Bohemian Rhapsody (orig. published in The Weekly Standard, 4/18/2011)

Bohemian Rhapsody
A backward look at the Manhattan hipster life.
Ann Marlowe
April 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30

Art and Madness
A Memoir of Lust Without Reason
by Anne Roiphe
Nan A. Talese, 240 pp., $24.95

Seventy-five-year-old Anne Roiphe’s short, incandescent fourth memoir doesn’t read like an older writer’s book, but it explores obsessively an archaic constellation of ideas: that there’s something special about artists and writers that excuses their moral lapses, especially in the arenas of alcoholism and adultery.

“I believed that I was going to be a muse to a man of great talent,” she intones, and she might as well be saying she dreamt of being a lady in waiting at the court of Louis XIV, it is so remote to the present day. “Alcohol was the lubricant of genius .  .  . the men needed to drink.” In sentences that alternate between Hemingwayesque brusqueness and Woolfian rhapsodies, Roiphe offers short set pieces anchored mainly in New York and the Hamptons from the mid-fifties to the early sixties. At the time, the United States still had a nearly official culture, with a hierarchy of writers (almost all white and male) whose relative rank order everyone knew. In Roiphe’s account, they partied furiously, often at the Sutton Place apartment of the Paris Review cofounder George Plimpton.

Maybe the nonstop drinking and adultery she participated in was possible because writing was a reasonably paid enterprise, or because many of the Paris Review crowd—Peter Matthiessen, Doc Humes, Plimpton himself—were trustafarians. Some were also highly productive; Roiphe has bested most by publishing three earlier memoirs as well as nine novels and six works of nonfiction, while raising three daughters.

I caught the end of the Paris Review parties in George Plimpton’s place in the late nineties. Coming from the indie rock scene, as I did, the substance abuse and sexual charge seemed mild. So did the intellectual stimulation and literacy level. But Roiphe has a skilled eye in evoking what were obviously the times of her young life, and whether or not it was any more exciting than literary life today, she makes it seem that way.

Art and Madness—a terrible title, at once pretentious and sententious—is also, more sadly, the story of Roiphe’s doomed starter marriage (1958-63) to a delusional alcoholic, Jack Richardson. Roiphe met Richardson at a Brearley dance at 15, re-met him at the West End Bar at 21 (she says she was 19 in the text, but it’s a mistake), and married him at 22. The second time they saw each other, Richardson asked her to buy a drink for him. While they were living together in Paris, he went out alone most nights, drinking and picking up hookers while she typed his manuscripts. And then, finally, he asked her to marry him. The reader can guess which way this is going, but Roiphe couldn’t:

My father gives Jack a few hundred dollars for a honeymoon. .  .  . But after lunch .  .  . Jack says he needs the money for a few nights on the town by himself. He needs to drink. I understand. He goes off alone on our honeymoon and I wait at the apartment. He comes back four days later.

Roiphe worked as a typist in the day to support Jack writing his first play, then typed it in the evening while he went out drinking. Roiphe, whose second husband was a psychoanalyst, is aware enough to say of her choices, “It has a name in the psychiatric manuals: masochism.” But she insists that was not all: “A passion that even as I know better, even as I now regret it, was not without its own grandeur.” We have only Roiphe’s word to take for Richardson being a brilliant writer, since no one today has heard of him. Roiphe doesn’t mention the irony, but the best way to turn up the right Jack Richardson on a search engine today is to couple his name with hers. And this is a man who vowed that, if he were not as famous as Keats by Keats’s age at death (25), he would kill himself.

Speaking of which, there is no bohemian poverty in this tale. Roiphe and Richardson were living on Park Avenue when she was 27, in an apartment bought by her rich mother. When Richardson needed more money for drinking than Roiphe’s meager salary as a receptionist allowed, he pawned her jewelry or she borrowed from her mother. The folie à deux that constituted this marriage might have ended even sooner without Roiphe’s family money, which she wrote about in her second memoir, the excellent 1185 Park Avenue. Roiphe is unflinching about her limitations: “I want a better world. I just want someone else to create it. .  .  . I had the morals of a four year old. .  .  . The man was a snake charmer and I was a snake.” She rationalized her many affairs with married men in the desperate interval between Richardson’s departure and her second marriage. Because her husband was compulsively unfaithful, she was freed not only from her marriage vows but from her obligation to respect others’ vows:

If other women had my husband, I too could do as I pleased. .  .  . In other words I was unmoored, uncertain and violated the only religious precept I really believed: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

She attributes her bad behavior to not knowing “whether it was better to snatch what sex one could from passersby or to remain faithful to a love and miss the party.” She never attributes it to the sense of artistic entitlement that the male writers she knew used to excuse their lapses—though she believed in this justification, too.

Roiphe found happiness with husband number two, Dr. Herman Roiphe, a much steadier model, who was 43 to her 31 when they wed and stayed married to her until he died 38 years later. (She wrote a memoir about that, too.) In the end, though, what haunts this book are not the wild parties and furtive adulteries but the unconsoled screams of the very young Emily Carter, Roiphe’s daughter by Richardson, wailing as her beautiful mother walks out the door, often on a foolish mission: “How hard it must be to be this child, whose mother is about to put her, still in her pajamas, in the car and race to the bus stop for a last goodbye.” Roiphe was going to say farewell to a visiting lover, the late Doc Humes, possibly as alcoholic and mentally ill as Richardson, and today nearly as obscure.

Roiphe’s first daughter is referred to only as “the baby” or “the child.” At the end, Roiphe mentions Carter’s struggles with drugs, her HIV-positive status, and her having become a writer, but still without naming her. Of course, Carter, a fixture of the East Village literary scene, may have requested this anonymity. (The other daughters are Katie, who wrote this book’s forward, and Becky, both from their mother’s second marriage.) And maybe the best commentary on the harrowing marriage that produced her comes from a 1998 interview with Carter. She is reflecting on her years as a stripper, but her words apply to the repetitions of her parents’ union, and her father’s alcoholism, as well:

If I were ruler of this, our darkly gleaming universe .  .  . I’d make it a felony to change any human interaction into something reeking of power and degradation. I’d make it illegal to turn your life into an endless behavioral reply, like a skipping record, of something that happened to you as a child.

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