Art and Madness:
A Memoir of Lust Without Reason, by Anne Roiphe Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 220 pages, $24.95
As an American author and feminist, Anne Roiphe has chronicled the tension between the search for self-fulfillment and family obligations for decades. In the classic feminist novel "Up the Sandbox" (1970 ), perhaps her best-known book, a bored mother's fantasy life mirrors her longing for change and escape from the deadening routines of child care and housekeeping. By the time she wrote "Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World" (a National Book Award finalist in 1996 ), Roiphe had become critical of the element of feminist theory that, as she saw it, trivialized the role of motherhood. Her argument is that parents should devote more, rather than less, time to their children instead of seeking to expand the role of day-care facilities - something that might be made possible by men taking a greater part in raising the family.
On Jewish issues too, Roiphe has changed her position. Once a secularist with little or no connection to her Jewish roots, Roiphe now writes prolifically on Jewish subjects, from a liberal point of view. Her Jewish-themed books include a study of the matriarchs, "Water from the Well: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah" (2006 ) and "A Season for Healing: Reflections on the Holocaust" (1988 ).
And yet, this seemingly sensible, grounded writer with traditional inclinations experienced a young adulthood as wild and lost as any in New York's bohemian art and literary scene. Her latest book, the autobiographical "Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason," describes her journey from then to now and the artists she met along the way, many of whom blurred the boundaries between madness and art, leaving chaos in their wake.
The maddest of all, she intimates, was her own youthful self, who was willing to sacrifice almost anything - her aspirations, her dignity, her honesty, her art - in the service of men who may have been creative and talented, but who all too often proved to be terribly flawed human beings.
Shifting back and forth in time through stream-of-consciousness anecdotes, recollections and comments, the book moves from Roiphe's late teen years, in the early 1950s, to her second marriage in 1967. She is good at capturing the changing zeitgeist and the telling details of time and place, such as the elite women's colleges (in her case, Smith and Sarah Lawrence ) where proper girls wore pearls, charm bracelets and cashmere, and the intellectual salons of New York in the '40s and '50s, in which she played a peripheral role.
Roiphe was the daughter of a wealthy, assimilated New York German-Jewish family. Her mother was an heir to the family that owned the Phillips-Van Heusen shirt company. She graduated from college in 1957, a girl whose dream was to "meet a boy who would give me his college scarf and one day perhaps a pin from his fraternity," and to "blow smoke rings into the dark as Louis Armstrong .... blasts the air with sound." These, to her, were "ordinary ambitions." She was excited and ready - after all, did she not understand all the cartoons in The New Yorker?
Quite soon, gone were the pearls and gloves. Roiphe abandoned Salinger for Beckett, Proust and Sartre. She hung out in bars, sporting sandals and jeans because "this uniform showed everyone I was interested in sin, the kind someone could write about," and scorning men who wore business suits, carried golf clubs or invested in the stock market. Even scientists were beyond the pale, for they were the ones who had invented the bomb.
Only in Europe
In 1956, at age 21, she took a summer trip to Europe in search of life, and experienced the kind of comic encounters that can only be had by the very young and the very naive. In France, she lost her virginity to an American boy (an unpublished writer, of course ), but not without some travail. When he couldn't achieve penetration, she assumed that she had cancer or a deformity and went to a hospital. There, a doctor (only in France! ) prescribed a glass of wine. The treatment worked. She visited a bordello in Spain dressed as a boy, was arrested because she seemed underage, and spent the night in jail. She dropped in on a nudist island. Then she dumped her nice boyfriend because she concluded his writing wasn't really very good: "I only wanted a fine writer."
Only a true artist would do for her as a partner, because only he, she ardently believed, had the capacity to reveal the truth and save the world. The highest goal she thought any woman could aspire to was to help an artist realize his potential. She dreamed not of being a writer herself, but of marrying someone like Keats or Hemingway, to whom she could be a muse and devote her life. He would be the genius, the artist, and she would revere him because "there lay her own immortality." (Does this sound familiar? Think of Dorothea Brooke in "Middlemarch," or of Marjorie Morningstar. ) And if the artist behaved in ways that were less than civilized, well, allowances must be made, because artists can't be expected to abide by the rules that govern ordinary mortals.
What happened next was predictably disastrous. In a bar, Roiphe met Jack Richardson, a good-looking playwright with a British accent (though he came from Queens ) who smoked Gauloises cigarettes and was a devotee of Wittgenstein. That she would fall for him was a given. Undoubtedly talented, he was also given to drunken benders that would last for days, sometimes weeks, and to taking up with any woman who captured his fancy, including prostitutes. He may even have had autistic tendencies, although this she deduced in hindsight.
Artist or not, it's hard to believe that she put up with his behavior for the five years they were married. A sample: Her father gave them money for a honeymoon. Jack took the money and disappeared for four days - the kind of scenario that recurred not infrequently. She supported him by working as a typist. It wasn't enough: He pawned the silver, her watch, her china, whatever.
But at least Roiphe was living the life of an artist's muse. The couple became part of the intellectual social scene whose epicenter was the writer George Plimpton's home in Manhattan. Those who turned up included painters like Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning, pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, and writers like Terry Southern, Norman Mailer, William Styron and Arthur Miller. One can assume there was brilliant talk among this Paris Review crowd, but if so, Roiphe doesn't write much about it. As she describes it, those Friday night soirees were not so much a display of sparkling intellect as they were boringly bacchanalian. What the men did, mainly, was get drunk. The women emptied the ashtrays. There was sex, even the occasional orgy, but that was usually pretty joyless too. She describes, for example, going to bed with William Styron, not because he particularly fancied her or she him, but because she was there and he wanted to have sex with someone before he passed out. Why did she do it? "Fidelity seemed like a sucker's game." Nobody wanted to miss the party.
The turning point
It all changed for Roiphe when she had a child. She found that many of these brilliant writers and artist were not only terrible husbands, which she could forgive, but terrible parents, which she could not. At one point, for example, after she divorced Jack Richardson, she and her small daughter ran into him on the beach. He was carrying another child on his shoulders. He saw his daughter, nodded and walked on.
It got worse. In the parking lot outside a baseball game, she heard a baby, left alone, screaming inside a parked car. It was Larry Rivers' child. That was the turning point at which she changed her views about the sublimity of artists. There was never a question in her mind in the years that followed, during which she married again happily, had more children and became a writer herself, that she had done the right thing in leaving her husband and changing the focus of her life. "I would never do it again," she writes, referring to the life she led during that period. "Never."
The reader can hardly argue. And yet, there is something admirable as well as naive about an era when people took it for granted that art was worth sacrificing for. Does anyone believe that today? In Roiphe's musings on her earlier self, too, something has been lost with age; a kind of ironic grouchiness has replaced the idealism.
"Was it sweet or nasty or just plain stupid?" she wonders, looking back at those years of innocence. Her answer, as her daughter Katie Roiphe intimates in her excellent introduction to the book, lies in that crying baby in the parked car.
Carol Novis is a journalist and editor.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now