Man About Town
Leo knew everyone, everyone knew Leo.
Aug 13, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 45 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The Grand Surprise
There is an old joke about a man named Sam, who knew everyone and was known by everyone, so that, Easter morning, on St. Peter's Square, when Sam appears on the balcony of the Vatican, a number of people in the crowd are heard to murmur, "Who's the guy in the white yarmulke with Sam?"
For nearly 50 years a writer and editor for various Cond Nast and other slick magazines, Leo Lerman was a lot like Sam. Born in 1914, Lerman was a New Yorker by spirit, temperament, and outlook. He was also unabashedly Jewish, gay, and very smart. Such was his glittering web of acquaintance that one could almost say that, if you lived in Manhattan between 1940 and 1994, and Leo Lerman didn't know you, you have to consider the possibility that you were not worth knowing.
The great frustration of Leo Lerman's life was a long-planned but never executed great book, a Proustian chronicle of his life and times. Lerman was a devoted admirer of Proust, and thought himself well positioned to be the American Marcel Proust. Off on one journalistic project or another-â€"he was, briefly, the second editor-in-chief of the revived Vanity Fair, between the original editor, a man named Richard Locke, and Tina Brown--and with endless social engagements intervening, Lerman really hadn't the sitzfleish, or bottom patience, to sit down to the composition of this book, which was at first to be a novel, then an extensive memoir, then an autobiography, and ended being nowhere near a reality.
Lerman did make a number of abortive runs at writing his phantom book. He was also the keeper of a journal, in the form of many notebooks filled with gossip and introspection, found after his death. In these notebooks he chronicled the lives of the talented, with a special eye toward their character, not excluding their foibles. Now, through the good and patient work of Stephen Pascal, for many years Lerman's assistant at Cond Nast, the bits of Lerman's uncompleted memoir, many items from his journal, and parts of his correspondence, the book Leo Lerman longed to write has now come into the world in a form its author would never have imagined. The title The Grand Surprise is taken from the second name of the Camberwell Beauty, a rare and exotic butterfly, lepidoptery being a boyhood love of Lerman's. The title is a good one, its point being that Leo Lerman's days were given over to the endless pursuit of another grand surprise, this one in the form of the perfect social life.
"Among New York's movers and markers of art," Stephen Pascal writes in his Introduction, "Leo Lerman grew legendary as a man who knew everyone and had seen everything. For fifty years, it seemed he attended every debut, opening, and vernissage in the city and had the crowd at his place to celebrate afterward."
Many of the usual suspects were among his guests: Truman Capote, Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers, Virgil Thomson, Anais Nin, Katherine Anne Porter, the Trillings, Diana and Lionel, the Bernsteins, Leonard and Felicia, and several others. His circle of friends and acquaintances was also highly Europeanized, and included Marlene Dietrich, George Balanchine, Maria Callas, No l Coward, Margot Fonteyn, and Gertrude Lawrence.
Bald early, heavyset (weight was always a problem), wearing a beard because of a serious car accident that scarred the bottom part his face and left him with serious health problems as he grew older, Lerman in midlife resembled the Henry James whom others have described as looking like a sea captain. Perfectly at ease with his homosexuality, his Jewishness, his autodidactical education (he went to Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York, where he trained to become a stage-manager, though he always read widely and with taste and penetration), he seemed altogether at ease in the world of high fashion, performing arts, visual art, and smart journalism.
Lerman lived with two men during his adult life, both painters, the second, a man named Gray Foy, who is alive today. His partners tended to do the heavy lifting of organizing his domestic life, while he paid the brunt of the expenses and brought in the great names for his famous parties. Those portions of his book that take up the emotional complications of his relationships with these two men are the dullest parts of The Grand Surprise. What is of much greater interest is, in Stephen Pascal's words, Lerman's continuous pursuit of "powerful beauty, performance, and character through a long life." Lerman died at 80.