The gossipy journals of Leo Lerman.

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July 2 2007 6:46 AM

So, You Want To Be a Star?

Leo Lerman's gossipy journals offer lessons on fame.

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Yet Lerman's outsider status, along with his connoisseur's sharp eye, also made him uniquely alert to the pomposities and pretensions of the characters he encountered. "It's wonderful how Truman acquires bits of information and then passes them off as his own," he writes of Capote, whom he befriended at Yaddo. Frequently, he brings deities down to human size simply by repeating their own absurdities. He tells us, for example, that Dietrich gossiped mercilessly about Garbo, disparaging her for using "only paper towels in her bathroom" and for wearing her underwear "for three days." Callas, for her part, refused to remain alone with Winston Churchill on Aristotle Onassis' yacht—"too boring," in her words. Nearly always Lerman sums up a person with a pithy, trenchant remark. Tennessee Williams had a "dirty-sheets mind." Gore Vidal is "big, complacent, pompous, assured that every platitude is an apothegm, a witty wisdom." Capote, in his later, dissipated years, was "the Marilyn Monroe of literature." One can't help but feel relieved that most of these figures are dead.

Throughout his life, Lerman maintained that his relentless socializing was a means of gathering material for the panoramic novel of society he hoped one day to write. The book he had in mind was more Remembrance of Things Past than Answered Prayers—think grand roman, not roman a clef—and the view he took of his journal-writing, which he deprecatingly called his "scribbling," is key to understanding the scope of his ambition. The diary was not an end in itself, true-life jottings to be published under the Saran Wrap guise of fiction, but the raw material he would hone and craft and ultimately transfigure into his life's work. "This scribbling is temporizing. I must start. I get very tired—but only at sudden low moments do I doubt. I have not ever lost faith in writing this book." That notion, self-deceiving though it may have been, seems to have benefited his writing. The prose here is immediate, spontaneous, candid, funny. It is almost completely free of the self-conscious posturing and operatic tone that mars so many diaries intended for the ages. 

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Lerman never realized his literary aspirations. His magazine work, his crowded social calendar, his exhaustive note-taking on it all (at 600-plus pages, this volume represents 10 percent of all the material he produced) left little time to write his novel. It may also have been, as Pascal suggests, that Lerman was more impressionist than synthesist, his gifts better suited to the short, dashed-off form. Whatever the reason for his inertia, Lerman berated himself throughout his life for his failure to produce a novel. In his later years, his regret became pervasive, his self-examination ruthless. "Perhaps the Grand Surprise isn't finding oneself in the 'great world' of society, fashion, arts, and entertainment, but discovering that one has made an almost comical mistake, which for years has deflected one from his true purpose," he writes. By the end of his life, despite his many accomplishments, he came to regard himself as a kind of maestro of the ephemeral—the parties, the articles, the witticisms—and worried that he would fade away unremembered, a footnote in the lives of his celebrated friends. "Who knows of Stark [Young] today? And who will think of me? No one. This fashion-magazine world, this world of reviewing…and the world of entertainment—television, LP—all even faster mortality."

His regret points to the irony at the heart of the journals. Had Lerman written his novel, it is unlikely he would have kept such voluminous notes on his life, social and otherwise, and we wouldn't have this remarkable book. Most people will read The Grand Surprise for its tales of celebrities and their foibles, for its portrait of postwar cultural aristocracy—and why not? But it is also a de facto autobiography of an immensely charismatic man. The considerable glamour of his life was, of course, bound up with the dailiness of that life, much of it fascinating but little of it, on its own, particularly quotable. The ceaseless whirl of parties necessarily existed alongside Lerman's regrets and fears and romances and infirmities. Taken together, it all constitutes a story that is novelistic in its detail and half-century scope. In the end, it might be said, Leo Lerman wrote his novel in spite of himself.

Amanda Fortini is a Slate contributor.

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