Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Danielle Darrieux

A very smart ex-girlfriend of mine always began reading the Times with the obituaries. The obits, to give them their nickname, are the important epilogue to a life, a summing-up that may slightly embellish it in retrospect, but that may also be perfectly objective. This is, for many people, what, if anything, will survive..

So it was fascinating to read the Times obits on a late October day (20th) when, surely for the first time, it comprised two centenarians: Danielle Darrieux, dead at 100, and (I hope not eclipsing her importance) Marion Schlesinger, dead at 105. Ms. S. emerges as a significant and charming person, mostly in Cambridge, Mass.,which I, as a former Cantabrigian myself, can readily respect. But to her life in politics I have nothing to add. Not so about Danielle Darrieux.

As a youth in Belgrade, I was in love with the universally beloved French movie star, Danielle Darrieux, as much as a teenager could be, and just possibly more so. I saw all her movies, and cherished them all. Naughty fellow that I was, I especially relished a film not mentioned in an otherwise thorough obit, “Club de Femmes” (Women’s Club). That, because it showed her in a shower scene, although one that had only minimal, dorsal nudity, with not even my revisits able to coax forth more.

It was in another of her films, “Un mauvais Garcon,” (A Bad Boy) that she delightfully sang, along with her charming co-star, Albert Prejean, “Je n’ donnerais pas ma place pour un boulet d’ canon’ (I wouldn’t trade my place for a cannon ball), which, however preposterous, made perfect sense when she sang it, becoming a place in our hearts. In fact, D.D. would not have been faulted by us no matter for whom or for what she had traded her place.

As the Times obit made plain, Danielle was in more than a hundred movies, and heaven knows how many stage productions over her very long performing career.
starting as a teenager and continuing very nearly to her demise. Once I even met her in the flesh, though it wasn’t quite the happiest occasion.

This was in 1969 or 70, when she succeeded Katharine Hepburn in the lead of “Coco,” the musical about Coco Chanel, which opened with Hepburn in the lead, although (in the words of theater historian Thomas Hischak) she “could barely croak out her few songs,”  I had some use for the show to begin with, but really loved it when Darrieux took over the role. I wrote a three-page encomium that you can check out on pages 272-74 of my book, “Uneasy Stages.” In it, I wrote, along with much else, that D.D. was as good as a trip to Paris, and concluded my extensive paean with “Hepburn played it indomitable, Danielle plays it adorable.” The show would have garnered better reviews if D.D. had opened it.

I can’t here reproduce that whole lengthy rave, which D.D. obviously could not have read when I called on her backstage. She was surrounded by progeny and her current husband or partner, who might have had misgivings had she responded more warmly to my adulation. But no matter, the brief meeting remains one of my happiest recollections, even if by then Darrieux was well into her fifties. Yet, as I wrote, “Other women grow older; she only grows womanlier.”

Anita Gates’s obit does justice to the actress, who was as beautiful as she was talented, could sing and dance as well as she could act, and was indeed ageless, I believe, to her dying day. You should read this obit if you possibly can, which includes three pictures, and from which I quote.

“She continued acting well into her 90s, making nine films in the first decades of the 21st century. Her last big-screen appearance was in ‘Piece Montee’ (2010), a comedy about a family wedding. She also appeared in a 2011 television movie, ‘C’est Toi, ‘C’est Tout,’ playing an American grandmother.”

Apropos Anerican, Danielle made several excursions (or incursions?) into Hollywood cinema, but American movies never rose to the occasions. They were never in adequate vehicles--champagne in Coca Cola bottles. The still from a French movie of 1960 makes her look 25, not 43, and the portrait from 1987 at 70 makes her look 40. There is a picture of her in her favorite movie role, a French film adaptation of Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black” (1954), in which she co-starred with the brilliant Gerard Philipe.

Of her three marriages, the one to Dominican-born playboy Porfirio Rubirosa may constitute one blot on her scutchon, the other being continued acting in Nazi-occupied France. According to Oliver Goldsmith, when lovely woman stoops to folly, the only expiation is to die. But that was three centuries ago, and in a few respects we have progressed since then. Rubirosa was apparently a great lover, and I should have jumped at the offer by Norman Mailer to portray him in his play, “The Deer Park.” But, as I explained to Norman, a critic reviews plays in the evenings and thus cannot be also acting in them. I had to turn down his flattering invitation, earning me a swift punch in the plexus.

Most American moviegoers are likely to recall Darrieux in at last two of her three films directed by Max Ophuls: ”La Ronde,” “Le Plaisir,” and “The Earrings of Madame de .…” Possibly also in Anatol Litvak’s “Mayerling,” at age 19, based on the deeply touching  murder suicide by Crown Prince Rudolf, Rodolfo in the Times and presumably in the film, portrayed by Charles Boyer, which I loved.

I am reminded that Darrieux’s only other Broadway appearance was opposite Howard Keel, in the short-lived musical “Ambassador,” based on Henry James, which didn’t help much. I am also reminded that whereas Brigitte Bardot was lucky in her initials, which spelled out Bebe, French for everybody’s baby.  But Dede doesn’t spell anything, unless in the unlikely case that you count “Dedee, d’Anvers,” a film by Yves Allegret, starring another talented beauty, Simone Signoret.

As also a charming singer, Dede managed to be in more shows and films than many another, except perhaps Marlene Dietrich, but she was an altogether different kettle of fish. In my memories, I see Darrieux as a Grown-up Miss Sunshine, lighting up whatever she touched, as I wish I could say to her right now. “Never less than beautiful, and always in good humor,” is how the film historian David Thomson has described her. That would make a very nice epitaph, if immortals required an epitaph, other than the one we carry with us in our grateful remembrance.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Sooner or later the question of God raises its troubling head for most of us. Does he exist or doesn’t he? Or has he died, as Nietzsche postulated? And if he exists, where exactly does he? In the old days, one could, as Browning did, aver “in his Heaven,” i.e., in the sky. But nowadays, as we have crisscrossed the heavens in any number of directions, either in person or by NASA contraptions, even photographed Mars from up close, we would  have been likely to bump into him if he existed, and wasted our time looking for him if he didn’t..

Atheists have some potent arguments for his nonexistence. All-merciful his believers declare him, but could even a moderately merciful God have condoned the Holocaust? Could all those Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals deserve it all? Among  those millions of victims, would there not have been some innocent ones?

Forget about all-merciful, but how about at least communicative? If only there were some consistency about his nature, never mind unanimity. Let us assume that there are or were three hundred different religions, including varieties among Christians, should there not still be some, if only unintentional, overlapping or coinciding? The portrayal by Renaissance or Byzantine artists would have us believe in a white-haired, bearded, patriarchal, enthroned figure, but that version has by now been sufficiently ridiculed and scuttled. And why if he had talked to some believers in biblical times, would he have stopped to even though need for his guidance has nowise decreased? Or could there have been a first and a second God, equitably one for each Testament, one conversational and one not?

The Virgin Mary has made some appearances—admittedly in out-of-the-way venues and mostly to children--but from God the father or son Jesus there is not even that much. From Jesus, only a shroud, and that, like all relics, uncertifiable. Personally, I have more sympathy for (as opposed to belief in) the Greco-Roman polytheist divinities, whose myths have charm and even some humor, scant if not unheard ot commodities in monasteries and convents. Excepting the vagantes, the wandering, drinking and wenching monks, also making up songs like the Carmina Burana.

What I find especially baffling is the belief of even intellectuals in an afterlife, as when, for instance, Bill Buckley, my onetime boss, declared that if he did not believe in someday rejoining his predeceased wife, he could not go on. I am not sure whether that meant suicide, disallowed by his Christianity, or total collapse. Nancy Regan, smart but admittedly no intellectual, was identically confident of reunion in Heaven with her Ronald. I am sure that one could easily find similar convictions in any number of artists, sages, even scientists and, apparently, Republicans--Buckley, Regan, etc. Yet not even the innards of the earth, despite volcanic emissions, would have enough space to accommodate the remains of all the sinners who have trodden its surface. The other, upper place for the righteous would have fewer dwellers, but even it, since time immemorial, would have ended up overflowing.

There are some who try to validate the Scriptures by arguing that most of them are to be understood as symbolic rather than realistic. But what can symbols do if there are no verities for them to symbolize? Because there are such things, say, as good marriages, we can believe that a tale of unending love can symbolize something potential. But how do you symbolize something that exists exclusively as a concept?

Yet just because there have been, and still are, saintly people around, to conclude from that that their God exists, is a leap of faith of fantastic proportions. Mother Teresas are one thing, evidence of God the Father quite another. Can the dragging to Hell of Don Juan or Giovanni at his death by emerging demons be credited just because a genius composer has envisioned it?

Now, can a God who is supposedly all-seeing and all-hearing of billions of mortals--masses of them simultaneously praying--no matter how divine he is, manage such ubiquity and undivided attention? It does not make sense, and without sense there is chaos—surely not a good thing and not created by God. In fact, how the universe was created, and how it evolved, does remain incomprehensible, especially given such illogical diversity and glaring inconsistencies.

That is the one great mystery, and calling it God or any other complaisant name does not make it any less mysterious. The Apostle Paul was shrewd. The wary Greeks, to keep themselves covered, maintained a shrine to the Unknown God, and Paul simply proclaimed him the Christian God for whom he was proselytizing. And when you come down to it, God is a flexible concept, and all Gods are really unknown, whether they exist or not.

Saturday, October 7, 2017


A popular miscalculation in my view is the notion of a first and last in literature. Presumably to enhance their subject’s importance, scholars and critics have made out a writer to be the first or last of a kind. The problem is that no sooner is someone proclaimed the first, someone else comes up with an earlier specimen; and hardly has someone been pronounced a last, than somebody produces a later specimen. But what exactly is the benefit of being proclaimed a first or a last

Of course both can be claimed by groups or coteries such as, for example, the Romantics or the Moderns, in which situation a case may be made out for one or another member. But what if, say in a poet, though someone comes early but harks back to a remote precursor, can he or she be fully first? Could not the Pre-Raphaelites be made out a last or a first?  Where exactly would you fit in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, both as poet and as painter? Even harder is picking the last, as nobody knows what the future may bring.

Still, what good precisely is the belonging to either of those categories? Does being an earlier writer make one a better one? Or does being a last achieve that? It may come from dubious analogy with sports, where the fastest runner or the last man or woman standing is winner of a special laurel and plaudits. But to go back to poetry, is Chaucer better than Shakespeare because his “Troilus and Criseyde” comes before Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida”? Why should art be comparable to sport? Physical skill or strength is nowise comparable to spiritual and artistic preeminence.

So I think we should forget about making too much of tracking down firsts or predicting lasts. At the utmost, we may designate someone as early or late, but please, no superlatives, as they don’t represent value judgments.

Now onto another subject that we may call exclusivism—making someone’s name notable for departing from the norm. By which I mean a Megan calling herself Meghan or Megyn, as some of them, still not necessarily unique, will do. It catches the attention when read, but matters not a whit in pronunciation. To be different, you must almost be African American—they come up with often ingenious or amusing first names, but these do not automatically make the bearer more interesting, let alone worthier.

But for vanity, nothing seems to register as more prestigious than an unusual spelling. For me, perhaps the worst offender is Rachael for the good, traditional Rachel. It is clearly derived from the second syllable in Hebrew Michael (godlike) whose pronounced diphthong shifted to the first syllable in English, yet retained the spelled difthong, unpronounced as such, in the second syllable. But Rachel (Hebrew for a ewe, i.e. gentle as) never had a diphthong either in Hebrew or in English.

Of course, the peculiarity stems usually from what was chosen by the parents, out of pretension or ignorance, but a sensible daughter ought to legalize and espouse Rachel, the established, traditional spelling. Is a zebra going to subtract a stripe or a cat going to adopt an additional whisker. Even if born with a sixth toe? These things are not like cars or sewing machines, where a newer model is likely to be superior to an older one.

Next, critical overpraise. Why do so many reviews approve of, or even rave about, shows that I find despicable? Is it that they cater to their editors’ stated or unstated wishes, in order to get more lucrative advertising? Or is it simply a matter of bad taste or low expectations? To be sure, positive reviews appeal to hoi polloi, whereas my allegedly elitist discriminations merely exclude and annoy them. Well, I can’t help being a minority voice, but why shouldn’t that minority earn a place among all the other minorities that are welcomed under our multicultural auspices?
What if we blend in with Toms and Dicks, but not with Harrys? Or not even with all the Toms? Somewhere or other lurk our semblables, our frères.

Finally, let us consider “Death and the Maiden,” the popular name of one of Schubert’s quartets, whose second movement is variations on an earlier Schubert song of that title, to a poem by Matthias Claudius? Think of all the versions of “Death and the Maiden” in the theater and on the big screen, most recently the 1990 drama by the Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, as political as it is psychological.

What I am after is why the maiden? Why not death and the young man or boy or male infant? What is so special about the maiden? Well, something is: her beauty, her fragility, her tenderness, her vulnerability--why should they be doomed? She ought to be the most precious, the most protected form of humankind, and thus in loss the most tragical. Thus also with other dangers, such as that of the damsel in distress, lost, for instance, in the London fog in a Gershwin musical.

Granted all that is changed now, what with feminism and ERA, shattering of glass ceilings, enlistment of women even for combat, same sex marriage and legalization of every form of consensual sex?  If chivalry is no longer, independent of questions of first and last, considered by most women as patronizing or condescending, there will no longer be a seat on a crowded bus or subway offered to a woman, or a door held open for her, we will find we can live not only without it, but also without overwhelming  interest in where and when it began, and none whatever in when and where it may end. We will have yet another example of the rather supererogatory nature of the quest for the first and the last.