Lila, Intellectualite: Peripatetic Nabokovian

While lots of bright-eyed young women come to New York to take acting classes or become publicists, Lila Azam Zanganeh—an Iranian-French journalist, amateur opera singer and self-described Nabokov scholar—has other plans.

“I remember hearing on the Boston radio, they were discussing the term ‘public intellectual,’” said Ms. Zanganeh, 29, in her precise, plummy English. “Perhaps being a public intellectual is being able to write, but also to be connected to the world. I mean, it sounds almost childish, but I would say that’s really, really my dream. And I hope that I can do it. I don’t have unrealistic expectations.”

Ms. Zanganeh represents a curious phenomenon in the New York literary world: the intellectualite, a person with highbrow aspirations who attends enough parties to make David Patrick Columbia’s head whirl. She turns up everywhere—at the annual P.E.N. gala, The Paris Review’s booze-soaked bacchanals, cocktail gatherings at the New York Public Library and myriad readings and talks, as well as any place where Salman Rushdie and his wife Padma are likely to drop by. And she seems to know everyone that it takes other people 10 years to meet.

“The New York literary world is incredibly monocultural,” said her friend and occasional editor Adam Shatz, The Nation’s literary editor. “But I think that when someone like Lila walks into the room, people wake up. They’re confounded and fascinated, because they don’t know people like her. And she has a sense of style that is woefully lacking in these parts.”

In this regard, Ms. Zanganeh, who was born to wealthy Iranian parents and raised in Paris, seems to hail from another era—or another continent, where the idea of a glamorous smart person isn’t an oxymoron. Ms. Zanganeh’s command of the role is intuitive. Tall and delicate, with a girlish voice, she speaks five languages and has a taste for dramatic makeup—generous amounts of mascara and lips painted a glossy red—and she always wears her hair parted down the middle in a distinctive black braid. She was educated at the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris, where many of France’s academics are trained (she wrote her master’s thesis on Lolita), and she takes to the public stage like a soprano to Sondheim.

Naturally, ambition is part of the package. When she is not circulating among the New York literati, Ms. Zanganeh is interviewing its elders for Le Monde des Livres, the literary supplement of France’s leading newspaper, and occasionally for other European periodicals. (She has written articles about Mr. Rushdie, Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch, New York Times Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, Yale scholar Harold Bloom, Gore Vidal and Jonathan Safran Foer, among others, and her interview subjects often become friends, mentors or even assign her stories.) Last November, she organized a fund-raising reception for victims of the Pakistan earthquake at the Asia Society and persuaded several former subjects to participate. (The keynote speaker was Hillary Clinton.)

That such a person would choose to make her name in New York at a time when America is reviled the world over is somewhat comforting. “I actually miss Europe very much. I adore Europe in many, many ways,” said Ms. Zanganeh, who favors words such as “extraordinary” to refer to things she likes. “In America, at every level you have people constantly saying, ‘Well, why not this? Why not that?’ I thought that it was energetic. I wanted to do so much, but in Europe I couldn’t really do it.”

She described present-day France as “very medieval,” and said that when she’d attempted to volunteer for Amnesty International there, for example, no one would return her phone calls. (Despite the fact that she was born there and comes off as absolutely Parisian, Ms. Zanganeh said that at home she is looked upon as a foreigner and is not considered to be truly French.) New York, on the other hand, was downright hospitable: When she wanted to write a story about Nabokov for The Times, she simply dialed up Steven Erlanger (then the newspaper’s culture editor) and made her pitch.

“And you know what he said? He wrote back and said, ‘Why not?’ And I was off to Geneva,” Ms. Zanganeh said (she’s currently applying for a green card). “That, for me, could only happen in America—this feeling of childlike energy. There’s this cliché that Americans are always optimistic, but it’s true. Americans are always so much more optimistic than the French. In France, nothing’s quite possible.”

AROUND 8 P.M. ON WEDNESDAY, APRIL 19, Ms. Zanganeh was planted on the stage at the New York Public Library with four hot Iranian women in chic black outfits, moderating a discussion about her first book, an anthology she edited called My Sister, Guard Your Veil; My Brother, Guard Your Eyes: Uncensored Iranian Voices. The mission of the book had been to “challenge Western (mis)perceptions about Iran,” and the contributors were explaining that they appreciate literature and makeup and hate being thought of around the world as bomb-toting Arabs. The audience was swirling with Middle Eastern women dripping with jewels and neo-intellectual men gawking at them (“No wonder they keep them covered up,” remarked one male writer). There was also a hint of European royalty: The designer Diane von Furstenberg was draped over a chair in the front row, with the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy not far behind. (Both are friends of Ms. Zanganeh’s.)

Before a packed auditorium, Ms. Zanganeh performed with extreme poise, although some in attendance found the event frustratingly light on the subject of politics. At one point, during a conversation with Azar Nafisi, a fellow “Nabokovian” and the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, Ms. Nafisi pointed to the fancy Persian ladies in the front row and burst out with: “These are Iran’s weapons of mass destruction!”

The night before, Ms. Zanganeh had attended P.E.N.’s black-tie gala at the Museum of Natural History with Ms. Nafisi. The next week was packed with events for P.E.N.’s festival of international literature; in between there were media appearances on NPR and CNN to promote the Iran book, as well as the book’s launch party.

However, Ms. Zanganeh was already feeling burned out on Iran. “After this, I don’t believe I will write about Iran for some time,” she said, explaining that she is wary of “the quintessential American intellectual trap” of being expected to write only about your own kind. “It was just bizarre for me—Iranians on Iranians, Arab-Americans on Arab-Americans, fat people on fat people. I thought, ‘That’s strange—I want to write about Africa, I want to write about anti-Semitism, about French literature …. ’”

As they were shopping the proposal for the anthology, publishers kept suggesting that Ms. Zanganeh simply write a memoir, which inflamed her. “I thought, ‘But I have no memoirs—I’ve never been to Iran!’” she said. “It’s just this trend; Iranian women have to write their memoirs of Iran. I thought it was a bad joke. ‘What are you talking about? Memoirs? No. No way.’”

Her next project, in addition to her journalistic contributions, will be a book about Vladimir Nabokov, which is her true passion. (Her agent is Nicole Aragi.) “My interest in Nabokov was really, purely a literary one. I just adore him,” she said, adding that any parallels between Russia and Iran were not the source of her admiration. “It took me four months to read Ada, or Ardor, because I read every page five times. I can’t read it normally—I can’t help it. I remember, just to give myself a break while I was reading Ada, I began reading The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster, and it was like drinking water with a little bit of dust in it after having eaten the most exquisite kind of mille feuille, with all kinds of creams and the most refined pastry in the world.

“Just purely the language, the style … ,” she continued, becoming all dreamy-eyed, “I really have the feeling that [Nabokov] is phantasmagorique—it’s an imaginative, phantasmagoric landscape that belongs to me. That speaks to me. That is me. And it had nothing to do with Iran.”

HER FAMILY BACK-STORY IS appropriately intense. Ms. Zanganeh’s father founded Iran’s domestic airline under the Shah; the family left the country for France just prior to the revolution of 1979. Her mother—who writes Italian poetry in her spare time—escaped on the last Air France flight out of Tehran on the day that the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived.

Ms. Zanganeh’s mother taught her English by making her watch Hamlet with Laurence Olivier, and she also imparted Italian, Persian and French. But Ms. Zanganeh said she felt like a misfit for most of her youth. It wasn’t until she reached the Lycée Henri-IV, a demanding preparatory school (Jean-Paul Sartre is an alumni), that she finally felt comfortable.

“For the first time in my life I was actually happy, because I was with people who were exceptional, who were stimulating, they were funny, they were not conformist,” Ms. Zanganeh said. “For the first time I met students who thought it was interesting that I was Iranian. It wasn’t ‘Oh, my friends were dark and my parents were weird, and why did we speak with accents or foreign languages?’ It was like, ‘Oh, really—how exotic!’ And they began asking me questions about Persian poetry.”

After university, she spent two years as a teaching fellow at Harvard, then enrolled at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs in 2000. She thought she might want to go into television and spent a summer interning with CNN in Russia (CNN was “completely horrible,” but she “adored” Russia.) She also hated the BBC, where she was an intern. (“I certainly wasn’t going to do the blond lettuce hair.”) During this period, she took a class at Columbia’s journalism school and was inspired to try writing by its famously draconian instructor, the film critic Judith Crist.

“I had always thought before that I can’t write,” Ms. Zanganeh said. “The thing is also, when you study literature, I mean, how can you write? You know how bad it is, you know? I think this whole American thing gave me the humility to be able to write, meaning that the French think that writing comes with a stroke of genius—you have it or you don’t have it—and the Americans really see writing as a craft. And that way you can work and improve.”

On Saturday, April 29, Ms. Zanganeh was basking in these various turns of events at her book party. It was held in a penthouse apartment overlooking the Hudson that belonged to two corporate attorneys, Virginia Davies and Willard Taylor, whom Ms. Zanganeh had met through a former boss from an internship at NPR. She was wearing a little silk jacket with intricate buttons and a towering pair of pumps, and was boasting of a recent journalistic “get”: an exclusive interview for Le Monde with the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was in town for the P.E.N. festival and who had allegedly backed out of an interview with The Times Magazine but had agreed to sit with Ms. Zanganeh. (Salman Rushdie had even told her that it was hopeless.)

“He’d been refusing everyone, apparently,” she told two male admirers. “I sent him an e-mail anyhow, and he agreed!” (She said that she found Mr. Pamuk to be extraordinary.)

“I’m sure he just took a look in your eyes,” joked one of her friends, a documentary filmmaker recently returned from Iraq. “I’m going to refrain from saying something sexist.” A moment later in the conversation, he said: “My ambition is nothing compared to this woman. She’s here to conquer the world.”

Le Cirque 3.0

On the afternoon of May 16, workers busily mopped, vacuumed and tidied up in preparation for the opening of the latest incarnation of Le Cirque, now located in the shimmering rotunda of celebrity-filled One Beacon Court.

Outside the soon-to-be-opened restaurant’s entrance, a sprawling white tent was erected for Manhattan’s art-loving elite, who would be attending the Whitney’s American Art Award gala later that evening. It seemed like, once again, Le Cirque was providing refuge for the city’s social set.

More than three decades have passed since Sirio Maccioni first opened the storied eatery in the Mayfair Hotel, and later relocated in the 1990’s to a larger space in the New York Palace Hotel. But the seasoned restaurateur is not slowing down just yet, and was on hand to deal with some finishing touches.

“You have to be crazy,” said Mr. Maccioni, of taking on yet another restaurant opening. “But it’s worth it!”

The Whitney fête is really just the pre-opening party, sort of a dry run for the gala event that Mr. Maccioni is hosting two days later. There are countless boldface names already confirmed for that event: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Martha Stewart, Ron Perelman, Donald Trump.

“We have 2,000 people coming Thursday night for the opening,” said Mr. Maccioni.

But on May 31, when the doors open for the public, Mr. Maccioni will have to appease the money set’s next generation.

“I want to do a restaurant where New Yorkers want to go a minimum once, or maybe twice, a week,” said Mr. Maccioni. “I think I know what New York people want. The people want to come in and feel at home.”

If by “home” one means fine dining amongst circus-inspired decorations, located in a glass-and-steel tower, then Mr. Maccioni might be in luck.

Once you enter the 16,000-square-foot restaurant, the main dining room is located to the left. Since the Whitney crowd will be eating under the tent outside, most of the dining-room tables were moved to the perimeter of the semi-circular room in order to vacuum the dark red carpet. (By Thursday, tables will be set with Greggio and Ricciarelli silver, Reidel stemware and Villeroy & Boch china). Also, a massive “big top” light shade covers the high ceiling, and miniature Alexander Calder–like, bent-wire sculptures adorn the walls.

Although still playful in the old Le Cirque manner, Mr. Maccioni’s longtime aesthetic guru, Adam D. Tihany, has made things oddly more mature in hopes of drawing in a younger crowd of affluent foodies.

“There is clearly an evolution when it comes to the look and the feel of the place,” said Mr. Tihany, who has worked on six restaurants with Mr. Maccioni beginning in the early 1980’s. “The original Le Cirque was more of a French style—where the circus motif was largely represented by murals of monkeys having tea parties and stuff like that. It was very 18th-century French-type décor.”

Upon leaving the dining room, more of the modern touches are evident.

“There is a 27-foot wine tower that is part of the complex,” said Mr. Tihany, regarding the tall white structure that—at this point—had yet to be filled with wine bottles. “We call it the iPod wine tower. It creates a very powerful focal point.”

Along with the wine tower, the restaurant’s glass bar is also located in the 140-seat café section.

“The bar itself is a magic bar,” said Mr. Tihany. “It has a dual personality. At night, it reveals colorful bottles that you cannot see during the day.”

In the back hallways of the restaurant leading to the bathrooms, custom wallpaper is printed with snapshots of Le Cirque’s cherished past, with pictures of Ronald Reagan, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Sylvester Stallone and Henry Kissinger.

Past the famous-faces wallpaper and up the stairs, what Mr. Tihany considers the two sections of the restaurant—both the proper Le Cirque and the café—becomes dramatically apparent. Gazing down from the 80-person private-event mezzanine, the new setup provides a distinction from the restaurateur’s previous forays—not to mention that the “iPod wine tower” protrudes into the mezzanine, helping to unify the various spaces.

Overall, the design presents a stark contrast to Mr. Maccioni’s 1997 venture, the futuristic-sounding Le Cirque 2000.

“Le Cirque 2000 was really an exercise in creating tension between old and new,” said Mr. Tihany. “It’s not unlike how Italians deal with their monuments. They restore them, and then drive a Ferrari and park in the courtyard. It was that kind of dynamic.”

“It’s certainly a big departure from the old Le Cirque,” said Mr. Tihany. “It has grandeur, but it has grandeur in a contemporary key. I think that will appeal to the younger generation. It’s a modern restaurant.”

—Michael Calderone

Lila, Intellectualite: Peripatetic Nabokovian