Saturday, February 28, 2009

Life at the top

I've just been reading At Random, the posthumous memoirs of Bennett Cerf, who co-founded Random House, instigated the obscenity trial that allowed him to publish James Joyce's Ulysses in the U.S., and worked with countless of the greatest American authors of several decades of the twentieth century. I actually became aware of him my watching clips on YouTube of the fifties' game show "What's My Line?" on which he appeared as one of the regular panelists trying to guess a contestant's occupation (or in the case of a celebrity, blindfolded and guessing their name). More about that show another day. But the memoir is really interesting, more witty actually than he comes across on the TV show. It's chock full of interesting stories about interesting people, like FDR flying up and down ramps in his wheelchair "like a bat out of hell," or James Joyce delightedly taking money at last for the American edition of his novel. The section on Eugene O'Neill and his turbulent marriage is particularly touching. Cerf is quite charming in admitting his own foibles -- a love of publicity and an understandable vanity about his acumen -- and very generous in describing others. Though he is rather sexist (old-fashioned, if you wish to be indulgent) in the way he refers to women as little girls, honeys, and so forth, I refuse to let it stop me from enjoying what's good in his memoir. I'm going to go get some of his other books.

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