Readers’ Thoughts

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Romaine Brooks’ Legacy: An Exchange

 

To the Editor:

Richard Canning’s review of my book Romaine Brooks: A Life [in the Jan.-Feb. 2016 issue]contains a few errors that I’d like to address.

First, and most important, is Canning’s claim that well-documented evidence exists proving that Romaine Brooks was an anti-Semite and a fascist. There are to my knowledge no archival documents to support these claims. Thus there is no “special pleading” in my book.

Next, Canning suggests that my book is a rehash of secondary sources. It is not a rehash to untangle the webs woven by Brooks’ first biographer (and others) working with hearsay when analyzing the writings of Romaine Brooks. I returned to those primary sources and took them seriously. Brooks had her dark side, but she did not shy from it, and neither did I.

The arc of my book highlights how Brooks overcame her PTSD and managed to have a productive and loving life in a polyamorous household with Natalie Barney and Lily de Gramont. It was a secret buried by history that calls for a re-evaluation of early books on the three women. I went to some pains to correct a fundamental error concerning the dating of the Brooks’ and Barney’s first meeting. It was not “around the outbreak of World War I,” as Canning states, compounding the error. They met during the worst of the fighting, in October 1916.

Another slip makes me wonder if Canning actually read my book. He writes of a “sweet improbable moment” between Romaine Brooks and Janine Lahovary. Improbable indeed! It never happened. The two women were barely polite to one another. It was Natalie Barney, not Romaine Brooks, who met Janine Lahovary on a park bench in Nice. Barney was 79, and Brooks wished her well but worried about her heart.

Finally, Romaine Brooks was far from a minor artist. She was a forerunner of Surrealism, producing work in that style decades before the term was invented as her French interviewer points out in a 1967 interview for Bizarre magazine, which devoted an issue to Brooks as a proto-Surrealist.

I take umbrage with Canning’s statement that Romaine went “from barely contemporary to utterly outmoded” as an artist. Brooks was sought after as a portraitist, and her portraits conferred celebrity status on her sitters. Her wealth allowed her to choose her subjects. Brooks was forward-looking in depicting lesbian and non-gender-conforming individuals. She was the first painter to get worldwide recognition for that. If that doesn’t count as revolutionary, I don’t know what does.

Cassandra Langer, New York City

 

Richard Canning replies:

First, an apology. Cassandra Langer is entirely right to correct the very unfortunate slip in my review, which mentioned a meeting between Romaine Brooks and Janine Lahovary on a park bench in Nice. The error crept in during the editing process, and I am sincerely sorry for it, since, as Langer makes clear, Natalie Barney, Brooks’ longtime partner, was the one who met and became close to Lahovary. Langer’s account of this meeting and its significance was a particular credit to her.

Nonetheless, let me reassure the author that I did indeed read her thoughts on Romaine Brooks with great thoroughness and care. The other objections relate to matters of emphasis and perspective, concerning which I hold my ground. My views concerning Brooks’ political self-positioning—which was fluid and subject to specific concerns about her own safety and future reputation, as with so many others in a politically turbulent moment—are fundamentally shared by many others who have written previously on Brooks, and with good reason. The incidence of intense “fighting” during World War II was of course a reality, but not impinging upon Brooks’ own circumstances at that time.

Of course, Langer will be disappointed that this reader was not won over by her strong attempts at a revisionist picture of Brooks’ character and legacy. My instincts as a reviewer—no doubt shared by Langer in her own experience in this role—are entirely at the service of the G&LR readership and were informed by my own impressions as an engaged reader of her book. I know only too well of the huge efforts required of a biographer in such contexts, and I mean no slight upon Langer’s energies and determination in pursuit of her thesis.

Ultimately, that thesis is not one that I can share, and I repeat my view that, while Brooks was in her day “sought after as a portraitist,” this isn’t the same thing as suggesting that she made a “radical” æsthetic statement through her work. She did portray a range of subjects previously neglected, or at best differently accommodated by portraitists, and this is a significant sociological claim, but finally not an artistic one.

I have since enjoyed very much the show dedicated to Brooks recently held in Venice, and would encourage all readers to research Brooks’ works as best they can in person and to make up their own minds.

Richard Canning, London

 

My Vote for the Campiest Epic Ever

 

To the Editor:

I’m writing in furtherance of Robert Grimmick’s fascinating essay, “The Secret Life of Action Films,” which appeared back in the November-December 2015 issue. I wish to draw attention to one of the most overt and yet overlooked gay subtexts in the history of cinema, namely the smoldering relationship between the Emperor Commodus (played by Christopher Plummer looking like a hot beatnik) and General Gaius Livius (a somewhat cold Stephen Boyd) in Anthony Mann’s 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire. (Also appearing were Alec Guinness, James Mason, Omar Sharif, Sophia Loren, and Anthony Quayle.)

Viewers unfamiliar with this largely forgotten movie will be startled to watch Plummer—who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as a father who comes out late in life in Beginners (2011)—playing the supposedly depraved Commodus as so obviously gay that it’s hard to fathom how this performance has gone unnoticed. Plummer’s Commodus hangs out with the gladiators, prances around in fabulous Imperial gowns, and wants to restore Rome to its rightful place as “a city of light, of gaiety, of beauty and strength.”

More than anything, however, Commodus wants to win the love of his old friend Livius. Notwithstanding a tedious romance between Livius and the Emperor’s sister Lucilla (Loren), the bond between these two men is the gay heart of the film. When the previously banished Livius is recalled to Rome, he assures a clearly excited Commodus, “I have not wanted to be away.” In reply, the Emperor begs his friend: “Take command.” Ostensibly this is about suppressing a rebellion in the eastern provinces, but Plummer is clearly suggesting something else altogether.

As required by the prevailing code of the time, their love is doomed—in this case by Commodus’ dismal leadership skills. Yet even the rupture is done with a surprising measure of poignancy. At their penultimate encounter, the Emperor tells his friend, now in open rebellion: “I loved you, Livius. Yet now you must die. But that’s the sort of joke the gods love best.”

Will Nixon, Hilliard, OH

 

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