Wednesday, September 02, 2015

`Long Before I Had Drugs'

A reader passed along a formerly well-known crack from Oscar Levant (1906-1972), a formerly well-known pianist, actor and wit: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” Humor is mortally rooted in time and place, and perishable as watercress, as is most pop culture. Americans my age would get the Doris Day reference. Not so for young people, though some might appreciate the wit even without knowing Day’s reputation for Hollywood wholesomeness. She was “America’s Sweetheart.” Levant, too, is forgotten, though even at the height of his fame (c. 1945-1965) he was an unlikely celebrity. Friend to George Gershwin, student of Arnold Schoenberg, co-star with the likes of Gene Kelly and Joan Crawford, Levant was a drug-addled mess who built a career on being a funny neurotic. I remember seeing him as a guest on Jack Parr’s talk show and liking his mordancy and charmless charm. My parents disapproved, which added to his luster. He was also a modestly gifted writer and author of three memoirs worth reading once -- A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965) and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968). Imagine a celebrity today writing this:

“Long before I had drugs, my real boosters were books. I thought it was I alone who discovered Ivy Compton-Burnett. I read about six books by this excellent English novelist and then talked loftily about her to Lesley Blanch, who at one time was the editor of Vogue in London. She informed me that Ivy Compton-Burnett was indeed known by others and that she, in fact, had done a whole layout on her. Thereupon I lost interest in her as a discovery but continued my admiration. Her novels are written almost entirely in dialogue—so brilliant that it makes T.S. Eliot sound like Johnny Carson.”

This is from Chapter 7 of The Unimportance of Being Oscar, an account of the writers he had admired or met. Levant is an Olympic-class namedropper, who, in one chapter, gifts us with Truman Capote, Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, Eric Ambler, Kenneth Tynan, Elaine Dundy, Hemingway, Clifton Fadiman, Virgil Thomson, Aldous Huxley, Robert Lowell (“he reminded me of a Gentile Clifford Odets”) and others he met. He notes, winningly: “My own opinion is that Pound is a great poet, all right, but not a great man if you happen to be a Jew.” Levant isn’t shy about dropping the names of the dead: “The two great writers who have never let me down over the years are Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde. They always manage to brighten my life with something new, full of flavor, and to the point.” At various times in his life, Levant enjoyed reading Ambrose Bierce, Stendhal, Thomas Carlyle and Booth Tarkington. He writes:

“In my youth, I read all the good Russian authors such as Feodor Dostoevski, Leo Tolstoi, Anton Chekhov, and Ivan Turgenev. Youth is the period when they should be read. After I passed that age in life, I was never able to stand their morbid attitude about existence.”

This sound suspiciously like Bill Clinton touting the charms of Marcus Aurelius (“he was deeply spiritual and understood that life required balance”). Except for Dostoevsky, there is nothing morbid about the Russian writers Levant mentions. He may have read them but he resorts to a boilerplate cliché about the gloomy depths of the Slavic soul. His taste is often dubious (Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy), but then he surprises us:

“Another enthusiasm of mine—and a personal revelation—were the books with one-word titles (Loving, Nothing, etc.) of Henry Green, the pseudonym of the Birmingham businessman-author [Henry Yorke]. I read them in 1952 when I was convalescing from my heart attack and found them brilliantly amusing.”

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