"Janet Flanner and my mother dominated whatever room they were in. You wanted to be around them, because they were brilliant, funny talkers, and because they just exuded an aura of glamour and intellectual curiosity."
Letter from Del Mar
Pictures, maps, photographs, and paintings crowd William Murray’s Del Mar walls. Three images catch my attention. They interest me as much for divergence of style as for dissimilar content: a pencil sketch of famed New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, her features retreating into the creamy yellow paper; a moody depiction of a stern bishop waving a thurible; and a lighthearted drawing of a topless woman sunbathing on the Riviera, her lissome figure stretched across the paper.
Murray notices me noticing and comments with a chuckle, “We liked the juxtaposition of the bishop with the sunbather” — the reserved, spiritual man with the free and fleshy woman. Murray might as easily have chuckled over the juxtaposition of the cleric with Janet, a woman with little affinity for organized religion in general and the Catholic clergy in particular — a quality illustrated in the excerpt printed here from Murray’s book, Janet, My Mother, and Me: A Memoir of Growing Up with Janet Flanner and Natalia Danesi Murray.
Bill and Janet. "Janet and I, both helpless in the kitchen, ate with gusto, then sometimes helped clean up afterward. "
Photo courtesy of William Murray
To me, the three images form three elements in a proportion, a proportion that would have been completed by a portrait of Natalia, Murray’s mother and Janet’s longtime lover. Unlike Janet’s ghostly sketch, this portrait would have been full of color and detail, solid and complete. For Janet is to the spirit as Natalia is to the flesh — somehow opposed, straining in opposite directions, yet somehow bound together, so that, whatever separation is effected, an intimate reunion always follows.
Bill Murray: “Everybody was drunk in the ’20s. They were always drinking and they were always out late in the speakeasies.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Over and over in Janet, My Mother, and Me, the theme arises, encompassing aspect after aspect of their lives. Food: “On the rare evenings when we were all home, we ate together the splendid Italian meals both my mother and Mammina Ester [Murray’s maternal grandmother] seemingly were able to whip up out of leftovers even at the last minute. Janet and I, both helpless in the kitchen, ate with gusto, then sometimes helped clean up afterward. I was used to this chore, but Janet clearly wasn’t and was vocal about her distaste for the whole necessary procedure. ‘It’s exactly like un-eating the meal one has just consumed,’ she once protested. ‘Not unlike ancient Roman behavior at orgiastic banquets.’ ” (Later, Janet’s only complaint during a visit to Rome is about the dysfunctional toilets.)
Sex: “She felt a tremendous sense of obligation to Natalia, while at the same time she was clearly exasperated not only by the compromises love imposed, but also by the basic needs of the flesh. ‘There are moments, Natalia’ [she writes] ‘when the very thought of a sexual organ, with its opening and rosiness and strange ill-organized shape, its peculiar cleft trident, fills me with real shock and horror.… That is the idea which so often constricts me with my love for you — you know that; the idea that at my age my machinery of activity is that, seems both improper and inactivating; it almost makes me impotent. At this time I should be motivated by another organ, the brain.…’ ”
However constricted Janet may have felt, she was not completely choked off. About the source of their attraction, Murray tells me, “I think there was enormous intellectual admiration to start with, and then I think there was real physical passion. Those two people were physically in love with one another, but I think the initial impulse came from Natalia’s general admiration of who Janet was and what she’d done. Both those women were amazing, because they dominated whatever room they were in. You wanted to be around them, because they were brilliant, funny talkers, and because they just exuded an aura of glamour and intellectual curiosity that made them fascinating to be around.”
Natalia, reading at the Manhattan Theater Club, 1986. "My mother was playing to standing room only in New York, and I was in Riverside, California, playing to a half-empty house.”
Returning to the theme: Children: Janet “had never wanted children, was uninterested in them, and claimed not to understand them…her outlook on self-fulfillment was essentially masculine,” that is, it derived from work, not offspring.
Janet and Bill, c. 1940. “I wanted to be Miss Henry James,” Janet once said about herself.
As we sit in a sun-drenched corner of Murray’s home, he tells me that his mother shared in this attitude to some extent, that she “was not the kind of person who could go through life not doing anything except being a wife and mother.” Natalia’s own mother may have had some influence in this regard; after she was widowed she forged a career in journalism while raising her three daughters. But in 1953, Janet writes to Natalia, “You must have a domestic life. It is your classic need, too long denied you by me, by my character, habits and work.… I, too, am utterly worn out with the sense of guilt, of struggle, the self-contempt for not making you happy, for not destroying my life as it is, for not cracking it asunder and putting you in what is left of its epicenter, in the domesticity you long for.…” Whatever fulfillment Natalia desired outside of running a household, that primal, material desire remained aflame; in Janet it never sparked.
William Shawn and Bill Murray. "New Yorker editor William Shawn told me the piece had worked out and was going through.… I had finally made it, I told myself. I was a staff writer now on the best magazine in the country, if not the world.”
“My character, habits, and work.” Work is where the theme sounds loudest and longest, the point that nearly drives them asunder, and that in some respect provides them salvation. Though they met in New York in 1940 and lived together from 1941 until late 1944, Janet was eventually drawn back to Paris, away from Natalia and back to the lonely, solitary work of writing. In his book, Murray goes so far as to call her efforts for The New Yorker — efforts which won her the National Book Award in 1966 for a collection of her Letters from Paris — her “raison d’être.” When we talk, Murray refers to the magazine as the object of “her primary commitment.” And in 1947, Janet writes Natalia, “You complain that I have three wives and the truth is, as you know, that I also have a husband, The New Yorker.”
Alice and Bill Murray. “I was just back from Italy, and I went to Santa Anita one afternoon, and here was this woman sitting in the box next to me. I remember being physically attracted by her arms.”
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
That “husband,” together with the life she builds around him, is in large part what keeps Janet from moving back to New York to live with Natalia, and this geographical separation is presented as the chief stumbling block in their nearly 40-year love affair. When I ask why Natalia did not simply set up house with Janet in Paris, Murray answers, “I don’t think it ever occurred to either of them that they should do that. I don’t think Janet made enough out of her work for The New Yorker to support a household of two, even.” Besides, there was Natalia’s desire for work of her own, work she found in either Rome or New York.
Further, such an arrangement would have infringed on what Murray calls “the ideal writer’s life” that Janet had created for herself. “She lived alone in a hotel,” Murray tells me, “so she didn’t have to worry about housekeeping and chores and all of that; she could just concentrate on being a writer. That drove my mother crazy, but, ultimately, my mother respected that. Janet was the purest writer I ever met. It was her dominant, overriding drive, and I admired that enormously.” Janet is the spirit, straining against the bonds of the flesh, driven by her heady pursuit of words to escape the messy complications of the shared life Natalia craved.
Janet and Natalia, New York, 1977. "Even before Janet’s death, my mother’s career in publishing was in decline."
And it was a strain. As Janet writes to Natalia, “I have made you pay the highest human price for my work which cannot have been worth flesh, blood and hope.” And elsewhere, “…certainly only our consolidation can relieve either of us from the breakdowns and the tension.” At one point, separation from Natalia intermingles with separation from herself, and her lover becomes a tether to the world. “With the pain that you have had in knowing of your sister’s illness,” Janet writes, “I could almost wish that there was some similar precision in my case of feeling helplessly slipping away from connection with this room, this hotel, this street, this machine that I write to you upon and the scene of you in my mind’s eye with… the bay or the sea behind you.… I will try to look out of this window and look around my room and make contact with this day, this place and reality and write you from it later. You are my last attachment to my imagination.… You are my last portrait of the heart.”
But, as Murray writes, their distance may have contributed to their endurance. “My mother was a benevolent tyrant, who through the sheer force of her personality dominated everyone in her immediate orbit…. Both Janet and I, the two people my mother loved most in the world and who reciprocated that love, had maintained a relationship with her by defending our independence. In my case, through often needless and damaging confrontations; in Janet’s, by avoidance, tergiversation, and geographical distance. I could not imagine Janet a beloved captive in my mother’s train.” And work — Natalia’s satisfying work in publishing — eventually eases the strain of their separation.
In the end, the body has its say. First, with the publication of Natalia’s Darlinghissima: Letters to a Friend in 1985, and then with this book, written by the fruit of Natalia’s body and inspired by the material records she left behind. “My mother was a magpie,” writes Murray. “Unlike Janet, who lived most of her adult life in hotels and was uninterested in possessions or in preserving mementoes of the past, my mother collected and stored away the bits and pieces of her days, including almost every letter ever written to her by anyone who counted in her life. Thus it was that, after her death, I found myself in her New York apartment painstakingly going through for many hours the stacks of files and boxes stored away in various corners of her rooms. Under the windows in her bedroom was a heavy, dark antique wooden chest full of papers, photographs, and objects from her past, the most intimate and guarded items that she had not wanted revealed during her lifetime. Often, as I was growing up, when I’d ask her about past events she did not want to talk about … she’d say, ‘Ah, you will have to wait till I am gone to find out about that.’ And once, toward the end of her life, she had looked at me and said, ‘Poor Bill, you will have so much to go through after I am gone.’ ”
“[The chest] had always been there,” recalls Murray when I ask him about it. “Probably 15th or 16th Century, a very dark wooden chest. I was fascinated by it, because I knew what was in there. When I found all that correspondence which she hadn’t revealed [in Darlinghissima], that was the impetus; I realized then that she would have wanted me to write this book. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have left that correspondence, or she would have said, ‘You can read it, but don’t write about it.’
“The book was an homage to the two of them. I felt deeply about them and loved them a lot. I think their story is important; I think their story is the story of a great love affair. If you can find that kind of relationship with any other single individual in your lifetime, you’re very lucky. I wanted to tell that story, and their influence on me.”
William Murray Jr. was born on April 8, 1926, in New York City. His father, William Murray, had met his mother four years earlier while recruiting European concert pianists to come to the States and perform on Baldwin grand pianos. He signed a “celebrated but eccentric Polish concert artist” while in Rome, and the artist’s agent threw a dinner party, to which he invited Ester Danesi Traversari and her 20-year-old daughter Natalia. Natalia and William ended the evening by driving “to the Vatican and stroll[ing] about the great piazza in the bright moonlight. The setting was highly romantic,” but nothing came of it until a year later, when Murray was again in Rome. They met by chance in the Piazza del Popolo, and after they had spent a few days touring the city, Murray proposed. She didn’t accept until after she had visited him in New York, during which time she stayed with the aforementioned agent. Murray mingled with the city’s artistic and cultural elite, and the vision of ’20s New York he presented was a dazzling spectacle.
They married in 1924, and problems arose almost immediately. What had seemed like a grand party during her visit to New York proved to be the normal, everyday course of events. “Everybody was drunk in the ’20s,” says Murray. “They were always drinking and they were always out late in the speakeasies. Nobody stayed home; they were always at parties. Everybody was hung over in the morning.”
Perhaps most damaging of all, “Sex consisted of somebody sticking it in you, coming, and then rolling over and going to sleep. That was hardly conducive to an appreciation of sex, and that’s what she had to deal with. I’m sure she was basically gay, so she found sex with women to be compatible, but I think if she’d had a careful, sensitive, caring lover, it might have made some difference. I’m pretty sure she was a virgin when she married my father, or if not, the next thing to it.”
Natalia fled to Rome after Bill was born — he caught pneumonia and Natalia believed he needed Italian air and food, along with the tender care of his grandmother, to recover and maintain his health. She returned to New York several times, but never for long, and she was in Italy when the crash came in ’29. Murray Sr. told his wife to stay in Italy until he could get back on his feet, and she gladly obliged. Soon after, she began to have affairs with women, who “seemed to provide for her the warmth and affection, as well as sexual satisfaction, she needed.”
The voyages back and forth to New York established a pattern of travel in young Murray’s life, a pattern that would lead him to write later, “We were always traveling, always in flight, it seemed.” In 1932, he was sent to a school in Switzerland for a year, “because my mother had a yen to find out about her acting possibilities, and went off with a touring troupe of players, doing the ingenue leads up and down the peninsula.” He was happy there, so much so that he had to be literally pried away when his mother came to collect him, but though his tone in recollection is sanguine, he grants that such a nomadic life may have taken its toll.
“I had no stability, and I’m sure there were negative effects from it. I suffered from a lot of homesickness as a kid. I was always being sent away for one reason or another, or being taken care of by somebody who was neither mother nor father. I thought it was the norm; I never realized that there was another way to be a child. But it certainly made for insecurity and unhappiness on my part.”
After Switzerland, he traveled with his mother and grandmother to Capri, where he might have remained had not his father written to Natalia, asking for a divorce. The letter, writes Murray, revealed Natalia as “a true Roman bourgeoise.” “She believed in the structure of family,” he explains. “She believed that once you make commitments, you keep them. That’s why we came back from Italy to try to salvage her marriage.” Even though she was being unfaithful to him with other women? “One of the things about the middle class is that you maintain the form, even if the content is not there.” So it was back to New York in 1934 for a second (and unsuccessful) try at marriage.
The instability of place was mirrored in Natalia’s motherhood. “She had the instinctive love that a mother has for a child,” Murray says. “But my mother was not a very demonstrative mother. She rarely hugged me or embraced me or kissed me or caressed me or stuff like that. Much later, very late in her life, she told [my wife] Alice how much she had wanted to do all of that obvious mother physical nurturing, but that she was afraid that I’d be gay. I’d be too tied to her strings; I’d be unmanned by her excessive affection. So it was a conscious decision on her part.
“But every now and then there would be these outpourings of love, particularly in writing. She wrote me wonderful letters from time to time. I keep one on my desk; it arrived when I was 60 years old. It just blew me away. It came from out of the blue, how much she loved me, how proud she was of me. She just didn’t ordinarily express [that] in the course of events.”
With regard to her role as governess, writes Murray, “My mother would alternate between long periods of basically ignoring me, while I was away from her, to bouts of attempting to exert control over all my actions. She was a very dominant personality, and she was always trying to rein me in and keep me from doing things I wanted to do.”
Her temperament was given to similar veerings. “My mother had a very mercurial personality, to put it mildly. [Sometimes she had] this very explosive, difficult personality, difficult for a kid like me to live under. She had these very dark moods, and, for no reason that I could see, would sometimes be very, very difficult for me. Dark, pessimistic, angry. And then there were periods when she was just incredibly wonderful — just supportive and loving and funny. Everybody adored her; she had this great gift for making people fall in love with her, no matter what sex they were.
“[That] was also sort of irritating to me as a kid. I was always in her shadow. There’s a photograph of my mother doing a public reading from Darlinghissima with the actress Marion Seldes at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York. That same night, I was in Riverside on the UC campus doing the guest-writer lecture there. I had maybe 400 people in the theater, and she had a packed house in New York. I thought that was sort of symbolic of our whole relationship: she was playing to standing room only in New York, and I was in Riverside, California, playing to a half-empty house.”
These are darkened corners of the Murray household, but there is no trace of bitterness in Murray’s account of them, and he maintains a deep admiration for his mother. “As I grew older and became more aware of my mother in an objective way, it seemed to me that she had managed to do everything with her life that she had wanted to do. She saw herself as this self-sacrificing, dedicated person, always giving up the easy things for the hard things, and I saw her as just the opposite. I saw her as someone who did pretty much what she wanted to do.”
Though she vehemently denied this quality in herself, Murray took it as a lesson. When she accused him of not adhering to her standard of self-sacrifice, “My answer was, ‘Well, we don’t have any guarantees that there’s another life, so aren’t we supposed to have a good time? Isn’t that what this is about?’ Not at the expense of others, but you know, find what you want to do, do it, enjoy it to the full — indulge your passions.”
Once they were back in New York, Murray enrolled in the Dalton School, where he spent four blissful years happily shedding the well-mannered upbringing that Europe had afforded him and embracing the more raucous manner of an All-American Boy. Though he knew only French and Italian, he soon learned English through a classmate who spoke fluent French. He fell in love with sports, Flash Gordon, and G-Men cards, cards he saved and eventually sold to finance his move to San Diego.
But something of the Old World remained, an affinity strong enough to capture his wholehearted devotion despite his ardent desire to become thoroughly American. Murray’s mother and grandmother had worked as journalists, and his adoptive second mother was already famous as a writer by the time she met Natalia in 1940, but Murray did not dream of following in their footsteps. “I had a naturally pretty voice and my mother had been a singer, and she taught me these songs when I was a kid. When I sang them at parties or at the Dalton School, people responded. I always had this appreciation for music, and I loved it.” His first love was Gilbert and Sullivan, but at 16, he met his one true one: opera. “I was dating a girl around New York with a wonderful Dutch name, Lorraine Dresselhuys. Her family had a box at the old Met on Monday nights, so she asked me to come with her. I rented a tuxedo, and we went and sat in this box with her folks.
“It was Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which is not exactly an easy opera for the first-time operagoer, but the minute the music started, I was electrified. It didn’t matter to me that the tenor, Lauritz Melchior, was just a great big overweight guy with funny-looking skinny legs, or that the soprano was huge, or that we were sitting in a box sort of off to one side, so that we could see some of the ropes holding up this ancient scenery. It didn’t matter at all; the music was just overwhelming. I don’t know what happened to Lorraine, but that’s where I discovered my love of opera. I just decided that that was it, that’s what I wanted to do. So I started taking lessons and trying to sing.”
That desire stayed with him through his first year at Harvard in 1944, and after a year of military service that never saw him leave American soil, he returned to New York, bent on becoming a tenor. His mother and father tried to persuade him to return to Harvard, which he did, but he never went to class, and spent as much time as possible working on his singing.
Meanwhile, Natalia had gone to Rome. She went there to work as a sort of scout, bringing good Italian films to the attention of American distributors, but this was merely the means to an end — being near Janet, now re-ensconced in Paris. In 1947, Natalia invited her son to join her for the summer. Murray fell in love with Italy, reclaiming with joy the heritage he had tried to strip away during his years in New York. The trip also reestablished the pattern of travel that would inform the rest of his life, back and forth from Italy to America, at first with hopes of becoming a permanent transplant, but later — after his realization that, although Italy was in his bones, he was American at heart — as a visitor and observer.
Murray’s professional singing career ended violently in 1950, when, while touring with an Italian musical revue, he lost his voice for six months from performing with a bad cold. After his recovery, he continued singing but never again for money. Happily, his career as a writer had already begun. He had started by writing items for Variety about American movie productions in Italy, films like Quo Vadis? and Prince of Foxes. But through a tip he got at the press club bar, he landed a job at Time, first as a translator and then as a reporter, much valued for his mastery of Italian. He’d turned down an offer for a permanent position with Time to pursue his doomed attempt to become a tenor, but the seeds were sown.
The years that followed provided several more trips back and forth across the Atlantic, as well as a marriage to Doris, a woman he had long admired, and the breaks that would help define his career as a writer. Nineteen fifty-five saw the publication of his first novel, The Fugitive Romans, to overwhelmingly positive reviews. And a rainy-day poker game in 1956 produced another tip: The New Yorker was about to have an opening for a fiction editor. Murray applied, got the job, and in four years, graduated to full-time staff writer. In 1962, he began writing his Letters from Italy, accounts of life in what was in some ways his native country.
The question inevitably arises about the effect of having two mothers, even if one was usually far off, and about the father who found himself reduced to the role of attendant lord. In Janet, My Mother, and Me, Murray states that he was never in doubt about his sexuality, that he was not in the least disturbed by his mother’s same-sex partners — concluding simply that no man could or would accept what would almost certainly be a subservient position — and that he considers Janet to have been something of a surrogate father. “She was a role model to me,” he explains, “particularly after I got into journalism. And she was so encouraging to me. Even when I didn’t hear from her directly, I knew that she was reading what I was writing, that she was commenting on it in letters to my mother, that she was encouraging in notes to me. So in that sense, she was what a father should be to a son, I think.”
“My own father was no help in that area,” recalls Murray, though he does grant that Bill Sr. “wanted to be helpful,” taking him to ball games, helping him get started at Variety, and offering praise for one of Murray’s pieces in Time shortly before his death in 1949. “He wasn’t a bad guy; he wanted to be a father, but he didn’t know how.” For his part, Murray has learned to be a father “in a negative way. I knew I had to be a presence in my children’s lives. I had to take an interest in them, I had to be supportive, I had to be around. Even after my marriage to Doris broke up, I was there. I did not disappear for a year. I brought them over to Italy; I came back from Italy several times to spend time with them.” He also decided not to send them away to school unless they asked to go, which none of them did.
In fact, schools were, to some extent, what brought Murray to California, far from the intellectual center of New York. “We were living in Manhattan, we had three children of school age, and the public school system was basically going to pieces in New York. Suddenly, there was no art room, there was no science room. It was also then that the busing started, and I didn’t want my kids bused into the Bronx to go to school. It would have been unconscionably expensive to educate them in private schools.
“In 1964, we lucked into a house in Malibu Beach for about $400 a month. It got us away from New York for the winter, and we could put our children in public school in California — I had heard that the Malibu school district was the best in Southern California. I had a whole bunch of magazine pieces to write — New York rediscovers California about every seven years or so and there weren’t a lot of magazine writers out here at the time.”
As lovely as life proved to be, “It never occurred to us to stay, and in the early spring of ’65 I went back to New York.” He and Doris bought a house in Princeton, New Jersey, another area reputed to have a solid public school system, one much closer to New York. But they hated New Jersey, hated Princeton, hated the constricted East Coast life, hated the climate. “All we could think about was how happy we had been in Malibu. Eight months later, I sold the house in Princeton, and we all moved back to California.”
Though their home in Malibu was idyllic, raising three kids while trying to make a go of it as a writer wasn’t easy. Murray was encountering the same sort of strain that Janet had sought to avoid in her Paris retreat. “Children are a big interference in your life. They’re a wonderful interference, but they get in the way. Silence is the one thing children don’t understand. Cyril Connolly, the English essayist, said that ‘the greatest enemy of art is the pram in the hallway.’ It’s true. Children are very demanding and you have to take care of them and they’re very costly — they take up a lot of time.”
They took a toll on his marriage as well. “After the first flush of passion is over with, after the sex thing begins to die and you begin to have children, the children become more important, in a way, in the house than you are. And you have to cope with that. You have to deal with it. I wasn’t dealing with it very well. I got too wrapped up in my own things. I wasn’t paying enough attention to [Doris]. And there were financial pressures. My writing career was not going well at all. The New Yorker stuff was okay, but my novels were not selling well, and I had a big flop with a play that I cared about. I think carelessness is the best way to describe [what caused our divorce]. You have to work at a marriage; you really have to work at it.” They parted without rancor and remain close.
The children brought him to California, but the horses brought him to Del Mar. Murray has played the horses for most of his life, and when people ask him how he’s done, he replies, “I’ve done great. I met my wife [Alice], I’ve written 11 books, tons of magazine pieces. I’m way ahead.”
A little elaboration, taking the third part first: In the book, he writes that his trial piece in his effort to become a New Yorker staff writer was a profile of “a horse trainer bringing one of his young charges up to its first race.… [New Yorker editor William] Shawn told me the piece had worked out and was going through.… I had finally made it, I told myself. I was a staff writer now on the best magazine in the country, if not the world.”
When we talk, he answers my question about what characterizes his best writing with a story: “A great friend of mine who died last year was the Irish writer Brian Moore. He once said, ‘You know, between the two of us, we’ve written everything except epic verse drama, and that’s probably because nobody would pay us to do that.’
“When I wrote my first mystery [centered around horse racing], Tip on a Dead Crab, I really wrote it pretty quickly. I wrote it because I wanted to write a mystery and I was trying to have a commercial success. I never took it very seriously, and it seemed to write itself. I didn’t have to struggle over it, and I didn’t have to do much rewriting. Then, when the book came out, it got all these terrific reviews, and it was a Notable Book of the Year from the New York Times and all of that stuff. I wrote to Brian about that, and I said, ‘I just don’t get it.’ He wrote back and said, ‘We all write best out of our obsessions.’ I think he’s right.”
First and best there is Alice, his wife of 22 years. They met in 1973; Murray had been living apart from his first wife Doris since ’72, when he left for Italy to serve as the American editor for the Italian edition of Playboy. “I was just back from Italy, and I went to Santa Anita one afternoon in October, and here was this very attractive woman sitting in the box next to me. I remember being physically attracted by her arms — she had these long, beautiful arms, and a very short-sleeved shirt on. She was sitting in a box with friends, but clearly there wasn’t a male involved. So I just leaned over, and my first words were, ‘Who do you like in this race?’ She came up with a winner, and I found out she was a nurse. I thought, ‘I’d better marry this woman; she picks winners and she’s a nurse — she can take care of me when I’m older.’ So I asked her out on a date, and we went out, and it all started that way.”
Murray’s interest in horse racing was kindled “when I was 16 and home from prep school. I was over at my father’s for dinner one night. I had an older and very beautiful cousin named Isolde, and she had married a Virginian named Harry Woodard. Harry was a horse degenerate. He was the younger brother in a Virginia family, which had very intelligently left control of the estate to the older sister, because they knew Harry was a wastrel. They gave him enough money every year to live on, which was $40,000, and then they gave him $25,000 a year to play the horses, which was a considerable sum of money in 1942.
“So we were all over there for dinner, and Harry said he was going to the races the next day, and I said I’d like to come with him. My father thought that was a terrible idea, but he changed his mind because he thought it would be a useful lesson for me to watch Harry lose a lot of money at the track.
“The next day, we went out to Belmont, and Harry just couldn’t stop picking winners. I mean, just one after another. After a while, he got to this race, which was a two-year-old maiden race, and he said, ‘I can’t pick this. Nobody could pick it. These horses have never run before.’ So, he said, ‘You pick it.’ I picked a horse called Que Hora — I’ll never forget that — and she won and paid 19 to 1. I had $10 on her, and Harry had $100.
“We went out of there swimming in money; we went to the 21 Club for dinner, and we scalped these great tickets for a Broadway musical in the fourth row center. One of those big hits — it might have been Oklahoma! I rolled into my father’s apartment that night at about two o’clock. He had been a classical scholar in college, and he was propped up in bed reading Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War in the original Attic Greek. As I passed his open bedroom door, he said, ‘Well, how’d you do?’ And I said, ‘Well, Harry won 14 g’s, and I won about $400. I don’t know why we don’t do this all the time.’ My father never spoke to Harry again, never had him in the house again.
“I was hooked. Most people who get hooked on horses get hooked because the first day they go to the track they have a wonderful time. They pick winners and they just have a lot of fun. I just loved it, and I’ve loved it ever since.
“I had heard there was this wonderful little track down here. We were living in Malibu; my first wife didn’t care about racing, so I just stuck my daughters — who were, I think, six and ten — into a car and came down and found this crummy motel on the beach, which was then $20 a night. This was in 1966, I think, after we’d moved back from the East. I spent the weekend down here. Here was this funky little racetrack with these wonderful horses, and I didn’t have to worry about my kids because there was a public lifeguard. I told my oldest daughter to stay where the lifeguard could see her and I told the motel owner to make sure the girls were okay, and then I’d go off to the races. I’d come back about five or six o’clock, and we’d all clean up and go out to dinner somewhere. Then I’d handicap and the kids would fall asleep, and in the morning, we’d all go to the beach together.
“I thought this was paradise — I loved Del Mar. I loved this funky little town that didn’t have a McDonald’s in it. There was this There was this kind of phony but charming California Tudor architecture, but unlike every other town on the coast of California, it was defending itself from developers and chain stores.”
By the time he moved here, 20 years later, the developers had begun their work to the immediate east of this funky little town, in Carmel Valley, and it was there that Murray and Alice settled into their current home. “We were looking for a place to buy in Del Mar, and we couldn’t afford anything, so Alice began looking in these developments. We were the second or third people to buy on this street. Alice described the whole area originally as the DMZ— the demilitarized zone — because it was all just sort of bulldozed land that hadn’t been developed yet. It was depressing for the first year or two, but after the trees began to grow…”
The trees are cypresses, now surrounded by an orderly, rather cozy garden — vegetables in the back, roses on the left, an apple tree right-center. The ground cover on the hill behind provides a green backdrop, adding to the comfortable closeness.
The back yard notwithstanding, I have always been afraid of development houses, suspicious of their potential to ever feel lived in. After visiting friends in a particularly large and blank abode in Orange County — one with plastic runners on the carpet to avoid stains — I commented to my wife that it felt like the place could be emptied in a heartbeat, leaving no trace, physical or spiritual, of the people who had made their lives within its confines. The pictures, often so expressive of a family’s character, seemed ready to jump off the walls and be packed away. I recall a magnificent icon, an image whose geometry and subject proclaimed the supreme stability of eternity, looking essentially impermanent as it clung to the painted white drywall in the living room.
I mention this fear to Murray, a man who has lived amid the grandeur of Rome and the bustling glory of New York. “Exactly,” he says, laughing. “And that worried me a lot when we bought this house. I thought, ‘Jesus, the last place I ever thought I’d wind up is in a development in Southern California,’ and that troubled me. I wanted to buy a house that had some character. Well, I’ve discovered that houses develop character depending upon who lives in them.”
Alice’s strategy has been to fill the place with family photos: they cluster on tables, on ledges, on walls. The dining room has been converted to a music room full of old LPs (many of them opera recordings), a ’60s-era stereo cabinet, and a handsome music stand from which Murray used to read his music when he sang. Radiation treatments for a cancer diagnosed in 1997 have silenced the old tenor, but the music plays on.
Further conversions: the living room is a library. Two walls are lined with books, including Murray’s own and all of Janet’s collected work. The third wall boasts a fireplace; the fourth has been removed, so that the library opens onto the addition that Murray’s son, an architect, added a couple of years ago. The addition is bright and airy; two walls of windows surround a substantial glass table, and the ceiling slopes upward to make room for the daylight.
Murray’s office is upstairs, also full of photos, mostly of Natalia and Janet and his father, but also of other family and friends. These days, “I’ll get up around eight or eight-thirty. We have breakfast, and then if I’m working on something, I go right upstairs to my office…around ten. I don’t work as hard as I used to. I work two or three hours a day, but by one o’clock, I’m through. Although, I came home last night and I worked for two and a half hours."
These days, he is working on a translation of Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV, a play that poses the question, “Who is mad?” “Pirandello’s view was that even somebody that the world judges to be completely insane has his own reality, inside which he can live and function.” The play interests Murray because Pirandello interests him — he has already translated many of Pirandello’s plays for production — and also because, in the play, “There’s no firm dividing line between madness and normality.” The topic has personal resonance; last year he was treated for mixed mania, an ordeal he intends to write about in the future.
Looking back over what he has written, he finds Janet, My Mother, and Me in the company of those works of which he is most proud. Others include his first mystery, Tip on a Dead Crab, and an early novel, The Sweet Ride, which was later made into a not-bad movie that still makes an occasional appearance on late-night TV.
“I loved writing for The New Yorker — that was the best, and also paid the best. I liked most of my Letters from Italy. I liked my letter from Venice — I only did one. I remember when I showed up, I thought, ‘My God, every great writer who’s ever lived has come through here and written about Venice. What the hell am I going to say?’ But after a while, I found my theme. I’m a hang-around journalist. I’m not great at interviews; I’d much rather just sort of follow people around, get to know their milieu, see what they’re doing, and overhear what they’re saying.
“And I did a piece about the daily life of a piazza in Rome — the Campo dei Fiori. It’s an old and grand piazza in the middle of Rome, a very important part of historical old Rome, and it has a great open-air market every day. I was staying in my Aunt Franca’s apartment when I wrote that piece, with a window that looked down over the piazza. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written for The New Yorker.”
Of the non–New Yorker assignments, “I liked working for the old Holiday, because they would send you to fascinating places. I remember — and this is the kind of assignment no magazine would give you anymore — that they sent me to do a nightclub tour of Europe. I had five capitals — West Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Madrid, and Rome. I don’t know what kind of piece I made of that, but it was a great assignment.
“Then The Saturday Evening Post sent me to do a cover story on the Hell’s Angels. At the time, they were a big item. That was a very interesting story to do; I almost never accepted assignments that didn’t grab me in some way. To my amazement, Shawn said he would have run it. I [think] that if I’d done it for The New Yorker, it would have been a much better piece. I should have looked into it more than I did; I didn’t go far enough with it. But the Post didn’t make the kinds of demands on me that The New Yorker would have made. They demanded the best of you; that’s what I liked about working for them.
“I liked working for Cosmopolitan, oddly enough, because they gave me very interesting assignments. I did a piece about women in prison, how they got there, and how they were treated once they got there. (What I found was that basically 80 percent of them were there because of their involvements with male criminals.) I did a piece for them about divorce Italian style, which in those days was by murdering the wife.”
“I’ve written for the New York Times Sunday Magazine quite a bit, and also for their Sophisticated Traveler, a quarterly they publish. They give you very interesting assignments, but you can’t make any money at it because they don’t give you expense money. They sent me to Las Vegas once with a $500 expense account to do a piece about Vegas in general. I think that’s the main reason [freelance magazine writing] stopped being such a great gig — you can’t make a living out of it. They’re paying the same money now that they were in the 1950s. You’d have to do 40 pieces a year just to make an income.”
What happened? “Television killed them. All the advertising went into TV. The New Yorker was a great money-earning magazine in the ’50s and ’60s, and well into the ’70s. Television has just made enormous inroads into advertising sales.” Television also did in the major newsmagazines, like Time and Newsweek. “Time is still a readable magazine, I think, but people want their news fixes from television.” Beneath what has survived in the popular imagination (itself deeply informed by TV culture), namely, that the ’50s were oppressive and conformist and the ’60s naïve, loopy, and hyperpolitical, there remains the fact that those decades were, as Murray writes, “golden years for magazines,” including intellectual heavyweights like The New Yorker.
(TV even had its way with one of Murray’s books, Malibu, which served as the basis for the miniseries of the same name starring Dyan Cannon. “It was the worst miniseries I’ve ever seen on television,” he says, “and it had exactly four lines of my original dialogue. I remember the director was a friend of mine, now deceased, and he said he was having a lot of trouble because the script was so bad. I said, ‘Listen, get me hired for Screenwriter’s Guild minimum and I’ll work for you for a couple of weeks. We’ll try to fix the dialogue at least, make it more credible.’ He looked sadly at me and he said, ‘Billy, this is not a project drenched in integrity.’ So I never got to work with it, and it was terrible, just terrible.”)
Besides his involvement with both Time and The New Yorker at their respective heights, Murray was present for other media heydays. Through his father, who ran the New York branch of the William Morris talent agency, he got a front-row seat for the golden age of radio, attending the weekly Sunday morning rehearsals of The Fred Allen Show. “It was the best thing my father ever did for me. Unlike most comedians, Allen was a selfless performer; he had that terrific thing on his show where he would interview all those characters — Allen’s Alley. He was always kind to me; he took a genuine interest in me. He would acknowledge my presence and ask me how I liked the skits, how I liked the jokes.”
Years later, just after Murray had had his first novel accepted for publication by Vanguard, he found himself in a Broadway ticket line behind the venerable Mr. Allen. “I sort of tugged at his sleeve and I said, ‘Mr. Allen, I don’t know if you remember me, but I’m Bill Murray Jr. My father and I used to come to your broadcasts.’ He said, ‘Oh, yes. How are you? What have you been doing?’ I told him and he said, ‘Please have your publisher send me a copy of your book. I’d love to read it.’ So of course I did, and without my asking, he sent this wonderful quote back to my publisher, which they used on the cover of the book. He was a wonderful man.”
His father’s involvement with William Morris also brought Murray to Hollywood in the mid-’40s, another golden age. Though nothing came of it, he is able to write of attending a party thrown by director George Cukor — a memorable host.
But the magazines were his milieu, the magazines that helped shape the better angels of American culture. “I’m very glad I had all of that, because I don’t want to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but it seems to me that we live in an age of trash. It’s almost impossible to turn on your television set and not be confronted by this garbage. The short story hardly exists as a literary form anymore; nobody is publishing them. It seems to me that every magazine is showbiz driven, or about some sort of sensational crime. I just think it’s gotten trashy.
“I’m glad I was around to see the period when a general-circulation magazine would publish really good stuff. My wife subscribes to Vanity Fair, and it’s not readable. There’s nothing to read in there. What made The New Yorker a great magazine was that it published John Hersey’s Hiroshima, that it published Rachel Carson’s great pieces on the environment, that it published Paul Brodeur’s great articles about asbestos and about microwaves. It published very good reportage from all over the world, and where is that stuff? It’s gone.”
It lasted perhaps longer at The New Yorker than elsewhere, but certainly, by the time S.I. Newhouse bought the magazine in 1985, “it was doomed. The same criteria just didn’t apply. The New Yorker was a magazine driven by writers. Shawn had built up a stable of writers; it was an artists’ and writers’ magazine. The minute Newhouse bought it, it became a popular magazine — or an attempt to be a popular magazine — like any other magazine. It was in competition with Vanity Fair, all the other magazines. It shouldn’t have been competing at all.
“The New Yorker at its height — when it was making the most money — had a circulation of under 500,000. It catered to a particular kind of audience, which was upper-middle-class, affluent, and mainly East Coast. When Newhouse took it over, particularly when Tina Brown took over [as editor], it became a showbiz magazine and a celebrity magazine.
“I left about a year and a half after Tina took it over. One of the first messages I got back from her office was that she didn’t want any more general letters from Italy. That had been my specialty, so what was I going to do? The handwriting was on the wall. Also, I despised what she was doing to the magazine, so my thought was to get the hell out of there while the getting was good.”
Now he is settled here, as deeply as a lifelong nomad can settle, in environs ideal for looking back and resting on laurels. “The sky is blue and life is easy. There’s enough going on to keep me interested. But we travel a lot also. We go back to New York frequently. I have a house in Italy, and we go there every year and spend a couple of months. We love Del Mar, but if somebody said to me, ‘Well, you can only go on living in Del Mar on the condition that you never travel again,’ I wouldn’t. I’d move to someplace where I’d get enough cultural feedback to keep me stimulated intellectually all year ’round, probably to a big city. I’m a city kid; I was brought up on city sidewalks. I need the stimulus of a big city, and I get that in New York and Rome and Paris and London. I don’t get it here. But I wouldn’t want to live in it. If I had a choice, I’d live here in Del Mar.”
— Matthew Lickona
The author, Bill Murray, in Italy, 1948. "Janet was commenting on my writing in letters to my mother, that she was encouraging in notes to me. So in that sense, she was what a father should be to a son."
CHAPTER ONE: IMMORTALITY
The voices of grief haunt the early morning hours. My mother’s voice sounded harsh and broken when she called to tell me that Janet had died. Alice and I had been awake for several hours, ever since her first call to inform us that Janet had been taken shortly after midnight to a hospital a few blocks from my mother’s apartment in New York. “I am dying, Natalia, I am dying,” Janet had whispered to her, while holding on to a chair in the hall where my mother, awakened by a cry of pain, had found her. And now, a few hours later, she was dead.
I felt stunned and cold, unable to indulge my own grief, as I got dressed and began to pack. I had already called the airline and told my mother I would be in New York by midafternoon. “Do you want me to come with you?” Alice asked, as we sipped coffee together in the kitchen.
I don’t remember answering her right away. I wanted her to come, I knew she’d be a great comfort and help to me, but I’d already begun to armor myself against sorrow. “Let’s wait a couple of days and see how things go,” I said. “I’ll call you, of course.” My mother’s apartment was small, not large enough to accommodate us both, and I knew I could not leave her alone in it, not during those first few days. Alice understood. We had been living together for nearly five years; she was a nurse, she knew about death and grieving. She also knew about mothers, especially this one. We drove in silence from our house near the beach in Santa Monica to the airport, half an hour away. Southern California’s pale early November sunlight seemed incongruous to me, almost an insult.
I recall nothing about the trip except my arrival. I rang the bell of my mother’s apartment, then opened the front door with my key. A small, distraught woman, whose swollen features I didn’t immediately recognize, staggered into my arms. We stood there, rocking together as if nothing could have prepared us for this moment. Over my mother’s head I found myself staring at the sympathetic, distressed face of Frank Taylor, an old friend of my mother’s in publishing. I smiled at him and shook his hand, as he hastened to leave. “Call me, please, if you need anything,” he said, those words we all speak to friends in distress, though not expecting to hear from them and helpless to be of use. He’d been kind to come, I told him, yes, of course, and now goodbye and thanks again.
Tuesday, November 7, 1978. It had been a glorious Indian summer day, my mother wrote about the event later. She had joined Janet in Central Park that afternoon. On their way home, Janet had reached out from her wheelchair to pluck a small branch from a bush full of red berries. She’d always loved flowers and countrysides. At home, later, they’d had drinks and dinner and a last good gossip before my mother had put Janet to bed. There had been much to talk about, because my mother was about to leave her job as the head of the New York office of the Italian publisher Rizzoli. She had been discarded by the new management that would quickly bring the firm to ruin. She’d made her peace with it, but Janet hadn’t. So often they had championed one another’s causes. That night, when my mother bent over to kiss her, Janet had held on to her and murmured, “I love you, Natalia, I love you so much.”
At the hospital, where Janet had been rushed away to an operating room, my mother, accompanied by a friend, had been prevented from following her. “Who are you?” the nurse on duty asked her. What could my mother say? The great love of her life? The person who had meant more to her than anyone else she’d ever known? The woman who had shared her most intimate thoughts and physical tendernesses since they had first met thirty-eight years ago? Does bureaucracy in any form acknowledge love beyond all else? No, of course not. In her distress my mother could not make herself lie and pretend to a kinship of blood, could not be a sister, a niece, even a cousin. All she could think of to say was, “A friend, the only person she has in New York.” They lived together, she added, in vain. “Wait in the entrance,” the nurse, who had clearly mastered the rules, instructed her.
They sat there, my mother and her friend, in a downstairs waiting room, “for interminable hours, without any information: two women alone in the silence of the night. We didn’t speak. We just waited.”
Janet had suffered an abdominal aneurysm. The doctors had had to operate, but the young doctor on duty had not held out much hope, “only a ten percent chance of survival.” The patient, after all, was eighty-six years old and had not been in good health for several years. In the end it’s always a matter of cold statistics.
Shortly after six o’clock, the anesthetist appeared. The heart had failed, he informed them. He handed my mother a small bundle containing Janet’s pajamas and red bathrobe, “all that was left of my Janet.” The friend took my mother by the arm and ushered her out into the street, then walked her back to her now silent and empty apartment.
I first held Janet Flanner in my arms sometime during the summer of 1941, when I realized that I loved her and that, through her deepening friendship with my mother, she had become family to me. She didn’t at all mind being hugged from time to time during the next thirty-seven years, though I think it surprised her when I did so. She would beam with pleasure, cackle, and usually tap me lightly on the arm or shoulder and exclaim, “Why, Bill, dear — how nice!” She was not a woman easily given to public emotion, as her sister Hildegarde observed during the memorial service held for her a week after her death. Janet was in everything “passionate but restrained.”
She did love to laugh, though, and she had an unfailingly keen eye for the absurd. The last time I held her in my arms was the morning after that service, when I went to pick up her ashes at the gloomily elegant Madison Avenue funeral home where she had been cremated. All that was left of her then was contained in a small but heavy pewter box, wrapped in brown paper and carelessly tied with ordinary twine. Cradling it, while simultaneously clutching a bouquet of flowers I had bought to ease the dreariness of the occasion, I started off down the avenue back toward my mother’s apartment, in what soon became for me the longest ten blocks I had ever walked. Most of the way I was sickened by grief; but, as I turned the corner toward my mother’s apartment, I suddenly imagined how Janet would have reacted to the scene — first with a great squawk of indignation at the inappropriateness of death and the lugubriousness of the way we deal with it, then with laughter at the sight of the two of us enmeshed in such a surrealistically comical embrace.
Had she written about it, she would have found some unusual, original way of describing the scene and its effect on her. She’d always prided herself on never saying anything in an obvious or boring way, and she was always outraged by the misuse of language, even in casual conversation. She had made herself over the years into a masterful stylist, the witty and keenly observant writer who had created a literary form with her biweekly Letter from Paris in The New Yorker.
At the service, held in the large funeral home chapel, to which so many hundreds of old friends and admirers came that the crowd overflowed, with standees packed along the walls, Hildegarde recalled that Janet had begun her career as a novelist. “I wanted to be Miss Henry James,” Janet once said about herself. After some training in journalism in her home state of Indiana, she’d moved to New York, then on to Paris, “her chosen civilization.” And there, under the strange nom de plume of “Genêt,” which The New Yorker’s creator, Harold Ross, apparently thought was the French word for “Janet,” she found her true vocation.
“I believe that the greatest event in creativity in the middle of this century,” her old friend, the novelist Glenway Westcott, told us, “has been the change and development and refinement in journalism.” No one, we all knew, was more responsible for that event than Janet Flanner. Westcott also recalled how she had looked in her later years, “a little like George Washington,” with a wonderful beak of a nose, a great shock of white hair, very small hands and feet, and lively eyes.
My mother perched in a front row on the edge of her chair, not scheduled to speak and probably unable to, but ready to pounce on anyone who might falter or stray from the point in a discourse recalling Janet’s past and virtues. She owned the memory of Janet now, just as she had finally been able to own her physically in these last three years, when Janet had at last left France to come and live with her in New York. She made Westcott nervous. He dropped his papers, he fumbled with his lines, he wandered in his speech and smiled sheepishly at us; age had caught up to him, too, and his memory was going. “Talk about Janet,” my mother whispered fiercely from her seat, so loudly that I felt compelled to put my arm around her. I was afraid she would try to tell Westcott what to say. Alarmed, the novelist rallied, managed to find the relevant part of his discourse, and spoke his lines.
The years had claimed so many of Janet’s old friends, crippled others. I had to help the playwright Lillian Hellman up the three short steps to the stage. Nearly blind, she could not rely on notes, but her mind was focused and clear. She remembered how kind Janet was even while she was being “recognizably witty,” two qualities that rarely flourish in company. “I have long thought that most people’s deaths diminish the rest of us,” Hellman said, “but that certain deaths do more than that. They don’t seem to me to have much to do with the talent of the person or how good or bad they were. It’s that some strange complex of remarkable qualities that have come together never can be duplicated again. And it’s those deaths we feel most saddened by, most grieved by.”
Hildegarde — a poet, small, stooped, a more feminine replica of her older sister, with the same fair complexion and crop of white hair — spoke last, in a soft, clear voice that accentuated every syllable and recalled Janet’s own insistence on not mangling the English language. She began by informing us that Janet’s literary bent had wavered at least once: “My sister, at age seven, desired to be a streetcar conductor.” She also reminded us that, though Janet would be remembered primarily as a “superb urban writer,” she had always loved the landscape, not only of France and Italy, but of California as well. Whenever she came out to visit Hildegarde and her family, either in the Pasadena area or the Napa Valley, “her chief delight was to be taken for a drive. ‘No mountains, please. They’re important, but excessive.’ ”
“How she adored the multitudinous minute bloomings of the California spring,” Hildegarde told us, and then read aloud her beautiful “Prayer for This Day,” the closing lines of which read: “Kneel down. We ask no vision, no heavenly light / But simple faith, like faith of grass, in earth / And seed’s old dream against the night, the night.”
During the ten days I spent with my mother in New York, the mornings were the worst time. She slept either heavily or badly or not at all. She wore her grief like a huge stone that had to be raised from her, inch by inch, from the bottom of a well. The telephone saved us. By ten o’clock it would begin to ring, thrusting the outside world into the gloom of my mother’s kitchen, where we sat struggling with her despair. There were voices of comfort from near and far; most welcome were the ones bearing news of practical matters, the small but insistent needs of the day. I seized on them with relief, serving as my mother’s secretary and factotum, forcing her to deal through me with the mundane realities. Friends came and went, bearing gifts, bringing comfort. Hildegarde, sweet but strong as tempered steel, lingered for several days, long enough to lend support and also, by her calm acceptance of the event, to force my mother to maintain a facade of Roman stoicism, at least in her presence.
It was during this period of her life, with Janet obviously failing, that my mother had begun going to church again. Not on a regular basis, but from time to time, as if to check in with God and make sure He was still there, just in case He might be needed. Like most Romans, she had been raised a Catholic but came from a long line of mangiapreti, priest-eaters, good citizens willing to acknowledge the spiritual power of the church but impatient with its meddlesome intrusions into temporal affairs.
Several times during the week after Janet’s death I accompanied her to her unpretentious local church on Lexington Avenue, a couple of blocks from her apartment. We sat in a back pew, meditated, lit candles on our way out, not only to Janet but also to my grandmother, Mammina Ester, then walked home in silence. It would have been unthinkable to linger long enough to hear a service, participate in Holy Communion, or subject ourselves to the indignity of a confession. I had long ago, at the age of twelve, rejected even the possibility of submitting to the formal doctrine of the church. My mother, as a native-born Italian, had proceeded through childhood within the ceremonial pattern of a formal religious upbringing, but, like the rest of our family, had throughout most of her life simply ignored it. You went, perhaps, to some church or other on Christmas Eve and at Easter, but only to acknowledge such events as traditional public celebrations of a shared humanity. Even now, when old age and death had made her more vulnerable to dogma, my mother could not yield to forces she had resisted all her life. Her brief visits throughout the rest of her time to places of worship signified no retreat in her convictions, nor any sort of conversion. She was not a hypocrite; she was hedging her bets.
Janet had been raised a Quaker in her home state of Indiana, and so had never had to free herself from the formalities of an entrenched ecclesiastical system. She had always had an absolutely open mind about religion — any and all religions. In Rome, on her visits there with my mother over the years, she had willingly accompanied her on those occasional excursions to the great cathedrals or into the recesses of various favorite family temples, but always to gaze at the art on display in them or to experience the shared enthusiasm of some public event. She, too, had little patience with the clergy and had once in Rome shut the door in the face of a priest who had come, as was the custom at Easter time, to bless my mother’s apartment. “We are Protestants,” she had said, having been tipped off in advance by my mother that the custom dated back to a time when the clerical rulers of the medieval city used this subterfuge as a way of sniffing out criminals, unbelievers, and possible heretics. “I meant with a small p,” she explained later, as if anxious not to have committed herself to any established order.
On November 16, the day before I was scheduled to come home to California, a memorial service for Janet was held at the American church in Paris. It, too, was attended by a large crowd of old friends and admirers. The novelist and critic Mary McCarthy delivered what she called an elegy, “a poem of lament and praise for the dead,” to celebrate Janet’s “informal spirit, vigorous, forthright, often speaking out of school, and yet grand in her nature, magnificent like Lorenzo, first citizen and patron of the arts, with some mythic quality in her like a splendid sacred bird.” The image struck me as apt, because Janet, “with her sudden grackle cries and ejaculations of wonder, astonishment, alarm,” had indeed been not unlike a wonderfully genial eagle. McCarthy’s words, read aloud to her over the phone by a friend, pleased my mother and seemed at last to bring her a healing measure of relief, as if they confirmed her own estimate of irreparable loss.
I sat with her that night in the living room of her apartment, and for the first time since Janet’s death we talked about the future. I had work I had to get back to in Los Angeles, including the openings of several plays I had to review for New West, the magazine to which I contributed a drama column. I would have stayed in New York a few more days, but my mother told me she would be all right and so allowed me to leave. I reminded her Christmas would soon be upon us and urged her to come out to California early enough to spend as much time as possible with us and with her three grandchildren — my two daughters and son, who lived in Malibu with my ex-wife.
I also hoped that she would be present at my marriage to Alice. We had been living together for nearly five years and had been planning to get married two days after Christmas, in a modest civil ceremony to be attended only by Alice’s father, a few friends, and, I hoped, my mother and the children. I didn’t remind my mother of this event that night; in fact, Alice and I had already talked on the phone about possibly postponing it. In the end, we decided not to, feeling that somehow a positive thrust at life might help assuage grief. My mother and my children liked Alice and would be supportive. Alice and I wrote to my mother independently from California to confirm our plans.
I miscalculated. Something in my mother had been damaged beyond repair. She wrote to me from New York in Italian, the language we used to express our deepest feelings to each other, to tell me that she would come, primarily to see the children, but would be unable to participate either in our happiness or in “the rituals of Christmas.”
“With Janet’s disappearance I feel the foundations of my existence missing,” she wrote.
- I know you love me so much and that you would like to help me overcome my pain. I’m grateful to you. I will not be a presence up to the events and celebrations, alas. What I would most like would be to lock myself away in isolation and pray over this mystery that is life, tied by a thread that at any moment can snap and leave you suspended, without direction or strength or balance. We are never prepared for death, unfortunately. Therefore, we have to try to live as best we can — I don’t mean materially — but lovingly and spiritually. And that’s what I wish for you and Alice.
I consoled myself with the fact that at least she would come to California and not sit brooding endlessly in her apartment. I had never seen her in such despair before, even at my grandmother’s death. It wasn’t like her, and it frightened me. She was seventy-six, but still an explosive force of nature, the independent, vital woman who had been my greatest friend and supporter, as well as my most dangerous antagonist, for a lifetime. I wasn’t afraid she would do anything stupid to herself, but I couldn’t accept the picture I now had of her in my mind, defeated at last by love and loss. She had always seemed invincible, even long after I had freed myself from her and no longer saw her through a child’s myopic eye.
The consolations of a structured faith had never been available either to Janet or to her. Janet’s ashes, in their pewter box, sat now on a shelf in my mother’s living room where, I began to realize, they would bring comfort, representing a last tangible connection. We had told Hildegarde that eventually one of us would carry them to California, where Hildegarde wanted to inter them close to those of her late husband, the architect Frederick Monhoff, and a stillborn infant son. They would eventually repose in a circular grove of native redwoods and firs that stretches down a gentle slope to a small creek.
This form of immortality was the only kind that Janet could ever make herself believe in. “I regret not having any religious faith,” she once told an interviewer. “I’m an agnostic. Of course, if I find out where I’m going that I was wrong, I’ll apologize.”
Janet finally achieved the status of a celebrity in December 1971 with her appearance on a TV talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. Two other guests, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal, spent much of the broadcast nastily belaboring each other until Janet exploded. “I’ve had enough of you!” she snapped, addressing them as a couple of spoiled children, much to the delight and approval of the live audience. Looking elegant in one of her beautifully tailored dark suits and wearing white gloves, she established herself as a public performer, which, in fact, she had always been. Later she made an equally successful appearance on 60 Minutes, where she was interviewed in Paris by Mike Wallace and chatted wittily about her days in the City of Light. Irving Drutman, an old friend from Fire Island, had edited a collection of her pieces under the title Paris Was Yesterday that was published in July, 1972, and immediately became a best-seller. Her preface to the book appeared in The New Yorker in March, by her own estimate the most popular piece she had ever written for the magazine. “Write, write, write, that’s what I wanted to do; that’s always what I wanted to do,” she informed a reporter who interviewed her about the book. And she echoed that theme when she showed up for a second time on the Dick Cavett show, even though she despised television in general: “I think it is drivel, a waste of time and brain. It is merely a way to entertain people who don’t buy books, so far as I am concerned!!!” Irritated by what she thought were needless redecorating changes and poorer service at the Continentale, Janet had moved in 1969 to the Ritz, whose luxurious appointments and chic cachet now seemed more suited to her new status as an international literary celebrity, even though she wasn’t sure she could afford it.
She finally came to live with Natalia in New York in early October 1975, a few weeks after the publication in The New Yorker of her last Letter from Paris. Unable to get around on her own anymore, she had spent the spring and summer in Orgeval and had written mainly about “the flowers in our valley, mostly roses. Never did I see so many; it has been a great rose year and thus a pleasure to the eyes.” Her health, fortified for so long by martinis and a judicious absence of exercise, had begun at last to break down these past few years. She suffered from high blood pressure and severe angina attacks, for which she took nitroglycerine tablets, and had difficulty walking for more than a few yards. Her mind, however, was still clear, though she had memory lapses and occasionally dozed off for minutes at a time during the course of the day. She had become increasingly dependent in Paris on the kindness of her friends, especially Noel, whose own health, however, had begun to deteriorate. By the time Janet settled permanently in Natalia’s apartment on October 10 she had, in effect, become an invalid.
Natalia saw no irony in the fact that Janet’s so-long-delayed move to New York should have taken place only when Janet could no longer live alone or even work. My mother had waited thirty-five years for this moment, when she could at last bring Janet under her maternal wing and take full control over her life. She immediately set about organizing Janet’s day by limiting her alcohol intake to a single light Scotch and water before dinner, and got her to cut down on her smoking, a major achievement. She also made sure that Janet ate properly and took her various medications on time. And she screened all requests for interviews and social engagements to make certain Janet wouldn’t be exhausted by the now fairly numerous requests for her presence. “I am learning a great many things,” Janet commented soon after moving into the New York apartment, “obedience and patience.” But she didn’t chafe under Natalia’s benevolent tyranny; indeed she seemed to thrive under it. “Such felicity!” she said to Natalia one evening, as they sat in their living room before dinner. “Love is full of little celebrations.”
Their favorite times together were in the morning, when they shared the newspaper, gossiped, and drank tea, which Janet called “a valiant potion for salvation.” Janet’s mind was at its clearest then and she adored the sharing of news, the exchange of opinions and the comments on friends and family that Natalia never failed to provide. “Our mornings are very intimate and rich in our perceptions,” Janet observed. “The presence of love in our lives makes a special atmosphere in the apartment, as if one could smell it and feel it as a scent of warmth.”
After breakfast Natalia would depart for her office at Rizzoli and Janet would sit down at her desk to go through the paper, marking with a colored pencil items that particularly interested her and clipping some to store away in her files. It was a routine she had followed for most of her working life, constructing out of these bits and pieces of daily life a mosaic of events to form the backbone of her narratives for The New Yorker. Sometimes she would spend several hours rereading her own stories, often commenting aloud on them, judging them anew. “Oh, that was good!” she would say. “Yes, I handled that rather well, I think.” Occasionally, she would squawk in protest like an indignant bird over a passage or a paragraph that she felt had been mutilated in the editing. Once, when I was visiting her in New York one afternoon, she was angered by the recollection of what she considered a brutal piece of editing at the hands of somebody, not Shawn, at the magazine. “It is always wrong to cut a part of a thought or an incident out,” she once explained. “In cutting a part it is like serving the chicken’s neck, having cut off the rest of its toasted carcass. There must always be taste in carving.”
She liked to sing the spirituals and old Methodist hymns she had heard growing up in Indianapolis, and she and Audrey, the handsome Jamaican woman my mother had hired to take care of her, could sometimes be heard warbling away from the bathroom or the kitchen. In the afternoons, if the weather was fine, Audrey would try to take her out for a walk, to which Janet objected on the grounds that her feet were too small. She preferred to let Audrey push her about in a wheelchair through the park or past the storefronts on Madison Avenue. “One often gets the impression that New York is constructed around drugstores, bars and banks,” she observed one day, while riding back home in a taxi from lower Fifth Avenue.
Irving Drutman, although already ill from the cancer that would kill him within a few months of Janet’s death, had begun to assemble and edit another volume of her writings, published in November 1979, under the title Janet Flanner’s World. It included her profile of Adolf Hitler, as well as many of her reminiscences of all those extraordinary characters on the Parisian scene whom she had brought so vividly to life in the pages of The New Yorker. As Irving began to work on the book, Janet limited herself to approving his selections, but noted sadly that all of the people she had written about over so many years had disappeared; she had outlived them all, including Solita Solano, who died in Paris a month after Janet’s final departure for New York. Solita had remained faithful in her loving friendship for Janet until the very end. The two women had seen each other often in Paris and Orgeval and continued to carry on a correspondence over the years despite Natalia’s opposition. Janet could never turn her back on anyone who had once been close to her, a trait that infuriated my mother, who had never forgiven Solita for her behavior in the early months of her relationship with Janet. “She was not a generous enemy,” Janet said about Solita, but then the same observation could have been made in this instance about Natalia. After Solita died, Janet observed sorrowfully that these deaths were “like leaves falling from the tree.” On her last birthday, March 13, 1978, she commented, “The highs and lows of life tear one apart.”
Although Janet ceased to be as much of an influence on my life and career as before, once we had moved to California, Natalia remained a powerful and loving presence in my life. The days of our power struggles and my often overheated rebellions were long behind us. She came at least once a year to visit us for a period of several weeks, usually at Christmas. I went to New York several times a year and saw her every day. She continued to question, challenge, and support me in every way and to comment, not always positively, on my literary efforts. She couldn’t understand why I couldn’t seem to grab off chunks of that easy Hollywood money that she believed was just lying around for someone with a minimum of talent to pick up; but when I consulted her about possibly trying my hand at a screenplay, she would turn pessimistic. She was contemptuous of almost everything that came out of California, especially the Los Angeles area, and would recall her time spent with Anna Magnani working with people she regarded as profoundly corrupt and artistically highly overrated as well as overpaid. She was always secretly relieved whenever one of my attempts to break into movies or television failed.
The closest I ever came to the easy Hollywood money had been in 1967, when Twentieth Century–Fox bought my novel The Sweet Ride. We were living in Malibu in a rented house east of the Malibu Colony, on flat land along the shoreline of Malibu Creek. “Why don’t you ask if you can write the film?” my mother suggested. “Who could do it better than you?”
I called up my agent in Hollywood and asked him if anybody had been signed to do the screenplay. When he said no, I asked him to set up an appointment for me with Joe Pasternak, the producer the studio had hired to bring the project to fruition. A couple of days later I drove in from Malibu to the Fox lot on Pico Boulevard and was ushered into the presence of Pasternak, who was in the studio barbershop having his nails done. The producer was a small, bald man with a thick Hungarian-Jewish accent. He was a survivor of dozens of studio wars and had earned his reputation as the producer of a series of highly profitable but forgettable films starring Deanna Durbin and Esther Williams. “In the vater she vas a star,” he had once commented about the latter. I stood by his barber’s chair and introduced myself over the head of the young woman bending over his cuticles. I thought it was entirely appropriate that a writer in Hollywood should be kept standing during a public interview like a supplicant at the throne of a minor Roman emperor. “So vat haff you written?” he asked me.
I told him, and added that I had a reputation for churning out excellent dialogue. “Ah, but haff you written a screenplay?” he inquired. I told him that I hadn’t, but that I had written for the theater and translated several plays by Luigi Pirandello. “My God, Pirandello! But you haffn’t written a screenplay,” the producer said. No, I hadn’t, I admitted, but pointed out that two of the three stars signed for his project, Jacqueline Bisset and Michael Sarrazin, had never been in a movie before and that his director, Harvey Hart, came out of Canadian television. “That’s right,” Pasternak said, “but there’s a limit to the amount of inexperience ve can haff on this film.”
I laughed and had to agree with him. I didn’t get the job, but Pasternak and I became friends, especially when I found out he liked to play the horses. I would see him from time to time at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park and we’d confer over the merits or lack of them of the animals running that afternoon. A few months later, while my mother was visiting us in Malibu over the Christmas holidays, my children expressed a desire to go and watch the filming of a scene or two of the movie being made out of my book.
I called up the producer’s secretary and made arrangements to go onto the lot to watch a big indoor party scene being shot on one of the main sound stages. We walked into preparations for a huge nightclub affair featuring a rock band and several hundred extras, all milling about under flashing multicolored lights. We stood clustered at the edge of the proceedings, watching the preparations for an event I had not written about in my novel. My characters were people living by their wits on the fringes of the Hollywood scene; they could not have afforded to go to any kind of expensive nightclub. As we stood there, gawking at the goings-on, Pasternak spotted us from across the way. Dressed in a long, dark gray overcoat against the early morning chill, he came tottering toward us across a great snarl of cables, waving his arms and smiling. “Don’t vorry, Bill,” he said, “ve didn’t keep nothing but the title.”
This was the closest I ever came to making a breakthrough in Hollywood, and my mother stopped urging me to solve my periodic financial problems by picking up that easy studio loot. I think she was secretly pleased by my failures in this department, even though she longed to see me happy, financially successful and not so dependent on magazine assignments to pay my monthly bills.
The last months of Janet’s life were mostly peaceful and easy, her routines punctuated by visits from old friends. Her mind sometimes wandered and there were moments when she would grieve over her inability to write, but she was always aroused by her visitors and, like an old trouper confronted by an audience, would rise to the occasion, stimulated by company and the memories of the past that crowded in upon her. The editor and novelist William Maxwell, an old colleague from the magazine, dropped in on her one day to find her “like a caged animal. Only instead of pacing back and forth behind bars she picked up a copy of Time and turned the pages, without looking at them. Or me.” Maxwell went right on talking, however, and eventually Janet dropped the copy of Time on the coffee table and began to talk back. “Marvelously,” Maxwell recalled. “As well as I have ever heard her. About The New Yorker, about Paris, about writing and the life of writers. I came away feeling how privileged I had been to know her.”
Helen Bishop, another old friend, went to see her in October, while Natalia was away at the yearly Frankfurt book fair in Germany. She found her with a copy of The New Yorker open on her lap, staring at a full-page ad. “When I’m not up to reading, I look at the ads,” Janet told her. “They’re very revealing.” She pointed to a picture of a beautiful woman with a drink in her hand and tried to look indignant. “Do you have to look like that to enjoy gin? I certainly didn’t…and yet I did.”
Bishop asked her about Natalia, wanting to know if she were at ease with her absence and whether she had heard from her. Yes, there had been phone calls, letters and cards, lots of news. “We’ve been separated much longer than this, in more critical times than these,” Janet said. “We always get together again. She’s been part of my life for so long, it almost seems forever. I’ll be here when she gets back and she will get back.”
Bishop read aloud to her for a while, a short story by Edna Ferber, talked a bit longer, then left, relieved by the visit because of “the clarity of her thoughts, the emotion she stirred in herself and me when she spoke of [Natalia], the impish humor which pervaded all, made it one of her better days, I’m sure. She was in fine form and it was a joy to be with her.” Bishop had been alarmed a few days earlier by having spoken to Janet on the phone and finding her conversation “disjointed and faltering.”
I was in New York for a week in October, during my mother’s absence, and saw Janet nearly every day, even though I wasn’t staying in the apartment. I would find her sitting in her favorite chair in the living room, close to a window that provided enough light for her to read by. Sometimes she would be simply sitting there, her head slumped against the back of the chair, seemingly nearly comatose. The sight of me would rouse her and her face would beam with pleasure. “Bill, dear,” she would say, “what are you doing in New York?” Or, “Bill, how nice to see you,” as if it had been months since our last meeting. I’d tell her, as I did every day, that I was in town to see my editors and agent and then we’d talk, always about the past, The New Yorker, Paris, old friends — never about the present, which seemed ephemeral and confusing to her, of no possible significance or interest. Once we talked about God and religion and I told her about Pirandello’s view of the church as a construction built to house the highest of human sentiments, to embody, with its domes, naves, columns, gold, marble, and great works of art, “the spirit of man in adoration of the divine mystery.” But by building itself such a home, the playwright had maintained, the spirit itself had been diminished, made to seem vain. She was fascinated by the concept, her brain stimulated, as always, by the impact of an idea, a view of the human condition considered from an angle that had not occurred to her. I told my mother about this conversation when she returned, and she was amused by it. It wasn’t that Janet didn’t believe in God or some form of immortality, she said, but she simply didn’t believe that any religious order could claim a monopoly on the truth regarding it.
I remembered this conversation with Janet, my last serious one with her, years later, when I was going through my mother’s papers. In a letter dated April 6, 1955, Janet wrote about seeing an article in Life on India and its religious systems. “I was brought up to go to Sunday school, to believe in Christianity,” she said.
- But as I look back I never had any belief at all in any religious inspiration or entity; was not quite able to turn with that angry radicalism of youth against Jesus, it being easier to deny God as a principle because he was both impersonal, without a face and representative of authority. But the human inherited visage of Jesus, looking nothing like anybody specially except a gentle bearded man who was a mere artistic convention, nevertheless touched me too much, as did the horror of his physical suffering, his crucifixion, for me not to believe that surely he must have lived historically. But I never believed in the doctrine of virgin birth, rising from the dead, etc. Today they seem all natural uses of the abnormal, of the special, of the non-possible that mankind naturally invents to give significance to a religion which of itself must be different than man himself. That is religion’s meaning. I think of these things at Easter, that lovely festival of rebirth, of spring, of new hopes, of new determinations to be better in heart and soul and acts. For in the soul I believe, in some element of mysterious entity within us when civilization offers it as a means of upward growth. It is an attainment, not necessarily an endowment. Plato more surely had a soul than I because superior in civilization and I more surely have a soul than a Nazi soldier because he did wicked deeds of cruelty, no matter whether from duty or obedience; the acts remained, when personal, part of his individual damnation on earth. Should we think to meet after death? I do not see or feel this to be possible. But if so I shall be yours with love there, too.
In a postscript scrawled in pencil at the end of this letter, Janet observed that Natalia would probably be going to church on Easter. “Pray for me, too,” she urged her.
CHAPTER 24: “We Enjoyed Them”
My mother never quite recovered from Janet’s death in November 1978. Does anyone recover from the quintessential losses? But she continued to work, and gradually her life again became full of friends and projects and aspirations. From across the country she kept a watchful, often reproving eye on my successes and misadventures. She never accepted my move to California and blamed it for the breakup of my marriage, but at least she adapted to it. I would go to New York several times a year, usually on my way to and from Italy for The New Yorker, and I would stay with her, sleeping in the small narrow bed that had been my grandmother’s and later Janet’s. In late December, a week or so before Christmas, she would arrive to spend the holidays with us. No sooner off the plane than she would assert that she couldn’t stay very long, that she also had a number of people — old friends, business acquaintances — she would have to see and that she couldn’t simply waste her time sitting around Doris’s house in Malibu, isolated from her world of publishing, theater, and the arts in general. My children thought of her as a flashy comet that dazzled their horizons once a year, then vanished.
She considered southern California a wasteland, a cultural desert in the hands of the philistines who ran the movie and TV industry. When my translations of Pirandello were produced in L.A., she assumed they would not be successful or even understood because the public there was not sophisticated enough to respond to them. Even in 1987, when Gordon Davidson, the artistic director of Centre Theater Group, produced a one-hour dramatized version of Natalia and Janet’s book of their letters, Darlinghissima, at a small dinner theater downtown, with my mother reading her own commentary and the fine English actress Christina Pickles reading from Janet’s letters, she couldn’t quite believe in the enthusiastic local reception the piece received from critics and public alike. It was the hot ticket of that season and could have run much longer than its allotted seven weeks. My mother assumed that its success was due to the presence in Los Angeles of a great many New Yorkers unhappily transplanted to the entertainment factories of the West. As far as she was concerned, southern California did not and could not nurture an indigenous artistic and intellectual life, not in the part of the country that had given us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Darlinghissima, published in 1985, was the great event of her later years. The book was splendidly reviewed everywhere and revealed to the world a softer, far more intimate personality than Janet had ever before disclosed in her published work. My mother had had her doubts about publishing the book, afraid mainly that her grandchildren might be shocked or offended by the revelation of their beloved Nonna’s emotional relationship with another woman. Had I objected, on my own or their behalf, she would not have gone through with the project. As it was, she left out much that was revelatory of the difficulties they had, of their quarrels, doubts, complaints and fears, the letters I have chosen to quote from in this book. I worked with her on the manuscript mainly as a copy editor, and sometimes she became indignant at my suggested changes, what she considered a smoothing out of her lively Italian voice. “You are destroying my style!” she trumpeted at me one afternoon from New York, thus establishing herself as a true outraged author subverted by overediting. I contented myself mainly with suggesting cuts, correcting grammar, spelling, phraseology that sounded clumsy to my American ear. I never pushed, always yielded to what she demanded, and she trusted me, as she did her editor, Jonathan Galassi, at Random House. It wasn’t his fault that the book didn’t sweep up the best-seller lists. Random House made no effort to promote, advertise, or reprint, even as the first modest printing of ten thousand copies was quickly selling out. My mother knew a potential best-seller when she saw one. What gave her the most pleasure from the book was those evenings when she and Christina Pickles were able to bring Janet’s words and their world together to life in front of a live, appreciative audience. It was a vindication of all they had lived through together and what they stood for, as two women who had, as my mother put it, “surmounted obstacles, trying to lead their personal and professional lives with dignity and feeling.”
Even before Janet’s death, my mother’s career in publishing was in decline. As in the case of Mondadori, the Rizzoli empire began to fall apart after the death of its founder. Old Angelo’s son Andrea gambled away his time and money in the casinos of the French Riviera, and young Angelo, his son, took over the firm. He was a witty, enthusiastic innovator who quickly overreached himself with costly acquisitions and new projects, such as the purchase of a leading daily newspaper, the Corriere della Sera, and the launching of the Italian edition of Playboy. I was involved with the latter, as its American editor, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that the project had squandered large sums with little hope of an adequate return. Trusted old hands departed or were fired, and some of the new executives proved to be speculators on a massive scale, with political connections in Rome to whom money had to be funneled in vast amounts to buy political support for the firm’s risky ventures. My mother sniffed the new atmosphere and soon realized her days as director of the New York office were numbered. By the end of 1976, she had been shunted aside to make way for the cronies of the new regime in Milan. In 1977 she resigned to take a job as representative for the much smaller Milanese publisher Sperling and Kupfer, to which she lent her prestige and provided the contacts that enabled it to acquire a number of American books that became best-sellers in Italy.
As she grew older my mother seemed physically to shrink into herself. She became tiny, but seemed to compensate for it by increased energy and her lifelong proclivity for embarking on and nourishing several projects at once. She seemed always to be on the run, here, there, everywhere, commenting fearlessly on all subjects of public interest and lavishing withering scorn on the developments in the American spectrum that seemed to her to be corrupting the values she had stood for all her life. She was uncompromising in her judgments of personalities and merciless in her criticism of the ways in which I and my children were choosing to conduct our own lives. She could still wound to the bone, a talent she had shared with her sisters and which my cousin Flavia, Lea’s daughter, had once defined for me by explaining that “the Danesis bite.” This gift had never failed to enrage me whenever I happened to be the victim of it, which was often, but as I grew older and surer of myself, it often failed to incite me. The thrusts would come most often out of the clear blue, like flashes of lightning from an unseen source, and they never failed to astonish.
A typical example was the day the phone rang at my office at the magazine. I happened to be in town, on my way back from Italy. Our old friend Cheryl Crawford, the Broadway producer and one of the original founders of the Actors Studio, had recently died. The Studio was holding a gathering in her honor, a function devoted to celebrating her career and life and at which old colleagues and friends would rise to reminisce about her. My mother wanted to know if I would escort her there. I told her I would, and we met that afternoon at the entrance to the Studio and headed together up the narrow flight of stairs leading to the main quarters on the second floor. “I haven’t been in here since 1962,” I observed, as we climbed the steps, “the year I was in the playwrights’ unit.” “Another thing you started and quit,” my mother said, without missing a beat. As a young man struggling to master his life, this remark would once have enraged me. This time it merely stopped me in my tracks, left me leaning against the wall in helpless laughter.
Her health remained superb until the summer of 1992, when she had taken a house for a month at Cherry Grove with one of Janet’s old friends from Paris, the photographer Giselle Freund. My mother had sold her own place there some years before, having found it too difficult and expensive to go on caring for the house simply in order to be able to enjoy it for a few weeks every summer. Afterwards she had refused to return to the island, so as not to have to walk past her cottage where she and Janet had spent such good times together. This last summer, however, the pain of loss had lessened sufficiently for the island to reclaim her. Most of her older friends had long since died, but she had become an icon in the community, a sort of living monument to its establishment as a homosexual sanctuary. Now there were young women who had befriended her and for whom she had become a beloved symbol for the freedom to be themselves that they, too, had fought so hard to attain. She and Giselle reigned there that summer as queens, befriended and nurtured by a small tribe of admirers and acolytes.
Sometime in August she began to complain of stomach pains, but characteristically refused to do anything about them. She had rarely been sick, never been hospitalized, and refused to yield her freedom to any medical judgment. She told me nothing, not until September when she was at last compelled to see her doctor in New York, a gentle, scholarly man who had also been our family physician during the years Doris and I had lived in New York. He sent her for tests and X rays and reported the finding of a large, probably malignant tumor in her colon. Only then did she consent to inform me, and I came to New York to be with her for the surgery she would have to undergo.
She swept into it with the fearless panache that had characterized her whole life. Everything at the hospital she entered amazed and outraged her. She mocked the parade of doctors who gathered periodically at her bedside, and her judgments on the nursing staff were uncompromisingly severe. The nurses dreaded going near her, and once she was left alone on a gurney in a corridor outside an X-ray room for five and a half hours. I went to protest to an administrator, a pompous young man who assured me that his establishment was the finest health-care facility in the Western world and that my mother must have done something herself to cause the incident. I told him that his hospital would indeed have been considered the marvel he said it was had it been located in Bosnia-Herzegovina or the Sudan, but that it couldn’t qualify for such honors in our part of the world. I then went and hired private nurses to watch over my mother’s welfare, at the immodest cost of a thousand dollars a day. “Have you gone mad?” my mother asked me from her hospital bed shortly before being wheeled off to the operating room. Not mad enough to allow her to be abused in her old age in a badly run private institution, I told her. She laughed. Not at my remark, I realized later, but because I had at last taken charge of her life; she was proud of me.
The surgeon who operated on her was skillful but proved to be what my wife, Alice, my resident medical expert, described as a cowboy. He operated too often and allowed subordinates to clean up after him, which resulted in my mother failing to heal properly. I took her home, but she continued intermittently to run a low-grade fever for weeks after the surgery. Shortly before Christmas, Alice and I came East to whisk her out to California, where we were certain she could obtain the best care available and we could supervise her recovery at close hand. She didn’t want to come. She insisted that she could go on controlling her fevers with aspirin and home nursing care. I asserted my new-found power over her and she began to refer to me as “the Boss,” a considerable upgrade in rank from my once lowly status as the only private in her army.
We went straight from the airport in San Diego to the emergency ward of Scripps Memorial Hospital, where my mother was promptly assigned a private room and entrusted to the care of physicians Alice knew and trusted. The nervous energy we had been operating on for weeks banished jet lag. My mother remained in the hospital for forty-nine days, during which she underwent two more surgeries to correct the errors perpetrated on her in New York. She barely survived the second one, which left her that night hooked up to tubes and machines in the intensive care unit and looking like the subject of an experiment in a bad science fiction film. I leaned over her to say good night and urged her to try and get some sleep. “Fat chance,” she murmured in my ear.
She began to recover and we brought her home. Her heart, however, had been fatally weakened. A cardiologist informed us that she had perhaps a year and a half to live. She recovered so quickly that we deigned to shrug off his prediction of impending congenital heart failure and to hope for something like a full recovery. Natalia was ninety-one years old, but she had the will of a lioness in her prime and we hoped for five, maybe six more years. She would live with us in our house in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar, where we could watch over her, and her grandchildren could visit her frequently from Los Angeles.
As she became stronger, we became weaker. She began to order us about, to establish her rule in what had been, in her eyes, a sloppily managed household carelessly ruled over by a woman far too tolerant of my penchant for going to movies, attending racetracks, and playing tennis. She chided Alice about her laxness in my regard. “Why don’t you just tell him what to do!” she urged her one day. Alice sat at her feet, took her hand in hers and looked earnestly up into her eyes. “Natalia, I’ve been married twice,” she said, “and both my marriages lasted longer than yours.” She pleaded with my mother for understanding and tolerance of our undoubtedly slipshod ways, but in vain. It was like asking Louis XIV to lighten up on court etiquette or persuading Alexander the Great to slow down in his march toward India.
The struggle for dominance began to batter at our marriage. My mother enlisted the children on her side. She began secretly to telephone them from her room, to inform them that she had been isolated in her quarters, that she wasn’t even being fed properly. I became aware of this tactic when the children would call and hardly say hello, ask to speak only to Nonna, never inquire about Alice or me. I confronted my mother, asked her to desist, offered to engage a full-time helper to take care of her needs. She refused. She wasn’t going to squander money on strangers. I offered to sell the house, buy a larger one with a separate apartment for her so she could reign over her own small kingdom. She dismissed my offer as impractical, unnecessary, typical of my irresponsible approach to all practical problems. Alice said she would have to go away, go stay for a while with a friend who lived across the freeway from us, a half-mile away. Unable to sleep and fueled by caffeine and decongestants, I developed a heart problem of my own, an atrial fibrillation that eventually would require cardioversion (a restoration of normal rhythm by electrical shock) and would put me on medication for several years.
I took Alice off to Hawaii for ten days to rest, and to see if we could salvage our situation, formulate a plan. When we returned I confronted my mother on our patio, where she liked to sit and enjoy the view of our garden that Alice had willed into existence out of the desert sand. My mother had already formulated a plan of her own. She would move into an apartment in a senior residential complex two miles away from us. She planned to remain there a few months, then move back to New York.
The place she had chosen was pleasant enough, a large, well-managed facility catering exclusively to the needs of the elderly. Her ground floor apartment consisted of a bedroom, living room, dining alcove, and a small kitchen. From the tiny patio off the living room she could look out on a bank of flowers across the way, and she bought plants of her own to nurture. The children drove down periodically from Los Angeles to see her; her friends in New York came, too, and followed up their visits with frequent phone calls. I dropped in on her every day, and two or three nights a week we would dine together, either at our house or in the facility’s main dining room, where the food proved to be adequate. She made friends with several of the other women in the complex, one of them the widow of a well-known sculptor. Giselle Freund spent a month with her, stirring my mother into action through her inability to manage money or even her travel arrangements. Nothing made my mother happier than the opportunity to correct someone else’s mistakes and dictate courses of action that she approved of. I went into family therapy with my children up in L.A., driving up there once a week for sessions that allowed us at last to pick at the bones of contention between us, to explain ourselves to one another, to listen to one another’s grievances. Some of the damage caused by the war my mother had fought to take over our lives was mended, though traces of bitterness and anger remained. Alice withdrew from the scene as much as possible, afraid to risk finding herself permanently cast in the role of wicked stepmother. All she’d ever wanted from my children was their friendship. It had been granted, withdrawn, and now was again being tentatively proffered. I had a very hard time forgiving my mother for the damage she had caused in our lives. I knew that she had no insight into any of her own motives. She had never had any, I realized. The Danesis were always right.
In the fall of 1993, accompanied by a young woman we had hired to help care for her, she went back to New York, but not to stay. She had become too dependent on the skills of the doctors we had engaged to take care of her, and dependent on us. She realized that New York was too far away from us, and I think she knew now that her days were numbered. From time to time she experienced difficulty in breathing, and oxygen had to be administered. She wanted to be near us and to be available to the children, who visited regularly and who for the first time in their relationship with her were able to command her full attention. They fell in love with her. She had always had the magical ability to make everyone within her immediate orbit become entranced by her. She again asserted her dominance within the confines of her new living quarters and she participated actively in the facility’s public events, going off with her new friends to concerts, shopping expeditions, art exhibits, even during the summer racing season to the Del Mar racetrack where, luckily, I was able to produce a few winners for her. “I will bid on this horse,” she would declare, then inform her new friends that this paragon of a beast had been selected for her by her son, the racing expert. She wrote letters back to her old friends in the East and to Franca in Rome. She wrote poems in Italian — about her past, about Fire Island, about Rome, about New York — that I translated for her. She referred to her present situation as life in a golden cage.
Giselle came again for another long visit, this time so exasperating my mother that Natalia forced her temporarily to move out, into a guest apartment in another part of the building. My daughter Julia, who witnessed one of her grandmother’s outbursts against her old friend, remonstrated with her. Giselle had come to see her all the way from Paris, how could she treat her this way, heap such abuse on her? My mother relented, Giselle moved back in with her. At Thanksgiving, Franca came and stayed with her through the holidays. Flavia had accompanied her from Rome and we both feared the worst; whenever Franca had visited my mother in the past in New York they had fought fierce territorial wars, forcing Franca often to depart prematurely from the apartment in the mornings in order to avoid daily confrontations. This time, however, they adjusted immediately to each other’s needs. Franca’s sunny personality bloomed in California. We took them to a Thanksgiving dinner in the great sprawling rococo vastness of the Del Coronado Hotel, where we ate in the huge fin-de-siècle dining room that made both of them giggle with outrage and delight. About ten days before Christmas, in an atmosphere of drama, Franca left to return to Rome. That night my mother had suffered a serious attack necessitating the arrival of a crew of firemen to administer oxygen and rush her to the hospital. Franca said goodbye to her as she lay recovering in her room, in some ways a blessing because it meant they would have no time to grieve over what they both suspected would be their last embrace.
The phone call from Rome came two months later, early in the morning. Federico’s voice sounded calm, strangely cold at the other end, as if he had willed all emotion out of it. “Bill, my mother died yesterday,” he said, as if announcing a change in the weather or a train schedule. She had not responded to phone calls and the police had had to break into her apartment, where they found her sitting in her living room in an armchair facing the television set, a dinner tray on her lap. “She didn’t suffer at all,” Federico said. “A heart attack.” I shouted in disbelief. Alice came running into the kitchen and we fell into each other’s arms. We had both loved her deeply, but now we had no time to grieve for her. We would have to tell my mother before she would inevitably begin to receive condolences from Rome and New York.
An hour later Alice and I stood in the corridor outside her apartment while she finished getting dressed. She smiled with pleasure at the unexpected sight of us as she emerged from her bedroom. “I have very bad news, darling,” I said, pulling her into my arms. “It’s Franca.” She cried out in an agony of grief, her arms flailing helplessly about as I held her tightly. “Why not me? Why not me?” she cried. There was no answer to such a question. Alice gave her a sedative and we stayed with her throughout the day until well into the night, when at last she fell into a sleep dark with pain and irreparable loss.
I think it was then that she began to long actively for death. The attacks came more frequently now, every two or three weeks, but by late April she seemed to have recovered; the children came regularly to see her, she was surrounded by love, she resumed an active life within her golden cage. I decided to go to Italy for a month. There were matters to be settled concerning taxes and the house in Sperlonga.
The phone rang in Sperlonga in the middle of the night. It was Alice, who told me that my mother had suffered a very bad attack and was not expected this time to recover. She was in the intensive care unit, hooked up to the inevitable machines. Alice was with her, the children were on their way. My mother couldn’t talk, but she could hear me; Alice held the phone to her ear. “Darling, I love you,” I said into the receiver. “Wait for me, I’m coming. Aspettami!”
I drove directly to the airport at Fiumicino, arriving there at dawn, and threw myself onto the mercy of the airlines. An hour and a half later I boarded a flight to London, then one to Boston, then another directly to San Diego. Alice met me at the airport. My mother had rallied after my call, she reported, to the extent that she had been transferred back to a private room. The children had arrived and clustered about the bed. My mother’s feet had begun to kick out at the covers. Why wasn’t she dying, she wanted to know. She looked at Alice and took her hand, spoke to the children. Together, she told them, this is the way you must be from now on, together, always. It was her way of apologizing for the pain she had caused. Then she sent the children off to dinner and lay back, her eyes closed, to wait for me.
When I came bursting into the room later that evening, Alice in my wake, the children were lined up against the wall. “Oh,” I said, falsely cheerful as I rushed into her arms, “I’m sorry, I forgot to bring you a mozzarella.” The children left us alone and I sat down beside her to bring her up to date on all the goings-on in Italy.
Two days later we took her home and settled her in the downstairs bedroom, where she had stayed before, with a view out the window of white roses in full bloom. We had contacted the local hospice, which dispatched nurses to settle her and rig up a morphine drip she could activate herself simply by pressing a button. I hired young women to take care of her around the clock, so she would never be alone, and we resigned ourselves to waiting. It would be a matter of days, perhaps at most a few weeks until the next attack.
She slept well at night, was alert and cheerful during the days. The children took turns coming down. Hooked up to an oxygen tank, she was able to get as far as the patio one morning, where she could sit and see nearly the whole garden, in bloom under a perpetual blue sky. We began to hope the doctors were wrong, that she would cheat death one more time and linger on in our lives a while longer, her mind clear and lucid, teeming with memories of people and events long forgotten by the rest of us.
Then came the morning, after twelve days, when she couldn’t rouse herself from sleep. I spent the day with her, talking constantly, reminiscing about the past. We played music she could hear from the living room, Verdi’s great chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco that she had used as her signature piece during her wartime broadcasts to Italy. Late that afternoon I put my head on the pillow next to hers and again began to ramble on about the spectacular life she had led, all the interesting people she had known and loved, all the places she had graced with her presence. I knew she could hear me, though her eyes never opened. “We enjoyed them,” she murmured in Italian, “we enjoyed them.”
I finally went upstairs well after nine that night, leaving her seemingly safely asleep once again. A cry in the darkness awakened us. We stood at the head of the stairs and looked down on the frightened face of the girl who had been sitting beside her. “She’s trying to get up,” she said. I rushed into her bedroom and held her as she thrashed blindly, wildly about, her eyes open but seeing nothing. She emitted a flat, high wail, the sound of something not quite human, lost and far away. Alice pressed the button of the morphine and she sank back down on the bed, silent now, departing from us. Alice knelt beside her, her hand on her pulse. “She’s gone,” she said a few seconds later. I kissed her and her heart resumed beating, fluttered as if bent on one last thrust at life, then ceased. I sat there holding her hand, her eyes closed, her face turned toward the window, until the hearse arrived an hour later to take her away. The last I remember of that morning was the pale faces of my children at our front door three hours later. “She went in her sleep,” I said. “It was very quick.”
We threw one last party for her in New York. Doris and the children and Alice came with me. We lined up wonderful photographs I had found of her from different periods of her life around the walls of her living room and invited everyone who had known her to come and celebrate her life with us. About sixty friends came, of all ages and backgrounds, and we toasted her and spoke of her and laughed a lot. She would have loved it, because it was the kind of gathering she had always specialized in, bringing people together who perhaps had little in common besides their love for her. Only one person cried, but we forgave her because she had had too much to drink and tended toward tears on awkward occasions.
Two days later we took her ashes and Janet’s out to Cherry Grove, where that night another, smaller gathering came to honor her. In the morning a small group of us took the ashes down to the beach. The Atlantic surf was calm under a blue sky, and in warm sunlight my son Bill and I walked into the ocean up to our waists carrying the twin pewter boxes containing all that was physically left of these two remarkable women. Together we scattered their ashes into the waves and stood there for a few moments watching wind and water do their work of taking them both back into the bosom of the world. On the beach I fell into my daughter Natalia’s arms, the one full moment of unconstrained grief I had allowed myself since my mother’s death. I understood now why Federico had frozen himself into a dispassionate accounting of his own mother’s sudden death. Something of the old Roman ways survived in us, too.
My mother had finished Darlinghissima on a day in June, 1984, at Sperlonga. Now I, too, on another June day fourteen years later, sit in the tiny whitewashed stone house she built on the hillside overlooking the ancient beach stretching to the dark mouth of the Grotto of Tiberius. The green and rocky mountains end here at the sea, peppered on their crests by the upthrust arms of lone pine trees. Swifts dart above my terrace on their ceaseless pursuit of insects, and late tonight a pale sliver of a new moon should rise above the darkened sea. I like the idea of Janet and my mother floating endlessly together in another sea thousands of miles away. I can hear their voices still in endless conversation and a timeless search for truth and love and dignity in an imperfect world.
Reprinted from Janet, My Mother, and Me by William Murray, Simon & Schuster, 2000.