27 October 2022 – Today I learned:
that there are other people who have read and adored Ned Rorem’s diaries! I did actually know this already, but I hadn’t thought about his genius in a while.
I discovered composer and musician Ned Rorem’s Paris and New York Diaries (published 1966, 1967) about ten years after they were published, when I was in 10th grade, age 14, and I read them avidly, especially during a summer spent with a friend’s Yaya in Queens, NY, feeling quite worldly. (They’re both on my list of My Top 10 Most Influential Books)
I knew a few of the famous names he mentions (the literary ones, some visual artists and philosophers, but not most of the musical ones) but it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d known none of the references, I was so enamored of his style, his self-reflection, insight, and vulnerability (even in the early diaries), and his life.
As an adult (still only 22), I read The Later Diaries (1983), which took in the years from 1961 to 1972, then The Nantucket Diary (1987), covering 1973 to 1985, and last, in 2007, Facing the Night (2006), which he wrote after his companion of 32-years had died. [If you want to read more about what Rorem has to say on the writing of his diaries, JD McClatchy’s interview with him, Ned Rorem: The Art of the Diary No. 1 in the Spring 1999 Paris Review is a great place to start.]
Today, I came across an essay, “The Remarkable Diaries of Composer Ned Rorem (Who Celebrates His 99th Birthday Today),” by Ted Gioia in The Honest Broker newsletter; the essay’s subtitle includes the tribute “the greatest diarist of the second half of the 20th century,” and I was already nodding in agreement. (The cat took note, I’m sure.)
Gioia starts by mentioning his musical accolades: a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his Air Music: Ten Etudes for Orchestra; his “hundreds of art songs composed over more than sixty years;” and how he’s “underrated as a composer for piano.” His “worst sin… as a composer at least,” Gioia postulates, “was operating outside the ascendant musical trends of his era. There was considerable irony in that, given his image as someone so embedded in the most fashionable currents of modern life.”
I’ve listened to some of Rorem’s works and like them, though I’m sure I don’t appreciate them properly. But, I haven’t buried the lede, it’s his diaries that are the reason that I, not in general a classical music fan, have even heard of Rorem, and apparently the reason many others have as well:
“[I]n his youth, Ned Rorem embarked on another pursuit, and it would find an even larger audience than any of these musical works. Back in 1936, Rorem started keeping a diary — he was just twelve years old. He gave it up after a few months, but in 1945, Rorem began again. And now he maintained the practice with vigilance, zeal, and (most importantly) genuine talent as a diarist, never flagging as the years and decades passed by. Only a tiny part of this journal was published in 1966 — drawing on entries Rorem wrote in the early 1950s while residing in France and North Africa. But when it showed up in bookstores as The Paris Diary of Ned Rorem, the whole world took notice. Well, at least the tastemakers and elites of New York and other enclaves of high culture” —
— as well as teenagers who knew witty, interesting, mind-opening writing when they read it. Or, as one reviewer characterised his writing, “‘worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.'”
I mean, you can see what appealed to a fourteen-year-old — or anyone!:
“Sex and booze already make their appearance on this opening page. Picasso shows up on page two, as well as Valentine Hugo, who asks Rorem to play piano while she recreates the dance steps she did for Stravinsky at the premier of The Rite of Spring in 1913. On page three the diarist admits to his doubts as a composer, and lists the musicians he steals from. On page four, Rorem meets Jean Cocteau and has his portrait painted by the Vicomtesse de Noailles. Rorem starts a love affair with the Vicomtesse before we get to page five.
“Has any novel ever moved this fast?”
In The New York Diary (time period: 1955-1961), we find him “at El Morocco at midnight with Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote, and Harold Arlen;” crashing “a therapy group led by Paul Goodman, [trying] to break the ice with cocktail party chatter;” “singing the praises of mescaline;” comparing “seduction notes with Jack Kerouac.”
It is sort of surprising, with his drinking and drugging and rather louche lifestyle (at least to a point), that Rorem has lived to 99. And still looks darn good. (It was reported when he turned 95 that with help from his daily help from his niece, he took walks in Central Park, played his music on the piano, and did crossword puzzles. Photos I’ve seen of him then show a cane.)
Gioia lists some Rorem aphorisms, all of which would probably have gone right over my head when I first read him, except “The artist answers questions that have not yet been asked.” That one would have hit home, and it’s still part of how I think about the arts that interest me most, poetry and prose, painting and collage, photography, architecture.
Even when he wasn’t writing about famous folk and wild parties, or self-reflecting (much), or slicing himself or someone else into pieces verbally, Rorem’s writing sparkled, and his powers of observation, what he noticed and chose to include, extraordinary. Here’s something from The Paris Diaries that has stayed with me forever:
“Last night we had a bouillabaisse which I couldn’t touch because of the terror in its preparation. The secret is to throw live sea creatures into a boiling pot. And we saw a lobster who, while turning red in his death, reached out a claw to snatch and gobble a dying crab. Thus in this hot stew of the near-dead and burning, one expiring fish swallows another expiring fish while the cook sprinkles saffron onto the squirming.” (1951)
And this one, same source, leads me to wonder whether he’d absolutely embrace the Instagram age if he were younger or run in horror that his wish has come true:
“Fear of being forgotten is so compulsive I’d like to be remembered for each time I go to the bathroom, and I’d even prefer not to go alone.” (1952)
I may have to go back and re-read those early diaries, agreeing again with Gioia as he wraps up his paean,
“Ned Rorem long ago established himself as far more than a mere composer — he’s part of the fabric of modern cultural history. Even so, the best reason to read Rorem’s diaries and listen to his music can be summed up in a simpler proposition: You will enjoy the experience, and want to come back for more.”
ADDENDUM: Ned Rorem died on 18 Nov 2022 at age 99.
Featured image: my bookshelf with three of Rorem’s diaries prominent