Shusha Guppy interviewed Lesley Blanch at her home in Garavan, before and after a delicious home-cooked lunch consumed in the shade of a fig tree in the garden. September 1988.
Shusha Guppy : It is interesting that your husband was the opposite: he only wrote fiction, and won the Goncourt twice, the second time under a pseudonym. What do you think of his work now?
Lesley Blanch : I don’t read novels. Few last. Romain was not a disciplined writer, but he had wonderful ideas, and sometimes wrote wonderful stories. The one about the strolling players, for example. I thought The Roots of Heaven was fine. It had a momentous theme, like his autobiography, Promise at Dawn, which he wrote in Hollywood and gave me to read in instalments as he went along. Of course he invented a certain amount of that, but basically it was true.
SG : Speaking of Hollywood, did you enjoy living there? Who were your friends? Did you mix with the film world?
LB : Yes. We both loved it. And we knew everybody: Aldous and Maria Huxley, Stravinsky and his wife Vera, George Cukor, who became a great friend, Gary Cooper, Charles Boyer – everyone. James Mason, Sophia Loren, David Selznick . . . Later I worked for George Cukor at M.G.M., which was fascinating. I wrote The Sabres of Paradise while based in Hollywood. At the time Cecil Beaton was there too, for My Fair Lady. We used to escape up to the hills for a picnic sometimes: “Where are we all going to dinner tonight?” Cecil would ask wearily, and I would say to so-and-so’s – usually some film star. “Oh Jesus! She’ll be wearing a tiara!” he would say. In Hollywood you have to know the failures as well as the successful people. The failures were especially interesting; they knew all the seamy side of Hollywood. They lived downtown where nobody chic would dream of being seen.
The snobbery was enormous there, but as I didn’t mind being seen at the wrong address, I would drive down beyond Hollywood and Vine and find a sort of synthesis of the past. People sitting in their verandas, in rocking chairs: an old cowboy in boots would say: “Yes, Ma’am, I used to round up the cattle for so-and-so,” naming a star like John Wayne or Hoot Gibson. I knew John Wayne, and liked him very much, despite his ghastly politics.
SG : What about failed women?
LB : They wore baby dresses and heavy make-up, and looked like wrecks. They had been lovely and were often full of good stories. Few grew old well.
SG : It is amazing that living there and having an entrée into the film world, you didn’t have your books made into movies. They seem made for it, especially The Wilder Shores of Love and The Sabres of Paradise.
LB : M.G.M. bought one story from The Wilder Shores, but nothing came of it. Cukor bought The Nine Tiger Man, and I believe Fox has it now. Periodically people buy options for radio, television, films, but they never come to fruition. It is one of those things.
SG : Your prose is very poetic and graceful. Did you read, or still read, a lot of poetry?
LB : No. I’m not very keen on poetry. I had a grounding in English poetry because it was part of my home life, and I still read Byron, some Browning, and of course Blake, and always Donne. I also like Stevie Smith. When I was very young I was plunged most unsuitably into the Restoration playwrights. I was introduced to Russian authors by The Traveller and read them a great deal, first of all Pushkin. I was very fond of some of the minor Russians nobody else reads: Aksakov, Saltykov, Shchedrin, et cetera. I was brought up on Herzen. I have two sets of his work: Constance Garnett’s translation in small volumes, published in 1925, which I take with me everywhere. Now he has been discovered and is properly lauded by the Oxford intellectuals.
SG : Herzen was a liberal. Are you, politically speaking, a liberal?
LB : Of course. I should say I’m rather pink. I know great wealth produced industry and patronage of the arts and all that, but that was a different world. Today when I see the prices of houses and clothes and food I wonder how the young are going to live, and in what surroundings. Greed is destroying the planet through over-exploitation of natural resources. Look what we are doing to the seas, the forests, the animals! Here in the summer people throw their dogs out on the roads and go off on holiday. The late Duchess of Windsor knew that, and the cruelty of it, and she used to send people to collect them and give them shelter or find them homes. She is still a very much maligned woman. I knew the Windsors in Paris and remember them with affection.
SG : What about French literature? Who do you read and like?
LB : I read the classics. I love Gérard de Nerval, Merimée, Stendhal, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Gobineau’s Contes Asiatiques, et cetera. In English I also read nineteenth-century writers, Kilvert’s Diary, Queen Victoria’s Letters, and such. I love The Babur Nameh [memoirs of the Emperor Babur]; Dean Stanley’s book on the Eastern Church is superb. I particularly enjoy Lampedusa’s writing – not only The Leopard but all his shorter pieces. These are some of my favourites.
SG : You also have read American writers, and were – still are – friends with some of them. I remember you telling me once about Carson McCullers, a favourite of mine. Can you tell me about her?
LB : I knew her very well in New York. She liked my books and I had not read hers, but I caught up and read them then. She is marvellous about the Deep South, and gave me a taste for books of that region. So I read Eudora Welty, Tennesee Williams, William Faulkner. I enjoyed the society of Truman Capote as I loved his books. I remember a party given by Leo Lerman at his house in the east Eighties, and I was sitting between Edith Sitwell and Marlene Dietrich, and Truman was lying across my lap with his head on one hand and his feet on the other! And I thought if this is American literary life, I’m enjoying it!
I also love American folk music – just as I love the folk or traditional music of the Middle East, Persia, Asia, or elsewhere I travel. I write to music: it isolates me, but my tastes are catholic: Bach, Wagner, reggae or pop – if good.
SG : Did you ever witness Carson McCullers’ drinking bouts?
LB : She was very fragile. I remember one day taking a friend from England to see Carson. She was living up the Hudson, and we arrived for lunch. She said: “I guess you’re thirsty? Would y’all like something to drink?” She produced a large teapot and we thought it was rather odd to serve tea at that hour, but out of the teapot came neat gin, served in teacups before lunch! She was a very sick woman, and extremely neurotic too.
SG: What about older American authors – Henry James, Edith Wharton, et cetera?
LB : I have read them, and admire them greatly. By the way, a contemporary American writer I think supremely good is Gore Vidal. For his irony, wit, style, and the way he tears through American institutions. I am by nature an iconoclast myself and enjoy his bombshells. He is an old friend I cherish particularly.
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