Lerman, Leo (Stephen Pascal, ed.). The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Leman”, Knopf. 2007.
Americans love gossip and Leo Lerman serves it up as a feast in his posthumous journals. He tells us about passion and love, art and theater, dance and parties, parties, parties. Lerman relates with elegance little secrets about people we have read about—the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, Truman Capote, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Arturo Toscaninni. But “The Grand Surprise” is more than gossip—it is about life, understanding and philosophy. What a way to become aware of the world that you live in. Lerman is funny, and wise and h holds nothing back. He provides candor, wit and sarcasm. I learned that Lerman dreamed of writing a great novel but he died before he got the chance. His assistant for twelve years of his life, Stephen Pascal, has edited his journals and his letters from 1941 until 1994, the year before Lerman’s death.
Lerman’s life spanned eighty years and forty of those years were spent in a publishing career. He was editor of that magazine of the “beautiful” people, “Vanity Fair” and also worked with “Harper’s Bazaar”, “Vogue” and “Mademoiselle” and he gave and was invited to fabulous parties. He knew all the who’s who in society and the arts but he grew disillusioned with the glamorous life and kept wonderful notes. He knew, early on, that he was gay and he accepted that with no problem. He wrote with style and he adored being in love with his longtime partner, Gray Foy.
His snippets about the people he knew contain all kinds of charm—whether he wrote about how Ruth Gordon ate or the sex life of an imprisoned architect. He kept wonderful diaries with precise detail. Like so many of us, he was fascinated by celebrities and spent his adult life as a devotee of the New York social scene. People envied him as he seemed to be everywhere. He helped Caroline Kennedy do homework, he took Helen Hayes to concerts, he seemed to know everyone and he accepted by them.
Lerman led a dazzling life but he felt that he had wasted years going to luncheons and had sold his soul in order to be accepted. His missed his secret ambition—to be a novelist and worshipped the writing of Proust.
The book is a warehouse of information—of anecdote and revelation. He had come far having been the son of working class Jewish parents. He had once turned down the invitation of the king and queen of Spain so he could have dinner with a publishing magnate. He rejected sexual advances of Yul Brynner who begged him to sleep with him. He saw Marlene Dietrich naked when she asked him to join her in her bath so she could show him the female body. He carried Truman Capote piggy-back down a staircase.
What a magnificent gift this book is. It took Pascal more than ten years to decipher and edit his former boss’s diaries and letters but he successfully resurrects a life with beautiful language. Lerman was a self-educated man who grew up poor in Brooklyn but he says he lives “high and rich interiorly”. He was sensual and sexy and n his own words lived a life of “divine debauchery”.
His parties were legendary attracting guests such as Anais Nin, Margot Fonteyn, Cecil Beaton, the Trillings, Aaron Copeland, Gloria Steinem and Leonard Bernstein and there were hundreds more. He knew everyone who was anyone ands says “I have always existed in the theater of the imagination-so each person in my life has been a character.” His life seems like fiction but it was very, very real. He was glamour personified and now that I have read this book, I rue the fact that I never knew him—not that I would ever have had the chance.