. ‘You got to write your next book,’ she said. ‘These people will just drag you down.’

The friendship petered out from there. I called her after 9/11 to make sure her son Erik was okay – he worked on Wall Street. She had some complaints about editors and publishers and said Jerry Salinger was one of the only people she could trust. Her fight, she said, was always like his, ‘to hold on to herself’. It occurred to me again how tough it must be to be Lillian Ross off the page. She was going to Amagansett and said I should call her when she got back, but I didn’t call her. I read her instead. A few years later, I happened to be at the opening night of a new restaurant. She didn’t notice me as I walked past her table, or, if she did, she put her head down. She was sitting on a small pink velvet chair and I heard her ordering a pizza with black truffle and fontina and saw her turning her head and having a good look when Mick Jagger entered the restaurant with L’Wren Scott. I continued down to the end of the room and sat down. After a few minutes I took out a notebook and wrote down the details.

[*] It’s hard to guess how she’d feel about being included in the NYRB Classics series. Vindicated, most probably. But I was standing once with Barbara Epstein when Lillian came up to castigate her for publishing – twenty years earlier – a terrible review by Renata Adler of a book by Pauline Kael. ‘Everything you publish is pretentious,’ Lillian said. ‘Oh, what a shame,’ Barbara responded.

[†] According to A Life of Privilege, Mostly, a memoir written by the long-time New Yorker editor Gardner Botsford, Janet Malcolm’s husband, it was Ross who spread the rumour that Malcolm was desperate to unseat William Shawn and replace him first with her husband then with herself, a suggestion Malcolm found ‘not only preposterous but offensive’.