In 1956, before Anne Roiphe set to work on any of her eight novels, the rising senior in college lay naked in a Parisian attic with a Fulbright scholar she’d met earlier that day. “Terror clamped me closed,” Ms. Roiphe, a former columnist for The Observer, writes in Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason, “and no amount of eager pressure could open the gate.” Crying, she went to the doctor. The diagnosis: just a little lack of experience. Ms. Roiphe’s candid fourth memoir tells how, awash in the rebellious literary circles of the subsequent decade, she more than made up for that youthful naïveté.
Back at Sarah Lawrence later that year, Ms. Roiphe drove alone–alone!–to the West End bar across from the gates of Columbia University at 114th and Broadway. Now a Havana Central, it was then the dive bar, one where Ginsberg and Kerouac had hung out just a few years before. So alone Ms. Roiphe went. “If you’re 21 and you want to be a part of something and you’re not and you don’t know how to get there,” she told The Observer, “you have to do something. You can’t just wait.”
“Were you going with friends or were you actually just going alone?” asked Ms. Roiphe’s daughter, the 40-something cultural critic and novelist Katie Roiphe. The Observer was eating Saturday brunch with mother and daughter at Maialino in the Gramercy Park Hotel, a convenient meeting point between Anne’s Riverside Drive apartment and her daughter’s place in Brooklyn.
“I was going alone,” said mother.
“I can’t picture that as something I would do,” said daughter. “Or have ever done in my life.”
“Well, I can’t say I did it constantly in my life. I did it that time.”
“But you were meeting people you knew, kind of,” Katie insisted.
There Anne met–or re-met, to be precise–her future husband, Jack Richardson, an extremely eloquent–and we can now say failed–playwright. Night after night, she picked up his bar tab and drove him home to Queens. His late mother had told him to marry rich, and so in Paris the following summer, he married Anne, the woman who could pay for his Paris and for his prostitutes. When his nerves spun, he would sometimes lock himself in a closet and shake a hanger in front of his eyes for hours on end. Then he’d empty Anne’s purse and go out on the town. Back in New York, living in a Park Avenue apartment purchased and appointed by Anne’s mother, Anne gave birth to their daughter. His highly anticipated Broadway play, the bit of brilliance that was supposed to justify Anne’s misery, came to the stage and flopped; he disappeared for weeks and then announced he was leaving for good.
The challenges of single mothering turned Anne into a feminist, but one–it’s clear from Fruitful, her searching 1997 melding of memoir and psychology–more interested in respect and equal opportunity than in joining the female factions seeking vengeance and forswearing their fertility. Anne didn’t wear lipstick, which horrified her mother, but she had nice legs and knew it. She liked the male gaze. Remember that clenched closed gate? Throughout her 20s it swung open–partly out of loneliness, partly out of rebellion–to most of the New York literary giants who knocked. “The insanity about sex in the artist world was that every taboo should be broken. Find me a taboo and I’ll rush toward it,” Anne told The Observer. “The society was so controlling.”
The increasingly delusional novelist and Paris Review founder Doc Humes, then a father of three, might ring up at any hour. Even as Anne watched him spin theories about the F.B.I., “it was,” she writes, “the bulk of him I wanted: the way he seemed to know everything or maybe it was everyone.” At the boozy Friday nights at George Plimpton’s house, Anne might smile at Humes’ wife. In 1963, or 1964, deep into one of these notorious nights, Anne writes, the novelist William Styron leaned over to her: “I want to go to bed with you, he says. Why not, I say. Why not anything.” Mr. Plimpton made a similar overture in ’64, and when he put his hands up her skirt in the taxi, she writes, she wasn’t sorry. In the morning, Anne’s oldest child, a toddler, crawled into bed and asked if Mr. Plimpton had a penis. What did Mom say? Let’s look. After showering and carefully shaving, Mr. Plimpton said to Anne, “If I see you in a few years, I might have forgotten I slept with you.” But at 75, Anne certainly hasn’t.
It is said that certain amiable features are selected for domestication. Anne has all of them: button nose, wide eyes, round face. The amiability of her face–her appealing cuteness–probably helped get her into some trouble, and her slight regret is the bottom line of her new book. Never would she so readily say yes to being a fragile man’s muse again. “Artists,” she writes, “were permitted to do the unthinkable.” Insanity was confused with art. But art is work, and it shouldn’t be deified. The problem with worshiping stars on their way up is that any star with momentum is shooting toward its own oblivion–the bad review, the big mistake or simply the fact that fames go in and out of fashion.
“You do come out against this kind of madness in this book,” Katie said. “But it might be necessary that the William Styron is gonna be also a crazy person.”
“You know, I wouldn’t come out against artists, or say, ‘No, no, you shouldn’t be slightly crazy,’” Anne said. “You should be whatever you are. … My only point would be that the romanticizing of art and madness together can make for a lot of … collateral pain. … Frankly, I think it’s bathing the baby that’s much more important.”
Katie wasn’t the toddler who took a peep at Mr. Plimpton’s penis. She’s Anne’s biological eldest from her 39-year-long marriage to the psychoanalyst Herman Roiphe, whose passing was the subject of Anne’s 2008 memoir, Epilogue. Mr. Roiphe famously demonstrated that the psychosexual development of children began earlier than Freud supposed, and in 1985 he collaborated with Anne on Your Child’s Mind, about a variety of issues, from the effects of divorce to toilet training.
Katie’s parents’ interests begot her own preoccupation with sex and power–namely, her thoughts that women and men should seize more of both while enjoying the costumes of their respective roles. When she was 23 and a Ph.D candidate in English at Princeton, she argued in The New York Times that women were at least partially responsible in instances of date rape, and in 1994, an expansion of that argument was published as The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism. In a 2007 essay for New York, “The Great Escape,” she shared her relief at being divorced, attending parties single and dating new men. And in 2009 she charged contemporary male novelists with literary impotence on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Her last book, Uncommon Arrangements, was about literary marriages in London between 1910 and 1939 and she is currently working on a book about how authors confront mortality. Her curiosity about her mother’s 20s was the impetus for Art and Madness, to which she contributed the introduction.
The world really was very different in the 1950s. Consider periods: Those were shameful. When Anne first got hers, her mother slapped her. Now, on the other hand, “I know this with my daughter: If there was a menstrual spot on something, they said, ‘Ugh, there’s a menstrual spot.’ Whereas–don’t look so upset!” Anne said to Katie.
“I just think–”
“This is not a subject to discuss? I only mean that physical things, all physical things, were shameful: that you did have breasts, that you didn’t have breasts–”
“I think you should spea
k for yourself,” said Katie.
“I am sure. I am absolutely sure,” Anne said. “This was the old way in which this culture treated physicality.”
To go out without lipstick, Anne said, was like “walking outside without your shirt on. It made my mother furious.” Now, Anne said, “a lot of people–Katie, including you–enjoy this again, which to me is such a sign of slavery!” (Matte red is all the rage.) What about marriage then? Fluid. Now? Penis pumps behind closed doors. Alcoholism then? “How interesting!” Anne said. Liquor, she thought, was the lube for words. Now? “Unhealthy,” Katie said. Enemy of art then? All that was “bourgeois.” Now? All that is “banker.”
“Politically, communism was supposed to save the world. Look what happened to the gulags,” Anne said. “It was very hard to believe in that saving hand of God, given what we’re looking at. So, what is it that matters? It’s art, and it’s art for art’s sake. And you don’t say, ‘What good is it, what’s it going to do for the world?’ You say, ‘This carries everything that means anything to me.’”
“Maybe that was better!” Katie said.
“I’m not saying it was better or it was worse, but–”
“You are: You’re saying it was worse.”
“No, I’m not saying it was worse. I’m saying that was the way it was. I must say, I still feel that way, and I know that, to some extent, a lot of people of my generation still feel that way. Human nature is going to destroy anything that is made. That is obvious post-1945. … Somebody might release the atomic bomb over our heads.”
Art–the decision to make it or value it–was, in that way, inherently political, and its Village congregants wore a uniform: eyeliner, blue jeans and black leotard, holey sweaters and Fred Braun sandals. Fred Braun’s store of leather T-straps was on Eighth Street. “Everybody had a pair,” Anne said. And the Met Costume Institute has a pair on display now. “If I saw a woman [then] my age–we weren’t women, we were girls–wearing blue jeans and a black shirt across the street, I would know exactly who she was and what was she doing there. And she would see me and recognize me. It wasn’t so much a uniform as a social statement. And then I blinked and suddenly this beatnik style was the style.”
“Tell her about the tour bus!” Katie said.
“I was walking in the Village,” Anne said, “and a tour bus came up to the corner and the door opened, and there’s a guy on the microphone and he says, ‘AND THERE’S ONE NOW! STANDING ON THE CURB!’”
But the emphasis on art wasn’t just the style; it was also the way of the academic institution. In all of Anne’s English classes at the conservative Smith College and the arty Sarah Lawrence, where she transferred after her first year, every poem was interpreted as being about the importance of art. “A few years ago,” Anne said, “I thought to myself, ‘Is every Auden poem about the importance of art? Is every Yeats poem about the importance of art? Did T.S. Eliot really just write about the importance of art?’”
“I try to teach my students that!” Katie, who teaches classes with a literary flavor at the N.Y.U. journalism school, said.
But is there anything to be missed about the old admiration of genius?
“No,” Anne said.
“She thinks no,” Katie said. “But I think in the seriousness with which people took their reading and their art, there is something to be missed.”
“You don’t think people take the writing and the writers seriously?
“Not as seriously!” Katie said.
“I don’t know,” Anne said.
“The fantasy we have of the artist is,” Katie says, “Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City. … It’s the novelist who sells his screenplay to Hollywood.”
But mother and daughter are in agreement about one thing: Mental state of artist then? Crazy. Now? Crazy. So does that make it daunting to know that both mother and daughter are artists? Craziness aside, is it daunting to be in the same field?
“I’m daunted by her,” Anne said.
“No,” Katie said. “It’s like the family business.”
The artists studios in Florence, Anne pointed out, were historically family-run. That was the family profession. “Those people were not crazy artists,” Anne said. “It’s when the artists come to be by themselves that they tend to be compromised.”
Later that evening, The Observer attended the birthday party of a 27-year-old writer where a few people kept mentioning something compromising about Katie. At a book party in February for the memoirist Jon-Jon Goulian at the Wooly, across from City Hall, there was an open bar for two hours, and sometime during that period, Katie fell across the lap of a seated guest. At 9 p.m., after it became a cash bar, it is rumored that Katie puked all over someone’s sweater and the table displaying the author’s publicity materials. “Is this amateur hour?” said someone passing by the vomit-drenched table. Hey, it happens! “What is this, spring break 2009?” the person continued. No, it’s a literary party 2011! “That’s a lie,” Katie said to The Observer. “Crazy rumors! I don’t know how that got around.”(It was the editor Lauren Bans who tweeted, “The world must know: Katie Roiphe barfed all over my friend’s sweater at Jon Jon’s [sic] book party at 9pm on a Wednesday.”) But who cares whose puke it was. There was puke! At a literary party on a Wednesday night! Katie is living the literary life–one not so dissimilar from her mother’s.