Despite the rising din of war drums I managed, lately,
to read a few newspapers. The recent flap over alleged Iraqi atrocities
when they occupied Kuwait (rehashed in the HBO movie of CNNs
purportedly valiant efforts in covering that war) reminded me of
the anecdote surrounding William Randolph Hearsts dispatch
of artist Fredrick Remington to Cuba. He was to illustrate the fighting
in Cubas struggle for independence from Spain. Remington,
having a few things to learn about the war correspondents
craft, wired Hearst from the vantage point of the patio of the Hotel
Inglaterra, EVERYTHING IS QUIET. THERE IS NO TROUBLE HERE.
THERE WILL BE NO WAR. I WISH TO RETURN. To which Hearst famously
replied, PLEASE REMAIN. YOU FURNISH THE PICTURES AND ILL
FURNISH THE WAR. -W.R. HEARST. Of course, we know things have
changed these past hundred years since the United States fought
so unselfishly for Cubas independencefrom Spain. Apparently,
for this next and all foreseeable future wars, the Defense Department
will be in charge of both the wars and the pictures.
A bad week for mid Centurians, it was. First, the
death of Joe Strummer, who composed one of my favorite pieces of
music, the soundtrack to Alex Cox under-appreciated film Walker,
and then the passing of glamour photographer Herb Ritts. These deaths
no doubt raise the chill factor among the overabundant male baby
boomer generation who in so many ways display an undaunted disregard
for mortality or even the decrepitude of aging.
As Mark Feeney by-lined the obit/appreciation of
Herb Ritts in the Boston Globe, I approached my reading of
it with no trepidation. My confidence in Feeneys intelligence
and judgement was again reaffirmed:
American culture has always had a healthy regard
for cash, calculation, and celebrity (especially celebrity - what
other flag boasts so many stars?). Yet something changed in our
relationship to those things in the 1980s. What had once been
considered commodities were now seen as virtues. The Reagans were
in the White House. ''Dallas'' dueled ''Dynasty.'' Madonna ruled
the charts. ''The Bonfire of the Vanities'' topped the bestseller
It was Herb Ritts who took the decade's family
Not so, in Ginia Bellafantes obituary in the
New York Times. Heres her first graf:
Herb Ritts, the photographer whose glorifying
images of the well known helped to further mythologize celebrity
in the 1980's and 90's, died yesterday in a Los Angeles hospital.
He was 50 and lived in Los Angeles.
Now, granted, Feeney had about 150 more words to
form something with, but I wondered why one would read further into
Bellafantes piece...except, perhaps, for some sign of thought
and reportorial craft. Which, alas, did not obtain.
Feeney had much else in the way of incisive observation about Ritts
place in the celebrity industry, much of it the result of some keen
thinking and an easy grasp of the cultural milieu of 80s and
90s. Not so the NYT writer who called, what I guess
are the right people: Vogues Anna Wintour, Ritts
gallerist, Ethleen Staley, Richard Gere, and Vanity Fairs
Graydon Carter who was able to get the word "iconic"
in the piece.
I met Herb Ritts a few times. A nice man. I was
always impressed that Herb had taken pictures of Stephen Hawking
and Charles Bukowski and some other folks who were not, you know,
beautiful. But my story will have to wait for the publication of
my highly anticipated memoir-in-progress, currently entitled Primum
There is an inverse relationship between my avowed
disinterest in reading book reviews and reviews of any kind and
my wanting to avoid disparaging my comrades who, for some reason,
are ploughing and back bending in the potato patches of criticism.
As Steve Almond recently told me, The life boat is small enough
as it is On the other hand, just having read Dutch Leonards
(yeah, I feel like I can be familiar because, I have met the man
and he even told me why he is nicknamed Dutch. But,
why digress?) story collection I couldnt pass up perusing
the New York Times review on When the Women Come Out to
Dance. Truthfully, my dance didnt begin well:
If you were to tell me you had just read an
Elmore Leonard novel where someone says something out of character,
I'd say you were a liar. What kind of fahcockta way is that
to start a conversation? Then this, Reading the clipped, unfailingly
accurate dialogue that comes out of the mouths of Leonard's characters
can make you feel as if you're in the presence of a writer who is
both ventriloquist and psychic. Ive read over twenty
of Leonards novels, some a few times, over the past ten years
and it would never have occurred to me to cast Dutch in this light.
Was it my failure of imagination? But heres the capper on
that, It's not just that Leonard captures the cadences and
elisions of each character's speech, it's that he has an uncanny
sense of knowing what each will say next. Oh my!
This piece wends its way toward conclusion with
this lofty and sage proclamation, There are plenty of literary
luminaries who could learn a lot from the discipline and craft of
writers pigeonholed or dismissed as genre writers.
And then I must confess I was frothing as I read and reread
My Christmas wish this year was that when Cormac McCarthy,
Michael Ondaatje and Toni Morrison, to name but three, looked under
their trees, they found that some kind soul had been thoughtful
enough to send them a copy of Elmore Leonard's latest."
That this is self-evident idiocy, I am convinced.
Meretricious glibness masquerading as literary criticism? Maybe.
A good reason never to read Charles Taylors goofy blabbering
Herb Ritts, photographed by Red Diaz