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The Grand Surprise by Leo Lerman
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The Grand Surprise

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The Grand Surprise by Leo Lerman
Feb 19, 2009 | ISBN 9780307495747

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  • Feb 19, 2009 | ISBN 9780307495747

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“Engrossing . . . In his review of Period Piece [a memoir by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter], Lerman endorsed ‘wit’ and ‘humor’ in books of recollections, and there is no shortage of either here. . . . The Grand Surprise exemplifies the qualities that Lerman himself sought out in the autobiographies and life recollections that he–an astonishingly successful autodidact with no more than a high school education–so avidly read: wit, respect for time past, profound feeling, a lack of cheap sentimentality, and above all an abiding sense, when others might have become jaded, of deep ‘wonder’ at the haut monde (as he liked to put it) of Art and Society to which he had struggled so hard to gain access. . . . To my mind, what makes The Grand Surprise most worth reading for anyone interested in the substance, rather than the coruscating surface, of the times and culture it describes is the scintillant quality of Lerman’s critical acumen. To read this book is, as it were, to witness a meteor shower of casually tossed-off insights into dance, theater, film, music, art, and literature of his day, and of the past. . . . I savored every page of his remarkable private writings . . . . “
–Daniel Mendelsohn, The New York Review of Books

The Grand Surprise [is] a magnificent arrangement of [Leo Lerman’s] unpublished memoirs and correspondence. . . . Stephen Pascal, Lerman’s assistant for more than 12 years . . . deciphered and edited his former mentor’s journal’s with [Lerman’s longtime partner Gray] Foy’s help and privy knowledge, and hunted down hundreds of Lerman’s letters. In The Grand Surprise, Pascal resurrects and imposes order on a dazzling life in the scene-stealing language of the man who lived it. . . . Lerman [once complained] ‘I am fat with words.’ Pascal has reshaped Lerman’s reminiscences into a heroic physique, and given his subject the posthumous consolation that a hope he confided to himself late in life, in a notebook he did not know would be found, was true: ‘I did do something extra: I lived. I will live.’ . . . . Lerman’s parties attracted everyone from magazine editors and writers to Maria Callas, Anaïs Nin, Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton, Cecil Beaton, Diana and Lionel Trilling, Aaron Copland, Gloria Steinem and Leonard Bernstein. . . . Lerman knew absolutely everyone, and what’s more, absolutely everyone knew him. . . . In his notebooks, he could convey an entire life in a sentence, in a clause, or even in one word. . . . Anaïs Nin wrote of him in a diary entry that he ‘talks like Oscar Wilde, but has a warmth in his glittering dark eyes,’ and that his conversation evoked a ‘magician’s tour de force.’ . . . ‘And all you remember is the fantasy, the tale, the laughter.’ In these pages, Lerman’s words put the fantasy on paper. . . . Lerman mused late in life, ‘the final desolation comes with the realization that life is like fiction.’ His certainly was. But even as The Grand Surprise invites the reader backstage to revisit the illustrious dramatis personae of his memory, it also reveals the private heart of a public man. . . . In 1948, in an acid vignette he published in Vogue, [Truman] Capote gave a thinly veiled portrait of Lerman, disguising him as a popular party-giver named Hilary. . . . ‘Hilary so wants everyone to be glamorous, to be a storybook creature; somehow he persuades himself that the grayest folk are coated with legend-making glitter.’ But reading this book, you are tempted to conclude that it was Capote’s gray that was an illusion; the glitter was real. You just had to be Leo Lerman to see it.”
–Liesl Schillinger, The New York Times Book Review, cover

“You couldn’t have written for a living in New York during the last third of the twentieth century without having heard of–and probably from–Leo Lerman. The bearded and ebullient features editor of Vogue was forever on the freelancer phone, putting out a fire or starting one . . . And when he wasn’t on the phone, he was discovering something marvelous or meeting someone sexy at the ballet, the theater, the opera, or the ‘Fashion and Surrealism’ exhibit at the Fashion Institute of Technology . . . Lerman–born poor in Spanish Harlem; raised ambitious in Jackson Heights, Queens; done with classrooms after high school, a graduate of fashion magazines, émigré salon culture, and a 1930s New York underground of drag clubs and homosexual speakeasies; Jewish, gimpy, autodidactic, and ‘queer’ (his word); a quick study and glad hand, with his Turkish cap, purple sheets, and ‘royalist fantasies’–this Leo embodied upward mobility, class transgression, and theatrical reincarnation . . . And for more than half a century, from his first Vogue assignment in 1941 to his deathbed in 1994, he kept brilliant notes on what Beauty and Legend looked like before vulgarians stormed glam gates. Naturally, when some of your best friends are Maria Callas, Marlene Dietrich, and Truman Capote, the gossip is salacious. Naturally, if you invite Imogen Coca, Lionel Trilling, and Anaïs Nin to the same party in 1946, or Robert Motherwell, Leontyne Price, and Si Newhouse in 1964, or Martha Graham, Woody Allen, and Lillian Hellman in 1976, some chairs will be broken, and some hearts too.”
–John Leonard, Harper’s

“Lerman’s diaries, interspersed with his correspondence and an unfinished memoir, form a rich, occasionally rueful mosaic of a man who collected friendships the way those around him collected wealth or accolades, and who, most of the time, seemed to find his life the better for it. . . . Lerman was at the center of fashionable New York society for almost fifty years, thanks to work at such magazines as Vogue and Mademoiselle. The son of a housepainter in East Harlem, Lerman was drawn to ‘the surface glitter’ of the élite, and he helped launch the careers of countless singers, writers, actresses, and artists. He was known for frugal but grand soirées–Marlene Dietrich emptied the ashtrays at one; William Faulkner stood in line with Maria Callas for Chinese food at another–but he never entirely lost his sense of being an outsider, or his feeling that magazine work was a distraction from ‘a life of letters.’”
The New Yorker

The Grand Surprise, with an intoxicating mix of gossip, anecdotes and character sketches, will be for many a grand surprise. Lerman writes with just the right touch of brio and bite as he evokes a vanished time.”
–Robert Osborne, The Wall Street Journal

“[Lerman] knew everyone who mattered among the culturati of the mid-20th century, and his personal observations of them, and of the nature of art itself, form a chronicle that Proust might have envied. It truly is a grand surprise.”
–Amanda Vaill, Town and Country

“A literate, gossipy read about the rich, famous and talented.”

“Remarkable . . . Witty, sometimes mordant, and often revealing . . . [Lerman’s] journals make for dishy reading . . . Yet titillating as they are, [they] amount to more than a miscellany of star-centric gossip. The Grand Surprise is also a chronicle of artistic Manhattan during the postwar years, written by a man who was not only a figure at the heart of this milieu, but a tastemaker who had a hand in shaping its evolution. . . . The prose here is immediate, spontaneous, candid, funny. . . . Most people will read The Grand Surprise for its tales of celebrities and their foibles, for its portrait of postwar cultural aristocracy–and why not? But it is also a de facto autobiography of an immensely charismatic man.”
–Amanda Fortini, Slate

“Lerman’s once secret journals are dish to die for.”

“For more than 50 years, Lerman collected notable boldface names the way some people collected colorful butterflies. . . . [He] wrote about these celebrities for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Mademoiselle, or Harper’s Bazaar. He befriended everyone who was anyone, and they came to his weekly salons and regular parties . . . . After his death in 1994, long-time assistant Pascal discovered hundreds of notebooks squirreled away in desk drawers and stored boxes. Together with dozens of letters and scraps of a memoir never finished, he has shaped Lerman’s gossipy late-night jottings and astute morning-after reflections into a box of irresistible anecdotal bonbons about New York’s cultural demimonde, Lerman’s gay circle of friends, and his years as Condé Nast editorial director, when he was a center around which revolved epochs of glitter and glam.”
The Bottomline

“In every city, in every era, there is always one socialite who throws the best parties . . . New York, as might be expected, [is the city that] trumps them [all]. That is because New York had Leo Lerman, the writer, magazine editor and socialite who knew thousands of the world’s most interesting people and didn’t mind writing about them. In The Grand Surprise, a collection of Lerman’s journals, letters and excerpts from articles and his never-completed memoir, an engrossing image of Lerman’s singular force and resounding influence in post-war Manhattan is revealed in exquisite detail. The book gives [readers] of a later generation the distinct feeling of [being] a child perched at the top of the stairs late at night to eavesdrop on the adults talking about wondrous and unknown things. Great bits of gossip–about Truman Capote, Yul Brynner, Margot Fonteyn–pop up among much deeper social reflections, vignettes and letters to Lerman’s lovers. . . . Lerman was many unique phenomena rolled into one fascinating phenomenon: an idiosyncratic editor, a fluttering socialite, a deeply expressive lover and a man alternately stifled and motivated to greatness by deep insecurity. . . . [His] quirky and glistening prose can’t help but induce a sense of nostalgia [for his lost world], even among those who come to know it only through his descriptions. If Lerman’s prose is often glittering and romanticized, it is because his world was, too–and so much the better.”
–Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News

“Lerman knew everyone . . . [The] range of relationships Lerman had with luminaries of his day is both intimidating and informative. Truman Capote even based a character in one of his novels directly on Lerman. This writer spent his career spreading his knowledge of, it seems, everything worth knowing. Lerman was outgoing and smart. . . . [His] diaries highlight the life of a deeply passionate and caring thinker.”
Philadelphia Gay News

The Grand Surprise, selections from the journals of the late critic Leo Lerman, is in bookstores now. Included in the collection, edited by Stephen Pascal, are several choice anecdotes about some of Lerman’s favorite divas, from Maria Callas and Beverly Sills to Marlene Dietrich.”
–"Opera Watch" column, Opera News

“A royal flush of dish . . . A trove of gossip from the 40s through the 90s awaits in The Grand Surprise, with its many-splendored entries edited by Leo [Lerman’s] assistant Stephen Pascal, who’s undertaken the exhaustive, mind-blowing job [of] documenting Leo’s Proustian-like commentary. Is there anyone Leo didn’t know? Or dine with? Or party with? Those hallowed names are here, and The Grand Surprise isn’t a book to race through, although it’s wildly addictive. Best to dip into it as you would a box of chocolates and savor a little at a time. [The Grand Surprise is] a social history like no other with its frank, descriptive and derriere-slapping observations of haute New York, the capitals of Europe, and Los Angeles.”
–George Christy, Nob Hill Gazette

“Compelling . . . full of wit and insight. . . . Many of us fantasize about having dinner parties with favorite icons as our guests, but this was reality, not fantasy, for Leo Lerman, a gay writer and editor at Condé Nast from 1941 until his death in 1994. He became renowned for the parties he hosted for the luminaries of his day. . . . While hobnobbing with the cultural elite, Lerman wrote detailed journal accounts of his life, and those writings have been compiled by Stephen Pascal, [Lerman’s] assistant for 12 years, into The Grand Surprise. . . . [The] book paints a clear picture of the writer’s life and cultural observations. Born in 1914, New York, Lerman grew up in a lower middle-class Jewish family. High school was his only formal education, but he devoured books, avidly reading everything from Virginia Woolf’s novels to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Lerman ‘dreamed of becoming his generation’s Proust,’ Pascal writes in the introduction. He wrote journals for ‘documentation,’ Pascal says, to use later as source material for a Proustian novel about his time. While Lerman never achieved this monumental task, reading his journals, written between 1941 and 1993, reveals a fascinating impression of not only his life but also the cultural landscape of the latter half of the 20th century . . . Lerman leaves behind an entertaining legacy, and a valuable remembrance of things past.”
–Kathi Wolfe, The New York Blade

“Lerman [was once] the features editor for Vogue, and the editor of Vanity Fair, as well as a guiding eminence for the Conde Nast organization, but what he really wanted to be was a writer. As this exhaustive but never exhausting collection of [Lerman’s] journals and letters proves, that’s exactly what he was. As a matter of fact, he was a better writer than many of the people he was editing. The Grand Surprise is a glittering assembly of the intellectual and theatrical elite of the post-war era, caught and transcribed by one of their own, a man with a superlative eye for character and detail. There is also astonishing gossip. Much of the dish derives from three close friends Lerman worshipped for their talent but whose human failings he regarded with a sharp but essentially loving eye: Maria Callas, [Marlene] Dietrich and Eleonora von Mendelssohn, who was mistress to both Toscanini and Max Reinhardt. Lerman was very much a creature of high culture; his preferred habitat was New York and Paris, with yearly excursions to Venice . . . [On] his chosen turf of the beau and gay mondes, Lerman seems to be one of the great diarists, interested in candor, in emotional intimacy. . . . He also had a genuinely provocative critical mind. . . . Throughout his 80 years, Lerman was comfortable with his homosexuality, comfortable with nearly everything except tedium. He had a deeply romantic, enthusiastic personality, and he was drawn to larger-than-life characters who could transform quotidian reality into something glittering and neo-operatic. . . . The achievement of this book, of this mountain of journals and letters that editor Stephen Pascal has cobbled together, is that it gradually becomes the work that Lerman felt he never wrote–a panoramic picture of mid-century life and times . . . A Proustian work.”
–Scott Eyman, Palm Beach Post

“Gossipy, ribald and fun. Lerman was a man who liked to go out every night, and his journals are filled with tasty morsels. . . . You will have to buy [The Grand Surprise] to read what Lerman says about Yul Brynner; I simply can’t repeat it here.”
–Wendy R. Williams, New York Cool

“Lerman [once] told [Paul] Bowles that his stories were like Chinese boxes, each opening into another–and that at the end there was nothing. Bowles remembered that sharp sting [for 30] years. That was the power of Lerman’s reach as a critic and tastemaker, a power he had exerted through magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. Now his diary, The Grand Surprise, shows us not only the Lerman of glittering parties, openings, first nights, and famous friends, but a private man with an inner core far deeper than his surface life would ever have suggested. . . . ‘Leo’s book was a revelation to me,’ I said on a visit to Gray Foy, Lerman’s lifelong companion. ‘It was a revelation to me too,’ he said.”
–Frederic Tuten, New York magazine

“There is great dish here and also great heart. . . . Leo Lerman knew everyone from Cary Grant to Diana Vreeland to David Hockney to Steve Martin. Among his closest friends were Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, and Diana Trilling. He has great stories to tell about them all. He is always, even in these private journals (and letters), more courteous than catty, a curious and humorous observer. . . . He wrote about his world of art, theater, celebrities, glamour, for several Condé Nast publications from the late 1940s to the early 1990s in short bursts of lively prose. . . . [Yet his] greatest accomplishments were as an inspired party giver, grateful guest, loyal friend, and sympathetic confidant. . . . He remained attached to his powerful New York Jewish family, faithful to his life-long partner, and true to his own personal vision.”
–Barbara Fisher, The Boston Globe

The Grand Surprise provide[s] a frank and lively crash course on contemporary culture.”
Echo magazine (May 2007)

“Lerman, a contemporary of Truman Capote, was a larger-than-life figure in the magazine world who also gave great parties.”
New York Times Book Review, Editors’ Choice

“Pascal began his career at Condé Nast Publications in 1981 as assistant editor to Leo Lerman, a longtime features editor at Vogue. Toward the end of Lerman’s career, Pascal recorded the writer/critic/editor’s dictated reminiscences for a proposed autobiography that was never completed. However, following Lerman’s death, a cache of journals and letters surfaced, which became the impetus for this book. Working with Lerman’s former lovers Richard Hunter and Gray Foy, Pascal compiled journal entries, letters, an unfinished memoir–even guest lists from Lerman’s legendary parties–to give insight into the life of this remarkable and influential New York socialite. . . . Readers will delight in the observations, stories, gossip, and humor concerning New York cognoscenti, literati, entertainers, and artists of the 1940s to the 1990s (e.g., performer Judy Garland, writer Truman Capote) . . . [The] book also divulges Lerman’s insecurities, doubts, and ruminations about being openly gay and Jewish and the loss of the European émigré culture. An enjoyable and insightful read recommended for all public and academic libraries.”
–Mark Williams, Library Journal

“Leo Lerman was the last of the Condé Nast mandarins–an industrious aesthete with a lapidary eye for the latest nugget of high culture that could be polished up for the slick pages of Vogue. For more than a half-century, he knew everybody in the incestuous world of the arts and the rich in Manhattan and beyond, entertained most of them, and gossiped about all of them. . . . Confected by Mr. Pascal from [hundreds of Lerman’s] notebooks, along with snippets from letters that [he] wrote to Marlene Dietrich and others he loved the most, The Grand Surprise is an evocation of a lost world of the arts that rivals the Goncourt brothers’ portrait of 19th-century Paris. Through Lerman’s pages parade Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, Hemingway and Faulkner, Maria Callas and Greta Garbo, Norman Mailer and Dietrich, a drunken Marion Davies, a gaga Evelyn Waugh and a flabby-armed Nancy Reagan. . . . Delicious giblets bob in the soup of names. . . . At once charming and insufferable, Lerman was a rhapsodic collector of pals, lovers, knickknacks, talent, wit and memories. He never hid his lower-middle-class Jewish roots or his homosexuality, but he could be bitchy. . . . [Lerman] was a brilliant and authentic self-invention–son of a house painter, born on East 107th St. in Manhattan and raised in Jackson Heights, Queens . . . [He] lived the life he dreamed of, and wound up leaving us a superb secret history of the culture of our times.”
–Edward Kosner, The Wall Street Journal

The Grand Surprise is drawn from the journals and letters of Leo Lerman, a fixture in New York publishing for 50 years. Lerman generally worked behind the scenes to keep magazines that specialized in glamour in the forefront of what was important in the arts. . . . A dozen years ago, at Lerman’s memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amy Gross, who had been his assistant at Vogue in the early 60s, read a letter he had written her when he lived in Rome. The letter was a revelation–full of wit, penetrating observations and a dazzling urbanity. . . . This Leo Lerman is on display in The Grand Surprise, edited by his last assistant, Stephen Pascal. Lerman knew everyone, as you can see in the guest list of a party he threw for Maria Callas . . . Many of the letters are to Marlene Dietrich, a few to Truman Capote. [Lerman’s] comments throughout are delicious.”
–Howard Kissel, New York Daily News blog

“The publication of a major new diary is cause for celebration . . . [More] than any recent gay book, The Grand Surprise gives a look at the day-to-day, almost picturesque, artistic and sexual journeys of a capital-c Cultured gay man through New York in the middle and end of the 20th century–and covering years when the city was the West’s cultural capital. . . . [Lerman’s] journals bring to life for us what it was like to be an openly gay man obsessed with metropolitan culture–particularly the intersections of its varieties American and European and high and low. . . . The Grand Surprise fascinates most with its vigilant and ever-accumulating accounts of the plays, films, dance, opera singers, and artists he encountered. . . . There’s great gossip here. . . . [and the] notes and gossip are really the soul of the book . . . . [A] brilliant, detailed, and important window into a gay life over many decades.”
–Michael Bronski, Guide

“A compulsively readable storehouse of outrageous anecdote and sexual revelation, of shrewd comment and keen-eyed description . . . Leo Lerman spent his adult life working for glossy fashion magazines such as Vogue, Mademoiselle and Harper’s Bazaar. Late in his career, he was briefly the editor of Vanity Fair during its difficult rebirth. . . . [He] essentially devoted his adult life to the New York social whirl. . . . His Rolodex was the envy of lesser mortals. Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Lincoln Kirstein, Truman Capote, Diana Vreeland and dozens of other eminences would call him up to chat. . . . A dazzling life, it would seem . . . And yet the pages of The Grand Surprise reveal a man assailed by the conviction that he has frittered away years on over-rich lunches at the Russian Tea Room and sold his talent for a mess of pottage. . . . Though he clearly worked hard at his articles, profiles and book reviews, Lerman’s secret ambition was to be a novelist, possibly even a great one like his beloved Proust. . . . Nothing ever came of [his] efforts. . . . But over the years Lerman did squirrel away notes, diaries and letters, not to mention party invitations, and these Stephen Pascal has ably edited in The Grand Surprise. . . . Lerman is adept at capturing a passing figure with an apt smile or comparison. . . . Sometimes, you can hardly believe the shameless name-dropping or the catty remarks. . . . The Grand Surprise is full of delicious anecdotes about shallow, venal, power-mad, sex-crazed and often unlikable people.”
–Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World

“‘Marlene [Dietrich] asked me whether I would ghost her memoirs,’ writes Leo Lerman in his journals, ‘but I thought it over and decided that she would never really tell what the public wants to know.’ But in his own private material, now being published after his death in The Grand Surprise, Lerman dished on all the stars he had access to as a legendary editor at Condé Nast.”
–George Rush and Joanna Rush Molloy, New York Daily News

“In [Leo Lerman’s] role [as Editorial Advisor at Condé Nast], he entertained and inspired those writer-editors lucky enough to score an appointment, myself included. During your meeting, the bearded legend-in-residence, wit and eyes sparkling, might share a Saltine washed down with a juicy backstage anecdote about his buddy Maria Callas, pausing to take a call from Steve Martin or S.I. Newhouse. In 1994, Lerman died at 80, but the pleasures of his company come alive in this collection of his journal entries, letters and reminiscences spanning over 50 years. It’s a delicious, gossipy read, studded with tales of the luminaries he befriended while ‘minding [his] own and everybody’s business’ . . . . Yet the most fascinating figure at this gala turns out to be the host, a housepainter’s son who miraculously [became] a worldly aesthete. Lerman never outgrew his childlike enthusiasm, which makes his running commentary on aging and death heartbreakingly funny. Alas, this ardent Proust admirer . . . failed to emulate his idol’s productivity, which along with his packed schedule explain why ‘the Book’ to which he frequently alludes never got done. Happily, this one did get done, thanks to the hard work of editor Stephen Pascal, Lerman’s assistant for 12 years. . . . At long last, the smart social butterfly is pinned down, in print. Sit with him and spend as long as you like–no appointment necessary.”
–Julia Szabo, New York Post, four stars

The Grand Surprise [is] 700 pages of high-toned, elegant and both nasty and tasty dish from a behind-the-scenes magazine lifer, largely at Condé Nast, featuring some famous names in and out of the media. Lerman–plump, bearded, party-throwing, insecure but a snob, cultivated, gay, quotable–worked everywhere, Vogue, Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Glamour, the Herald Trib, did book reviews for the Times and stage-managed on Broadway. . . . Leo’s gossip is timeless. . . . Start reading if you want to know the dirt about Toscanini’s mistress, about [Marlene] Dietrich’s affair with Yul Brynner, about ballet dancers, opera divas (Callas was a buddy), [and] about how and why they revived Vanity Fair and why it flopped at first. . . . Stephen Pascal has done a brilliant editing job on his journals, the wit, the dish, the fun and the nastiness. Was Lerman’s a rich, full, complicated life? Or was it hollow, superficial, waspish? The reader must, deliciously, decide for him- (or her-) self.”
–James Brady,

The Grand Surprise is crammed with insights from the man who made his name synonymous with Mademoiselle, Vogue and eventually the revived Vanity Fair. There is so much great gossip in this book that it just cannot go unnoted.”
–Liz Smith, Baltimore Sun

“Critic, editor and man-about-town Leo Lerman wrote reviews for publications from The New York Times to Mademoiselle, was a features editor at Vogue and then editor in chief at Vanity Fair. He seems to have known everyone of note and The Grand Surprise is filled with gossip about the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Judy Garland and Cary Grant. His wit proves Truman Capote’s observation that Lerman was ‘the kindest unkind person I know.’”
WWDScoop magazine

“For the perfect summer read, I can think of nothing better than “The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman. Lerman was the ultimate New Yorker, charmer extraordinaire, and a writer and editor for Condé Nast, who knew simply everyone, threw the best parties, and scrupulously kept diaries, which Stephen Pascal, Lerman’s former assistant, has edited into pure enthrallment.
Warning: if you pick this book up, you may not want to put it down again, as I lost two nights’ sleep in a row, poring over its mesmerizing celebrity/anecdote-stuffed 616 pages.”

–David Noh, Gay City News

“An embarrassment of riches . . . like opening a wardrobe to a magical Narnia – a window onto a vibrant New York City, when the arts, letters, and high fashion merged and thrived, and the bold face names weren’t Britney, Diddy, Trump, or Paris, but Truman, Callas, Jackie, Kitty, and Rudy – not Giuliani, but the divine Nureyev!”

–Michael Ehrhardt, Chelsea Now

“Fabulous writer and editor Leo Lerman (1915-1994) left behind a vast trove of letters and journals, now collected in The Grand Surprise.”
–Adam Begley, The New York Observer

“[The Grand Surprise] is sequined with [Leo Lerman’s] dazzling friends, but Leo himself is the best company, startlingly self-aware, ecstatic in the presence of beauty, abidingly tender about the love of his life, the artist Gray Foy, and gallant in the face of pain. Anyone at all familiar with what the Buddhists call the vicissitudes of living–gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and sorrow–will hear in his sensible talking to himself the voice of the wise uncle he was to so many.”
–Amy Gross, Vanity Fair

“[For Leo Lerman, an] ordinary day might include gossiping with Marlene Dietrich (or Maria Callas or Truman Capote), watching Eudora Welty sprint up Madison Avenue in pursuit of Greta Garbo, or entertaining William Faulkner, Noël Coward, George Balanchine, Jackie Onassis, Gypsy Rose Lee (the list goes on). Until his death in 1994, the insatiably sociable, voraciously literary Lerman, editor at Vogue and later Vanity Fair, longed to produce a memoir of his life at the brilliantly beating heart of mid- to late-20th-century New York; now his amanuensis and editor Stephen Pascal has done it for him. The Grand Surprise is a constellation of journal entries that revive a shimmering gone world.”
O, Oprah Magazine

“[The] book that is what [Truman Capote’s] Answered Prayers aspired to be.”
–James Wolcott, Vanity Fair blog

“Lerman, longtime features editor at Vogue, later editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair and all-round arts devotee . . . was omnivorous in his desire to experience the full range of culture and entertainment. This broad selection of Lerman’s journals is filled with great gossip (on everything from Ruth Gordon’s eating habits to architect Philip Johnson’s sex life) and some astute remarks on art. Lerman is a great diarist: the details are precise, the information careening from idiosyncratic to important, and his tone endlessly amused and amusing. While he can be peevish and even mean, he is also frequently funny and generous . . . [If] you are moderately conversant with high art and high society–or just want to know what Princess Marina, duchess of Kent, wore to the Metropolitan Opera in September 1956, Lerman’s journals are perfect.”
Publishers Weekly

Author Q&A

A conversation with Stephen Pascal, editor of The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo LermanQ: You wrote that Leo was often disconcerting at first meeting–someone who seemed from the past, yet always on the scent of trends. What was it like to work for him?A: When I interviewed to be Leo’s assistant at Vogue‘s feature department in May 1981, Leo seemed unlikely to me, this devotee of high culture holding court in a fashion magazine. But Vogue had a long history of covering art, design, and all varieties of entertainment. Leo wanted to know what was unrolling everywhere. The features staff worked hard. Phones rang constantly with calls from agents, photographers, writers, gossips. What I always remember first about Leo’s office was the laughter. We never went longer than a couple of beats without a laugh. Meanwhile, Leo threw all kinds of opportunities to the junior staff—interviews, photo sessions, writing assignments, invitations to galas and openings and black-tie dinners. We learned fast and tended to stay in the field. Many magazines today are run by editors who first worked with Leo at Mademoiselle or Vogue. Q: The Grand Surprise combines journals and letters with memoir, excerpts from articles, and even party-invitation lists. Why such an eclectic mixture?A: From the early eighties, Leo had a contract with Random House to write an autobiography, but he had stalled on page one. Then he hit on the idea of dictating the memoir with me. He began by describing his early family life and introduced some of the prime characters in his story. When he died in 1994, only about two-thirds of what he had outlined was in manuscript. Then Gray Foy, Leo’s surviving lover, began discovering these notebooks, bushels of them, tucked away around their apartment. Deciphering and transcribing these took months, but we knew within weeks that we had in them Leo’s real story—They were so vivid and surprising. Leo’s first serious lover had been Richard Hunter, with whom he was from 1936 until 1948. Richard died in 2000. Soon afterward, I received a cardboard box, mailed by Richard’s nephew, containing nearly 500 letters written by Leo to Richard. These spanned fifty years of love and friendship and supplied all sorts of stories, in a voice very close to that in Leo’s notebooks. Gray Foy, Leo’s lover from 1948 on, then also gave me over a hundred letters, which Leo had written during their first twenty years together. In this book, I wanted to have Leo tell as much of his own story as possible. An obvious downside to editing journals posthumously is that the author cannot supply missing details or anecdotes. Here the draft memoir helped. For example, in Leo’s journal, Dietrich and Capote simply appear on a first-name basis one day. He had made no note of first meeting them. Fortunately, in the dictated memoir tells those stories. So, as it turned out, Leo himself wrote much of the annotation for his journals. Q: What was it about Lerman that allowed him to maintain friendships with so many famously difficult personalities?A: He certainly took knocks now and again, but Leo was a very resilient friend. In 1948, Capote published a story with a sharp caricature of Leo—in Vogue, no less. Dietrich sometimes gave Leo the cold shoulder when his magazines’ articles disappointed her. Leo had a gift, with celebrities, for seeing both the created persona and the authentic person, and avidly appreciating both—with humor and compassion. People often spoke very frankly to him. He was a very encouraging, down-to-earth listener. Callas confided that she hated opera: "So old-fashioned," she said. Dietrich said things like, "My life would have been so easy if I’d really been sexy." Capote told Leo that he was "the kindest unkind person" he knew.Q: Lerman started making outlines for an American Remembrance of Time Past while still in his thirties. Why didn’t he write it?A: One of the things that stopped Leo from writing a book was his journal. Keeping it gave the illusion of compiling material. Everything was research. He was an extrovert, a partygoer who wanted to write about the changes occurring in society around him. So, he had a superb rationale for heading out whenever an invitation arrived. Then, when he arrived home, there was nearly always a magazine deadline to meet. He often worked through the wee hours–sometimes days in a row. Then, if he were between assignments, and alone, Leo would pick up his journal, a letter, or the telephone. There was a battery of friends–Anita Loos was one–who would call at dawn, because they knew Leo would be up. He was always going, but without a deadline he had no discipline. Q: What was he like as an editor?A: I’d say he was more a coaxer than a corrector. Leo left fixing grammar and style to the copy department. By the time he became features editor at Vogue, in 1972, Leo could pay top dollar, and he commissioned pieces whenever a good idea came to him. Much of his time was spent on the phone, at lunch, or in meetings flattering and browbeating authors into writing for him. For twenty-five years at Mademoiselle, Leo had contributed most of the feature writing himself, so he knew what writers want to hear. John Leonard of Harper’s, in an early review of this book, recalled that Leo appealed both to a contributor’s practicality (Vogue was paying top dollar, after all) and professionalism (a writer writes, whatever the subject). Another of Leo’s lessons, spelled out in this book in a letter to Marlene Dietrich—of all people—is to trust one’s own gift and not to let it be ruined in imitation of others—always flattering to hear. Although he utterly failed in setting aside his own desire to be Virginia Woolf or Proust, Leo’s own magazine writing was quite distinctive—ebullient and celebratory, if sometimes breathless. It worked well in fashion magazines. Still, I’d say that the Leo Lerman who inspired his writers and staff is the one who comes across in his journals—witty, canny, self-knowing, and spontaneous. Q: Considering his background–a typical lower-middle class Jewish immigrant family, only a high-school diploma–was Lerman the "cultural guru" of Condé Nast ever perceived as a phony?A: Leo never pretended to be other than he was, a Jewish boy, son of a house painter, who did surprisingly well. Our standards of dress and social behavior have changed so dramatically in fifty years that it’s easy to exaggerate how grand Leo seemed. Men used to wear suits to the ballpark….But in the early years he was so poor that he bought all his suits in shop for priests. There’s no denying that he enjoyed cutting a figure, and in later years, after his experience of London in the mid-sixties, Leo could be a bit flamboyant at times. He delighted in mixing high culture and grand style with bawdiness. "Let me tease you!" was one of his common refrains. By letting people know that he wasn’t fooled by their pretense, he let them see who he really was, in a way.Q: Lerman grew up in working class neighborhoods in Harlem and Queens, New York. How did this upbringing influence him?A: Leo’s childhood days had been a hubbub of relatives and neighbors. It was easy to get lost in the crowd, and, as he would say, Leo learned early on that "if you weren’t pretty you had to be funny." He also learned how to create his own space, at least mentally. Perhaps a latently homosexual child (although a precocious one) in a conservative Jewish family also must have felt himself apart. I feel that some of the richness in Leo’s journals is a result of his being both an extrovert, eagerly observing the carnival around him, and a man who keeps his own counsel and has a fertile interior life. Q: What about Leo’s description of New York in mid-century did you find surprising?A: At Leo’s memorial service in 1994, theater director Harold Prince spoke of the parties Leo threw in the fifties, and how leaders of every field—theater, dance, music, photography, young and old talents both—mixed there. Stars and their producers could be off-stage then, and they mingled in public and private in a way that’s unimaginable now, when cameras monitor a celebrity’s every breath. As Robert Davison, the artist with whom Leo first shared a townhouse in 1948 told me, "People didn’t come to our parties to be seen. They came for the conversation." Leo preferred to call them open houses. In the early years, the mid-forties, friends simply knew that Leo would be at home on Sundays after 9 PM. In the early forties, he lived in a fifth-floor, walk-up apartment. It became a place to be. The parties really gathered steam after midnight, when the theater crowd arrived. Everywhere in those rooms, you would find people who made art or who paid for it. No one wanted to leave, and people would stay until dawn. Late in his life, Leo gave me a few pointers about playing host. He said that every party needs a sense of occasion—invent one on the spot if you must—and every party needs to have a center—a guest of honor, a birthday girl, a Christmas tree, or if all else fails, its host. He also preferred to mix the guests up—the up-and-coming with the has-been. The first of the six invitation lists that I put in this book—from 1946—has Max Ernst, Anaïs Nin, and Imogene Coca on it. Who else could have put them together? Q: Despite a virtual marriage of nearly fifty years to the artist Gray Foy, Lerman’s first lover, Richard Hunter, remains very much on the scene, both physically and emotionally. How would you describe this triangle?A: Within six months of Richard’s departure for another man in 1948, Leo met Gray and immediately fell for him. He loved Gray’s creativity, style, and humor—not to mention beauty. But sometimes Leo found the relationship’s intensity trying. Leo was a nostalgist. He missed the easy companionship of young romance that he had had with Richard, who in any case was fairly undemanding—and wanted little demanded of him. Richard was habitual and quiet in his daily life, yet he was an unfaithful lover and prone to sudden exits. On the other hand, although Gray was a much more volatile companion, he was very faithful and a hardworking homemaker. Richard remained continually in Leo and Gray’s domestic life, however, often staying in their home between his travels. Gray tolerated a lot that most second wives would not. In his first months living with Leo, for instance, when they visited Richard in the country, it was Gray who slept alone. But it was never a sexual ménage a trois. I think the correspondence shows that Leo and Richard were each other’s emotional security nets. Q: Lerman remarked that no one had written about relationships such as his with Gray Foy. Yet, for most of his life, Lerman was extremely discreet and did not want to be publicly identified as a gay man. How would you explain this discrepancy? A: Leo never had any compunction about being gay. You couldn’t have "outed" him: He lived openly with another man—first Richard, then Gray—from the early forties, meanwhile entertaining the great blabbermouths of New York. At Mademoiselle and Vogue, colleagues treated his relationship with Gray as a marriage, without irony—very impressive for the time, to say the least. The world changed, however, and in 1971 Leo wrote that he felt a bit ashamed, as all he had done "to get out the vote" was to lead "the kind of life which denies nothing while making no show of it." For much of his life it took some bravado then to go that far, it must be said. The public life he prized required—and in many places still does—a don’t ask, don’t tell policy. Leo lived into the 1990s, however, when many prominent homosexuals came out publicly—Philip Johnson comes to mind—but Leo always bristled at the idea. I think that he also felt very grateful to those who had welcomed him and Gray without edge or smirk over the years and might have felt that coming out aggressively now would be rude or dismissive of them as well. Simply put, he considered his private life nobody’s business and thought that what happened in private stayed private. Some could say that such silence condoned prejudice or showed self-hatred. It may also have allowed Leo to live a homosexual life overt to a degree that may surprise younger readers today.Q: You’ve said that Lerman would not have identified himself as a gay writer. Will readers consider this book a "gay history?"A: Many gay men over forty have told me they were moved to see Leo’s relationship with Gray Foy develop in The Grand Surprise. There are not many portrayals in print of gay relationships that have this complexity and durability—or truthfulness. Twenty years ago, I imagine this book would have been pegged as a homosexual’s story. Now most readers seem to regard Leo’s relationships as rather conventional and look beyond them to the larger narrative, which I think is a very American one about self-creation and hopes—some fulfilled, some dashed. Q: Your title, The Grand Surprise, is a phrase that appears half a dozen times in the book. What were Leo Lerman’s grand surprises?A: In a May 1956 journal entry Leo describes a childhood discovery of a glorious butterfly trapped indoors that he eventually frees. Leo came to think that butterflies were perfect examples of the ephemeral, dazzling beauty that one pursues, but cannot possess, something one can only have in memory or fantasy. That butterfly’s name was the Grand Surprise. After learning that in 1956, if life suddenly revealed something unexpected or paradoxical Leo might call it a "grand surprise." By the early sixties, Leo wondered whether his real grand surprise might be that his pursuing a livelihood in fashion magazines, his ticket into society and culture, had deflected him from becoming a serious writer. I expect, however that the grandest surprise for him in the end might have been that his journals and letters, which he considered at best research, may actually be the vital portrait of society that he aspired to write.Q: Who might be seen as a 21st-century Leo Lerman?A: It’s hard to imagine anyone today having the centrality, the breadth, and the clout—never mind the erudition—which Leo Lerman combined in his prime. Anyhow, the spotlight nowadays is less on the culture that Leo mastered—opera, ballet, literature—and more on film, television, and blogs. The reporting of arts and entertainment seems increasingly disjointed and momentary. Yes, we have figures in various fields who have Leo Lerman-like aspects, although not many have his personal expansiveness and humor. Certainly there are editors in Manhattan who, as Leo did, match talents to projects, commission good work, track New York’s culture, nurture writers…in short, fueling our culture much as he did. As with Leo, however, most are virtually unknown outside of the profession. I hope they’re keeping journals!

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