When Rolls met Royce and more, by the Sorels

November 27, 1994|By Neil A. Grauer

In his 1957 autobiography, the late Sir David Low, the superb British political cartoonist and caricaturist, observed of drawing caricatures: "There are too many right ways. There are no technical characteristics necessarily common to all caricatures. . . . There is, perhaps, no art of caricature. There are only caricaturists."

Of American caricaturists plying their elusive art, few match Edward Sorel at the alchemy of eliciting a likeness by the supposedly simple -- but in fact extraordinarily difficult -- process of placing lines on paper. And Mr. Sorel creates his magic in a distinctive, unique way, often employing a freewheeling style of rapid-fire strokes that suggests the drawings were --ed off effortlessly, leaving a bit of the preliminary sketching behind.

David Low also declared that caricature "clearly involved to a greater extent than any other [art] the exercise of two principles fundamental to all art in whatever medium of expression -- selection and emphasis."

Through the application of these same rigorous principles, Mr. Sorel's wife, Nancy Caldwell Sorel, has produced her exquisitely concise and witty accounts of the initial (and in some cases only) meetings of various renowned individuals in history. These often curious and unlikely parings (Felix Mendelssohn meets Queen Victoria? Fats Waller meets Al Capone! Isak Dinesen meets Marilyn Monroe!?!) are brought uproariously to life in Mr. Sorel's wonderful color drawings.

The Sorels' joint depictions of these "First Encounters" originally were created for the Atlantic Monthly, in which they have been featured for the past 12 years. They acknowledge as their inspiration the splendid drawings that Miguel Covarrubias, the magnificent Mexican caricaturist, created for Vanity Fair in the 1920s and '30s to illustrate a series of fictional "Impossible Interviews." (John D. Rockefeller chats with Joseph Stalin and gives him a shiny new dime.) "They made us wonder how much more interesting actual first meetings might be," write the Sorels.

The 65 episodes in the book are evidence of the Sorels' astonishing erudition. It is one thing to uncover the dirt on how Joan Crawford upstaged Bette Davis the first time they met, engendering a professional rivalry and personal antipathy that reached its glorious climax in the camp classic "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" It is quite another to encapsulate in spare yet lively prose the relationship between mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein; composer Joseph Haydn and Lady Emma Hamilton, paramour of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson; Frederick the Great and Voltaire; or Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman.

Baltimoreans will be pleased that the beginning of the long, contentious friendship of H. L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser is among the events memorialized; so is the single, evidently disastrous meeting of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton, who invited the young novelist to tea shortly after the publication of "The Great Gatsby" and wrote a one-word summary of the occasion in her diary: "Awful."

Mr. Sorel's minutely detailed drawings are a perfect complement to Ms. Sorel's droll vignettes. To depict the meeting of art dealer Joseph Duveen and financier, art connoisseur and U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon -- a "chance" encounter cagily arranged by Duveen -- Mr. Sorel turns the sleekly tailored entrepreneur into an elegant cat and the soon-to-be-plucked Mellon into a pigeon. The encounter, however, would benefit the nation: Mellon subsequently gave the Great Masters he bought from Duveen to the National Gallery of Art.

Although some of the matches are natural -- how Mr. Rolls met Mr. Royce, for example -- others combine people whom you would never have imagined together, and yet who got along splendidly nonetheless.

One such duo was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini, the master magician. As the Sorels explain, Doyle was fascinated by the occult, and he fancied Houdini (born Erich Weiss, fifth son of a Hungarian rabbi) a kindred spirit.

When Houdini was touring Britain in 1920, Conan Doyle eagerly sought to meet him and discuss spiritualism. Houdini didn't have the heart to tell the great writer that every medium he had met was a fake -- and the magician so missed his late mother that he allowed Sir Arthur's wife to persuade him to take part in a seance during which she would try to contact the departed Mrs. Weiss. Lady Conan Doyle, entranced, took down what she said was a verbatim message from Houdini's mother. "Sir Arthur thought the event a great success. But Houdini knew it was not: the message was in English -- a language his Yiddish-speaking mama had never mastered."

Each of the Sorels' tales is told with similar insight, sensitivity and humor; and each of the illustrations is equally deft. "First Encounters" is a tour de force and a delight.

Mr. Grauer, a Baltimore writer and caricaturist, is the author of "Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber," published by the University of Nebraska Press.

Title: "First Encounters: A Book of Memorable Meetings"

Authors: Nancy Caldwell Sorel and Edward Sorel

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 128 pages, $24

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