Leo Lerman’s Lost World

Gray Foy in the apartment he once shared with Leo Lerman.Photo: Erwin Olaf

In 1982, I was strolling in Tangier with Paul Bowles. We were on Old Mountain, the scene of much international high life in the fifties, and it must have been the talk of parties that brought him to ask me out of the blue, “Do you know Leo Lerman?”

Lerman had told Bowles more than 30 years ago that his stories were like Chinese boxes, each opening into another—and that at the end there was nothing. Bowles remembered that sharp sting all those years. That was the power of Lerman’s reach as a critic and tastemaker, a power he had exerted through magazines like Vogue and Vanity Fair. Now his diary, The Grand Surprise, shows us not only the Lerman of glittering parties, openings, first nights, and famous friends, but a private man with an inner core far deeper than his surface life would ever have suggested. He could say about himself: “I have wasted my life. A sloppy, sloppy life—mostly notions and remarks and little achievement.” But he was as unsparing of others as he was of himself. Of his then-boss, the editorial director of Condé Nast, he wrote: “I now know that Alex [Liberman] is evil—a dreadful being.”

“Leo’s book was a revelation to me,” I said on a visit to Gray Foy, Lerman’s lifelong companion (Leo died in 1994). “It was a revelation to me too,” he said. “Leo was always writing, but I did not know it was this.” If this kind of journal-keeping seems old-fashioned to us today, it indeed is. “We missed the twentieth century; we were living in the nineteenth,” Foy explains. He and Lerman shared this apartment at the Osborne—built in 1885—on West 57th for 27 years, a home that reflected that building’s out-of-time feeling. Ceilings with the breathing height of English club libraries, rooms filled with furniture polished to a mellow Victorian glow. Some of the Tiffany lamps, Foy proudly points out, were bought for $100 “because no one wanted them at the time.” But after Cecil Beaton and Truman Capote saw them and bought their own, Foy says, the Tiffany revival began.

Parties many and glamorous found their way into the privacy of the apartment. But perhaps the one most remembered by Foy was a dinner given for Maria Callas, who was seated beside Leonard Bernstein, each one, as if in a contest, outdoing the other with lavish compliments. It was, Foy says, “an extraordinary life, a fabulous life of surplus. Whatever glamour there is today, it is not the same.”

Leo Lerman’s Lost World