Dickens? Meet Newhouse: My Happy Library Party

Recently, I finally finished the 15th draft of Nobody’s Fault , the novel I’ve been working on for over three years now. I don’t know if it will ever see publication. My guess is not. So far, it’s been read in some of its 14 previous incarnations, under its old title, by roughly 50 people, half in publishing, half not. The amateurs love it, the pros don’t–including 10 agents. (Do you realize how demeaning it is to be turned down by 10 agents?) “Too tough,” they say, “too angry,” and that standard canard: “No one to root for.” “Too literary,” says one. “Sorry, but your name is radioactive in publishing,” says someone else. When I ask why, no answer is forthcoming. “Nobody reads fiction,” I’m told by one of the biggest agents in town, whose biggest client is a megaselling novelist.

I don’t know: Maybe if I had a white suit, or could afford a PMK publicist, or had never written a word in this space about Condé Nast, it would all be different. Maybe if I hadn’t complained to the publishers of my last two books after the novels were treated like those people at the end of Titanic : bobbing alone and abandoned without life jackets to turn slowly into ice and dead flesh. Maybe if I had gotten the reviews I got for those novels in The Washington Post and People in The New York Times instead–which had to retract, in print, its review of one as unjustly reflecting the personal sexual politics of the reviewer. Maybe taking on The Times is another problem, the ultimate publishing “no-no,” condemning the offender to go through the rest of life wearing a scarlet “NYTBR.” Maybe, maybe, maybe. What’s the difference? You do what you must, you do what you can.

So why did I plug on and write yet one more draft? Another 110,000 words–of which not more than a few thousand remain from earlier versions? Because I believed in the premise, which is that we have a moral “property” in our beliefs and principles that cannot be seized from us by the state or the money power, and in the story, in which the marital difficulties of a high-profile couple lead to a Constitutional debate about that premise before the Supreme Court, and to difficult personal choices along the way. And because, finally, I didn’t think earlier versions did justice to either premise or story: that for the point to be made, the “current” of the book needed to be switched from negative to positive. For readers to accept an idealistic or redemptive outcome achieved by hard-nosed, flawed, even cynical types, you need to set your story in the jungles of Vietnam or on the beaches of Guadalcanal, not at the Four Seasons or before the nine Justices. I owed my muse to do my best by the tale with which she favored me. Now it’s done. So while pondering my next move–namely, how does one get a real estate license?–I decided to do what I’ve been thinking about on and off over the past five years, since I came to live at 150 Madison Street, and properly reshelve the books that spread through several upstairs rooms.

I can think of no exercise in self-examination more enjoyable and revelatory than taking down several thousand books and deciding where they should go, all the while leafing through this one or that, coming upon old friends, wondering where cherished volumes I know I had have gone (whoever I lent my copy of the Adams brothers’ Chapters of Erie to, let’s have it back!). It’s rather like organizing a dinner party. First, you sort out the guests by category to decide how many tables for each section: Fiction, Poetry and Drama, History and Regimes, Events more or less Current, Golf and Sport, Movies and Media, Essays (including what used to be called “Belles Lettres”), Biography and so on. Then–operating on the good hostess’ theory that like does best with like–you decide broadly who goes where. My New Yorker writers like to hang together: In Essays, you wouldn’t want to separate Bud Trillin, Mark Singer and S.J.Perelman from Philip Hamburger and Berton Roueche, and you want them close enough to the Fiction tables to wave at J.D. Salinger and Maeve Brennan, with Brendan Gill perhaps having to move to the Fiction table for dessert in what is known out this way as “the Pat Patterson Pass.” Bruce Chatwin and John Updike are others who’ll have to do double-duty, but I know they’ll enjoy their time with Joseph Brodsky and John Cowper Powys before they go over to hang with Elmore Leonard, John le Carré and Maurice Baring for coffee and a sweet. Charles Dickens is downstairs, unfortunately, in the “show-off” room, but he’s sent along a couple of quite nice Everyman editions to represent him.

It’s the placement that’s the most fun. Here’s Sally Bedell Smith’s fat life of Pamela Harriman, Reflected Glory . It’s a no-brainer to flank Pamela with Peter Duchin’s Ghost of a Chance and Haywire , by former Harriman stepdaughter, present Mrs. Duchin and ex-Mrs. Midas, Brooke Hayward. Brooke has forgiven me for a great deal, and I hope she’ll forgive me further if I put Slim , the dreary autobiography of her first stepmother, on her other side. Next to Slim , I think I’ll put Sally B.’s other great subject, William S. Paley ( In All His Glory ), since the Duchins and the Paleys used to live next to each other on Shelter Rock Road in Manhasset, and on W.S.P.’s other side, Never Before Noon , the memoirs of Afdera Franchetti Fonda, who was married to Henry Fonda, to whom Brooke’s mother, Margaret Sullavan, was married before she married Leland Hayward. By now, John Guare must be turning quite green with envy at these few degrees of separation!

I hope Afdera Fonda will be patient: I’m sure she knows this already, from firsthand experience, but the late CBS mogul harbored secret dermatological yearnings, or so I judge from the keenness with which he was wont to investigate the skin tone of the thighs and parts northerly of ladies next to whom he was seated. I once watched my wife No. 2 trying to deal with the matter; to make things worse, she had on her other side the late Nelson Rockefeller, another man whose first thought when you said “thighs” was not of fried chicken, and she was forced to give a very creditable imitation of Wayne Gretzky fighting for the puck in the corner with Eric Lindros and Leaping Louie Fontinato. I have no idea how long I will keep W.S.P. and la Signora Fonda in close, momentous juxtaposition, so she should be prepared to bide her time and keep knees pressed together. And come to think of it, where is The Life of Nelson A. Rockefeller (by the late, horribly missed Cary Reich)? Whoever borrowed that from me, please step forward and confess.

I could add a couple of chairs to this table. I have Si Newhouse twice over, by Carol Felsenthal ( Citizen Newhouse ) and Thomas Maier ( Newhouse ), but might he not be daunted by the inside chatter of a group who can be, well, pretty cliquey? What about Lew Wasserman of MCA–a mogul of clout, but doesn’t he belong over with Neil Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own and the late Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets ? Steve Ross, as rendered by Connie Bruck? No way–even though Ross was briefly married to W.S.P.’s stepdaughter Amanda. After all, this is the guy whom the late Ben Sonnenberg once characterized to me as “a suburban Bill Paley.” Otto Khan or Aly? Andre Meyer? Perhaps–but, no, I think I’ll leave this table alone–although just to keep matters lively, I’ll back it up to the one at which I’ll be placing Lucius Beebe, Igor Cassini, Cleveland Amory and Lanfranco Rasponi.

The thing about this kind of exercise is, you have to keep your perspective. Take this little table for two, out back, by the pantry, at which I’m putting Walter Wriston (by Phillip Zweig) and Kissinger by Walter Isaacson, a splendid book written when the Time editor could still be taken seriously. These are two men whose power and persuasiveness are as responsible as anyone’s for a Third World that is an America-hating sink of iniquity, corruption, beggary and misery. Is that why I have so much trouble resisting the temptation to place with them the subject of four good books, by my colleague Ron Rosenbaum, and by Ian Kershaw, Sebastian Haffner and John Lukacs: namely, this dreadful fellow with the little mustache whom everyone says simply has to be present at any library party that gives a fair picture of our century?

And this is just one section. As you see, giving a party’s not easy. Any more than writing a book is. Reading can be bad for you. Writing is worse. I shoulda stood on Wall Street.