Michiko Kakutani

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Andy Warhol was shot, somehow, only once.

He was, no doubt, a brilliant visionary who knew decades early the Reality Age was approaching, even if he calibrated the time span we’d all be famous far too cautiously. The Pop Artist and keen media philosopher, however, was careless about those troubled souls he assembled in his Factory, his role that of the foreman unconcerned about the safety of the ones working on the floor. It was somehow glamorized, though it had all the charm of a heroin souk on Halloween. The scene in Midnight Cowboy when Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo wander, shocked, through a decadent party inside a Warholian vomitorium seems apt.

Warhol wasn’t responsible for those in his constellation, but he didn’t need to be so irresponsible. He didn’t have to be a father, but he should have been a better friend.

In Gatsby terms, he curated a “rotten crowd” in the Sixties, and into their spin waltzed New England patrician purity in the slight form of Edie Sedgwick, who was destined to be a star of the shooting variety. An aristocrat descending into hades, how amazing! Except that it wasn’t. Within a few years she was worn out, used up and dead of a drug overdose. Like Zelda Fitzgerald, she’d been burned alive.

A decade after her death, Jean Stein, a restless type of Hollywood royalty, created a great oral history of Sedgwick that also spoke to the era. Not that Stein’s book fully captured the 1960s anymore than did Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, both volumes laser focused on the dark side of the decade. But you also couldn’t tell nearly as well the story of that tumultuous time without their reporting.

Stein just died in a fall from her 15th-floor Manhattan apartment, likely a suicide, after sliding into a depression. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard, a former employee and confidante of the author and editor, wrote the best obituary about her, an uncommonly deep dive into her psyche and milieu. An excerpt from the obit is followed by one from Michiko Kakutani’s 1982 review of Stein’s Sedgwick book and a 1965 video of Andy and Edie in an appropriately odd appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show.

From Smith:

Most people speak because they like to hear themselves speak, and the trick for a journalist is to respect, and then profit from, human frailty long enough to keep your own mouth shut. But other people, usually more interesting people, don’t want to speak. Jean’s genius was in getting those people to talk by speaking herself. She understood that social space wants to be filled. Everyone fears certain types of silence, so they fill it with talk, the question then is about the quality of the talk. By exposing parts of her own pain, Jean made her subjects not only willing to reveal some of their own, but also, and more importantly, keen to protect her and join her at the place of her pain so she wouldn’t be left alone.

Here’s a practical example: Next time you attend a party and are called on to introduce two people but have forgotten the name of one or both, stutter. At least one, most likely both, will quickly volunteer their names in order to rescue you from your awkwardness. Why? Arguably, it’s because people are good. In any case, Jean’s aesthetic was premised on the idea that people are basically good and don’t want others to hurt, especially not in public. And that was perhaps Jean’s great theme—public hurt, American pain.

Her first book, also edited by Plimpton, was American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy, an oral biography centered around the funeral train that took Kennedy’s body from New York City to Washington, D.C. But Edie was Jean’s masterpiece, also an oral biography, a book that I think is generally misunderstood as a love song to the Warhol gang and the groovy 1960s underground.

Generations of young women, up to the present, have gone to New York with the legend of young Edie Sedgwick, the beautiful and doomed socialite celebrity, on their minds, steered by half-formed dreams of becoming the next “It” girl. One of those young women, a friend of mine, visited the Grand Street office when Jean was there and gushed to her about how much she loved the book, the scene it portrayed, the ethos of the moment. Jean’s face became very serious. She shook her head emphatically. “It was not glamorous,” she told my friend. And then I started to imagine how Jean must have seen it—like a vision of the underworld with generations of beautiful and naïve young women on the arm of some painter, or writer, or actor, eventually to be discarded and left alone in hell. That’s who Edie was, a kid who didn’t learn quickly enough the cost of not leaving a parade of death.

The space Jean Stein occupied was unique, moral, ambiguously optimistic in the American style, and is filled now by her books, a central part of the historiography of 20th-century America.•

From Kakutani:

Beautiful and charming, she had an ability to conjure up a magical world of grace and fun, and when she came to New York in 1964, she almost immediately became the leading lady of the fashionable demimonde. Her arrival happened to coincide with that period when all the old rules were suddenly breaking down – her gift for the outrageous seemed, to many, to personify the times – and she quickly replaced Baby Jane Holzer as Andy Warhol’s newest star. Mr. Warhol, with his gift for exploiting image and personality, escorted her to parties and featured her in his films, and Vogue magazine was soon dubbing her a ”Youthquaker,” ”22, going whither, God knows, but at a great rate!”

A friend who knew Edie as a teen-ager recalls in the book that she always ”liked walking very close to extinction,” and the world of Warhol’s Factory – with its drugs and sexual experimentation – fueled her fatal predilections. There were shoplifting sprees at department stores, injections of LSD and speed, and increasingly frequent stays at hospitals and clinics. Although Edie finally left New York, returning to California, where she got married, she never seemed to get the hang of ordinary life. Happiness and the order that her grandparents had once predicated their lives on remained elusive, and on Nov. 16, 1971, she died from ”acute barbiturate intoxication.” She was 28 years old.•

Warhol refuses to speak during a 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s talk show, allowing a still-healthy-looking Sedgwick to handle the conversation. Not even the Pop Artist himself could have realized how correct he was in believing that soon just being would be enough to warrant stardom, that it wouldn’t matter what you said or if you said a thing, that traditional content would lose much of its value.

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In “Donald Trump’s Chilling Language, and the Fearsome Power of Words,” Michiko Kakutani’s smart Vanity Fair “Hive” piece about the dishonest, nihilistic and potentially lethal lingo of the new President, she characterizes her subject as “part Don Rickles, part George Wallace.” I’ll disagree in that Rickles is a genius employer of English, an Einstein of insult comedy. Trump’s nastiness may have been effective to this point, but comparing him to Rickles is like saying someone who slices off their tongue with a rusty can is just like Harpo Mark. I’ll stick with my Lampanelli-Mussolini comparison.

Kakutani homes in ably on Trump and his team’s mission to render words beyond a baseball cap slogan meaningless, to create chaos so that anything is possible, including unspeakable things. But even if the Administration can continue to convince a sizable minority of the country that language means little, reality will intervene. As Eliot Cohen, a former Dubya State Department official tells her, the radical imprecision of Trump’s utterances “is going to greatly magnify the danger of miscalculation by all kinds of people.”

An excerpt:

The speech itself was divisive and pointedly aimed at Trump’s base, pitting the people against the establishment, the heartland against Washington. It painted a darkly dystopian picture of a United States in decline (“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now”) and beset by violence that he promised to fix—a picture that stands in sharp contrast to the reality of a country in which crime is low by historical levels and the economy has been steadily growing, adding jobs for 75 straight months, the longest streak on record. Trump’s candidacy was predicated on breaking rules, and his Inaugural Address was no exception. There was no poetry in the speech—no soaring words, no invocation of the liberty and freedoms granted by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, or the special qualities that have made America, as Ronald Reagan said, quoting John Winthrop, a shining “city upon a hill.”

Instead, Trump used the occasion of the Inaugural—traditionally an opportunity to bring the country together, to lift and inspire, to remind the country of its shared ideals and rededicate it to a common mission—to deliver a lumbering variation on his doom-and-gloom speech from last July’s Republican National Convention. It recalled the polarizing, red-meat stump speeches that he served up to rallies last year; the nihilistic passages in his books in which he describes the world as “a horrible place” where “lions kill for food, but people kill for sport”; and the apocalyptic worldview of Bannon, who has made a series of films depicting Western civilization under threat from foreigners and from rot within.•

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Barack Obama is a poet, but Marilynne Robinson is a better one.

No offense to 44–I don’t think the Housekeeping author would be nearly as good a President. It’s just that sometimes a poet can see what a politico might overlook, especially one like Obama who rose on positivity even if he governed mostly as a pragmatist. Before winter had arrived in 2015–before it had arrived in America–Obama and Robinson talked literature and faith and nation for the New York Review of Books, and the novelist knew something ugly was taking hold in a very serious way, that a wall was being built. Like most of us, the President still resisted such a notion. He held on to hope.

I was reminded of this discussion by Michiko Kakutani’s smart New York Times conversation with the outgoing President about the significant role reading has played in his life.

An excerpt from the 2015 NYRB dialogue:

Marilynne Robinson:

Fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

President Obama:


Marilynne Robinson:

Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

President Obama:

Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Marilynne Robinson:

But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

President Obama:

We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Marilynne Robinson:

But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.•

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