The New Issue: Leo Lerman

Launching “The New Issue” with an old publishing great probably strikes some of you as a bit, well, you know – queer – but that’s our style. Faithful readers know we like to turn things bottoms up. Remember our very first issue, “The Narcissist Issue,” in which we took a new, more positive look at that tired old concept, narcissism?

We’re inaugurating this, “The New Issue,” with a fresh look at legendary Condé Nast editor Leo Lerman for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Knopf recently published over 600-pages of Lerman’s insightful, touching and celebrity filled journals, letters and general scrawlings. Reading through The Grand Surprise, it struck us how much we – yourselves included – can all learn from a man like Lerman.

From modest beginnings, gay, Jewish and “no beauty,” as Lerman’s former assistant Stephen Pascal described his late boss’ looks, Lerman rose to the highest echelons of New York society. He wined, dined, danced and – most importantly – laughed with the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, a few Rockefellers and some Kennedys. The index to The Grand Surprise reads like the best invite list in the world. In history, perhaps. No surprise Lerman loved to party. He could turn what appeared to be nothing into the most spectacular something. Sure, Leo was special, but his pages reveal the “grand surprise:” we’re all capable of something great. We just have to find out what that “something” could be.

As part of our mission to learn more about Lerman, we sent our editor, Andrew Belonsky uptown to sit down with a few of the editor’s old chums: Joel Kaye, Jonathan Marder, the aforesaid Pascal and, of course, Lerman’s long-time lover, Gray Foy. Read the results, some excerpts and find a few surprises, after the jump…

A sample of Leo Lerman’s famously illegible handwriting.

AB: I first want to start with the process of going through all the journals and letters.
GF: Both of us did it at first, but eventually I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face it.
AB: Why?
GF: Well, I was having a breakdown and then I had cancer, so I was just out of it.
SP: It went on for a very long time. We worked together – probably for a couple of years. We didn’t start with a great batch. We found the stuff in batches. We started with this mountain of notebooks and manuscript.

GF: I couldn’t read his writing. Stephen could read his writing.
SP: His eyesight came and went. It was a variety of things. I had an easier time with his handwriting, because I worked for him for a dozen years. Gray provided all the glossing I couldn’t get. I didn’t necessarily know what a name was and he could say, “This is so and so…” Initially we transcribed it together, but that was fairly tedious work. Eventually we agreed that Gray didn’t need to go through that ardor, I would transcribe it and then come back to Gray with questions.
AB: Gray, for you, aside from your health issues, what was the emotional experience like, going back –
GF: Dreadful. Most of it. Certainly some of the things pleased me, but it was wrenching all the time. I think it’s hard enough to live your life once, but going back and reliving it… It was very painful. A lot of things are painful, because they were things I didn’t know, things where I could have helped, thing when he was in great pain. He hid a great deal.
AB: Reading through the journals and everything, did you begin to see Leo in a new light?
GF: I think I saw him in an intensified light. There were things you would find out about his past that can be very painful. And it was. Too many memories.