Obituary: Leo Lerman

Click to follow
Leo Lerman, editor, writer: born New York City 23 May 1914; contributing editor, Mademoiselle 1948-74; consulting features editor, American Vogue 1972-78, features editor 1978- 83; editor-in-chief Vanity Fair 1983; editorial adviser, Conde Nast 1983- 94: author of Leonardo da Vinci: artist and scientist 1937, Michelangelo: a Renaissance profile 1942; died New York City 22 August 1994.

I CALLED Leo Lerman my 'treasure', something rare and precious discovered in New York, where we met in 1952 when my husband was at the United Nations and I was writing my first book, The Wilder Shores of Love, writes Lesley Blanch. It was instant friendship deepening to lifelong love.

In those early days he and Gray Foy, his alter-ego, lived in a dingy brownstone house way up the Upper East Side. Whenever I could I rushed there to bask in the extraordinary atmosphere they had created, something both eclectic and cosy. Leo collected American Victoriana, and the place overflowed with wax fruits under glass domes, doll's houses, massive furniture, toy tea-sets, and a huge curtained double bed was piled high with patchwork quilts. Through heavy lace curtains one could glimpse barges on the East River and a tiny crouched synagogue almost in their back yard. I especially recall the number of Tiffany lamps stacked there long before they were collectors' items and fondly remember a teddy bear in Red Riding Hood outfit apparently studying the score of Ariadne auf Naxos. Yet nothing there was ever pixie. Books proliferated, landsliding off shelves to clog the floors. Books were Leo's lifeline and presently Gray abandoned the exquisite pencil drawings that made him famous. Leo had become his life's work.

Later they moved further downtown but wherever they lived they gave parties. I recall one overcrowded evening where I was seated on a plush settee between Edith Sitwell and Marlene Dietrich, while Truman Capote lay across my knees, his head and feet reposing on the laps of the two ladies. Nearby Leo, his foot up on a couch stool, was pouring lapsang from a Spode teapot while Gray dispensed home-made seedcake or a Bourbon old-fashioned.

They were an extraordinary looking pair: Leo's majestic presence, darkly rabbinically bearded; Gray, small and fragile, his aureole of blond hair recalling a pre-Raphaelite angel. Contrary to appearances they both had a roaring sense of humour. Leo was at once profoundly cultivated and deeply frivolous, as greedy for gossip as rich food. Yet he knew discretion: only years after her death he told me how Maria Callas used to take refuge in their apartment. It was a time when her relationship with Aristotle Onassis was declining and she sat glued to the telephone, 'Just in case Ari rings . . .' But Ari soon stopped ringing altogether.

Everything about Leo was exotic. His talk was often wildly laced with droll Yiddisher asides, expressions dredged up from some ancestral Central European memory from before his great-grandparents reached New York. His love and understanding of music was based on technique as well as emotion: many great musicians were among his friends. In his last years, when he bore dreadful illness with stoic elegance, he still held court, his wheelchair a throne, his gold or ebony knobbed stick a wand by which he held us all spellbound.

(Photographs omitted)