It’s now No. 7 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. It has been on the list for three weeks. That’s no surprise whatsoever about Henry Bushkin’s “tell all” about his old friend, confidant, tennis partner and employer Johnny Carson, despite all the TV talk show hosts who wouldn’t touch Bushkin or his book with the devil’s own pitchfork.
The book continues to bother me. I know that Bushkin’s and Carson’s 18-year professional relationship collapsed in bitter recrimination, but it still doesn’t seem right to me that a lawyer – especially one hired to handle the most sensitive secrets in a man’s life – can, after a client’s death, put them up on highway billboards or the book publishing equivalent for profit if he chooses.
It’s legal, but is it right? Since there have been no public brickbats from the California Bar Association, it seems to be entirely within the canon of professional ethics of lawyers out there.
I’m beginning to worry about the virulence of “tell all” culture between covers, to wonder if it’s going places that are inadvisable. What convinced me we may have entered the Too Much Information era are two diametrically opposite books that are just coming out: Daniel Menaker’s brilliant and often funny memoir “My Mistake” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24) and Tim Teeman’s appallingly candid “In Bed With Gore Vidal” (Magnus Books, 283 pages, $19.99 paper). The latter’s explanatory subtitle is “Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master” and whose cover blurb, by Edmund White, proclaims it “the perfect combination of racy gossip – from steamy celebrity liaisons to hustlers in Rome – and penetrating analysis … an original, intriguing and necessary portrait of an American icon.”
I can’t overstate how utterly different are the tiers of endeavor inhabited by Menaker’s personal memoir and Teeman’s microscopic literary investigation of Gore Vidal’s sheets. Just because one (Menaker’s book) is eminently respectable and the other even more exuberantly contemptuous of middle-class “respectability” than its subject could be doesn’t mean that I’m not uneasy, in different ways, about both.
I can’t claim I don’t gossip. Nor can I claim that I don’t enjoy knowing a few things I shouldn’t. I’m all for “dish” as long as it doesn’t turn into an orgy that demeans everyone within earshot or eyeshot.
What if, though, the very idea of celebrity privacy seems to be disappearing in entirely new ways every week? What if occupations notable for being bastions of discretion are being thrown under the bus? That’s what’s making me uneasy.
Vidal himself, quite rightly, was no apostle of thoroughly middlebrow discretion. He was, in a literary lifetime of essays, memoirs and withering, witty asides, a man supremely gifted at the art of throwing some new outrageous indiscretion on someone’s part into his discourse at the most artful moment. The gist of it all was “I know so much more than you do and you have no idea how deliciously filthy it all is, even though most of it bores me.”
It is among the qualities Vidal essay and memoir readers always have enjoyed. That doesn’t mean I want to know, in return, the most intimate detailed information about his sexual practices.
And yet that is among the many things on offer in “In Bed With Gore Vidal.” Let me grant that I found much of it readable, even cogent. But let me also make clear that I couldn’t finish the book.
Long before the close, I wanted Gore Vidal’s privacy back (as well as my own). He was, God knows, an often-appalling literary figure in my lifetime, but his essays, at least, are also among the great literary achievements to appear during that lifetime.
A thorough examination of his views on sex is warranted many times over. A minute report on his sex life – and the sex life of people he knew – is not.
Menaker’s is an entirely different and wonderful endeavor. But as a longtime editor at the New Yorker (up from lowly fact-checker) and later at Random House, Menaker is just indiscreet enough about a world usually swathed in gentility to inhabit the border that lies between rich entertainment and, as the kids might say, TMI.
This is as fascinating – and often funny – a portrait of the business of editing and publishing magazines and books in America as you’re likely to encounter in a while.
William Shawn’s New Yorker became a ripe subject for such indiscretion the minute its writers and employees started following outsider Tom Wolfe’s lead and started telling Shawn tales of their own.
“New Yorker Confidential” as a genre has now given us all manner of books, most notably Brendan Gill’s “Here At the New Yorker” and Renata Adler’s bitter and now infamous “Gone: The Last Days of the New Yorker.”
Menaker’s book is chiefly the life memoir of a man who is surviving lung cancer. Along the way it is an open occupational portrait of the job of hugely successful editor in New York publishing. It now takes its place as one of the key texts in the New Yorker Confidential genre.
How can one resist the tale of an editor who discovers, rather early on, that when low-level underlings talked to William Shawn on the phone, they were never supposed to greet the old boy by saying “Hi.” “Hello” is, well, more decorous. (Now you know why Menaker has drolly called it “My Mistake.” His miscreancy often falls into such areas of etiquette.)
What makes me a touch uneasy is this: The job “editor” is, in some ways, among the most demanding in the world. Its most difficult demand of all is selflessness, that quality which may be the most profoundly foreign of all known human qualities.
When you’ve spent as long in the editing trenches as Dan Menaker, you’ve got nothing but tales to tell. But, as a reader, the question that troubles me is “What am I entitled to know? What is important that I know about this or that New Yorker writer? Or best-selling Random House writer?”
There’s no radical hard news here about, say, Pauline Kael or Lillian Ross or Penelope Gilliatt. Tina Brown and Harry Evans can take care of themselves.
Do I need to know how difficult it was to edit Robert Coles? Frankly, I wish no one had told me.
With Alice Munro just winning the Nobel Prize, you’ll learn in “My Mistake” more about the arduous tasks of her champions than you may well want to know but, in light of the prize, it’s probably more important information than Menaker could have first known.
But then where else are you likely to learn that when she was a young woman in Berkeley, Pauline Kael claims she was propositioned by Duke Ellington? Or that Laura Hillenbrand is buddies with Laura Bush?
Too much, to me, sometimes. My mistake.