Lives and Letters

Lives and Letters, by Robert Gottlieb (FSG)

Reviewed by Benjamin Schwarz

June 2011 ATLANTIC 

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Supremely civilized in his taste and outlook, arch, skeptical, at times sardonic (what discerning mind could fail to be so in this world of ours?), Gottlieb has assembled a collection of his uniformly scintillating essays (nearly all review-essays). He possesses both a generous curiosity and a sharp eye for cant, and here he coolly takes on the careers, achievements, and private lives of figures ranging from Tallulah Bankhead to Bruno Bettelheim, from Margot Fonteyn to Houdini, from Scott Peterson (the wife-killer) to Lillian Gish, from the Leavises to Lady Di. The book’s compass is wide, but Gottlieb, the former editor in chief of Knopf and of The New Yorker (he was the editor of or was otherwise acquainted with many of the subjects here), concentrates on those figures from a brief, shining cultural moment, the period roughly from 1920 to 1960, when art and entertainment commingled, happily or bitterly (creating the movies of Hollywood’s golden age, the music of Porter and Rodgers and Hart, and most of America’s other lasting cultural achievements); when ballet and modern dance were cynosures of urban sophistication; when everyone went to Broadway. The keen appraisals in Lives and Letters leave the perceptive reader with no doubt that, culturally speaking, it was a better time. But Gottlieb is no nostalgist: he’s too shrewd to be taken in by the calculating, pseudo-classy Katharine Hepburn (“She’s superb, everyone agrees, in Alice Adams, in which she triumphantly capitalizes on her most annoying qualities”), and he shows that the works of James Thurber and George S. Kaufman, as observant and pleasing as they continue to be, aren’t for the ages. Of course, what remains so attractive about so much popular culture from that golden moment is that it was at once so much more sophisticated and so much less pretentious than so much of our own. This stylish, deeply entertaining book could not be the work of a young man: Gottlieb knows too much, and has seen it all.

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