A Maestro on the Fender Stratocaster


We went to see Billy Hector play last night, a New Jersey blues guitar legend. His guitar-playing is out of this world, and his guitar was vintage, battered, well-used, gorgeous. His playing ranges from dreamy, his fingers sliding up and down the strings in great swoons of sound, to rough and hard and aggressive, almost metal. However you describe it, it’s rock ‘n’ roll. He did a version of Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts Christmas Dance song that was to die for! People dancing, having a great time. It was a hell of a show.

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“I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.” Happy Birthday, Rebecca West


Dame Rebecca West is the grand dame on my very short list of “intellectual idols”.

It is her birthday today.

It is hard to talk about her without referencing the generations of writers she inspired, all of whom admit their debt to her. Robert Kaplan is the most open about it (his Balkan Ghosts, which launched his career, is a following-in-Rebecca-West’s-footsteps through Yugoslavia, when it was still, you know, Yugoslavia.)

Christopher Hitchens, too, who provided the foreword to a new edition of her masterpiece, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. You can read a bit of that here, along with more of my excited babbling about Rebecca West.

A journalist, novelist, Suffragist, Socialist (and critic of Socialism and the pacifist Left), as well as author of one of the most important books of the 20th century, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West wrote novels, essays, op-ed columns, travelogues, reportage (she covered the Nuremberg Trials, as well as a lot of the treason trials that wracked England in the 50s and 50s). She kept up a voluminous and very entertaining correspondence (tons of quotes from it below).

She grew up in a family who came from great wealth, but for many reasons had lost that wealth in West’s time. There was an air of faded grandeur about her family, and it seems like her parents let their children run free and wild. Rebecca West went to school, but other than that, she spent her time un-managed, un-watched-over, unmonitored. Her parents didn’t impose any limitations on her. She grew up in a fairy-tale childhood where she could do whatever the hell she wanted to do. While that may have made life tougher for her later (to be taken seriously as a political writer who also happened to be female was no small task), it also gave her that clear-sighted unmistakable voice. She is unafraid of her own opinions. She has strong opinions. She had no respect for “the canon” just for being “the canon”. She made her own way through literature. She trusted her own taste.

She traveled through Yugoslavia with her husband in 1937 and 1938. Not only could she sense the cataclysm that was to come in WWII (she is especially brutal about some German tourists she observed on the train) but she also predicts the breakup of Yugoslavia some 50 years later, and the genocidal campaigns of people like Slobodan Milosevic. Nobody who read her book would be at all shocked that Serbia would rise in such a monstrous way (and West is extremely pro-Serb). Retrospect makes prophets of us all, and there are many who said, “I saw it coming …”

Yes: but could you have seen it coming in 1938?


She seems to have always been on the side of the individual, which again separates her from her contemporaries, especially in the 1930s, when the worldwide collapse of the economy made Socialist ideas extremely attractive, putting the Group above the Individual. She considered herself a radical and a feminist, but she always had a very healthy suspicion of any group, and any groupthink. West saw what group-identity-politics could wrought, in places like Yugoslavia, and then also in places like Germany, and she consciously separated herself from the pack: “No, thanks. Not for me.” Not an easy stance to take, and she is often mistaken for a reactionary which makes me chuckle, because that is so often the accusation thrown towards someone who refuses to “play well with others”, who never drank the Kool-Aid in the first place.

The Left is often more organized in its campaigns against “apostates” to their cause. One is thrust outside the charmed circle. One is beyond the pale. Rebecca West, Orwell, and others (heady company), all felt that wrath.

Her book A Train of Powder is made up of four very long essays having to do with various trials that West, as a journalist, covered, one being the Nuremberg Trials. She sat in the press box in the court room at Nuremberg, for months on end, and observed, taking in everything: the zaniness of much of it, the behavior of the “defendants”, and thoughts on what all of this would actually mean. She makes insightful observations that probably rang uneasily in the minds of her contemporaries, who were still under the sway of the glorious revolution going on in Russia, something she did not fall prey to or embrace. For example, she notes that the international judges each read different parts of what each defendant was accused of. Here she writes:

It turned out that the Russian was reading the part of the judgment that condemned the Germans for their deportations: for taking men and women away from their homes and sending them to distant camps, where they worked as slave labour in conditions of great discomfort, and were often unable to communicate with their families. There was here a certain irony, and a certain warning.

The essay was written in 1946. It was unpopular, at that moment in time, to criticize Russia for various reasons and many just decided to stick their heads in the sand, to avoid uncomfortable truths. To make an omelette, you have to break eggs, right? Phone call for Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the #1 “useful idiots” in the world at that time along with NY Times columnist Walter Duranty who swallowed the lie of the Great Purge in mid-30s Russia hook, line, and sinker, taking the show trials at face value, but there were many many more (including Rebecca West’s former lover and father of her child, H.G. Wells who declared Stalin an “honest” man after meeting him. Wells eventually backtracked on that statement but it was too late. He had been used by Stalin as the “idiot” that he was.). Those who were perceived as “turning on” Russia once it became clear what was happening under Stalin are Heroes to me still, because they were the ones who experienced what amounts to shunning by their former ideological best pals, they were treated as traitors and branded right-wing reactionaries. (A similar thing happened to Camille Paglia in the 1980s, when she was shunned by mainstream feminism and Gloria Steinem referred to her in an interview as “dangerous”. The perception from mainstream feminism was that Paglia’s rhetoric didn’t have the stamp of their precious approval, and therefore she must be a Tool of the Righties. I’m extremely pro-Paglia, and that comment from Steinem was cowardly and disgusting. A huge turnoff and a symbol of everything that is wrong with strict us vs. them ideology.)

To suggest that things were less-than-perfect in Socialist Russia was to be a traitor to the Cause. (You can see why Warren Beatty was so excited, like little-boy-at-Christmas excited – that he got Rebecca West to be one of the “witnesses” in Reds. She had a grounds-eye view of that whole fight in the Left in the 1920s, 1930s.)

Rebecca West on the right, one of the “witnesses” in “Reds.”

In Train of Powder, I was particularly riveted by West’s thoughts on Goering.

She certainly had a way with words.

And though one had read surprising news of Goering for years, he still surprised. He was so very soft. Sometimes he wore a German Air Force uniform, and sometimes a light beach suit in the worst of playful taste, and both hung loosely on him, giving him an air of pregnancy. He had thick brown young hair, the coarse bright skin of an actor who has used grease paint for decades, and the preternaturally deep wrinkles of the drug addict. It added up to something like the head of a ventriloquist’s dummy. He looked infinitely corrupt, and acted naively. When the other defendants’ lawyers came to the door to receive instructions, he often intervened and insisted on instructing them himself, in spite of the evident fury of the defendants, which, indeed, must have been poignant, since most of them might well have felt that, had it not been for him, they never would have had to employ these lawyers at all. One of these lawyers was a tiny little man of very Jewish appearance, and when he stood in front of the dock, his head hardly reaching to the top of it, and flapped his gown in annoyance because Goering’s smiling wooden mask was bearing down between him and his client, it was as if a ventriloquist had staged a quarrel between two dummies.

Goering’s appearance made a strong but obscure allusion to sex. It is a matter of history that his love affairs with women played a decisive part in the development of the Nazi party at various stages, but he looked as one who would never lift a hand against a woman save in something much more peculiar than kindness. He did not look like any recognized type of homosexual, yet he was feminine. Sometimes, particularly when his humour was good, he recalled the madam of a brothel. His like are to be seen in the late morning in doorways along the steep streets of Marseille, the professional mask of geniality still hard on their faces though they stand relaxed in leisure, their fat cuts rubbing against their spread skirts. Certainly there had been a concentration on appetite, and on elaborate schemes for gratifying it; and yet there was a sense of desert thirst. No matter what aqueducts he had built to bring water to his encampment, some perversity in the architecture had let it run out and spill on the sands long before it reached him. Sometimes even now his wide lips smacked together as if he were a well-fed man who had heard no news as yet that his meals were to stop. He was the only one of all these defendants who, if he had the chance, would have walked out of the Palace of Justice and taken over Germany again, and turned it into the stage for the enactment of the private fantasy which had brought him to the dock.


In 1981, Rebecca West was interviewed by The Paris Review. She was 90 years old and living in London. Cataracts had ruined her eyes, she wore glasses that distorted her eyes completely, she was arthritic. But her mind was sharp and she was still working, writing book reviews, keeping up to date on things, and she’s a lively and beautiful interview. She can be biting in her criticism, especially of other writers.

The interviewer asks her if she does many drafts of her writing. She replies, “I fiddle away a lot at them. Particularly if it’s a fairly elaborate thing. I’ve never been able to do just one draft. That seems a wonderful thing. Do you know anyone who can?” The interview says, “I think D.H. Lawrence did” and Rebecca replies, “You could often tell.”

She speaks in the interview about her break with the suffragette movement:

“I admired them enormously, but all that business about venereal disease, which was supposed to be round every corner, seemed to me excessive. I wasn’t in a position to judge, but it did seem a bit silly.”

She talks of Christabel Pankhurst, a leading suffragette, who ran a chastity campaign for women. While West disagreed with many of Pankhurt’s opinions, she despised all of the retrospective analysis done on her by people who weren’t there, who didn’t know what it was like on the ground at the time, and frankly didn’t know what they were talking about. For example: The name David Mitchell comes up in the interview. West mentions him as the man who “writes silly, hysterical books about Christabel Pankhurst. What is he? Who is he?” West goes on to destroy him in a couple of paragraphs which shows her logical, flexible, and sometimes startling brain:

“[His book was] absolutely rubbish and nonsense. He writes about how she went to Paris and how she didn’t go down to the cafes and meet the young revolutionaries. But how on earth was she to find out where they were? Because, you see, the Bolshevik generation was not yet identifiable. How would she find out any of the people, who hadn’t really made their mark? It was an obscure time in the history of revolution. It was a time when very remarkable people were coming up, but they weren’t visible yet. She did know the people like Henri de Rochefort very well. Mitchell also says she took a flat and had a housekeeper, who was also a very good cook, and didn’t that show great luxury? Well, if he’d asked anybody, he would have found that, in those days, you couldn’t take a furnished flat or house in Paris, nor, so far as I know, in most parts of France, unless you took a servant, who was left by the owner. All the furnished houses I ever had in France, modest as they were, had somebody that I had to take with the house.”

While this may seem like a minor thing to get up in arms about, it is not. Mr. Mitchell was making a judgment on Pankhurst’s seriousness as a revolutionary and thinker through a false assumption. He makes that false assumption because he comes from an ideological standpoint. Ideological purity can narrow how the brain allows itself to function. (See Michele Bachmann.) Mr. Mitchell had a bone to pick with Christabel Pankhurst, and wanted to take her off her pedestal (“some revolutionary – she had a maid!!”) and Rebecca West calls him out on it, despite her own feelings about Pankhurst’s later work and how she broke with the movement because of it. THAT is clarity of thought.

Here are some excerpts from the interview, including her famous “women are idiots and men are lunatics” theory.

On losing her hearing:

“From an early age – but it was not detected for many, many years – I’ve had difficulty about hearing. Finally, I lost my hearing almost entirely in this ear, I got pneumonia in it, which I think is rather chic.”

On going to school:

“We had large classes [at school], which was an ineffable benefit, because the teachers really hadn’t time to muck about with our characters.”


“[Women] are idiots and men are lunatics. It’s a perfectly good division. The Greek root of idiot means “private person”; men “see the world as if by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature”. It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and, with a big wave of the hand, say, It’s all very well talking about the defenses of the country, but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever (wherever they’re living) that have no bathrooms. Surely, it’s more important to have clean children for the future. Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms, because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.”

On disapproval:

“I should like to be approved of, oh, yes. I blench. I hate being disapproved of. I’ve had rather a lot of it.”

On Mark Twain:

“Well, I longed, when I was young, to write as well as Mark Twain. It’s beautiful stuff and I always liked him. If I wanted to write anything that attacked anybody, I used to have a look at his attack on Christian Science, which is beautifully written. He was a man of very great shrewdness. The earliest article on the Nazis, on Nazism, a sort of first foretaste, a prophetic view of the war, was an article by Mark Twain in Harper’s in, I should think, the nineties. He went to listen to the Parliament in Vienna and he describes an awful row and what the point of view of Luger, the Lord Mayor, was, and the man called George Schwartz, I think, who started the first Nazi paper, and what it must all lead to. It’s beautifully done. It’s the very first notice that I’ve ever found of the Austrian Nazi Party, that started it all.”

On fascism:

“I just saw violence [before the First World War]. There was the race thing and sacred Germanism and all that, but the enemy before the First World War you can’t really compare with fascism. It was the imperialism of Germany and the supremacy of the army, but that isn’t exactly fascism. I think you could say, there was more fascism, but of an intellectualized kind, in France. The crux of the Dreyfus case was that it didn’t matter whether Dreyfus was guilty or not, you mustn’t spoil the image of the army. That was more or less fascist.”

On being a “woman writer”:

“People were very rude just because they’d heard I was a woman writer. That kind of rudeness is as bad as ever.”

On being a woman:

“No [advantages in being a woman] whatsoever. You could have a good time as a woman, but you’d have a much better time as a man. If in the course of some process, people turn up a card with a man’s name on it and then a card with a woman’s, they feel much softer toward the man, even though he might be a convicted criminal. They’d treat the man’s card with greater tenderness.”

On Tolstoy:

“I’m a heretic about Tolstoy. I really don’t see War and Peace as a great novel because it seems constantly to be trying to prove that nobody who was in the war knew what was going on. Well, I don’t know whoever thought they would – that if you put somebody down in the wildest sort of mess they understand what’s happening.”

On writing books:

“I write books to find out about things. I wrote Saint Augustine because, believe it or not, there was no complete life in English at that time.”

On Virginia Woolf and English literature:

“It’s an absurd error to put modern English literature in the curriculum. You should read contemporary literature for pleasure or not read it at all. You shouldn’t be taught to monkey with it. It’s ghastly to think of all the little girls who are taught to read To the Lighthouse. It’s not really substantial food for the young because there’s such a strong feeling that Virginia Woolf was doing a set piece and it didn’t really matter very much. She was putting on an act. Shakespeare didn’t put on an act. But Orlando is a lovely original splash, a beautiful piece of fancy. Leonard Woolf had a tiresome mind. When you read his books about Malaya, and then the books of the cadets who went out there, he’s so petty, and they have such an enthusiasm and such tolerance for the murderous habits of the natives. But he was certainly good to Virginia. I couldn’t forgive Vanessa Bell for her awful muddy decorations and those awful pictures of Charlotte Bronte. And I hated Duncan Grant’s pictures too. The best thing that was ever said about Bloomsbury was said by a lovely butler of mine. At dinner one evening, they began to talk of Faulkner’s book in which someone uses a corncob for the purposes of rape. They were being terribly subtle, and doing this and that gesture over the table. The butler came into my son Anthony’s room and asked, Do you know where they keep the Faulkners? It seems they’re very saucy. Virginia Woolf’s criticism was much better than criticism others were writing then.”

On why she chose to write about Yugoslavia:

“I wanted to write a book on Finland, which is a wonderful case of a small nation with empires here and there, so I learned Finnish and I read a Finnish novel. It was all about people riding bicycles. But then, when I went to Yugoslavia, I saw it was much more exciting with Austria and Russia and Turkey, and so I wrote that. I really did enjoy it terribly, loved it.”

On Tom Stoppard and Shaw:

“I find Tom Stoppard just as amusing as I ever found Shaw. Very amusing, both as a playwright and as himself. But I’m not now an admirer of Shaw. It was a poor mind, I think. I liked his wife so much better. He was conceited, but in an odd way. Usually, you know, it’s people shouting to keep their spirits up, but he really did think he was better than most people.”

On Yeats:

“What [Yeats] liked was solemnity, and, if you were big enough, heavy enough, and strong enough, he loved you. He loved great big women. He would have been mad about Vanessa Redgrave.”

On arousing hostility in others:

“I’ve aroused hostility in an extraordinary lot of people. I’ve never known why. I don’t think I’m formidable.”

On the Donatists:

“I like to think about people like the Donatists, who were really suffering agonies of one kind and another because the Roman Empire was splitting up and it was especially uncomfortable to be in Roman Africa. But they didn’t know anything about economics, and did know about theology. Theology had taught them that if you suffered, it was usualy because you’d offended God – so they invented an offense against God, which was that unworthy priests were celebrating the Sacraments. So that satisfied them and then they went round the country, looting and getting the food and the property they wanted because they said that they were punishing heretics. I think it’s wonderful that in the past people overlooked things that now seem to us quite obvious, and thought they were doing things for the reasons they weren’t, and tried to remedy them by actions. Perhaps there’s some simple thing we’ll think of someday, which will make us much happier.”


She’s funny. She’s smart. She’s a little bit scary.

Here are some excerpts from her correspondence. I pulled out stuff I found funny, or well-written, or memorable. Every letter, though, is filled with gems like these.

Letter to sister Letitia Fairfield, 1909, describing a riot at the polls in Whitley, and a battle between the feminists and the Liberal women (the Liberal party was anti-suffrage for women). Rebecca is just a teenager here.

The Liberal women are ghastly! They stood on the other side of the gate and shouted insults at us the whole time. I had five large Liberal ladies bearing down on me calling me a hooligan and a silly fool and other pretty names. One Liberal man tried to shake me and hurt me, much to their delight; but the police man settled all that. However, our Suffragette, Mrs Brown of New Castle, was knocked down and tramped on by a member of the Woman’s Liberal Federation. They tried to make me stop shouting, “Keep the Liberal out” but of course it was no good. I kept on from 10 till 8! Of course I got my meals all right. Everybody was very nice except the Liberal women – who have a repertoire of vituperation that I cannot believe to be equalled anywhere. They looked exactly like comic postcard Suffragettes. The police were quite all right, so I was always safe. The police warned me not to get up to hear the poll unless I was with plenty of friends, as the women would scratch my eyes out! I knew Kenwick was in. Shortt is a most attractive man, and was followed about by bevies of adoring damsels. He lost a good many workmen’s votes on account of a motor he sent round the town – full of his children, with a huge placard, “Vote for Daddy!” They couldn’t stand that. A great number of working men voted for woman’s Suffrage – spoiled their papers or voted Socialist. In most cases, I am told. I haven’t seen an analysis of the votes yet, as I didn’t go up. I was agreeably impressed with Miss Mattel. She’s a dear old soul in spite of the hair.

Letter to Ford Madox Ford, 1912:

I am remembering your dinnerparty with passion in this dreadful place – I concentrate on it in the middle of lectures on the Decentralisation of Labour till I feel a little happier. It is curious about Miss Sinclair’s sealed air. Don’t you think that ever so many distinguished women with degrees and things have that shut effect? Perhaps it is an effect of the Puritanism of women. Most men have so much more to repent that they must be amusing to justify their existence.

Letter to Dora Marsden and Grace Jardine. Nov. 1912:

The Discussion Circle is quaint. That dandy of cranks, D’Aubergne, is always jumping up demanding that we should all be kind to illegitimate children, as if we all made a habit of seeking out illegitimate infants and insulting them.

From a heartbreaking letter to H.G. Wells, March 1913:

I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I don’t give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, autumn 1915:

I moved from there to another riverside inn which would have been delightful had not the landlord and his daughter escaped out of a Conrad novel. The father was an apish man with a monosyllabic manner who had come from South Africa, his daughter was beautiful and passionate – that is, she used to wander about the hotel caressing her opulent figure, which is what I have always suspected Conrad heroines of doing. And at night they used to have fierce sharp monosyllabic quarrels. One evening I was standing on the verandah when a voice suddenly came out of the dusk. I quote the remark with diffidence, but it does really seem to me to be one of the most marvellous remarks ever made. “If it were not for the great love of God in my heart I would strangle the damn bitch.”

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1916:

It’s good to be conceited – I don’t mind a bit.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917, written during air raids:

Talking of these nasty foreigners I cannot agree with you about Tolstoy. I wish I could. Twice have I read War and Peace and found nothing but stuffed Tolstoys, and such lots and lots of them. And plainly Anna Karenina was written simply to convince Tolstoy that there was nothing in this expensive and troublesome business of adultery and oh Gawd, oh Gawd, Kitty! And about Resurrection I cannot speak, but only yawn. And those short stories seem to me as fatuous as the fables of La Fontaine. But Dostoevsky –! The serenity of The Brothers Karamazov, the mental power of The Possessed, the art of The Raw Youth! Isn’t it awful to think that nothing can ever decide this dispute?

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917: West sold a novel, and spent the check on “the most expensive hat I have ever bought in my life.”

The hat was a direct consequence of the Italian disaster. All these war horrors instead of making me ascetic make me turn furiously to sensuous delights. Such a pleasure to think that if all the world’s gone wrong that hat at least is right. And after [and during] the air raids I don’t pray or speculate on the World State but drench myself in scent and eat chocolates. Perhaps it’s only a reaction against an unusually abstinent life – I’ve never had any amusing trimmings to life – but I think there is an impulse to reassure oneself that life’s worth living by simple pleasures.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, 1917:

[I] do so love estuaries. It’s awful to have a fancy for anything so large and rare.

Letter to S.K. Ratcliffe, Christmas 1917

Talking of Laurence Hope did I tell you got out Stars of the Desert (from the London Library – for reference – ) and found among the leaves a sheet of notepaper inscribed in a fatigued female handwriting “Remember to order beeftea for baby” – potted tragedy.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, July 28, 1918

The National News is an amiable newspaper & I refuse to speak ill of it any more. After all we don’t know its temptations and perhaps it had no mother.

Letter to novelist Louis Golding, 1922:

My family vampires me. There seems no way out save the suicide’s noose. As an alternative I have been learning to ride. This process is extremely perilous because my dramatic instinct makes me look and behave as if I could ride magnificently the minute I put on my riding kit. I force myself to tell the people at any new stables I go to that I can’t ride but in spite of myself I do this in such accents that they don’t believe me and put me on the bloodiest of all their blood hunters. The result of this was that when I went to Exmoor I was bolted with for three miles – but there again my damned dramatic instinct told – for I looked as if I was enjoying it so convincingly that some people who saw me insisted on me following the stagehounds next day because it was over specially dangerous country that they knew I could tackle. (Black terror it was, black terror.) Some day I will stray into the foxhunting country and that will be the death of me. They’ll make me the Master of the Pytchley on sight and I will break my neck over the first gate.

Letter to Ottoline Morrell, Dec. 28, 1922

Thank you so much for the diary. Its blue watered silk is a special joy to me as I hate leather anywhere except on my feet.

Letter to S.K. Ratcliffe, March 21, 1923

I have tried to leave H.G. innumerable times, but never without his following me and asking me to come back. I have as a matter of fact left him in the moment but I am dreading another attempt to get me to come back. It is also as I have a steady monogamous nature and would have been the most wifely wife on earth extremely difficult not to take on the job again. My one hope therefore of getting and keeping clear is to get to America! Therefore this news does depress me. I would be glad if you would tell me all about it. I have a book (about 30,000 words) in my head, Second Thoughts on Feminism which I could write – if I keep free – in 2,000 word articles – which would make it plain where I stood and how unlikely it was that I should preach anything too revolutionary.

Letter to John Middleton Murry, May 30, 1923

I would like to tell you how deeply I feel the loss of Katherine Mansfield. It has meant more to me (and many of our generation) than I would have thought any but a personal bereavement could mean. She gave one the pleasure of feeling absolutely unstinted admiration.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

I went back from Springfield with two notabilities – a “Mayflower” woman – the trouble is Mayflower doesn’t mean a thing except that your ancestors like to take their Bible reading seriously; it doesn’t give you any breed at all. I don’t suppose democratic pioneering does for an aristocratic type – you have to have the element of leadership.

Letter to sister Winifred Macleod, Nov. 3, 1923

The journey from Philadelphia here (I am finishing this letter in Chicago) took eighteen hours – The first six followed alongside the Susquehanna and Julietta Rivers. Nothing in the world could convey the wistful beauty of American river scenery – the serenity of the wooded heights – wave-like in their skyline – the beauty of the wide shallow waters. I was adopted in the train by a charming old Texan, who called me “Ma’am,” paid me old-fashioned compliments (“If I may ask, Ma’am, how is it that such a charming lady as yourself have escaped matrimony?”) insisted on treating me to all my meals, and escorted me to my hotel here. The amount of attention one gets from men here would turn one’s head if one didn’t look round at the sallow hags of American women and realise that the standard is very different from Europe !

Letter to H.G. Wells (her pet name for him was “Cat” and “Jaguar”, among other things):

I’ve been shepherding Emma Goldman who is a very sensible body. She has a lot of very interesting facts about the treatment of intellectuals. Shaw won’t see her, and the Daily Herald and Labor Party people are rude to her before she begins to speak. Clever, flexible Jaguar that has always kept himself out of these fossilising party influences.

Letter to Max Beaverbrook, autumn 1924

The Express published today a story about Emma Goldman in which your (not inappropriately) rabbit-witted subordinates laid stress on her anarchist record, and mentioned casually that she had returned from Russia disillusioned with the Bolshevists. The effect of that article was distinctly unfavourable to Emma Goldman. Now, not only is Emma Goldman worth six of you (or three of me) but she is the most powerful Anti-Bolsh eyewitness I have yet encountered. Her effect as an Anti-Bolsh speaker ought to be tremendous. (Some of us are getting up a Queen’s Hall meeting for her.) I know that your interest in politics is restricted to personal gossip, but you might try to understand and sympathise with people who are interested in deeper issues. If you attack her as an anarchist she (being as pigheaded as a mule) will probably get defiant and declare that she still is an anarchist and queer her own and the Anti-Bolsh pitch. Therefore it would be seemly and consistent with its own politics if the Daily Express and the Evening Standard refrained from attacking Emma.

Letter to John Gunther, France, summer 1926

I have been having a real old-fashioned nervous breakdown, and it hasn’t seemed to me that it mattered where anybody was as all people on this globe seemed equally miserable anywhere. This nervous breakdown earned its keep, I think, because I am now so tough that I could keep my head up and see where I collapsed and why, and I have found out something useful. My breakdown was due to Lettie. And it was due to the fact that she hasn’t a thought about me that goes more than two centimetres below the surface which isn’t dislike and shame. She wishes I didn’t exist. She thinks I look awful. She thinks my career is a despicable failure… She is constantly embarrassed by my conversation and my manner. She treats Anthony as if he were the most appalling freak because he is mine. She actually has delusions about him. She alleged to me quite solemnly just before she left that he was so dark that of course it would be a handicap to him all through his life because people would think he had coloured blood in him. She is nearly crazy with an elder sister desire to call her little sister down. And that is a force that all my life has been depressing and annoying me. I am perfectly sure that is that and nothing in the way of a morbid neurosis which makes me dread going back to England. It isn’t, as my family has always conspired to make me believe and as H.G. in his sadism loved to tell me, that I am a neurotic who cannot stand up to life, but that I am healthy and I have been preyed on by neurotics till they have bled me nearly white.

Letter to John Gunther, Dec. 1926

I oddly don’t want to tell you who my lover is. Not one soul knows of it. He is a Californian, and a banker, and a terrific gambler, and he is so illiterate that he reads poetry and remembers it and gets a kick out of words, and he is broke one day and a millionaire the next, and he has been in love with me for three years without knowing me. I don’t know if it’ll last.

Letter to Vyvyan Holland (Oscar Wilde’s son), July 1927

I feel my bad luck is comic.

Letter to John Gunther, fall, 1927

This flat has a lovely view, but a bathroom that only a virgin could tolerate.

Letter to Sylvia Lund, August 31, 1929

I must confess I love France more and more – though what an insane people! We have neighbors in the next villa who glower at us and insult us in every way to such a degree that in England would make one go to the nearest police station to report the presence of lunatics.

Letter to Bertrand Russell, Sept. 1929

[H.G.’s] behaviour seems to me insane. I am aware from my knowledge of him that he has a violent anti-sex complex like Tolstoy’s – You punish the female who evokes your lust. But it seems to me to be reaching demented extremes. I hear from the lady with whom he lives at present (whom is quite mad) that he frequently hits her and gives her black eyes, and so on, which is surely not done in our set. (This was not cited as evidence of cruelty, but as evidence that they were living a rich and satisfying life.)

Letter to Irita Van Doren, autumn, 1929

I found I could write of nothing but my sick loathing for every blighter writing except James Joyce whom I think a pretentious nitwit but who has guts, guts of the moonlight, beautiful guts, as Lewis Carroll nearly wrote.

Letter to Irita Van Doren, autumn, 1929

As a result of the reflection of this on my material affairs I became engaged to a man named Cohen, but I couldn’t go through with it. Since then however I have discovered that earth has few negative pleasures greater than not being engaged to a man named Cohen.

Letter to Henry Andrews (she would marry him a couple months after writing this letter – he was her husband for decades, until his death), spring, 1930

I liked your last long letters so much. I was amused by the young man who took you out to dinner to talk about his love-affairs on the sound assumption you knew a great deal about love. He sounded so much less nice than you are that I can’t help feeling a little sorry for the girl. But this involves me in being sorry for all girls – except myself. I am glad you are so nice about Harriet [Cohen]. She has had such a strange story – of people getting near her and winning a place by her simply in order to gratify something jealous in themselves by refusing her the tenderness and honour that she ought to have – that that self-assertion is pardonable. It is, I know quite well, as “shymaking” – to use Evelyn Waugh’s word – as anything I know, and you are a darling to get behind it.

Letter to George Bullett, Dec. 11, 1930

I am so glad you quoted and approved the passage about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, because I think it was such a great and endearing effort of Lawrence’s mind, and I am very conscious of how it wasn’t honoured by the world in the horrible reviews I am getting of this book – not that I attach any great importance to it as far as my own literary powers are concerned, because I write it as my monthly letter to the American Bookman and it was entirely Secker’s idea to reprint it. What I hate is the sniggering about Lawrence and the actual candid joy in his death which is expressed in review after review – particularly in the illustrated weeklies and the provincial papers. The tone is savage and indecent. There is a kind of lewd hysteria about it – which declares itself more unpleasantly still in the personal letters, most of them anonymous, that I am receiving. [Lawrence] was right – he was and is hated. And that he was hated by vile people makes one revere him more – but the frightful vitality of their vileness, and the amount of it, makes one despair – if it wasn’t for such pleasant reviews as your own.


Here are some excerpts from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, the first being about the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 (the entire section is a masterpiece).

June 28, 1914: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie setting out in their motorcade in Sarajevo that fateful morning.

This [June 28th] was a day of some personal significance to him [Franz Ferdinand]. On that date in 1900 he had gone to the Hofburg in the presence of the Emperor and the whole court, and all holders of office, and had, in choking tones, taken the oath to renounce the royal rights of his unborn children. But it was also a day of immense significance for the South Slav people. It is the feast-day of St. Vitus, who is one of those saints who are lucky to find a place in the Christian calendar, since they started life as pagan deities; he was originally a Vidd, a Finnish-Ugric deity. It is also the anniversary of the battle of Kossovo, where, five centuries before, the Serbs had lost their empire to the Turk. It had been a day of holy mourning for the Serbian people within the Serbian kingdom and the Austrian Empire, when they had confronted their disgrace and vowed to redeem it, until the year 1912, when Serbia’s victory over the Turks at Kumanovo wiped it out. But, since 1913 had still been a time of war, the St. Vitus’s Day of 1914 was the first anniversary which might have been celebrated by the Serbs in joy and pride. Franz Ferdinand must have been well aware that he was known as an enemy of Serbia. He must have known that if he went to Bosnia and conducted maneuvres on the Serbian frontier just before St. Vitus’s Day and on the actual anniversary paid a state visit to Sarajevo, he would be understood to be mocking the South Slav world, to be telling them that though the Serbs might have freed themseves from the Turks there were still many Slavs under the Austrian’s yoke.

To pay that visit was an act so suicidal that one fumbles the pages of the history books to find if there is not some explanation of his going, if he was not subject to some compulsion. But if ever a man went anywhere of his own free will, Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo.

The book is full of sweeping generalizations, broad statements of assumptions, and observations taken as truth. She gets some things wrong, she gets other things way right.

For example, West and her husband traveled by train to Zagreb in 1937. Europe teeters, teeters, on the edge of the abyss. The train was full of Germans on their way to vacation on the Adriatic coast. West observes human behavior, she watches closely, she picks up on signals and then makes huge assumptions based on her observations. This type of writing can be extremely obnoxious when not utilized sharply and concisely. Rebecca West, with her cold detached glare, saw something, saw something true and disturbing beneath the surface of those rowdy German tourists. It takes courage to not only write, but think, like this.

I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. Their helplessness was the greater because they had plainly a special talent for obedience. In the routine level of commerce and industry they must have known a success which must have made their failure in all other phases of their being embittering and strange. Now that capitalism was passing into a decadent phase, and many of the grooves along which they had rolled so happily were worn down to nothing, they were broken and beaten, and their ability to choose the broad outlines of their daily lives, to make political decisions, was now less than it had been originally. It was inevitable that the children of such muddlers, who would themselves be muddlers, would support any system which offered them new opportunities for profitable obedience, which would pattern society with new grooves in place of the old, and would never be warned by any instinct of competence and self-preservation if that system was leading to universal disaster. I tried to tell myself that these people in the carriage were not of importance, and were not typical, but I knew that I lied. These were exactly like all Aryan Germans I had ever known; and there were sixty millions of them in the middle of Europe.

Here she is on the assassination of the King of Yugoslavia in Marseille, which Rebecca West heard about from her sick-bed in the hospital, recovering from a hysterectomy, and is what triggered her second visit to the Balkans. She knew she MUST go back before it was too late. (And, exemplifying West’s “women are idiots and men are lunatics” theory, the nurse in the hospital cannot understand why West would be interested in the assassination of a King far away from England. What has that got to do with HER life? Did it affect her personally? Did she know him? And if not, then who cares, when there are so many problems right here at home! Woman as totally Private Person. West wrote such people off. I do, too, I have to admit. And she doesn’t let men off the hook either. Men being “lunatics” sweep the world into wars that bring about total worldwide insane carnage. So, yeah. Men are guilty too.) West got out of the hospital and watched the existing film of the assassination. Here is her description of what she saw.

A few days later my husband told me that he had seen a news film which had shown with extraordinary detail the actual death of the King of Yugoslavia, and as soon as I could leave the nursing home I went and saw it. I had to go to a private projection room, for by that time it had been withdrawn from the ordinary cinemas, and I took the opportunity to have it run over several times, while I peered at it like an old woman reading the tea leaves in her cup. First there was the Yugoslavian warship sliding into the harbor of Marseille, which I know very well. Behind it was that vast suspension bridge which always troubles me because it reminds me that in this mechanized age I am as little unable to understand my environment as any primitive woman who thinks that a waterfall is inhabited by a spirit, and indeed less so, for her opinion might, from a poetical point of view, be correct. I know enough to be aware that this bridge cannot have been spun by a vast steel spider out of its entrails, but no other explanation seems to me as plausible, and I have not the faintest notion of its use. But the man who comes down the gangway of the ship and travels on the tender to the quay, him I can understand, for he is something that is not new. Always the people have had the idea of the leader, and sometimes a man is born who embodies this idea.

His face is sucked too close to the bone by sickness to be tranquil or even handsome, and it would at any time have suggested a dry pedantry, unnatural in a man not far advanced in the forties. But he looks like a great man, which is not to say that he is a good man or a wise man, but that he has that historic quality which comes from intense concentration on an important subject. What he is thinking of is noble, to judge from the homage he pays it with his eyes, and it governs him entirely. He does not relapse into it when the other world fails to interest him; rather does he relapse into noticing what is about him when for a moment his interior communion fails him. But he is not abstracted; he is paying due respect to the meeting between France and Yugoslavia. Indeed he is bringing to the official occasion a naive earnestness. When Monsieur Barthou, the French Foreign Minister, comes and greets him, it is as if a jolly priest, fully at ease in his orders, stood before the altar beside a tortured mystical layman. Sometimes, too, he shows by a turn of the head, by a dilation of the pinched nostrils, that some delightful aspect of the scene has pleased him.

About all his reactions there is that jerky quickness which comes of long vigilance. It was natural. He had been a soldier from boyhood, and since the Great War he had perpetually been threatened with death from within, by tuberculosis, and with death from without, by assassination at the hand of Croats or Macedonians who wanted independence instead of union with Serbia. But it is not fear that is his preoccupation. That, certainly, is Yugoslavia.

Now King Alexander is driving down the familiar streets, curiously unguarded, in a curiously antique car. It can be seen from his attempt to make his stiff hand supple, from a careless flash of his careful black eyes, that he is taking the cheers of the crowd with a childish seriousness; it is touching, like a girl’s putting full faith in the compliments that are paid to her at a ball. Then his preoccupation veils his brows. He is thinking of Yugoslavia again. Then the camera leaves him. It recedes. The sound track records a change, a swelling astonishment, in the voice of the crowd. We see a man jumping on the footboard of the car, a gendarme swinging a sword, a revolver in the hand of another, a straw hat lying on the ground, a crowd that jumps up and down, up and down, smashing something flat with its arms, kicking something flat with its feet, till there is seen on the pavement a pulp covered with garments. A lad in a sweater dodges before his captors, his defiant face unmarked by fear, although his body expresses the very last extreme of fear by a creeping, writhing motion. A view of the whole street shows people dashed about as by a tangible wind of death.

The camera returns to the car and we see the King. He is lying almost flat on his back on the seat, and he is as I was after the anaesthetic. He does not know that anything has happened; he is still half-rooted in the pleasure of his own nostalgia. He might be asking, ‘Et en quelle saison Revoiray-je le clos de ma pauvre maison, Qui m’est une province et beaucoup d’avantage?’ It is certain that he is dying, because he is the centre of a miraculous manifestation which would not happen unless the living had been shocked out of their reserve by the presence of death. Innumerable hands are caressing him. Hands are coming from everywhere, over the back of the car, over the sides, through the windows, to caress the dying King, and they are supremely kind. They are far kinder than faces can be, for faces are Marthas burdened with many cares because of their close connection with the mind, but these hands express the mindless sympathy of living flesh for flesh that is about to die, the pure physical basis for pity. They are men’s hands, but they move tenderly as the hands of women fondling their babies; they stroke his cheek as if they were washing it with kindness. Suddenly his nostalgia goes from him. His pedantry relaxes. He is at peace; he need not guard against death any more.

There’s a reason why other journalists bow down before Rebecca West.


Here she is on Austria:

Proust has pointed out that if one goes on performing any action, however banal, long enough, it automatically becomes ‘wonderful': a simple walk down a hundred yards of village street is ‘wonderful’ if it is made every Sunday by an old lady of ninety. Franz Josef had for so long risen from his camp bed at four o’clock in the morning and worked twelve or fourteen hours on his official papers that he was recognized as one of the most ‘wonderful’ of sovereigns, almost as ‘wonderful’ as Queen Victoria, though he had shown no signs of losing in age the obstinacy and lack of imagination that made him see it as his duty to preserve his court as a morgue of etiquette and his Empire as a top-heavy anachronism. He was certain of universal acclamation not only during his life but after his death, for it is the habit of the people, whenever an old man mismanages his business so that it falls to pieces as soon as he dies, to say, ‘Ah, So-and-so was wonderful! He kept things together so long as he was alive, and look what happens now he has gone!’

It was true that there was already shaping in his court a disaster that was to consume us all; but this did not appear to English eyes, largely because Austria was visited before the war only by our upper classes, who in no country noticed anything but horses, and Austrian horses were good.

Rebecca West and Ingrid Bergman

She helps make the 20th century comprehensible and very few people have been able to do that. Orwell did. Arthur Koestler did. Mikhail Bulgakov did. Those in the generations following, thinkers and writers like Robert Conquest, Robert Kaplan, Ryzsard Kapuscinski and Christopher Hitchens all acknowledge how much they owe her.

But there’s a danger in that, too.

To paraphrase W.B. Yeats who once said of Jonathan Swift: “Imitate her if you dare.”


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“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” – Happy Birthday, Maud Gonne


Maud Gonne, Irish revolutionary, feminist, radical, and lifelong poetic muse of William Butler Yeats, was born on December 20 in 1865. She married John MacBride (after a couple of notorious affairs and illegitimate children). John MacBride was an Irish nationalist who participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was executed by firing squad. Although Gonne and MacBride had apparently separated by the time of the Easter Rising, she wore mourning garb for the rest of her life. She was wedded to Irish nationalism. .

Conor Cruise O’Brien writes in his memoir about Maud Gonne McBride, (a very funny passage):

When the husband, whom she loathed, was shot by a British firing squad after the Easter Rising, Madame MacBride – as she now came to be known – attired herself from head to toe in the most spectacular set of widow’s weeds ever seen in Dublin, to which she returned from Paris in 1917. Her mourning for Major John MacBride was so intense that it lasted all the remaining years of her life (nearly forty of them), as far as outward appearances were concerned. I still remember her as I first saw her in that garb, about ten years later in Leinster Road, Rathmines. With her great height and noble carriage, her pale beaked gaunt face, and large lustrous eyes, and gliding along in that great flapping cloud of black, she seemed like the Angel of Death: or more precisely, like the crow-like bird, the Morrigu, that heralds death in the Gaelic sagas. That is how I think of that vision in retrospect; at the time I just thought: ‘spooky’!

But of course, we know “of” Maud Gonne not because of these events (and she would have already earned her place in history as an extraordinary woman in her own right) but because of W.B. Yeats’ immortalizing of her in poem … after poem …. after poem …. after poem …. after poem …. after poem …..

It’s one of the greatest (and most productive) unrequited love affairs of all time.


Gonne wrote to Yeats in 1911:

Our children were your poems of which I was the father sowing the unrest & storm which made them possible & you the mother who brought them forth in suffering & in the highest beauty.

The concerns of Yeats and Gonne brought them together, and yet pushed them apart. Yeats focused on bolstering up Irish culture, writing poems of the myths and legends of old, and spending his time creating the Abbey Theatre and nurturing other young Irish writers (telling them not to look to greater Europe for their inspiration, but to stick with Ireland). Gonne was wedded to politics and revolution. From the moment they met, they were drawn to one another. He fell in love. She, not so much. Love was low on her list of priorities. But their friendship, and what they called their “spiritual marriage” lasted their whole lives. They tried to meet one another in their dreams when they were separated, and then check in via letter: “Did you see me last night in your dreams?”

In 1908, Gonne wrote to Yeats from Paris:

“I had such a wonderful experience last night that I must know at once if it affected you & how? At a quarter of 11 last night I put on this body & thought strongly of you & desired to go to you.”

An actual real-life everyday hook-up would probably have been terrible for both of them. But there was something their friendship provided, something primal and unspoken, that they could not find anywhere else. He loved her all the days of his life. He proposed to her numerous times (and also seriously considered proposing marriage to Maud’s daughter as well!). They probably did consummate their relationship, at least once, but she – perhaps smartly – refused to enter into a domestic situation with him. He, torn up by his love for her, poured all of that into his writing, and his poems for her are some of the most memorable love poems of the 20th century. We have her, and her refusal of him, to thank for all of those beautiful poems.

To quote one of my great acting teachers Doug Moston: “I’m a big fan of sublimation. Here’s what I mean by sublimation. You take your pain – and you make it sublime.”

Annie West, an amazing illustrator out of Sligo, has done a series of illustrations about Maud Gonne and Yeats, my favorite one being the following, which Annie calls: “IF MAUD GONNE SAID YES.”


You know, with all the romanticism here of “great love”, I think Annie may be onto something.

Speaking of Annie West: Go check out her portfolio! Lots of awesome literary Irish-ness there. She just published a book of illustrations about Yeats and Maud called Yeats in Love. She’s so talented.

Maud and “Willie’s” correspondence is riveting: The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938. The only mark against it is that he kept every one of her letters while she – who lived a more peripatetic lifestyle, with constant police raids on her various abodes where much was lost – did not keep his letters. So we mostly have her letters to him. There are a couple of his letters to her in existence, and they are included here, but not many. It is a great loss. But still: her letters her messy, bossy, passionate, fiery, and it gives a good feel for the openness of their relationship. They were not careful with one another. They barged right in to the deepest recesses of one another’s hearts and told the truth to one another.

Maud Gonne thought Yeats was wasting his time with the Abbey, and her hectoring annoyance is a constant theme through literally decades of correspondence. Who cares about that silly theatre. (History proved her wrong, but she was wrong at the time as well. However, you can’t admit you’re wrong and be a proper revolutionary.)

She hated Yeats’ poem about the Easter Rising. He never could please her when it came to politics. She lived in a black and white world of hate and rage, and his artistry was never blunt and bold enough for her purposes. She wanted propaganda, not art.

And he, obviously, told her what he thought of her behavior. He was brutal when she decided to get baptized into the Catholic Church (his bigotry showing). He was dismayed, horrified, and told her exactly why it was the wrong choice. He also didn’t think she was going about things the right way. It is a fascinating philosophical divide, and although we only have her side of the argument, his can be guessed at from her responses. These letters show true intimacy and equality. There is a rough truth in her letters to him, a freedom and unselfconsciousness that really speaks well of HIM, too: he was the type of man who could “take” having a woman fire off such stuff at him.


They were fully engaged with one another through years of strife and revolution and civil war, through her sudden marriage to McBride, through Yeats’ eventual (very late) marriage, through her bearing of children, through long-distance. They remain completely up to date on one another’s lives, and only at the very end do you feel a sort of formality come over the correspondence. They have agreed to disagree about politics, and you feel the loss. Once they agree to disagree there is nothing more to talk about except, “How have you been?”

Seamus Heaney wrote about the mystical connection between these two giants:

And all the while, of course, there was Maud Gonne, “high and solitary and most stern” according to one of the poems about her, “foremost among those I would hear praised” according to another, and “the troubling of my life” according to a famous sentence in his Autobiographies. The passion she inspired – and as readers we experience it more as creative power than erotic need – made her a figure of primary poetic radiance, a Dublin Beatrice, an archetype as much as a daily presence. Nevertheless, Yeats’s poetry, his politics and his involvement with the occult received an extra charge of intensity from her day to day reality in his life, and when she appeared in the title role of his subversive play Cathleen Ni Houlihan (1902), another kind of maturity was achieved.

Yeats and Gonne met in 1889 and he would say later that that was the year that “the troubling of my life began”.

On January 31, 1889, Yeats wrote to his friend John O’Leary, after having dinner with Maud:

“She is not only very handsome but very clever. Though her politics in European matters be a little sensational … It was pleasant however to hear her attacking a young military man from India who was there, on English rule in India. She is very Irish, a kind of ‘Diana of the Crossways.’ Her pet monkey was making, much of the time, little melancholy cries at the hearthrug … It was you, was it not, who converted Miss Gonne to her Irish opinions. She herself will make many converts.”

On February 3, he wrote to Ellen O’Leary:

“Did I tell you how much I admire Maud Gonne? … If she said the world was flat or the moon an old caubeen tossed up into the sky I would be proud to be of her party.”

Gonne didn’t have as clear a memory of their first meeting. At that point, she was far more formidable than he was. He was 23 years old, a young poet, a nobody. She had already lived in Paris, had become notorious, was at the forefront of the new movement that Yeats would eventually help champion.

Gonne’s impressions of Yeats in that first meeting:

” … a tall lanky boy with deep-set dark eyes behind glasses, over which a lock of dark hair was constantly falling, to be pushed back impatiently by long sensitive fingers, often stained with paint – dressed in shabby clothes …”


Ella Young wrote in her autobiography Flowering Dusk of her glimpses of Maud Gonne and WB Yeats:

I see her standing with WB Yeats, the poet, in front of Whistler’s Miss Alexander in the Dublin gallery where some pictures by Whistler are astonishing a select few. These two people delight the bystanders more than the pictures. Everyone stops looking at canvas and manoeuvres himself or herself into a position to watch these two. They are almost of equal height. Yeats has a dark, romantic cloak about him; Maud Gonne has a dress that changes colour as she moves. They pay no attention to the stir they are creating; they stand there discussing the picture.

I catch sight of them again in the reading room of the National Library. They have a pile of books between them and are consulting the books and each other. No one else is consulting a book. Everyone is conscious of those two as the denizens of a woodland lake might be conscious of a flamingo, or of a Japanese heron, if it suddenly descended among them.

Later, in the narrow curve of Grafton Street, I notice people are stopping and turning their heads. It is Maud Gonne and the poet. She has a radiance as of sunlight. Yeats, that leopard of the moon, holds back in a leash a huge lion-coloured Great Dane – Maud Gonne’s dog, Dagda.

Maud Gonne, of course, makes me think of my father. On my father’s shelf in his study is a big hardcover book with MAUD GONNE on the spine. It has been there always. I have memorized my dad’s bookshelves, and know the spines of most of them, the ones that have been there since childhood. I own that MAUD GONNE book too (it is by Samuel Levenson).

Samuel Levenson writes:

No one who knew her in the days of her glory is now alive. But many Irish men and women recall her in her later years as one of Dublin’s most extraordinary personalities – part eccentric, part heroine. They remember her as a tall, gaunt woman in black robes speaking on Dublin street corners about her current political or economic obsession. And they have not forgotten the stories they heard from their elders about her unconventional life in Paris, her constant cigarette smoking, the dogs and birds with which she surrounded herself, her affair with a French politician, her illegitimate children, her marriage to Irish patriot John MacBride, and the scandal of her separation from him.

Some remember Maud Gonne’s activities to house evicted tenant farmers, feed school children, aid political prisoners, find homes for Catholic refugees from Northern Ireland, establish a fully independent Irish Republic, and end partition between Northern and Southern Ireland. Few recall the names of the women’s organizations and publications she founded, or the number of times she went to prison. And some confuse her with another tall Ascendancy woman who took up the Irish cause after a fling in Paris – the Gore-Booth girl, who came back with a Polish count named Markievicz. But they all know that the word “maudgonning” means agitating for a cause in a reckless flamboyant fashion.

Maud herself wished to be thought of as an Irish patriot. She was hailed in her lifetime as an Irish Joan of Arc, and would have been happy to be remembered as such for all time. A quarter of a century after her death, controversy surrounds the importance of her contributions to the Irish nation and its people. The scandal that still hovers around her name has grown dim. But it is neither her activities in Ireland’s behalf, her unconventionality, nor her striking beauty that give her a place in history. It is, rather, the obsessive pursuit of her by the greatest poet of the era, William Butler Yeats. Her steadfast rejection of his proposals bit so deeply into his soul that he never ceased to fashion glorious poetry about her beauty, her talents, and the mystery of her personality. She was to Yeats what Beatrice was to Dante. And thus, Yeats made her a permanent figure of romance and myth throughout the English-speaking world.


Here is one of Yeats’ “Gonne poems”:

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
by William Butler Yeats

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.


“The Arrow” is another one for Gonne:

I THOUGHT of your beauty, and this arrow,
Made out of a wild thought, is in my marrow.
There’s no man may look upon her, no man,
As when newly grown to be a woman,
Tall and noble but with face and bosom
Delicate in colour as apple blossom.
This beauty’s kinder, yet for a reason
I could weep that the old is out of season.

If Gonne had married Yeats, would he have written all of those poems? If he had ready access to her over the breakfast table, in the marriage bed … would she have been elevated to such a poetic height in his consciousness? Perhaps Gonne sensed this herself. After one of his many proposals, she wrote to him:

“You would not be happy with me. … You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry.”

In 1908, Yeats had come to visit Gonne where she was living in Paris. After years and years of friendship (not to mention what they called their “spiritual marriage”), it is believed that the two finally consummated their long unrequited affair on this particular visit. Yeats had not yet married, but the later Mrs. Yeats (a formidable woman in her own right) believes as well that this was an important visit for the two old friends, and that something sexual finally occurred. Gonne had already had two children out of wedlock with a French revolutionary (one child died when he was only a year old), and then had married another revolutionary, an Irish one this time, James MacBride. The marriage didn’t even last a year, although a child did come out of it (future Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean – or Seghan, as it was spelled, MacBride). Seghan joined the IRA as a young man in the wake of the Easter Rising, living his life on the run, and then joined the Irish civil service.

Through the tempest of Gonne’s personal life (and she always found personal life to be annoying: it came second to her life as an activist and politician), Yeats had remained loyal, although he did have a couple of affairs (mainly to let off sexual tension). They are quite open about all of this in their correspondence. Gonne cautioned him against marriage (she wasn’t really “for” it in general), but she also cautioned him to not keep too large a space for her in his heart. She seemed to realize the sadness she caused him, and yet their bond was too strong to walk away from it altogether.


It took him a long time to crush down the longing for another, and to accept the situation. He was “old and gray and full of sleep” by the time he married. That struggle took a lifetime.

Gonne also was quite open with him about the fact that she had a “horror of physical love” and believed it was necessary (and desirable) only for procreation. She knew that he needed “physical love” in his life, and so wanted him, desperately, to “let her go”. She was not a prude in any way, but having a casual robust sex life at that time was not possible, not if you wanted to avoid multiple pregnancies. Gonne saw firsthand what a lifetime of being pregnant did to her fellow Irishwomen.

Whatever happened between Yeats and Gonne in December 1908, no one will ever really know, but here is the letter Gonne wrote to Yeats after he left. Having read all of her correspondence, (to him and to others) this letter stands out in tone and emotion. She often spent six hours a day on her voluminous correspondence, so her letters are quick, dashed off, to the point, and sometimes full of non sequitirs, like most letters between intimates. She lived primarily in France yet remained active in Ireland on all kinds of committees (committees she herself had formed), so her correspondence was massive, and she did not employ a secretary.

Gonne usually addressed Yeats as “My dear Willie”, and sometimes (echoing Abigail Adams) “My dearest friend”. But here, in this letter, she starts with “Dearest”, a greeting that cuts me to the core for various reasons, so familiar is it, my father called me that.

13 Rue de Passy
Friday [December 1908]


It was hard leaving you yesterday but I knew it would be just as hard today if I had waited. Life is so good when we are together & we are together so little – !

Did you know it I went to you last night? about 12 or 2 o’clock I don’t exactly know the time. I think you knew. It was as it was when you made me see with the golden light on Wednesday. I shall go to you again often but not quite in that way, I shall try to make strong & well for your work for dear one you must work or I shall begin tormenting myself thinking perhaps I help to make you idle & then I would soon feel we ought not to meet at all, & that would be O so dreary! –

You asked me yesterday if I am not a little sad that things are as they are between us – I am sorry & I am glad. It is hard being away from each other so much there are moments when I am dreadfully lonely & long to be with you, – one of these moments is on me now – but beloved I am glad & proud beyond measure of your love, & that it is strong enough & high enough to accept the spiritual love & union I offer –

I have prayed so hard to have all earthly desire taken from my love for you & dearest, loving you as I do, I have prayed & I am praying still that the bodily desire for me may be taken from you too. I know how hard & rare a thing it is for a man to hold spiritual love when the bodily desire is gone & I have not made these prayers without a terrible struggle a struggle that shook my life though I do not speak much of it & generally manage to laugh.

That struggle is over & I have found peace. I think today I could let you marry another without losing it – for I know the spiritual union between us will outlive this life, even if we never see each other in this world again.

Write to me soon.


Yeats, when he was in his 60s, nearing the end, wrote the following poem. Many scholars believe it makes reference to that visit in Paris in 1908, especially the evocative raw line “Strike me if I shriek”.

A Man Young and Old
by William Butler Yeats

First Love

THOUGH nurtured like the sailing moon
In beauty’s murderous brood,
She walked awhile and blushed awhile
And on my pathway stood
Until I thought her body bore
A heart of flesh and blood.
But since I laid a hand thereon
And found a heart of stone
I have attempted many things
And not a thing is done,
For every hand is lunatic
That travels on the moon.
She smiled and that transfigured me
And left me but a lout,
Maundering here, and maundering there,
Emptier of thought
Than the heavenly circuit of its stars
When the moon sails out.

Human Dignity
Like the moon her kindness is,
If kindness I may call
What has no comprehension in’t,
But is the same for all
As though my sorrow were a scene
Upon a painted wall.
So like a bit of stone I lie
Under a broken tree.
I could recover if I shrieked
My heart’s agony
To passing bird, but I am dumb
From human dignity.

The Mermaid
A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.

The Death of the Hare
I have pointed out the yelling pack,
The hare leap to the wood,
And when I pass a compliment
Rejoice as lover should
At the drooping of an eye,
At the mantling of the blood.
Then’ suddenly my heart is wrung
By her distracted air
And I remember wildness lost
And after, swept from there,
Am set down standing in the wood
At the death of the hare.

The Empty Cup
A crazy man that found a cup,
When all but dead of thirst,
Hardly dared to wet his mouth
Imagining, moon-accursed,
That another mouthful
And his beating heart would burst.
October last I found it too
But found it dry as bone,
And for that reason am I crazed
And my sleep is gone.

His Memories
We should be hidden from their eyes,
Being but holy shows
And bodies broken like a thorn
Whereon the bleak north blows,
To think of buried Hector
And that none living knows.
The women take so little stock
In what I do or say
They’d sooner leave their cosseting
To hear a jackass bray;
My arms are like the twisted thorn
And yet there beauty lay;
The first of all the tribe lay there
And did such pleasure take —
She who had brought great Hector down
And put all Troy to wreck —
That she cried into this ear,
‘Strike me if I shriek.’

The Friends of his Youth
Laughter not time destroyed my voice
And put that crack in it,
And when the moon’s pot-bellied
I get a laughing fit,
For that old Madge comes down the lane,
A stone upon her breast,
And a cloak wrapped about the stone,
And she can get no rest
With singing hush and hush-a-bye;
She that has been wild
And barren as a breaking wave
Thinks that the stone’s a child.
And Peter that had great affairs
And was a pushing man
Shrieks, ‘I am King of the Peacocks,’
And perches on a stone;
And then I laugh till tears run down
And the heart thumps at my side,
Remembering that her shriek was love
And that he shrieks from pride.

Summer and Spring
We sat under an old thorn-tree
And talked away the night,
Told all that had been said or done
Since first we saw the light,
And when we talked of growing up
Knew that we’d halved a soul
And fell the one in t’other’s arms
That we might make it whole;
Then peter had a murdering look,
For it seemed that he and she
Had spoken of their childish days
Under that very tree.
O what a bursting out there was,
And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

The Secrets of the Old
I have old women’s sectets now
That had those of the young;
Madge tells me what I dared not think
When my blood was strong,
And what had drowned a lover once
Sounds like an old song.
Though Margery is stricken dumb
If thrown in Madge’s way,
We three make up a solitude;
For none alive to-day
Can know the stories that we know
Or say the things we say:
How such a man pleased women most
Of all that are gone,
How such a pair loved many years
And such a pair but one,
Stories of the bed of straw
Or the bed of down.

His Wildness
O bid me mount and sail up there
Amid the cloudy wrack,
For peg and Meg and Paris’ love
That had so straight a back,
Are gone away, and some that stay
Have changed their silk for sack.
Were I but there and none to hear
I’d have a peacock cry,
For that is natural to a man
That lives in memory,
Being all alone I’d nurse a stone
And sing it lullaby.

From ‘Oedipus at Colonus’
Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.
Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is catried to the bridegroom’s chamber
through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have
looked into the eye of day;
The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

25 years after that first meeting, Yeats would write:

I was twenty-three years old when the troubling of my life began. I had heard from time to time in letters from Miss O’Leary, John O’Leary’s old sister, of a beautiful girl who had left the society of the Viceregal Court for Dublin nationalism. In after years I persuaded myself that I felt premonnitory excitement at the first reading of her name. Presently she drove up to our house in Bedford Park … I had never thought to see in a living woman so great beauty. It belonged to famous pictures, to poetry, to some legendary past. A complexion like the blossom of apples, and yet face and body had the beauty of lineaments which Blake calls the highest beauty because it changes least from youth to age, and a stature so great that she seemed of a divine race. Her movements were worthy of her form, and I understood at last why the poet of antiquity, where we would but speak of face and form, sings, loving some lady, that she paces like a goddess.

Samuel Levenson writes:

In his recollections, Yeats thought that there was, even at their first meetings, something in Maud’s manner that was declamatory, “Latin in a bad sense,” and possibly unscrupulous. She seemed to desire power for its own sake, to win elections for the sake of winning. Her goals were unselfish, he recalled, but, unlike the Indian sage who said, “Only the means can justify the end,” Maud was ready to adopt any means that promised to be successful.

He made two observations, which doubtless owe something to discoveries he made as their relationship progressed:

We were seeking different things: she, some memorable action for final consecration of her youth, and I, after all, but to discover and communicate a state of being … Her two and twenty years had taken some color, I thought, from French Boulangist adventurers and journlist arrivistes of whom she had seen too much.

Yeats remembered Maud Gonne as the herald of the movement to revive Celtic culture. “I have seen the enchanted day / And heard the morning bugles blow,” he wrote in his manuscript book.

She was tireless in fighting for the causes she felt were right and just. She was humorless. She spent her entire day huddled over her desk, with revolutionaries and suffragettes and prisoners’ wives coming to see her in an endless flow. She organized protests, she devoted her life to her causes, which made her fascinating, but also a bit of a drag at times. She could not understand Yeats’ dedication to the creation of the Abbey Theatre, and she nags him about it, in letter after letter, over DECADES of their lives. She always wanted him to use his art in a more revolutionary manner. Thank God he resisted those calls, because his art transcends the political upheavals of the day, although he is a very political poet. His commitment to the Irish Revival (as manifested in his poetry, as well as his encouragement of young Irish writers, and his work at the Abbey Theatre) WAS a political act, as far as he was concerned. Irish culture must flourish. He would help create that space where it could happen. But Maud Gonne was not an artist. She was a political person from head to toe. She did not see the point of dedicating so much time to art when there were real social challenges in Ireland. She didn’t “get it”. She had a huge blind spot, as many purely political people do. Yeats was amazingly patient with her impatience with him, and kept on doing his own thing, despite the never-ending refrain in her letters of, ‘Willie, if only you weren’t so busy with that THEATRE, you could get some REAL work done.”

Jim Dwyer wrote in a recent New York Times article:

Until nearly the end of his days he and Gonne kept an eye on each other. In 1938 he wrote “€œA Bronze Head” about her frequent appearances at political funerals, a “€œdark tomb-haunter,” so transformed from the light, gentle woman of his memory.

Almost from the beginning she had been a figure of memory. In the opening pages of the 1908 notebook he looked backward: “€œShe said something that blotted away the recent past & brought all back to the spiritual marriage of 1898. She believed that this bond is to be recreated & to be the means of spiritual illumination between us. It is to be a bond of the spirit only.”

A Bronze Head

HERE at right of the entrance this bronze head,
Human, superhuman, a bird’s round eye,
Everything else withered and mummy-dead.
What great tomb-haunter sweeps the distant sky
(Something may linger there though all else die;)
And finds there nothing to make its tetror less
i{Hysterica passio} of its own emptiness?

No dark tomb-haunter once; her form all full
As though with magnanimity of light,
Yet a most gentle woman; who can tell
Which of her forms has shown her substance right?
Or maybe substance can be composite,
profound McTaggart thought so, and in a breath
A mouthful held the extreme of life and death.

But even at the starting-post, all sleek and new,
I saw the wildness in her and I thought
A vision of terror that it must live through
Had shattered her soul. Propinquity had brought
Imagiation to that pitch where it casts out
All that is not itself: I had grown wild
And wandered murmuring everywhere, ‘My child, my
child! ‘

Or else I thought her supernatural;
As though a sterner eye looked through her eye
On this foul world in its decline and fall;
On gangling stocks grown great, great stocks run dry,
Ancestral pearls all pitched into a sty,
Heroic reverie mocked by clown and knave,
And wondered what was left for massacre to save.

Here is, perhaps, the most famous poem Yeats wrote for her.

It is impossible for me to read this without tears coming to my eyes.

When You are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


Happy birthday to this fierce complex “pilgrim soul”, she who is so much a part of the warp and weft of my entire life.

Posted in On This Day | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

“Since the beginning, I’ve said, ‘I’m not going to get involved with my image.’” – Charlotte Rampling

Charlotte Rampling in “Night Porter.”

A terrific interview with Charlotte Rampling, one of my favorite actresses.

Posted in Actors | Tagged | 4 Comments

“Take the Scissors and Throw Them Because WHY DO YOU NEED THEM?”

My friend Alex is legitimately insane and totally brilliant. If you do not follow along with her Katie’s Corner series, where Katharine Hepburn gives various “how-to lessons”, you are missing out. (You are also missing out if you haven’t been watching the series Transparent, which has been nominated for awards, including a Golden Globe, renewed for a second season, as well as chosen for many critics’ Best of the Year lists. Alex is a regular cast member on Transparent.)

In case you have not decorated your Christmas tree yet (and in the Catholic parish where I grew up, why would you have? IT’S STILL ADVENT, heathen.), here are some helpful tips from a completely batty Katharine Hepburn.

Oh, Alex. I love you.

Posted in Actors | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Shimmering Manhattan

Yesterday, I had to replace my Mac AirPort (a dinosaur, which suddenly crapped out after 7 years of faithful service), and then I was going to meet friends for drinks at the legendary Algonquin Hotel. There’s an Apple store in Grand Central, so, despite dreading being in the midst of a rush-hour crowd, I headed across town to Grand Central. And yes, the crowds were fierce. But there’s something about that building … I know commuters rush through there on a daily basis, and so perhaps they are somewhat “over” their surroundings since they see it all the time. I, however, almost never go through there. As a matter of fact I avoid it, because of the crowds. Yesterday, the rushing crowds (holiday and otherwise) added to my sense of the building as this glorious and long-standing hub of action, a funnel through which thousands of people flow every single day. It also was festive and magical.

And then, of course, there is the CONCOURSE. With that dreamy green ceiling, with golden constellations, and pin-prick star-light shining through. Heaven. (Literally.)

I got my new AirPort in no time flat and then had about 15 minutes to linger. Which I did. I leaned over the balcony and soaked up the sights.

And then, I headed out into the cold night to go to The Algonquin, another legendary New York spot. Normally when we meet up there, it’s relatively quiet in that main lobby area (captured so memorably in Peter Bogdanovich’s film They All Laughed). But when I walked in, the place was hopping, packed with people. A pre-theatre crowd maybe? They ended up finding seats for us in “the back room,” which sounded ominous, but revealed itself as a beautiful and quiet wood-paneled room, with (hilariously) a gigantic TV screen on one wall showing an image of a roaring crackling fire. We found it mesmerizing.

We had a wonderful time. I just want to point out (in the photo below) the magnificent and detailed gingerbread house placed in the main lobby area. It was outrageous and intricate, with M&Ms lying around in the sugar-snow that you could scoop up and eat if you wanted to. I didn’t want to, because I imagined how many flu-ridden just-wiped-my-sniffly-nose fingers would have already touched those M&Ms. Still, it was festive.

I’ve lived here for 20 years. It’s nice to go to places and look around and still have that, “Ahhh, Manhattan” shiver of appreciation. Nights when Manhattan shimmers.








Posted in Personal | Tagged | 11 Comments

My Favorite Films of 2014

My Top 10
(more in-depth commentary, and other writer’s choices over at Rogerebert.com):

1. Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood.
2. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater. Review here.
3. Closed Curtain, directed by Jafar Panahi. Review here.
4. Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund. Review here.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson.
6. Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Review here.
7. Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Review here.
8. Love Is Strange, directed by Ira Sachs. Review here.
9. Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Review here.
10. Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer. Review here.

And because there are so many other movies to see, 2014 being a really good year, here are other films. So let’s call it a Top Whatever. In no particular order.

11. The Babadook: The other night, I stood in front of the IFC Center, waiting for the screening of King Vidor’s The Crowd. Three youngish guys had just emerged onto the sidewalk after seeing The Babadook. They stood smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk, so that passersby had to circle around them, and talked, feverishly about how great the movie was. They were clearly horror fans (from what I gathered in my blatant eavesdropping) and many of them expressed dismay and disappointment about how so many horror films treat serious subjects in a really cursory manner, whereas in The Babadook those serious subjects are the whole point. One of the guys said, “I mean, it’s about grief, right? The whole thing is about grief!” The other one said, “Yeah! Exactly!” They were so excited about it that they decided to go out and have a drink to discuss it more. Now that’s a good movie. My review of The Babadook is here.

12. Neighbors. One of the best comedies of the year. Refreshing. Hilarious. Unexpected. Not what you think it will be at all. Go, Rose Byrne. She and Seth Rogen make a great comedic team. The movie is about a lot of things, letting go of youth, while you still insist to yourself that you can hang with the kids, and be cool, remember when we were cool, honey, remember? A really confident and effective film. Wrote about it – and Zac Efron, who is incredible in it, here.

13. Selma. This is a major film. By focusing on the struggles of Martin Luther King with the locals in Selma (not just George Wallace and the whites, but the rival civil rights groups who considered Selma their territory), director Ava DuVernay pours that huge story into a narrow and totally charged container, keeping things specific when they could go really broad. It goes broad anyway, in the harrowing sequences of the walk over the bridge (masterful) and in the “coming around” of Lyndon B. Johnson, as he finally stepped up to do the right thing. All of those behind-the-scenes are important. They provide context and a window into King’s very specific non-violent movement. The performances are tremendous. The script had been knocking around Hollywood for a while. DuVernay rewrote it, bringing the focus back to King and his colleagues, where before it was a lot about white reaction to the events. (Here’s a fantastic interview with DuVernay about how Selma came to be.) An extraordinary film. A major moment in so many ways.

14. Last Days in Vietnam. Rory Kennedy directed this phenomenal documentary about the final weeks of the Vietnam War, and the backstage stories about Vietnamese trying to get out on the last helicopters leaving the city, as well as the concerted and desperate efforts from American soldiers and American aid workers and embassy workers trying to get their Vietnamese friends and co-workers out. Made up almost entirely of newsreel footage (many of which are famous images: the helicopters being pushed off the deck of the aircraft carrier, the line of people climbing up the chimney to get onto the helicopter hovering over the roof), there are many many stories here I had never heard. An extraordinary document of first-hand witnessing.

15. Goodbye to Language. What can I say, it’s Jean-Luc Godard. A political and sexual and visual mishmash, angry and strange, funny and bizarre, Godard is still experimenting, still pushing the boundaries of what film can do, what a story can take. It’s in 3-D, and he futzes with the image, so that faces are superimposed over backgrounds, or there is almost a halo effect over certain scenes, so you feel like you are looking at something that has been exposed too many times. Or that if only you squinted hard enough all of the images would align and click into place. Godard fans will recognize his style, his interests. You either love it or hate it. But the best part of it is: he forces you to deal with what HE wants to show you. It’s his way or the highway. I love that forcefulness, and I love thinking about what he puts onscreen. His stuff has enormous reverb. Deafeningly loud.

16. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Blown away by this first-time director’s debut. My Rogerebert.com review is here.

17. Gone Girl. There was a lot of agonized commentary over David Fincher’s Gone Girl, the kind of commentary I find tiresome. Did the movie endorse misogyny? worried the worry-warts. In my opinion, these are the wrong questions. I don’t care what a movie endorses. (Showing something is not endorsement, by the way, but that’s a side issue.) All I care about is whether or not a film knows what it is, and then goes ahead and IS that thing with 100% commitment. (I may not care for the end result, but that, again, is another issue.) Gone Girl does that: it is what it is, ferociously. I didn’t find it worrisome or troubling, I didn’t feel like “all women are evil witches” was the message. All I felt was: Jeez Louise, this broad is out of her MIND, and … even better … she is totally entertaining in her vicious world-class manipulation. Jen and I were guffawing at the image of her lolling around, her mouth full of Kit-Kats. Like, she’s the honey badger, man, she doesn’t give a shit anymore. This is kicking it old-school, this is Barbara Stanwyck, this is femme fatale, this is grown-up time. Give me darkness, give me sick and twisted, give me some anger. I have my own opinions about Gillian Flynn’s book, and the whole “cool girl” thing, which I thought was pretty brilliant. What I loved about the movie is that it was relentless in devoting itself to that sick disgusting relationship, and those two gross people. I wasn’t disturbed by it. I thought it was hilarious.

18. Blue Ruin. Adore this beautifully made and terrifying and hilarious twist on the revenge film. And Eve Plumb is in it. Honestly, what more could you want from life? Jan Brady as backwoods vicious matriarch? Hell, yes. My review here.

19. Snowpiercer. It’s been months and I still love talking about that movie. I am still not over it. Grandiose and dark, thrillingly designed and executed, it was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of the year. My review here.

20. Life Itself. Steve James’ documentary about Roger Ebert is one of the most touching films I’ve seen all year. It gives a great portrait of Roger as a newspaperman, one of the last of his kind, and is also the story of Roger’s final illness, and his marriage to Chaz. The film must go on. I watched it in tears. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and the success it has received thus far is richly deserved. Here’s my post on seeing it at EbertFest.

21. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1. I am not sure the protocol here. Am I supposed to not separate the two films out? Judge them as one film? I saw both, and reviewed both for Ebert. Volume II didn’t grab me as hard as Volume 1 (My review of Vol. II here.) It took me a while to come around on Lars von Trier, and I still can’t stand Breaking the Waves, but Melancholia was my breaking point. I am still in LOVE/LUST with that film (my review here) I went into Melancholia expecting to hate it, and I love it so much I saw it 4 times in the movie theatre and now own it. It’s fun being wrong. Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is a dizzying and sometimes ridiculous polemic, even slapstick at times, delving into the hundreds of sexual exploits of one particular woman. It’s intellectual, it’s agonized, but it’s also hilarious. Uma Thurman’s scene is one of my favorite scenes of the year. “Come on, children, let’s go look at the whoring bed!” My Rogerebert.com review of Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 is here.

22. Clouds of Sils Maria. One of the best films about an actor’s process that I have ever seen. It’s up there with Opening Night (and I rarely put anything up with Opening Night). The two films have a lot in common, and Clouds of Sils Maria earns the right to stand in the company of Opening Night. I adored it. My review is here.

23. The Double. I’ve read that some people despised this film, and it’s on a couple of Worst Of lists. I thought it was awesome. Taking Dostoevsky’s harrowing story about a man who is haunted by his own double running around town, and putting it into a completely specific world – it’s not our world, it’s some OTHER world – was a beautiful choice. Removing the story from a recognizable context and placing it in some other dark industrialized Orwellian world highlighted the intensity of the tale, the destabilizing of one man’s identity. I was riveted by it.

24. We Are the Best! What a delight. What a fun and touching movie about three 12-year-old girls in 1982 Stockholm, forming a punk band. Fantastic. My review is here.

25. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely. This is a cheat, since it has not gotten a release yet and is still making the festival circuit rounds, and getting occasional screenings in random places. Josephine Decker is the director. She also did Butter on the Latch, another extraordinary film showing her unique vision and style. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely takes place on a farm, and Butter on the Latch (which mixes documentary footage as well as surreal horror-film elements) takes place at an actual Serbian folk-music camp that occurs every year in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. I want to go to that folk-music camp. Sign me up! Seeking both films out in a double feature (I think BAM just did that recently) would be well worth it. Thou Wast Mild and Lovely knocked me flat, I’m telling you. It is not like anything else. If I told you the plot, I would be doing the film a disservice. In a way, the film is more about Decker’s distinctive style than anything else, but there are images in the film that have never left me. The moment with the frog. The kitchen utensils in the air, against the blue sky. The final scene. Please keep Decker on your radar. Keep your eyes peeled for her. This feels like a pretty major voice. And now I will point you to The New Yorker, and Richard Brody’s excellent piece: Pay attention to Josephine Decker. Yes. What he said.

26. Nightcrawler. A disturbing and uncompromising character-study. It’s also a really interesting look at the world of “night crawlers,” guys who race around town with cameras, filming crime scenes, and then selling the footage to news stations. It’s a world I know nothing about. But at the center of it is Jake Gyllenhall’s creepy Rupert Pupkin-ish performance. Definitely his best work yet, and I’m a fan. My review is here.

27. The LEGO Movie. While on vacation with my family in New Hampshire, I ended up watching the movie four times, with my various nieces and nephews. I had not seen it in the theatre. I had read the good reviews. I adore Chris Pratt. I loved him from the second I saw him in Zero Dark Thirty (“I’m listening to Tony Robbins and planning out my future. I really want to talk to all of you guys about this.”), and his small role in Moneyball was terrific. If you read the book, you know how it makes you fall in love with Scott Hatteberg. Chris Pratt gets that. Perfect casting. Anyway, it’s been so fun seeing him get these huge roles now. The LEGO Movie has a great script, wonderful voice performances, and is inventive and fun. I mean, come on. I watched it four times in four days. At one point, I said to my nephew, “Can we watch The LEGO Movie again?”

28. The Strange Little Cat. Almost difficult to describe. Hypnotic. Very funny. I reviewed it for Rogerebert.com. The revolt of the objects.

29. A Coffee in Berlin. Staying with the German theme: A Coffee in Berlin is a monster-hit in Germany, racking up tons of awards, and it hasn’t gotten a ton of play over here. I am not sure why. Maybe people think it’s going to be serious and then are disappointed when it’s not? Maybe the fact that it’s black-and-white makes it seem like it will be serious? I have said before that I wish more movies felt free to be silly, and also that directors knew how to be silly like they used to. They used to know how to do it. A Coffee in Berlin has its deep side, but in some respects there is nothing deeper than truly absurd silliness. I loved this movie. I reviewed it for Rogerebert.com.

30. The Skeleton Twins. My kind of movie. So much so it feels custom-fit. I want all movies to be like this. I am just happy The Skeleton Twins exists. Reviewed it here.

Other movies I saw this year and loved: Child’s Pose, The Boxtrolls , Watchers of the Sky, The Homesman, The Guest, Dear White People, Kelly & Cal, Omar, Joe, Le Week-end. I’m probably forgetting some stuff.

I’ve missed some of the movies on many Top lists, and still have some catching up to do. Some of the movies everyone is raving about I didn’t care for at all. That happens sometimes. These are the movies this year I really loved.

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The Individual Top Tens of 2014 (at Rogerebert.com)

There are 10 main writers over at Rogerebert.com, and yesterday we published our consensus Top Ten.

Today, the editors have published each of our individual Top Tens. (The main contributors are featured, and so are a bunch of other writers for the site as well as Roger’s beloved Far-Flung Correspondents.) It’s awesome to see the diversity in choices! Where we overlap, where we diverge. Odie Henderson and I think a lot alike!

The Individual Top Tens of 2014.

Well worth reading everyone’s contributions, but for the record, here are my choices, with links to reviews (when one exists, that is). These are not ranked in order, but listed alphabetically.

1. Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood.
2. Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater. Review here.
3. Closed Curtain, directed by Jafar Panahi. Review here.
4. Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Östlund. Review here.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel, directed by Wes Anderson.
6. Ida, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Review here.
7. Inherent Vice, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Review here.
8. Love Is Strange, directed by Ira Sachs. Review here.
9. Only Lovers Left Alive, directed by Jim Jarmusch. Review here.
10. Under the Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer. Review here.

Longer list to be posted in a couple of days, with more films. But that’s the Top 10.

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Goodbye To All That (2014); directed/written by Angus MacLachlan


No, not the famous Joan Didion essay (strange, to pick such a famous title. Kind of like that recent Vanessa Hudgens’ movie called Gimme Shelter. Although maybe MacLachlan is consciously connecting his movie to Didion’s essay?)

I wrote about this film a couple months ago, when I screened it for the Gotham Awards, and at the time, it had no release date. Goodbye to All That is coming out in limited release starting today, so I wanted to push this review to the forefront.

Title (and terrible poster) aside, Goodbye to All That, written and directed by Angus MacLachlan (who wrote the wonderful Junebug) is a beautiful and strange little story about a man named Otto (Paul Schneider). Otto is not a bad guy. He loves his 9-year-old daughter Edie (Audrey P. Scott), loves to participate in road races, has a lot of enthusiasm for things, he thinks his marriage to Annie (Melanie Lynskey) is pretty good, he’s got a good job, you know, he’s doing good! But from the very first scene, when he wipes out after crossing the finish line in a 10k, you get the sense that things are not really … okay with this guy. The next scene shows him careening through the woods on a little open land-rover with his daughter. At least she’s wearing a helmet. They’re having a blast! Until they crash into a tree, and Otto’s foot is so messed up as a result that he may actually have to get it amputated. Mother and daughter walk down the hospital hall together, and daughter says, in a really worried voice, the kind of voice you never want to hear from a 9-year-old: “Why do these things always happen to daddy?”

Goodbye To All That doesn’t really answer Edie’s question but it presents the problem. Otto is accident-prone. If you know accident-prone people then you know the frustration of having to deal with their continual mishaps. Much of it is not their fault. But at some point, accidents occur because the person getting in the accident is not paying attention. What happens when you live your whole life not paying attention to it? Otto honestly thinks he’s paying attention. That’s the beauty of Schneider’s performance. He’s not a jerk. He’s not overtly selfish. But on some cellular level, he is in a fog. And so disasters continue to befall him because he doesn’t think things through beforehand. Other people may bump their head when their little jeep crashes. Otto’s foot is so wrecked he may lose it. The doctor scares the shit out of him, telling him to stop taking runs every day, do you WANT to lose the foot? Otto, though, thinks: Come on, I gotta still take a run every day, how else am I supposed to get exercise?


Otto is a grown man but has somehow missed the memo that life is short and you have to pay attention to it in order to 1. survive it and 2. get the most out of it. So he misses things. In another early scene, right after the land-rover accident, his wife summons him to have a meeting with her therapist. Otto’s reply is a confused, “You have a therapist?” In the meeting with the therapist, Otto is informed that his marriage is over. He is completely blindsided. He wants to talk to Annie about it, but she keeps looking at the therapist who answers for her: “No. This is over. Time to move on.” Otto can’t believe it! His marriage fell apart and he didn’t even notice it happening. Annie is an immovable wall. She doesn’t even want to speak to Otto. Anything he has to say to her should be said through their lawyers. Otto blusters around, “Wait, what??? What happened??”

Otto is in the passenger seat of his own life. He doesn’t even realize it. He has to move out of his house, all with the busted foot. He suddenly realizes that Annie is starting to restrict his access to Edie. He panics. But then he slowly figures out that the situation is much more dire. Edie doesn’t feel safe with her dad. She sits on the counter watching him cook pasta for her, holding the recipe up and out, basically over the open flame, and you can see Edie take it all in. She already knows that you have to look a little bit down the road with every choice you make, even cooking pasta, and he’s so busy blabbing to her that he’s not realizing the water is boiling over. She has to remind him. Other things happen. His house is broken into and he’s robbed. He starts to date, and he has a series of bizarre encounters with freaky-deaky women he meets online.


There are times when Edie wakes up and hears her father having sex with some lady in the other room. She doesn’t want to stay there anymore. And yet at other times, she bursts into tears and clings to him, “Please don’t leave me, Daddy!” It’s heartbreaking. She senses that something really bad could happen to her father. Something REALLY bad. Otto is completely dazed that his daughter would see him that way.

There’s no real formal structure to the film. It’s a series of unfortunate events, basically. The acting is so strong, and the mood of the film, set by MacLachlan is so sure and steady, that it never loses its way. It’s a character study, my favorite kind of film. Otto is a man who doesn’t understand that he needs to get into the driver’s seat, in moments big and small. His wife is a piece of work, let me tell you, and I couldn’t help but think that Otto dodged a bullet with that broad. But his daughter. There are the real stakes. That relationship is in peril. And what does Otto plan on DOING about it? Can an accident-prone man basically decide to stop having so many accidents?


Goodbye To All That is quiet, sometimes uproarious, and often extremely sad. The young actress playing Edie is so wonderful, her sharp worried little eyes looking around at her father’s life, and knowing … somehow … that something bad is going to happen to her while she is under his care. Otto is so clueless he doesn’t catch it. He doesn’t get it. The film is not didactic. It is not the slow methodical journey towards a man taking responsibility for himself. The film is messier than that. I appreciate its mess. People come and go, they enter Otto’s life and then exit, sometimes screaming at him about something he’s done, all as he looks on, completely baffled.

The final moment of the film, however, the small coda placed on the story as the credits begin to roll, was so poignant that I gasped when it came onscreen. It’s a small triumph, and (most likely) temporary, but it was hopeful, in an extremely chastened way.

New Yorkers: It’s playing at the IFC Center.

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The Ten Best Films of 2014 (by Rogerebert.com contributors)

The way it worked was: Each writer for the site submitted his/her own individual Top 10 List. The editors then collated the group list into a collective Top 10. Tomorrow, our own individual lists will be published. Each one of us was assigned to write a blurb about a specific film on the group Top 10. I was assigned Jim Jarmusch’s dreamy Only Lovers Left Alive.

So voila, from the contributors at Rogerebert.com:

The Ten Best Films of 2014.

And I’ll put up a link tomorrow to all of our individual Top 10s. It should be interesting! It’s such a talented group of writers over there. I am proud to be a part of it.

I have also put together a much more sweeping Top Films of 2014, there’s something like 30 films on it, and I’ll put that up here some time before Christmas, which, good Lord, is next week. In the next couple of days then.

To those who griped about this being a bad year for movies (the gripes happen every year), I would say: What the heck are you talking about? The early part of the year we were DROWNING in awesome films, all of which were playing in actual multiplexes, and not just in New York and L.A. It was a pretty damn great year for movies. This fall we have had Inherent Vice, Selma, Dear White People, The Babadook, Nightcrawler, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night … there are more. These are major films, for all different kinds of reasons.

Anyway, enjoy our list. Maybe you’ll see some of your favorites there too.

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