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NED ROREM by Philip Hoare

  • @philipwhale
In celebration of his 70th year, Ned Rorem recently published the latest volume of his autobiographical writings, Knowing When to Stop. "The trouble with Ned", said a mutual friend, "is that he doesn't."

Self-confessed lover of 3,000 men, including "my four Time magazine covers" (John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein and Noel Coward) and arch narcissist, his talent for music (he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and won the Pulitzer prize in 1976 for his orchestral work, Air Music), seems forever overshadowed by his talent for self-revelation.

The paradoxes in Rorem's life are acute. Raised in suburban Chicago by Quaker parents (he remains a resolute pacifist, and rails against the current campaign for gay rights within the US military, reasoning that his sexual confreres ought to be lobbying for its entire abolition, not for respectable assimilation), he quickly progressed to metropolitan hedonism. New York's musical elite welcomed this handsome young man who had already discovered the solicitous charms of peroxide. Having become amanuensis to Virgil Thomson (the acerbic critic and composer), friend and lover to Bernstein, and protg of Copeland, he left the promiscuity of Greenwich Village for Paris, spiritual home of modern music and Nadia Boulanger. Here, crucially, he was adopted by Marie-Laure de Noailles, monstre sacre of the avant- garde, on whose knee he dandled, his coiffure affectionately teased by his uxorious patron. He introduced himself to Gide and Cocteau with "flirtatious" letters in which he enclosed a photograph.

"To become famous I would sign any paper," he wrote. There can seldom have been a more achingly well-connected composer. He has always known the right people at the right time: Paul Bowles before he went to Morocco; pre-In Cold Blood Truman Capote; James Baldwin, Martha Graham, Billie Holiday before they went downhill. It is truly mystifying that Rorem's name is virtually unknown in this country (partly because he has never lived here), where his connections alone would raise him to cult status.

It is a status he nevertheless enjoys in him home country, where he now lives in semi-rural, almost religious retreat in Nantucket. (I was amused to learn that he lent my biography of the indolently decorative aesthete, Stephen Tennant, to Mother Gill, a female Anglican priest.) He also has an apartment in New York, off Central Park, full of portraits of himself, and a scattering of mangy cats. A rather monastic-looking bed is underpinned by drawers full of journals and memorabilia - testaments to the unholy saint's fame. Tending now towards ascetic puritanism (Rorem has given up drink and drugs, the excessive indulgences of youth), he yet remains proud of his extant good looks. Visiting him there, I asked if I could take a photograph. He agreed with alacrity, positioning himself by the window, his profile turned at just the right angle towards the pale Manhattan light.

For one so dedicated to social adventuring, Ned's output is startlingly prolific. He has written 400 songs, 100 choral works, several operas, four symphonies, concertos, ballet scores and chamber music. Being no musicologist, I cannot speak for the testamental quality of his compositions, but ever since discovering an ex-library edition of The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem in a secondhand bookshop in Hampshire, I have been a devoted fan of his prose. Published in 1966 to certain furore, the diary is full of pithy (if hubristic) epigrams: "Everyone weeps after sex not from fulfilment but from pointlessness"; "The only thing worse than a dumb bigot is a smart one"; "If I could cause one heart to break, I should not have lived in vain".

In Knowing When to Stop, Ned is at pains to point out his passivity in matters of passion. Of sleeping with Noel Coward, he told me that the experience was not exciting, due to both parties being distinctly unadventurous in bed. How can one not respect such unrhetorical honesty, such a lack of compromise, such glorious solipsism? Some might look askance at Rorem's amorous track record, but his refusal to give such criticism time of day fills me with wondering, abject admiration. In fact, the sensationalism of his writings is a salacious lure for the unwary voyeur, rewarded with cogent reflections on the banality of existence.

Rorem's intuitive introspection has increased with his distance from modern mores, atonal music, and politically correct seriousness. A product of the Europhilic generation of American artists of the Forties, he has now assumed the role of an expatriate in his own country. He divides the world into French and German, "the difference between superficiality and profundity. To say that the French are deeply shallow is to allow that superficiality is the cloth of life." "German" is superficially profound, "French" profoundly superficial.

The phrase sums up Rorem himself. Wise, talented, generous and handsome, it seems he won the lucky cards in life. The title of his autobiography was inspired by Cocteau: "One must know how far to go too far." It is an art which Rorem has brought to perfection.