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Conversation

Chasing Beauty

The Art World and Its Intrigues

HUMANITIES, July/August 2003 | Volume 24, Number 4

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with writer Meryle Secrest about the nature of biography. Secrest has written about a number of figures in American culture, among them Romaine Brooks, Bernard Berenson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Her new book, Duveen: A Life in Art, is to be published in May.

Bruce Cole: You’re a well-known and successful biographer. How did you get to be that?

Meryle Secrest: There’s no reason why I should ever have ended up writing biographies. If I had stayed in Britain, I couldn’t have. For women of my generation, it was a very, very class-structured society. My father was a tool and die maker. My mother was a factory worker. By British standards they were working class. Nobody in my family had ever gone to university.

My good luck was to get into a secondary grammar school. I was there for seven years and I didn’t have Greek, but I had Latin and French. I had a very good education. I think it probably is the equivalent of a B.A. because it was very concentrated. And when my parents wanted to immigrate to Canada, that seemed like the most marvelous way out.

Cole: You started in journalism, didn’t you?

Secrest: Yes. In England. The system of journalism was equally wacky. It started when you were sixteen and the National Union of Journalists had this scale whereby your salary went up every year, depending on how old you were. I worked for a year on a British paper.

Then I came over here and I did a lot of adventurous things. First of all, we were in Canada and I was working for a tiny paper, which was great, because you would make lots of mistakes and nobody read it. It was an eleven-thousand circulation. I wrote the whole women’s section, four pages, three times a week. It was great training. It really was.

I led the kind of life that journalists used to lead. You go from one place to another and you’d sort of show up and say, “Can I?” We had some of those journalists on the Hamilton Ontario News, where I worked for a while.

We had an elderly man who had been on the New York Sun. He came into the office with a fedora with the PRESS stuck to his hatband--you know, like those films you used to see in the thirties. Nobody believes, but they used to do that. He was a dear man, but he was completely behind the times and he was always changing my copy and changing “so” to “thus.” I used to have hysterics about that.

Now, of course, being a journalist is very respectable, but in those days it was still the kind of atmosphere that gives rise to this comment, which I’m sure you know, “Tell my mother I’m a piano player in a whorehouse, but don’t tell her I’m a newspaperman.” You know that story? It was absolutely an amazing set of people. Raffish. Very raffish.

It didn’t mean they weren’t well-read. I got a very interesting education from talking to these guys, because they knew all the thirties literature. They adored the poets. They were extremely sardonic about life in general. They were always liberals, because they were always for the underdog, being underdogs themselves. There was no union. They were always being fired, going on to the next town and picking up a job there.

I picked it up in a desultory way and fate conspired to bring me to Washington. I married rather young, an American whom I met in Paris. He was a political scientist and he’d studied at Oberlin--David Secrest--and he seemed very glamorous to me. I was nineteen or so when we met. So I came to Columbus, Ohio, and worked on the Columbus Citizen for a while. Then David got a year to study Congress on a political science fellowship. By then we had three small children. We all came here and he studied with Reuss [Henry Reuss, Democrat of Wisconsin]. And then Senator Jack Kennedy. I think if he’d been less argumentative--he was a great talker, he really was--he would have ended up in the White House.

I was doing freelance for the Post, in my usual, “Well, it’s fifty bucks,” you know, kind of fashion, trying to get a foot in the door. I did a lot of profiles, and that’s where I really started to discover what I could do. I remember a piece on Katherine Anne Porter when her Ship of Fools came out. She unburdened her soul to me in that interview. She told me about her dead child. She told me about her marriages. She went on and on and on and on into the night almost, and I did a thirty-one-inch story, really a huge piece.

I think my career as a biographer really started when I found Romaine Brooks. I went to the National Collection of Fine Arts one day and I saw this self-portrait by a woman I’d never heard of, and I was absolutely ravished by the work. It’s black and white and gray and the woman is standing in the foreground with a black hat, a rather mannish costume, and just a touch of red hair. I thought: who in the world is this person and why would she be painting this kind of self-portrait? It’s one of those who-is-it questions that eternally fascinates me.

It turns out to be Romaine Brooks. There was a whole room of her drawings, very delicate. The room was painted yellow and I think there were vases of yellow flowers. In any case, it was just a stunning, stunning show.

There was a temporary vogue here in Washington for Romaine Brooks. And she had left this memoir, No Pleasant Memories. I’ve learned in my dotage to become very suspicious of memoirs, but for this particular one I perhaps wasn’t suspicious enough. Or maybe she was telling the literal truth. I think she was telling the poetic truth, in any case.

I did a piece for the Post about her. Then I did another piece for the Smithsonian about her, and I realized I hadn’t repeated myself once. I thought: this is very interesting. The director of the National Collection of Fine Arts, Adelyn Breeskin, was asked by Doubleday to do a book. Adelyn said no and she mentioned me. So the editor and I spoke and the editor said, “You should fictionalize this.” And I said, “You can’t fictionalize this. No one would believe it. It has to be written as a biography.” That’s how I got started.

I wanted to see where Romaine had worked. She’d worked in High Street when Whistler was there. She’d worked in Paris when Cocteau was there. She had her debut at the Gallery Duran, where Mary Cassatt had shown twenty years before, in 1909.

I went to Paris and saw her haunts. I went to Nice, I went to Florence, and I did it all on five thousand dollars, which you couldn’t do nowadays.

Doubleday, you may not know, has its own publishing house. So just at the time when color was going out of biography, Doubleday could still do it because they could afford to. They did color. If you’ve got some very sensitive artist like Romaine, you really want color, because otherwise you don’t get the effect.

Cole: Yes.

Secrest: I managed to match up each chapter with a drawing: Romaine on the Riviera, Romaine in the chateau. She was a very wealthy girl, she had a schizophrenic mother and a crazy brother. She was a rejected child. I felt I could empathize.

This was a very exciting moment in my life. I just adored it. I absolutely adored it. I thought it was an inevitable sequence from writing longer and longer profiles to writing full-length profiles.The biggest undertaking that I’ve done to date--touch wood when I say that--is the book on Frank Lloyd Wright. It took me five years. I think that I turned upside down a lot of conceptions about Wright that we all had and showed him to be a much more complicated personality.

Cole: All right. After Romaine Brooks, what happened? How did you pick your other topics?

Secrest: Doubleday had a terrible time getting Romaine Brooks published in Britain because nobody knew who she was. They finally worked out some kind of deal whereby some of Romaine’s paintings were going to be shown at the Fine Arts Society in Bond Street. That meant that we could do a book signing. We were out for dinner in London, and Francis King--a very nice man, a fine novelist and critic--said to me, “Who are you going to do next?”

I said, “Well, I don’t know.” But I had done all this work for the National Gallery--that was when Johnny Walker was still there, and Carter Brown was the assistant--and I said, “I really am terribly interested in Bernard Berenson, because I keep hearing about Berenson this and Berenson that.”

I’d done lectures in school on Berenson when I was sixteen. I loved Botticelli and da Vinci and so on, so I’d always had this thing for Berenson. And Francis King says, “I think that’s a great idea. I think you should do this book on Berenson.”

I managed to sell the idea to Holt Reinhardt. I don’t know when I first started thinking about how I would frame it, but I had been talking by then to Kenneth Clark, who I had, in fact, interviewed and who had become a dear friend.

As a sixth former, in Britain, I had gone up to the London School of Economics. It was a whole week of one lecture after another. There were five hundred kids in the audience.

One man gets up and he’s talking about art. He has this beautiful head with very, very sleek hair, and very, very regular features. He radiates energy, intellectual energy.

And I’m sitting there watching this man and I just get more and more excited about what he’s saying. And I came out fired with the idea that I was going to write about art. That was my beginning, at the age of sixteen. So years later, when I’m doing his biography, I run across a piece of paper that, in fact, detailed this conference, and the person I had heard was Kenneth Clark.

Cole: That’s a great story.

Secrest: So you see he has a very big role to play in my life. Anyway, we talked about this Berenson idea and then he sent me a letter saying, “Aren’t we going to have fun with our book?” I thought, right. The nuances there did not escape me. I thought, if I’ve got “K” behind me--everyone called him K-- I’m off, and I dedicated the book to him.

He was the one who first said to me, “You’ve got to look at these attributions because you’ve got to realize that Berenson was a dealer.” What he meant was that many of Berenson’s judgments were suspect because he was being paid 25 percent of the profits from the sales of Italian Renaissance works. He was “authenticating” for dealers like Joe Duveen. That was something that never crossed the lips of Johnny Walker, Carter Brown, Sir John Pope-Hennessey, or any of his disciples.

Berenson wasn’t doing much dealing by the time they met him, in the fifties. All this was behind him. But he’d been a dealer. He’d been Joe Duveen’s chief Italian Renaissance authority since about 1906. Berenson left him in 1938. And K said, “You’ve really got to look at these.”

I said, “Well, how do I do this?” I didn’t have a clue. It took me two years to figure out how to read catalogues raisonnés. But Fern Shapley has this wonderful catalog of Italian paintings at the National Gallery, and so I applied myself, and K told me of certain paintings that were really doubtful. That’s how that book really came about.

The title I must say I thought was rather clever, Being Bernard Berenson, because he had this problem of not being able to say he was a Jew and making up all kinds of fibs for the collector Isabella Stewart Gardner about how they both had common Stewart ancestors and that kind of thing. I could empathize with that, because to go back to my own background, I had to pretend I was someone I wasn’t. For a long, long time I did pretend. So I felt I could empathize with him, and I tried to do a rounded portrait.

I’m sure that the book is inaccurate in many respects and it’s certainly very incomplete. I was thinking about this the other day, I was sure that Berenson was Faust and Duveen was Mephistopheles. Now that I’ve written about Duveen, I know it’s the other way around.

Cole: That’s wonderful.

Secrest: You just never know. With Berenson, the ends justified the means. He was determined to leave his villa in Florence, i Tatti, to Harvard. That was his goal almost from the beginning. He had this moment of truth, I think in the twenties, and said, “Well, I’m going to leave i Tatti to Harvard.” He was then already in his sixties and thinking about his legacy. And Harvard said, “And how big is your endowment?” And Berenson said, “Whoops, what endowment?” Harvard wasn’t even going to think about it without an endowment. I do believe that was the rationale behind a lot of rather sharp deals that they were all making.

But what can I say about Duveen? You’d have to really know him and I never knew him. My sense of him is that he was acting entirely within the framework of the time.

Cole: A lot of the subjects of your biographies are kind of prickly characters.

Secrest: Yes, they are.

Cole: Is that because they stand out in relief and they’re interesting to write about?

Secrest: Yes. I think you have to write about prickly people. What interests me is the mystery of it. What is it about this person that is so paradoxical?

I think the fun of it is how complicated it gets and how one can--painting is the best analogy--how one can put together a composition that contains within it contrary impulses, discordant colors, and unexpected features but nevertheless hangs together as a composition.

I remember when I had reviews of the Romaine book. I thought everyone was going to say she was an awful woman but when the American Library Association’s list of the thirty best books for 1974 came out, it described it as “the triumphant story of this woman who”--and I thought: really? didn’t know it was a triumphant story. I thought it was a terribly sad story.

The same thing with Berenson. I expected a number of dead cats to be thrown at me and, of course, I got a few, but, for the most part, I got these wonderful reviews saying, “She’s made him human” and this sort of thing.

K used to say that that is what he thought I could do: write a human portrait. “You’re not very good with abstract ideas, are you?” he used to say, which I rather took offense at, I think. But I know what he meant. He said, “You notice other things other people miss.”

And I love doing that. I think if I had had an education, perhaps I would have become a psychiatrist. I have a sense of people sometimes. I really adored writing about Berenson and Clark and Dalí. I felt tremendously sorry for Dalí. And I loved Frank Lloyd Wright, though I must say I do think--I know I’m digressing--but I do think he was a kind of black hole sort of person. You don’t want to get too near him or you disappear into a black hole. You can admire him from afar. So many people’s lives are ruined who were in any way close to him. But what can you do? He’s a giant. He was a horror. But he was an amazing figure, Balzacian, you know? He’s the great American life story, I swear to you. For my chapter headings I use poems from the old English, and they gave, as far as I’m concerned, the right feeling of grandeur, almost of inevitability, that I felt before this personality.

He used to say some wonderful things. After World War II, there were all kinds of people wanting him to come lecture to architecture schools. He’d go and stand up and the next thing you know he’s telling all the boys to go home and make something of themselves, a you’re-not-going-to-learn-anything-here kind of thing. It was so funny.

Cole: There is a lot about the visual and the performing arts in your books.

Secrest: Absolutely. That’s right.

Cole: Or criticism of the visual arts, with Berenson and Clark.

Secrest: I really would have liked to become an artist. I would have loved poetry, that sort of thing.

Cole: Just, again, a kind of generalized question. Let’s talk about the general state of biography today. There is a huge audience in biography. But many of the major biographies are not being written by academics. They’re being written by people with your background. I think that in some circles there’s some skepticism about biography, that it doesn’t deal efficiently with social history and that there are doubts about individual accomplishments, especially in figures like Wright, let’s say. Here at the Endowment, as part of our initiative, We the People, one of the things we’ve put in place is a lecture series on heroes of history, because we do think that individuals often can make a difference.

Secrest: Absolutely. I’m convinced.

Cole: Often these heroes are quite ordinary people who, under certain circumstances, perform heroic deeds or accomplishments and the like. I think that these lectures will not only illuminate the individuals, but they’ll illuminate the world from which they arise. What are your thoughts on that?

Secrest: I’ve always been tremendously interested in the person in relation to the period. I don’t think you can divorce the person from the social history, from the background and the influences on him or her. I think that biography, generally--and I include my own in this, although I’ve tried mightily to overcome it--biographers generally do not pay enough attention to this aspect of their characters’ lives.

I’ve been looking at biographies in quite a concentrated way for the last five or six years, because I’ve been a judge for the L.A. Times on their book awards. My feeling is that one of the single biggest omissions of contemporary biography is a tendency to act as though everybody knows what the background of your subject is.

It takes a very fine biographer, someone like Justin Kaplan, to put that book in context--or Robert Caro or Edmund Morris or any of the great biographers whom we know. Most middle-level biographers completely ignore the context, and it’s a great shame.

I’m not really interested in--how shall I say this?--simply chronicling a life. I can’t be. I’m writing for a general audience. I have to tell a story about the life. That’s not too difficult because I love to tell stories. It’s: how do you find the theme for a life? With Berenson, I felt in Being Bernard Berenson, that I had found that theme. In Wright I felt I found the theme. In Dalí I found a theme, believe it or not.

I think there ought to be a lot of different kinds of biographies about a really important figure. I really do.

Cole: Which biographers do you admire? That’s the whole range, not just contemporary.

Secrest: Lytton Strachey, it goes without saying, and the people I’ve already mentioned. I admire very much David McCullough. I admire him tremendously, more than I can say. But the one who influenced me the most was a man named A.J.A. Symons.

Cole: Oh, wonderful.

Secrest: The Quest for Corvo, do you know it?

Cole: I know it, yes.

Secrest: Fantastic. That’s what got me started, Quest. That’s a mystery, you see? Who was this man really? It’s so elegantly done. He’s quite discursive and digressive, but he does it as a study of discovering who this man is.

He keeps peeling away the layers. He begins with the outside and he keeps peeling away and peeling away to get to the essence of the man at the end of the book. The way it’s designed, you are riveted to the story of this most eccentric and gifted self-deluder.

A play came out of this, Hadrian VII, with Alec McCowan in the central role. It’s really this awful undistinguished, mousy-haired little man who had delusions about becoming a great figure of the Catholic Church and ends up being the first English pope and then dies a martyr’s death. It’s all self-delusion. But it’s a wonderful, wonderful story. All my life I’ve been trying to write a book with this model and I haven’t made it yet.

Cole: When you sit down to write, who are you writing for? What does that reader look like?

Secrest: I don’t really think about the reader--oh, dear, that’s not quite right. I write about what I think is interesting. If it isn’t interesting to me, I take it out. Working on that tiny paper in Canada, I got a very early education in how to connect with the reader. If you didn’t write interestingly you weren’t going to get known and you weren’t going to increase your circulation. So I think I know dead prose when I see it.

Cole: That’s great. And now you are teaching about this.

Secrest: I’m teaching, yes. I think I’ve reached the point in life when I’d like to pass something on. Does that sound awfully pretentious? I just have different goals at this stage of my life.

My three children are all married and they all have children. And they’re all darlings, but they don’t listen to me anymore. So I thought if I went to some kids who were nineteen and twenty and so on--no, I’m just being facetious.

But I went to see the dean of arts and sciences, who is a friend of a friend, at George Mason University, and we talked for a while, and I was just half-thinking, I wonder if he’d have a job for me? And he was sort of half-thinking that, I think.

He turns out to be an Italian mathematician who is a mountain climber. So we talked about “Mount Analog” and a couple of other things, and we talked about Gabriele d’Annunzio, the Italian poet and World War I aviator hero. Romaine knew him well; she was even in love with him although she was a lesbian. I think he was amazed that anyone in northern Virginia had ever heard of D’Annunzio. We got into this wonderful discussion about Italian culture in the 1920s, and D’Annunzio and the march on Trieste and all of that. Then out of the blue he said, “Have you ever thought about teaching?” I said, “Well, what did you have in mind?” That’s how I ended up there.

I’m learning as I go along and I’ve made some horrible mistakes. I think that people will have the same impulses that I have, and they don’t. I’m doing workshops in what’s called creative nonfiction, a literary journalism kind of thing.

I’m not particularly of the Tom Wolfe school, although we’re studying the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. There are lots of things about his methods I don’t like. But I’m finding it tremendously interesting. I’m trying to push them all along to use imaginative techniques in the service of nonfiction. I rather like it. And I’ve gotten some wonderful pieces.

One girl went out and walked through the crowd at the Vietnam Memorial and came back with a spectacular piece. At intervals in the piece she just ran a little strip of names beginning with A. Then she’d pause and then there’s another strip of names beginning with B and so on. It was poetic. It was one of the most imaginative pieces I’ve ever read, and it was strictly a report on what she saw.

Another girl went to family court. Somebody else went to a rock concert, another very gifted writer. Never got to the concert. He just described the scene around the concert, in Richmond, Virginia: who was there, all the hucksters, all the kids, where the dope was. I tell you, it’s exciting. It really is.

Cole: You talked about your student’s essay on the Vietnam Memorial arising to the level of poetry.

Secrest: Yes.

Cole: But good biography is also an art form. I mean, it does rise to the level of art, aside from the story of the subject’s life, right?

Secrest: Well, I think it can be an art form. There are a great many choices that go in to the way a piece is structured that are sometimes just instinctive. That’s why it’s very hard to teach, actually.

Cole: Is this, as they say, a learning experience for you as well, where you actually have to articulate what you do?

Secrest: Absolutely. It’s been tremendously interesting, and very difficult. It’s all learning on the job and discovering theories after the fact.

Cole: Exactly. Exactly. Well, let’s circle back almost to where we started. Berenson was your second book, right? And now you have a book coming out on Duveen. When will that be out?

Secrest: May of next year. With the earlier book on Berenson I didn’t get to see the archives of i Tatti, because Ernest Samuels, who was a professor of English at the University of Chicago, had already been working on a Berenson book. It eventually came out as a two-volume book: one was The Making of a Connoisseur and the other was The Making of a Legend.

I’m sure I put a spanner in the works, as my father would say, for Ernest Samuels getting the Pulitzer Prize, because both of our books were nominated for the Pulitzer. Neither was chosen. And both were nominated for the American Book Award and neither was chosen. It was amusing because we took entirely different directions. His was really very much a dispassionate description of Berenson’s career, without drawing any conclusions, and mine, of course, drew conclusions.

Cole: I’ve been interested in Berenson for many, many years. I think I have first editions of everything, and I’ve read, I think, everything on Berenson. With my students I always would tell them, “There are two books on Berenson that you can read. You can read the official Samuels biography, or you can read the really interesting one,” and I would send them to your biography first--

Secrest: Oh, you’re so nice--

Cole: --Because Being Bernard Berenson gives you a sense of what he was like, of what life at i Tatti was like--the complexity and nuance of him. It’s a terrific book.

Secrest: I am very honored. I really am. Well, where was I? Oh, yes. So Samuels had access to the i Tatti archives. I didn’t. I had to write around the subject because I didn’t have the archive. I also didn’t have the Duveen archives.

Cole: You weren’t allowed in the archive?

Secrest: They wouldn’t let me see it because Samuels hadn’t finished. But he’d been going for seventeen years. It was a bit much, really, I thought.

I couldn’t see the Duveen archives either. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had all of the Duveen archives, which Edmund Fowles, who was running the Duveen Brothers galleries until the sixties, had left them.

And Fowles gave the directive to the Met. It’s ambivalent. It says I wouldn’t want the general public to see this because of some sensitive material, but serious scholars can see this. That was not what I was told. I was led to believe that the archive would be open to the public by 2001 or 2002, and I said in my preface on Berenson, “If I’m still alive, I’ll be standing waiting for the archive to open.” By a fluke, I heard that the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles had got it. I still don’t know quite how that transfer was made, but I think the Met got a bit tired of it sitting there. They couldn’t afford to do anything with it. It really needed to go on microfilm because it was deteriorating badly. They didn’t have the correct climactic conditions and, one way or another, it got transferred.

Cole: Is it on microfilm now?

Secrest: Yes. It’s six hundred boxes of material. It’s enormous. I’ve got a file cabinet that’s quite large, with four drawers, and it’s full of Xeroxes, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. The problem with these archives--and with any archive--is sifting through fifty thousand pieces of paper to get the one piece of paper you really, really want.

Cole: That’s sort of like the process of writing a biography, too, isn’t it?

Secrest: Yes, it is. It’s the same thing. Exactly. And the trouble is you don’t know what you want until you see it. Nobody else can do it for you.

Cole: Exactly.

Secrest: They’re going to miss what’s really interesting half the time, yes.

Cole: So you’re spending time at the Getty?

Secrest: About a month altogether, I suppose. And I’ve had people doing Xeroxing for me.

Cole: Just as an aside, is it just paper? Is there memorabilia as well?

Secrest: Not much, no. I’ve called the book Duveen: A Life in Art, because I really don’t know what his life was like outside his business life, and I don’t have any material. It’s bizarre.

Cole: They must have had a library?

Secrest: Yes, he did. That went to the Clark Institute in Williamstown. And it’s annotated. It’s a pretty good library. They’re very helpful, too. But it still doesn’t really tell me who he is. One does get a real flavor for this personality, and, most of all, for the extraordinary nature of the art market in the teens and twenties, really right up to World War II. It’s fantastic. It’s being driven by a few billionaires is what’s happening. A collection like Isabella Stewart Gardener is very small potatoes compared to these men with infinitely deep pockets, like Mellon and Huntington.

Cole: The Wideners.

Secrest: The Wideners, the Clarence MacKays, Jules Bache, Marjorie Meriweather Post. There are just so many people with so much money, many of them bankers.

Cole: Frick?

Secrest: Exactly.

Cole: It was, obviously, the heyday of the American collectors, especially for Italian old masters.

Secrest: That’s right. And they’re bidding each other up to these fantastic heights.

Cole: Things like that won’t come on the market again.

Secrest: That’s it. That’s question number one. And if it does come on, like a Van Gogh or something, it would sell for some fierce price and be bought by some bank in Japan and put in a vault. Buyers don’t see it anymore as a piece of art. It’s a piece of merchandise, isn’t it, that they’re going to sell again at double the profit.

Cole: So the Duveen archives went to the Getty and then it was opened. It’s fully opened?

Secrest: It’s only recently been opened.

Cole: You’re the first person then to get into these archives and to write about them?

Secrest: Yes, I am. And the tone is somewhat different, because I’ve had a really hard think about this. There were so many outrageous deals. There really were. If you took them seriously, you could get all upset about it, you know? But I’m thinking: so who cares if they pulled a fast one in 1925? The fun of it is what they went through to do this.

Cole: Maybe we could just back up and say who Duveen was?

Secrest: Duveen was the most important art dealer in the world from about 1910 to 1939. He was a colossus in the art market. He had a gallery at 56th and Fifth in New York, which he had built. He had a gallery just off Bond Street, in Grafton Street in London. It was a beautiful private house, and he had a gallery in a courtyard in the Place Vendôme in Paris.

And he had two sets of people. He had two very clever brothers in London. In Paris he had Edward Fowles and Armand Lowengard, extremely adroit, very knowledgeable on Italian Renaissance artists. And in New York he had himself, mostly. London and Paris would find the pictures and Duveen would say, this sounds right for da-da-da-da, and Duveen would do the selling in New York. He sold before he actually bought anything. So they had a rather clever deal.

Duveen would spend every summer in Europe. He once figured out that he’d crossed the Atlantic a hundred times. Of course, the fun of this is these are the days before the common use of telephones. Transatlantic telephones were a big deal in those days--you booked a call. What went on in these telephone conversations I shall never know and it drives me crazy sometimes. But there’s plenty of other evidence about what they would do. Duveen was hovering over everything. About every hour there’s another cable. And they have got the cables. There are wonderful things like “A Gainsborough is for sale . . .”

And Ernest Duveen, in London, is saying, “Well, there’s this Gainsborough, but I don’t think you’d like it. It’s got a lot of brown.” And Duveen wants it, and he’s cabling back, “But isn’t there some blue somewhere? There’s must be some blue somewhere.”

Cole: Besides Duveen and Berenson, who are the players in this new book?

Secrest: Well, there’s Mr. Mellon, the man who gave us the National Gallery of Art. I don’t think people knew just how outrageous Duveen was with Andrew Mellon. In general, you know, I find so many of these great men have this overwhelming ability to inject a spirited atmosphere into a room. And now that I’m a teacher, I see how important it is. You have to use a lot of energy. Duveen is a nonstop talker, and I’m in awe of his ability. And he was funny, too. He was terribly, terribly funny.

He has this most marvelous sense of energy and fun and wit. He couldn’t stand Mellon, because Mellon, you know, felt the same way about talking as he did about money. He wouldn’t part with anything if he could help it. So Duveen was really up against it with Mellon.

What he did was he had everybody in Mellon’s staff on his payroll: the private secretary and the butler, the cook--who knows--in Pittsburgh and Washington and so on. They would send him missives about Mr. Mellon’s being seen to look at something and then Duveen would just say, “Well, dear fellow, why don’t you have it in your house? No money need change hands. Just have a look at it. See if you can get to like it.”

He would leave a piece with Mellon sometimes. Finally, the months are ticking by and a year has gone by and Mellon still hasn’t said whether he wants it or not. So Duveen is reduced to asking the secretary or the butler, “Did he say anything about it? Did he look at it when he went by?” Just amazing--

Cole: This is all in your book.

Secrest: This is all new. Yes, it is.

Cole: Is this apocryphal or is it true that Duveen rented an apartment in the same building as Mellon and filled it with art for Mellon to look at?

Secrest: It’s all absolutely true. It’s the cleverest thing he ever did. Duveen is probably partly responsible for the National Gallery. And John Russell Pope, the man who designed it, as you know, was Duveen’s favorite architect. We know that Duveen was the one who pushed for the sculpture galleries because Mr. Mellon didn’t have any sculpture. But Duveen had a lot, and was determined that Mr. Mellon should like it. So he went on selling and selling.

But to get back to the tone, it’s very light-hearted. We won’t call it tongue-in-cheek, but every once in a while I get my oar in, you know, because I just think he’s so funny.

Cole: I can’t wait until it’s published. What’s next?

Secrest: I haven’t got any ideas. Well, I’ve got one or two. I’m not ready to talk about them yet. It’s been such fun. It really has. I once figured out that I made about five dollars an hour, but you’re on your own. You do what fascinates you. The one thing I have learned as a writer and the one thing I hope I pass on to my students is, don’t write about something that doesn’t interest you, it’s just not going to interest anybody else. Conversely, if you are writing about something that inspires you, ten to one some of that excitement and enthusiasm is going to get through in the book.

Cole: Right. You’ve painted all these wonderful portraits. How about a self-portrait? Have you thought about that?

Secrest: I’ve thought about it, actually, yes. I don’t quite know how it would come together. But I think if I did do a self-portrait, my opening paragraph would be about going out on my bicycle covering North Somerset for the Bristol Evening Post. I’m terribly interested in the creative process. I remember once asking a poet in residence at the Library of Congress about that: how did poems come to him? He said, “I write down phrases as they occur to me.” And he said, “I’m receptive to whatever thought happens along,” which is a lovely American way of putting it, isn’t it?

Cole: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Secrest: I’ve enjoyed it.