Sunday, June 29, 2014

133. Ree Dragonette and Anais Nïn: Two Remarkable Women

Ree Dragonette

     Short, lean, almost gnomelike, her hair cut short with a lock hanging down her forehead over her sharp features, she could be friendly, humorous, gossipy (she loved gossip, repeated it with relish), let astrology influence her friendships, had a way of focusing attention on herself.  Her poetry was hard, chiseled, concise, studded with original and striking imagery, never expansive, never effusive.  When I told her that none of mine was inspired by a personal relationship, she marveled, noting that every poem of hers was rooted in just such a relationship.  I respected her as a poet but couldn’t decipher her poetry.  Consider for instance the opening lines of her volume Parable of the Fixed Stars (Allograph Press, 1968), of which she gave me an autographed copy:

Curtained with rain,
unsolved as is the verb to be;
nonvolatized and forbidden:
leafless at consummation of here and now.

as with growing ferns.

Neither you nor I heavy,
on the anterior premise of wind;
or agile down turnpikes of passion.

     Fresh language without a hint of cliché, but where, oh where, is the feeling?  I sense a true poet at work but am baffled by what results.  A love poem, presumably, but who, what, where are the lovers?  Leafing through the volume, I am impressed by the novel use of words, often scientific and technical, and by the images, but always the meaning teases and then eludes me.  Certainly I agree with Anaïs Nin (more of her anon), who is quoted in the blurb: “New imagery.  Interesting fusion of old myths with new symbolism taken from science.  A modern poet – adventurous, original.”  Exactly what I would have said, if pressed for a quote, while stifling my reservations.  And yet, the moment she took the stage and began reading her poems, they came alive and drilled right into you, and she registered as a commanding presence, a driving force.  Which is why a mutual friend of hers and mine acknowledges that today she is being forgotten; without her dynamic presence to project it, her poetry on the printed page doesn’t really work.  Perhaps for some, but not for him or for me.

     Yet back in the 1960s, when I knew her, Ree Dragonette was well known in avant-garde literary circles, and beyond.  She read her poems in poetry workshops, bookstores, and Greenwich Village coffee houses, on college campuses, and on radio stations like WBAI, and was the recipient of the 1960 Village Voice Poetry Award.  She appeared in poetry and jazz concerts with various groups, was published in a number of literary magazines, and conducted a poetry workshop at Greenwich House, located then in the West Village, where it offered social services and cultural programs. 

     I met Ree through my friend Vernon, also a poet, and read with her once at Greenwich House, and on other occasions heard her read.  Always interested in combining poetry with music or dance, she once gave a reading while a dancer performed simultaneously, her movements careful synchronized with Ree’s  poetry.  An adventurous undertaking, but for me it didn’t work: you’re going to focus on either the dancing or the poetry, but not both.  This was likewise my reaction when I heard a poet in San Francisco read to jazz; either the poetry eclipses the jazz or, more likely, the jazz eclipses the poetry.

     Who was she and where was she from?  There is almost nothing about her online, not even a photograph, apart from information about her printed works and the jazz groups she read with; the woman herself eludes me.  She was born Rita Marie Dragonetti in 1918 in Philadelphia to an Italian immigrant family and was writing poetry by age seven.  At some point, whether in Philadelphia or New York, she married an Italian-American with Mafia connections named Consiglia who became the father of her children.  According to Vernon, who must have got it from Ree, she found him beaten up in a gutter, the result of some Mafia falling out, and took him in and nursed him back to health. 

     When I knew Ree in the 1960s she lived with three teen-age children in an apartment just north of West 14th Street, though they had lived at other addresses in the West Village before that and would later live in Westbeth, the West Village artists’ residence.  The eldest child, Juanita, was closest to her mother.  Of the two younger sons, John and Ralph, one (I forget which) was taking his high school work seriously, while the other was already a dropout and drifter who, as Vernon put it, had “a rich street life.”  There was no sign of the husband, nor did I ever hear her mention him, though they were evidently still in touch. 

     Ree and Juanita took astrology seriously.  When they learned my birth date, they assured me, an astrology ignoramus, that Libra on the cusp of Scorpio was about as good as you could get.  (I can’t say that my life then or since gives evidence of it, but no matter.)  And when Ree was one of a panel of interviewers on a new TV show in the planning stages, she explained her antipathy to one of the interviewees in terms of their opposed astrological signs.  I saw the first episode of the show at her apartment, and her antipathy, masked by a steely reserve, wasn’t hard to detect.  The show never really took off, one reason being that it was supposed to be oriented toward the interviewees, whereas Ree wanted it oriented toward the interviewers in general and herself in particular.  She couldn’t help it; it was just in the nature of things – her things – that she should be the center of attention.

     She often had anecdotes about other literati.  Attending a reading once by the Dominican monk Brother Antoninus, an acclaimed San Francisco poet, she was puzzled and annoyed to see him glance at the audience, then pace up and down on the stage, as if deciding whether or not to acknowledge the presence of these intruders.  “Oh, come on!” she exclaimed loudly, though I don’t recall if any kind of personal exchange followed; but he did finally read to the audience.

     Vigorously opposed to the Vietnam War, she met other activists, among them the poet Robert Lowell, whom she esteemed highly for participating in protests.  On one occasion he announced to others of the intelligentsia, “It’s time we gave this little lady the recognition she deserves!”  A nice sentiment, the sort of thing poets say of one another, but nothing came of it; storming the Pentagon probably monopolized his attention.

     I lost touch with Ree for a while, being preoccupied with things other than the rarefied world of poetry, and some years later Vernon told me he had met her by chance on the street.  She confided in him that she had a tumor on her breast and was scared sick – too scared to go see a doctor.  He urged her to do so, and when he informed me of this, I announced with great concern that by delaying she had probably signed her own death warrant.  She died, presumably of cancer, in 1979.  Her children still live in the city.  A remarkable woman, a cultural live wire in her time, even if mostly forgotten today.

Anaïs Nin

     Unlike Ree Dragonette, author Anaïs Nin (last name pronounced neen) is well remembered and well recorded today, so I shall chiefly give my personal impressions of her.  Born in France in 1903 to a Spanish-Cuban father who was a pianist and composer, and a mother of French and Danish descent who was a singer, she grew up in Europe and then came to New York with her mother.  Though she wrote novels, essays, short stories, and even erotica, she is best known for her voluminous journals, which cover her life from age 11 until close to her death.  Prominent in the journals is an account of her relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June in Paris in the early 1930s, and a merry threesome it was, with her passionately and sexually involved with the husband, while feeling an attraction to the wife as well.

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The Anaïs Nin I knew.
Elsa Dorfman
     I met Anaïs Nin in 1968 through Ree Dragonette, who sponsored an informal talk by Nin in the Village and then invited the audience to accompany them to a nearby restaurant for coffee and further discussion.  Then in her mid-sixties, Nin was petite, birdlike, and exquisitely feminine. She had dark hair and was carefully made up with dark, arching eyebrows and mascara-outlined eyes, and spoke softly with a high, thin voice.  Of her talk I remember just two details.  First, she defined poetry as being quintessential, which describes Ree’s poetry perfectly, though hardly Milton’s or Whitman’s.  And she told how years before, when her banker husband opposed her publishing her writing, she was so depressed that she went walking along a railroad track, planning to throw herself under a train, a suicidal attempt that failed because she had never been able to read a railroad timetable and therefore had no idea when a train would be coming.

     En route to the restaurant afterward I told Nin that I had done my dissertation on the French poet André Breton, the founder and arbiter of Surrealism.  This kindled her interest, for she had known Breton and the Surrealists in Paris in the 1930s.  When we reached the restaurant, she and I continued our conversation, sublimely unaware of the others who, as I remember, kept their distance as we chatted on.  She asked me if I didn’t think that Breton, fierce ideologue and vigilant gatekeeper of the movement who decided who was in and who was out, hadn’t in the end been a limiting influence on Surrealism, and I heartily agreed.  He inspired, but he also judged and excluded, which his why those banished from the movement decried him as the pope of Surrealism, flic and curé (cop and priest).  Though I’ve always been one to steer clear of celebrities, including literary ones, I was completely at ease with her and she with me; if she was already a literary icon difficult of access, as some would have it, I, a total innocent, was unaware of it.

     The result: a few days later she phoned to invite me to a party that she and her husband were giving in their apartment; surprised, I was delighted to accept.  When I saw Ree shortly after that and told her of the invitation, she announced, “Yes, my dear, we’ll all be there!”  (Of our mutual acquaintances, the “all” really included just me and herself.)  I went in jacket and tie, because in those days that’s how one dressed for cultural events, except in hippie circles, and this was definitely not an excursion into hippiedom. 

     She lived in a spacious apartment in the New York University apartment complex on the edge of the West Village, an easy walk from my own digs on Jane Street.  There was a mix of guests there, including Ree, and I met Nin’s husband, Ian Hugo.  I remember chatting briefly with many people but can’t recall anything of interest, which suggests that neither they nor I were effusing brilliance.  But I did inform Nin that I now considered her my white witch.

     “Any color will do,” she replied with a smile.

     “Oh no,” I insisted, “it was to be white.  Black witches are evil, white witches are benign.  You are certainly benign.”

     (Here a personal aside is in order.  The year 1968, a year of riotous student protests and a turbulent presidential election, was a signal year for me personally, especially the spring, since, almost simultaneously, I quit teaching once and for all, met Anaïs Nin, and also met my longtime partner, Bob.  The coincidence of the first two explains my proclaiming Nin my benign white witch, capable of white, as opposed to black, magic.  As for quitting teaching, for me, usually a prudent bourgeois, it was a rather bold move, since I had no immediate prospects of a job and planned to devote my time to playwriting, an absurdly futile commitment that requires acerbic comment on some other occasion.  My friend Ken, also a teacher, gently pronounced my move immature and foolish, but since Ken himself hated, loathed, and detested teaching, his pronouncement weighed lightly on my psyche.)

     The high point of the evening came when the lights were lowered and Ian Hugo showed a brief film of his own making, quite plotless, being mostly a succession of cityscapes with juxtapositions of signs and scenes.  Some of the juxtapositions were so deliciously absurd that I often felt an impulse to laugh, but no titters, no sounds of blatant merriment, were forthcoming from the rest of the audience.  Afterward I mentioned my reaction to Hugo, wondering if it was appropriate; he was delighted that at least one person present “got” it, since the juxtapositions were definitely meant to amuse.

     Ree’s reaction to the evening, I soon learned, was seasoned with annoyance since, while the film was showing, one of the older gentlemen present had made unwelcome physical advances in the darkness.  Her reaction to Anaïs Nin was likewise mixed, even critical.  They were recent acquaintances, and Nin was apparently quite taken with her.  During a recent visit to Nin in her apartment, Nin had exclaimed, “If only I had known you earlier!”  She said this with a glance at the open door to her bedroom, which Ree found a bit off-putting.  Personally, I can see how Nin, who had something of the fragile doll about her, might have been attracted to Ree, a decidedly dominant personality. 

      Ree’s later final comment on Nin was decisive: “She doesn’t have the soul that Marguerite Young has” – a comment that I thought needlessly judgmental.  Marguerite Young, another West Village resident and a friend of both Ree and Nin, had catapulted into fame of a kind in 1965 with the publication of her 1198-page novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling, 18 years in the writing.  A publicity photograph of her hugging the hefty manuscript had convinced me that I didn’t have to read it, nor was I the only one.  Nin proclaimed it “an epic American novel written in a poetic style,” but reviews were more negative than not, and the New York Times would later proclaim it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”  Still, it developed a cult following, and Young became known as a colorful Village eccentric, walking its streets in a serape, getting drunk with Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern, amassing a huge collection of dolls in her Bleecker Street apartment, and claiming to encounter Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Henry James, and other deceased literary luminaries on misty nights in the Village.  If mental flights are an indication of soul, Marguerite Young had plenty of it.

     I showed some of my poems to Anaïs Nin, who called them “subtle” and in exchange sent me a paperback copy of her novel A Spy in the House of Love (a title that I find catchy).  After that we drifted apart.  That was probably inevitable, since there was no chance of a closer relationship.

     Only now, in researching this post, did I learn that in 1955 she had acquired a second husband, Rupert Pole, 16 years her junior, without bothering to divorce Ian Hugo (real name Hugh Guiler) or even inform him: a bit of duplicity requiring two checkbooks, one for Anaïs Guiler in New York and one for Anaïs Pole in Los Angeles, and a “lie box” in which she kept a written record of her many lies, so she could keep them straight.  Her marriage with Ian Hugo was obviously an open one, but in 1966 she had her marriage with Pole annulled, because of legal complications from both husbands claiming her as a dependent on their federal tax returns.  Though she never broke with Ian Hugo, she spent her final years with Pole and named him as her literary executor.  She died of cancer in Los Angeles in 1977 and was cremated, and her ashes scattered over Santa Monica Bay. 

Not the Anaïs Nin I knew.

     Of all these marital adventures (and the nonmarital ones as well), and the lush eroticism in the journals published later, I was totally unaware when I knew her, and I doubt if Ree knew much of it either.  For me, she was simply an accomplished writer, deep, sensitive, wonderfully feminine.  And why do we know so much about her today?  Because she, like André Gide, was a diarist, and diarists are notorious tattle-tales about both themselves and others.

     Yes, Anaïs Nin, now hailed as a liberated woman and sexual pioneer by feminists, was certainly a remarkable woman.

     A note on trivia:  Waiting to pay for the Times at my neighborhood deli, I discovered three products, displayed conspicuously on the counter, that I had never noticed before: HI CHEW, FIVE-HOUR ENERGY, and DREAM WATER.  There are three of our most vital needs attended to: the need to chew, the need for energy, and the need to dream.  And right there at my deli.  Marvelous.

This is New York

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     Coming soon:  Our Crumbling Infrastructure, or, Where Can I Vacation?

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, June 22, 2014

132. Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Rudolph Valentino: Famous New York Deaths

     The last post on famous deaths in New York (#126) focused on famous women celebrities of Hollywood who lived for a while and died here, so this one will have a look at some of the men.  And quite a bunch they are!  Though never much concerned about celebrities, I can’t deny that they exert a certain fascination when you look at the later stage of their careers, discover their vulnerabilities, and see them through to the end.

Yul Brynner

     We knew him above all as the brilliant but demanding and supremely virile King of Siam in the long-running Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, in which he gave 4,625 performances over the course of 30 years, fusing so completely with the character that we couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.  And his dynamic presence proved that one could be both completely bald and sexy, a notion that gave hope to multitudes of aging males the world over.  But who was he and where did he come from?

     He was born Yuliy Borisovich Briner, allegedly on Sakhalin Island off the coast of Siberia to a Mongolian mining engineer and his Romanian gypsy bride.  Yes, it sounds like the plot of a nineteenth-century operetta  and has since been debunked, for he loved to shroud his origins in mystery.    He was born in Vladivostok to a Swiss-Russian mining engineer and a Russian Jewish mother, the daughter of a doctor, though his paternal grandmother was partly of Mongol ancestry.  Early in his career he sang gypsy songs, but there is no hard evidence that he had gypsy blood. 

     Yul Brynner gave his birth date at various times as 1915, 1917, 1920, or 1922, so we won’t pursue that further.  His father left his mother for another woman, so Yul spent his childhood with his mother in Manchuria and then in Paris, where he dropped out of an exclusive lycée to become a circus acrobat, then a singer and guitarist and actor.  Coming to the U.S. in 1940 with minimal English, he  landed an acting role with a touring company and appeared on Broadway.  His screen test for Universal Pictures in 1947 brought a rejection for looking “too Oriental.”  Then, in 1951, his exotic features with intense eyes and high cheekbones helped him get the role of the King in The King and I, for which he shaved his head, and the rest is history.

woman kneeling in front of a standing man; the two are conversing and each is gesturing with one hand as if ringing a small bell
With Gertrude Lawrence in The King and I (1951).

    I won’t dwell on his superstar career in film, usually bald but occasionally in a wig (the wigs didn’t work; we wanted him bald), or his four marriages, or his long affair with (among others) Marlene Dietrich, 19 years his senior, interesting as all that may be.  Or his renouncing his U.S. citizenship in 1965 to avoid bankruptcy because of tax and penalty debts.  More to the point of this post, he had begun smoking heavily at age 12.  He quit smoking in 1971, but appeared with a cigarette in publicity photos after that, and was found to have inoperable lung cancer in 1983.  The radiation therapy that followed hurt his throat and his ability to speak and sing, but after a few months he was able to resume touring as the King.

     In January 1985 the tour reached New York for a farewell Broadway run, as he knew that he was dying.  In an interview on Good Morning America he discussed the dangers of smoking and said he would like to make an anti-smoking commercial.  He died of lung cancer in a New York hospital on October 10, 1985.  A few days later he appeared on all the major U.S. TV networks in a public service announcement sponsored by the American Cancer Society and declared, “Now that I’m gone, I tell you: Don’t smoke.  Whatever you do, just don’t smoke.  If I could take back that smoking, we wouldn’t be talking about any cancer.  I’m convinced of that.”  No question, he went out with style.  He was cremated and his ashes were buried in France.

Montgomery Clift

Clift, Montgomery.jpg     Born in Omaha in 1920, Montgomery Clift came to New York with his family in the 1930s and first appeared on Broadway at age 15.  His mother managed his acting career even after he became an adult, and supervised his dating of girls as well.  He studied at the Actors Studio and continued his stage career in New York for 10 years, rejecting many Hollywood offers before finally yielding.  In Hollywood he appeared in many films while rejecting many others, and by the 1950s was one of the most sought-after leading men in film, rivaled only by Marlon Brando.  It didn’t hurt that he was remarkably good-looking, not in an exotic way like Brynner, but in a classical Wasp sort of way in the somewhat androgynous vein of Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power.  But he had much more than looks, getting deep into his roles and projecting inner strength, anguish, and sensitivity.

     I saw Clift playing opposite Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress (1949), which was based on a play based in turn on Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880), whose psychological subtleties were well captured on both stage and screen.  I have always considered it one of the most flawless films of all time, and am now surprised to learn that Clift, a brooding Method actor, had differences with most of the cast and criticized de Havilland’s performance, which I thought brilliant and convincing.  By now he had a large female following, so de Havilland got a host of angry letters for rejecting the Clift character in the final scene – a rejection that is totally justified and constitutes her bitter revenge for his having deserted her years before.

     Another triumph for Clift was A Place in the Sun (1951), where he played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in a story based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel An American Tragedy, whose final pages, showing the male protagonist in prison awaiting execution, are, as I can testify, riveting.  To prepare himself for those closing scenes, Clift spent a night in a real state prison.  The movie was a great success, and Clift and Taylor were hailed as the most beautiful couple in Hollywood.  They became, in fact, close friends.

     Clift was unpopular among the film industry elite for refusing to publicize his private life, attend premieres and parties, or give interviews.  And for good reason: he was gay.  Feeling guilty about his sexuality, he made every effort to conceal it, and the studios saw to it that his friendships with women celebrities like Taylor were well publicized.  When in New York he made discreet forays to the gay meccas of Ogunquit, Maine, and Fire Island, but concealed his sexuality even from close friends.  So it was in America in those days.

     His life changed drastically in 1956 when, leaving a dinner party at the Beverly Hills home of his friend Elizabeth Taylor and her second husband, he drove down a twisting mountain road and smashed his car into a telephone pole.  Hearing of the accident from another departing guest, Taylor rushed to the scene, found the car a total wreck and its doors jammed, crawled in through the rear window, hauled herself over the bloody seat, found him lying motionless beneath the steering wheel, pulled him up onto the seat, cradled his head in her lap, and extracted two teeth from his tongue to keep him from choking and so may well have saved his life.  When an ambulance and photographers finally arrived, she shielded him from the photographers and forbade them to photograph his bloodied face.  Clift was then rushed to a hospital for an immediate operation.  He had suffered a broken jaw and nose, and several facial wounds that required plastic surgery.  He had the best plastic surgery then available, but his looks were altered, especially the left side of his face, which was partially paralyzed.  Still, audiences flocked to see his films, so as to compare “pre-crash” and “post-crash” Monty.

     Clift never recovered physically or emotionally from the accident.  Already relying on alcohol and pills for relief from an earlier ailment, he became obsessed with drugs, had long talks about them with his pharmacist, became alcoholic, staged tantrums in restaurants and on film sets, and often  stayed secluded in his bedroom with the blinds drawn for days.  He still made films, but when he costarred in The Misfits with Marilyn Monroe in 1961, she described him as “the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am.”  Few were the directors now willing to cast him in a film.  Playing a mentally impaired victim of Nazi sterilization in a brief scene in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), he struggled to remember his lines, until the director told him to improvise, which he did successfully.

In Judgment at Nuremberg.

     After that he came back to New York, where he had bought a four-story townhouse at 217 East 61st Street in 1960.  Living with him was his personal secretary and companion, Lorenzo James.  At 1 a.m. on July 23, 1966, James went up to say goodnight to Clift, who was still awake and sitting up in his bed.  Clift said he didn’t need anything, would stay up a while longer to read or watch TV.  When James asked if Clift wanted him to watch The Misfits on television with him, Clift replied emphatically, “Absolutely not!”  James then went to his own bedroom and went to bed.

     Rising at 6:30 a.m., James went to awaken Clift, but found his bedroom door closed and locked.  He knocked, got no answer.  Alarmed and unable to force the door open, he ran down to the back garden, climbed up a ladder to the second floor, and entered Clift’s bedroom through a window.  He found Clift in his bed, undressed, lying on his back, eyeglasses on, fists clenched, dead.  James phoned the police at once.  An autopsy at the city morgue attributed Clift’s death to a heart attack brought on by coronary artery disease, but found no evidence of homicide or suicide.  Drug addiction may have led to his death, but there were other health problems as well, including an underactive thyroid that might have made him seem drugged or drunk when sober.  Clift was buried in the Quaker Cemetery in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Rudolph Valentino

     Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguolia in Italy in 1895, he can hardly be blamed for shortening his name to Rudolph Valentino.  His mother was French, his father Italian, a veterinarian who died when he was 11.  Reportedly a spoiled and troublesome child, he did poorly in school, managed to get a degree from an  agricultural school in Genoa, and in 1913, unable to get employment in Italy, came to the U.S.  In New York he found odd jobs such as busboy in restaurants and gardener, then even as a taxi dancer.  In 1917, when a woman friend, an heiress with whom he may or may not have had a relationship, fatally shot her ex-husband, he feared being called as a witness and abruptly left town with a traveling musical that took him to the West Coast. 

     Valentino finally ended up in Los Angeles, where he taught dancing, developing a doting older female clientele who let him borrow their luxury cars.  Then he began applying for screen roles, got bit parts as “heavies,” became dissatisfied with these roles, and returned to New York, where he thought of settling permanently.  But then, nudged by an influential screenwriter, Metro Picture’s New York office hired him for a lead role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a silent film epic that became  a spectacular box-office success, and history was made.  In the film Valentino plays a young Argentine who with a partner dances a spectacular tango, then later joins the French army, fights heroically against the Germans, and dies in battle.  Overnight Valentino, ex-busboy and taxi dancer, became a star, the quintessential Latin lover, mysterious and forbidden, virile yet sensitive, who provoked in women sighs, flutters, quivers, and tingles.  “Women are not in love with me but with the picture of me on the screen,” he later observed.  “I am merely the canvas upon which the women paint their dreams.”  He became all the rage, and so did gaucho pants and the tango. 


In Four Horsemen.

     Valentino’s next success was The Sheik (also 1921), which grossed over a million dollars in ticket sales, confirmed Valentino’s image as a male sex symbol, and made him an international superstar.  More films followed, not all of them commercial successes, and there were squabbles with his studios and financial ups and downs.  An unconsummated first marriage with a lesbian ended in divorce, and a second marriage brought a charge of bigamy, since he hadn’t been divorced from his first wife for a full year; in time a legal marriage followed, to likewise end bitterly in divorce.

     Was Valentino gay?  In his lifetime the question never came up, though male filmgoers found him unmanly and preferred Douglas Fairbanks; women, however, found him triumphantly seductive, compared to whom the average husband or sweetheart seemed tame.  When his masculinity was challenged in print, Valentino would challenge the accuser to a boxing match, since dueling was illegal; one such match actually took place, and Valentino won.  Boxing heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, who had trained Valentino in boxing, said the actor was decidedly virile, a lucky guy to whom women were drawn like flies to a honeypot.  The consensus today is that he was definitely heterosexual.

     On  August 15, 1926, while in New York to attend the premiere of his latest film, Valentino collapsed in the Hotel Ambassador.  Rushed to a hospital, he was diagnosed with appendicitis and gastric ulcers; surgery followed, but he developed peritonitis, inflammation of the inner wall of the abdomen.  His doctors gave an optimistic report to the media, but on August 21 he developed severe pleuritis in his left lung.  Though the doctors now knew he couldn’t recover, they let their patient think otherwise.  Early on August 23 he chatted briefly with them about his future, then lapsed in a coma and died a few hours later, at age 31.

     The news was a thunderbolt to the public.  Some 10,000 people lined the streets outside the Campbell Funeral Home at Broadway and 66th Street, waiting to view the coffin.  Suicides of fans were reported, and windows were smashed as mourners tried to enter the funeral home, followed on August 24 by an all-day riot.  All available police reserves were called out to restore order.

     Inside the funeral home, the drama was even more intense.  Polish-born film star Pola Negri, who claimed that she and Valentino were gong to be wed, collapsed in hysterics at the coffin.  Four Fascist Blackshirts, an honor guard supposedly sent by Mussolini, turned out to be actors hired by the funeral home, and rumors circulated that the body on display was a decoy, which the funeral home vigorously denied.

     On August 30 a funeral mass was held at Saint Malachy’s Roman Catholic Church on West 49th Street, following which the body was sent by rail to California, where a second funeral was held in Beverly Hills.  He is buried in a crypt in a mausoleum of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (no, I didn’t make that name up, honest).  His time of glory had been only five years, but he was the first international male film superstar and is remembered as such today.

     But that’s not the end of the Valentino story, for Hollywood legends don’t die easily.  For many years a heavily veiled Lady in Black was seen coming to his grave on the anniversary of his death to silently leave a single red rose.  It has been said that this was a publicity stunt devised by a Hollywood press agent.  But in 1947 a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced flay-may) plausibly claimed the honor, saying Valentino had visited her in a hospital when she was deathly ill at age 14, bringing her a red rose and assuring her that she would outlive him by many years.  Other Ladies in Black, sometimes throngs of them, have also appeared at the grave, and a fan of Valentino’s continues the tradition to this day, while others leave quantities of roses there as well.


     Valentino’s legacy?  Most notably, in 1930 the Sheik condoms appeared, another tradition that persists to this day; any pharmacy and many a deli has them.

This is New York

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Joe Mabel

     Coming soon:  Two more remarkable women, both of them Villagers, and both of whom I knew: Ree Dragonette and Anaïs Nin. 

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder

Sunday, June 15, 2014

131. Ayn Rand, High Priestess of Egoism

Half-length monochrome portrait photo of Ayn Rand, seated, holding a cigarette     When I told my friend John that I was going to do a post on Ayn Rand, he immediately denounced her “hideous right-wing ideology” that opposed government intervention and would let corporations do whatever they wanted.  Yes, she is controversial; if you know anything about her, you either love her or hate her.  But you don’t have to love her, or even like her or agree with her, to call her remarkable; the force of her ideas is enough.  In announcing a series of posts on Remarkable Women, I promised some luscious subjects.  But Ayn Rand is not luscious.  “Luscious” suggests ripe fruit, sweet and succulent, with an enticing aroma that makes you want to gobble.  That is not Ayn Rand.  Her personality and her ideas are lean, hard, angular, and dry.  But they have left their mark.


     She was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosebaum in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, to Jewish parents.  Her father, a successful pharmacist, was an agnostic, her mother only nominally observant.  She taught herself to read at six, was writing from an early age.  The Russian Revolution occurred when she was twelve, inaugurating what she would later call “the stifling, sordid ugliness of Soviet Russia.”  Already harboring notions of heroism and individualism, she knew that this was no place for her, and when, in the early 1920s, she saw American movies with shots of the city of New York, this alien city with clusters of tall buildings “seemed completely incredible.”  From then on, America beckoned.

     In 1926 she left, ostensibly to visit relatives in Chicago and study the film industry, so she could return and work in that same industry in Russia, but really with no intention of ever returning to the land of Soviet collectivism.  Here in the citadel of capitalism – indeed, in the joyous tumult of the Roaring Twenties – Ayn Rand (such she now christened herself, to protect her family back in Russia) found work in Hollywood as an extra, then a screenwriter and a clerk in wardrobe.  But these Hollywood years were a mere prelude to her glory years in the Empire City, though they saw her marry a handsome actor named Frank O’Connor and, in 1931, become a U.S. citizen.

     In 1934 she and her husband moved to New York City, to which she had always felt drawn.  There she had a play produced on Broadway, and a novel published, only to go soon out of print.  Promising beginnings, but beginnings only.  Then, significantly, she began work on The Fountainhead, the novel that would, in time, bring her recognition and success.

The Fountainhead

TheFountainhead.jpg     Published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1943, after twelve other publishers rejected it, The Fountainhead, which the author would later describe as a mere overture to Atlas Shrugged, is, as overtures go, a pretty hefty bit of work; in my paperback edition it runs to 694 pages, and believe me, those pages have small print.  But if one is going to read her – perhaps, as I did, to learn what all the hullaballoo is about – this is the place to begin.  I will only give a brief, rough sketch of it here, since to do otherwise would swell this post to epic proportions.

     Based in part on Frank Lloyd Wright, Howard Roark, the architect hero, has an inner vision of his trade that goes against the mainstream ideas of his time.  Expelled from his architecture school because of his nonconformist attitude, he in time opens a firm of his own in New York and slowly, in spite of slander against him, finds the rare clients who appreciate his talent and hire him for significant projects.  When he finds that the design of one of his buildings has been altered in his absence, he dynamites the building.  At the trial that follows, Roark speaks eloquently of the value of ego and the need to remain true to oneself, and the jury acquits him.  He triumphs in the end, and even gets the girl in the story.  The novel’s title comes from Roark’s statement that “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.”

     By way of contrast Peter Keating, another aspiring architect, wins initial success by catering to the wishes of others and conforming to the beliefs of the establishment.  His ruthless ambition causes him to manipulate and abuse others; unlike Roark, he has no true inner vision, no strong, determining self.  In the end he fails, knows himself to be utterly mediocre.

     The Fountainhead pits egoism, guided by mind, against what Rand calls “second-handers,” those who are guided by the opinions of others.  It is the egoists like Roark who do, think, and produce; the world will be far better off if it lets them do their thing.  Roark is her first literary portrait of the ideal man (her heroes are always men), the creative egoist.

     I won’t deny that the novel – all 694 pages of it – is a good read, if one has a stomach for long and complicated stories, with characters who are literary abstractions rather than portraits of real flesh-and-blood people.  Rand always portrays ideal types, with all the simplifications required.  Her heroes are rarely stricken with self-doubt, any more than she herself was; they hold true through thick and thin.  But if you want powerful ideas powerfully expressed, and writing that makes you think, then Ayn Rand is the author for you.

     The Fountainhead received mixed reviews.  The New York Times reviewer called it “masterful,” whereas another reviewer declared that “anyone who is taken in by it deserves a stern lecture on paper-rationing.”  Offensive to some was a scene where Roark forces himself sexually on the woman he eventually marries, Dominique.  Feminists have called Rand a traitor to her sex in making her women characters subservient to men, though Rand denied that the scene in question involved true rape, insisting that it was “rape by engraved invitation,” since Dominique really wanted it to happen.  Be that as it may, the novel sold well and by 1945 was on the New York Times bestseller list, and it continues to sell well today.  In 1949 the film The Fountainhead was released, starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal; inevitably, Rand disliked it.

     And today?  Here is a sampling of reader reviews from Goodreads, the world’s largest website for readers and their book reviews.  These are not the complete reviews, just brief selections from them.

·      Ultimately it's easy to see in novels like this one why Rand is so perfect for late teenagers, but why she elicits eye rolls by one's mid-twenties; because Objectivism [Rand’s philosophy] is all about BEING RIGHT, and DROPPING OUT IF OTHERS CAN'T UNDERSTAND THAT, and LET 'EM ALL GO TO HELL AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED, without ever taking into account the unending amount of compromise and cooperation and sometimes sheer altruism that actually makes the world work. Recommended, but with a caveat; that you read it before you're old enough to know better.
·      I'm far from a Rand worshipper. I can't get onboard with her whole way of life, from the personal to the political level. I will say, though, that I think her attitudes, when applied to the creative arts, are important.
·      As literature, I found the book dry, predictable, and overwrought. As philosophy, I found it circular, wholly unfounded, and completely contradicting reality.
·      This book is a big epiphany-getter in American high school and college students. It presents a theme of pure, fierce dedication to honing yourself into a hard blade of competence and accomplishment, brooking no compromise, ignoring and dismissing the weak, untalented rabble and naysayers as you charge forth to seize your destiny. You are an "Army of One". There is undeniable sophomoric allure to this pitch.

Obviously, the novel is still being read, and taken seriously enough to be praised – within limits – or reviled.  Of how many books published in 1943 can you say that today?

Atlas Shrugged

     Who was the author who was now achieving eminence?  She was only 5 feet 4 in height, but to my eye, judging by the many photos of her, a handsome woman in a mannish sort of way, devoid of frills and flounces.  She kept her brown hair cut short, framing her face, as if long hair down to the shoulders would have been too feminine, too loose and free, too sensual.  She spoke with a Russian accent and had dark, penetrating eyes that lit up whenever conversation turned to philosophy.  Prizing mind and its workings over everything, she gave little attention to clothes, wore ready-to-wear outfits or casual ones thrown quickly together.

     Believing strongly in her own ideas, she was not one to tolerate fools, a category that for her included just about anyone who disagreed with her.  Ideas were to be either passionately embraced or rejected with scorn; there was no middle way.  Which explains why she exhibited extremes of joy and anger, and why even favorable reviews of her work were apt to displease her; few were those who, in her opinion, truly understood what she was trying to say.

     Those who have read The Fountainhead are inclined to feel that they have climbed a mountain.  But in the context of Rand’s oeuvre, The Fountainhead is a hillock; Atlas Shrugged is the Matterhorn.  Or maybe Mount Everest.  And brave are those who venture on its slopes.

AtlasShrugged.jpg     The basic idea of this magnum opus (1,069 pages in my paperback edition) is simple:  What would happen if all the truly creative people went on strike against a collectivist and overregulated society that refuses to recognize their worth?  What if, one by one, they vanished mysteriously into a remote valley in the Rocky Mountains, leaving society to the would-be altruists, to the bureaucrats and bumblers?  The answer, of course, is that the industries they run would collapse, followed by the government.  And so it comes about in this novel.  At the end John Galt, the leader of the strike, announces that he and the other exiles will now reorganize the world. 

     This, of course, is the barest outline of the plot.  When I read it – yes, all the way to the bitter end – I made a list of no less than 29 recurring characters in an attempt to keep them all straight.  Need I add that in my opinion the book is grossly overwritten, stating and restating its ideas time after time.  When, near the end, John Galt delivers a long radio broadcast to expound the author’s theme and philosophy – some 40 pages in this later edition, reduced from the original 70 – I skipped it entirely and didn’t miss a thing.

     The title comes from a passage in the novel when one character asks another what he would say to Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if he saw him with blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling, but still trying to hold up the world, which bears down on him heavier all the time.  When the second character doesn’t know, he asks the questioner what he himself would tell Atlas.  The answer: “To shrug.”  Presumably, the creative people in the novel are the atlases of this world, and by going on strike they shrug off the weight of the world.

     The world that Rand describes in her novel, while set at an unspecified time, may seem quaint today, in that it reflects a society where railroads, industry, and radio are prominent.  I don’t blame her if she didn’t anticipate the growing importance of air travel and television, much less computers and the Internet.  But her story is both anachronistic and timeless.  Once again, but more comprehensively, she expresses through her characters the concept of ethical egoism, of rational selfishness, whereby human reason functions as humanity’s basic tool of survival.  There is much else in the novel as well, but I can't discuss it all here.

     Atlas Shrugged was on the New York Times bestseller list for 22 consecutive weeks, but it was assailed by critics generally.  Catholics and religious conservatives detested its atheism and egoism, while liberals denounced the glorification of laissez-faire capitalism.  “An homage to greed,” “shot through with hatred,” “sophomoric,” and “godless” were among the verdicts pronounced.  And just about every critic dismissed it as blatant propaganda.  But her allies counterattacked, and the book kept right on selling.

     Again, let’s see what recent Goodreads reviews have to say:

·      Ayn Rand makes my eyes hurt. She does this, not by the length of her six hundred thousand word diatribe, but rather by the frequency with which she causes me to roll them.
·      This book really makes you take a good hard look at yourself and your behavior, which is why I think a lot of people don't like this book. It's a lecture and most people don't like to get lectured. I loved it. It gave me a good swift kick in the ass.
·      As Ayn Rand's immortal opus, Atlas Shrugged, stands as a tome to a philosophy that is relevant today as it was in her time. Basically, the major moral theme is that there are two types of people in the world: the Creators and the Leeches.
·      The best way to understand Rand's message in this book is to simply close it, and beat yourself over the head with it as hard as possible. This is essentially what Rand does throughout its ridiculous length.
Obviously, readers continue to either love her work or hate it.

The Cult

     In 1951 Ayn Rand and her husband moved permanently to New York, where they lived for many years at 36 East 36th Street.  New York was the city she had longed for ever since seeing glimpses of it in American movies in the 1920s, yet she never really got to know it.  She never traipsed its sidewalks, talked to its residents, or immersed herself in its diversity.  Her New York was an abstraction, a place where she could vent her ideas, and where her fictional characters could interact and show her philosophy in action.  Her writing and her ideas preoccupied her; the juicy, gritty, real New York did not.

     What did interest her in the 1950s were the enthusiastic letters she received from young people who had read The Fountainhead.  Often she would invite them to come to New York and meet her, and in this way she soon gathered around her a select group of admirers whom she invited to weekly meetings in her apartment to discuss her ideas and hear selections from Atlas Shrugged as she worked on it.  This inner circle she christened, with a touch of irony, “the Collective.”  They were her social life; the vast society outside these confines she ignored, convinced that most of it would be hostile to her ideas. 

     Inevitably, perhaps, in 1954 one of the young male acolytes was conscripted to be consort to Genius, the Genius being Ayn Rand.  The chosen one was Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, who, like Rand, was married, but the relationship developed with the knowledge and reluctant consent of their respective spouses.  This was known to the inner circle, but not to her other followers.  With Rand’s editorial assistance, Branden gave a lecture on her philosophy of Objectivism in 1958, and in 1962 established the Nathaniel Branden Institute, Inc. (NBI) to offer courses on Objectivism and related topics taught by members of the Collective. 

     With the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Rand felt that she had fully expressed herself in fiction and from then on devoted herself to further expounding and promoting Objectivism.  Stated briefly and in the simplest terms possible, Objectivism believes that reality exists independent of the consciousness of those perceiving it.  It is a real and tangible hard fact, and not the projection of our mind.  Beyond what we perceive, reason is our only source of knowledge, our guide to action, and our means of survival.  To survive, we must think.  And our survival depends not on altruism but on rational self-interest.  Objectivism embraces laissez-faire capitalism, insisting that the only justified role of government is to protect our individual rights; beyond that, it should keep hands off.

     Throughout the 1960s Rand promoted her philosophy through public and private speeches, TV and radio appearances (especially on WBAI), and in a series of essays.  Slowly she found a wider audience and was invited to participate in forums and symposiums.  Yet the intellectual establishment never accepted her, calling her philosophy an ideology, her novels “philosophical soapboxes,” her ideas “simplistic,” and her personality “authoritarian.”  But the public kept on buying her books.

     By the late 1960s NBI was a flourishing organization, offering courses in 80 cities that were attended by thousands.  But by now Branden’s sexual interest had evidently (if you’ll pardon the expression) petered out and, separated from his wife, he was in love with a younger woman.  But  disengaging oneself from Ayn Rand was not easy, since her needs were fierce.  Fearing Rand’s explosive anger, Branden and his estranged wife kept his new involvement secret from her, but in time she learned of it.  Intellectual and business issues now compounded their differences as well, and in 1968 their association ended not with a whimper but a bang.  In the May issue of her monthly periodical, The Objectivist, Rand broke publicly with Branden, accusing him of a series of deceptions, including his failure to practice the philosophy – hers, of course – that he was teaching his students, as well as unresolved psychological problems.  He countered with a lengthy letter to the NBI mailing list denying her numerous accusations and attributing her denunciations to his unwillingness to engage further in a romantic relationship with her.  This break, shocking to many of her followers, put an end to NBI, which Branden dissolved.  He and others later denounced the NBI for intellectual conformity and excessive reverence for Rand.

     Rand was still active in the 1970s and was even invited twice to the Ford White House, but in 1974, after decades of heavy smoking, she was diagnosed with lung cancer, and surgery to remove part of one lung left her in a weakened condition.  Despite initial objections, this vehement foe of government intervention allowed herself to be enrolled for Social Security and Medicare.  Meanwhile Frank O’Connor also required medical care and her constant attention.  In these last years she listened to music, watched TV, and collected stamps, but her preferred recreation was still discussing philosophy with friends who came to her apartment, now at 120 East 34th Street. 

     In 1979 Frank O’Connor died, ending their fifty-year marriage; for a while she was plunged into the depths of depression.  Invited to address a monetary conference in New Orleans in November 1981, at age 76 she went in a private rail car, assailed businessmen who financed universities advocating the destruction of capitalism, then announced that she was writing a TV adaptation of Atlas Shrugged that she would produce herself.  At this surprise announcement the audience rose in a body and cheered.

      Returning from New Orleans, she fell sick and continued ailing throughout December.  In January 1982 she was hospitalized with pulmonary problems, then returned to her apartment and died there on March 6, 1982.  Eight hundred people waited in line to enter the funeral home where she lay in state, with a six-foot floral dollar sign by the coffin.  She was buried beside her husband in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.

File:Ayn Rand Marker.jpg


     The Passion of Ayn Rand, the first full-length biography of Ayn Rand, was written by Barbara Branden, the former wife of Nathaniel Branden; published in 1986, it revealed Rand’s affair with Branden.  It received positive reviews and was made into a film of the same name in 1999.

Ayn Rand Institute.jpg     Rand’s books have continued to be widely sold and read both in the U.S. and abroad.  In 1991 a Book of the Month Club survey asked club members to name the most influential book in their life; no. 1 was the Bible, and no. 2 Atlas Shrugged.  It doesn’t hurt that the Ayn Rand Institute, founded in 1985 to promote her philosophy and works, donates 400,000 copies every year to Advanced Placement high school programs.  The Institute is the keeper of the flame, and in those hallowed precincts the flame burns bright.

     Several prominent businessmen have told how Rand’s ideas had a positive influence on them in their early years, and one of the first Collective members, Alan Greenspan, served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006; in a 2010 interview he reaffirmed his faith in laissez-faire capitalism.  In 2009 her name and John Galt’s appeared on signs at Tea Party protests.  To this day she is controversial, provoking much praise and blame.  Chances are she always will be, and that would no doubt suit her fine.

A 2009 Tea Party demonstration in Chicago.  The face of the
man holding the sign has been effaced to protect his identity.


     I have known only one person who proclaimed herself a follower of Ayn Rand, a lesbian librarian of my partner Bob’s acquaintance who was surely not typical of Rand’s followers.  Evelyn was so taken with her mentor that she donated generously from her modest salary to the Ayn Rand Institute.  Like Rand, she was a secular Jew, hard, lean, angular, and dry, and very intelligent.  Unlike Rand, who had little time for the arts, she was a great appreciator of Rubinstein playing Chopin, and had a collection of Austrian bronzes, figurines of animals delicately wrought.  But if Rand was capable of explosive anger, Evelyn showed no feelings whatsoever; she was all mind.  She pushed this to the point that she never, to my knowledge, uttered the words “please,” “thank you,” or “excuse me”; such amenities would have been a surrender, a needless betrayal of … of what?  Of mind?  Of self-possession?  Of integrity?  A strange woman, fascinating in her way, combining keen intellect with a total lack of warmth.  A tight fist that refused to open.

     Ayn Rand appeals especially to people who are adrift and in need of guidance.  For them, it is vastly reassuring to encounter a guide so confident, so possessed of ideas and principles that she pronounces with vigor and clarity, an authority who speaks without hesitation or doubt.  Which is why she appeals to young people … for a while.

     I admire Ayn Rand from a distance, for she knew who she was and what she believed in, expressed herself clearly, and left her mark.  If I have never been tempted even momentarily to fall under her spell, I attribute it to certain aspects of her personality:

·      Total self-assurance, not a smidgen of self-doubt.
·      No ambiguity, no irony, without which I couldn’t begin to cope with the world I live in.
·      No sense of humor, none.
·      The delicious fact that, ardent foe of government intervention though she was, in the end she let herself be enrolled for Social Security and Medicare.

     High Priestess of Enlightened Egoism, flayer of altruism, Atlas of the Mind who never shrugged off the world but stayed to lecture, chastise, and correct it, may she rest in peace.

This is New York

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Rod Waddington

         Coming soon:  Famous New York Deaths: Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Rudolph Valentino.  (Did Brynner really have Mongol and gypsy blood?  Did  Elizabeth Taylor save Clift's life?  Was Valentino gay?  Who was the Woman in Black who every year put a red rose on his grave?  All shall be made clear.)  In the offing: How Great Cities and Great Nations Decline.  And two more Remarkable Women: Ree Dragonette and Anais Nin.

     ©  2014  Clifford Browder