Anne Roiphe was a National Book Award finalist for Fruitful and is also the author of Up the Sandbox. She has written for Vogue, Elle, The New York Times and other news organizations, and lives in New York City.
Mary Ellen Mark
Mary Ellen Mark
Toward the end of her ego-shredding new memoir, Art and Madness, Anne Roiphe tells the jaw-dropping story of the day her first child was born. It was 1960, and a snowstorm was raging in New York City. Roiphe, nine months pregnant, has shuffled over to a Third Avenue repair store to pick up her husband's typewriter. That husband, a playwright named Jack Richardson, is snug at home, sleeping off a night out on the town. Roiphe wants him to have his typewriter nearby, should inspiration strike when he awakens. So she picks the machine up at the store, balances its weight against her swollen belly and starts trudging through the snow, 15 blocks back to their apartment. On the way, her water breaks. She reaches a pay phone and calls her husband. He doesn't wake up to answer. No taxis are around, so Roiphe stumbles on, all the way to the hospital, typewriter clasped like a religious relic in her arms.
I say that anecdote is "jaw-dropping" because it is — viewed through the feminist-inflected lens of 2011. But here's how powerful a writer that masochistic young woman came to be. Because even as we contemporary readers may be tsk-tsking over Roiphe's martyrdom, she also transports us deep into the mindset of a handmaiden of literature, circa 1960. Reading that passage, I was anxious at the thought of Roiphe going into labor in a snowdrift; but, because of how she draws me into the story, I was simultaneously anxious about that damn typewriter and wondering if maybe Roiphe shouldn't have dropped it off for safekeeping with the doorman at her apartment house before she lumbered on alone to the hospital.
Art and Madness is a particularly hard-boiled addition to a distinct subgenre of female autobiography — memoirs written by women who came of age in the 1950s and who sublimated their own ambitions by attaching themselves to literary men. I'm thinking of testaments like How I Became Hettie Jones by the eponymous former wife of LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka; Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell; and the especially magnificent Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, onetime girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. Educated at Seven Sisters colleges or their like, these young women wanted to live for Art — which, in the 1950s translated into living for a man who thought of himself as an artist. They found a place for themselves in the New York boho scene of the time, pouring drinks or tending to the other appetites of the resident drunken geniuses. Roiphe, who married right after graduating from Sarah Lawrence and was divorced from her playwright about six years later, was a smart party girl in the Norman Mailer, George Plimpton literary lion pack. Analyzing the marriage of Doc Humes (who co-founded The Paris Review) and his wife, Roiphe coldly illuminates the 1950s allure of the Great Man:
[H]e was a writer, a famous writer, with famous writer friends and that made him special, far more appealing than a banker or a lawyer. ... He was an artist and she would bear his children and wash his clothes and care for him because there lay her own immortality, there lay her own contribution to the great effort to speak the truth, to shape the words, to write the novel that by existing would justify the human endeavor. ... I know this because I felt it too, all of it.
Art and Madness is presented in shards of memories dating mostly from the 1950s and early '60s. Roiphe evokes the limited courage of her younger self: She was gutsy enough as a college girl to drive alone into New York to perch herself on bar stools at writers' hangouts like The West End, but not yet brave enough to respect her own talent. What especially sets Art and Madness apart from its autobiographical sorority sisters is its mercilessness. After Roiphe describes her husband leaving her for good, she says: "I have no pity for her, the still-young woman helping her fleeing husband pack his shirts into a suitcase. ... I have no pity for that about-to-be-divorced woman who had been ready to live off the written words of someone else."
Searing words that attest to the courage Roiphe eventually did discover in herself, thanks, in part, to the second women's movement. And yet, reading Roiphe's tough comments, I can't help but feel that she's still lugging around more than her share of the historical burden.
1963-4: In the fall I go to George Plimpton's. The night is long and the married woman with young children have left to go to bed so that they can rise with their children. I am talking to William Styron. He is bleary. He lives in Connecticut. He is broad and his face has a beaten up look, circles under his eyes, his chest wide and he leans out to me. I want to go to bed with you he says. Why not, I say. Why not anything? Does he want to go to bed with me because I understand and admire his books? I don't think so. Does he want to go to bed with me because I am appealing and warm breasted and dark haired and not entirely stupid. I don't think so. I can see that he wants to go to bed with me because he needs to go to bed and soon before he passes out and he wants to go to bed with me because I am there, in the first hours of the new day with the other men sprawled on couches and chairs and I am still awake and I have an apartment to go to, and I am someone whom he knows as one of the crowd , Jack Richardson's ex-lady, and he has a southern mewl that makes me think for a moment he might desire me and that in the vast ebb and flow of time, stone age to now, desire is a constant and ought not to be ignored because what else have we, I agree. His breath is heavy with nicotine and so much alcohol I wonder that his tongue isn't on fire. Yes, I think he is a wonderful writer. Yes, I think he is a stranger from another place where magnolia hangs heavy on bushes and dark crimes are different from the dark crimes I know. I look in his eyes and I see Faulkner and sweat pouring off shoulders lifting bales of cotton and Scarlet and Rhett and I think I see a stripe of blood across his back when he turns over in bed. I don't mind that he rises in the morning and puts on his pants and his shirt and tie and grabs his jacket without waiting for a cup of coffee. He has to return to Connecticut. He has a wife and children and he has a typewriter up there and pages more to go. Also he has bottles of his favorite aphrodisiac stored in his study. I am like a glass left on the bar, empty, a lipstick stain on the lip, a melted ice cube at the bottom. It is not yet dawn when he leaves and I stand in the doorway and wait with him for the elevator. He taps his foot impatiently. I wonder if he will come back. A few more times, late at night we found each other as the room was emptying out and George was already in his room with the door closed with some sweet girl with hopes he might offer her a job on the Paris Review and he does know my address and gives it to the cab driver without my help. I try to say interesting things to him. His eyes are always far away as if he were staring at me across a muddy river where the mist never lifts . He has certain feelings about Jewish girls. He married one after all. He likes our ferocity I suspect. But then he doesn't like competing with the Jewish writers who stamped onto the stage without asking leave, writers like Mailer and Malamud and Bellow. He does not like the righteousness of the Jewish writer or the taint of slavery that follows him, an innocent southerner, about. That I learn when reading Sophie's Choice more than a decade later.
One Friday night at George's, the ethnic drama breaks out. The gladiators each have their supporters. Out on the landing just before George's apartment voices are raised, a crowd begins to gather around. Norman Mailer attempts to hit Doc Humes and the two are fighting on the stairwell. I am there watching. Doc thinks Norman has sold out to the FBI. I think Norman suspects someone is after his money or his rights or his name. Some one said an ugly thing. George is standing between them, bending a little because he is taller than the others. He tries to joke. He puts a friendly hand on one shoulder or the other but as if two bulls were pawing the ground the air becomes steamy and thick and the cigarette smoke swirls above and Norman has already put a pen knife in his wife Adele's belly after a party and Doc Humes, a Ferdinand if ever there was one suddenly has an enraged look in his eye. I turn away. I don't want to get testosterone poisoning. I don't remember how it stopped. Norman was tougher, but Doc was crazier. Others separated them perhaps before a single blow landed. I know that the writers who witnessed the fight all thought of ways to write about it. I know that in a place where it was understood that manhood needed to be earned over and over again and could be taken away from a contender at any minute the actual prize should have gone to George who really didn't want blood on his stairwell. Did he understand that Norman was the intruder from the immigrant Jewish side of the street and Doc was the defender from the old family that took America for granted?. Did he know that all the women there were like the flowers on the tables at a wedding, wilting, waiting to be thrown out.
Afterwards there was talk and more talk about the fight. It grew to mythical proportions, constellations in the sky were named after the encounter. Odd that. A real war had taken place in all our childhoods- a war in Korea had taken old friends and left them rotting on scubby hills one identical to another. Many of the men in the room were veterans of that war which they, just like their older brothers did not want to talk about, not ever. The death of us all waited in the muscles of an itchy finger on a cool button under a distant mountain. And yet we were riveted by the tale of Norman Mailer and Doc Humes late at night on the stairwell of George Plimpton's apartment. I thought of the encounter as if the Tyrannosaurus and his arch enemy had danced around each other on a primitive plain, one on which the other beasts gathered around were holding martinis in their claws.
Do not go gently into that good night, said the Poet Dylan Thomas, which is a lovely line, encouraging the human spirit against the gravity of death which certainly had that drinker in its grip. Actually the writers gathered at George's for an evening of pleasure and pain did not want to go gently into the next day, never mind the coffin. These kings of the hill were jostling for prizes named and unnamed and sometimes I was one of those prizes which was fine with me.
Excerpted from Art and Madness: A Memoir of Lust Without Reason by Anne Roiphe. Copyright 2011 by Anne Roiphe. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.