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BOOK REVIEW 

The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman
by Leo Lerman, (Stephen Pascal, editor)  
Knopf

 

By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 6 AUGUST 2007— It has taken a long time, but here at last is The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman. For over forty years Leo Lerman (1914 – 1994) was an important figure in New York’s social-cultural scene , from his connection with Vanity Fair, Vogue, Playbill….For a first-generation American whose education never went beyond high school, he amazingly held his own among such figures as Lincoln Kirstein, Mina Curtiss (Kirstein’s sister), Diana and Lionel Trilling, and also such moneyed figures as the Newhouses and the Liebersons and the Chapins. A look at the guest lists for the parties that are included in the book range from Balanchine and Graham to Fonteyn and Nureyev along with Bruhn and Barishnikov, Merchant and Ivory, Al Hirschfeld, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas and on and on.

We learn about the sexual preferences of Aristotle Onassis – in which Jackie did not indulge. We encounter Herva Nelli who is now the cook of Jean Kennedy Smith in Venice. Gossip abounds, inevitable when dealing with Gore Vidal or Truman Capote, while at the same time we marvel about the ups and downs of the author’s lengthy life in common with his partner, Gray Foy. During the war years and after Lerman was friendly with many of the expatriates who found shelter in New York, one of whom was – presumably – one of Toscanini’s girlfriends.

One of my favorite people in these diaries is Mina Kirstein Curtiss, who possessed a gift of generosity that few have recognized. Older sister of Lincoln Kirstein, she recounted some of her experiences in Other People’s Letters, ostensibly dealing with her discovery of some of Proust’s correspondence and incidentally that of Georges Bizet which escaped the bonfires of the composer’s widow, eager to preserve the sacred image of her husband. But there is much more, equally worth reading (copies may still be found through Amazon).

But that is digressing. Lerman was at the intellectual, theatrical and social crossroads of New York, knowing everyone whether he liked them or not. Some of his critical comments on the cultural scene may seem dated, but others are spot on; he more often than not got it right the first time around. Whatever your background, The Grand Surprise fills in gaps with respect to gay life in New York from the late 1930s, to the life of the many Austro-German expatriates who ended up in New York in the 1940s, taking on brighter hues as the decades advance and the figures become more familiar to us.

The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman
by Leo Lerman,  (Stephen Pascal, editor)

Knopf (April 2007)
Hardcover: 688 pages
ISBN-10: 1400044391
ISBN-13: 978-1400044399
$37.50

Joel Kasow is a senior editor and member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com

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