Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
Edited by Graydon Carter, Illustrated by Risko
Hardcover, 224 pages
List Price: $23.99
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
If you are one of those for whom the very word "questionnaire" recalls the horrors of wasted afternoons at the Department of Motor Vehicles or visits to the emergency room or dentist's office, I have good news in the form of a questionnaire you might find agreeable: the list of some two dozen questions that Marcel Proust answered in the 1880s and that, in their modern incarnation, make up the contents of this book.
For 16 years now, Vanity Fair has been asking some of the most celebrated figures of the past half-century to respond to a set of probing personal queries as a way of taking their psychic measure. In the process, a few misconceptions have arisen about the enterprise (which has become a much-copied magazine and newspaper ingredient). First, the Proust Questionnaire was dreamed up neither by Vanity Fair nor indeed by Proust. It was a Parisian parlor game among the novelist's bourgeois crowd, and it is believed to have been popularized by the daughter of the 19th-century French president Felix Faure.
"Antoinette Faure's Album" — a red leather journal adorned with an ornate, blind-embossed trellis — contained entries from many in Faure's social circle. She would invite friends over for tea and then ask each an identical sequence of questions: "[What is] your favourite virtue ... Your idea of misery ... Your present state of mind?," and so forth. They would all answer, in longhand, in her little red book.
Proust, who twice filled out Faure's form with precocious gusto — at ages 14 and 20 — subsequently published his answers as "Salon Confidences written by Marcel," in an 1892 article in La Revue Illustree XV. His name would become associated with the questionnaire posthumously (he died of pneumonia in 1922) once Faure's list was adopted more widely in France, Britain, and America as a form of 20th-century pre–pop psychology. In the 1960s, in fact, Rave, the British music publication, made a habit of soliciting cheeky Proust responses from young rock stars. (Mick Jagger's idea of happiness at age 23? "Grovelling in weeds." And what did the Rolling Stone say he'd most like to be? "Beatle.")
As I mentioned, Vanity Fair took up the game in 1993. I had become editor of the magazine the previous year and sought the advice of Henry Porter (who became our London editor in 1992) about ideas for possible columns. Henry mentioned that in 1989, when he was the launch editor of London's Sunday Correspondent magazine, his friend Gilbert Adair, the gifted novelist (who for years had taught school in France), urged him to consider the old drawing-room diversion for the weekend magazine.
The recommendation "was greeted with widespread skepticism," Adair now recalls, "until I rather cynically pointed out that the advantage of questionnaires, from a financial point of view, was that not one of the celebrities who agree to submit [answers] expects to be paid. The suggestion was immediately adopted." The feature, Henry says, was a hit from the start "and it is one of the things that lasts from the newspaper" — in readers' Proustian memories.
I asked Henry, and Aimee Bell — an old Spy magazine hand who had come to Vanity Fair with me, and who is now one of my deputy editors — to reprise an updated version of the questionnaire in our pages, and we prepared a list of luminaries from all walks of public life who might be willing to subject themselves to the same scrutiny. We originally called the feature "Social Study," and it was conducted over the phone as an interview with V.F. contributor Nell Scovell, another Spy veteran. Four years later, we re-christened it the "Proust Questionnaire" and soon most respondents were answering by fax and, in time, e-mail.
The page remains one of the staples of the magazine and, in looking over the entries in this book, a reader will quickly realize that the answers, whether earnest or ironic or profound, comprise 101 backstories illuminating many of the cultural giants of our age. (Indeed, in the Internet era, social networking sites have picked up on this impulse to take quick stock of our lives through tidy lists. For a while, the Facebook questionnaire "25 Random Things About Me," for instance, became something of an obsession within a certain sector of the Bright, Young, and Self-Absorbed.)
At Vanity Fair we've learned a thing or two about human nature through our years of fielding Proust replies. If you're surprised by the staggering level of honesty that occasionally graces this volume (particularly among Hollywood mandarins), you're not alone. When asked to name the one thing she would change about herself, Jane Fonda responded, "My inability to have a long-term intimate relationship." When asked how she would like to die, Hedy Lamarr revealed, "Preferably after sex." (She was 85 when she gave that reply.) When asked in 2003 about his greatest extravagance, the soon-to-be governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, admitted in one of the more authentically witty questionnaires we have received: "I am a major shoe queen." (His greatest fear? "I am petrified of bikini waxing. I had a very bad experience in 1978.")
When it comes to sheer effrontery, there's little doubt that comedians have been the most facile players. Martin Short's greatest achievement: "My invention of cold fusion." The trait David Steinberg most deplores in others: "Outing a C.I.A. agent because you're pissed about something else." The phrases Elaine May most overuses: "'You're kidding' and 'Oh, fuck' and 'Oh, fuck, you're kidding.'" (Fran Lebowitz gets the prize for Best Overall Questionnaire, page 123, which she answered in comic staccato.)
On occasion, there has even been some consensus. Eight contributors said they were smitten with Paris. Two said they identified with Jesus, two with Moses, and one with Robert Moses (Donald Trump). The person most frequently cited as most admired? Nelson Mandela (mentioned nine times). The virtue considered most overrated? Virginity — in a landslide.
A number of people cross-referenced one another. Robert Altman named Harry Belafonte as the person he respected most; Belafonte, returning the favor, fondly recalled his appearance in Altman's film Kansas City. Ray Charles — Willie Nelson's "hero" — talked about his friendship with Quincy Jones, who talked about his debt to Sidney Poitier. Timothy Leary praised Yoko Ono, who, when asked to name her heroes in real life, replied, simply, "Me."
As Ono's answer implies, virtually everyone had at least one or two moments of pure, unbridled candor. What would Karl Rove change? "[I'd] be more patient." (I'll say.) Ted Kennedy? "I'd have won in 1980." And several, naturally, admitted that death was their darkest fear. "Trust me," insisted Larry King, who survived a heart attack in 1987. "I saw no lights, no angels — nothing." (You may also notice that a number of individuals herein are no longer among us: Altman, Leary, Claudette Colbert, and Norman Mailer all died shortly after their questionnaires were published.)
Amid the tumult and the dread, amid these many attempts to tackle the overarching issues of love and death and the meaning of life, there are flashes of Proustian poetry. Allen Ginsberg's most marked characteristic, he said, was his "incriminating eloquence." While Julia Child most abhorred "a dreadful meal badly served," William F. Buckley Jr. claimed to hate "lousy logic, tempestuously waged." Joan Didion, when asked "When were you happiest?," referred to a character in a passage from her novel Democracy: "She recalled being extremely happy eating lunch by herself in a hotel room in Chicago, once when snow was drifting on the window ledges." And Johnny Cash offered this six-word description of paradise: "This morning, with her, having coffee." (You can try your own hand at playing Proust. Invite a few friends over, flip to the back of this book — we've provided a blank questionnaire — and just pass around the quill pen and the madeleines.)
Finally, you'll see that each set of responses in this volume is accompanied by an illustration from the fertile mind and impeccable brush of Robert Risko. In terms of celebrity caricature, no one is better at compressing the essence of a single subject into a few exuberant lines. Risko's genius at compression, in fact, conjures up the Jazz Age Vanity Fair, which, between the wars, featured the drawings of similarly bold stylists, such as Miguel Covarrubias, Will Cotton, and Paolo Garretto. It is this economy of expression that makes Risko's drawings a perfect complement to the succinct queries that Faure and Proust perfected at the dawn of the Belle Époque, 120 years ago.
From Vanity Fair's Proust Questionnaire: 101 Luminaries Ponder Love, Death, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, edited by Graydon Carter. Copyright 2009 by Graydon Carter. Published by Rodale Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.