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Humor Came Her

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Geng had one of the most hypnotic personalities in literary New York. To men, she was like catnip: smoky voice, an even smokier erotic imagination, great gams. "She was one of the most feminine women I ever met," says Singer. "In her posture, her figure, her walk . . ." Her walk? "She walked the way a really swishy guy walked," he explains. "It looked good on her."

Seduction thrilled her. There were actors, rock stars, writers, even a professional baseball player. She categorically rejected the notion of promiscuity and said she had no patience for sexual jealousy. During the seventies, while dating writer Hendrik Hertzberg, she fired off a letter to his on-again-off-again girlfriend Karen Durbin, proposing that they write a book about two women on opposite points of a love triangle. "It had a certain wacky charm," confesses Durbin, who later became editor of The Village Voice. "But it sounded to me like hell on earth. And besides," she adds, "it wasn't a triangle. Rick was running wild back then -- you'd be better off imagining an octagon."

During the seventies, Geng also slept with one of the prime-cut hunks of Hollywood -- a hunk with very powerful libel lawyers -- unleashing such an inquisitive outpouring from her friends that she had to make a rule. "We could ask only two questions about it," says Miller. "It was the green-stamps version."

But Geng was also a woman's woman -- someone who burrowed into her work, kept secrets, shopped with glee, cooked with flair, and tenderly looked after her friends' kids. And as sociable as she was, she sought out and lived an independent literary existence, taking pleasure in her solitude in an almost sensual way. Most of her adult life was spent in the same one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment on East 64th Street, and it was marked by only one long-term relationship -- with Hamilton, during the mid-eighties. "She was one of the first women I'd ever heard say that she didn't want to get married," says Ruth Adams Bronz, who knew Geng for 34 years. "I think she liked being a mistress."

It was a courageous decision to live this way, if in fact it was a decision at all. As Frazier points out, Geng wouldn't have written what and how she did if she had been a wife and mother of three. "It's like wondering who Nureyev would have been," he says, "if he'd been out mowing the lawn every Sunday."

All of us are defined by our passions. Geng was defined by hers more than most. "When she was interested in something," says Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker, "she made you feel as if she'd discovered it. She convinced me she'd discovered baseball."

Geng also discovered George Balanchine and Frank Ku-umba Lacy. And salsa music and the Atlantic Theater Company. If Geng liked a book, she was evangelical about it. If The New Yorker failed to publish people Geng believed in, she gave the fiction editor hell.

But Geng also wrote brutal rejection letters, periodically accused her charges (Philip Roth included) of being asleep while writing, and once casually dismissed one of Frazier's pieces in a five-word sentence: "I never read Bible parodies." Editors would sooner have had an organ removed than quarrel with her about her manuscripts, and she could be a tyrant even in casual conversation. "Once she cut me dead so conspicuously I couldn't believe it," says Pauline Kael, The New Yorker's longtime movie critic. "We were friends the day before. It was out of the blue. It was . . . personal."

And that's just it: For Geng, almost everything was. Her controlled and porcelain exterior belied an overdelicate person, someone who often and easily felt wronged. "Taste and morality were sort of one thing to her," muses Janet Coleman, the host of "Catradio Café" on WBAI. "What was aesthetically unpleasant was morally repugnant."


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