LEO LERMAN was only 61 when I met him, in 1975, writes Joan Juliet Buck. He seemed ancient, ageless, eternal: a patriarch with a white beard (which grew longer with the years), thick glasses (which grew thicker with the years), a total and rather unnerving knowledge of everything that happened in theatre, films, literature, art, and music as far back as the mind could stretch, on two continents. The result of this was that he said 'of course' more often than those who wanted to impress him might have liked; and could give and receive quizzes on Sommerville and Ross, minor aspects of Proust, majolica, early cinema. He fed his curiosity daily as features editor of American Vogue. (Seriously injured in a traffic accident while travelling in a New York cab in 1940, he had never fully recovered the use of his right side, and walked with a cane. This did not prevent him attending every performance of ballet and theatre, and every screening, in New York, until last year, to say nothing of his annual visits to London and Venice.) He sent his protegees out to find out more. Somehow he always got there before us.
Mademoiselle, Vogue, Vanity Fair, followed by 10 years as editorial adviser: Leo Lerman was for almost 50 years the sage of Conde Nast, and sought-after mentor not only to its editors and writers but to all kinds of actors and directors around the world.
In 1979 he signed a contract to write his memoirs 'The delivery date is 1984,' he said, 'doesn't that sound gruesome.' He was still working on them at the time of his death.
A cushion in his office spelled out, 'If you have no good to say about anyone, sit right here', but it was in terse, irrefutable, and eccentric value judgements that he excelled, not gossip. Of a young actress, who had revealed a prissy, cautious side in an interview (for Vogue), he said, 'One lamb chop, dear'. Asked to elaborate on this curious dismissal, he added: 'Wasps: just one lamb chop, never two. No generosity.'
Leo had his quirks: he was all quirks. An addiction to mauve and violet (shirts, sweaters, mufflers, and later, knitted skullcaps which replaced the purple fedora); a fear of snakes that led him to avoid certain films; an absolute belief that it brought bad luck to listen to Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto; and constant music in his office. His instinct for talent was confirmed by the fact that he had been the first to publish Capote (in Mademoiselle, then the most avant- garde of Conde Nast's women's magazines), and he let his instinct do the choosing: his guidance, like his opinions, came in the form of these little flashes of insight. He was like the magical grandfather in Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. He had something of the seer.
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