Thursday, September 28, 2017

"Then I realized it was true"—Lillian Ross and Jake LaMotta

     There's so much to read in a newspaper, and our attention span is so diffused nowadays, by tweets and posts and the constant pressure of where we might be other than here and what we might be reading other than this, that I sometimes flip through the paper hurriedly, first noting what's there, before I set down to read this or that article that catches my attention.
Ernest Hemingway and Lillian Ross
   So it probably says something about me that I initially skipped over the obituary of Jake LaMotta, the Raging Bull of boxing fame, in last Thursday's New York Times, but settled in on the 2/3 page headlined, "Lillian Ross Dies at 99; A New Yorker Reporter Whose Memoir Rankled."
     The memoir, Here But Not Here: A Love Story was about her half-century-long affair with William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker, and though it was published after his death, Ross's book drew "furious" response. Charles McGrath, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called it a "cruel betrayal" since Shawn's widow was still alive. "a tactless example of the current avidity for tell-all confessions."
     A similar chorus of outrage had met her most famous work, a profile of Ernest Hemingway, "How Do You Like It Now, Gentlemen?" which chronicled the author's stopover in New York in 1950, capturing his staccato pidgin speech ("He read book all way up on plane," Hemingway said, of a fellow passenger. "He like book.") and near constant inebriation.
     "Nothing more cruel has happened to an American writer," Irving Howe wrote in the New Republic, ignoring the fact that Hemingway both approved the piece before publication and afterward praised it, as well as Lillian Ross.
     Then again, I find the greatest indignation is not from people directly affected by a piece of writing, but from third parties, aghast by proxy, on the behalf of people they assume must be done wrong by the way they were handled in a story. The Ross obituary does not mention, and history may not record, what Cecille Shawn felt about Ross's relationship with her husband—which, after 50 years, you imagine she knew about—or the book.
     It's almost as if many people—but not all—have an allergy to candor, so much that they have to express it when given the opportunity.
Jake LaMotta
     Even though that impulse—to condemn unpleasant truths, to endorse heavily-shellacked versions of reality—is antithetical to good writing, and part of the leap a writer makes is deciding, if not to suspend care about what subjects think about a particular work or passage, to push that priority far down the list.
     As I always say, the reason most people can't write is not because they can't string words together, though that's a factor, but because they draw away from expressing the frank truths that make for good writing. They are more worried about some acquaintance than about the most important person, the reader.
     Though not everyone shies away hard realities.
     When I finished Ross's obituary, I turned to LaMotta's, and in it, he summarized perfectly what I had been thinking reading the strong, in my view unfair, reactions to Lillian Ross. The Martin Scorcesse movie that made LaMotta famous to a new generation, "Raging Bull," was a masterpiece, but certainly did not paint the violent, abusive fighter in a positive light. Nor did LaMotta expect it to.
     "I kind of look bad in it," LaMotta told the New York Times. "Then I realized it was true. That's the way it was. I was a no-good bastard. It's not the way I am now, but the way I was then."
     LaMotta was not a writer nor sophisticated thinker like Charles McGrath or Irving Howe. But he had a realization that escaped both of them: that truth is itself a kindness, more flattering than a bucket of honeyed lies. A fiction writer crafts how things could have been, maybe how they should be, creating characters who seem real, and has a free hand because there are no people to be flattered or insulted.
     A non-fiction writer has only reality, and the degree that writer is faithful to reality, and not what the subject might like, or the publication might prefer, determines whether, like Lillian Ross, a particular writer is remembered and cherished or, like the dozen of other profile writers who no doubt tackled Hemingway in 1950, instead are justly forgotten. What her contemporaries condemned her for then was the very thing most valuable about her now.


  1. Interesting that you should state, "A fiction writer...has a free hand..." and mention Hemingway in the same paragraph. He was notorious for drawing unflattering and unmistakable portraits of his erstwhile friends in his fiction. Virtually no one these days cares whom Hemingway modeled his characters on and his creations people memorable works of art, but I for one feel that the fact that he sacrificed his friends for the benefit of his art was not to his credit as a human being, whatever value it may have had for literature.


    1. I'm currently reading the wonderfully entertaining "You We're Never in Chicago" by Neil Steinberg, and came across this interesting tidbit: Saul Bellow based a character in "Humboldt's Gift" on Irv Kupcinet.

      Terrific book, Neil! I'll probably finish reading it tomorrow.

  2. "If a writer has to rob his mother he will not hesitate. The "Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies." William Faulkner

    I believe some of Hemmingway's other wives were much harder and revealing about him in print.Martha Gellhorn, for instance.

    A very good column. In the same vein, one wonders what Neil's take on Hugh Heffner is.


    1. Hey what about my opinion? Here is a criticism of Hefner's vainglorious belief he was the father of the so called sexual revolution. Prior to the mass production of antibiotics that occurred during WWII, the wages of sin, promiscuity in this case, was literally death. That is engaging in that behavior placed oneself at risk for contracting STD's. At best the symptoms of venereal disease were suppressed with medicines containing poisonous chemicals like mercury and arsenic. Once there was a real cure some people realized they were able to adjust their lifestyles accordingly.

  3. I fear that I view everything these days through some kind of horrifying Trump filter. His demented mania pervades my life like a low grade fever I can't shake.

    This sentence jumped off the page at me: "that truth is itself a kindness, more flattering than a bucket of honeyed lies". The daily Trump freak show, followed with smirking joy by his millions of followers, had it's genesis in lies, is fueled by lies, and, ironically, gets much of it's steam from accusing his critics of lies. Criticism, of course, is just "fake news", among the most toxic, self serving, destructive memes ever created in our free society. The message from Trump is that you can trust no one but me, and we all know I will lie about anything, big and small, and puff my chest out as I do so.

    A bucket of honeyed lies. It should be on the podium whenever he speaks.

  4. Tobias Wolff, IMO the greatest living American memoirist ("This Boy's Life," "In Pharaoh's Army"), once said that the key to writing a good memoir is to "take no thought of your own dignity."

  5. Well, I'm way late to the party today, and nobody but me will care about this anyway, but I just have to add that in scrolling through my NYT daily email that day, I handled those obituaries pretty much like our host. (Well, minus penning a thoughtful and compelling essay about the experience, needless to say.)

    I saw "Jake LaMotta," thought, "Eh, 'Raging Bull,' -- whatever" and clicked on Lillian Ross's instead, which led me down the rabbit-hole of reading and enjoying her Hemingway profile which was linked to therein, as well as Charles McGrath's review of her memoir.

    Our host observes that "The Ross obituary does not mention, and history may not record, what Cecille Shawn felt about Ross's relationship with her husband..." Nevertheless, Charles McGrath wrote, in reviewing her book: "The affair, Ross explains, took place with the acknowledgment of Cecille Shawn, but acknowledgment, it hardly needs pointing out, is not the same as consent. While Shawn was alive (he died in 1992, at the age of 85), he and his wife went to elaborate, at times almost comical lengths to keep up appearances, and more than appearances; they doted on each other with an affection that would be hard to feign. Whatever the exact nature of the triangle, Cecille Shawn pretended to her friends and family that it didn't exist."

    Whatever the exact nature of the triangle, it demonstrates to me, for the umpteenth time, that a stranger speculating about someone else's marriage is on shaky ground, indeed.

    I *did* end up reading LaMotta's obit as well, and, given that I have no use for boxing, found him to be a more compelling character than I would have imagined, for whatever that's worth... And to watch just the end of one of his fights, also linked to, where he took a pounding from Sugar Ray Robinson and lost, yet remained standing, and to note that he died at the ripe old age of 95, makes one realize that there's more to the vagaries and mysteries of human health and well-being than we've yet come close to figuring out.


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