A man of letters reflects on lives of famous and forgotten
Robert Gottlieb’s “Lives and Letters’’ is, in a sense, a collaborative work. Other authors provide the lives, biographies, mainly, of the famous or forgotten, and Gottlieb provides the letters, mostly in the form of book reviews that open wide, one after another, into richly varied, authoritative essays. Their original landing places attest to their thinking-man’s heft and the casual elegance of their style: The New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker, where Gottlieb replaced the legendary William Shawn as editor in 1987.
Having headed up two formidable cultural institutions, The New Yorker and the Alfred A. Knopf publishing house, Gottlieb is a fairly formidable cultural institution himself. When he passes judgment, we are inclined to listen. Befitting a man of letters, some of the essays meditate on literary figures and questions that attracted Gottlieb’s curiosity. In one he examines the unlikely author-editor collaboration between Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Maxwell Perkins; in another he ponders how the “wildly uneven’’ works of John Steinbeck have all managed to stay in print.
The crowd-pleasing portion of the collection is provided by Gottlieb’s critical reflections on biographies, many featuring celebrities who soared through life, egos ablaze. Discussing books about prima donnas as diverse as Margot Fonteyn and Judy Garland, Gottlieb is genteelly shocked by salacious revelations he considers an invasion of privacy, though not too shocked to give examples.
A number of the biographies, by happy coincidence, allow Gottlieb to flash his credentials not just as a man of letters but as a man about town. He briskly dismantles A. Scott Berg’s “odd and unsettling’’ biography of Katharine Hepburn from his insider’s perch as an acquaintance of both Berg and Hepburn, among other featured players. He contemptuously dismisses film critic Richard Schickel’s book on Elia Kazan (“If this kind of inflated writing and specious argument appears to you to be serious and effective criticism, then Schickel’s book is the book for you’’). Gottlieb vastly prefers Kazan’s own memoir, which he happens to have edited.
The collection finds corners and compartments to accommodate Bing Crosby, Rudyard Kipling, Judith Krantz, Lillian Gish, all six Mitford sisters. (Gottlieb knew one of the Mitfords. He knew Lillian Gish, too. And he went to school with Judith Krantz.) One entertaining piece features the duchess of Windsor’s louche playmate Jimmy Donahue. Combining life and letters in one intriguingly tacky package, another examines tell-alls about convicted murderer Scott Peterson, a case that escaped Gottlieb’s notice while it was monopolizing the tabloids. The literary ingredient? Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy’’ (along with the baroque Hollywood adaptation, “A Place in the Sun’’) offered Gottlieb an entrée into the mind of the California wife-killer before abandoning him there feeling somewhat soiled.
Gottlieb closes the book with two essays that showcase his personal involvement with two of New York’s most eccentric and beloved cultural jewels. In “My New York City Ballet,’’ he recalls how, with no background in dance or, more crucially, in fund-raising, he was appointed to the board of the City Ballet by the company’s cofounder Lincoln Kirstein, one of the omnipresent Gottlieb’s authors. And in “Ms. Adler, The New Yorker, and Me,’’ he demolishes Renata Adler’s “tirade’’ (“her intelligence has been undermined by her resentments and warped by her agenda’’) on the decline of the iconic magazine post-William Shawn which is to say, under Gottlieb. It’s a fascinating glimpse of sibling rivalry at the venerable literary mom-and-pop shop, a thundering closing statement in which lives and letters come full circle.
Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at email@example.com.