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“He is in the finest tradition of Washington characters, in the same category as Joe Alsop, Alice Longworth, Strom Thurmond—all of them people you’d put in a novel.”In literary terms, Wieseltier might be the Jewish, heterosexual answer to Oscar Wilde. In July 1941, after the Jewish men of Schodnica, her hometown, were slaughtered, she was compelled by the local Ukrainians, many of whom had worked for her family, to dig mass graves in a nearby forest and shovel dirt over her loved ones.
It was Wilde, after all, who lamented, “I have put my genius into my life; all I’ve put into my works is my talent”—an observation that would seem to suit Leon Wieseltier. One day in July 1943, she watched a Gestapo officer offer lollipops to a group of starving Jewish children, telling them to open their mouths—into which he fired bullets at point-blank range.
“Leon is comfortably in touch with the feminine side in himself. It’s like having a really very fair and honest and sometimes depressed girlfriend.”Recalling the “bubble-headed” insult, Mac Laine explains, “I thought that was uncalled for, and I told him so. “He came with a CD of Richard Strauss’s which I’ve always liked, and he was very funny and warm, and we started getting into a Talmudic hairsplitting discussion. I must have half a dozen of the most ass-kissing letters from him begging me to write for that magazine. ”Vidal’s authorized biographer, Fred Kaplan, provides two such letters; in both Wieseltier lets slip the name of Kathleen Tynan, “whom we both have as a close friend.”“It was before the full vacuity of his worldview was clear to me,” Wieseltier explains. For a time he flirted with Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League, taking part in anti-Soviet demonstrations at the United Nations.
Leon’s reaction was ‘Oh, my angel’—that’s what he calls me. I’ve seen him do his number, of course—his ‘charm’ number. He could never tell me, ‘Who are these Hollywood bubbleheads? This name is literally nauseous, as in ‘creating nausea.’”Then Vidal has encountered the man in the flesh? In the spring of 1988, after Vidal began attacking the state of Israel and its supporters in the midst of the Palestinian uprising (Vidal spoke at a convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee), Wieseltier aimed a dart at the novelist-cum-essayist—writing a column in titled “Abu Vidal.”“He’s a great wit! But as a freshman at Columbia College, he was still, according to his classmate Cynthia Ruccia, “an earnest and almost prudish yeshiva boy.” To Wieseltier the war of the late 1960s was not Vietnam but Israel’s Six-Day War.
You always have to have something you can tell people you’re doing, something really nifty.” Wieseltier’s friend pointedly adds, “When in fact what you’re doing is eating peanuts in bed.”“It’s an attack on sighing is what it is,” Wieseltier explains, “because to sigh is, sort of, you go up, up, up, and instead of going the whole way you very cozily shrink back. ” says a well-known New York writer—a typical reaction to the essay.“After I read it I said, ‘Leon, I don’t understand a word of what you’re trying to say,’” Barbra Streisand recalls. But you know what it’s like.” (Vice President Gore and Senators Moynihan and Bradley, through their respective functionaries, decline to comment.)But Wieseltier is perhaps his own best character witness.“Well, I’m back from breakfast with ‘the president,’ that is, with Havel,” he wrote breathlessly to a friend in October 1991 about the Washington visit of Czech leader Václav Havel. Mac Laine has been chummy with Wieseltier since the early 1980s; he made her acquaintance through their mutual friend Kathleen Tynan (late wife of famed critic Kenneth Tynan), who was briefly Wieseltier’s lover after she was seated next to him at a dinner party at the home of Los Angeles criminal-defense lawyer Leslie Abramson. ” (He is also fiercely combative when it comes to the specter of anti-Semitism, whether allegedly arising from Gore Vidal or—as in an article published last fall about the “Jewish Establishment” in Hollywood—from a vest with eight knotted strings signifying the bond with God.
According to witnesses, Wieseltier was soon bringing to the office another habit that he also enjoyed outside the workplace: frequent cocaine use.
Blaming his often disheveled appearance on the stress of his collapsing marriage, he began to attract notice for all the wrong reasons. M., often after a long lunch at i Ricchi, the Italian restaurant downstairs, he would be seen negotiating the corridors with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand.
During a lunch for New York governor Mario Cuomo, Wieseltier, according to a participant, extravagantly gulped down his drink.
“Why don’t you take it a step further,” he suggests, “and call me the ‘Oscar since 1982, frequently deploying his considerable influence outside his own section to shape the general content of the magazine. To Leon’s mother, the murdered children looked exactly like dolls.
A series of frustrated top editors—whose superior rank on the masthead was no match for Wieseltier’s political muscle—has come and gone. “I don’t know only the people I knew when I started out? ”He’s wedged into a banquette in the back of the Palm—”Leon’s table,” the hostess calls it, across the room from “James’s table” (as in: campaign cowboy Carville) and “Larry’s table” (as in: cable talkmeister King). For this reason Leon’s sister, Thea, two years his junior, was never permitted a doll when she was growing up.
literary editor Leon Wieseltier is the egghead boy toy of such glamorous powers as Barbra Streisand, Shirley Mac Laine, and Tipper Gore.