Art of the Interview
"No," she repeated, with a firm flutter of her fan. "In answer to your question: my life has at no time been centered on my art collection. My life has always been centered on sex. As my dear father used to say, Fame and Fortune are all very well, but it's what you do with them that counts,"
The young man noted her words down rapidly in his notebook. It was a Chinese fan of the Ming (?) Dynasty for which she had outbid three museums one famous day at Christie's. It was used, according to the research staff which had prepared him for this interview, "for various ceremonial purposes" involving Empresses and their favorite favorites.
He considered his options for a proper follow-up question. But, once again, she was a step ahead of him..
"The first principle of the art of the interview," she said, " as I have learned in many years of taking part in them, is to avoid, as far as possible, asking questions. The interviewer should start telling bizarre tales about him- or herself, or just sit and stare, till we interviewees get restless and then we start talking and rambling on and of course we will settle down to talking about ourselves, that is why we asked you in in the first place. If we make fools of ourselves, we will never be able to say you trapped us into it.."
The young man was determined to brazen it out. "Has any one ever made a fool of you, Mrs. Thunder?"
"All art collectors are made fools of when they start out," she said. "I remember dear Norton Simon telling me once that when he started collecting he hired two of the best-known painters of whatever the New York school was at that moment, at very comfortable salaries, to teach him what contemporary art is all about. And hell, he said, if he had listened to them he would have his house full of Baziotes and Poussette-Dart. Both charming young men in their day, as I can certify, but their names mean nothing to you young people today, and there you are.
"Whereas I always followed my instinct. I took to Spinetti from the start, though he was not famous then, in fact I made him famous when I started collecting him though I would prefer you did not say so in your article. Nor say that I am selling him now. He looked rather like you when I first met him at Classical Jazz, which was the little place in Chelsea we used to go to when we didn't want to be seen by too many people. The place where they had a deaf-and-dumb pianist who claimed to have invented rock-and-roll. When Spinetti smiled at me, I thought at first that he was the bouncer.
"That, by the way, is a Spinetti standing right next to your chair. The little yellow gorilla like the pink one standing next to my sofa. If you press the right nipple, the belly of the beast opens up and out comes a miniature bar with glasses and little bottles and ice and all sorts of paraphernalia.. Like this." She transferred her fan to her left hand and demonstrated with the other.
"As you can see, since I became an American citizen I have made a point of choosing Jack Daniels for myself. My guests usually prefer single-malt. Help yourself at any time. Just poke around in it a bit, there are many shelves, and I am sure you will find something you can be comfortable with."
"I will have a Jack Daniels to keep you company," he said. "But of course. You needn't worry that I will try to make you drunk so that I can say you were too fuddled to take accurate notes. The second principle of the art of the interview is to avoid, if possible, taking any notes at all. Unless of course you are interviewing a politician or a gangster or an mergers-and-acquisitions person or someone of that sort, and you are laying traps for them all the time. But then it is not an interview, it is a cross-examination. If you look in your dictionary, you will see that the word "interview" meant originally a mutual view, two people looking each other over. And with people like us, it should be a friendly or at least a civilized occasion. If an hour after it is over you cannot remember some of the things I said, it means they were things not worth saying. And what you can remember, you can say much more effectively and more concisely, after all you are the professional.
"An interview, you see. should be a pleasant collusion, as sex should be a pleasant collusion, between two people who each have something to gain from it. It is, as bankers used to put it, a mutual benefit association. Being the interviewee, I stand to gain both financially and in social prestige if the world learns interesting and sometimes shocking details of the process by which I have built up my collection of what one of your colleagues has called the Art of Next Wednesday. Being the interviewer, you can expect to earn the envy of your rivals and the approbation of your employer by your skill in bringing to light picturesque details like the story of why I decided to bankroll Spike O'Riley for his project of digging a six-foot-deep ditch across four counties in Utah. And you will have every right to look forward to recognition in public places, a higher spot on the masthead of your magazine, useful leads to spicier and more remunerative assignments, why not a Pulitzer Prize..
"Admittedly, in the present case, the rewards may be well below what we rightfully think we deserve. My life is peopled with more interesting figures than Spinetti.
. "You, wielding the corrosive pen you sharpened at the Columbia School of Journalism where your instructors were favorably impressed by your vow to out-Gate WaterGate, have a right to look forward to sensational disclosures of the rottenness at the heart of our society, perhaps a surprise best-seller, a chance to be interviewed yourself on Sixty Minutes.
"It is true that this is your first job at a serious magazine, and this is your first serious assignment, a chance to show off your talents, but you may well consider it a deplorable waste of those talents. Watergate may have been a humdrum little burglary, but at least they were trying to steal something more important than the few trinkets of misconceptual art you will find in my bedroom."
He was about to protest, but stopped in time.
"That may conceivably have been the object of this assignment," she continued. "You may tell me if you like that you feel honored to be meeting someone who has lived so long and has shared so much with so many of the illustrious men of our time, and now, after a high noon of such great social triumphs and such great personal tragedies is sinking with a satisfied sigh into a quiet afternoon alternately amassing and dispersing a world-famous collection of works of art and of anti-art and post-art and punk-art and cyber-art and now we have Ground-Zero art with sound effects..
"But of course you are not really interested in all that kind of thing, and to tell the truth neither am I. I delight in such works as you see scattered around this room, I delight when I buy them, and I delight when I sell them at the top of the market. You must have a decisive sense of timing in these matters, for the boy wonder of today may well be the dead white male of next Wednesday.
"But," and she fluttered her fan slightly, "the truth is that I prefer livelier pleasures than the banquets with which directors of museums periodically honor me. Beneath my air of subtly haughty elegance - that is a phrase your current editor used once when she attempted with limited success to interview me - I feel a girlish delight when I enter the latest restaurant with my latest crony or companion or whatever you call it in your magazine these days and I am aware of a dozen hosts at a dozen tables whispering to their friends, 'There she goes, the famous Belinda Thunder, the one you just read about in Vanity Fair.' I enrich their lives, they light up mine. As you and I should be able to do for each other with this interview."
He had had time to work out a new strategy. He had put his notebook back in its pocket, and now he leaned back with his whisky in his hand and he said in a casual tone, "Sex in my experience has not been an invariably pleasant experience."
"You are perhaps thinking of the previous interviewer, the lady who got you your job at the magazine after you had shown her the story you had written about coming in in two hundred and tenth place in the New York marathon. She has no style, and of course she is twice as old as you. Perhaps she would just as soon that your article not make great journalistic waves."
[That was quite unfair to Margaret. Or was it? She had offered to help him on this story, about things he did not know anything about, like who designed the rather striking clothes Mrs. Thunder was wearing... But before he could work out all the variables, they were off on another track:]
"That is of course the fatal flaw in so many traditional marriages. My father for example was a strikingly handsome aristocrat, a viscount without a penny to his name. My mother had inherited several chemical factories. When they each got what they wanted, they discovered as people do that it was not enough, and they made an unusually unhappy couple, even by the standards of the county families I grew up among..
"Please do not reach for that book now to write that you have found the secret of my helter-skelter life in an unhappy childhood. I was a very happy child. My father began, to use the current catchword, abusing me at the age of eleven, and he was the lover all women dream of. He was infinitely tender, deft, patient, athletic, unpredictable, inexhaustible. If he had not died in a hunting accident, we might be living and hunting together to this day, as merry as any two larks.
"I have never, as a matter of fact, been convinced that it was a hunting accident. I have always believed that it was the work of my mother who hated us for our happiness. But I was away at school at the time, and by the time I arrived of course everything had been cleaned up, there was no evidence. The constable in charge of the case told me I was mad. 'All the property is in your mother's name,' he told me, 'what possible motive could she have for getting rid of a fine figure of a man like that?'
"I tried to get back at her by telling her I was going to drag the family name into the mud, I was going to run off with a defrocked French priest who was all the rage in London literary circles at that time. But she just laughed at me, she said, 'No dear, you are just like your father, you will always marry for money to spend on your perverse pleasures.'
"And sure enough just about that time Hubert came along, he was trying to buy the Times. He was suffering terribly from the breakup of his marriage to a morose lady who was much older then he was, and descended from someone who came over on the Mayflower. I of course was much younger than he was, and descended from Enguerrand de Tonnerre who was said, on no very solid evidence, to have come over with William the Conqueror. He leaped on me, to the extent that someone like Hubert was capable of leaping.
"There was a tender wistful streak in Hubert which sometimes reminded me of one side of my father's character, a side he carefully hid from every one but me. In fact if I think back on any of my four husbands and my numerous gentleman friends, I am sure your research department has given you a complete list, you can always find some trace of a trait they shared with my father."
[He ran silently through the list of husbands, the publishing tycoon, the millionaire psycho-analyst, the richest man in Sweden, the richest member of the United States Senate. How many inheritances had squeezed into this room where every object was surely priceless, though not a single one of them looked like anything he had seen before? She sat among them comfortably, as among old friends, sitting across from him, her eyes looking, not concentrating, just looking at him familiarly, those greenish eyes which were described in the research as her greatest charm. The research listed 22 names of lovers familiar to readers of newsmagazines, but Margaret insisted that at least two-thirds of these affairs had been manufactured by the respective press agents.]
"My research department, as you call it," he said, "has folders on all of the husbands, but the only one I had time to do more than skim through is the first."
"Then you have probably got a very wrong impression of Hubert. He was a pretty colorless person, and that is the kind of person scandal-mongers like to pick on, Who would have thought it of that sweet boring little man?, that sort of thing. Hubert was actually a nice Jewish boy, troubled by having inherited so much money and power, troubled that he had to use his wealth and not his brains to get what he wanted, troubled that he was not giving his eager young wife the satisfaction she required and demanded, troubled by all sorts of things. I might have been content to be an unfaithful unsatisfied wife to him, he was very considerate, very generous, very understanding, but it troubled him that, even though he played an aggressive game of tennis, he could not be a dominant male like his father who had started as a newsboy and had left his son thirty-one newspapers. Every one in those days had a shrink, and Hubert naturally acquired the biggest and most expensive shrink of them all, you have of course read about him. He liked to call himself Prince Igor, and of course we all called him that, though he came in fact from a quite modest background. But his philosophy was always to go to the top. When he became an analyst, he made a point of only treating millionaires and millionairesses, and when he got them on the couch he didn't just pry out their tawdry little sex secrets, hr pried out the strategy of their financial operations. That is how he got into mergers and acquisitions. Two years after he started his practice he was a millionaire, and he married a Rockefeller or a Mellon or someone of that sort, the one who was in all the papers when she came to a tragic end on the ski-slopes in Gstaad. He was certainly no ordinary little shrink with rimless glasses, I can tell you that, he was a great wild-eyed wild-haired bouncing Russian like Peter the Great, a handsome heartless greedy irresistible son of a bitch.
"When he became my second husband, there was a lot of talk about that of course. But he laughed and said, 'The more talk, the more patients.' May I propose a toast to his memory?"
They drank. She continued:
"It didn't take Igor long to figure poor Hubert out. He told him that his trouble was that he had low self-esteem because he was ashamed of the homosexual yearnings he had hidden all those years behind the gray curtains of normality. He told Hubert to take off his clothes and lie down and begin associating freely, and Hubert suddenly remembered a day in a locker room at school where he had stumbled into the most gorgeous figure of a man he had ever seen, and they had actually touched each other before he ran away sobbing. Now there he was with Prince Igor looking down at him on the couch, and Prince Igor did have such a figure and such a presence as you don't see in the movies any more. They had their moment of ecstasy, and then the phone rang. It was me. I had been to Washington for a party at the White House, but it had been called off because of some national emergency, and I was flying back.
"Poor Hubert didn't have the slightest idea what to do next, but Igor had it figured out in an instant. 'Get dressed,' he said, and he went out to get several bottles of champagne. When I arrived, he ordered the two of us into the bedroom'.'Be a man,' he said to Hubert..
"Hubert tried hard enough, He always made an effort.
"When he fell over, exhausted, there was a knock at the door and in came Prince Igor with a bottle in an ice bucket and three glasses, the cork gave the most glorious pop, and we polished off that bottle, and Igor said, 'I am proud of you, Hubert,' and I giggled, and Hubert passed out, and through misty eyes I saw Igor looming over me and he looked so like my father. We agreed afterwards that we had never had a similar experience, as we took possession of each other with an insolent excitement (there's another phrase for your article) that might have wakened the dead but of course did not waken poor limp Hubert lying beside us.
"When Igor finally slapped him awake, he was a little fuddled, but he got more and more animated as Igor shook him and shouted at him. He told him it was the greatest day of his life, he was cured of whatever it was that ailed him, it was the classic cure which the wily French had worked out over the ages for similar cases, they called it a ménage à trois.
"And it worked for Hubert. Every one remarked on how much more confident he looked, he had always left the office promptly at five, but now he was up till three in the morning, driving his staff crazy. It was a recession year, but circulation at his papers went up by fifteen percent. He should have been a very happy man. But you know how it is with that worrying kind of a man, the happier they are the more they will insist on finding something to be unhappy about. There he was at the top of the world, he was rich, he was famous, he had a jewel of a wife, he had the most famous psycho-analyst since dear Jung passed away, he was consulted by prime ministers and anchormen, he was in charge of a Dow Jones Industrial component, he could swing elections. But buried down inside himself somewhere was an itching awareness that he was not in charge of our little ménage à trois. It was Igor who was still Peter the Great there, he was the one who decided who did what to whom, and when and where.
"Among the three of us, Hubert was still the same old Hubert, very considerate, very unassuming. But sometimes he said things that were faintly disagreeable, sometimes he did things that were faintly tactless. I sometimes had the faint impression that he was on the verge of actually doing something unpleasant. But of course, if he ever had any such plan, he died before he could carry it out."
They took another sip from their glasses, and he said:
"I have heard that there were nasty rumors about that death."
"There always are, aren't there, when a rich person dies unexpectedly," she said. "And of course when I married Igor they became even more nasty. But there was very little to go on, I mean in a detective-story sort of way. Poor Hubert had some kind of a heart murmur, and Igor told me he had warned him repeatedly against overindulgence in strenuous physical activity. And that fatal weekend he chose to play a brutal game of tennis with the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. And then I had to stay up all hours pouring tumblersful of Jack Daniels while he argued heatedly with the chairman and with Igor about the proper strategy for winning the Cold War. He was asking for it, as some of his best friends told me. He died thrashing in his sleep at approximately four in the morning, according to the medical testimony.
"There seemed to be nothing more to be said about it.
"But it so happened that there was a writer out in Los Angeles who made a specialty of finding something more to be said about such deaths. I have always called him the Avenger. When there was no one well known enough to avenge, he wrote about art collectors. Perhaps he was right: in my experience there is always a dark and dangerous side to a passion for art-collecting. At all events, he had a theory that Igor had deliberately got me interested in art collecting as a therapy because he thought I might be brooding too much over the circumstances of my tragic loss, and who knows where brooding can lead.
. . "The Avenger could smell a suitably sinister story there, and he asked me for an interview, and he was a very good interviewer. He told me that the very first time he laid eyes on me, he knew we would be able to get along together because we had one important thing in common, we were not taken in by appearances. He soon had me chattering about everything that was running through my silly little head at the time. His article was called A Poor Little Rich Girl with Style, and I am sure you have it in your files.
"I did notice, for I make a practice of noticing such things even at my giddiest moments, that while he listened conscientiously and smiled appreciatively when I gave him lively accounts of action painters in action, his eyes narrowed and the wrinkle at the bridge of his nose deepened when I began telling him how Hubert and Igor had turned out to have so many things in common, their taste in horses, their taste in women, even the splitting headaches they would get when things weren't working out the way they would have liked. Igor, who was a very competent physician when he wasn't dissecting dreams, had concocted a miracle cure, a mixture of various aspirin-type drugs with various after-dinner drinks which they would both take at night-time, and it always worked, their heads quieted down before they went to bed.
"'I happen to be very interested in aspirin,' said the Avenger at this point in an offhand way, and it turned out that he had several questions to ask about how Igor got interested in it too.
"Now I am as much interested in aspirin as the next person, but why turn the conversation in that direction when you are in the middle of fascinating details about the life and habits of a world-class exhibitionist like Spinetti? That by the way is a Spinetti you have been occasionally glancing at, it looks like a black cutout of a gorilla pasted on a white wall, but don't you see, it is not a wall, it is a cotton-batting reproduction of a wall, and the juxtaposition of a two-dimensional gorilla and a three-dimensional surface makes you look slantwise at your whole conception of art, does it not. You can read about it in the book about my collection, I will sign a copy for you when you leave if you remind my secretary. She can also give you some rich anecdotal material about the clothes I am wearing which may be outside your current area of expertise.
"Now let me see, what were we talking about?"
"Aspirin," he said. He had a feeling he should get that notebook back in his hands, but he was not up to it. "Of course people are always interested in bedtime medicines."
"Yes, so I thought but, having no pressing social engagements at the time, I began to get interested in the subject myself. I discovered that the Avenger's journalistic investigations had played a major role in uncovering a major medical scandal in Los Angeles, the one you have surely heard of, involving a doctor who had made a fortune out of a drug in which he had a proprietary interest, one of those drugs you take when you have the blues and which cheer you up no end. It had some name that sounded like Tweedledum and of course it was very expensive. It was a little white pill that looked like any other white pill, but it was supposed to be crammed full of exotic herbs and isotopes and things of that sort. That doctor used to promote it forcefully He used to invite every one who counted in southern California to his intimate dinner parties. Igor and I were guests at one of those dinner parties, the time he was picking up an impressive fee from Warner Brothers for serving as a consultant on that Oscar-winning movie about the mad murderer with a mother-in-law complex. It was a candle-lit dinner and at every lady's place there was a tasteful little bauble neatly enfolded in a prescription for a month's supply of Tweedledum tablets.
"So typical of Beverly Hills, don't you think. I remember saying afterwards I would like to fill that prescription so that we could try it out on some selected friends, and Igor encouraged me to do so. We were in a drugstore at the time, and he pulled the prescription out of some back pocket, and urged me to go fill it, we might get some real fun out of it, he said. It was a typically impulsive Igor gesture, but with Igor you could always he sure that he had a germ of a thought in the back of his impulses. He never threw anything away because as he said, you never knew when it might come in handy in a malpractice suit or something of that sort..
"It was a frame of mind I shared with him. I have a dear friend at the British Embassy who was a very successful secret agent during the war, and I asked him to discreetly acquire some samples of Tweedledum and check up on what they were really like. He got a report from a secret-service laboratory in London which assured him that it was just random junk off a chemist's shelves which might give a mouse a headache but which could not possibly be of any value in clandestine warfare.
"Of course this was before those nasty stories began coming out, you will remember them, two prominent medical officials had to resign, all the pills were recalled, there were enormous law suits, things like that. It was discovered that not only was much of the medical evidence on Tweedledum faked, but it was rumored to have some very disagreeable side effects, it could even cause heart attacks if taken along with too much saturated fat, alcohol and/or aspirin. It was the Avenger who had provided an anonymous medical source with the famous quote, 'If it's just Tweedledum, I call for a stomach pump; if it's Tweedledum plus sour mash and aspirin, I call for a funeral parlor.'
"Well, you can see the flashes between the Avenger's synapses when he hears of an unexpected death where a considerable fortune changes hands, with a whiff of unconventional sex and illegal drugs thrown in. He threw himself into this case with his accustomed vigor, he did colossal amounts of detective work. He turned up someone who had been at a stag party or something of that sort and met a woman who claimed to be the broker at Merrill Lynch who had arranged for Igor to buy a good part of the initial public offering of Tweedleum stock for eight hundred thousand dollars and sell it for eight million just before the stock crashed. Unfortunately, that broker was dead. But the Avenger turned up an even hotter tip, that, on the day before poor Hubert's heart attack a drugstore on Lexington Avenue had delivered to our home a package of twelve Tweedledum pills on the basis of a prescription signed by Igor.
"It was of course perfectly routine for the Avenger to ask for an interview with Igor to get the psychoanalytical-marital view of my love affair with art. They got on very well together, their minds worked in very similar ways. When Igor recalled how a slip of the tongue over a cocktail (saying 'kill' when the intended word was 'kiss') had opened up to him the secret past of a Russian baroness, the Avenger was reminded of how a similar slip of the part of a well-known doctor ('failed to confirm' when he meant to say 'failed to contradict') alerted him to the fact that there was something fishy about that high-flying Tweedledum drug.
"'Funny you should mention that,' said Igor. 'Talk about coincidences. That damned drug. You know I have a reputation for being over-cautious about prescribing new wonder-drugs as they come along, but I had heard such wonderful things about this from one of my doctor friends, a man who was ordinarily as cautious as I was, that I actually wrote out a prescription of it for Hubert when he was complaining of feeling desperately depressed. I was really worried, I had never seen him so despondent and discouraged, I felt he needed something in a desperate hurry, and as a matter of fact it was just a day or so before he died. By God's good grace it was on that same day that I heard the first faint rumors that my doctor friend had a stake in that pharmaceutical company, and I got into action at once. I ran over to Hubert's house, which was just around the corner, just in time to sign for the delivery from the drugstore, and to make sure he never got his hands on those things, I locked them up in a safe in the room downstairs in his house which in those days he used to let me use as a supplementary study and office, in fact the very room in which you are talking to me now.'
"'And they're still there?' asked the Avenger, as coolly as he could manage.
"'They must be,' said Igor. 'At least I suppose they must be. Let's take a look.' And he turned to a bookcase full out of out-of-date medical reference books, and he pushed a few books aside and fiddled with knobs and he opened the safe, and poked around inside till way in the back under a pile of old letters he found the package from the pharmacy with the invoice wrapped around the bottle with its twelve little white pills well sealed inside. He shook his head as he handed over the package for the Avenger to examine. 'I can't imagine,' he said, 'how those charlatans could get away with this as long as they did. And no one has yet to spend a night in jail for it, it's a sin what money can do to obstruct justice in this country. Of course there are worse things than jail. At least a few reputations have been destroyed. As mine might have been, just between us. Imagine what the unscrupulous press might have done if they discovered I had prescribed a suspicious medicine for a friend the day before his death, a friend whose wife I would later marry. I have kept this goddamned bottle all this time as reminder of how careful you must be in life, how an instant's little innocent error of judgment can destroy a lifetime of work. I was hoping to write an account of it some day, but it makes me sick to look at those damned pills. Maybe I'd better get rid of them.'And he removed the bottle from the Avenger's hand and threw it into his waste basket.
"Well, the Avenger was boxed in. He was writing an art story, and he couldn't very well keep harping on those pills. coincidental as they may have been, without arousing suspicion about his devotion to art, in fact he had no choice but to leave aspirin alone and go back to his interview on my collection, and eventually the story got printed, but I doubt that he will include it in his Collected Works.
"He must have gone back to Los Angeles with a heavy heart, and he must have spoken to someone, and that someone must have spoken to someone else, because eventually the story of that interview came around to me, and I became curious about that safe which Igor had never mentioned to me. He must have installed it when he redecorated all that part of our house as a kind of secondary residence for himself that season when Hubert and I were cruising in the Aegean with Onassis or someone of that sort.
"Now my secret-service friend had learned in His Majesty's service all that is to be learned about discreetly opening locked doors and drawers and safes, and one day when Igor was off at an international shrink conference in Copenhagen I arranged for this friend to show me how to get into that room and open that safe, and I inspected the contents thoroughly. Along with the usual psychoanalytical junk, the bizarre sexual fantasies of investment bankers and that sort of thing, I found certain items which troubled me. One of them was a thick package of financial documents which showed that the catastrophic decline of the Dow-Jones that year, not to speak of the spectacular suicide, if it indeed was a suicide, of a shady international banker with whom Igor was closely associated, had come at the worst possible moment for his mergers and acquisitions, he was desperately short of cash, and a wolf-pack was pressing him for cash, creditors, lawyers, the tax people, at least one member of the White House staff, and an anonymous correspondent who used the crudest terms to describe the reprisals which would follow a failure to come through with a certain unspecified sum before the New Year, and we were now approaching Christmas.
"I could not help recalling a moment in the recent past when I was by pure coincidence passing a door through which I had heard Igor shouting, in a tone and a language I had never heard him use in all the time we knew each other. 'Get off my ass,' he was shouting, 'you'll get your fucking money.'
"A second troubling thing that I found in that safe was a bottle of Tweedledum tablets with a label indicating that it came from our neighborhood pharmacy on Lexington Avenue bearing a date which showed it was the very one which had disappeared into the waste basket before the yearning eyes of the Avenger..
"I had already found it a little disconcerting that Igor had begun to be unusually attentive to me in recent weeks, he said he remarked a deeply troubled look in my brave little eyes, he wanted to know if there was some bad news I wanted to spare him. When I told him once I had a headache, he urged me to take regular doses of the elixir which had worked so well for him and Hubert. At about the same time he was telling some of his intimate friends that unprovoked outbursts of rage on my part against him and even against Bridget our housemaid and Carlos our chauffeur were making life at home difficult, as was my tendency to sit silently at our dinner table when we dined alone, staring stonily at nothing..
"One of those friends was a fellow-psychoanalyst to whom he often turned for advice, to whom he told in strictest confidence that the depth of my depressions made him fear for my reason, even fear for my life."
[It was at last a moment when a constructive interruption was possible.]
"I find it hard to believe that even a psychoanalyst could picture you as suicidal," he said.
"Exactly what the friend told him. I was just then in the center of a whirl of brilliant social events, I was in all the magazines, I was as well known for my smile as for my bons mots which were sometimes quoted without attribution by Henry Kissinger and dear Andy Warhol and people of that sort.
"But psychoanalysts like priests are trained not be taken in by surface impressions. Igor had actually written a book on suicide, he called it All the Perfumes of Arabia, after Lady Macbeth you know, it was about successful women who beneath their confident veneer harbor deep feelings of guilt for deeds they have done in the past. He was convinced that he was robbed of a National Book Award that year because of the shameless intrigues of Hubert's siblings, who could never forget or forgive having been cut out of his will. Of course people in that world will say anything. A scandal sheet insinuated that one of Igor's Lady Macbeth Syndrome cases, a woman who at the height of her social career swallowed a handful of pills because she felt responsible for her husband's death many years before, was a work of fiction based on the death of Igor's own mother-in-law. But Igor insisted that she was really a Russian, in fact a distant relative of his, though of course he had changed the name for the usual reasons, who had married a Belgian baron. And the newspaper retracted, and I believe paid Igor a substantial sum to head off a catastrophic law suit.
"I was never worried about my own mental health, but as day followed day in December that year, I was getting more and more worried about Igor. His temper, which he always found it difficult to control, was getting shorter and inhibiting any kind of rational conversation, and he was getting no help from the prodigious quantities of liquor he was now drinking. He had always had a Russian taste for excess. Now he never went to bed (we were at this time sleeping in separate rooms) without an open bottle of Jack Daniels on his night table, and the bottle had to be replaced after at most two nights.
"But he also made an effort to keep up appearances. We went together to the Opera. And every night when I retired he came to my room and picked his way among the bottles in my minibar to make his feel-good aspirin-and-alcohol mix which had sentimental connotations for both of us and still helped to soothe both of our ways to sleep when there were no sentiments left to be concerned about..
"I began putting two and two together as I can see you are doing yourself at this moment."
[She wasn't even looking at him at that moment.]
"I could not help recalling the title of a work which was once in my collection of the Slovenian painter Strogoff which is considered his masterpiece. The title of this work is, The Function of Art is not to Seem to Be but to Be to Seem. It consists of a glass case in which is enclosed a very rotten wormy apple which visibly disintegrates under the eyes of visitors throughout the whole day. It is replaced by another very rotten apple every night. It is considered by critics to be his definitive statement of the relation of art to life and vice versa. At least that is how the curators at the Museum of Modern Art described it after they purchased it from me..
"The day after Christmas, I had several drinks and a small dinner with an old friend at Classical Jazz. 'You don't look yourself, darling,' she said, 'Is something the matter?' I said that Igor had been acting very strangely, that I was sure he was hiding something extremely disagreeable from me, that in all our days and nights together I had never seen him so distraught, so uncommunicative, so smoldering. I had brought my fan along and was making disorderly gesticulations with it, like this. I saw people at other tables turn to whisper to one another. Even our favorite waiter, Etienne, looked at me with concerned eyes. I told him I was suffering from a bad hangover, but I do not think he was deceived..
"I left quite early and came right home. Igor had been getting drunk at a psychoanalytical symposium, and he came home quite late, and went to his room and banged around a bit, and when he came to my room he was in really bad shape. But he calmed down a bit, he poured a couple of drinks for both of us, he said perhaps we were both a little stressed-out and all we needed was a little rest, and he mixed a tall glass of his night-time concoction for each of us while I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth. I told him to go drink his nightcap, and I would too but I needed a moment to settle down first, it had been a hard day. He did swallow the nightcap and began to tell me he wanted to apologize for something or other, but I told him I just didn't feel like talking, I just wanted to get into bed. 'OK,' he said, 'but don't forget to take your dose.' Don't worry,' I said, 'I really need something tonight.' And I gave him a peck on the cheek and said 'Good night,' And he said 'Good night' in the pleasant tone of our early days. 'I'm sure everything will be better in the morning.' And then he tramped off to his own room.
"In the morning, when Bridget brought up his usual breakfast and knocked there was no response. She was surprised to find the door unlocked. Later she screamed. I came running, and there was Igor, still fully dressed, sprawled on the floor, with dozens of crumpled papers scattered all over the room and one of them clenched in his right hand, scrawled in block letters and containing the vilest threats, including a reminder that New Years was less than a week away. I sharply commanded Bridget to lay no hand on anything in that room, I called for an ambulance, I called for the police. The medical people and the police needed no more than a look at the body, at the empty bottle of Jack Daniels which they found under the body, the empty pill bottle which they found stuffed into an easy chair, the empty aspirin bottle on the floor, the documents with their sordid record of skullduggery, to come to the conclusion later written into the official records, that is to say, suicide while in temporary etcetera.
"Of course there were the usual unpleasant rumors. But considering the notoriety of the people involved, they were few and insignificant. The authorities were exceptionally cooperative in keeping any sordid details of the event from public scrutiny. A rise in the stock market that week allowed Igor's most pressing debts to be quietly paid off, and of course his investments of a few handfuls of thousands of dollars in what were then called back-alley companies like CyberSoft are now part of financial history.
"Of course the Avenger was furious, as you would have been in his place. But what could he do? If he came forward with the story of his interview with Igor, it would only have reinforced the official verdict of suicide, and there was no room in the Avenger's world for such verdicts. He was ready as usual to make vile innuendoes, but he lacked any kind of hard evidence that could lead to a digging up of bodies or anything of that sort.
"He might have scented more possibilities if he had seen some other documents which came into my possession, some papers with the letter-head of a private eye, one of those unscrupulous investigators you see so often in films. This man had apparently been hired to determine the identity of the woman who had picked up a bottle of Tweedledum pills in certain drugstore in Los Angeles on a certain day, you can imagine which day. There were two typed documents signed by this investigator. One recorded his interview with the owner of the drugstore who remembered this customer very well and described her in terms that might have been derived from one of your magazine's articles. The other was a letter addressed to me, undated, suggesting in veiled language that if I knew what was good for me, I would be well advised to get in touch with the undersigned immediately .
"You can see the type of vile innuendo the Avenger could develop if he got his hands on copies of those documents. Perhaps he did get his hands on them, indeed I find it very likely that with his relentless determination and with the usual anonymous sources he actually did. But of course once having them, he would have to prove that they were genuine. And that would be quite difficult, even for him. The private eye, a dubious enough personage to begin with, finding himself under indictment for some illegal actions in some quite other connection, had skipped town. My secret-service friend has informed me that he is living under an assumed name in a country which has no treaty of extradition with the United States and out of which nothing will ever lure him.. As for the drugstore involved, it was burned to the ground during a race riot or something of that sort, and its owner has also disappeared after pocketing a rather large insurance claim.
"So you see there could never be any question of effectively challenging or revising the original judgment of the police.
"It must have been a bitter blow to the poor Avenger, on the very eve of what could have been the superbestseller which good reporters dream of all their lives.
"I have reason to believe that he took his disappointment very hard. He in some respects reminded me of my dear Sven-Erik
[This would be husband Number Three]
who often told me that he, like King Louis XIV, enjoyed living in a world where the difference between I want and I shall have is so slight it is hardly worth talking about.
"It is of course an easier motto to live up to if you are a Most Christian King or if you have eight billion dollars in Swiss bank vaults. But the Avenger kept trying. When he learned that poor Sven-Erik had fallen fatally off that ledge when he was climbing the North Wall of the Eiger he was certain that it was part of the pattern of foul play he had spent so many years learning to identify. You know what such people are like, he was probably certain that someone had tampered with his rope, or alternatively some one had spiked poor Sven-Erik's wakeup coffee and brandy with Tweedledum. He came to the Swiss mountains with a large sum of money from one of those newsmagazines, and it must have been hideous for him when he had an unfortunate fall of his own, not fatal thank goodness, but he is more or less confined to a wheelchair now, which is a considerable handicap when you are always following somebody around in places like the Bernese Oberland. Imagine the scandal he might have created if he had been with us on the Concorde when poor Buffy
[the Senator from Idaho, Number Four]
had his heart attack. Of course, wounded professional vanity aside, he hasn't done too badly with his exposés of Hollywood cokeheads and things of that sort. In the journalism of our century, as you know, sex in the long run pays better than crime.
"May I propose a last toast to either one of them, as you choose?"
[She had a way of looking that was also a way of not looking, something that was both frank and conspiratorial at the same time. Her eyes, which were not really little were that odd shade of green and they were looking you over, in that challenging encouraging way. even when they were looking at something else, like a Spinetti gorilla. She sat up straight as if that was the comfortable thing to do. She did not bother to look young or to look wise. She looked interested in a disinterested way. She looked amazingly fit. Margaret had told him that she was the only newsworthy woman of her generation who had never had her face operated on.]
She was at this moment looking surreptitiously at her watch.
"If you are running short of time -" he said.
"Not at all," she said. "I am afraid I have been rambling on with stories which you may find moderately interesting but which can bring you no material advantage, for you have no way of checking on the accuracy of anything I have told you. and besides, your deadline is tomorrow."
"Wednesday," he lied, and she smiled at him in that friendly way.
"Good," she said. "You will stay for dinner, won't you. I am famous for my intimate little dinners at which so many of those who pass for the great of this world have poured out what passes for their hearts to me. There must be some more pleasant subject we haven't covered."
"You mentioned sex," he said.
"Why yes," she said. "Remind me over dessert to tell you about Spinetti and me on that uninhabited Aegean island. It was the springtime of our love, as well as his most creative period. It was the time when he was designing a barge the size of Central Park which he wanted to anchor off the coast of New Jersey and he wanted to people it with all kinds of monstrous beasts collected from all over the world, humpless camels, two-horned rhinoceroses, sheep with fangs, that kind of thing.
"I call that spot in the Aegean an island, though it was little more than two piles of rocks with some patches of grass and bushes between them, but Spittoni's imagination at that time had not yet been completely unhinged by drugs and drink, and he had studied the Cabala or something of that sort and it had been revealed to him that this was the original Garden of Eden in the Bible. We are Adam and Eve, he said, naked and unashamed and innocent and alone on earth, and we can go looking for the first wild fruit tree and the primeval snake and we can create our own heaven with them. He had my father's gift for making the most absurd little ideas sound delightful.
"As you can imagine, there was nothing edenic about the place as far as I was concerned. Sharp pebbles scarred our feet and briars scratched our private parts, and the only animals we discovered were a couple of mangy wild goats, and I was ready to complain but Spinetti assured me that something unusual always turns up in Paradise, and sure enough we were suddenly on top of a sort of scraggly little cliff and anchored right off shore was the biggest yacht you ever saw, and a motorboat heading toward us, and all those faces, of men and women and cats, looking up at us and every single one of those faces, apart from the cats, had appeared at least once on the cover of your magazine. We waved and shouted, and they waved and shouted back, and they became very excited when they disembarked and Spinetti said to them, We are Adam and Eve. Welcome to the Dawn of Mankind.
"And in those bushes we ushered in the Dawn. I will tell you all about it at dinner. Some of the things we did may seem old hat, may even have been practiced at the Columbia School of Journalism, but you must remember that we were doing them for the first time on Earth, and that gives them a special flavor."
She put down her last empty glass and sprang up from her sofa, as lithe as a tennis player. "Will you hold my fan for me," she said, "while we go in for dinner? It's something of a tradition."
On a Wednesday evening half a year later, at the best table in Classical Jazz, Lottie Lottie the People Editor of Peeping Tom Magazine was having a dinner-interview with Esmeralda Lope de Vega who had been in seclusion for six months.
"Who." said Esmeralda Lope de Vega, "is that gorgeous hunk coming in with Belinda Thunder? And why is he holding her fan?"
"They really must have kept you locked up in that farm," said Lottie. "This has been Item Number One for two weeks now. That is the dude who wrote the book for her, the TellAll that outtellalls everybody. It's called A Flash of Lightning - do you get it,? -- and it really flashes. What everybody did and what they said, in living motherloving color. There is a scene on a Greek island and you won't believe who is in it. There is a scene -- but you have to read it for yourself. They are going to have to rewrite the history books. In the next issue we have stories about heads starting to roll in Washington, in the Vatican, in the Peoples Republic of China, in the boardroom of Time-Warner, at Harvard Law School, you can't imagine. And it is only just beginning. Most of the names in her book are fully spelled out, and the rest are very thinly disguised. There is already a Website if you want the correct spelling. There will be testimony in divorce trials such as you have never seen, there will be paternity suits, maternity suits, there may well be a sudden unexplained death or two.. Every one wants to get in on the story. Why do you think you can't recognize any one at all these tables tonight? I am the only legitimate representative of the press here, and you are the only legitimate Celebrity. Look at all this gang of sharks with their teeth showing. Divorce lawyers, libel lawyers, television smuthounds, cybersmuthounds, supermarket smuthounds, movie producers. The review copies haven't gone out yet, and Random House has ordered a second printing of seven hundred thousand copies. That boy is going to be on our cover next week, and the two of them will be our Thing-of-the Year, in the altogether if I have my way, on the cover of our Year-End issue."
"Give me his cell phone number," said Esmeralda Lope de Vega, "and I'll give you an exclusive on everything, I mean everything, that went on at that farm.".
© 2005 Robert Wernick