SOMETIMES, as a variation during conversation at dinner, Leo Lerman would ask people to play a game. Around the circle in turn each answered his question: 'Who would you want to be, when?' Many of his familiars knew his own wish - 'The richest Russian in the world, leaving St Petersburg, in my own private train, late winter in 1865, for my villa on the Riviera.' His lifelong passion for High Victoriana and Tsarist Russia, opulently cluttered worlds in which more was still more, lay behind his fantasy. He charmed his companions by wrapping himself in as much of that world as his frame, his home, and they could accommodate.
As a magazine writer and editor Lerman became a figure of legend in the post-war New York arts community and publishing world, both for his personal style and his instinct for discovering new talent. He was the man who made the choices and established the tone for feature articles and reviews in the magazines that were setting the trends in this period. He was an editor at Mademoiselle magazine for 26 years, and American Vogue for 11, editor-in-chief at Vanity Fair (for six months in 1983), and the Editorial Adviser to Conde Nast for the past 10 years. His greatest legacy may prove to be his dozens of proteges: including Mary Cantwell, a leader writer at the New York Times, Holly Brubach, fashion editor of the New York Times, Amy Gross, editor of American Elle, and Joan Juliet Buck, editor of French Vogue. He could spot the seed of talent, and he had the generosity and patience to keep someone around until it grew. When one wrote a wretched piece, he did not correct, he guided. He behaved as if your own Mr Hyde must have written it, and suggested what might have been Dr Jekyll's approach.
A good amount of the respect paid to Lerman came from what Americans feel is owed to a self-created man. Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in Harlem, he inherited patriotism and a passion for the theatre from his father and an insatiable appetite from his mother. The rest he spun himself.
When Lerman was young the theatre, as he might have said, 'magicked' him. Perhaps his father galvanised him by holding him up to see Eleanora Duse on stage, as he joyously recalled; perhaps he simply wanted rehearsals as an excuse to stay out all night - sleep was his perennial enemy. In any case, at 19, in 1933, he charmed Lucy Feagin and won a scholarship at her acting school. Here began two threads in his life: his intimacy with the most dazzling, fecund days of New York theatre and his success with remarkable women who could help him. The earliest conquests included Jenny Grossinger (for three formative summers he did everything from sweeping to staging a complete Faust with three players at her resort theatre in the Catskills) and Allene Talmey, the pitiless features editor at Vogue, who began publishing him in 1942. ('Come in, dear Leo,' she said once, 'We'll just put your piece in my typewriter and take out some of the strawberry jam.')
Friendships he made then soon gave him the life many New Yorkers fantasise. On Saturdays he held open house in a tiny walk-up apartment. People came: Paul and Jane Bowles, Anais Nin, and Lionel and Diana Trilling were among the first. Soon he found the two great lady loves of his life: Eleanora von Mendelssohn, the composer's descendant (and Eleanora Duse's god-daughter), and the actress Penelope Dudley Ward. He and Gray Foy, his companion of 47 years, met at a birthday party Lerman threw (now in his Lexington Avenue brownstone) for Pierre Balmain in 1947. The parties grew legendary: year after year, until they left the house in 1967 for a capacious apartment in the historic Osborne Building, celebrated friends gathered. People recall Auden tending bar, Marlene Dietrich emptying ashtrays, Maria Callas (perhaps the last towering heroic figure in Lerman's life) presiding near the fire, Truman Capote (an early discovery) doing a Follies-girl dance; and endless others - among the British were Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, Frederick Ashton, Alicia Markova, Cecil Beaton, Margot Fonteyn.
How did he charm so many? He had read omnivorously. One winter, sorting with him the mountain of books in his study, we stacked great towers with labels like 'Empresses', 'Lost Ladies', Great Disasters'. But if he sometimes dreamed he lived in Proust's milieu, or even in the ancien regime, he never concealed his humbler aspects. 'I learnt early on if you weren't pretty you had to be funny,' he would say. When I came to work for him in 1981, he had perfected his grand, patrician facade, but inside dwelt some saucy types: a baggy-pants comic, a song-and-dance man, a joker with Shakespearian punch lines. 'Let me tease you,' he often pleaded. Head rolled back, eyes closed, he would rock and holler with laughter.
In pocket spiral notebooks he continually recorded his experiences and notions. His appetite for conversation - and gossip - was insatiable. Encounters began with him asking what or whom you had seen: 'Tell me all]' he would say. When his questions had recalled every detail he inevitably asked, 'What else?'
Not a Pollyanna, when he saw bad things he shunned them, even superstitiously. The worst people he called collaborators: the Holocaust had affected him deeply. But his writing never disparaged. Early columns for Vogue, called 'Before Bandwagons', delightedly asked his readers to join in something wonderful. And part of his standing in magazine publishing rests on how much he discovered to celebrate. Concurrently in the Forties and Fifties, hitting his stride, he wrote on different topics for half a dozen publications: theatre, dance, children's books, opera, notes for the Philharmonic, even record sleeve notes. He alone is reputed to have worked simultaneously for Allene Talmey at Vogue and her fierce rival Carmel Snow at Bazaar. 'I was their darling,' he would say, 'They all thought I was this old thing. Little did they know how long you can stay old.'
He loved the Metropolitan Museum, in New York, and wrote a history of it. What he liked best - better than writing - was research. For every article, great heaps of background always had to be found by us for him. Scribbling in his own shorthand on foolscap, he recorded some vivid quotations, made associations - for texture, colour and light especially, found his opening and closing, then waited . . . waited . . . until the deadline was terrifyingly close. Suddenly, he precipitated. Pecking with two index fingers at his manual Underwood, calling me to read him definitions of words, avoiding the lapidary by spiking his prose with slang and hyphenated hybrids, he wrote one draft, matching to the letter whatever shape the art department had cut. Always a tour de force. He read it to his staff, took his bows, and went home.
He struggled heroically to keep his eyesight for his last 45 years. His passion for purple began 20 years ago after an ophthalmologist's promise he would see that colour still when his eyes lost the others. Leo knew that the royal colour flattered him, as did its eccentricity. He found lavender shirts and accessories and wrote only in purple ink.
At the theatre, he would say that while others were infuriated with a performance, his mind's eye had shown him a greater one of some forty 40 years before.
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