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This article is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.

Catchwords 20 Iain Bamforth
Man about Town

Louis Menand writes of Leo Lerman (1914–94), the Condé Nast magazine editor (Mademoiselle and Vogue) and arbiter of artistic Manhattan society tastes for half a century, that he had literary ambitions and ‘dreamed of writing a novel like Proust’s’. In an era when the apparatus of fame was less bureaucratic and administered than it is now, Lerman had an astonishing degree of freedom and access to famous people in the fashion, theatre, ballet and art worlds. He knew everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Henry Green, Maria Callas to Max Ernst. He made very little headway with his novel, though he kept a journal as source material; and must have realised the absurdity of practising ‘mass flirtation’ (his term) among the whirl of parties while aspiring to be the kind of novelist who might withdraw from the beau monde to a cork-lined room for twenty years in order to complete a three-thousand-page manuscript. Especially when it had already been written by the said Marcel Proust, who, while refusing to live his life for art’s sake, nevertheless achieved the unmatched modernist feat of making a work of art out of that life.

Lerman’s very sprightly journal was lovingly edited (whittled down to a tenth of its size) by his assistant Stephen Pascal and published as The Grand Surprise (2007) – the title deriving from one of the names of a rare butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) glimpsed in a display cabinet on one of his boyhood trips to ...

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