Monday, June 25, 2012


There is a similarity between politics and tennis, which I note, even though I am passionately interested in tennis and only slightly in politics. This is too bad, as my wife reminded me the other day. Interest in politics might get me published, for example, in The New York Times Sunday Review section. Interest in tennis would not.

It is true that interest in tennis once got me an article about Mary Pierce into Vogue, even though my great love was Martina Hingis. But John Heilpern beat me to it with a piece about Hingis, so I got Pierce. She was interesting, but not someone I could feel passionate about, because involvement in either tennis or politics is predicated on passion, which is at the very least akin to sexual, and Pierce was way too tomboyish.

Let’s start with tennis then. Being a fan, for me, is definitely tinged with sexuality where women players are concerned. Steffi Graf was the great tennis star of my younger days, but all I could summon up for her was respect. Perhaps her nose was too big. She definitely lacked charm, though she clearly had intelligence. But Hingis had both. Lacking a powerful serve, the Achilles heel of many a female player, was certainly also Hingis’s, although she also lacked the brute force of certain current players, e.g. Serena Williams—and a good thing too.

Hingis had strategic smarts and won matches on strategy and tactics; she could outthink her opponents. She also had movie starlet good looks, charmingly lightly accented English, extreme youth for a good while, and a certain daintiness. Not many female tennis players have daintiness. Maria Sharapova, for example, has looks. But daintiness? Forget it. Thus it never occurred to me to think of Hingis as an athlete. Even from Pierce about herself, as I recall, “athlete” came to me as a bit of a surprise.

But women’s tennis today is full of conspicuous athletes, and very poor lookers. Just try to feel sexual about Kvitova or Azarenka, let alone Kuznetsova. I would as soon dine on goat excrement. There is today only one woman player about whom I have strong feelings, Julia Goerges. She is beautiful and gifted, and has a terrific serve (125 miles), but not quite great. One rarely sees her on television, being German rather than American. If only she could be black or at least butch, but no such luck.

Now what about male tennis players? As far as I’m concerned, they do not depend on anything erotic, but here other things preponderate. Thus Roger Federer is the most elegant, gentlemanly, calm, and seemingly effortless tennis player, whose playing, besides being talented, is also balletically beautiful. And beauty, I feel, is always a bit sensual as well.

Then there is my ex-compatriot, Novak Djokovic, from our shared ex-country, ex-Yugoslavia. A superb all-around player, excelling at everything and, perhaps especially, return of serve. That is where intelligence may count for most: foreseeing where the opponent’s serve will come. And he too moves handsomely, and has, on top, a good sense of humor, as exhibited in his parodies of certain female players. I only wish he wouldn’t grunt.

Grunting, or screaming, was invented by another Yugoslav, Monica Seles, but it is more recently that it has become hideously perfected by any number of women and even some men. It can be disgusting, especially on television, which brings you particularly close. It is the very antithesis of charm, and I dearly wish it could be prohibited.

Lack of charm is certainly prominent in any number of male players: take Andy Murray or Andy Roddick. If he had even a modicum of it, Rafael Nadal too would be high on my list. He also grunts, but far worse than that, he plays with an almost bestial ferocity, with a look you would expect from a pit bull or fighting rooster, but not from a human being. And Nadal’s thighs could give a piano a bad name. He is said to be charming off court, but what good is that? Do we care about what our favorite movie star does off screen? Well, as long as it isn’t Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen.

And then something else comes with tennis. We identify with players of our sex more readily than with those in team sports. The tennis player is out there on his own, mano a mano. No fellow player passes a ball to him, no coach gives him a pep talk during halftime, no referee hands him a warning card, no opposing players crowd him in any way. There is no restorative intermission, as in soccer, and a match can go on for hours, sometimes even days. A football or baseball player may sort of represent me; a tennis player is me. Or, if he is a linguist like Federer, I.

Now what about politics? If we know too little about a politician, as is often the case, we cannot identify with him. If we know too much, as is equally often the case, we can identify even less. Politics, if not quite a sport, is to a considerable extent a game. The winner is the most gifted game player, manipulator, opportunist. There is a lack of transparency; too much of it is played behind closed doors.

One wonders about the ethics and intelligence (or lack of them) in a politician. “I am not sufficiently devoid of all talent,” says the autobiographical protagonist of Anatole France’s The Scarlet Lily, to occupy myself with politics.” And “a politician is an arse upon/which everyone has sat except a man,” writes that charming poet E. E. Cummings. If only he had not banished capital letters, which, for me, ranks with screaming when you serve.

But take the very word “politics,” which has become, in many contexts, synonymous with “dirty politics.” As a profession, “politician” is, in common parlance, second only to that most deplored and ridiculed one, “lawyer.”  Seriously now, can you, unless you are black, identify with Obama? Or, unless you are wealthy, with Romney? The very word “politicking,” close cousin to “politics,” is malodorous. 

The matter of morality comes in. Would I vote for a politician about whom I knew that he cheated at cards, on his wife, on his income tax returns? I don’t know, because I have no personal knowledge and can’t trust what I read much more than what I don’t read about him. But then do I care about what sort of a husband Federer is? As it happens, he seems to be a devoted one, but I identify with him only as a tennis player in any case. As long as he is a champion on the tennis court, I don’t care what scandal might emerge about him in divorce court. And even if I were a bird in the trees and Nadal could charm me out of them, I still would not root for him in tennis. One look at him Rottweilering it up as he returns serve, and I’d root for his opponent—unless he happens to be John Isner or Ivo Karlovic: gigantism, to me, is not art.

In tennis, at any rate, the question of intellectuality doesn’t come up the way it does in American politics. Or do you think Stevenson or McGovern had a Chinaman’s chance of being elected president? (Oops, sorry; I meant Chinese gentleman’s chance.) Even JFK, despite his canniness, probably made it only on not being an intellectual. Consider what sort of books he read outside politics, and that charming, nonintellectual Boston accent of his. In Europe, on the other hand, an intellectual can make it in politics. Perhaps also, should there be one, even in tennis.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


We are having a bit of a Noel Coward revival. There are readings of some of his plays, a course or seminar at Marymount Manhattan College, a marvelous exhibition at Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library, where a lively Coward symposium is due on June 11 at 6 P.M. A lecture demonstration is in the planning. In the two last-named events I am a participant.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, a friend of Coward’s, had it right. There are, he wrote, those who could equal Coward in any of the 14 or 15 disciplines in which he excelled, but no one who could combine all those excellences in his single self. I have always been a Coward fan, but having just reread his two memoirs, Present Indicative and Future Indefinite, as well as the voluminous posthumous Noel Coward Diaries, I am more than ever convinced of his genius.

What must be born in mind is that, along with the manifest heavyweight geniuses, the Prousts and Wagners, there are also lighter weight geniuses who do not produce huge masterpieces, but achieve immortality in less profound, philosophical or epic works. They do not invent new techniques or shed new light on the historic past, but they charm generation after generation with lighthearted entertainment.

It is surely remarkable that Coward wrote serious and comic plays, long and short fiction, both words and music for theatrical and nontheatrical songs, as well as poems and parodies. He was also an outstanding actor and an accomplished stage and film director, notably in that masterly tribute to the British navy, In Which We Serve., which he wrote, directed and starred in. He was also a great traveler, writing admirably about exotic places and people, keenly sensitive to beauty in all its forms.

He was also a dazzling wit, which, while not a profession, constituted a social talent, making him a favorite lunch and dinner companion of royalty, aristocracy, and artists of various kinds. Though almost totally self-educated, he was enormously knowledgeable and a superb conversationalist. He was an unofficial cultural ambassador for Britain in both hot and cold war, and was even a sort of gentleman spy. He seldom if ever wrote a dull page, and was no slouch at epigrams. Although, like most geniuses, self-centered, he carried his self-centeredness lightly, with centripetal as well as centrifugal irony. And he was a terrific letter writer.

He was homosexual, but what with England’s draconian laws against homosexuality, rescinded only by his later years, he never came out of the closet, but spoke up, if only privately, for gay rights, and was, if only platonically, loving toward a good many women. Altogether, he had a gift for friendship with all sorts of people, regardless of rank. But for those deserving of contempt or reprehension, he possessed a stock of both, and was not loath to let it hang out.

I found reading The Noel Coward Diaries pure delight. Over its nearly 700 pages, I felt I was getting ever closer to knowing Coward, and found his company consistently stimulating, expectably humorous but also surprisingly humane.

His favorite epithets for people and things he liked were “sweet” (best) and “dear” (a close second), and often both together. For things and people he disliked, it was a tossup between “idiotic” and “ghastly.” But he could make repetition feel not like redundancy but like a jolly refrain.

He had favorite phrases as well. A person might be “merry as a grig” or “happy as a bee.” Things could be “all over bar the shouting,” to end with “and that is that.” But we do not begrudge such verbal idiosyncrasies any more than we would someone’s characteristic gesture or toss of the head. He had, what Kenneth Tynan called “his hard-core court,” consisting of the actor Graham Payn (co-editor of the diaries and at a time Noel’s lover), the actress Joyce Carey (in many of his works), the designer Gladys Calthrop (who created his early sets), his secretary and as it were manager, Lorn Lorraine, and Cole Lesley, who, beginning as his valet (then named Leonard Cole), became another secretary, manager, and probable lover.

The diaries, doubtless intended for eventual publication, are studded with quotables. Of particular interest are Coward’s twin love affairs with England and America, neither of them free from lovers’ quarrels. The real quarrel was with the (mostly English) press, stunningly unfair to both the playwright and the citizen. Some of it was based on envy of his many successes, and some of it on his setting up residences in Paris, Switzerland, Bermuda and, most steadily, in two homes in Jamaica. If some of it was to escape British taxes, why not, given their exorbitance?

Curiously, Coward had scant use for opera and symphonic music. Likewise for certain literary classics, almost always expressing his dislike with the euphemism “too long.” Thus he would have none of Mozart (like me) or Britten (unlike me). He had grave problems with the likes of War and Peace and Death of a Salesman, which I fully share.

Coward is not only good at snappy witticisms; he can also astonish with his sagacity and good taste in longer passages. Consider the following:

            I have plunged firmly through Our Mutual Friend. What a great
            writer Dickens can be at moments, and how completely he fails
            when he becomes sentimental. Some of the characterization
            In O.M.F. is masterly and some, particularly Lizzie and Jenny
            Wren, abysmally bad. I suspect that he suffered from a funda-
            mental lack of taste. The descriptions of the river and London
            and the general atmosphere of the period areal superb, but
            why, oh why, those treacly, tear-sodden, pious, noble, com-
            pletely unreal scenes which I cannot believe that he believed

This is not only sound judgment; it is also compellingly expressed. Closer to the epigrammatic is this: “When I eventually write my book on the theatre there will be a whole chapter devoted to leading ladies’ dresses and hair. They are invariably the main stumbling-blocks. Leading ladies’ husbands may also come in for some acrid comment.” Unfortunately, that book never got written, but passages in the diaries, letters and memoirs more than make up for it.

But, of course, Coward is better-known for outright epigrams. Thus about Mary Baker Eddy: “She had much in common with Hitler, only no moustache.” Or this: “It is hard to imagine, considering the inherent silliness, cruelty and superstition of the human race, that it has contrived to last as long as it has.” Or this, about posterity: “There will be lists of apocryphal jokes I never made and gleeful misquotations of words I never said. What a pity I shan’t be here to enjoy them.”

And again: “It is a natural enough malaise, this idealized remembering, but should not be encouraged too much. There is no future in the past.” Or this, after a day of auditions “Really felt worn out by the end of it and oppressed by the thought of those legions of unattractive men and women thinking they were gifted enough to entitle them to appear on the stage.” And self-criticism, too: “Other people, less clever than I am, can often be dead right when I am wrong.” More typical is this, about the autobiography of Monica Baldwin, an ex-nun, I Leap Over the Wall: “Very interesting, I must say. It has strengthened my decision not to become a nun.”

That, of course, was frivolous, but other epigrams are not. Thus: “Everything I have read lately has confirmed my long-held suspicion that Christianity has caused a great deal more suffering, both mentally and physically, than any other religion in the history of mankind.” (Written, to be sure, in pre-jihad days.) And this, prompted by a later work of Evelyn Waugh: “I do wish highly intelligent writers would not unconditionally surrender themselves to specific religious dogmas; it really does bugger up the output.”

Nevertheless, Coward’s principal achievement is in his best plays, correctly identified by Tynan as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, though I would add the brilliant one-acters of Tonight at 8:30, especially the musical Shadow Play with its rather daring strategy.

About the avant-garde, Coward could be as wrong as about classical music. Thus concerning Waiting for Godot (which, to be sure, he only read and never saw), “pretentious gibberish, without any claim to importance whatever.” But everyone is entitled to some mistakes; why begrudge them to genius? To Coward’s many talents we must add yet another: a great deal of wisdom.