Sunday, October 5, 1986

The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London

 Written for Northwest Orient in 1986; re-published by Forbes-FYI in 1993

Nothing is more English than the Club. When Phileas Fogg, that imaginary London gentleman, set off around the world in eighty days, he started from the Reform Club. Just around the comer, in St. James Street, Britain’s finest young men used to while away an afternoon after a club lunch by playing golf, teeing-off and holing-out from the steps of one club to the next. Trollope scribbled away in one, as did Dickens, Thackeray, Stevenson, Burton, and Kipling. Lord Glasgow threw a waiter through the window of his club and ordered him “put on the bill.” The father of the current Duke of Devonshire, ill-tempered late in life, filled the end of his walking-stick with lead and terrorized the shins of fellow-members of Brooks’. As Dr. Johnson wrote, “A man is good for nothing unless he is clubbable.”

If the idea of the British Empire begins at Camelot, then the origins of the gentlemen’s clubs lie in the Round Table. At the turn of the century, London’s West End (principally Pall Mall and St. James) could boast two hundred such clubs, exclusively male. Now, with the Empire in tatters, most of the forty surviving clubs admit wives for lunch or dinner: Britannia waives the rules. Though today’s clubs are financially better-run than before, the waiting lists shorter and membership fees higher (averaging about $900 a  year), the character of these “mausoleums of inactive masculinity” has not changed much. The dream of Empire still lives on within.

They began as coffee-houses in the 18th century, gathering-places where the politically like-minded could discuss politics freely, read a paper, hear gossip, perhaps gamble, and fuel up for the stagger or horse-carriage to the next. (Some of these coffee- and chocolate-houses became literary, lawyers’, or merchants’ clubs instead; one became Lloyd’s of London.) “We now use the word ‘club’,” wrote Pepys, ”for a sodality in a tavern.”

Many clubs took their names from the servants who started them, like Boodle’s, Brooks’, or White’s (the oldest gentlemen’s club in London, named for an Italian, Bianco, who founded it as a very exclusive chocolate shop in 1693). Some clubs were militarily inclined, like the Guards’ and the Cavalry, which merged a decade ago. Some, like the Beefsteak, were originally so secretive and private that a team of unknowing bobbies could raid it mistakenly as a brothel and find seated at an upstairs table the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour.

According to V. S. Pritchett, in London Perceived (1962), it was only in the late 19th century, when industrial wealth took hold, that the clubs (like the public schools) became pretentiously exclusive. The fashion was to be a member of more than one. To somebody like Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother, the club could be relied on as a home away from home, where a man might spend the day eating, drinking, reading, and sleeping, with a night valet to turn him over and make sure he hadn’t died in his armchair. Men returning back from the farthest corners of  Empire could instantly catch up in their club. For the aged it was a solace; one old duke passed his days seated in the high box-window of Boodle’s whenever it rained because he so loved “watching the damned people getting wet.”

And there is some strain in the English gentleman’s soul that does not love a wife. As one wag put it, “The French and Italians seek solace by taking mistresses. . . the British retreat into a world of leather-bound misogyny.” But the history of the clubs is more a full-blooded charge than a retreat. A Victorian lady noted in her diary, “We have now been married exactly a year during which time my husband has dined with me but once. Every other night he dined at Mr. Brooks’ club.”

What the wives could not have understood—because they were never allowed in—was that in their clubs gentlemen could behave like schoolboys, grumbling and shouting and throwing food at the waiters and each other. “London is made for males,” as Pritchett puts it, “and its clubs for males who prefer armchairs to women. . . The boredom that hangs like old cigar smoke in the air is a sad reminder of the most puzzling thing in the sex war: that men like each other, rather as dogs like each other. The food is dull, but a point the ladies overlook is that the wine is excellent and cheap.” It took a Frenchwoman at the turn of the century to say the unsayable: that, obviously, so many gentlemen’s clubs exist because English women are unbearable.

The literary anecdotes are legion. Swinburne was asked to resign from his club when, not being able to find his top hat in the cloakroom, he jumped on all the others until a porter reminded him he’d come hatless that evening. Evelyn Waugh, grumpy as ever, violently dressed down a club employee who couldn’t get him a taxi in the rain. It was in Trollope’s club that he was persuaded to kill off the character of Mrs. Proudie by overhearing two clergymen complain about his overuse of her.

Henry James lived for over twenty years at the Reform Club and had his bedroom drilled with a spyhole (still there) so the night porter could be sure not to disturb the Master in his sleep. “The Club question has become serious and difficult,” James wrote in his notebooks. “A club was indispensable, but I had, of course, none of my own. . . At last, I forget exactly when, I was elected to the Reform. . . This was an excellent piece of good fortune, and the Club has ever since been, to me, a convenience of the first order. I could not have remained in London without it, and I have become extremely fond of it, a deep local attachment.”

All clubs were rivals, usually over which had the worst food—one’s own always had the best members. A Guards’ clubman who’d been given hospitality at the Savile was asked what he thought of them. “They were quite decent little fellows,” he replied. “No trouble there. Make their own trousers, of course.”

Architecturally the great surviving clubs are of a type: their façades of Italianate palazzi, so popular in the early 19th century; the enormous interior staircases, morning rooms, drawing rooms, and classical libraries. The dining rooms tend to resemble those of the public schools, which is hardly surprising. Sometimes they have been used as literary settings, from P. G. Wodehouse to Graham Greene (The Human Factor) to one of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories (The Queer Feet), in which the crime rests upon the singular fact that the particular club insists that its waiters and gentlemen dress identically. This sounds like sheer fantasy, but in Pratt’s all the waiters are called “George,” and at the Beefsteak, “Charles.”

A short list of illustrious clubs might include the Athenaeum, Boodle’s, the Garrick, the Travellers’, and Whites. All avoid publicity of any sort, and admit to admitting between one thousand- and fifteen hundred-odd members. Only the Travellers’ agreed, very courteously, to show me around.

The Athenaeum (founded 1824) has never been known for its fine cuisine. Sir Ralph Richardson, a member, suggested bringing a box-lunch; Sir Edwin Lutyens criticized “a piece of cod which passeth all understanding.” Years ago, the chef of the French Ambassador, learning that his master was going to the club for dinner, murmured, “Alas, we shall never see him again.” The Athenaeum is esteemed, rather, for intellectual dignity, grave silence, an enormous library, and for being the haunt of many a peer, aristocrat, and archbishop. Members are expected to be “established” professionally, so much so that in Nöel Coward’s Present Laughter, when a character is accused of becoming pompous after having joined, he replies, “I’ve always been too frightened to go into it.”

Kipling described the Athenaeum as like “a cathedral between services.” A more recent visitor portrayed it as full of fogies who “hobble from room to room muttering about the decline of The Times.” Like most clubs, it has a dozen-odd bedrooms for members who come down to London for several days’ business. In the mid-19th century it was so difficult to get in that there was a sixteen-year waiting list of prospective members. But, as one member complained at the time, “They crept in unseen at the doors, and they crept in under the bishops’ sleeves, and they crept in in peers’ pockets, and they were blown in by the winds of chance.”

Boodle’s (founded 1762), in the good old days, used to iron the newspapers and boil the shillings and pence before bringing them to members. Servants wore black knee-breeches, in what the writer R. S. Surtees called its “proverbial serenity.” Another Victorian described it more affectionately as “a sweet old mahogany and wax candle kind of place.” The popular story within was that if a servant in the smoking room called out, “Carriage for Sir John!”, a good portion of the members present would glance up. It is famous for a painting by Stubbs and a membership of country gentlemen, knights, the late Adam Smith, and Beau Brummel. Churchill used to smoke his cigar at the bow window. It is still considered perhaps the most tranquil and discreet of all the clubs.

Ian Fleming, who usually lunched at Boodle’s, made M.—the head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service in the James Bond books—a member and frequent luncher, fictionalizing the place as Blade’s. (Fleming had left White’s “because they gas too much”; he wanted a dull club.) In The Man with the Golden Gun M. eats “his usual meager luncheon—a grilled Dover sole followed by the ripest spoonful he could gouge from the club Stilton. And as usual he sat by himself in one of the window seats and barricaded himself behind The Times. . . .” The head waiter guesses some game is afoot, for as “father confessor to many of the members, he knew a lot about all of them and liked to think he knew everything, so that, in the tradition of incomparable servants, he could anticipate their wishes and their moods.” M. ignores what Fleming soberly calls “the finest cold buffet on display at that date anywhere in the world.”

The Garrick (founded 1831) is famous as the most bohemian and the least misogynist of the old clubs, and it reputedly possesses the finest dining room, candlelit and decorated with old theatrical prints that portray a membership traditionally favoring writers, actors, and directors. It is also said to have the finest dinner conversation and, not surprisingly, the most women guests. Princes Charles joined a few years ago, leaping ahead of the others on the ten-year waiting list to sport the salmon-and-cucumber striped tie. One of the more financially secure clubs, the Garrick lives off the royalties of the late member A. A. Milne. As long as Winnie-the- Pooh collects honey, the Garrick is safe.

The Travellers’ Club (founded 1819) began as a kind of explorers’ society—only gentlemen who’d journeyed at least 500 miles in a straight line from London were eligible, though members of foreign diplomatic missions were received as honorary visitors. Both these precepts still hold today. There is an apocryphal story about an African guest indicating a glass of fly-catcher (a poisonous syrup thick with dead flies) and saying, “Bring me some of dat.” It is a fact that when, in 1825, a member stole the club candlesticks, his life was spared by the King and he was deported instead (thereby, perhaps, increasing his eligibility).

Most great travelers are great readers, and the Club library is enormous and well-tended. At the top of the great stairs a plaque honors “members and staff who fell in the Great War” in a democracy of the dead. In mid-afternoon the husbands and wives are just coming, arm in arm, from the Coffee Room, past clicking clocks and 18th century foreign landscapes. Another lunch done. Over the years there have been two suicides, both by gunshot in the Billiards Room. One was a member who’d lived many years in Japan; this officially explained his “characteristic indifference to life.” The Travellers’ Club chairman at the time, a Colonel Baring, stated firmly, “I’ll take damned good care he never gets into any other club I have anything to do with.”

White’s (founded 1693) is probably still the stuffiest and snobbiest of the clubs. Anthony Lejeune, in The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London (1979)—a careful, authoritative, adulatory work, many of whose entries now read as obituaries—calls White’s “the archetype and model of what a gentlemen’s club should be.” He goes on to point out, though, that Swift described it as a “common rendezvous of infamous sharpers and noble cullies.” Its members tend to be friends of Royals if not royalty themselves, like the Dukes of Kent, Edinburgh, and York. A club historian four decades ago referred to it as “an oasis of civilization in a desert of democracy.” Kirn Philby and Evelyn Waugh were both members; I was unable to determine whether Philby was asked to resign when he resigned, in a sense, from London itself. (One assumes he continued to be a gentleman.) White’s is responsible for my favorite story of club exclusivity: a would-be clubman inquiring how to apply for membership was told, “This is not a discotheque, sir.”

If the gentlemen’s clubs seem antiquated and a bit dismal, they are healthier today than a decade ago. Many clubs collapsed: members stayed in the suburbs, or quit; the eligible young men weren’t interested. In 1974 the IRA bombed ths bar of one club and machine-gunned the facade of another. Now they seem to be back in style and gaining, their appeal on the rebound for a terrorized younger generation in a terrorist age. As Jonathan Raban wrote in Soft City (1974), “Suddenly, through the swing doors of the club, I am a Gentleman; I have things I had forgotten. . . an old school, an awkward nodding bonhomie, the gentleman’s ducklike walk, waddling over swathes of maroon carpeting.”

And the clubs are increasingly run not as gentlemen’s kingdoms but as business establishments, with smart management and computerized bookkeeping. The Reform recently rented itself out for a series of nude shots with a female model disporting all over the historic leather armchairs and upright marble columns.

In a conservative age, then, the ideal of the Club should gain strength and favor again. Thus the eloquent description of the Perfect Clubman in Ralph Nevill’s London Clubs (1911) may yet prove contemporary:

“The life of such a man, as has been said, is centred in his club, and he sees members cane and go, hears of their prosperity or ruin, marriages or deaths, with imperturbable equanimity; indeed, it would require an invasion or an earthquake to make him effect any change in his habits.

“So he lunches and dines, dines and lunches, till the sands of the hourglass have run out, and the moment comes for him to enter that great club of which all humanity must perforce become members.”

Thursday, September 18, 1986

Vive la Poupée!

Written in collaboration with Valérie Moniez for European Travel & Life, 1986

The new word among the poupées in Paris this year is “somptueux”—sumptuous. It may apply to an art exhibit, or the latest Duras novel, or an up-and-coming couturier’s new line. It is the equivalent of New York’s “terrible” (what used to be called, approvingly, only “bad”), but given specific social status, the poupée seal of approval. La luxe is in vogue, hence there is a corresponding inflation in the meanings of words. For a poupée, even her tea may be somptueux.

The poupées themselves are somptueuses. They probably invented it. In a highly class-conscious society, they represent a veritable army, yet all this army’s soldiers believe they are unique. The essence of a poupée is that she refuses to recognize herself as one. It is part of the art.

How do you recognize a poupée? She is absolutely immaculate, dressed appropriately, with great inspiration, for the exact place and exact moment when you see her. (This, of course, implies hours of preparation.) She carries her beauty like a public accent. Her looks alone can make you feel you’re eavesdropping on her; you are not. She is almost certainly between twenty-five and thirty-five—older, she’ll have begun changing her approach. Younger cannot qualify. A poupée (which means, literally, “doll”) should not be confused with the twenty year-old tidbits so vivid in American fantasy, strolling Paris’ bridges—though they may, with real work, grow into poupées. A poupée is not a girl, she is a woman. If she’s with a man, he is wealthier than you will ever be.

She is probably not as beautiful as she seems; these women are not model-types. Their beauty is not nearly so fragile, so evanescent. As one poupée told me (discussing all the others), “What’s the miracle? Any woman who isn’t fat can be beautiful.  It’s not difficult. If it were, she couldn’t do it. You can cover up anything with clothes, makeup, manners.”

What are they after, the poupées? In the States we don’t really have their equivalent. They are most emphatically not mistresses; their ultimate function is that of a wife. These are women in search of great financial security. They want to be wives, but they do not seek a life of sloth.

In fact, you see them hurrying around constantly, from club to exercise to tea to couturier. A poupée gives the opposite impression from one of those well-coiffed giraffes lurching along Madison Avenue in the upper 60s, shopping bag in hand, with the tired tolerance of somebody who has seen it all before—those women are full of empty time. A poupée seems to have no time at all, so fervently does she feel the active newness of life pressing on her.

Thus the immediate, clichéd American associations—the peroxide Vegas blonde of glycerine warmth, the ex-model turned Yuppie wife—do not carry. A poupée is never vulgar and never only decorative. They serve an extremely important function in the society: they connect. For there are always the grand diners to be planned.

This is an occupation in itself. To the Paris society in which the poupées move, the world of lawyers and bankers and international financial advisors and executives, these dinners are nearly everything, planned with a meticulousness that we in America associate with state dinners or convocations of the ridiculously wealthy. They are the equivalent of our “power lunches” but given a more sociable setting. The poupée’s function is to lubricate each aspect of the event for her man, not just by choosing the extra guests (besides the more important ones), or making culinary decisions. She must ensure that all the poupée-less men who have been invited will each have their men-less poupées.

What will they be expected to do at these diners? Beautify, for one; be enthusiastic, happy; say nothing of any consequence; discuss what latest marvel they have just experienced. It might be the current novel by the current author. One poupée will say, “It’s certainly her best.” Another will agree. The author might be, say, Francoise Sagan; it would not be Marguerite Yourcenar.

If you have somehow been invited to this diner, and like a typical rude American ask which other novels of that author the poupée has read, she will say, with slight dismissal, “I’m reading several at the moment.” You have made a bad move. She has not read any of the others; that is not her job. Her job is to be able to speak of the current only. Not for her Hugo, Baudelaire, Proust. Into the oubliette goes Stendhal. After the dinner she will certainly comment on your rudeness; a Parisian man would know better than to ask if she’d read any others.

This is not to say a poupée mustn’t know a great deal. She must be far ahead of the fashion magazines on the couturiers. (The popular ones this year among the poupées are Alaia, or perhaps Sonia Rykiel, whose lissome clothes demand a perfect body, of course.) And the way an intellectual has to have read Sartre or Camus, a poupée must know intimately certain great hotels of the world: the Plaza in New York, the Cipriani in Venice, La Mamounia in Marrakesh. At St. Tropez she must have a house, or friends’ houses, to stay at—one must not be incarcerated there with tourists.

The function of a poupée is to beautify and to link; her aim is to hold, to secure, her position. Married, poupées may have affairs, but always with others of the upper class, looking for a better situation in case their present man leaves them. Their men all know this; it is accepted implicitly.

Ask a poupée how she got that way and you will not get very far. Like most people who know exactly what they want and are well on the way to attaining it, she seems to have sprung full-grown from her own imagination. She might not be from Paris, but she certainly studied arts or letters at a Paris university—the Sorbonne, or L’École du Louvre. For a couple of years after, she worked at little jobs like public relations, or in a friend’s office, perhaps at a fashion house. Not for long—two years is perhaps too long.

For a poupée there would never be much need to work. They have to be completely available. They are not expected to speak of what they’ve done. If a man cannot come to her with money, he must at least have a name: socially he must be able to present something. An insolvent baron is acceptable. A poupée’s first step is to try to move in with the man, or vacation with him—poupées must be, always are, tanned. Were she thirty, she might give you six months after moving in to propose marriage; were she twenty-five, you might get a couple of years. Not much more—a poupée is not a creature of sentiment. She is not after love; she is after an address, a tenure.

Nor is she a creature of sensuality. She is not a sex-symbol—nothing forbidden or lustful there. Brigitte Bardot, a true doll, was never a poupée, nor did she ever convince as one in her films. Poupées cannot be dancers or actresses in their spare time; they have no spare time. Nor is what they do an act. They are like politicians who have convinced themselves that every word they say is true. Hence their sense of being unique, an authentic self-creation, an original. A society chooses its own myths.

The great poupée, then, is not Bardot, but Catherine Deneuve. A fine actress, we no longer look at her and see the actress: we see a public beauty who is part businesswoman, part warm reserve, part icon. It is no surprise that she represents France to the French. And the poupée, this one in particular, is our ideal of French womanhood as well: a coquette grown mature, beautifully coiffed, a vision of grace, ease, dynamism, and joie d’esprit. She is the European woman whom American women wish to live up to and American men wish to be worthy of. She is a woman’s woman, clearly equally at ease with men. She is like an orchestra that chooses to play in their concert-hall.

Ultimately the poupée is an image not only flattering to the man she is with, but self-flattering to the society. She is always beautiful, always cheerful, always energetic, always well-prepared; her reliability is eternal. She brings people smoothly together in ways that are not just amicable but profitable. She represents the legal, the conventional, the reassuring. She need only be au courant because it is thus that a culture convinces itself it is on top and ahead of the rest. No need for the masterpieces of the past when the art of the present is as vibrant, as worthy, as somptueux. The poupée represents, in a word, the French super-ego, relating itself continually to the rest of the world.

You will see the poupées running, running, running from place to place in Paris: the Racing Club (for swimming, tennis, meeting people), to a salon de thé to take petits fours with friends, to home for a workout with their visiting professeurs de gymnastiques. If you should happen to hear two of them talking in the street, their chat will be of their own little universe: probably of other women like them, “insupportable” because they are poupées. And how so-and-so has aged! Poupées are never extravagant or shrill in conversation; always a little haughty, they speak with great assurance. Of husband, children, couturiers: their world. If you spy a couple of them in the Place de Victoire, from a distance they may seem a pair of highly refined Barbies.

Do not be misled by the seeming nothing going on there. I once asked a poupée what she would do after, say, the age of thirty-eight. She already knew; it amused her. “Go back to being intelligent,” she said.

Sunday, June 15, 1986

Ode to a Nightingale

My third published short story. Around 1986. In East-West, the monthly in-flight magazine of the airline Northwest Orient. I was then very much under the influence of John Collier (1901 - 1980), the Englishman who wrote at least one masterpiece novel (His Monkey Wife) and dozens of wise, witty short stories. But Collier was inimitable. 


This is the story of a very bad man who came to a very happy end. Perhaps you have heard of him. His name was Henry Thackeray. He was famous, or infamous, for a brief time in those literary circles where reputations are swiftly made or unmade. He was also a distant relative of the other Thackeray, the honest one; and it would not be stretching the truth to say it was his illustrious antecedent who got our Henry into trouble.

You would never have guessed any of this to look at Henry. He was a steamed dumpling of a man, harmless and soft. He had a crop of wispy gray hairs that traversed his head like weeds struggling to gain foothold on bare rock. He had porcelain-blue eyes, ears like saucers, and a secretive smile that hinted at gossip. He was a touch overweight. He had somehow reached the age of forty-seven without ever being married or, it was whispered, having an affair of the other sort either.

He was not, however, entirely unencumbered by romance. There is no one more romantic than the man shielded from it by his work. Henry was the arts editor at one of the more successful Madison Avenue fashion magazines, of the sort that may be seen under the pretty arms of women in Paris and Milan and Hong Kong and Nairobi, and which ages more quickly and pathetically than any flower.

Every month Henry's duties were to review in brief the latest books, films, recordings, and television programs. Though Henry's life may hardly have been called boring, at least by 20th century standards, it did fall into a certain routine that was rather deadly to the spirit.

"Newness, Angela, is a debilitating disease," Henry said more than once to his secretary, a young brunette who was long-legged and sultry, as is the fashion among brunettes. She had flashing eyes and pouting lips, and she looked rather like a glowing creature from the magazine’s pages, suddenly given life.

"No, Henry, you're wrong as usual," she said, glancing at her long fingernails of polished crimson. "New is a wow. Old is a drag.”

Henry felt Angela was really talking about him. "Don't say that, you evil woman," he muttered. "Do you have any idea how many magazines I've worked for in my day? How many alone since you were just another cheerleader with big pom-poms and a short skirt at some awful Connecticut finishing school?” He sighed. "You're right. New is a wow. Old is a drag."

"Of course I'm right," she purred. "But you're not old yet. Jaded, yes. Old, no." And she gave him an affectionate kiss on his cheek, to prove it.

"I've been stung!" cried Henry, throwing up his hands in mock horror. "The kiss of youth!"

He retreated fussily into his office to scribble a review, in his slow and doubtful way, of an art opening he’d attended the week before. And that might have been the end of it had he not stumbled, on a rainy afternoon, into the presence of one J. Caractacus, proprietor and inheritor of Caractacus Books, on lower Broadway. On such small tides of chance are entire navies launched.


It happened on a Wednesday in the middle of October. Rain had pestered the city all week, and Henry went home during his lunch break that day to check on his two black poodles, who were cooped-up and idle.

Castor and Pollux were Henry's liberation. They gave him the freedom of a bachelor along with the companionship, without the sacrifices, of the married man. Castor and Pollux hated walking in the rain, of course, but Henry didn't. It made him feel a little Bogartian.

This particular drizzly afternoon a sudden cloudburst, violent and merciless, sent Henry scurrying into a decrepit and shadowy bookstall down near 9th Street. The place was a low-ceilinged rabbit warren, crammed to the rafters with crowded shelves and stacks of dusty, unorganized volumes.

Now, Henry was rarely seen in bookstores. Their lack of selectivity unnerved him; he felt the same sentiment toward museums. Besides, books were in the habit of coming to him, packed in thick envelopes and delivered by messengers and accompanied by whining, apologetic letters from the publishers.

He had no need of tradesmen.

The proprietor of this particular secondhand bookshop was a little older than Henry, and like most of his breed he was bug-eyed and perturbed, with the exasperated air of a man so unused to customers that he does not even bother to put on a charade of friendliness. As Henry entered, the old man accidentally knocked over a teetering stack.

"Damned books," he muttered, bending to re-stack them. "Old man Caractacus should never have gone into this fool’s racket in the first place. Easier to sell old Franklin stoves, and more value to the pound on top of it. Keep the fire burning with your secondhand literary rubbish, that's what I say.”

"I thought all booksellers liked books,” said Henry mildly. The proprietor's brown jacket sleeves were so dusty, thought Henry, that they would have to be vacuumed.

“Wha? You’re kidding, bub,” said Caractacus. "Think a hog butcher likes hogs? All books are lies, pal, no matter what name they travel under. Fiction, biography, fairy tales—it's all the same fib, for anyone who's got the loose change and gullible enough to swallow it. Still, you've got to hand it to those authors. They grind it out like hamburger, all day, all night. Probably churning it out in their sleep. Stick the stuff between two covers like a sandwich and the public eats it up. Me, I've had it up to here with the stuff. Try selling used hamburger, see how far you get. And lies, every ounce of it. Now, you ask yourself—”

"Excuse me," said Henry, who did not like being pummeled and had noticed that the rain was letting up. "Do you have any Thackeray?”

This was said partly out of sympathy.

“Thackeray?” said Caractacus. He rubbed his face. "William Makepeace?"

And it was then that a lightning flash of genius, closely followed by a loud thunderclap of resolve, sent its voltage down to earth in Henry's mind.

"No, not William Makepeace," said Henry softly. “Uh, Henry Wilder. H.W. Thackeray. Bit harder to locate, I’m afraid.”

"Classic?" said Caractacus, as if he could not believe there were more liars out there than he already knew. "Ancient? Contemporary?”


Caractacus sighed. “Sorry, bub. Never heard of him. Can't help you, or him for that matter. Another dishonest scribbler, eh, scribbling his way into obscurity?"

"Nope," send Henry jauntily, with new confidence. The sun was out. "The greatest liar of them all.”


The book took him a little over two months.

He worked on it every night, while pursuing his duties with a vengeance at the fashion magazine every day. Suddenly all the works he had to review, no matter what the medium, were like daring gauntlets flung down before him, challenges to his honor; he savaged them with a new consistency of purpose. No more could Henry the reviewer be called a meek pussycat. Now he was like a leaping Bengal tiger.

“Something's happened to Henry," went the whisper around the plush magazine offices. “Could he be in love? But with whom?"

Angela, who enjoyed fanning the flames of gossip, said, "Don't ask me, because I've been sworn to secrecy.” Then she would add mysteriously, as if she knew something, "All I can say is everyone's going to get real surprised by Henry one day." And she would examine herself in her pocket mirror.

Henry's boss, Martha Gladhorn—protected from most gossip by her position—noticed the change in Henry's copy. She was a rather severe, abrasive woman with red hair who gave herself orders as if talking to an underling.

"Love, honey," she said to herself. "Must be love. His stuff’s got edge, now. Edge. Never had it before. I don't care how he got it.”

She stuck her bullet head out of her office and bellowed to her startled employees, "Let's see a little more edge around here!”

Henry did not notice all the fuss he was causing. He was supremely, blithely, above it all. He had always considered himself a man with a rich inner life, who permitted himself to pass into the world of dreams without restraint: this allowed him to observe his fellow man with a certain creativity. While walking Castor and Pollux, he made up lives for whomever in the lemming crowd caught his eye. The man who served him coffee in a paper cup on the way to work each morning dreamed of being irresistible to women; it showed in the gallant way he poured. The bedraggled lady pushing all her possessions around the block in a shopping cart dreamed of being a rich contessa, and organizing her treasures in a palace by the water. There were multitudes of dreamers around him, dreaming away.

Unknowingly, Henry had discovered the secret of the truly great writers. He could tap into his fantasies at will. His dreams floated near the surface of his imagination, not buried too deep in the muck to be dived for, as with most people. The rest was merely setting words to paper.

"They want lies," he repeated to himself that afternoon. “So they do. Never thought of it, but that gnome Caractacus is right. Ought to get his jacket cleaned, though. Lies they want? I'll give them the best lies they ever tasted. Hamburger is it? Right. From Henry Wilder Thackeray they'll be served only filet mignon, and so tenderly cooked they shouldn't even be allowed to eat it.”

Henry went on muttering like this as he typed. Most writers are excellent conversationalists with themselves: it keeps the brain percolating while the flavor drips down. On occasion, as he ripped yet another fresh page out of his humming electric typewriter, Henry would exclaim, “They won't know what to do when they read this. They'll have to believe it. Have to!”

Henry's neighbor, a body-building instructor at the health club around the corner, heard the constant clatter of the keys and the litany of Henry's talk, and wondered if Henry had flipped, or taken a lover who enjoyed being dictated to.

Castor and Pollux, astonished by their master’s energy, took to watching television in the bedroom while Henry worked. Now he rarely had time to walk them, and they grew lazy and indifferent to all but the finest British programs.

He finished the great work in a burst of energy, staying up for three nights consecutively. No need had he for the trivial supports of common mankind—fired by his idea, he labored without nourishment or rest. When it was done, on the verge of collapse, he bundled the manuscript into a cardboard carton, bound it with string, and with criminal intent sent it off to a young man at one of the more prestigious publishing houses on Third Avenue, who constantly sent Henry books to review.

Then he took a day off, and waited for the phone call that was sure to come.


He did not have to wait very long. The call came, as requested in Henry's cover letter, not to the magazine’s switchboard but to Henry's apartment early one evening.

“Mr. Thackeray?” said the rather high-pitched, nervous voice at the other end. The voice of a sparrow, hopping from foot to foot, thought Henry. “This is, uh, Phillip Jasper, at—”

“Yes, yes," said Henry pleasantly. Get on with it, you credulous young man, he thought.

"Well, I've read your manuscript, and so have my superiors, and I must say, it is one of the most superb, gripping biographies I've ever read. It was really—I mean, it was like reading a great novel. By Tolstoy or someone.”

"Taut, strong-willed stuff, isn't it," said Henry, quoting from one of last month’s reviews.

“It certainly is,” said Jasper, "and to tell you the truth, we’d like you to come in, as, as, as soon as possible and sign a contract, tomorrow if you'd like but at your convenience of course, since Mr. Cranston thinks we should try to get the book out on the spring list, just in case anyone else is preparing to publish a biography of Dromieux—” 

“I don't think," said Henry with fiendish amusement, “there's much likelihood of that.”

“What a relief!" exclaimed the young man. “Still, you never know. Now, I'm sure you're wondering what terms we’re prepared to offer you. Let me just say, between us, that it's been a long time since a book has aroused this much—”

“Why don't we discuss it when we meet," said Henry, with muscular assurance. “I'm very busy right now. I have to walk my dogs. Three o'clock tomorrow? That will be fine.”

The next afternoon Henry was ushered into a meeting room with young Jasper and the overly friendly Cranston, who did not wait for Henry to sit before saying, "Mr. Thackeray, this is one of the most incredible books I've ever read. I mean, what a life this Dromieux had! It reads like Ian Fleming combined with Nabokov with a dash of Henry Miller thrown in! I mean, it's—”

"Those three are frauds and fabulists," said Henry with aplomb. "I am a truth teller, and that is all. Just a humble biographer. I have been working on the life of Hugo Dromieux since I was in graduate school. There is no one who knows his life the way I do, though I'm sure—”  Henry arched his eyebrows. “— a few of Hugo's mistresses may surface for interviews once the book is out. Let's not forget that every woman wanted to sleep with him, and many will say they did.”

“Great publicity," said Cranston, nodding profusely. "But what incredible energy the man had, eh? Really, an example for us all.”

"More like a dream, I would think," said Henry dryly. He wondered if he could be arrested for what he was doing. The thought made him feel dangerous.

Jasper interrupted. "The part I liked the best," he said excitedly, “was where he lived behind German lines for three years in the first world war, disguised as the postmaster. And even took a local wife! I mean how come she didn't find out? And then he has an affair with her sister—”

"Men like that," said Cranston, shaking his head, “they must know something the rest of us don’t. But really, Mr. Thackeray, you've done an amazing job of evoking that entire era. The whole café society business in Paris, with all the heavyweights—I loved, loved the way you dealt with the Proust gossip. Should open a few eyes at the universities. And Paris itself—I spent a couple of years there ages ago, giving it a try—I was a writer myself in those days, trying my hand in the game. Of course, it was a different Paris than the one you're writing about, but Paris will always be Paris—”

"Yes, of course," said Henry impatiently. "Now we must decide on terms."

Cranston named a figure seven times greater than the one Henry had, wildly, dreamed of. "Mr. Thackeray, we have a great deal—a great deal—of confidence in this book. You aren't, by any chance, a relation of—”

"Distant, very distant," Henry murmured. “I'm actually a relation of Dromieux, too, but even more distant, I'm afraid. I assume you're prepared to back up the book with an advertising campaign."

Cranston was effusive. “Of course we are. There are very few men who even dream of living like this—”

"Actually," Jasper began, then looked at Cranston for his approval. "Well, the only thing we are not happy about is the title. I mean, A Forgotten Life is good, but—”  He frowned. "It doesn't hum, do you know what I mean?”

"Doesn't hum?" said Henry. "But I thought it had edge.”

"Edge it has," said Cranston hastily, not wishing to offend. “Edge it certainly does have. But we thought—”  He braced himself. "We were thinking of going all the way, you see? And calling it Emperor of Dreams. What do you think?"

"I like the way it hums," said Henry. "With edge.”

“That's right," agreed Cranston. "And it fits, too, doesn't it? Because of those six months in the Congo with that wild tribe. And his life was so commercial!" Cranston ticked off his pudgy fingers. “Spy in W-W-One. Austro-French-Spanish background. Mother descended from Thomas Jefferson—that'll get us the book clubs. Herculean lover, hundreds of mistresses. Three wives. Painter in Paris. Friend of Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, all the big boys—”

"And then," crowed young Jasper, "the irony of it all! He saves his paintings, he moves into that castle in France, and then during the Second World War all his canvases get slashed or destroyed.”

"Don't forget," Henry interjected sharply, "by the son of a man he killed in the Black Forest in 1915. By suffocating him with postage stamps.”

“Right, Right," said Jasper impatiently. "But what I love is the way he just shrugs his shoulders and walks away from the flaming castle, and settles on his own island in the Mediterranean with all those women!”

"At his age," muttered Cranston.

"And how they floated his body," murmured Jasper, “out to sea in the gondola, till the currents took it….” His voice drifted away.

Cranston said, "I think that Hollywood is going to leap at this. Leap.” He pulled out a contract from his attaché case, and the paper rattled in an unexpected breeze.

"One proviso,” said Henry.

He had, for the last few minutes, enjoyed the sensation of blissfully ice-skating, by night, across a perfectly frozen lake under glittering stars, toward a white mansion that took on extra wings and majestic doorways as he glided closer.

He said, “My book must be published under a pseudonym. Let us say, the name William Paxton. Pax for peace. My real identity must be totally protected. My job, as Mr. Jasper knows, is dear to me, and I would not wish to draw undue attention to the magazine, or myself within the magazine. This means I cannot appear on any talk-shows, alas. No one knows, no one must know. Are we agreed?

"Agreed," said Cranston, shaking his hand vigorously. "Your name, Mr. Thackeray, shall be as unknown as, as—” He searched the attic of his mind for an appropriate simile. “As that of your friend Dromieux. Until the spring.”

"Well," said Henry quizzically, “I don't think anyone will ever want to write a biography of me."

And he waited for Cranston or Jasper, whoever was quicker, to hand him a pen.


It was not, of course, quite so easy as that. Nothing ever is. At the beginning of the next week Jasper called to ask if Henry could help him to locate all the existing photographs of Hugo Dromieux.

This sent Henry into a sleepless panic for two days, until he thought of searching the area where he'd been given the idea in the first place. It took him only a few hours of searching the hodge-podge stores of lower Broadway to find a cache of old photographs, for seventy-five cents, that showed the same ordinary-looking man, from a distance, in the proper European settings. He'd had the sense to describe Dromieux as a man who loathed having his picture taken—what spy didn’t? Dromieux had even called photography “the death-kiss of the modern age,” a phrase that Henry was rather proud of. He had a messenger take the photographs round to Jasper the next day, and that excited young man saw in the blurred and faded face, amid the glare from a beach somewhere along the French Riviera, all that he wished to see.

In the months before the book’s publication Henry was very busy. He opened a Swiss bank account of the anonymous sort. He purchased a beachfront house in a very secluded corner of the Caribbean. He set up a complicated series of mailing addresses, so Cranston could send him money without fear of being traced.

“No nonsense," he told himself. “Think Dromieux.”

Emperor of Dreams was published in April. Everyone wanted it, by the hundreds of thousands. Bored grandparents wanted it, bored husbands, bored wives. The reviewers exhaled relief that at last there was a decent book on this seminal figure, this mystery man. Bored teenagers, whose dreams were no longer nourished by the prospect of becoming world champion at manipulating blips on the electronic screen, wanted not only the book but also the attendant historical circumstances, so they could start living Dromieux for themselves. Bored scholars, individually and in teams, were happy to have a new subject for endless research and disagreement. And Hollywood, pockets bulging, stepped in and assured the public they'd have to wait only a year or two before Dromieux hit the screen.

Only children, it seemed, were protected from Henry's total lack of scruples. Their youth, their inability to read, left them untouched by the long arm of the book. Yet it would linger on their parents’ shelves, growing more powerful and valuable with the passing years, so that in some curious moment an innocent hand would pluck the thick, profusely illustrated volume down, a few cunning pages would be glanced at, and the figure of Hugo Dromieux would enter another consciousness insidiously forever.

Henry stayed at the magazine long enough to compose his own rave review. “At last," he wrote, "we have a great biography of a great man. William Paxton, whoever he is, deserves to be as famous as Hugo Dromieux.”

He saw the review through final galleys. It was a Thursday, the spring sun brilliant on the sidewalks, the city blooming. Henry waved to Martha Gladhorn as he walked past her office. He stepped into the elevator, and in two hours he and his dogs were on a plane south.


As it happened, the hoax was never discovered. But our story does not end here. The disappearance of Henry Wilder Thackeray turned out to be only the beginning for Hugo Dromieux.

A year later, on a fine Caribbean morning, Henry was floating lazily on his inflatable raft, splashing sun-dappled turquoise water across his knees with one hand. The beach before his house was expansive and private. With his other hand he was leafing through the pages of his former employer, whose issues he received two months late via a very expensive air-mail subscription.

By now Henry could easily afford the time and the money, and he read about the fashions of faraway cities with an amused detachment, rather like an anthropologist observing a tribe whose colorful customs are not quite strange enough to bear close investigation.

Henry was scanning his former domain, the reviews column, when something totally unexpected caught his eye. He was so astonished he nearly toppled out of his rubber raft into the shallows.

"Not a moment too soon," the review began, “The Letters of Hugo Dromieux have finally come to light. This first volume, with three more to follow, covers the early years (including the famous escapade with the houri in Istanbul) and leads up to 1919, with a thrilling account of how Dromieux smuggled the St. Petersburg jewels right from under Lenin’s nose.”

The review pronounced the book an instant bestseller.

"Why, they've gone and stolen my man," said Henry, chuckling to himself. “Looted my dreams. Old Caractacus was right. Fibbers all. Well, it'll boost sales on the paperback."

It struck him, then, that he had enough money now to actually become Hugo Dromieux, if he wanted. He could buy a castle; he could learn to paint; he could hobnob with the great, as a man of infinite mystery. Wasn't that what everyone wanted to do, after reading the book?

But people don't have to live out their dreams, he thought. It's enough to copyright them.

He threw back his arm, and in a curiously unrestrained gesture threw the magazine, its pages fluttering, across the shallows and onto the hot sand. He closed his eyes and let himself drift. He did not open his eyes again until he heard Angela calling him for lunch.

Saturday, March 15, 1986

The Real MacWeeney

I wrote this for a short-lived magazine called Vis-à-Vis in, I think, 1986. It's still true. 

Despite the automatic respect given to anyone who says he’s a writer, photographers almost always see more in a given situation.  They are more flexible, more inventive, better at getting what they want—most have a splendidly gentle impudence.  Writers work at home; the photographer’s rule is, “Get closer.” They are generally better at talking to people, for the writer is not by nature gregarious. Their equipment’s vulnerability gives them a sixth sense of physical instinct that most writers, even the finest journalists, often lack.  All writers hunt for explanations in thickets of words—a photographer knows to look at the face and the landscape, where truth is more evident.

I speak in such ideal terms because I’ve had the good luck to work with the superb Irish photographer Alen MacWeeney on numerous assignments, throughout the Caribbean, the Middle East, and the South Pacific, and I haven't stopped learning from him. Small, finely-made, with white hair, a doubting eye, and an unflagging sense of humor, he is a man of infinite resourcefulness. In Bahrain I saw him flap his arms like a bird to demonstrate to an astonished Arab that we were looking for some falconers. In Oman he kept his cool in terrible heat when we were completely lost in the Empty Quarter, and got us out alive. On Dominica, among the last of the once-cannibal Carib Indians, he so charmed that reluctant tribe—who simply wanted us to leave them alone—that we ended up being given a house.

"The problem," says Alen,“always is convincing people that your need to do the picture is greater than their resistance.” Difficult, though, to get sent to a place for a month, sometimes a week, and be expected to get under the skin of remote people who only want to see your back. Alen has always shown great patience, persistence, and humor—his famous photographs of the Irish tinkers were made after six months’ association with those gypsies without taking a single picture. This care seems to result in photographs of a rare candor and generosity—people revealing themselves without the photographer in the way. You never feel Alen in his pictures.

On a recent triple project in the South Pacific I saw him faced with several difficulties of different sorts. Tramping the Milford Track on New Zealand’s South Island—a place that is to the vegetable world what New York is to the concrete—the problem was to make its often bland beauty ("A green hell for a photographer”) stand out. Part of the solution was to approach it as many different landscapes, not one. On the Cook Island of Rarotonga he convinced half the timid island to let him take their pictures by asking to join an outrigger canoe race. His boat went round in circles, but he got all the photographs he needed for the next two weeks. And he saw in a shy island girl of sixteen a potential model who became absolutely riveting when photographed—it took several meetings with her parents to get photographic permission. (In the end, the travel magazine balked at using those shots; perhaps they were too sensual. The lesson of writing or taking pictures for magazines is that generally one’s best work is never used.)

His stroke of genius, though, was in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand. There we were to do, as part of a town portrait, an interview with a local celebrity called the Wizard, a truly brilliant man who is garbed like Merlin, declaims every day in the city square, and is part William Blake, part stand-up comic—though the comedy masks a deep and original thinker. Everyone who reports on Christchurch talks to the Wizard; he is a dream interview, but he's also on the cover of the phone book, and hardly news. What was there new to find in the Wizard?

Alen knew. “Do Wizards have mothers?”

That's how great portraits are made.

That’s what a great photographer is made of.

Saturday, February 1, 1986

Van Gogh

Written for Travel & Leisure in early 1986.

One January morning in Amsterdam, when an uncustomary snowstorm was adding a layer of meringue to the gingerbread-and-chocolate canal town, I went up a few wide steps before a glass-and-concrete building with a tall Christmas tree still standing in the lobby.  I shook snow from my jacket, handed it over, and walked into a glorious summer: golden cornfields vibrant with the fullness of the harvest, Mediterranean-blue seasides with boats lazed and cafés busy at dusk, trees exploding into blossom, bare luminous midnights, the eager faces of sunflowers and a turbulent sky raining daggers of color on a garden for young lovers.  I walked into a season finer, more lasting than my own, and put myself in Vincent’s hands.

Van Gogh is one of those rare artists now seemingly beyond reproach, presumably beyond fashion, almost beyond consideration or opinion.  He simply is, like Bach or Shakespeare, and he is so much a part of our culture—who comes more quickly to mind as a painter?—that it is a shock to see as many of his paintings as the Dutch National Museum Van Gogh has, there in one place, in the flesh. At the museum, on four floors, you have a comprehensive selection from 200 paintings and three times that many drawings and prints, the largest and most representative collection anywhere.  This is one of the easiest museums in the world:  you simply give in and let Van Gogh do it all.

What is difficult with Van Gogh is to consider him apart from the legend that surrounds and obscures him.  Van Gogh is the cliché of the painter’s life just as Bix Beiderbecke is of the jazz musician’s, and he is usually treated as a freak, though his instability had little to do with his painting.  One needs a comprehensive museum to see the constant impulse, the compelling unbroken themes in his work that lie with great calm beneath the bouts of mania.

He was always paradoxical.  He got started painting fairly late, he died at 37, and he produced a huge body of work in a short time.  Yet most of the paintings that we think of as supremely “his” came out of only the last two or three  years.  He took his cue from painters who were his inferior, like Millet, and learned (like many painters of his day) a great deal from copying—except Van Gogh copied from postcards.

Nor does he fit a convenient niche.  Is he Post-Impressionist? Expressionist?  One imagines him somewhere off to the side in Heaven. His paintings never flatter.  He found the celestial in the menial: though he wasn’t (as is sometimes written) the first to paint people at work, he was the first to paint “working people.”  He painted the night like no one else before or since, and in color he is thought of as something of a fabulist.  Yet at times he is eerily accurate, as any painter will tell you:  for example, if he paints a light bulb, he will paint with precision the halo around it.

A series of plaques at the museum entrance, basking in snowy light from the great windows, gave me glimpses of Van Gogh’s life. Born March 30, 1853, in southern Holland, a minister’s son.  Educated at boarding and secondary schools; by 1869 a clerk at Goupil, art dealers in the Hague. (As an art dealer Van Gogh was as unsuccessful at selling other people’s paintings as he was to be at selling his own.)  1873-5, at Goupil’s London offices; in 1876 to their Paris branch—a premonition, since it was in France that his painter’s destiny lay. But he was dismissed by April. All these years Van Gogh was worrying his family.  Already the manic depressive mood swings, the troubled withdrawals into himself were evident.  He began the voluminous, almost daily correspondence with his brother Theo, that would last until his death.  Vincent had shown little real interest in learning the art dealer’s profession; he did show deep religious leanings, but of a highly personal sort.  In England he became a teacher and assistant preacher.  He took the Gospel at its word and gave away what he had to the poor, living by choice as they did out of necessity. It would prove good training.

For the next three years he worked at a bookstore in Holland (the owner remembered him as being immensely strong, unsociable, always doing silly little drawings or translating the Bible into French, German, and English) and trained in Belgium as a minister. And then, in 1869, at the age of 26, having moved to southern Belgium to preach, he decided to become a painter.

I got quickly drawn away from biography by paintings on the walls. These were from his “early” years, meaning all but the last three.  On the ground floor you see what he was doing at 30—his brooding, his copying, his casting about for the right subject and tone.  Even five years before the end he had not found the right stylistic path for himself, had not yet created his own language; he was still borrowing the tongues of others. No wonder so many of his later canvases will show an allegorical path through fields.

Most of these early paintings are somber, innocent of human experience, restrained in feeling, completely unliberated and imprisoned not by lack of technique but by delberate artifice—where is the Van Gogh we expect?  Not to be found here; Vincent the late starter, then, bringing it all home just before the end.

Looked at from a distance you would never guess these paintings were by Van Gogh.  They are all brown and black, faces melancholy in shadows, mostly ill-lit still lifes and a moody house on a rise or in trees. Most are just plain dull. (Interesting, though, to see Van Gogh without his colors.)  Occasionally he finds his stride—a view over Paris in pale light, that makes you want to cheer—but usually he misses.

To put Vincent’s work in some kind of perspective, I decided to head up to the fourth floor, which holds some of his later paintings along with many by his contemporaries.  The museum’s airy open center holds an exposed staircase, and walking up you see the ingenuity of the design—as much rest area, with black curling metal sofas (suggesting Mondrian) as viewing area.  Because it was winter and morning there was nearly no one else in the museum, only a couple of blond boys with earrings who might’ve been art dealers.

The Van Gogh museum is rare in several ways.  To start with, there are no guided tours allowed.  And you are permitted quite close to the paintings—indeed, they look almost impregnable:  Van Gogh used so much paint that some of his canvases have a literal three-dimensional aspect. But the museum is so spacious and uncluttered that you can also see what the paintings look like from, say, fifty yards away.  This is not only relaxing, it is quite revealing, and because the rooms are not vast cathedrally caverns, but low-ceilinged and open, with masked fluorescent lights, you feel the real source of light and all color in the place is Vincent himself.

It is amazing, too, how effective Van Gogh is even at a distance.  In some ways you can even see the paintings better.  The whirlpool of sunflowers doesn’t drown you, for instance, and the boats pulled up on the beach look as if they are really there—and it makes you appreciate anew one of the greatest color-senses of all time, so much raw horsepower in that one brush.

On the top floor were several Caribbean and Polynesian scenes of Gaughin, plenty of Bernard, and several by an Italian named Monticelli who slathered it on like house-paint. How unkind it is simply to live in the present!  For the world has plumped for Van Gogh, not the lesser others, and apart from Gaughin they look dismal and (unfairly, perhaps) drab and workmanlike.

One painting was particularly fascinating, though:  the portrait of  Vincent by John Russell (1858-1931). Russell, an Australian, was at heart a realist, and the portrait shows Vincent as he probably was:  glancing over his shoulder at the world with the same baleful, suspicious eye as in his own self-portraits, paintbrush held delicately in one hand like a scalpel.  At this time (1883) Vincent was to write in a letter to Theo, who supported him:

“One wants to be an honest man, one is so, one works as hard as a slave, but still one cannot make both ends meet; one must give up the work, there is no chance of carrying it out without spending more on it than one gets back for it, one gets a feeling of guilt, of shortcoming, of not keeping one’s promises, one is not honest as one would be if the work were paid for at its natural reasonable price.  One is afraid of making friends, one is afraid of moving, like one of the old lepers, one would like to call from afar to the people:  Don’t come too near me, for intercourse with me brings you sorrow and loss; with all that great load of care on one’s heart, one must set to work with a calm, everyday face, without moving a muscle, live one’s ordinary life, get along with the models, with the man who comes for the rent, with everybody in fact. With a cool head, one must keep one hand on the rudder to continue the work, and with the other hand try to do no harm to others.  And then storms arise, things one had not foreseen, one doesn’t know what to do, and one has a feeling that one may strike a rock at any moment….”

There was also a Toulouse-Lautrec that looks more like a Van Gogh than some of Van Gogh’s do, showing a confident, slightly severe young woman seated at a table with her arms folded. Bernard, younger than Vincent, is almost uniformly dull, respectably of his time and no more.  In life he was encouraged by Vincent, as was Gaughin (who shared Vincent’s quarters in Brittany before the cutting-off of the ear).  It is a measure of Van Gogh’s soundness and control as an artist that, a year before his death, he could write to Theo, “I have written to Bernard and Gaughin too that I considered that to think, not to dream, was our duty, so that I was astonished looking at their work that they had let themselves go so far.”

This is what is so rarely talked of in Van Gogh’s work:  his solidity, his structure.  Stand ten yards away from a painting by one of his contemporaries and it seems to vacillate on the wall; Van Gogh’s are like Gibraltar. The portraits spin a face at you from a whorl of centrifugal color, the landscapes all have a solid center, and some (like his house at Arles or his bedroom or the boats on the beach) are so strong that the museum seems to have been constructed around them.  You notice this especially when you see one of Van Gogh’s copies (usually of Millet farm scenes—there’s a whole wall of them) and sense Vincent slightly uncomfortable in someone ele’s format.

I went downstairs to the third floor, where Van Gogh’s sketches, which demonstrate how carefully his paintings were planned, are usually on display.  But there was a special Munch show being hung, so I headed down to the second floor, one wall of which, for initial impact, I will back against any wall of any museum in the world.

What I saw first brought me up short—two huge Japanese paintings, after Hokusai or Hiroshige, but done by Vincent.  I’d known of his being influenced by Japanese painters, and certain beliefs they shared—the essential rightness of nature, their truthfulness in painting its effects, their sense of human life small against a landscape, their deep religious feeling without resorting to icons.  But I’d never seen his attempts at Japonaiserie. One was garish—I mean that unpejoratively, as a geisha is garish—and showed a courtesan.  The other, more effective, showed a bridge in pelting rain, the wood pilings slanting one way, the driving rain another, and blown against a blue sky, two human figures squirming amid the wet. The painting had caught, in a Japanese tone, the exact weight and feel of such a storm—a bridge inconsequential against a world teeming with water.  Beside the Japonaiseries were a self-portrait, staring at world with fishy eye, and a still life of fruit that may have given Cezanne a nudge.

Spoiled by having had the museum virtually to myself, I was startled to find a man (tweedy, professorial) and a woman (redhead, military kit) on either side of me.  Why do women in museums always look available, and men either bored or boring?  I felt surrounded, so I moved on to the main part of the floor, which holds only paintings from Van Gogh’s last years, 1887 - 90.

The banks of fluorescent light abetted by daylight from above, the blue-flecked gray carpet, the dozing guard in the corner, all gave the museum a tidy Dutch unobtrusiveness. This is why so many people come to Amsterdam:  it never says no to anyone, and yet a stranger will ask if  he is disturbing you before he strikes up a conversation.

This guard looked exactly like Goldfinger, and his ease made me think this must be a particularly pleasant museum to be a guard in.  And who, looking at one of those tranquil uniformed men seated on a wooden stool in a corner, watching everyone and no one, half-asleep, has not wondered what it would be like to have that job?  I always imagine it to be like sleepwalking, but I have found museum guards on the whole to be extremely knowledgeable people, with exotic hobbies and a meditative turn of mind. Certainly Van Gogh doesn’t ever grate—this same man would go out of his mind at the Whitney.  I decided to interrogate Goldfinger.

“What’s it like to be surrounded by Van Gogh all day?”

He looked as if no one had ever asked him that question before—at least not that morning.  Like most Dutch he spoke English perfectly.  He made a bubble-blowing expression, and said in a soft accent, “Well, I’ve been here nearly seven years now.  You have to have something to think about. Working here, seeing Van Gogh (he pronounced it Van Hohckh) and his handwriting all the time, I became very interested in graphology.  His letters are beautiful, noble, some of the most wonderful ever written. You can see the man’s whole soul in his handwriting—it varies wildly even in a single line or word.  You see the intuition and the intelligence and how hard he was trying to live with himself, knowing the difficulties.”

I said, “What happens to you after seven years here?”

He made an assessing gesture with one hand, as if talking of someone else.  “What happens when you stay here, even though you move around many times in the day, is you start to think of all the paintings as yours.  In a way, they are.  But they’re yours, too.  Anyway, you feel there’s a certain spot in the room, an area on this or that floor that you prefer, in which you feel more at home.  Maybe the four paintings nearest to you in one corner happen to sum up all the different flows in your life.  And then one day you realize, after many months, that there is one painting which is absolutely yours.  And you can’t say why.  It may not even be the best. But it just is a part of you, in a way that no other painting here is.  I knew an old guard who retired and never told me which painting was his.  He thought it was too great a secret to give away. Myself, I didn’t realize until one day I happened to look up, and there were some Italians talking away, and I thought, ‘Look at those Italians in front of my painting.’”  He gave a little ho-ho-ho laugh.  “I didn’t mind, but there it was.”

“Which painting is it?”  I asked.

“I’ll tell you,” he said.  “The one over there, of the almond blossoms in bloom.  The one with Americans in front of it.  That’s mine.”

I thanked him for his honesty (“Well, I am an honest man, ho-ho-ho.”) and went over to have a look at the snowflake petals splurging on frail fingering branches.  There were two middle-aged couples who looked, in rumpled sweaters, as if they’d flown in that very morning.

One husband, rumbling, shifting his glasses authoritatively, said, “Stand away from this and it’s ten times prettier.  Ten times, Corinne.”

His wife ignored him and moved closer.  He blinked and drifted off with the other husband. When the ladies were alone, Corinne said to her friend, “Did you see what Vincent did?  You can’t see from there, Martha.  Put your nose right up to the canvas.”

Martha said, “Why, he just left a lot of the canvas blank!  And put in creamy splotches for the almond blossoms.  They’re so thick you think he’s covered everything up.  Damn, here comes the guard.”

I caught just a hint of twinkle in Goldfinger’s eye.  “Back off,” he said amiably in Dutch, and indicated a line a foot back from the wall that  the American ladies had overstepped. Their husbands, triumphant again, were now discussing the implications of jet-lag. I moved on to the famous sunflowers, exuberant in a great vase with one of Vincent’s largest signatures across its belly.  In front of it stood two Frenchmen in berets, needlessly playing at trenchcoats—there is a free cloakroom downstairs.  One made that French sound of throaty delight that sounds like a dying fish gasping at air.  I moved on, trying not to let the wall drown me.  “I want to make decorations for the studio,”  Vincent had written his brother. “Nothing but big flowers fade so soon, and the thing is to do the whole in one rush.”

There was a view over Monmartre, one of those stately landscapes in which Vincent gives us a long sweep of hills and fields and sky, a hymn of human and natural life spread easily before our gaze. And a still life of piles of books, that remind one of what a great reader Van Gogh was, what a literary man, in fact: unusual in a painter.  And also a reminder of how often Vincent sought his subject matter in what lay simply close at hand—unlike Gaughin, who sought it a world away.

“As far as I know there isn’t a single academy where one learns to draw and paint a digger, a sower, a woman putting the kettle over a fire or a seamstress…The figures in the pictures of the old master(s) do not work.”  Van Gogh felt close to the people he painted, and he felt this sympathy unnecessary.  All this time, all these years brother Theo, working at a gallery, not a wealthy man, kept supporting him. Vincent, in Arles in 1888, would write to him, “My debt is so great that when I have paid it, which all the time I hope to succeed in doing, the pains of producing pictures will have taken my whole life from me, and it will seem to me then that I have not lived.”

Van Gogh wrote Theo sometimes twice a day, and Theo’s replies carried with them, twenty,
fifty, a hundred francs.  Never was art made so cheaply, nor at such a high human cost.  Van Gogh never lived past the level of a labourer, and often, strapped for cash, he would go several days living on coffee until the next hundred francs arrived.  Yet in his letters he never complains about insufficient money; if anything, it is for insufficient affection. Anxious, ablaze, alone, he received little of woman’s love either—though for a time he supported and sketched a prostitute and her child.  For at heart Vincent always remained the preacher, going among the people, trying to find out what their lives could teach him; his pictures, never iconographically religious, still communicate a feeling which is fundamentally religious.

In part this is because of his embracing honesty—“The man who damn well refuses to love what he loves dooms himself.”  Through these apprentice years he was learning to shed his skin, not to hide. After Vincent finds his style, he can communicate so directly because he seems in a painting to be revealing all his feelings about a scene (while concealing the artifice that allows him to portray them.)  He does not approach you delicately, on tiptoe, hoping you will like his work and have something nice to say about it.  He butts you in the stomach, he claps his hands on your shoulders and spins you round and conjures something miraculous and unexpected before you—a turbulent field wavering in a turning autumn wind of riotous color, a lone crow rising from the corn sheaves standing like a squadron of sentries, shoulder to shoulder in that season of memory.  Van Gogh is not asking for discussion, or explaining his sentiments of a landscape:  he simply offers himself to you, in nakedness, much as someone shares his daily bread.

It is this furious candor that is so appealing, especially in our age, in which self-proclaimed artists cower behind “theories” and peacock their lack of ideas before a gullible public waiting to die, instead of getting on with the job: to look with new eyes, to see an ever-renewed, ever unexplored world as it has never been seen before. That might suffice as a definition of the artist’s duty, in any age, and no painter did it more than Vincent.

He has so many strengths as a painter that it may seem a little absurd to list them as if he were a baseball player, but nevertheless worth trying.  First, an instinctive sense of subtle but constant surprise.  A color sense that still seems wholly original, of boundless vigor and flexibility and range.  A subject matter that is both daring and traditional, and a humility before it.  The ability to communicate, in a brushstroke, any passion—exultation, pity, repose, and (most difficult in a painting) danger.

That famous painting, near the end, of forty black crows rising against a tumultuous sky from a waving, whiskery cornfield with a path tortuously heaving around and through then vanishing, ending in the standing sheaves, conveys a sense of threat so great that there is no compromise to looking at it.  You either get as close as possible, trying to locate the source of danger, or you back away almost immediately, and move on to the next painting—a delighted empty landscape with a squiggle of cloud across an easy blue sky.  I spent ten minutes watching people back away from the crows, retreating as if singed.

“It’s getting closer,” muttered an Austrian girl.  She meant his death.

A curious absence in his work: virtually no nudes.

It was noon, and the museum was starting to fill up with businessmen on lunch breaks.  I went on to a late painting of the garden of the hospital where Vincent spent his last two years. An ethereal glow tranced the sky, just beyond the sanatorium wall, like the promise of a cure.  And then I came to one of my favorites:  Vincent’s house in Arles,  the Maison Jaune. Let me be foolhardy enough to try to describe it, since this is one of those paintings everyone knows which has more and more going on in it the more you look; and the apparent unrelatedness of everything in the scene is what gives its feeling of true life, of existence happening before one’s eyes.

Beneath a dark blue sky we are looking at a town corner.  A wide, tan street hugs a house with great green trees, left, and comes forward to meet another street extending away toward a railroad bridge in the distance, right.  A huffing locomotive is pulling black cars across.

In the center of the canvas stands a pale yellow house with a larger building behind it, four stories.  A couple of stories boast blue doors and balconies.  On the ground floor is a café, with figures clustered around a table. A gate leads (we suppose) into a courtyard.  An awning signals a bar or bakery inside.

Out front a man is sitting with his back to us, a plump woman in a long dress near him.  A man in gray trousers is walking fast, about to pass them.  In the long street to the right are a young woman and two children, holding hands.  Dirt is piled in the road. Look closely: a man watches from the upper story of the larger house, between chimneys.  As your eye goes down the street you see arched doors, a hanging sign, and another stone bridge just visible beyond the first.  Laundry is hanging from the little yellow house at the front, and a balcony is lined with plants.

The painting next to it is of Vincent’s bedroom in that house, and it holds all the details—washbasin and hat and towel and his own paintings on the walls—that let you reconstruct his life.  The ideal way to reveal anything is to invite; and Vincent is always offering his hand.

But time was running out for him.  In these months he was producing nearly a painting a day, working happily.  He invited Gauguin to join him.  They did not get along at all, there was the attack inflicted on his ear. Gauguin left, and Vincent went into hospital over Christmas Eve, 1888. By May 1889 he was in a mental home at Saint-Remy-en-Provence.  He would have about fourteen months more, including a final three under the sympathetic eye of the good Dr. Gachet in Auvers, before his suicide with a revolver in July, 1890.

His moods, of course, were swinging wildly, but he kept painting. In this time he would write, in his determination to keep working, “My sorrow will be stronger than my madness,” and “I think of it as a shipwreck, this journey.”  And in the final letter to Theo, that strange sense of reconciliation in the closing phrase:  “I tell you again that I shall always consider you to be more than a simple dealer in Corots, that through my mediation you have your part in the actual production of some canvases, which will retain their calm even in the catastrophe.”  Calm even in the catastrophe:  the artist’s mission.

Theo would be dead six months later, leaving a son, Vincent, who twenty years ago would set up the museum and the Van Gogh Foundation.

And amid all this tragedy—the great stormclouds hurtling across an urgent sky, as if the brain at its busiest were breaking down—why does one come out of the museum feeling so exalted, feeling the triumph in Vincent’s life?  To be touched so greatly and with such generosity, to be shown so much: it makes his suffering mortal. His boats are the idle boats of any childhood, his grand view of a harvest across swelling hazed fields a view we might have and forget but which, in retrospect, seems like pure happiness. It is the joy we remember that is immortal.

I kept returning to his painting of the two couples in the garden, that shaded peace at the end of a hot day.  Four young lovers, two seated, two standing, amid so much fervent blooming: a generation of love withheld from Vincent, beneath a falling sky.  So much sense of possibility in this canvas, you feel, Vincent the eavesdropping sharer of those private endearments; but not for him, never for him.

“I have a lover’s insight or a lover’s blindness for work just now.”  Vincent wrote his brother in September, 1888.  “I know quite well that I have already written you once today, but it has been such a lovely day again.  My great regret is that you cannot see what I am seeing here.”

But I could; I had been looking over his shoulder all day; and his greater vision persisted long after I left the museum and walked among the overcoated people, sharing a path through fields of weeping snow.