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Love and Work

July 21, 2011 By:
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SPEAKING VOLUMES

I don't think I've ever read a memoir by a living writer that includes a preface by the author's child. This seems like a device from another century, affixed to manuscripts found after death. But such is the case with the very alive Anne Roiphe's newest book Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason, published by Doubleday, which includes a foreword by her daughter, Katie Roiphe, also a writer. Katie makes it clear that, while her mother has written about every phase of her life throughout her decades-long career, she's never before delved into her early adult years.

The minutia of the literary life of the 1950s and '60s is what predominates here -- the period just before Anne Roiphe, then in her 20s, decided to put words on paper herself. During the time period covered by Art and Madness, Roiphe was a handmaiden to art, waiting sexually upon a number of the major male writers of the time whom she idolized. As her daughter writes, her mother was "one of the girls draped across the sofa at parties with Ed Doctorow, George Plimpton, Roy Lichtenstein, Terry Southern, Doc Humes, Jack Gelber, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, Larry Rivers, William Styron, and Arthur Miller."

Katie Roiphe states that one of the fascinations of this book "is that it tells the story of the girls who suffered for art, for the grandeur and silliness and exhilaration of the dream. The girls who devoted themselves to these men and, maybe more to the point, to the idea of these men. Why did they do it? What did it feel like?" The daughter poses the questions, but lets her mother provide an explanation of sorts.

The sexual voraciousness of these men and the willingness of the women do come as a shock, even for someone who came of age in the fast-and-loose '60s. These aren't students we're talking about; most of Roiphe's scenes have to do with married men groping at women, who may or may not be married themselves. These days, feminism has made fast work of this kind of predatory male sexuality, relegating it to a period even more ancient than when children wrote prefaces to their parents' manuscripts.

It takes Anne Roiphe a while to succumb to these insistent male desires, but she became a willing pupil. Most of these trysts, as the title of her memoir suggests, were with artists, all of whom suffered from madness, in certain cases slight, in others crippling.

Some of the most fascinating of these liaisons have to do with Doc Humes, whose first name was actually Harold, and who signed his two best-selling novels, The Underground City and Men Die, as H.L. Humes.

I knew nothing about him before opening Roiphe's memoir, which seems a huge oversight on my part, since he did so many different things back in the '50s. In addition to his novels, which are still available on the web, he was one of the founders of The Paris Review with George Plimpton and Peter Matthiessen. (There is also talk about his being a designer of prefabricated homes.) The problem was, he also started hearing voices.

Still, whenever he called, Roiphe went to him. She would even wrap up her little girl and take her along, even if she was in her pajamas. Roiphe sometimes wondered why Humes didn't just call his wife; she was the mother of his three young daughters, for goodness sake. But she knew the answer. He called Roiphe "because I took him into my bed, whatever strange hour he came to the door. His bulky frame, his slightly protruding stomach, his wild eyes, pleasing me even when I knew the man was a snake charmer and I was a snake."

The real center of interest in this memoir for me is Roiphe's elusive, equally mad first husband, Jack Richardson, a promising playwright of the '50s and '60s, who won prizes for his first works, which were performed in small theaters downtown, and who was spoken of by critics in the same breath as Edward Albee, Jack Gelber and Arthur Kopit as among the new crop of young stars who would soon take Broadway by storm.

But when he tried to break into the big time with plays like Lorenzo and Xmas in Las Vegas, his luck didn't hold and, from all the evidence, he gave up playwriting. He did some drama criticism for Commentary magazine and wrote a book called Memoir of a Gambler, an addiction he was conversant with.

Back in the '60s, I didn't know much more about Richardson than these few facts -- I didn't even know he'd been married to Roiphe till I opened Art and Madness -- but having read and seen some of his plays, I was always curious about him as a person. The portrait Roiphe draws is not particularly endearing.

Discussing why their toubled marriage broke up, Roiphe writes: "He was not meant for ordinary tasks of mortal days. Like Dracula he came to life at night, sleeping during the day with the shades pulled against the light. Like a tall, pale incarnation of a dark prince of a long-lost kingdom, he survived on scotch and bourbon and cigarettes and German philosophy and French paperbacks with the pungent smell of glue in their bindings. When he woke his hands shook and his eyes were red."

Despite all its incisive portraiture, this memoir is really about how Roiphe decided to leave behind these overbearing men and do her own writing. It's also about her finding another man, a very different sort from Jack Richardson. "I became an analyst's wife," she writes near the end, "learning more and more about the web of id and ego and superego, defense and aggression, and I too wrote a book and one after that. Love was fine, but you needed work too. Freud said that. I believed him."

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