Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The King . . . and the Mad Monk

Pressed for time, today I'm simply going to share a single sentence that blew my mind and that, while not representative of the book it came from, could at least stand for some of the pleasures to be found in its pages. Herewith, from Craig Brown's One on One:
Elvis is staying in a Frank Lloyd Wright house he rents from the Shah of Iran.
Reading that sentence, all I can think is, if only there were more parts to it! Couldn't the house have a garden designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, surrounding the tomb of Howard Carter, and its tenancy be shared with Edna St. Vincent Millay and Adlai Stevenson? (Then there's the mind-boggling attempt to imagine Elvis's over-the-top aesthetic crammed into a Wright house. It's probably good for Wright to roll over in his grave every once in a while, and I suspect when the King started gold-plating everything and stacking TVs in every room, he surely took some righteous spins.)

Brown's book, which daisy-chains casual encounters between 101 writers, artists, and cultural and historical figures, building anecdotes from memoirs and biographies, really is a lot of fun. I'm finding it well suited to the kind of reading I've been giving it since I brought it home from London in January: two stories at a time every once in a while. That method allows you to always carry one figure forward--P. L. Travers, for example, worships Gurdjieff, who then briefly controls the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright--then close the book knowing you'll start back up with one of the people you ended your last reading with.

And now that I've mentioned semi-mystical control, I don't think I can end this post without drawing on another of Brown's chapters, this one on a meeting between Noel Coward and Prince Felix Youssoupoff. Youssoupoff, a Russian exile, comes across as a character that Anthony Powell would have had great fun with: his claim to fame, and--title aside--ticket to society, is that he is one of the assassins of Rasputin, and, even more, was the person who lured him to his death. Brown writes,
Until his death at the age of eighty in 1967, Youssoupoff knows full well that his murder of Rasputin is the signature tune that accompanies his entrance into any gathering. He embraces his notoriety. In his Knightsbridge home in the 1920s he regularly entertains guests with increasingly melodramatic renditions of that fateful night in 1916. He even submits paintings of bearded men with evil grimaces to an art exhibition. So identified are he and his wife Irina with the death of Rasputin that a New York hostess mistakenly introduces them as the Prince and Princess Rasputin. Around the same time, Helen Izvolsky, the daughter of the Tsar's former ambassador to France, visits Youssoupoff and notices "something Satanic about his twisted smile. He talked for several hours about the assassination, and seemed quite pleased to reminisce, going over all the horrifying details. In conclusion, he showed me a ring he was wearing, with a bullet mounted in silver. He explained that this was the bullet that had killed Rasputin."
Now, we've all got stories we break out in certain company, old favorites with a track record as proven crowd pleasers. But good god--re-enacting the murder of Rasputin in your parlor? Who could possibly hope to top that?


  1. I absolutely loved this book--such an elegant idea, and so entertainingly done. Your self-control in only reading 2 stories at a time is enviable: I couldn't help demolishing it over a couple of days, in a mad whirl across time and space.

  2. It really is an incredible pleasure--so many great anecdotes harvested from so many memoirs and biographies we're not going to get around to reading, well selected and well told. What's odd is that from what I can tell it doesn't appear to have a US publisher. WHen I first picked it up I expected it to be UK-centric, but it's not, so while Brown doesn't have a profile over here, it still seems like it ought to be marketable over here. Weird.