November 11, 1914 – Leo Lerman:
”I had the kind of life sans anything, very little money — none sometimes, and still the world came and loved coming and was grateful.”
Leo Lerman knew how to throw a party. His soiree guestlist might include diva Maria Callas, writer Anaïs Nin, ballet superstars Margot Fonteyn and Frederick Ashton, photographer Cecil Beaton, composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, or activist Gloria Steinem. He knew everyone who was anyone and more important, everyone knew him. Nin wrote:
”He talks like Oscar Wilde, but has a warmth in his glittering dark eyes,” and his conversation evoked a magician’s tour de force. He was a weathervane, a mask, a pirouette. And all you remember is the fantasy, the tale, the laughter.”
In 1980, Lerman wrote of himself:
”I have always existed in a theater of my imagination, so each person in my life has been a character.”
In his diaries, he could convey an entire life in a sentence. In 1954, an entry reads: ”Colette’s death is like the dousing of a little dependable potbellied stove that miraculously heated you all your life.
Of writer Isak Dinesen, he wrote:
” …she is a mesmerizing listener. It was impossible not to tell her the sort of detail you note in a very private diary or do not dare to set down at all.”
Of Edith Sitwell,he described her as:
”…feminine in an epicene way, the way some high churchmen are.”
About his close friend Marlene Dietrich:
”Marlene was very beautiful in two sexes simultaneously.”
Truman Capote was: ”so worldly as to be naïve.”
He was quick with a succinct summing up of someone’s character, but that gift may have thwarted his wish to be a novelist. Lerman mused late in life:
”The final desolation comes with the realization that life is like fiction, and almost all that I have earned is by non-writing.”
You probably have heard of Capote. But most people are unfamiliar with his larger-than-life New York City contemporary, Lerman. He never published a novel, memoir or true-crime book, yet he had been a writer and cultural tastemaker at Vogue, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, Dance Magazine, Playbill and other magazines for more than two decades.
Lerman wasn’t only a magazine writer/editor/critic, he was a legendary bon vivant who lived and worked in Manhattan for more than 60 years. If he is remembered, it is for being friends with famous and influential people in the arts, acting as their confidant, and often bringing introductions of famous and influential people to one another. Both Dietrich and Callas had expressed interest in meeting each other to Lerman, so he invited them both to his apartment for a face-to-face. Lerman’s recounting of that moment is in the delightful, The Grand Surprise: The Journals Of Leo Lerman (2007), edited by Stephen Pascal, his assistant of 14 years.
His personal accounts and correspondence reveal him also as having an unusually rich and complex private life, the world of 1930s and 1940s New York City, reflections on being Jewish and gay, and intimately sharing his two most important lifelong relationships.
Lerman was openly gay his entire life, with a gregarious, flamboyant personal style. He mentored young editors, who examined and imitated his work. He wrote about the theatre, dance, music, art, books and film. He launched careers and trends, exposing readers to new talents, fashions and ideas.
Lerman was born in a Harlem brownstone to a Jewish immigrant family. He didn’t attend college, but in 1941, he walked into the offices of Vogue and walked away with a job. Too entranced by the publishing world to object to its workload, he began hosting parties, first in the shabby-chic walk-up he shared with his first boyfriend, painter Richard Hunter (1928-2014); later in a brownstone where he lived for 20 years with artist Gray Foy (1922–2012) before they moved to a nine-room place in the fabled Osborne Apartments on East 57th Street across from Carnegie Hall in 1967.
He had no reason to leave the building. Among his neighbors were Bernstein, gay composer Virgil Thompson, gay pianist Van Cliburn, straight pianist André Watts, newsman Charles Osgood, writer Fran Lebowitz, actors Lynn Redgrave, Shirley Booth, Vera Miles, Imogene Coca, Ethel Barrymore, and cabaret artist Bobby Short.
Residing at the Osborne was rather amazing for son of a house painter in East Harlem. As a kid, Lerman went with his father to work, delighted for the peeks inside the homes of the rich. He was with his father when he painted the penthouse of playwright Clare Brokaw, who married Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines). Decades later, true to form, Brokaw, now named Clare Boothe Luce, and Leerman became fast friends. His considerable wit and charm gave him the chance to collect high-profile friends.
Until I came across The Grand Surprise, I didn’t know anything about Lerman, probably because he was only famous for being the friend of famous folks. His diary entries were meant to serve as notes for a long-planned memoir that he never got around to writing, even though he lived to be 80 years old.
Lerman and Capote were students together in a writing class at the start of their careers, and from an early age they were both drawn to celebrities.
Lack of money never stopped Lerman from entertaining people like Cary Grant (quite the flirt, according to Lerman’s notes), Ruth Gordon, Philip Johnson, Irving Penn, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, John Gielgud, Carol Channing, Arthur Penn, W.H. Auden, Imogene Coca, George Balanchine, Susan Sontag and, of course, Truman Capote. For decades he hosted Sunday afternoon salons at his Lexington Avenue walk-up apartment, offering his guests only what he could afford: cheap wine, cheese and crackers. Dietrich would help him by emptying ashtrays.
When Lerman had a bit more income, he would set up a buffet of Chinese take-out food, which only charmed his notable guests, who stood in line and helped themselves. The popularity of these get-togethers resulted in a line that went out the door, into the hallway and down the steps to the street. Those Sunday afternoons became legendary among NYC social circles. The Grand Surprise has guest lists along with many pages of photographs.
Invitations to a “Chinese Supper for Maria Callas” in 1956, went out to Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, gay composer Samuel Barber, actors Lillian Gish and Maggie Smith, opera diva Leontyne Price, and writers Lincoln Kirstein, William Faulkner and Tom Clancy.
In 1964, the mix for his “Early Twelfth Night” party included Rudolf Nureyev, painter Robert Motherwell, singer Joan Sutherland, Capote, and the Newhouses. Oh, to be a fly on that wall,
Lerman once turned down an invitation from the King and Queen of Spain so he could dine with the Condé Nast publisher Donald Newhouse. He flatly rejected naked Yul Brynner, who begged him to sleep with him. The first, and probably only, woman Lerman ever saw naked was Dietrich, at a time when she was having what he described in one diary entry as an intense affair with Brynner. According to Foy, Dietrich had asked Lerman into her bath to demonstrate the female anatomy. Apparently, Lerman took in the view with respectful attention.
The ultimate first-nighter, he never missed the opening of a play or musical, a nightclub, or an opera.
His diary is filled with gossip, nasty anecdotes, accounts of art, love, and sex. There are sharply observed portraits of personalities, some sympathetic, some devastating, some both, including Woody Allen, Richard and Dorothy Rodgers, Estée Lauder, NYC Mayor John Lindsay, Diana Vreeland, Bob Fosse, Martha Graham, filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, Luciano Pavarotti, Candice Bergen, Tony Perkins, Lillian Hellman, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and some Persian ambassador, to name just a few.
He continued at Condé Nast until the end. Even his death in 1994 was extraordinary. As he had instructed, Lerman’s body was returned to his apartment at the Osborne, where he lay on his bed for two days dressed in lavender socks, a night shirt and one of his favorite Turkish skull caps. Friends visited him, surrounded by his collections of antique pill boxes, Tiffany lamps and pictures of erupting volcanoes. A memorial service was held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with a capacity crowd of 1,000 mourners. Lerman and Foy were together for nearly 50 years; Foy left us in 2012.