Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gossip by Joseph Epstein

Years ago a friend in London told me that the playwright Harold Pinter wrote rather poor poems – my friend called them, in fact, “pukey little poems” – that he sent out in multiple Xerox copies to friends, then sat back to await their praise. One such poem was about the cricketer Len Hutton, the English equivalent of Joe Dimaggio; the poem, in its entirety, runs: “I knew Len Hutton in his prime,/ Another time, another time.” After Pinter had sent out the copiers, its recipients, as usual, wrote or telephoned to tell him how fine the poem was, how he had caught the matter with perfect laconic precision, how touched and moved they were by it – with the single exception of a man who made no response whatsoever. When Pinter hadn’t heard from this man after two weeks, he called to ask if he had in fact received the poem. “Yes,” said the man, “I have indeed.” Unable to hold back, Pinter asked, “Well, Simon, what did you think of it?” Pausing briefly, the man replied, “Actually, I haven’t quite finished it.”

This is gossip on the model of a joke – gossip with a punch line. What is of greatest interest about it as an item of gossip is the continuing need on the part of its subject, a world-famous playwright, a Nobel Prize winner, for these driblets of praise. One might think so successful a writer had already had more than his share of praise, but no scribbler seems ever to have had enough of what Thomas Mann called vitamin P. This is gossip as analysis, or test, of character, with the character, as in almost all good gossip in this realm, failing to pass.

Vanity Fair recently ran a story reporting that Arthur Miller had had a Down syndrome child with his third wife, the Swedish photographer Inge Morath. Soon after his birth, Miller clapped the boy into a less than first-class institution and didn’t deign to see him ever again. The existence of the boy was revealed only after Miller’s death, when it came time to divide his estate among his children, including this son, who was by then forty-one years old. Sorry though I feel for the son, I like this bit of gossip because it illustrates deep hypocrisy, and since the best gossip tend to be about hidden behavior, this qualifies, with four oak leaf clusters. The hypocrisy involved is that of Arthur Miller, a man always ready to offer moral lessons to others, to entire nations in fact, when he himself had done something in his personal life most people would consider morally repugnant. Miller often fell into the sermonizing mode. He was never uncomfortable instructing people how to live, or governments how to conduct their business. He spoke at all times with an unrestrained moral authority, dispensing advice on right conduct. Pity he didn’t take that advice to heart with his own son instead of dispensing it so generously to the rest of us. All saints must be judged guilty before proven innocent, as George Orwell noted, and Arthur Miller, a false saint, fails the test.

The author identifies Four Great Gossips of the Western World:

Duc de Saint-Simon whose posthumously published, forty-plus volume Memoir is more than three thousand pages long.

Walter Winchell, whose easy arrogance and power to break reputations and spoil lives made him greatly feared. Arthur Brisbane, his editor at the New York Mirror, once told him, “You have neither ethics, scruples, decency or conscience.” To which Winchell replied, “Let others have those things. I’ve got readers.”

Barbara Walters, to whom one’s dues must be given: week after week, year after year, she has created gossip through the simple agency of asking the most tasteless questions of famous people, who were themselves tasteless enough to answer her. Not just anyone could have brought it off. Yet to her it all seems to have come so naturally.

Tina Brown

A young editor of Talk called one day to tell me that a department of reputations was planned, and Tina would love it if I were to take down some overrated figure in American life. I suggested Arthur Miller. “He’s a terrible writer and even less impressive as a guru or a political saint,” I said. The young editor thought it a swell idea, and said he would get back to me after he had run it by Tina. The next day he called to say that an Arthur Miller piece didn’t feel quite right to Tina, but did I have any other ideas. “How about Walter Cronkite,” I said, “a man with a face only a nation could love, and a genuinely unintelligent man, though the confident cadences of his broadcaster’s fluency served to camouflage this over a long and hugely successful career.” Great idea, the young editor said.. The next day he called to say that Walter Cronkite didn’t seem quite right to Tina, either.

Although she may have judged such subjects less than buzzy, my reading of these decisions was that Tina Brown thought these men too important to attack, whatever salutary stir it might have caused. She was in fact only half an iconoclast, the other half a woman still on the way up and still in need of important people to get to higher places. We finally settled, the young editor, Tina Brown, and I, on the pompous literary critic Harold Bloom. I wrote the article, it was accepted and paid for ($5,000), but it never ran because Talk went out of business soon after I completed it.

Tina clearly hopes that the Daily Beast will at last be the white ass upon which she will ride into Jerusalem. It’s possible. But there are many competitors out there in cyberspace: the Huffington Post, the Atlantic Wire, and many more. Still, with her bounteous energy, as she approaches sixty, she’s not a woman to be counted out.

Gossip; The Untrivial Pursuit by Joseph Epstein; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston &N.Y., 20-11

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