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Bibliolatry: opinions from a very independent bookseller

 
no. 6   

Natural Blonde
Your Price $25.95
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Another Life
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Who was it that called gossip "halitosis of the mind?" Whoever, they must have been watching too much reality-based TV. It's a shame when a normal curiosity about other people's lives degenerates into such a noxious parade of vapid bimbos and boorish beefcake as displayed recently on Temptation Island, but it's hardly surprising; anything human can (and will) be perverted. And there are few inclinations as unquestionably human as the desire to reveal and revel in the private (and preferably unseemly) details of other people's lives.

But at its best, gossip is an uplifting and ennobling endeavor. Okay, I'm kidding. The natural human appetite to peer into other's backyards, though, can surely find a better satisfaction than the crude display of vacuous narcissism of Survivor I, II, and (cringing in advance!) III. Talking trash doesn't have to be trashy. But what can you do with odious Richard Hatch for a subject? It's impossible to make fine wine from sour grapes, no? Just so, a worthy gossip, like a va-va-voom vamp, must have something provocative to throw around before anyone worth their salt will pay attention. (And, of course, we've all seen what Mr. Hatch has got. Best he kept his clothes on.)

As with any art, to understand how it's done, it's best to study a master. And it just so happens that the "Grande Dame of Dish" herself, Liz Smith, recently released her memoirs, Natural Blonde. Liz Smith is the world's most prominent gossip columnist because 1) she knows Everyone and 2) Everyone likes her. Most celebrities would rather have their secrets told by someone they trust than some unscrupulous tabloid; so for forty years everyone from Liz Taylor to Frank Sinatra to Madonna has been confiding in her.

Natural Blonde is, of course, ostensibly Smith's account of her own remarkable life. But wisely she never forgets that her readers aren't so much interested in her as in the stories she has to tell about the people she's met. Here is Tallulah Bankhead "playing hostess in an old worn pair of gray flannel slacks that made her look as if she'd been hit in the ass with a shovel;" Helen Gurley Brown, "the shockingly dirty-minded ex-secretary and ad copywriter;" Truman Capote, who served Smith and John Berendt "a large fishbowl" of cocaine before snatching it up, saying, "No, it's too good for the likes of you;" Liz's biggest fan, Madonna, who "[loves] Liz Smith because she has balls, like me;" and many, many more.

But though Liz Smith is the world's most successful and respected gossip, for my taste I prefer Michael Korda's slightly higher brow Another Life: A Memoir of Other People. Korda is a bestselling novelist in his own right, so he understands well how to shape an entertaining story. And, like Liz Smith, he has known a remarkable number of supremely famous people. Korda is editor and chief of Simon & Schuster, and, therefore, one of the most prominent figures in the publishing world. But as his subtitle implies, Korda doesn't dwell too much on himself. This marvelous, breezy book is an endless procession of entertaining stories about the people who have shaped and recorded the last several decades of our cultural and political history. Here, for example, is Korda's account of the time he was invited to dinner at former president Richard Nixon's house:
Most of the rooms had a certain formal, unlived-in quality, rather like an expensive hotel suite or, more to the point, the White House. The unlived-in feeling apparently extended to Nixon: He didn't seem familiar with the layout of the house himself. At one point, he opened a closet door, apparently thinking that it was the door to his study, then slammed it shut hastily, with a muttered oath. Like people lost in a museum, we circled aimlessly...
By coincidence, Korda also spent a fair amount of time with Ronald Reagan, whose memoirs he edited. His anecdotes about this baffling and, at times, childlike man add an interesting footnote to our understanding of one of the most powerful men in recent history. But as a prominent New York editor, Korda was more a witness to our cultural than our political history, and it's his entertaining and revealing anecdotes about the many important literary writers he has known that make Another Life such a compelling, not to mention entertaining, book. Take as an example the following account of a prominent awards dinner he attended in honor of his friend Tennessee Williams. After much adoring fanfare, the time came for the guest of honor to speak:
With unfeigned shyness he stayed in his seat while everybody else – except the woman sitting next to him – rose to their feet applauding and calling for him to speak. Tennessee blushed modestly and finally rose to his feet, swaying slightly. He waved for silence, and, as the room grew still, he leaned toward the microphone. In his musical Southern drawl, enunciating very slowly, even hesitantly, but by no means quietly, he said: "I would like to introduce you all to mah beloved sister, Rose…" He paused to indicate the small woman seated beside him, who seemed to be totally unaware of the fact that he was talking about her. Tennessee smiled down at her, his expression full of sympathy but somehow puckish. He took a deep breath and went on: "…who had the first pre-frontal lobotomy in the state of Alabama."

With that, he sat down, still smiling benevolently. The room remained hushed while everybody contemplated this bombshell. Rose herself smiled on, as vacantly as ever, while the rest of us waited for Tennessee to say something – anything – else. But he did not.

A lady from the National Arts Club seated next to me gave a loud, disapproving snort. "I told everybody we should have given the award to Arthur Miller," she said angrily. "At least he'd have made a decent acceptance speech."

÷÷÷

Perhaps gossip can best be compared to the art of mixology. Like gossip, a quality cocktail must be mixed by someone who knows what they're doing; it can only be as good as its cheapest ingredient; it goes well with a cigarette; and, in quite a few cases, a cherry figures prominently.

But if cosmopolitan Liz Smith is a champagne cocktail at El Morocco and sophisticated Michael Korda a single malt at the Stork Club, the vulgar display of reality-based TV is a beer bong at a frat party. At the time, it may have the desired effect, but in the years to come, it will only be remembered with nausea.

—Carlisle

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