OING to visit Leo Lerman at his home on 57th Street, in the days after he died this summer at the age of 80, turned out to be a magical experience for many of his friends. More magical even than Leo could have imagined it, and he was an imaginative man. That his wide acquaintance should be offered the chance to say goodbye to him as he lay between his purple sheets on his own mahogany sleighbed had been his own idea. In his will, he had left careful instructions as to the staging of an event that was too uniquely Leo-like to be classed as a "wake". His aisle seat at a million first nights, his function as confessor to many a diva and icon of the stage and screen, and almost half a century as a wily courtier in the byzantine halls of Conde Nast had all honed his instinct for self-presentation and the stylised life.
There he lay, in his high-ceilinged corner bedroom at the Osborne, the ornate and venerable apartment building across the street from Carnegie Hall. With his sleighbed, he carved out a pocket of the silence no one can argue with at the bustling heart of this hustling town. Down on the street, bicycle messengers went right on swooping and looping and swearing at cabbies who gave them the finger and leaned on their horns. Vendors sold papers with gossip-columns Leo would never chuckle over, and posters advertised autumn recitals whose music he wouldn't hear. Upstairs, waist-high stacks of the latest books stood sentry near his bed, along with great sheaves of blue and purple garden flowers - delphinium, scabiosa, bachelors' buttons - that looked as though they had been cut in the cool of that morning and sent up to town via chauffeur by some wealthy grieving friend. One wall was covered with more books, and another was densely hung with a collection of antique oil-paintings of smallish dogs.
Leo looked just great. He was wearing one of his Turkish-style smoking caps, and its embroideries shimmered with Fortunyesque patina against the purple pillow. The famous white beard was freshly combed and looked softer than ever; it foamed over the tucked-in purple topsheet like Queen Anne's lace. Death had gone to work on the once-rotund and wordly-wise old face, tightening pale and waxen skin on the cheekbones and chiselling a startlingly handsome, fine-boned nose.
Leo, who had been an actor in his youth, was starring in a whole new role for him, and had whole new kinds of knowledge to communicate: as sage and ascetic, perhaps some ancient scholar of the cabbala. In life he had been a great but generally benevolentgossip and genealogist of the Proustian kind. He knew who people's lovers had been, and their great-aunts; I expect he knew how their family money was made. I was very fond of Leo, and he was always kindness itself to me. When I looked down at his closed eyes and at his vulnerable-looking feet sticking straight up under the sheet, I felt very sad. But I couldn't shake a strangely light-hearted impression that he made a very interactive corpse. He had set the scene at the Osborne and seemed to be takingit all in. And this particular passenger on the Stygian ferry seemed certain to take a lively interest in his trip. After all, who knew but what his destination might prove more fabulous even than Venice ?
I REMEMBER Leo once telling me that a gypsy - no, "Romany" was the word he would have used, come to think of it - had read his palm when he was a baby and said he had no life line at all. His poor mother had been distraught. But by the time Leo was telling me the tale and turning over his pale, narrow, and rather feminine hand for me to inspect the map of its creases for myself, he had survived long enough for the beard to be a patriarchal white.
Mrs Lerman worried in vain. Her son's life was long and very, very full. He had seen everything and known everyone in New York and most of those whom he thought worth knowing in Europe, too. The life that ended in state at the Osborne had begun in middle-class comfort in Harlem - a detail in which he delighted, involving as it did the shifting tides of social history in New York. Between uptown 80 years back and 57th Street in the dog days of August this year, destiny wheeled him through the worlds of fashion, entertainment, literature, and the arts. There were countless parties at which he was a guest or the host. In the 1950s and 1960s he was famous for the salons at his town-house on Lexington Avenue. (Andy Warhol happened to live down the street, but he was barely even Andy Warhol for most of that time.) "There isn't a day goes by when I don't think of that house," Leo confided in me once, after he had been living downtown at the Osborne for years and years. "I picture myself in each of the rooms."
He and Gray Foy, his lifetime's partner, balanced a ceremonial and semi-public life with an intensely domesticated one. "We're going have spaghetti with Fernando Sanchez after this," Leo said, referring to the lingerie designer, one evening at a cocktailparty filled with facelifts and hand-stitched lapels. "Gray had already got our onions chopped when Fernando called. So we're taking our fixings over to his house to put them with his."
I saw Leo with the greatest frequency in the early 1980s, when I was writing about what turned out to be "The Eighties" and a certain kind of fashionable world. We would be seated together at some semi-business
luncheon at Mortimers or quasi- promotional gathering at Le Cirque. Or I would join him as he was sitting on a sofa surrounded by partygoers who were standing up. Oblivious to us, luxuriously-dressed high-flyers mingled and met each other with compliments or snubs. With the years, a bundle of ailments made it increasingly difficult for him to walk or stand. Together with failing eyesight and the beard, this created an air of elderliness that he took on long before he was particularly old. It did not stop him struggling out on the town, usually leaning on Gray's arm. In fact Leo managed to make it look as though age and infirmity (and death, in due course) were not passively-endured insults but - like the smoking-cap - frisky decisions as to style. Being with Leo on a sofa was reassuring. The faces swimming a few feet above us seemed in some riskier and meaner world.
Like other indefatigably social people, he had a knack for the intimate. Without entirely taking his eye from the doings at the party (for he was a more experienced anthropologist of the social tribe than I would ever be), he would magically conjure up aprivate island of gemutlichkeit and haul his friends onshore for confidences and jokes. Often, bringing my face close enough for him to hear me over the din, I would whisper my dreams and secrets to him; they vanished and were lost forever in the beard.
ONE WINTER night years ago, when snow was forecast and the bare trees creaked and cracked in the park, we found ourselves at a dinner in the Fifth-Avenue apartment of a mutual friend. The guests included a wealthy blonde widow who might or might not scramble on to the list of best-dressed women, and a handsome young Latin fellow who seemed to be her gigolo. His cuff-links must have cost a lot. Whenever he leaned eagerly towards her, his suit-jacket gaped just enough to expose the tender sight of the monogram on his silk-shirted heart. After dinner, talk turned to society balls and tantrums of famous florists. Then to legendary Mexican beauties and how old they really were.
"You can always tell when a woman is over 70," the gigolo said, solemnly. "By her . . . hands." As if in a gesture of humility, he had searched out a funny little sidechair and pulled it up to where the rest of us sat in down-filled comfort round a fireplace with blazing logs. The little chair looked so insubstantial that it might have blown away, and he with it, if the hired butler had opened the door too fast.
Leo, who was a connoisseur of this kind of evening, was on the sofa, of course. The flames glinted off his spectacles as he watched the blonde bounce to her feet and perform an imitation of Maria Felix in a gold caftan, prancing round her swimming-pool.
"You can say what you like about Maria Felix," she said, breathlessly flopping back in her seat as everyone laughed. "Every one of her hus- bands just worshipped the ground she stepped on."
"Dolores del Rio is something else again," our hostess said. "She's hardly even wrinkled."
"Why should she have wrinkles? She's hardly ever awake!" the blonde said. "She's only been awake for about three months in the whole of this year. I'm not kidding. She puts herself into comas, everything."
FOR AS long as I knew him, Leo was writing his memoirs. He was a disconcerting reader and editor; a prolific reviewer and feature journalist; a great deliverer of pronouncements ("Edith Wharton wrote too much, of course"); and a terrific anecdotalist. But he seemed strangely timid about the book of his life. As the years went on, the memoirs absorbed more and more of his energies and assumed more and more mythical proportions in the minds of his friends. He did not discourage the impression that, like Proust, he was spending most of his life in his bedroom, writing - sitting up in the sleighbed, no doubt, and dictating to the devoted Gray. I imagined round-the-clock teams of male secretaries - the mysterious presences who would answer his telephone at home and pass or not pass the receiver to Leo before returning to the task of deciphering the notes he wrote for himself in purple ink. He had a collection of amazing stories of larger-than-life women he had known: vignettes of Judith Anderson or Edith Sitwell or Marlene Dietrich upstaging each other on some sofa. "Is that interesting?" he would ask, almost pleadingly. "Should I put it in my book? Do you really think it's interesting enough?"
I shared his fears and secret ambitions as a writer. I tried to encourage him as he (for so long) had cheered me on. I remember being at lunch with him at the Four Seasons and complaining that the writer's life was a lonely one. It must have been a whileback, because the discovery and the indignation were very fresh. "Yes, and as time goes on it will only get worse," Leo said, with something like cheerfulness. He was pointing his beard skywards, just at that moment, to permit the Four Seasons' captain to tuck a linen napkin under his chin. This small service, which struck me as slightly over-familiar - a lese-majeste of sorts - should have tipped me off. I suspect that for Leo writing was not solitary, exactly; like eating, living, or dying, it was a thoroughly sociable act. Others always came in: people whose help he might need in the future, people with feelings to consider, people with potentially good or bad opinions of him. The infirmity that generated such an elegant logistical safety-net of chauffeurs and chaperones seemed like the physical expression of a need for love and comfort that must surely have been with Leo all along. Perhaps as a child he needed a nightlight, the way he needed some version of the silken bell pull as a man. He likedhis nearest and dearest on the sofa with him or at least in the room or - like Stephen Pascal, the assistant hovering weightlessly in the ante-room of Leo's office at Vogue - within the sound of his beckoning call.
Adoring waiters served our food, adoring busboys cleared away. Not only did Leo know all their names, he gave an avuncular impression of knowing who all their lovers had been, and their great-aunts. He was every inch the eccentric grand seigneur. After lunch, the maitre d' jauntily tucked the bill in the top pocket of Leo's jacket as if the slip were some glorious carnation and not a banal record of expenses to be submitted to the accountants over at Conde Nast. Like royalty, Leo never seemed to handle money. He could still walk unaided, and he struggled clumsily down the marble stairs in his purple muffler and purple socks. Stephen - fleet and fey back then, and very young - arrived to escort him back to the office. He was immediately dispatched to a bookstore to pick up the latest Grand Street and Partisan Review. "Run, child! Run as fast as ever your feet can carry you!" Leo said.
Leo looked at the youth in charge of the coat rack completely stumped. How, with Stephen flying down the block, could Leo find the checkroom stubs? The maitre d' came to the rescue; I should look in Mr Lerman's pockets, he said. First I fished up a beautiful little notebook - of the kind, Leo explained, he always carried with him to write down his thoughts - and then the stubs. I can see so clearly, when I remember all this - the choreography of service and affection; the notebook; the winged young feet; the invisible accountants; the bit of business with the pockets that (like the dresser-drawers of a man with a valet) were neither public, nor private quite - that simply Being Leo was the great imaginative artwork of Leo Lerman's life.
THE MEMOIRS were still unpublished when he died. The amazing ladies are in limbo on their sofas, interesting or not. Edith, Judith, and Marlene hung over the man on the sleighbed - effectively they were as shellacked and gilt-framed as the smallish dogs.Perhaps, like the King Charles Spaniel, the icons' shades gazed balefully at poor Leo, with saucer eyes. The visitors who came in a steady stream to pay their respects formed a motley group, I'd have to say. It was the end of a dusty New York day right at the end of August - not the time this greatest of hosts would have chosen, if he wanted the A-list to turn out. Everyone was out of town, except for a few diehards and all the dedicated businessmen, it seemed. (A glamorous memorial service was being planned for the fall. Julie Harris would do a bit from her new Glass Menagerie, and a lovely young woman from Showboat would sing "After the Ball".) The people who lined up that day to enter the corner bedroom - newcomers flattened themselves to the wall of the hallway to make way for those who were leaving, looking grave - had a strangely corporate cast, as if the event were some sort of product launch. There were men in suits and other men in suits who fawned on them. And there was a smattering of those types who show up at any semi-public New York gathering in the hope of a useful contact or some free hors d'oeuvres. Gray stood near the foot of Leo's bed, in the familiar part of go-between between his immobile friend and the larger social world. ("Come and say hello to Leo," he used to say, guiding you to the private island.) There was a magazine editor who wanted to run a piece about the dead man. "Leo would like that," Gray said, through tears.
Like ants, the people crossed the marble lobby of the Osborne, rode upstairs, made the trip down the hallway, and then went down into the world again. The sound of the rush-hour hit me like a roar when I came out. Then (it was Leo sailing along on his sleighbed that did it) I seemed to go stone deaf. The colours of the city went very bright. I stared without understanding at the DONT WALK sign, at a fat man eating from a paper bag. Shampooists were at work in windows; fabric-stores displayed their cataracts of silk. Life was tugging me back in to itself, again. I shook my head and headed towards Eighth Avenue. In the second-floor studios, tireless young athletes thudded over and over to their karate mats, and chignoned dancers stepped lightly toward their image in a wall of glass. And women, no longer young or beautiful, wore faraway looks as they sat with readers of the Tarot cards.Reuse content