A platonic midlife romance strikes creative sparks in this winsome roman á clef.
Fanto, a publisher and artist, knew Richard Ellmann, acclaimed biographer of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde, for several years before his death in 1987; the two had collaborated on the creation of a line of arty Wilde-themed playing cards. In Fanto’s fictionalized version of their relationship, they are also soul mates. Nearing 70, Dick Ellmann is a rumpled, warmhearted American scholar, devoted to caring for his invalid wife Mary. Rosita, radiating in all directions from her home in Monte Carlo, is a middle-aged jet-setter who can’t eat dinner in Manhattan without Andy Warhol dropping by her table. But she’s also smart, spontaneous and a devotee of the “l’acte gratuit,” the hidden gesture of uncompensated kindness. (She meets Dick while helping a friend auction off some Joyce letters.) A professional connoisseur of fascinating lives, Dick savors Rosita’s colorful stories of growing up in a wealthy Rumanian family, wartime exile in Brazil, a brother’s assassination and her adventurous encounters with the rich and famous, from Salvador Dali to Orson Welles. In turn, Dick shares his subtle insights into the psyches and geniuses of writers and poets. Their affection grows but is stymied by Dick’s dutifulness toward Mary. It sustains itself on sporadic intercontinental visits, longing letters and hesitant glances full of unspoken desire. A consummation of a kind occurs when Rosita proposes the playing-card project to complement Dick’s soon-to-be-completed Wilde biography, but the aesthetic and intellectual glow of their collaboration darkens as Dick slowly succumbs to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Fanto fills the narrative with risqué witticisms and piquant sketches of the glitterati, but her breezy, stylish prose still conveys the passion and pathos of an attraction that seems all the more intense for being so tightly constrained.
A vibrant story of late-blooming love.