Dorothea Straus' generation of writers

March 30, 1997|By VICTORIA BROWNWORTH | VICTORIA BROWNWORTH,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"The Paper Trail," by Dorothea Straus. Moyer Bell. 240 pages. $22.95.

As the millennium approaches the memoir has become the trendiest of literary forms. Everyone and their dog is writing a memoir, from Generation X-er memoirs to tortured youth to octogenarian memoirs of equally tortured longevity. Into that heralding trumpet blast comes Dorothea Straus' lilting collection, The Paper Trail."

Closer to octogenarians than to Gen-Xers, Straus has led the sort of intriguing life attendant to immense privilege; reading these reminiscences captivates. Straus is well traveled and well educated in the manner of a different era, not merely in the classics, but in literature, history, art, music, architecture and tchotchkes. That copious knowledge imbues and infuses her collection.

These are vignettes from a remarkable life most would envy. Straus comes from an extraordinary background and has been married for more than 50 years to Roger Straus, publisher at arguably the most prestigious literary house in New York, if not the world. As a consequence of this alliance and the milieu it engendered (as well as her own considerable personal charm), Straus met and befriended some of the most important literary voices of the last six decades.

"The Paper Trail," recollects some of those legends, among them Lillian Hellman, Alberto Moravia, Edmund Wilson, Marguerite Yourcenar, Mary McCarthy, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Jerzy Kosinski. Some of the names interwoven through these pieces - more than half of which have been culled from other books by Straus - have faded with time, but most still resonate.

Straus' style evokes a bygone era, her language lyric, her ruminations bittersweet and poetic. Her memories stage themselves in a Greenwich Village rife with intellectual ferment, an upper-East Side cozy and familiar as an ethnic neighborhood, idyllic summer retreats from Martha's Vineyard to Bar Harbour, tantalizing jaunts across a literary Europe.

Straus invites the reader into the capacious kitchen of Edmund Wilson and his second wife, Elena, where the aging critic holds court "like Old King Cole." She treats us to the unflattering (and badly dressed) deaths of Jean Stafford and Hellman as they succumb to that last cigarette; proffers the eerie sudden death while shaving of Moravia or the creepy suicide by suffocation of Kosinski.

She details the thunderous depression of Philip Rahv, founder of the Partisan Review, the tedious acerbity of T.S. Eliot, the queer attachment of foreign correspondent James Vincent Sheean to the Countess Tolstoy, the novelist's emigre daughter. It's powerful stuff (the Rahv piece is the best in the book, alone worth the hefty pricetag).

A fascinating and sometimes annoying book (Straus rarely mentions dates, many readers will be left confused by her segues), "The Paper Trail" details a time gone by, when the likes of Mary McCarthy, Rahv and other literary lights engaged in literary debates that became the stuff of history. Straus conveys the drama of those times - the myriad broken marriages, phenomenal drunkenness, bitter political battles - while invoking her own stark nostalgia. A memoir in the truest, most elemental sense, "The Paper Trail" illuminates the life of its author as well as the lives of its subjects.

Victoria Brownworth, has had work published in Ms., the Village Voice, the Nation, LRB and Lamba Book Report. Her latest book "Film Fatales: Profiles of Women Directors" (Seal Press) will be published this fall.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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