Friday, October 24, 2014

Part Two: Famous People

I note now, with mild surprise, that in Part One all my famous people were part-time or full-time poets. Here now are others of a different sort. Take. for example, that fine actor and genuine character, Werner Klemperer. We shared many interests, but none more divertingly than miniature golf, which he played with maniacal assiduity, leaving Philip Bosco, me, and our respective wives far behind in dedication. He was full of anecdotes, some of them about his famous father, the conductor Otto Klemperer, whose toughness he inherited. He had many good sides to him, among others calling my attention to that lovely and wonderful singer, Angelika Kirchschlager, whom I met all too briefly backstage, but whose recitals and records have been a special joy. Colonel Klink, as most people (inadequately) knew him, was very fond of pretty women, which cannot be said of all actors. I spoke at his memorial service, and it was the only time I teared up in public.

I have known several stage and screen actors and directors, and one of my great thrills was when, as I was entering a theater and he was coming out of it, Max von Sydow warmly greeted me by my name, even though we had never met before. But, of course, my most important Swede was Ingmar Bergman, whom I continue to consider the greatest filmmaker ever. He agreed, for my book about him, to a long interview, which is in the book, “Ingmar Bergman Directs,” and is fairly often quoted. We interrupted our talk for lunch at the Swedish Film Industry commissary, where the food was mediocre, but conversation terrific. During our afternoon session, Bergman ate some of his beloved jam of lingonberries (aka mountain cranberries), which I too came to relish and can heartily recommend to all. It was wonderful that when I told him that there was no room for me at the Strand Hotel, he made a brief phone call and, presto, there was room.

The only other time I met Bergman was when he was filming “Fanny and Alexander,” and scads of journalists wanted to interview him, yet he refused all but me. In a studio room, he, Erland Josephson and I had a marvelous time together, and he even took me to see a spectacular set for the movie. Would to heaven that I had kept some notes. On other occasions I had the pleasure of meeting some of his fabled leading ladies. I took Bibi Andersson to see a Bergman stage production of Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” and had a fine time with her afterwards at the Opera Bar. I sat with Ingrid Thulin on a long bus ride. Gunnel Lindblom tried to get me in her clutches, but by that time she was over the hill, and I resisted.

I had a nice lunch in New York with Liv Ullman, but with her press agent as chaperone it was less than intimate. I did have the impertinence, however, to ask her how she could have gotten involved with such a repulsive and reprehensible fellow as Henry Kissinger, which she smilingly sloughed off. Leaving that hotel dining room, I came up at another table against the splendid actor Peter Finch, and said foolishly that I probably should rather have interviewed him, which he heartily corroborated.

Many years later, after a film she directed, I again joined Liv, and I had the pleasure of a very warm session with her and her leading actress, the magnificent Lena Andre, for a tribute to whom I was much later briefly filmed, even though I refused to pretend kneeling before her, she not being there  anyway. I also had the fun of squiring around Harriet Andersson at the Telluride Festival, and introducing her to the audience. What a gracious and smart lady she proved.

I had a good time with other famous Swedes. There were jolly hours with Vilgot Sjoman, for whose “I Am Curious” films I testified at two Ohio trials. Very charming too was Bo Widerberg, the “Elvira Madison” director, on whose Moviola I had my then girlfriend write, in perfect Swedish, “Edited by Patricia Marx.” But I became particularly fond of stage and film director Johan Bergenstrahle, a superb film of whose I tried vainly to get shown in America. I met Johan at a Wisconsin University lakeside Swedish Film Fortnight, at which I spoke about Bergman. Johan was delightful, as was his eccentric wife (I think that’s what she was.) I met him again in Stockholm, much later, on a pleasant bar night, when he sadly confided in me that his beautiful mistress had aged enough for her posterior to become flabby. What was he to do about it? Damned if I can recall how I advised him, but later, in New York, I got a letter from him saying (in his wonderful, large handwriting) that I had been right and most helpful “after all.”

Also by that Wisconsin lake, I met the novelist Per Olov Enquist, who was the life of the party there. How different he was, years later, when his play, “The Night of the Tribades,” about Strindberg’s unhappy love life, was briefly on Broadway, and I took him to lunch. His moroseness was probably caused by the play doing poorly. But why in hell did he have to use the puzzling synonym “tribades,” when the obvious term, “lesbians,” could have brought in crowds? I have been most friendly with that very great director, Jan Troell, whose two fabulous films about Swedish émigrés in America were unfortunately severely cut by Warner Brothers--and his perhaps greatest film, “Here Is Your Life,” not shown at all. We had a good time at the Cannes Film Festival, where he snapped pictures of me and my then girlfriend, which he promised to send me and never did. I met him again in New York, when I took him to a Thai dinner, a cuisine unknown to him but that he hugely enjoyed. Again he promised to send me those pictures, as well as new ones he took, but never so much as a letter from him, which, I am told, is typical.

My best Swedish friend, however, was Per Wastberg, distinguished novelist, poet, nonfiction writer, with whom and the first of his four wives, we had wonderful times at Harvard and all around Cambridge. Also a leading journalist and for a while head of the Nobel Literature Prize committee (now merely a member), he was a young man exuding erudition, intelligence and accomplishment, and I saw him again in Sweden, where at the time he owned an ancient but wonderful farmhouse. It was there that I received a phone call from America, telling me that Claus von Bulow, who had won away from me the affection of Alexandra Isles, was found guilty of attempted uxoricide. That was in sophisticated Newport; the clever lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, and the blue-collar jury in unsophisticated Providence (where, as Alexandra told me, the jurors didn’t know the meaning of the word “mistress”) got the judgment reversed. More recently, Per and I have corresponded again, and I can affirm that the Stationery of the Swedish Academy is impressive.

At a Pen Club conference, I accosted the celebrated Pablo Neruda, and got him to sign a volume of his poetry. He wrote something absolutely charming in it, but that book, alas, has strayed from my possession. This was the conference at which Toni Morrison complimented me on my dashing overcoat, for which, if nothing else, she deserved the Nobel Prize. At Seattle, where I was teaching, I got the visiting South African, Roy Campbell, to write something nice in a book of his. What a grand fellow he was, a riot with tales about the army, which to find him some employment, had him go clocking, in pursuit by army vehicle, the speed of various animals, the ostrich being most struthiously troublesome and hilarious. A poet and prose writer this who should be better known.

I did better with German-language writers about whom I wrote , in Part One, and with sundry cineasts and actors. I have written elsewhere about my adventures at the Tehran Film Festival, where I was a delegate along with Otto Preminger and Paul Mazursky, the actresses Sally Kellerman and Brenda Vaccaro, and a couple of others. Because the likable Farhad Diba was my student at M.I.T., his cousin the Empress (or Shah’s wife) provided me with a limousine in which I could give rides to my less favored colleagues.

Back in New York, some of us visited the Iranian Embassy to the U.N. where the ambassador, a former film critic in France, gave parties well attended because the caviar came in an enormous bowl and one could gorge oneself on it. I got to talk to a personable young man who told me he had one good teacher at M.I.T., and I said I had one good student. It turned out he had been that student, and I that teacher. I am sorry we lost touch when he and his wife moved to London. The Ambassador and I had violent disagreements about movies, but at least he, unlike his brother the Iranian prime minister, did not get shot when the Shah was ousted.

I was for a while very friendly with Maximilian Schell, a good actor and not bad film director. I had given a movie of his an enthusiastic review, and we became pals. But as soon as I reviewed his next movie unfavorably, the friendship was off. Not so with the marvelous Australian director, Bruce Beresford, a film of his I was one of two perhaps only people impressed by at the Berlin Film Festival, which started a wonderful friendship, wherein I am allowed to be perfectly sour about some of his lesser movies. ”Black Robe,” “Tender Mercies” and “Breaker Morant,” however, are masterpieces, and his Introduction to the book l“John Simon on Film” is formidable, too.

I got to know some French filmmakers well, especially the extremely charming Jean-Jacques Annaud, who told me one of the funniest true stories I ever heard about a  decrepit, wheezing lion who all night stalked a tent in which he (Annaud, not the lion) and his girlfriend were trying to sleep.  I was even better friends with Bertrand Tavernier, one of our finest directors, whose first film, “The Clockmaker,” I had given a rave review to in New York magazine. This started a long and beautiful friendship, which covered some of his splendid films, and involved jolly visits in Paris, New York and Telluride, but has somehow lapsed latterly--possibly, I am sorry to say, because I no longer write about movies.

Another enthusiastic review, this for the irresistible Lina Wertmuller’s “Seven Beauties,” had New York magazine send me to Rome and a long, loving reportage about Lina, which got her the sobriquet Saint Lina of New York from Italian journalists who were not overfond of her. She, her delightful husband, the set and costume designer Enrico Job, and her amazing chief actor, Giancarlo Giannini, became fast friends of mine and I enjoyed nothing more than the frequent visits to her in Rome for which she lavishly provided. This after many years, during which she always wanted my opinions about her work, has come to an end, and not because, strong woman she is, she resented some of my candid criticisms that could have her get up early next morning and reedit one of her films. Very amusing was the time when Giancarlo, during one of his visits to New York, insisted on our walking about the city arm in arm, natural in Italy but, at least at that time, not so in America.

Through Lina, I met other Italian celebrities. At a dinner chez Marcello Mastroianni, lovely man, we were shown the discolored places on his wall where had hung pictures he had to sell to pay taxes (one by the splendid Renzo Vespignani), and I met another guest, the great Vittorio Gassman, who later in New York left a message on my answering machine to the effect that “We All Loved Each Other So Much,” which other movie reviewers adored, was indeed, as I wrote, piddling. The only other time my answering machine was so honored was when Jack Nicholson, Anjelica Huston and I had been the only attendees at a Paramount screening of which we all made deservedly vitriolic fun. Jack’s message was that he indeed thought the movie (in which neither he nor Anjelica acted) rubbish, but that I, please, please, was not to let his opinion become known.

Of the Italian cinema, I also met the gifted director Franco Rosi, who, in a café on the Via Veneto, rebuked me for not buying my then girlfriend flowers from an itinerant vendor, which he, however, did buy for her. There were in those days some of the most gorgeous Italian actresses after whom I duly lusted, but the only ones I got to meet were Mariangela Melato and Monica Vitti, after whom I didn’t. Many years later, at the Spoleto Festival, I caught glimpses of Sophia Loren, but never met her either. I did get to meet there the somewhat less alluring Gian Carlo Menotti, who smilingly remarked that I was a tough critic (but, luckily, in print, not of him).

I have, however, had a lifelong friendship with the fine composer and writer Ned Rorem, which started under funny circumstances. We were both waiting for a plane to Columbia, South Carolina, and a birthday celebration for James Dickey, when I asked him, God knows why in French, where the men’s room was (no reflection on his sexual predilections, only that he had been waiting longer). He directed me, but always later on claimed that I had used the wrong French word for toilet, whereas I claimed to have used the right one. This became quite a flash point for further debates. We have shared a strong taste for modern French music, and have written admiringly about each other, with him contributing an elegant Introduction to “John Simon on Music.” I think what especially endeared me to him was, when we were collaborating on his piece for the leading homosexual publication in defense of me against wrongful accusations of homophobia, my jacket was hanging on a chair and his bichon frise peed on it, which I took without the slightest offense.

I see now that this piece has gotten very long, and that a third installment is in order. Kindly bear with me.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Having been during my long life a teacher of Humanities and critic of most of the arts, it would be a reasonable assumption that as their reviewer, as well as an occasionally published poet, I might have known a number of famous people.

And so I did, meeting some in passing, and even befriending a few. Unfortunately, I never kept a diary, and so never wrote up any conversations or other recollections. By now I don’t even have my former good memory, and what remnant of it I have is quirky and tends to summon up a trivial detail or two, but few if any essentials.Nevertheless, here goes.

Surely the most celebrated person I ever met was Jose Luis Borges, with whom and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, I had lunch at the Terrace Restaurant near Columbia University. The translator was present not because Borges had the least trouble with English, but because by that time he was very nearly blind. The great Argentine—I remember his pointing out that the proper adjective was Argentine and not Argentinian--was an amazing lunch companion.

I also remember his speaking the most beautiful English, without a trace of a Spanish accent, in a gentle, melodious voice. This writer of some rather wild things was civilized in the utmost degree and said some memorable things I have managed to forget. One of our subjects was the Pre-Raphaelites, for whom he had a great affection.

I don’t recall how it came about, but I arranged--on a subsequent visit of his to New York, accompanied by the lady who was his sighted guide--to have them stay with a woman fried of mine at her large Park Avenue apartment and so be spared hotel costs. They stayed for a couple of nights, but I, stupidly, failed to make renewed contact with Borges, easy as it would have been.

There was also Yves Bonnefoy, on the way of becoming France’s leading poet, though at that time not yet quite there. He had something to do with Harvard, where I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature. His friend Alain Bosquet—poet, novelist and critic, but chiefly remembered as translator--was teaching at Brandeis.The three of us had some good times together. I was working on my doctorate, and Bonnefoy asked to see the some of my Ph. D. thesis on the prose poem as art form, on which I was currently working, the chapter being the one on Rimbaud.

I remember only his disapproving of my contention that Rimbaud went in for deliberate ambiguity. Bonnefoy insisted that ambiguity did not come into French poetry until Valery. He may have been right. I did not see him again till many years later, by which time he was at the height of his fame and guest lecturing at Hunter College. After one of his public lectures, I accosted him, but he barely recalled me, was extremely cold, and showed no interest in any sort of rapport.

In my graduate student days, I had a girlfriend named Joan, a Bennington graduate living with her parents in Newton, and not doing much of anything. At Bennington, she was somehow involved with the visiting poet Pierre Emmanuel, whom I met through her. All I remember of him, alas, is his preference for women with powerful rather than slender legs, like the ones in Maillol’s statues, a taste I did not, and still do not, share.

Joan definitely did have an affair with the distinguished German poet and essayist Hans Egon Holthusen, who was lots of fun, and later ran the Goethe House in New York, where I attended numerous events. Before that, however, Joan came to live in New York, where she had a couple of jobs, including one at Esquire, all of which she promptly lost. Although I moved in with her, her heart was really with Holthusen, the heroine of whose only novel, “Das Schiff,” she was. The poet was teaching in Chicago or somewhere else, but expecting him to come stay with her, she kicked me out. By the time he did come to New York, she had committed suicide.

What do I really remember of Holthusen? Only two trivial things. He liked pointy shoes, which he rebuked me for not going in for. Also his warning me not to call certain people in print idiots, which is allegedly actionable, but assholes, which definitely is not.

In later life, Louis MacNeice has become one of my favorite poets. I met him much too early after a reading he gave at Harvard, and I was deputized to escort him from the Yard, where he read, to Eliot House, where he was to stay. I remember our walk: he was taciturn and I was shy; very little was spoken. What a chance missed!

Another time, walking on Massachusetts Avenue with one of my advisers, the charming Renato Poggioli, we ran into one of my idols, Edmund Wilson. The two men started a conversation, but Poggioli never introduced me, and I stood by mute and frustrated. Some years later, friends of mine at a late night joint got to talk to Wilson, who was trying to learn Hungarian. They mentioned me as a friend who knew the language. It seems that Wilson envied me without my being able to benefit from it.

I was one of three section men in a lecture course on Yeats, Rimbaud and Rilke taught by Archibald MacLeish. In my section was Adrienne Rich, who had just been chosen a Yale Younger Poet. She complained that the course was too elementary; could I get MacLeish to make it more advanced? Needless to say, that wasn’t up to me, and Rich haughtily dropped the course.

In my section, however, remained future novelists Rona Jaffe and Harold Brodky. Jaffe, a B minus student, would later insist that she had not been my student but my fellow instructor. Brodky was a real nuisance, who never heeded assignments and wrote instead vaporous surreal fantasies. I spent a couple of hours with him on the steps to Widener Library, trying to make him understand and comply. In vain, as he, having become a famous but impossibly abstruse writer, would smilingly relate to one and all.

A high point of my not entirely unclouded relationship with MacLeish was the occasion when he had me before the entire class reading some of Rilke’s poems, so that they would hear how they sounded in German. I had invited to that class Christine Bosshard, a very beautiful Radcliffe girl, who was duly impressed, but not enough so, alas, for any intimacies. The next day, Archie summoned me to his office. I wondered what I had done wrong this time, but all he wanted was to know more about the gorgeous Cliffie who had been my guest.

As an undergraduate, I also had a meeting with W.H. Auden, to whom I showed one of my amateurish poems. It was in a cafeteria, and he was very friendly and nice about it, but averred, as it was a winter poem, that it should avoid metaphors involving ants, because there were no ants in the snow. A good many years later, I and a girlfriend were invited to a dinner chez Auden and Chester Kallman.

A fellow guest was Edward Albee, about whom I recall only his presence. But I do remember Auden, then a Christian proselyte, arguing that Divine Providence wisely harvested people only when they had fulfilled their earthly mission. Thus, if Mozart or Schubert died young, it was because he had accomplished all he had to do. I remember protesting that surely Georg Buechner’s death at 23 was premature for such a genius. The other thing I remember is the bathtub that held the evening’s liquor. It had a black ring around it a quarter way down. I am not sure whether or not that made me a teetotaler for the evening. The reason I had been invited was my being an associate editor of the Mid-Century Book Society, whose editors were Auden, Barzun and Trilling. About this I have written elsewhere.

The one poet with whom I had a close friendship was James Dickey. It began when he, as a subscriber of that book club, had some complaint, and I was in charge of answering complaints. I sent him our apologies, and commented on how much I prized his then still uncelebrated poetry. This pleased him, and he looked me up on his next visit to New York.

It was a lasting friendship, and it survived such things as my being unimpressed by his otherwise much admired novel, “Deliverance,” and my not being able to provide liquor on one of his later visits—just as well, considering his behavior when drunk. After his death, when I briefly but unsuccessfully dated his smart and beautiful but messed-up daughter, Bronwyn, she told me that I had been his best friend in New York.

My happiest memory of Jim is written up in his journal and essay volume, “Sorties.” The page begins, “I have seldom spent such a good afternoon of human time as I had a few years ago with John Simon in New York. . . . We sat around and talked about writing, and about poets. . . . He said, ‘Do you know whom I really like?’ I said I hadn’t any idea, thinking it would be some new French poet I hadn’t heard of. Not att all. He pulled out . . . ‘The Collected Poems of Andrew Young,’ a rather mild English ecclesiastical poet, and read to me for two or three hours. I sat there with my mouth open.” And it goes on in that vein. The time, of course, is an exaggeration of what must have been more like twenty or thirty minutes—but call it poetic license. His death was a terrible shock; he seemed gifted and robust enough to live forever.

My relations with another, similarly robust, poet were less felicitous. That was Theodore Roethke. It was during my relatively brief stint teaching at the University of Washington, where Roethke, a professor, was considered the crown jewel—not to say God. In a casual conversation with someone, I referred to Roethke as a good minor poet. This got back to him, and apparently enraged him, as it certainly did the multitude of his local worshipers.

But there were times when craziness overpowered him and he had to be hospitalized, having become abjectly self-doubting. At such a time he wrote to me upon reading a poem of mine: “. . .  I came across your villanelle in ‘The Paris Review.’ If you will permit me to say so,--I thought it a poem of genuine distinction: some fresh (for me, anyway) effect, in that difficult form. I read the piece with envy. I trust you will not take this note amiss.” Hardly.



I have mentioned some of the Linky story before, but here follows the final, complete, definitive account. With it told, I can put the whole matter behind me and move on.

As I was reading for review the third volume of “The Samuel Beckett Letters,” I came across an interesting footnote. Beckett was in the gallant habit of ending his letters with a greeting to the recipient’s partner or spouse. In a letter to his American publisher, Barney Rosset of Grove Press, he sent a greeting to Linc. Barney informed him, a dubious speller at best, that the correct spelling should end in a K, not a C. So, in a later letter, Sam concluded with an enormous K.

Of special interest to me was the footnote that Mary Lincoln Bonnell, for many years but no longer Rosset’s girlfriend, had died in 2013. This moved me. Linky with a K, as I had known her, had been one of my youthful loves. Over the years, I occasionally wistfully recalled her. Here is what it was all about.

While still at Harvard’s Graduate School, I frequented a long since gone joint named St.Clair’s, featuring excellent chocolate ice cream sodas. One evening, I noticed in a booth across from me, a gaggle of Cliffies (i.e., Radcliffe students) laughingly surrounding a stunning blonde. She caught my eye but also something deeper: I had to get to know her!

I forget exactly how—some phone calls were involved—I tracked down Linky Bonnell. Nor do I remember exactly how I got her to go out with me, but I suppose my being a teaching fellow impressed her. Anyway, we started dating.

Linky must have been the most beautiful Cliffie of that era. As I try to visualize her so many years later, I would have been helped by photgraphs. Frustratingly, only one tiny snapshot survives, the others somehow got lost, possibly destroyed by a jealous subsequent inamorata.

The picture that does remain is a 35-millimeter print I pasted into a volume of poems by my beloved Stephane Mallarme, above a sonnet beginning “A la nue accablante tu,” which so infuriated Tolstoy.

Linky had shoulder-length, gently undulant blond hair, blue eyes and exquisite features. A perfect figure, lovely arms and flawless legs. I never saw her feet, but can vouch for the pleasing size of her shoes. She also had a charming voice and an infectious laugh. I had taken her to the banks of the Charles for a photo shoot. In the picture, she stands gracefully on a piece of wood jutting into the river, her left arm extended to hold on to a tree trunk, the right one dangling loose. She is wearing a black or navy dress, with a white neckline and hem. The mid-calf skirt unfortunately hides too much leg. In the background, there is a solitary skiff.

I went off to Paris on a Fulbright, and corresponded with Linky. She answered two letters in a charmingly girlish handwriting and with chatty content. But this stopped. I guessed that she had found another chap of interest.

Then, however, in the spring, came a letter from Linky. She would be in Paris on such and such a day, and would I please meet her at the Invalides, the final stop of the bus from Orly airport. She would be returning from Italy, where, a talented sculptress, she had gone for lessons from the distinguished classicist Arturo Martini (not to be confused with the modernist Marino Marini), and would spend a few days with me.

Duly, I showed up, and there she was in all her radiance. Miracle of miracles, she had rented a room, in all that great Paris, only a block or two from mine in the sixteenth Arrondissement. But now came the contretemps.

Like other American girls of the period, she had remained chaste in the States, but was ready for sex abroad, which is where I was to come in. Alas, I had fallen for and had an affair with June Morris, an American dancer with one of the two Ballets Russes. The company had been on tour, and she once again fell for a gay premier danseur. (It used to be Johnny Kriza, and was now John Gilpin.) As a result, she had been avoiding my frantic long distance phone calls. This time, after considerable effort, I tracked her down having lunch with colleagues at Harry’s Bar and joined her there.

Now, I had two tickets to the Opera that evening for the rarely seen Berlioz “La Damnation de Faust.” As June was dancing that evening, I spent time with her during the day, but invited Linky for the evening. She came, but wept all through the performance: I had let her down. During intermission, she sat on the edge of a fountain, adding to the waterworks. I stood by, helpless. In the morning, she was gone, without so much as a good bye.

I next saw Linky much later in New York, where I took her to one of the performances by the guesting Old Vic, with such greats as Olivier, Richardson, and Vivien Leigh. She wasn’t especially impressed or friendly. When I took her home, she not only didn’t invite me in, she also made cruel fun of everything I said. On a very last occasion, on a street in Cambridge, she crossed to the other side to avoid me.

We now skip forward some years, and I learn that she is the girlfriend of Barney Rosset, and that, on his money, they were both seeing the same shrink for joint sessions, something disapproved of in those days. And nothing further.

Fast forward a few years more, and my wife and I are invited to a big dinner event chez the painter Larry Rivers. At the preceding cocktail party, I get to talk to Rosset and ask about Linky, with whom he had by then split. He tells me she is very well and cheerfully sculpting away.

Now on to a recent year, with me leafing through the Manhattan phone book. I come across Mary Lincoln Bonnell. Should I call her, I wonder? What’s the point, I conclude, and don’t. And now that footnote in the Beckett letters: Deceased, 2013.
Requiescat in pace.