Impressionist & Modern Art

American Parnassus: Jean Stein and Her Friends

By Kennedy Fraser

I n the 1950s, when Jean Stein was in her early twenties, she had already laid down the markers for her cultivated, fiercely independent life. She had acquired, for $750, the Portrait of a Woman, by Giacometti. She was seeking out the company of artists, writers, and musicians of genius -- becoming a connoisseur of that authentic, confident self-expression she yearned to acquire for herself. She had begun her active rebellion against the conservative values of her powerful father, Jules, founder of the Hollywood conglomerate, MCA. At twenty, she embarked on a bold and passionate romance with the novelist, sometime screenwriter, and Nobel laureate, William Faulkner, who was forty years her senior. Significantly, in light of her future mastery of the oral history form, they met when she was commissioned by the Paris Review to write an interview with him. Already she was a listener of genius. He opened up to her his private thoughts on his creative process. She was a shy, intelligent young beauty with a breathy, Marilyn Monroe-like way of speaking; a slender, curvy figure; and dazzling smile. He fell madly in love. Her tentative, self-effacing manner made people want to protect her. They were not always aware that behind the air of vulnerability there was a will of iron. “The writer must be ruthless,” Faulkner told her, and she took it to heart.  Giacometti also fell under her spell. In 1958, with Faulkner’s blessing, she tried for a normal life through marriage to the lawyer, William vanden Heuvel. (They divorced a decade later, after having two daughters. A second marriage, to the Swedish neurobiologist Torsten Weisel, also ended in divorce.) The young couple went to Paris on honeymoon. She left her bridegroom every morning to visit Giacometti’s studio, ostensibly to interview him. After ten days of this, she came back to her new husband with ten sketches of herself: a gift. 


Her parents gave grand parties, full of A-list movie stars, at Misty Mountain, their house on a hilltop in Beverly Hills. Her mother, Doris, was too busy supervising table-settings of a Versailles-like grandeur, or selecting gowns and diamonds (“Your mother had the values of a showgirl,” Jean’s old friend Gore Vidal said) to pay attention to her small daughters, Jean and Susan.  Their care was left to servants and a fearsomely strict German governess. Like every fairytale, life at Misty Mountain had its ogres and frightened children. In “West of Eden,” Jean’s final, fatal book – published to great acclaim in 2016, not long before her death -- she turned to face down the Hollywood she had known, at its darkest and most grotesque.

Jean gave parties in her own less formal yet elegant way, once she was well rooted in New York, the city that suited her perfectly and fed her boundless appetite for people, culture, and new ideas. She made a point of informing herself about many things: literature, art, progressive politics, her beloved classical music. “Do you know Thomas Tallis’ Spem in Alia? Handel’s Theodora?” she would ask with perfect courtesy, just in case you didn’t. At her parties, she would make equally hesitant introductions. “Have you met Joan Didion?” she would murmur. “Jasper Johns?”  “Diane Keaton?” “William Burroughs? Leonard Bernstein? Dennis Hopper?” One man, invited to go to Jean’s in his youth, said it was like going to Parnassus or to the salon of the Princesse de Guermantes, in Proust. Jean and her parties were famous in an entirely private way that may no longer be possible in the age of social media and bodyguards. Jean knew all about publicity and had no desire to have it for herself. Her parties, the art on her walls (or sometimes leaning casually against them, on the floor), her work on her oral histories, or as editor of Grand Street (the literary quarterly for which her friend, the brilliant Walter Hopps chose the artwork) – all of them formed a whole. They were a synthesis of her tastes and a reflection of her mind. Many of the party-guests were interviewed and had parts, large and small, in the books. Before “West of Eden” there was “An American Journey,” (1970), a polyphonic account of the trip on the funeral train carrying Robert Kennedy’s body from New York to Arlington Cemetery, and “Edie,” (1980) a best-selling tale of a beautiful, blue-blooded young woman who paid with her life for her fifteen minutes of fame in the drug-addled scene around Andy Warhol’s Factory.   In the  apartment on Central Park West, we congregated in a comfortable room hung with blue and white curtains between walls of books. I saw Mrs Onassis standing there, beside Saul Steinberg’s drawing of the man with a rabbit in his head; Warren Beatty with his elbow on the big oak mantel next to the Cornell box; Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, wrecks of their former selves, gossiping on a big old sofa. People misbehaved sometimes. Norman Mailer started a fist-fight, or Edie turned up naked under her coat. But Jean liked a little bad behavior. She just stood there in her Mary McFadden dress, saying “oh! oh!” in her charming way; we all felt very safe. 

By the time she finally brought “West of Eden” to completion, she was nearly eighty.  I went out to see her in Santa Monica, where she had holed up for a year or so in a hotel on the boardwalk, in a room bursting with piles of transcripts and different drafts. The window looked out at the Pacific Ocean. She took me to the pier to show me the antique carrousel she had known since she was a child.  I stood there while she rode slowly round, moved gently up and down, holding her pole and waving as she passed. She was wearing a dreamy smile as she rode the unicorn, her favorite of all the painted steeds.

The World of Jean Stein



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