Issue 150, Spring 1999
“I am a composer,” Ned Rorem once said, “who also writes, not a writer who also composes.” His music—hundreds of ravishing art songs and instrumental scores, one of which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize—has brought him fame. But it is his diaries that have brought him celebrity. The first of them, The Paris Diary, covering his stay abroad from 1951 to 1955, was published in 1966. Its pithy, elegant entries were filled with tricks turned and names dropped (Cocteau, Poulenc, Balthus, Dali, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Man Ray, and James Baldwin, along with the rich and titled, the louche and witty). Reviewers seemed either shocked or ecstatic; Janet Flanner was both—she called it “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.” The following year Rorem published The New York Diary, which took the story up to 1961 and deepened his self-portrait as an untortured artist and dashing narcissist. Two hefty further installments subsequently appeared, The Later Diaries in 1974 and The Nantucket Diary in 1987, which carried the account of his nights and days up to 1985. All along, he had been collecting his essays into other books, and his memoir, Knowing When to Stop (1994), fills us in on his early life. But the diaries are an incomparable resource, certainly the fullest version of a composer’s daily life we have, and perhaps the most vivid self-portrait there is of a contemporary creative artist. Work and play, professional and social duties, the network of lovers and contacts, the underworld of desire and ambition, the buzz of scandal and rumor, the hangovers, the pettiness, the glamour, the bright rush of ideas.
It wasn’t long before Rorem’s notorious diaries received the dubious accolade of parody. In 1975 the poet Howard Moss, several of whose poems Rorem had set, published in The New Yorker a hilarious send-up called “The Ultimate Diary.” Its little gilded barbs were dipped in a poisonous wit:
Drinks here. Picasso, Colette, the inevitable Cocteau, Gide, Valéry, Ravel, and Larry. Chitchat. God, how absolutely dull the Great can be! I know at least a hundred friends who would have given their eyeteeth just to have had a glimpse of some of them, and there I was bored, incredible lassitude, stymied. Is it me? Is it them? Think latter. Happened to glance in mirror before going to bed. Am more beautiful than ever.
Half the Opéra-Comique seems to have fallen in love with me. I cannot stand any more importuning. Will go to Africa. How to break with C? Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret, Simone Weil, and Simone Simon for drinks. They didn’t get it!
Behind the satire, though, lurk more serious matters. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that the ambitious man’s “road to immortal renown lies straight, open, unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But—this little book must be true to its title. No man dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.” Yes, there’s a strong dose of self-absorption to Rorem’s diaries, but there’s also an honesty—touched up, as any on-the-spot notation must be, to give it the tone of even more spontaneous ingenuity. Documenting oneself poses as a kind of writing that is both artless and knowing. The intimate journal, as distinct from autobiography, has never especially appealed to American writers as it has to the French, though both nationalities are high on self-promotion.
Perhaps it took living for a spell in Paris to help Rorem cultivate the turn of mind that gazes at the world through the narrow lens of a diary. He’d kept one briefly as a child, and again as a young man. Once he moved to Paris in 1951, he resumed a chronicle of his composing called Journal de mes mélodies, in imitation of Francis Poulenc’s. He started it in French, soon reverted to English, and began to deal with more mundane matters. In 1959, back in America and staying for the summer at Yaddo, he met the author Robert Phelps who, with his wife, was also a guest at Yaddo. Because Phelps was a Francophile and a “born fan,” Rorem read to him from his diary. He may as well have been Scheherazade. Phelps was captivated. He was working then as a reader for the publisher George Braziller, who signed on the book at once. Phelps insisted it would be best if he edited the book, and Rorem, delighted at the prospect of his first publication, agreed. Phelps selected his favorite bits, removed their dates, and rearranged them. Not until The Later Diaries was Rorem his own editor.
“Don’t look back,” said Cocteau, “or you risk turning into a pillar of salt—that is, a pillar of tears.” From the perspective of a half-century later, the events described in Rorem’s Paris Diary have the flavor of a novel. In a way, he’d fashioned for himself a miniature Père Lachaise where so many of his friends and acquaintances of those decades lie at rest. In its splendors and miseries, it seems a vanished world. In retrospect he was its Audubon, an American dauphin in disguise, a tender draughtsman taking aim.
I first met Ned Rorem twenty years ago. I even know the precise date: February 13, 1979, at a dinner party given by the novelist Edmund White. I know because I read about it years later in Rorem’s diary. (I might have anticipated the entry; after that dinner, while guests were getting their coats, Rorem came over to me and asked, “How exactly do you spell your name?”) While this interview was afoot, his friend James Holmes was gravely ill. Rorem had lived with Jim, an organist and choir director, for thirty-one years, and shortly after our interview, Jim died at the age of fifty-nine on January 7, 1999. In 1974 they had bought a slumping 1919 bungalow on Nantucket, a hundred and seventy-six yards (Rorem’s reckoning by his daily walk) from the newspaper store that’s the town hub. Jim had fixed up the house and put in gardens on the half-acre plot. Rorem doubts that now without Jim he’ll ever return. Since 1968 he’s also lived in a rambling apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Its living room where we spoke is dominated by the Steinway at which he works. There are books and recordings everywhere, and they line the walls of nearly every other room as well. His furniture is unstylish, but there are paintings to admire—by Leonid, say, and by his friends Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson, Gloria Vanderbilt, Robert Dash, Joe Brainard, and Nell Blaine. There are several drawings by Cocteau hung near the piano, and at the other end of the room some of the many portraits of himself (I recognize those by Larry Rivers and Maurice Grosser) he owns. At seventy-five, Rorem has the sort of looks men used to try for with injections of animal glands. He’s trim, handsome, energetic, voluble. The slight trace of puffiness in his face was probably the result of his insomnia and of his anxiety about Jim Holmes. We spoke on a gray winter afternoon. He had brought in a tray with teapot and cups, and a little plastic carton of tapioca for himself.
Children, it seems to me, have no capacity to distance themselves from their own lives and so no sense of reflection. All of that starts to well up—in the form of Great Ideas and Deep Feelings—in the teenager. But for the record, did you start keeping a diary as a child?
Don’t be too dismissive of children. While it’s true that few children are artists, all artists are children. And insofar as artists adopt the grown-up stance that blinds them to the wide-open perceptions of their childhood, they cease being artists. That said, I’m not much interested in children before they’re twenty-one. And yes, their diaries—even Anne Frank’s or Daisy Ashford’s—are not repositories of great ideas. What are great ideas anyway and are mature artists interested in them? Most of my writer-friends gossip when they get together and reserve their nuance for the page. Deep Feelings were expressed in the college dorm. Not that we don’t suffer after fifty, but the suffering is more often about health and death than about Love and Abandonment.
I did keep a diary in 1936, age twelve, for three months when our family went to Europe. Except for frequent references to Debussy and Griffes, it focuses breathlessly on American movies seen in Oslo or tourists we met on boats. No shred of lust, much less of intellect or guile. Admittedly, words are never put on paper, be it War and Peace or a laundry list, without thought of other eyes reading them, even though those eyes might just be one’s own at another time. But I didn’t think of myself as an author. Ten years later I began a literary diary and kept it up until I went to France in 1949. It’s filled with drunkenness, sex, and the talk of my betters, all to the tune of André Gide.
Your Quaker upbringing—did that encourage early habits of introspection?
I didn’t really have a “Quaker upbringing.” My mother’s younger brother was killed in the First World War at the age of seventeen. She never got over the trauma. When they were married in 1920 my parents (she a Congregational minister’s daughter, he a Methodist) looked around for a group that would work for peace, internationally, and not just in time of war. The Society of Friends was the answer. They weren’t concerned with the God part (I’m not sure they ever believed in God), only with the peace part. Thus my older sister, Rosemary, and I were raised as pacifists, to think that there is no alternative to peace. Which I believe. Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m not ashamed of it . . .So I was not raised piously, much less in silence. We were taken regularly to all the best concerts and plays that came to Chicago. My background was far more structured by the cultured and caring intellect of my parents than by the strictured structure of the stricter Quakers.
What prompted you to start that diary in 1946?
Prior to entering Juilliard in the fall of 1945, it was necessary to take some liberal-arts courses to qualify for a degree as distinct from a diploma. So I went to summer school at NYU in Washington Square. During the first class in English literature, our instructor happened to say, Happiness, then, is an answering after the heart. On the way home I bought a five-by-nine ruled hardcover notebook and began a diary with the phrase—a phrase that today seems both corny and unclear. Also, knowing that David Diamond kept a diary was an incentive. Diamond was an example—one I emulated perhaps—of a disciplined composer (who could account for every note) trapped in a self-destructive body. The style of that early diary (my diaries are really journals, since they’re hardly daily—although journal means daily too, doesn’t it?) was often like Diamond’s or like the books he read—Moby-Dick, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Probably I took to the form because it was a crazy, open-ended contrast to my rather Spartan music. The entries are all about screwing, drunkenness, suicidal urges . . . the usual. If they ring true at all, it’s the truth of the young. I left the book lying around. Once a piece of rough trade stole it and tried to blackmail me. He felt we could make a killing together in royalties! I got the book back, but that’s another story.
Incidentally, I kept the diary in longhand for the next twenty years, until I realized it might be published.
You left for France in 1949. That would be incentive enough to continue keeping your diary, but was there a moment when you became more self-conscious about doing so?
When I left for France in May of 1949, the visit was to have lasted three months, so I didn’t bring my diary. I ultimately remained eight years. On realizing that I’d never come back to America, I wrote Morris Golde and asked him to ship all my previous journals to Hyères, where I was living chez Marie-Laure de Noailles. One morning she came into my room and handed me a pretty little carnet with several hundred empty pages, saying, Here, write. Even if you feel bad before and after, while you’re writing your cares are transferred. She kept her own diary every night before bed, faithfully, drunk or sober. It mainly related facts of the day. Mine—which for several months I kept in French, then reverted to English, which was, of course, more me—related states of mind as well as of body, and was probably modeled on Julien Green’s journal. Green, who had become an intimate friend (the friendship exploded fatally a year later), was as strong a literary influence on me as Paul Goodman had been during my adolescence. And yes, probably I was thinking of other eyes than my own as I penned the pages.
Marie-Laure and Green were the same age (she was born in 1902, he in 1900), but opposites. She: French, half-Jewish, unimaginably rich, Catholic but communist and a nonbeliever, odd-looking but forceful, like George Washington in a Dior gown, vastly cultivated, sophisticated (but like many sophisticated females of the period, more innocent than she pretended about sex), self-consciously bohemian, liking queer men, including her very closeted husband, the Vicomte de Noailles, who was her best friend but whom she seldom saw, and to whom a marriage had been arranged when she was twenty, thus making her noble (the Noailles go back to Louis XIII) and still richer. She was a rather gifted writer and a very gifted painter, but like many of the rich undisciplined with pen and paintbrush. She was powerful and famous too, and launched me, sort of. Otherwise I may have returned here sooner. Julien, meanwhile, was American (but raised in France) and the truest bilingual I’ve ever known. A true believer, Catholic convert, writer of a strange and passionate passivity, if that makes sense. His force came through a sort of hypnotism. He loved me and I was infected with the casual cruelty of the young. He felt, probably, that my remarks about God were frivolous and that I made mockery of his sexual leanings.
He came to Hyères for a one-day visit in 1951, and seeing the two of them together was odd—especially since, exceptionally, the vicomte was also there. They were all so respectful of each other, yet their only interest in common (beyond the considerable one of art) was me. This went to my head.
The anecdote that opens The Paris Diary—was it meant to be emblematic? It goes this way: “A stranger asks, ‘Are you Ned Rorem?’ I answer, ‘No,’ adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him.” Was that meant to point toward some underlying theme of self-discovery or self-making? Or worse, some condition that calls for a negation of the self or a devotion to the diary as a substitute for the self?
Your question ignores this fact: The Paris Diary is the only one of my fourteen books that was edited by someone else. Being my first book, all suggestions were accepted. Not a word is changed from the manuscript, but Robert Phelps radically shifted the order of entries. Thus that first remark was originally embedded somewhere in the center. To change place is to change meaning, even when that which is changed remains unchanged, so to speak. Would you have posed your question about that entry if it were elsewhere?