Lives and Letters

Robert Gottlieb. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-374-29882-1
Squalid demises are unusually common in these lively, sardonic sketches of creative types—heavily weighted toward long-dead writers, Old Hollywood icons and dance pioneers—gathered from magazine pieces by Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Knopf and the New Yorker (he closes with a bitter retort to Renata Adler’s acid-etched memoir of his tenure at the magazine). Gottlieb claims he is "not drawn to sagas of self-destructing divas," but that is false: Judy Garland ("illness, addiction and degradation"), Isadora Duncan (a "ghastly wreck"), Katharine Hepburn ("vulgar and pathetic desperation to stay up to date and in the limelight"), and Tallulah Bankhead (last words: "'codeine—bourbon’") are among the many tragic figures he profiles. Fortunately, his ambivalent, sometimes intimate appreciations of his subjects, many of whom he edited or otherwise knew, deftly illuminate the talent that preceded the denouement. Many of the pieces are reviews of biographies that serve as foils to Gottlieb’s own interpretation; they let him deplore salacious scandal-mongering while quoting it, and embrace psychoanalysis—Charles Dickens’s mother issues, Harry Houdini’s bondage fetish—while mocking it. These essays are really criticisms of their subjects’ lives—amusing and engaged, but somewhat cool and dissatisfied, ready with praise but attuned to the revealing flaw. 20 b&w illus. (May)
Reviewed on: 03/28/2011
Release date: 04/01/2011
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