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.

Leo and his then-assistant, Stephen Pascal, 1987. Pascal stills works at Conde Nast.

AB: Stephen, did you learn anything new about Leo? You knew each other – how long, how many years?
SP: I worked for him for thirteen years.
AB: Reading over the journals, did you get a better sense of who he was?
SP: Incredible, yes. I learned a great deal about his interior life and his insecurities, his emotional life and his previous affectionate life… It’s interesting – it worked both ways. I learned, to a certain extent, how much of a persona the Leo Lerman that I knew was a creation. At the same time, I learned how authentic he stayed, how sincere he’d stayed through the whole thing… Also – I say this about the parties – I didn’t know how much of it was real. To read the intimacy and the familiarity he had with these people – some of them major egos and major personalities. He was somebody who could forge these friendships with these people. I knew he’d been friends with them, but it’s different to read this kind of journal, the kind of momentary perception – that instant insight. He had a real gift for that… I wish he were still around. I have lots of things I’d like to ask him.

Photo credit: (c) Alexander Agor.

In the summer of 1947, Leo and his friend, Richard Hunter and Harry Rothschild, rented a house in Quidnet, Massachusetts. Christopher Isherwood popped out for an end-of-July visit.

On August 1, 1947, Leo penned a letter to novelist Ruth Yorke, who was in Paris at the time. In this missive, Lerman described Christopher Isherwood thus: “I found him quite delightful, with strange eyes and delight in malice and in hurting himself”.

Photo credit: (c) Harold Halma.

Leo and Gray Foy. The boys met on April 30, 1948. Leo and his friend Robert Davison threw a party. Though invited as Davison’s guest, Gray caught Leo’s eye. The late editor was determined to make the beautiful young artist his lover. And he did. The men were together until the day Leo died, August 22, 1994.

October 5, 1984: I have written very sparsely about our personal and private lives, the loving life we live here together, the life we have shared (and the parts we could not share without capsizing the boat). What of this rich, loving together life? Surely, if this is an honest book, our life (singular in every aspect, save the parts unshared) must suffuse it. Our life is the deep well that nourishes us. We have been married – what other way to look at our state? – for some thirty-four years, with all the ups and down, a midlife crisis (mine) any “normal” marriage engenders.
I have on life, one center, and that is Puss.

SP: Do you think he wanted to be married?
GF: He considered that we were. He didn’t need any kind of authentication. There was never any question in his mind that we were. And even if we had been married, that doesn’t mean that it was going to last. We were just old fashioned. We didn’t feel that way.
SP: I think, though, Gray, that he might have wanted it for financial, for inheritance security.

GF: That is absolutely true. And there was no guarantee of that at all.
JK: And that didn’t happen.
GF: It’s true. If anything could have been done about that, he would have done it. He would have liked to have taken care of me when he was gone.

Leo and Gray in Orvieto, Italy, 1979.

February 16, 1969: [Written after NY Times’ arts editor Sy Peck criticized a review as not having enough “content”.] I am not intellectual; I am emotional, intuitive. I do atmospheres and surfaces and lightness with sincere deep feeling and genuine darkness beneath it all. I am decoration, not great art. The graces of life, not the webbed philosophies, are my domain. I work hard – incredibly hard – grasping solid facts the way the falling and the drowning grasp straws.”

AB:There’s a sense of desperation in this –
GF: I think he worried about money all the time. He was always terrified of running out of money. I think that it what fueled that desperation sometimes. If he didn’t have a job at one or two magazines, he was really terrified.
AB: Do you think it was just money?

GF: You mean emotional things?
AB: The emotional things and also… Was he forthcoming with his self-doubt?
GF: No. I think he had to hide it.

Leo loved to gossip with his friends. Here’s a shot of him shooting the shit with Mitzi Newhouse, whose husband, Samuel owned Mademoiselle, for which Leo worked. Leo and Mitzi – maiden name Epstein – were friends long before Samuel became Leo’s boss.

December 27, 1970: People who minutely analyze their own lives to one another, this is destructive. Some part of oneself must remain secret – for self-nourishment and for the nourishment of the relationship. There must be informed blindness in any close relationship.

Leo and Gray’s kitchen table at The Osborne on 57th Street.

Leo and Gray always kept their kitchen table set for three. You know, in case Marlene Dietrich popped over for a bite. Gray keeps the tradition alive.

Leo and actress Gypsy Lee Rose, courtesy Bonnie Cashin Estate.

April 29, 1973: I never worry about the percentage of feminine in me, the percentage of masculine. I am grateful for whatever percentages I have and try to use these. I am watchful only in outward manifestations. I am protective of the woman in me, and don’t permit her to show in my walk or in my hand movements or in my voice – because she is vulnerable in our world. Less than she was several years ago – but still I must be vigilant and try to keep her within myself, where she nourishes me – imbuing my masculinity with all sorts of wisdoms.

GF: When I first met Leo, he had a beard. When we got onto a bus or something, people would laugh, because it was so unusual. After the hippies came along. Everyone else was flamboyant. He was never flamboyant. He didn’t dress in a particularly – he was a little more conservative. He wore black suits for many, many years.
SP: So was it not until after the Sixties, Gray, that he began to become more –
GF: Relaxed.
SP: Relaxed or colorful or eccentric in the way that he dressed. I wouldn’t call it eccentric.

GF: No, he wasn’t eccentric.
SP: What’s the word – stylish. Up until then he kept it pretty conventional.
GF: Well, he had no money to buy anything. He was very poor for many years.
SP: Did you or he, were you ever conscious that you had to disguise your [sexuality] – we talked about being accepted and feeling that you still kind of have to restrain your behavior.
GF: Sometimes we would go to a restaurant – the two of us – and we’d go a number of times and people would say, “What’s going on with those two?” but it didn’t bother us. I never came out as they say. I thought, “Why bother,” in case people didn’t get it.

Leo in the mid-30s.

SP: One thing that I learned about Leo – here was a man who lived very much as an out gay man. He lived as a gay man in a house to which he invited every blabbermouth in New York. It wasn’t like he was keeping this a secret. He was with Richard from the mid-30s. The idea that this was very much going on and he knew – what I’m trying to say is that there was very much a gay urban culture in New York that predates Stonewall and our perception of that. And the fact that it operated under a slightly different code doesn’t mean that it was any less prevalent.

Gray and Stephen at The Osborne, 2007.
AB: I have a question for you, but also if you could speak from Leo’s perspective – what is your opinion about the way gay culture has changed?
GF: I’ll tell you one thing – I liked it a lot better when it was secret. It was wonderful! Now it’s all over the place. It loses its cache, and its allure. I miss it. I didn’t mind being cautious or careful. I mean we weren’t throwing ourselves. Neither Leo nor I could stand boy parties. Everyone standing around, looking you up and down all the time, it was just boring. Leo said, “You can’t have a successful party without a woman or two,” because they really gave it a special flavor.
SP: I think this cuts both ways – and I’m speaking as an outsider, so you’ll have to correct me here – but I think Leo both enjoyed the discretion, the fact that it was something that was in full view, but wasn’t necessarily talked about. It was mysterious and it also, in a way, lent a certain flexibility that we don’t have [today]. I may be utterly wrong about this, [but] you read this book and there are an awful lot of married men, men who were involved with women, men going back and forth. I mean, you knew gay men who married women and married men who were involved with men. My own perception is that because it was less in public view, there was a certain amount of flexibility that we don’t have now.
AB: There wasn’t a binarism.
SP: It wasn’t a binary, exactly. There wasn’t this feeling that if you did this and people knew, well… It was a different thing if people knew; it would be a different type of scandal.

GF: It was sort of glamorous…

Leo and Gray’s foyer’s loaded with images of Europe’s Mount Etna and Vesuvius. The latter destroyed Pompeii in 79 AD. The white owl’s just one of the many Gray has collected over the years.

April 13, 1985: Long discussion with Stephen, Puss, Lloyd [Williams] and Joel about AIDS and how this will bring (and is bringing) social changes. In the homosexual world: celibacy, courtship, limited sexual encounters and practices, terror… In the heterosexual world: bewilderment, terror. I said, “When AIDS hits the heterosexual world that will be the time of devastating backlash at the homosexual world.” The signs are already visible: The selfish, I-don’t-care fringe of the homosexual world and the already infected who want to revenge themselves by taking with them ’sacrifices’ are identical with their long-ago forebears in the Black Death.

AB: Do you guys remember this conversation?
SP: Yeah, I remember it. We were in the kitchen. It’s only ’85, so it’s just barely begun. It had broken through in the consciousness within a couple of years and people are beginning to die at a pretty good pace. We still had no idea how it spread, or few ideas of how it spread. It’s now been identified as a gay – an epidemic within the gay community – and nobody knew if it will be contained within that or if it will spread. There were mixed feelings about whether it would be a good thing if it spread. Leo alludes to it in a negative way, but there were feelings that if it spread beyond the gay community, then perhaps there would be some national response.
GF: Fortunately, Leo and I didn’t have many close friends who died.
AB: Do you think that had something to do with the generational gap and the sexual revolution?

GF: Possibly. I was more worried – Leo was always in the hospital and one of the times in the room next to him, there were people in and out with masks.
JK: Whenever you went in, you had to get a mask.
JM: They had signs on the door that said, “Do not enter”.
SP: You know, that was another friend of mine, who was in the room next to Leo. Nicholas. Gray, you did have close friends who died, but they were often not acknowledged as AIDS deaths.
JK: There were lots of people who died and they gave them all kinds of other reasons, because there was terrible shame. Very few of the papers referred to AIDS at all.
SP: One thing I remember early in the epidemic is that The Times wouldn’t use the word – they certainly didn’t refer to gays. There was certainly a silence. There was a code to how you read the obits.

JM: “Tragic illness”. “Pneumonia”.

Leo’s bedroom. Though they typically slept together, Leo and Gray kept separate rooms for practical purposes. One reason: Lerman’s distaste for a decent night’s rest. The editor slept only a few hours a night, often falling asleep sitting up with a book in hand. Gray could sleep soundly down the hall.

January 31, 1971: I do not believe, as Proust did, that all self is successively different. The core is permanent, or should be – the matrix. We extend – as a coral reef – accretions transforming the contours. We are not actually changed within – the kernel. We are each a metamorphosis – but the central, central being, that does not change. Image: those Russian dolls-within-dolls almost endlessly.

Gray Foy’s bedroom.

JK: When Jackie Kennedy was here, she said to Gray, “Oh, I would love to have a little room like this!” He never forgave her for it. Leo was teaching Caroline – he was tutoring her history and John John was walking around, picking everything up. He thought it was a shop, looking for price tags!


SP: Leo was mad about dogs. This one on the right over the bed was an early purchase and a particular favorite. “Twigg” is his name. He turns up in the journal a lot. Mostly in letters: “Twigg sends his love”.


SP: Another thing that I learned from doing this [project] – it was very much for me a lesson in intellectual modesty. Leo was – as an editor – Leo was an autodidact and read an enormous amount. It took a long time – in a way, it’s a good thing the project was as long as it was – because it took me a long time to realize how much of that [knowledge] he brought to bear when he wrote. In the beginning, I sometimes took a heavier hand when I was transferring. I would say, “Well, this isn’t right, this doesn’t mean anything,” but as it went on, I would go back, I’d see that in fact the reference meant something. He was alluding to things that had literary connections or artistic connections. The amount that he brought to bear at any given moment was pretty amazing.
GF: It was. It’s true, he had no education except high school. I never in my life met anyone who had so many books. When we first moved in, we couldn’t use this room because it was all books. They were everywhere! They’d move around. Sometimes we couldn’t use the dining room. Sometimes we couldn’t use the upstairs!
SP: I was the one who sorted out all of the books.

Photo credit: (c) Duane Michals.

Leo at his cluttered ‘Vogue’ desk.

SP: Gray, did Leo ever talk to you about being unhappy working for the magazines?
GF: Oh, he thought it was a waste of time, I think he really did. I think he was misusing his intelligence and that he didn’t do something. It turned out he had to live that way. It was certainly not what he wanted.
SP: I think he was bothered by the ephemerality of it.
GF: That was part of it, yes. I think after a time he began to sort of despise it. At first he was interested – as time went on, I think he was very, he felt little about it. He had to do it. He had no alternative.
SP: I think he got tired. He wanted to – and a lot of this isn’t in the book – the journals are full of ideas for other books he wanted to write. He was constantly coming up with good ideas for books and articles that weren’t going to be published in Mademoiselle: more literary stuff and historical. He always wanted to write literary criticism and history.

GF: He was very keen to write about the Renaissance. There were places where he knew a great deal, but he didn’t have time to do it.
JK: Leo loved doing research. He studied and researched and find out everything he possibly could, and he wouldn’t do the actual writing until the very, very last minute.
GF: That’s because he didn’t trust himself.
SP: What didn’t he trust, Gray?
GF: He didn’t trust his ability to write a book as great as his desire to do it.
SP: I think, also, Leo saw all the ganglia that connected events and ideas. He saw how over determined events are and he had a hard time simplifying things into an argument that a book really needs. You have to be able to bring things down to – you have to be able to simplify things. He was always looking out at everything that complicated his argument. It was hard for him to bring something as big as a history of Sotheby’s, for instance, to boil all of that – the collecting, the social history – down into a book. It was very intimidating.

GF: He was very concerned with details, the possibilities around things.

Photo credit: (c) Ted Leyson.

Leo’s desk. Gray and Leo had, at some point, acquired a double-strung piano. With no need for such an instrument, they attempted to give it away. No one wanted it, so they gutted it and turned it into Leo’s desk. It hasn’t changed since his death in 1994.

July 8, 1973: Why autobiography? Mina says she can’t write her autobiography and wonder why. I saw I write this because I love to scribble. I am so curious about people, things. I know that the conclusions, either set own or inferred, will tell not one new thing – but the affirmation, my belief in people, in character (what we meant by a person having character), in beauty, in truth (Keatsian), in the glorious and in the terrible – as demonstrated in the extraordinary creatures I have been privilege to reflect, in my very deepest self – all of this is valuable, is a beacon in this world which needs constant confirmation of its miracle of existence. How or why we are all still here, I do not know, nor understand.

Gray’s desk. The artist often says he put his career on hold to accommodate Leo’s party-loving lifestyle. He could never have known how guilty Leo felt.

April 12, 1985: Part of me considers: Have all of these years been worth all of the anguish? I know that the answer is yes, but I also know that the price of my weakness is Puss stopping his unique, beautiful work. That is what he had to give, but instead he has thrown it away and put me in my place. Kirk [Askew] knew that his would happen. (”If you stay together, Gray will eventually not draw a stroke.”) Question” Has Puss been a happier person this way, or would he have been happier, more fulfilled, if he had been true to his genius. I think the latter. This is the bitterness.

Joel Kaye, Andrew Belonsky and Stephen Pascal poking around Leo Lerman’s desk. Leo’s Hedda Stern portrait hangs in the background.
SP: I think that one of Leo’s legacies is that he did bring up a couple generations of young editors. These are people who learned from him how to – they observed his knack for matching talent to a project, for identifying somebody who’s real talent and not just publicity, for – and some of these people, they have a certain seriousness about what they’re doing. I think Leo taught people that. That’s a real legacy, especially in a business like magazines.

JK: He was an enabler. He always worried about his people. To the very end, he was worried about his babies. And I think these people will admit to it. I think they’ve said it to me – they’ve internalized him: they hear his voice, they see him.

GF: So do I, all the time.

SP: One of the things about his legacy that’s difficult to track is that he was very generous and very adept at helping people figure out what they should do and what their next project should be and whom they should work for. You can’t map that.

Leo Lerman’s pillow.

AB: What was it like for you, Gray, when he died? What was the process like?
GF: It was like cutting off your hands. I knew it was the end of a very large part of my life. There was a great emptiness inside. It was very difficult. I didn’t think I was going to get over it, but I was tougher than I thought it was.
AB: How did you get over it?
GF: “Time”. That’s what people are always saying. “Time makes everything better,” but it doesn’t. It still hasn’t. I’m going to carry this to the grave, wherever I am. I still feel him a lot. Every night. Or close to it. All the laughter! He had a wonderful sense of humor. Wouldn’t you say, Stephen?

SP: Yes. That is one of things I remember.
GF: He loved to laugh and to make other people laugh. He was always the comedian. He was jolly. He loved that. It was one of his biggest social successes.

All archive pictures from private collection, unless otherwise noted. Contemporary shots courtesy Zach Golden. Header image by John Koch courtesy Photo National Academy of Design.

All excerpts from The Grand Surprise by Leo Lerman Copyright (c) 2007 by Leo
Lerman. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.