Standing on my tiptoes, I shifted my view through the bookshelves to the semi-circle of editors sitting at the front of the bookstore. The staff of a prominent journal was having a discussion on the future of publishing at McNally Jackson Bookstore in Soho, and I was one of many who crammed into the tote-bag haven hoping to absorb the aura of the prestigious journal.
I moved to New York City to be close to the literary scene. I made my home in Brooklyn and took a job in the editorial department at a book publishing house. I emailed famous authors daily and sat in on meetings that determined the future of notable books. In my free-time I went to readings and bookish events. Still, I felt somewhere outside the inner ring and so the siren call was loud in my ears.
My pilgrimage into the literati clique is a weary American tale. It’s been told a hundred different ways from Jo March’s publishing triumph to Esther Greenwood’s undoing after a summer internship at a prominent magazine to Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men, which chronicles three graduates’ attempts to forge literary careers. Now, the story has been told yet again, this time by the novelist Anne Roiphe in her latest memoir Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust without Reason.
Anne Roiphe’s story, however, is not ultimately about how she broke into the guarded elite, but how she got out of it. It is an expose on the limits of literary fame, and all the grime and groveling that can go along with it. By recounting her “lost years,” Roiphe shows what happens when art becomes an altar.
As a student at Sarah Lawrence, Roiphe was instantly seduced by literature. “I believed that art, for me the art of the story, the written word, was worth dying for.” This belief sets the course that soon steers her twenties into a monstrous drift of heartache. She meets Jack Richardson, a promising young playwright, and with no hesitation, drops her own ambitions hoping to lay a red carpet for his. He was a poor writer from Queens who had developed a fake English accent to hide his heritage. She was a rich girl from the Upper East Side offering him rides home to his apartment and giving him as much money as the lubrication of his genius required, even funding a trip to Paris where they soon married because, as Richardson put it, “Why not get married? We don’t have to take it seriously.”
Narrated through scattered morsels spanning the 1950s and 1960s, Roiphe’s memoir is less about her six-year marriage to an artist who left her every night for prostitutes and alcohol, and more about her own devastating dependence on artistic prestige. “Perhaps I was a gold digger and my gold was literary fame,” she confesses. And so even when Roiphe’s husband pawned her family’s silver and pearls and charted a crass course of negligence—abandoning her for four days even on their honeymoon—Roiphe still diligently typed up his manuscripts and kept their home on Park Avenue, which her mother gave them. Why? Literary success was as much her dream as his.
“I believed that I was going to be the muse to a man of great talent. . . . I was going to carry Hemingway’s manuscript on trains. . . . I was going to caress the forehead of F. Scott. . . . ,” Roiphe states. Instead, as Richardson’s pregnant housewife, she carried his typewriter home in the midst of a snowstorm; she wanted him to have it when he woke in case inspiration struck. But then trudging over snowdrifts, with the typewriter resting on her belly, she went into labor. Unsuccessfully, she called her husband from a payphone, but he was sound asleep after a brawling night out, so she had to stumble alone to the hospital, still grasping the typewriter. If that is what it means to sacrifice for art, then Roiphe was on her way to becoming its martyr.
Though Richardson never attained the fame he panted after, he was surrounded by it and consequently Roiphe became a prop at parties hosted by editors like George Plimpton and attended by the likes of Ed Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Peter Matthiessen, and Arthur Miller. Roiphe didn’t have to go to a bookstore and stand in the back to hear the literati chitchat; she lounged on their couches and left her lingerie in their bedrooms. Reflecting on these frequent gatherings in hindsight, Roiphe finally sees their vapidity:
Despite the heavy air of flirtation, the perfume of illicit sex that wafted through the book-filled rooms of George’s apartment, the game was something else. It was the famous men or the would-be famous men flexing their skills, strutting their stuff, talking of agents and publishers and rights to this or that. It was the writers impressing each other, hoping to triumph over the one who was talking. . . . We girls, not yet called women, were like the Greek chorus, mopping up after the battle was over, emptying ashtrays, carrying the glasses to the sink . . .
Surely New York and its literary scene has changed since the testosterone-swaggering 1950s and 1960s, but fame’s swirly eyes haven’t lost their lure. Art and Madness is a warning bell to the men and women who see no greater good than their name on the marquee of geniuses. Art can be as calamitous and vacant if it is just a means to a self-serving end. As someone who conformed to anti-conformity, who slept with the literary lion pack, who stood in the glow of the bright celebrities of language, Roiphe knows it’s absolutely not worth it.
The jumbled, confessional memories that comprise Art and Madness tell many stories. They freeze a moment in time when young women knitted argyle socks for their boyfriends, including Roiphe who paradoxically claimed, “All that interests me is the making of art, the writing of poetry, the life of rebellion.” They illuminate the naive romanticism of the troubled artist and the pain ahead for one who believes, like she did, that “Artists have permission to do the unthinkable because they cannot be bound by our rules.” They show the failure of bohemian virtues, pointing to Doc Humes who eventually lost his mind after excessive LSD. They call out the self-cancelling effects of sought-after acclaim, pointing to Richardson whom Roiphe is convinced, “would have written poetry to equal Auden’s if only his desire for fame and fortune hadn’t driven him half mad with the need for opiates of any brand.” They explore the genesis of a nascent feminist and acclaimed writer. But the main story that Art and Madness tells is about the need to justify one’s existence, which is perhaps many an artist’s greatest, and yet unmentionable, motivation.
If Roiphe had wanted literary fame, she would have started writing her own words much sooner. What she actually was desperate for was a purpose, any purpose that fit her avant-garde, anti-country-club agenda. That is why she put herself right under the stumbling heels of an alcoholic with never a thought of leaving him. “He was an artist and she would bear his children and wash his clothes and care for him because there lay her immortality, there lay her own contribution to the great effort to speak the truth, to shape words, to write the novel that by existing would justify the human endeavor, an endeavor so clearly in need of justification,” she writes observing Doc Humes’ wife. “I know this because I felt it too, all of it.”
Roiphe herself is the demon of her own story, not her ex-husband, not the chauvinistic men she flirted with, not even art or society—though they don’t escape unscathed from her pages. Young Roiphe, a girl for whom she has “no pity,” is the sad villain because she lacked the courage to not care about fame, a boldness Roiphe would only uncover after her life was in shambles.
It is only in the final pages that Roiphe has the cold water splashed on her face. “Who cares about the big apartment on Central Park West and the openings and the songs and the producers from Hollywood calling and the agents sending you bouquets of flowers if in the middle of the night you still get the shakes and if you put your hand out and no one is there to there take it?” she asks. “Isn’t the simplest touch of a child’s arm on the face more important, isn’t the good meal, the brush against a thigh, a hand held during a movie, a swim in the sea, aren’t those things of equal importance as the sands of time come rushing down on our heads burying ambition and love, good and evil, breath, blood, brains, waste, memory, alike in the oblivion?” she finally concludes with watershed awareness.
But it is a lesson hard-learned.
Kristen Scharold is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.