Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Jackie and La Joconde; Gore Vidal On Air; and a Long Lost Campus Novel

NOT EVERY KENNEDY BOOK (see page 39) is about a sinister, implausible conspiracy that ends in violent death and wrenching national tragedy. Margaret Leslie Davis’ Mona Lisa in Camelot (Da Capo, $24.95), which was excerpted in last month’s Vanity Fair, brings back all the glamour and high hopes of the Kennedy White House with the story of Jacqueline’s successful campaign to import Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the United States.

Getting the painting to these shores meant seducing, so to speak, France’s eminent cultural minister, André Malraux, just the man to overcome bureaucratic intransigence and the fussy caution of museum curators. Jackie went at it with tremendous style. Ms Davis’ description of the glittering White House dinner the Kennedys arranged in order to woo Malraux makes you dizzy with nostalgia for a first lady with a sophisticated appreciation and respect for the arts. Among the guests that night in May of 1962 were Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Saul Bellow, Paddy Chayefsky, Elia Kazan and George Balanchine. Isaac Stern played Schubert. Jackie was dressed in a pink gown from Dior (and Jack had a small pink rose in his lapel). The Champagne was a 1952 Dom Perignon.

And the result? At the end of the evening Malraux leaned over and whispered in Jackie’s ear, “Je vais vous envoyer La Joconde.” Eight months later, when the Mona Lisa reached New York, more than a million people trouped through the Met to see that famous smile. Mona mania swept the nation.

I would call Mona Lisa in Camelot escapist nonfiction—except that it’s firmly grounded in historical fact, and its triumphant heroine, though she’s the stuff of fantasy, is as real as you and me.

 

READING MARK TWAIN’S HITHERTO unpublished essay in the fiction issue of The New Yorker (Dec. 22 & 29, $4.95), in which Twain bemoans our capacity for self-censure, I thought irresistibly of Gore Vidal, who may have had one or two uncensored thoughts in his time, but surely no more than that. Twain tells us that free speech is a “privilege which is not exercised by any living person. … The living man … possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it.” I wish Twain had been living on election night—to see Obama win, of course, but also to witness a live BBC interview (since posted on YouTube) with a magnificently crotchety Vidal, who locked horns with the talking head, displaying a degree of on-air contempt for a television personality rare, as Twain would say, on this side of the grave.

Thumbing through a collection of Vidal’s utterances, hoping to confirm that he is in fact the exception to Twain’s free-speech rule, I came across this sound bite from another interview, this one conducted in 2002, back when our shoe-shy lame-duck POTUS was riding high in the polls: “Mark my words,” quoth Vidal. “He will leave office the most unpopular president in history.”

This is the reward for the reckless exercise of free speech: Years later public opinion swings round to reveal the self-evident truth concealed in what had been an unpopular contrarian opinion.

 

MARK HARRIS’ WAKE UP, STUPID (e-reads, $14.95) isn’t quite out of print—you can buy it on Amazon—but it’s slipped into undeserved obscurity. An epistolary novel written in 1959 by the author of Bang the Drum Slowly, it’s a slim, sly, beautifully crafted example of one of my favorite genres, the comic campus novel. Our hero, Lee Yougdahl, a playwright on the cusp of tenure who’s just finished a play (Boswell’s Manhattan Journal), embarks on a manic letter-writing campaign with myriad hilarious consequences, intended and not.

When a friend told me about Wake Up, Stupid (I’d never heard of it, either), I swallowed it in two quick gulps—delicious.

Why not give it to yourself for Christmas?

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Jackie and La Joconde; Gore Vidal On Air; and a Long Lost Campus Novel