- - Friday, December 9, 2011

By Rosamond Bernier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30 293 pages, illustrated

Quite early in this look back at a life spent among artists and musicians, Rosamond Bernier lets drop a telling anecdote, where Aaron Copland confides to her about a youthfulLeonard Bernstein: “We don’t have to worry about THAT one.” Lest you don’t get the point, Ms. Bernier hastens to add: It was clear he already was a star.

Reading this retrospective romp through almost 10 decades of exposure to musical and art superstars, one is left with a question: If she had encountered someone with prodigious talent, but who somehow had not “made it” into the stratosphere of renown, would that person be in these pages?

For that Bernstein anecdote, one of hundreds if not thousands of its ilk, is quintessential Bernier: my life among the celebrated. Names are dropped so frequently that they blur. On just one page you will find short paragraphs about Otto Klemperer, Walter Gieseking, Nathan Milstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Issay Dobrowen and Jose Iturbi.

But don’t look for any great insights about any of them: Rachmaninoff could not be persuaded to take off his fur-lined coat in the house. Ms. Bernier remembers going with Gieseking “into our rose garden and choosing a particularly pretty bud for his buttonhole.” By now, you are beginning to get the idea of who the point of these anecdotes is, and when the chapter on a celebrated conductor begins with a one-sentence paragraph: “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know Leopold Stokowski,” you know for sure.

On and on it goes. One husband is exchanged for another. But even when she finds the ultimate one, art critic John Russell, to whom she was married for 33 years and for whom her love shines through in a rare display of profound emotion amid so much surface chatter, there has to be a chapter on their star-studded wedding at Philip Johnson’s Glass House:

“Pierre Matisse was John’s best man … My old loved friend Aaron Copland gave me away. Lenny Bernstein was John’s witness; his wife, Felicia, and daughter Nina - holding a bouquet of wildflowers - were my attendants. Stephen Spender flew in from London, bringing me a notebook in which he had handwritten my favorite poems … Lenny walking arm in arm with Virgil Thomson, Andy Warhol feeding his little dog a cocktail sausage, Louise Nevelson with her usual triple layer of eyelashes, Leo Castelli chatting with John Ashberry, Helen Frankenthaler sitting on the grass with her shoes off.”

If only she had written about the marriage itself. But that’s what this book is: an exercise in tantalizing. More and still more about the trivial and the famous, when the glimpses that we do get of Rosamond, her strange family background, the life she led - not among whom she led it - makes us cry out for more of her lives and less of their intersections with celebrities.

Matisse is so incandescent a character that he manages to jump from her pages, as colorful and as memorable as his canvases. But the impenetrable Picasso is a tougher nut to crack:

“Walking on the beach, I was astonished at the amount of gossip Picasso knew: just who was sleeping with whom, who was leaving whom. When I mentioned this to Eluard, Paul said: ‘But of course, everybody tells him. You can hardly expect people to talk to Picasso about art!’ “

Unfortunately, the same might be said about Ms. Bernier in this “Scrapbook Memoir,” longer on gossip and name-dropping than on insights into the arts and their practitioners.

That someone in her mid-90s would produce a scrappy memoir like this is certainly understandable and perhaps forgivable. That a distinguished publishing house renowned for the high quality of the books it gives us should give us something like this with its imprimatur is less so on both counts. One can only put it down to that cozy New York world of the arts, where famous names resonate so loudly in a self-validating echo chamber. Whether putting out a book like this does justice to its author or the myriad subjects in whose wake she swam is a valid question: one that will be answered predictably by anyone who looks at its surface or even at what is - or isn’t - below.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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