Swans Commentary » swans.com February 22, 2010  



Lunch With Louis Auchincloss


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - February 22, 2010)   It was an astonishing literary coincidence. Within a day or so we heard of the deaths of three of America's great historians/fictionalists, Louis Auchincloss (September 27, 1917 - January 26, 2010), J.D. Salinger (January 1, 1919 - January 27, 2010), and Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 - January 27, 2010). Each had lived about 90 years and as a group these three in their works had laid out a comprehensive view of American society from top to bottom over a span of decades from the 1940s to just last year. Auchincloss, the Wall Street blueblood, novelist, lawyer, critic, relative of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, and the literary heir of Edith Wharton (January 24, 1862 - August 11, 1937) had painted vivid pictures of life at the top among his own class; while Howard Zinn had been an advocate of everything and anyone who could promote social change from the very bottom of society. In between stood Salinger who portrayed the cynicism and disillusionment of the youngest generation of the post-World War II middle classes. I knew personally only one of these three and I would like to share my one encounter with Louis Auchincloss some four years ago.

I had been a reader and fan of Louis Auchincloss for at least 40 years or so. It all started with Tales of Manhattan (1967), especially the story of the elderly New York gentleman who tried to revisit the scenes of his youth in 19th century New York only to discover a hole in the ground where his old haunt used to stand. I had the same feelings about Detroit, where I had grown up, when in 1962 they tore down the old City Hall, and much later on the Internet when I saw the deliberate implosion of the Hudson Department Store building where I had spent so many pleasant hours as a young boy.

I had developed a good file of Auchincloss's works, even including his very first book, The Indifferent Children (1947) in mint dust-jacket condition published under the name "Andrew Lee." But at a certain point I had not kept up and discovered that my holdings lacked a few decades to be complete. So I went out on the Internet and completed my collection down through the last preceding 20 years. Auchincloss had written or contributed to close to 60 books, divided into about 2/3 fiction and 1/3 critical writings. Faced once more with my love of and admiration for his writings I sat down and wrote him a long and detailed fan letter. My gratification was great when I received a reply and this exchange of letters, cards, and telephone calls continued. Eventually Louis Auchincloss (LA), when learning about an upcoming visit of mine to New York, was kind enough to invite me to join him for lunch during my time there and I was pleased to host the author whom I had so long admired. The lunch took place on October 6, 2005.

I looked for LA from in front of Petrossian's restaurant on 7th Avenue at 12:30 on the appointed day. I had called his number from inside the restaurant just to confirm that he was on his way. Since there was no answer I assumed everything was in order, and it was. I expected either a taxi or perhaps a private limousine. But no; I looked down 7th Avenue and there he was, strolling toward me in a relaxed yellow suit. When we met he said he had mistaken the street for 57th rather than 58th and had walked the missing block. He said he had been to Petrossian's a few times and knew it well. The restaurant was quietly elegant and favorable to conversation. We had a facing window seat, couch plus chair. I offered him the choice and he chose the chair. Our conversation switched between his works and those of George Bernard Shaw, my other literary admiration. A good many of the anecdotes below were told by LA during our post-luncheon walk to his uptown bus on Madison Avenue.

As might have been expected the cast of characters, most of whom he had known personally, included Henry James's nephew "Harry" James, Eleanor Robson Belmont, Jackie Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Moses, Edith Wharton, JP Morgan, Amelita Galli-Curci, Philip Roth, Elizabeth Janeway, Tom Wolfe, Clement Moore, Lorenzo Conegliano-daPonte, Dorothy Parker, and others. When I opened the conversation with my observations on Tales of Manhattan, with its hole-in-the-ground episode, he supplied a similar story about Henry James. James had returned to Boston after 20 years' absence in Europe and he too visited the site of an old haunt, two by-now anachronistic side-by-side brownstones, which, he was overjoyed to discover, were still standing amidst the ongoing development all around. Not long afterward he offered to show to a friend his old neighborhood but by the time the two arrived both buildings had in the interim already been razed to the ground.

We discussed book collections. He said that when the widow of Henry James's nephew was disposing of HJ's assets under the will she ill-advisedly sold his library to a local book dealer in England for $750. He, LA, said this was a mistake and offered her $1,000, even $2,000. But his superiors at the law office at which he was then employed discouraged this kind of trading and he had to desist. The widow insisted they were just general reading volumes. But it turned out that LA was right: HJ had been the recipient of signed volumes of all the works of his European colleagues and the book dealer made millions! LA was still full of the exasperation of 50 years ago as he told this story. I jumped when he mentioned knowing "Harry" James, thinking the conversation would now be concerned with trumpet playing. But no, "Harry" meant Henry James, the nephew of the author.

LA said he was once involved with editing a relative's old 19th-century diaries complete with many photos identified by dates corresponding to the diary entries. His editor for the project was none other than Jackie Kennedy, to whom he was related. LA said that Jackie's stepfather, Bouvier, was his father's first cousin. He praised Jackie's editorial skills highly even when she wanted to include a ballroom photo dated five years after the diaries. To his objections she said, "It will improve the book." And eventually he had to admit she was right and he was being too "editorial." He wouldn't vouch for Jackie's skills having been passed on to her late son and the latter's magazine, George. LA said it was outrageous that the deceased wife's family sued (successfully) the Kennedys for damages as a result of the plane crash since they, children and all, had insisted to go aboard the flight.

After the lunch had concluded we conversed while walking toward Madison Avenue where he intended to take an uptown bus towards his Park Avenue apartment near 70th Street. Just before he boarded his bus the subject became Eleanor Robson Belmont, the grand dame of the Metropolitan Opera whose voice we have on a cassette as part of the very first Texaco intermission feature from 1940. He had known her personally and said she died at age 100. He described her as an imposing lady and I described to him her earlier career as an actress and for whom Shaw had written the part of Major Barbara after having seen her acting in London and having fallen in love with her art. She couldn't accept Shaw's offer since she was on tour in San Francisco at the time of the MB premiere, and indeed never did act in a Shaw play. But in her autobiography, The Fabric of Memory (1957), she describes her one and only visit to Shaw post WWII in England. LA described her at a meeting of the directors of a charity event being organized at the Cloisters. After hearing enough of the boring details she insisted, "Well I hope the cocktails will be well taken care of."

During our walk we combined in conversation Thomas Jefferson and Robert Moses (December 18, 1888 - July 29, 1981). LA considered both having been such mixed bags of good and bad that it was hard to bring them into true focus. Having spent his university days at the University of Virginia, LA said he had been to Monticello dozens of times. I described to him our having a twin to the Jefferson piano, both having been made by the (George) Astor company of London. George was a relative of John Jacob Astor in New York; but his pianos, though manufactured in England, were not sold there. They had been strictly for export to the colonies.

Speaking of music and history, I presented LA at lunch with a gift of Musical NY (1999), a book that combined his specialty of NY history with musical developments there through the centuries. He had never seen the book and was quite pleased to get it. I also presented him with Vol. 1 of the Shaw collected prefaces and I could see him chuckling in appreciation as he browsed through the book. I inscribed both books to him. I called him and Shaw my two favorite authors and he expressed appreciation at being put on so equal a pedestal. He in turn inscribed the two of his books I had brought with me, the Collected Stories of LA (1994) and the mint copy of his very first book, with dust jacket, The Indifferent Children (1947) published under the nom de plume (or "nom de presse"), "Andrew Lee." He said his parents had insisted that novel writing would not be healthy for his law career so he had to publish under a name not his own. But all his subsequent writings, both fictional and critical, bore his true name, LA.

LA said he had known Robert Moses personally and remembered him visiting his, LA's, parents when LA was a youngster. In later years, in the service of his law company but already in his novel-writing phase, LA had to deliver Moses some documents for annotation and signature and was sure RM didn't remember him from his childhood. But on the contrary, when Moses had finished writing on the documents he handed them to LA saying, "I'm sure your writing will turn out to have been more important than mine."

LA described Edith Wharton's American home, The Mount, as having been restored at great expense and the efforts of a Paris book dealer to sell EW's Paris library to the Mount for $2,000,000. LA called this outrageously overpriced since her library was simply a general reader's library without any special personalization that could be duplicated by buying the books in trade at much less. And since she had spent so little time at The Mount and had written nothing of consequence there and the books had all been collected in Paris, the whole transference of the library to The Mount at such a high price was ridiculous.

But on a more important EW point he talked about a volume of poems that had been written by the 16-year-old Edith Wharton (then Edith Jones) at Newport and which her mother had gone out and had bound and published. When LA had to dispute the point with an EW biographer that EW's parents had been indifferent to her literary ambitions and pointed out the poetry volume, the biographer replied, "She did that just to humiliate Edith." Which LA took as another example of when an author has a bee in her bonnet she sticks to her story no matter how the facts contradict it.

Of this original EW publication only 11 copies exist, three of which are at Yale. When LA was in conversation with a possessor of another copy, very richly annotated by EW, as to whom should it be given, several possibilities were mooted, all of which were turned down by the possessor. After a few weeks she called LA on the phone and said, "The best person to receive this book would be you." So LA owned this rarity for many years. When he decided later to give it to the Morgan library (He described how his father and grandfather had been lawyers to JP Morgan.) he had no sooner hung up the phone with the director when a messenger from the library showed up at his door to claim the book personally. No chance for second thoughts; a very efficient director thought LA.

LA said that one of his great uncles had been a general manager at the Metropolitan Opera in the 19th century and he had made a short story out of him called The Wagnerians. This story appeared in his anthology from 1994, which he signed for me at lunch. His family had been involved with the Met ever since and he was an opera fan himself. (But no musicals; considering LA's interest in Jefferson I tried, though unsuccessfully, to interest him in the Broadway musical 1776.) Once he included the one-time celebrated soprano Amelita Galli-Curci (18 November 1882 - 26 November 1963) in one of his stories and got a lot of flack for the fact that the season he had her fictionally singing at the Met she hadn't actually appeared. But as a final result he got a letter from the long-retired Galli-Curci herself which said that she was grateful that anyone remembered her name at all and that such interest had been taken in the minutiae of her career. When they tore down the old Met he called them up as head of the Museum of the City of NY and successfully acquired an entire box for $1,000. So I described to him our acquisition of a rattan chair from one of the old boxes at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore when they remodeled that into an opera house.

I raised the topic of Philip Roth and LA told me the story that he was among a panel of three judges awarding the Pulitzer or some such equally prestigious prize. The other two judges were Philip Roth and Elizabeth Janeway. LA's assessment of six candidates in his favored order was countered by Roth's assessment putting the six choices in the exact opposite order. Thus, LA said, Elizabeth actually got to choose the winner. Philip insisted that his votes counted for more because he was "the most important writer." LA countered with, "We all think that about ourselves but we're not supposed to say it."

He reminisced about an old acquaintance, whose name I don't remember him having mentioned, who had been the great-great-grandson of Clement Moore (author of Twas the Night Before Christmas and friend of Da Ponte in New York in the early 19th century) and at the same time the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer. The acquaintance one day pulled his car onto the middle of the George Washington Bridge, stopped the car, and deliberately jumped to his death into the Hudson below. Lorenzo Da Ponte (10 March 1749 - 17 August 1838) had of course been Mozart's librettist in Vienna in the 1780s for that composer's most famous operas, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. But various European imbroglios had forced Da Ponte to flee to the New World and he spent the rest of his life in New York City, teaching Italian at Columbia College (later "University") and founding an Italian-language opera company.

LA told me that when he was head of the National Institute (later American Academy) of Arts and Letters he insisted that Tom Wolfe be recognized and be elected a member beside people like John Updike, etc., and that despite previous opposition to Wolfe he was indeed elected a member thanks to LA. And finally, when I mentioned my liking for Dorothy Parker's (August 22, 1893 - June 7, 1967) poetry, he said he had met her only once. It was at some kind of public discussion and she spoke so softly and unintelligibly he failed to understand a single word.

Some time later, at home in Texas, I opened a letter from LA. Imagine my gratification when I discovered that LA had sent me a sheaf of foolscap with his notes on it for his next novel. He said that this sort of material was rare since he usually destroyed his notes but seeing my interest he allowed me to possess a bit of Auchinclossiana. After a few years had gone by I wrote him again and asked him which of his recently published books the notes had been part of. He returned my letter to me with an annotated request. His last note to me said, "Send me a copy so I can tell you what it is." When I complete the Auchincloss collection down to the present I'll let my readers know which it was if I can ever decipher LA's hand-writing.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 22, 2010