Saturday, May 26, 2007

Humor as a Verb

Growing up, I always remembered the image at the top of this post as a familiar sight in the library of my mother’s sister’s home. It was a print about 11” x 14”, and I didn’t know the name of the original painting or the artist. Years later I would discover that was the work of John Koch whose 1964 painting “The Sculptor” would become a favorite in my high school years and a key to his world.

The painting above “The Cocktail Party” from 1956 features a number of famous heads that would eventually become familiar to me as I grew up, including Virgil Thompson and Koch himself attending bar. I came to love Koch’s work that often juxtaposed ornately appointed Upper East Side residences with frankly nude bodies or commissioned portraits of his wealthy clientele and peers.

How fitting, then, that over this long weekend I’ve been devouring The Grand Surprise, the journals, letters and random musings of Leo Lerman who is the bearded man crouching in the foreground. It’s filled with tons of dishy, bitchy gossip. A few excerpts:

“Andy Warhol more wraith than ever – the badly complected boy who never grew up, but became craftier and craftier, filling with a slow-seeming cunning and a positive-seeming cunning and a positive destruction – lighting up like a tallow candle whose flame burns dimly within the candle rather than atop it. He lights shallow, surface places hitherto hidden.”

“Faye Dunaway – very Okie – albino in atmosphere. She has determination. Her technique shows like some girls’ slips or brassiere straps.”

There are plenty of nasty accounts of sexual couplings and groupings of all combinations, but they don’t equal the pithy dissing such as these.

In many ways it’s like entering the cocktail party illustrated by Koch half a century ago, a world I longed to enter as a child with my aunt as a guide. She was fond of such gatherings, or – as she tended to put it -- “fancied putting on an affair.” She used quite a number of words as verbs in a way that most people in the heartland never would. She also would often tell me, “Might I be so bold as to suggest…” or “Oh, humor me, if you will.”

At the time I thought she meant that she wanted me to make her laugh. Of course the actual definition of that word as a verb is: To comply with the wishes or ideas of (another): cater, gratify, indulge. Reading the accounts of Lerman and his circle that included Capote, Vidal and other gay men of a particular era reminds me of the women from a certain class who needed a mascot or jester to humor them in that definition of the word. The lap dog homos were deluding into thinking they were expected to perform some giggle inducing stunt or utter a pithy witticism.

My aunt deluded herself into thinking that she was the caliber of swan that should attract a similar circle of younger men who would admire and exalt her with unfailing good humor.

Ever since her suicide this past Christmas, I’ve struggled with trying to write about her legacy intertwined with my own self-perception and our relationship which was simultaneously close and distant, cold but intense, filled with contempt and mutual admiration. She introduced me to Scott Walker, Poulenc, Proust and John Koch. She would excite and devastate me in the course of a weekend visit to her tastefully appointed home. She felt it her role to instruct and insult me, always with disquieting calmness. She embodied one of my favorite quotes from David Mamet: “The greatest test of superiority is to never be upset by impertinence.” Thus she never raised her voice or exhibited any emotion beneath her elegant mask, and she uttered the most devastating dismissals with an exquisitely graceful smile.

Reading Lerman’s book feels like a portal into the world she deluded herself and me into believing that we might someday be a part of. Much like Capote’s mother Nina, she longed to be a part of the Park Avenue registry, a goal she strove through upwardly mobile serial marriages. When, late in her career, she briefly put a ring on her finger that took her to that world – albeit a few doors down on Lexington Avenue – it ultimately proved to be a disappointment when she was not the focus of the spotlight. She was a nobody in the 10028 zip code. It was much easier to attract admirers as a swan in the shallow waters of Kansas City.

This Memorial Day, my thoughts go back to those years when I tried to humor her and the futility of indulging and attempting to gratify someone whose approval is ultimately the empty space at the end of a maze of ornately appointed rooms.

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At 10:35 PM, Blogger Scot said...

There's so much here I don't even know where to start. Those salons and events have an ethereal glow and appeal to me, but I thin kthey will always elude me. That's ok. My semi formal dinners for friends or my crass get togethers work out just fine: sometimes more Sandra Lee than Martha Stewart.
I enjoyed this post, this tangent to tangent that brought us full circle. Thanks.

At 10:46 PM, Blogger Junk Thief said...

Thanks, Scot. Glad this struck a chord since sometimes I'm not sure folks read the more "serious" posts here. But I'll probably keep posting a mix of stuff since I've always thought a blog should be like a meal with a range of flavors and a few flowing spirits.

I've been in a few of those salons but have always known I was an outsider. In the meantime I'll keep trying to build my own. I'm sure yours would put martha to shame. And, hey, she came from the wrong side of Jersey, not the Hamptons!


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