Personal History

One of my pastimes of the long, depressing spring (which was, sadly, not nearly as depressing as this summer is turning out to be) was to read, for the first time, Katharine Graham’s rightfully acclaimed memoir, Personal History. While reading it, Barbara Bush died. At the same time, accolades and admiration continued for The Crown and praise for the House of Windsor continued in the lead-up to the Royal wedding.

I thought about Graham, Bush, and the British Royal Family a lot as a consequence. In this moment of political turmoil, it’s interesting to turn back to these conservative figures who embodied (and continue to embody) the meaning of conservatism: the desire to preserve the culture of the past.

No feminist at first, Graham was slow to come into her own power. She was slow even to realize the damaging and dangerous hold her charismatic but mentally unstable husband had over her. Raised to imagine herself a wife and helpmeet, she continually describes her content at being one. Even when her women friends take her aside and fête her because they worry that her husband puts her down too much, she professes herself astonished at this observation, one she claims to have been new to her. Yet, in her husband’s final illness and then, after he committed suicide, she realized how profoundly committed she was to the success of The Washington Post. The rest, you probably know: Watergate, bravery, friendship with Warren Buffet, the Black and White Ball (she was the honoree), a long and prosperous old age.

When I was young, people talked about these figures, these stately women who slowly rose to authority, with derision. The cool ones were the men on Harleys, the women who ran away. I love rebels, too, but it makes sense to me now that when we talk about Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson, it’s not as a precursors the sexual revolution, but as spoiled fascists whose abdication was not merely the abdication of a stupid formality but the abdication of adult responsibility. It might indeed be a new kind of awful to be born so privileged that your future was set forward for you—as a monarch, as the publisher of a newspaper, as the bearer of your family’s name and legacy. But I think it makes sense that in this moment, when almost no one bears that kind of burden, we are interested anew in the people, maybe even particularly the women, who accept that mantle with all its limitations and all its possibilities.

Rosamond Bernier!!

I won’t have the order of this quite right, but I know that I have Rosamond Bernier’s not-to-be-missed memoir on my shelves because Emma Straub, Lauren Cerand, and my father were all raving about it.

But then, in another mood, I hesitated to read a book about a fabulously wealthy woman—it seemed trivial, out of key with my own struggles and with the work I was trying to do.

Of course, moods change, and this summer with no Dalloway deadlines, I thought I might dip into something light. (As you can see, from what’s been appearing here, it’s been fairly light fare all month.)

Born to a wealthy family (her mother was English and died when Bernier was quite young, her father, an American Jew), Bernier grew up in and around the Philadelphia Orchestra. She dropped out of college to marry Lewis Riley, Jr. She lived with him in Mexico City where she became acquainted with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Malcolm Lowry. Her musicianship and acquaintance with composers, conductors, and artists, set her on her amazing life path, from features editor for American Vogue to founding editor of L’OEIL to esteemed lecturer on fine arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Bernier writes affectionately of her brief first marriage and with tremendous, joyous wonder of her happy, third marriage to the art critic John Russell. The second husband is only mentioned as the source of complications. It’s a kind of social death for him through very controlled, polite restraint. Curious and sad, but not to be dwelt on when there is so much joy and genius all around her and she is so generous and funny about it.

Bernier is clearly the kind of woman to whom amazing, exciting things happen. The striking cover photo of her in a lovely satin slip, lounging in a four-poster bed came about one night when she couldn’t find any lodging in rural France one night in 1947—nothing, until the man she had come to interview offered her the chance to spend the night in Madame de Sevigné’s bed.

The book is beautifully written and full of amazing anecdotes—stories of what Picasso said to her, what Lenny Bernstein did for her, what she made of Jane and Paul Bowles, how Frida Kahlo probably liked her because she had a pet monkey.

The anecdotes of the famous are great and, when you read it, you’ll have your own favorites, but I keep thinking about a simpler and perhaps even more amzing story: her first husband had a small airplane (it’s nice to be rich) and taught her to fly. She writes that she has a terrible sense of direction, but flying in Acapulco was easy: she would just take off and fly along the coast until she found a beach that she liked the look of and land there for a day of swimming and bathing.

That world is gone, and perhaps that’s to the good. But I suspect the spirit of the young woman who seized that chance to explore is what made her such a trusted confidante of so many of the great artists of the past century.

A delight.

Penelope Fitzgerald

Earlier this week, I met up with a friend and we went to a Penelope Fitzgerald event at Columbia. Lots of old people in attendance, but some young ones and it was really lovely to hear Hermione Lee talk about her new biography which is getting rave reviews. I bought The Blue Flower but not the biography (I've purchased about 10 books this last week and need to draw the line...).

Still, a fascinating life and I'm sure very well told. 

At University, she was expected to be a huge success and was nicknamed "Penny from Heaven." During the war she fell in love with & married an Irish charmer, Desmond Fitzgerald. He was damaged by war & took to drink. They had four children. She lived on a barge and taught at a crammer's school for kids trying to get in to Oxbridge. One day, the barge sank and the children came home from school to find their toys floating on the Thames. Fitzgerald was unusually late and "scatty" in class that day, "Sorry I'm late. My house sank," she said.

Three novelists--Alexander Chee, Ellis Avery, and Margot Livesey--each read their favorite passage. That, too, was lovely & relaxing & nice. 

Ellis taught at Fordham briefly and when my colleague Mimi Lamb died, I inherited Mimi's copy of Ellis's first book, a mediation on 9/11. It was nice to tell her so at the event.

After the event, I said hello to Hermione Lee. I told her I was a Woolf scholar and that many years ago I'd given her a ride from a campus in rural New Hampshire to a tiny NH airport, in the fog, on winding roads--"Oh! That was AWFUL! And someone had just died in a small plane crash. And I never went to a Woolf Conference again. I was Woolf'ed out."

We laughed.