Novelist Bernays (Professor Romeo, 1989, etc.) and biographer Kaplan (Walt Whitman, 1980, etc.) follow up The Language of Names (1997) with another joint effort: a zesty intellectual memoir of starting out in the ’50s.
The couple came of age when coded language and strict mores (e.g., no overnight visitors in college dorms) held sway. But social and intellectual change bubbled beneath the surface of the Eisenhower years. Their first encounter in 1953 brought together contrasting New York personalities with a shared passion for publishing and a fascination with psychoanalysis. Effusive East Sider Bernays, of German-Jewish descent, was the daughter of public-relations pioneer Edward Bernays. Reticent West Sider Kaplan was the orphaned son of a former rabbi from Russia who became moderately wealthy manufacturing shirts in America. In a duet of perfectly matched voices, they recount with verve how it felt to be a young adult living under the shadow of The Bomb and McCarthyism in the sunshine of a still-vibrant metropolis. By day, they wrestled with language and eccentric bosses at Town and Country and the short-lived Discovery (Bernays), Harry Abrams and Simon & Schuster (Kaplan). At nighttime parties, they met William Faulkner, James Thurber, Alger Hiss, C. Wright Mills, Philip Roth, and Somerset Maugham. (In two especially memorable incidents, a haughty, apron-clad Marlene Dietrich serves Thanksgiving dinner to Bernays at friend Francine du Plessix’s home, and Kaplan dances with Marilyn Monroe.) The authors need not have bothered to kiss-and-tell about their premarital sex lives, and they sometimes seem unaware of the many less fortunate who shared the city with them during this time. But they compensate with rich anecdotes on virtually every page and sharply ironic prose: Kaplan notes at one point that Edith Sitwell was “garbed like a Druid priestess . . . on her head a shapeless hat and on her feet shoes from the men’s department at Macy’s.”
Like a Porter melody, the recollections of these saucy, urbane lovers linger and prompt smiles of affection for a bygone era.