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Bohemian Rhapsody

A backward look at the Manhattan hipster life.

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By ANN MARLOWE
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Art and Madness
A Memoir of Lust Without Reason
by Anne Roiphe
Nan A. Talese, 240 pp., $24.95

Leonard Bernstein, George Plimpton, 1968

Leonard Bernstein, George Plimpton, 1968

Bettmann / Corbis

Seventy-five-year-old Anne Roiphe’s short, incandescent fourth memoir doesn’t read like an older writer’s book, but it explores obsessively an archaic constellation of ideas: that there’s something special about artists and writers that excuses their moral lapses, especially in the arenas of alcoholism and adultery.

“I believed that I was going to be a muse to a man of great talent,” she intones, and she might as well be saying she dreamt of being a lady in waiting at the court of Louis XIV, it is so remote to the present day. “Alcohol was the lubricant of genius .  .  . the men needed to drink.” In sentences that alternate between Hemingwayesque brusqueness and Woolfian rhapsodies, Roiphe offers short set pieces anchored mainly in New York and the Hamptons from the mid-fifties to the early sixties. At the time, the United States still had a nearly official culture, with a hierarchy of writers (almost all white and male) whose relative rank order everyone knew. In Roiphe’s account, they partied furiously, often at the Sutton Place apartment of the Paris Review cofounder George Plimpton.

Maybe the nonstop drinking and adultery she participated in was possible because writing was a reasonably paid enterprise, or because many of the Paris Review crowd—Peter Matthiessen, Doc Humes, Plimpton himself—were trustafarians. Some were also highly productive; Roiphe has bested most by publishing three earlier memoirs as well as nine novels and six works of nonfiction, while raising three daughters.

I caught the end of the Paris Review parties in George Plimpton’s place in the late nineties. Coming from the indie rock scene, as I did, the substance abuse and sexual charge seemed mild. So did the intellectual stimulation and literacy level. But Roiphe has a skilled eye in evoking what were obviously the times of her young life, and whether or not it was any more exciting than literary life today, she makes it seem that way.

Art and Madness—a terrible title, at once pretentious and sententious—is also, more sadly, the story of Roiphe’s doomed starter marriage (1958-63) to a delusional alcoholic, Jack Richardson. Roiphe met Richardson at a Brearley dance at 15, re-met him at the West End Bar at 21 (she says she was 19 in the text, but it’s a mistake), and married him at 22. The second time they saw each other, Richardson asked her to buy a drink for him. While they were living together in Paris, he went out alone most nights, drinking and picking up hookers while she typed his manuscripts. And then, finally, he asked her to marry him. The reader can guess which way this is going, but Roiphe couldn’t:

My father gives Jack a few hundred dollars for a honeymoon. .  .  . But after lunch .  .  . Jack says he needs the money for a few nights on the town by himself. He needs to drink. I understand. He goes off alone on our honeymoon and I wait at the apartment. He comes back four days later.

Roiphe worked as a typist in the day to support Jack writing his first play, then typed it in the evening while he went out drinking. Roiphe, whose second husband was a psychoanalyst, is aware enough to say of her choices, “It has a name in the psychiatric manuals: masochism.” But she insists that was not all: “A passion that even as I know better, even as I now regret it, was not without its own grandeur.” We have only Roiphe’s word to take for Richardson being a brilliant writer, since no one today has heard of him. Roiphe doesn’t mention the irony, but the best way to turn up the right Jack Richardson on a search engine today is to couple his name with hers. And this is a man who vowed that, if he were not as famous as Keats by Keats’s age at death (25), he would kill himself.

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