Interviews

Ned Rorem, The Art of the Diary No. 1

Interviewed by J. D. McClatchy

“I am a composer,” Ned Rorem once said, “who also writes, not a writer who also composes.” His music—hundreds of ravishing art songs and instrumental scores, one of which won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize—has brought him fame. But it is his diaries that have brought him celebrity. The first of them, The Paris Diary, covering his stay abroad from 1951 to 1955, was published in 1966. Its pithy, elegant entries were filled with tricks turned and names dropped (Cocteau, Poulenc, Balthus, Dali, Paul Bowles, John Cage, Man Ray, and James Baldwin, along with the rich and titled, the louche and witty). Reviewers seemed either shocked or ecstatic; Janet Flanner was both—she called it “worldly, intelligent, licentious, highly indiscreet.” The following year Rorem published The New York Diary, which took the story up to 1961 and deepened his self-portrait as an untortured artist and dashing narcissist. Two hefty further installments subsequently appeared, The Later Diaries in 1974 and The Nantucket Diary in 1987, which carried the account of his nights and days up to 1985. All along, he had been collecting his essays into other books, and his memoir, Knowing When to Stop (1994), fills us in on his early life. But the diaries are an incomparable resource, certainly the fullest version of a composer’s daily life we have, and perhaps the most vivid self-portrait there is of a contemporary creative artist. Work and play, professional and social duties, the network of lovers and contacts, the underworld of desire and ambition, the buzz of scandal and rumor, the hangovers, the pettiness, the glamour, the bright rush of ideas.

It wasn’t long before Rorem’s notorious diaries received the dubious accolade of parody. In 1975 the poet Howard Moss, several of whose poems Rorem had set, published in The New Yorker a hilarious send-up called “The Ultimate Diary.” Its little gilded barbs were dipped in a poisonous wit:

MONDAY

Drinks here. Picasso, Colette, the inevitable Cocteau, Gide, Valéry, Ravel, and Larry. Chitchat. God, how absolutely dull the Great can be! I know at least a hundred friends who would have given their eyeteeth just to have had a glimpse of some of them, and there I was bored, incredible lassitude, stymied. Is it me? Is it them? Think latter. Happened to glance in mirror before going to bed. Am more beautiful than ever.

THURSDAY

Half the Opéra-Comique seems to have fallen in love with me. I cannot stand any more importuning. Will go to Africa. How to break with C? Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Signoret, Simone Weil, and Simone Simon for drinks. They didn’t get it!

Behind the satire, though, lurk more serious matters. Edgar Allan Poe once wrote that the ambitious man’s “road to immortal renown lies straight, open, unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But—this little book must be true to its title. No man dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.” Yes, there’s a strong dose of self-absorption to Rorem’s diaries, but there’s also an honesty—touched up, as any on-the-spot notation must be, to give it the tone of even more spontaneous ingenuity. Documenting oneself poses as a kind of writing that is both artless and knowing. The intimate journal, as distinct from autobiography, has never especially appealed to American writers as it has to the French, though both nationalities are high on self-promotion.

Perhaps it took living for a spell in Paris to help Rorem cultivate the turn of mind that gazes at the world through the narrow lens of a diary. He’d kept one briefly as a child, and again as a young man. Once he moved to Paris in 1951, he resumed a chronicle of his composing called Journal de mes mélodies, in imitation of Francis Poulenc’s. He started it in French, soon reverted to English, and began to deal with more mundane matters. In 1959, back in America and staying for the summer at Yaddo, he met the author Robert Phelps who, with his wife, was also a guest at Yaddo. Because Phelps was a Francophile and a “born fan,” Rorem read to him from his diary. He may as well have been Scheherazade. Phelps was captivated. He was working then as a reader for the publisher George Braziller, who signed on the book at once. Phelps insisted it would be best if he edited the book, and Rorem, delighted at the prospect of his first publication, agreed. Phelps selected his favorite bits, removed their dates, and rearranged them. Not until The Later Diaries was Rorem his own editor.

“Don’t look back,” said Cocteau, “or you risk turning into a pillar of salt—that is, a pillar of tears.” From the perspective of a half-century later, the events described in Rorem’s Paris Diary have the flavor of a novel. In a way, he’d fashioned for himself a miniature Père Lachaise where so many of his friends and acquaintances of those decades lie at rest. In its splendors and miseries, it seems a vanished world. In retrospect he was its Audubon, an American dauphin in disguise, a tender draughtsman taking aim.

I first met Ned Rorem twenty years ago. I even know the precise date: February 13, 1979, at a dinner party given by the novelist Edmund White. I know because I read about it years later in Rorem’s diary. (I might have anticipated the entry; after that dinner, while guests were getting their coats, Rorem came over to me and asked, “How exactly do you spell your name?”) While this interview was afoot, his friend James Holmes was gravely ill. Rorem had lived with Jim, an organist and choir director, for thirty-one years, and shortly after our interview, Jim died at the age of fifty-nine on January 7, 1999. In 1974 they had bought a slumping 1919 bungalow on Nantucket, a hundred and seventy-six yards (Rorem’s reckoning by his daily walk) from the newspaper store that’s the town hub. Jim had fixed up the house and put in gardens on the half-acre plot. Rorem doubts that now without Jim he’ll ever return. Since 1968 he’s also lived in a rambling apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. Its living room where we spoke is dominated by the Steinway at which he works. There are books and recordings everywhere, and they line the walls of nearly every other room as well. His furniture is unstylish, but there are paintings to admire—by Leonid, say, and by his friends Jane Freilicher, Jane Wilson, Gloria Vanderbilt, Robert Dash, Joe Brainard, and Nell Blaine. There are several drawings by Cocteau hung near the piano, and at the other end of the room some of the many portraits of himself (I recognize those by Larry Rivers and Maurice Grosser) he owns. At seventy-five, Rorem has the sort of looks men used to try for with injections of animal glands. He’s trim, handsome, energetic, voluble. The slight trace of puffiness in his face was probably the result of his insomnia and of his anxiety about Jim Holmes. We spoke on a gray winter afternoon. He had brought in a tray with teapot and cups, and a little plastic carton of tapioca for himself.

 

INTERVIEWER

Children, it seems to me, have no capacity to distance themselves from their own lives and so no sense of reflection. All of that starts to well up—in the form of Great Ideas and Deep Feelings—in the teenager. But for the record, did you start keeping a diary as a child?  

NED ROREM

Don’t be too dismissive of children. While it’s true that few children are artists, all artists are children. And insofar as artists adopt the grown-up stance that blinds them to the wide-open perceptions of their childhood, they cease being artists. That said, I’m not much interested in children before they’re twenty-one. And yes, their diaries—even Anne Frank’s or Daisy Ashford’s—are not repositories of great ideas. What are great ideas anyway and are mature artists interested in them? Most of my writer-friends gossip when they get together and reserve their nuance for the page. Deep Feelings were expressed in the college dorm. Not that we don’t suffer after fifty, but the suffering is more often about health and death than about Love and Abandonment.

I did keep a diary in 1936, age twelve, for three months when our family went to Europe. Except for frequent references to Debussy and Griffes, it focuses breathlessly on American movies seen in Oslo or tourists we met on boats. No shred of lust, much less of intellect or guile. Admittedly, words are never put on paper, be it War and Peace or a laundry list, without thought of other eyes reading them, even though those eyes might just be one’s own at another time. But I didn’t think of myself as an author. Ten years later I began a literary diary and kept it up until I went to France in 1949. It’s filled with drunkenness, sex, and the talk of my betters, all to the tune of André Gide.  

INTERVIEWER

Your Quaker upbringing—did that encourage early habits of introspection?  

ROREM

I didn’t really have a “Quaker upbringing.” My mother’s younger brother was killed in the First World War at the age of seventeen. She never got over the trauma. When they were married in 1920 my parents (she a Congregational minister’s daughter, he a Methodist) looked around for a group that would work for peace, internationally, and not just in time of war. The Society of Friends was the answer. They weren’t concerned with the God part (I’m not sure they ever believed in God), only with the peace part. Thus my older sister, Rosemary, and I were raised as pacifists, to think that there is no alternative to peace. Which I believe. Whether I’m right or wrong, I’m not ashamed of it . . .So I was not raised piously, much less in silence. We were taken regularly to all the best concerts and plays that came to Chicago. My background was far more structured by the cultured and caring intellect of my parents than by the strictured structure of the stricter Quakers.  

INTERVIEWER

What prompted you to start that diary in 1946?  

ROREM

Prior to entering Juilliard in the fall of 1945, it was necessary to take some liberal-arts courses to qualify for a degree as distinct from a diploma. So I went to summer school at NYU in Washington Square. During the first class in English literature, our instructor happened to say, Happiness, then, is an answering after the heart. On the way home I bought a five-by-nine ruled hardcover notebook and began a diary with the phrase—a phrase that today seems both corny and unclear. Also, knowing that David Diamond kept a diary was an incentive. Diamond was an example—one I emulated perhaps—of a disciplined composer (who could account for every note) trapped in a self-destructive body. The style of that early diary (my diaries are really journals, since they’re hardly daily—although journal means daily too, doesn’t it?) was often like Diamond’s or like the books he read—Moby-Dick, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Probably I took to the form because it was a crazy, open-ended contrast to my rather Spartan music. The entries are all about screwing, drunkenness, suicidal urges . . . the usual. If they ring true at all, it’s the truth of the young. I left the book lying around. Once a piece of rough trade stole it and tried to blackmail me. He felt we could make a killing together in royalties! I got the book back, but that’s another story.

Incidentally, I kept the diary in longhand for the next twenty years, until I realized it might be published.  

INTERVIEWER

You left for France in 1949. That would be incentive enough to continue keeping your diary, but was there a moment when you became more self-conscious about doing so?  

ROREM

When I left for France in May of 1949, the visit was to have lasted three months, so I didn’t bring my diary. I ultimately remained eight years. On realizing that I’d never come back to America, I wrote Morris Golde and asked him to ship all my previous journals to Hyères, where I was living chez Marie-Laure de Noailles. One morning she came into my room and handed me a pretty little carnet with several hundred empty pages, saying, Here, write. Even if you feel bad before and after, while you’re writing your cares are transferred. She kept her own diary every night before bed, faithfully, drunk or sober. It mainly related facts of the day. Mine—which for several months I kept in French, then reverted to English, which was, of course, more me—related states of mind as well as of body, and was probably modeled on Julien Green’s journal. Green, who had become an intimate friend (the friendship exploded fatally a year later), was as strong a literary influence on me as Paul Goodman had been during my adolescence. And yes, probably I was thinking of other eyes than my own as I penned the pages.

Marie-Laure and Green were the same age (she was born in 1902, he in 1900), but opposites. She: French, half-Jewish, unimaginably rich, Catholic but communist and a nonbeliever, odd-looking but forceful, like George Washington in a Dior gown, vastly cultivated, sophisticated (but like many sophisticated females of the period, more innocent than she pretended about sex), self-consciously bohemian, liking queer men, including her very closeted husband, the Vicomte de Noailles, who was her best friend but whom she seldom saw, and to whom a marriage had been arranged when she was twenty, thus making her noble (the Noailles go back to Louis XIII) and still richer. She was a rather gifted writer and a very gifted painter, but like many of the rich undisciplined with pen and paintbrush. She was powerful and famous too, and launched me, sort of. Otherwise I may have returned here sooner. Julien, meanwhile, was American (but raised in France) and the truest bilingual I’ve ever known. A true believer, Catholic convert, writer of a strange and passionate passivity, if that makes sense. His force came through a sort of hypnotism. He loved me and I was infected with the casual cruelty of the young. He felt, probably, that my remarks about God were frivolous and that I made mockery of his sexual leanings.

He came to Hyères for a one-day visit in 1951, and seeing the two of them together was odd—especially since, exceptionally, the vicomte was also there. They were all so respectful of each other, yet their only interest in common (beyond the considerable one of art) was me. This went to my head.  

INTERVIEWER

The anecdote that opens The Paris Diary—was it meant to be emblematic? It goes this way: “A stranger asks, ‘Are you Ned Rorem?’ I answer, ‘No,’ adding, however, that I’ve heard of and would like to meet him.” Was that meant to point toward some underlying theme of self-discovery or self-making? Or worse, some condition that calls for a negation of the self or a devotion to the diary as a substitute for the self?  

ROREM

Your question ignores this fact: The Paris Diary is the only one of my fourteen books that was edited by someone else. Being my first book, all suggestions were accepted. Not a word is changed from the manuscript, but Robert Phelps radically shifted the order of entries. Thus that first remark was originally embedded somewhere in the center. To change place is to change meaning, even when that which is changed remains unchanged, so to speak. Would you have posed your question about that entry if it were elsewhere?  

INTERVIEWER

Fair enough. Now, however the entries were rearranged in the end, what first prompted you to record a particular event or idea? The amusing remark? The annals of star-fucking? Or were you in prose marking your growth, as with a ruler and pencil on the kitchen wall?  

ROREM

Hmm . . . Does the diary, in fact, record events and ideas and amusing remarks? It’s a long time since I’ve reread it. Probably I wrote what I wrote because, although I’ve always known that nothing in the universe really counts and that when we’re gone we’re gone, I still have a terror of being lost, of becoming as anonymous as an Assyrian slave, or even as an Elizabethan poet whose works, to be sure, are recalled but not his body—not, say, Marlowe’s scalding male flesh. As for star-fucking (your term), I’ve never practiced that. Of the three thousand people I bedded between 1938 and 1968, only four were famous and it wasn’t my doing. (They’re listed in Knowing When to Stop.) I can’t sleep with the famous, it’s an ego clash. But if many of my friends have recognizable names, I know them not for their fame but for what made them famous—their music or books or pictures. I’d rather have first-rate acquaintances than not. I don’t know any baseball players (though they’re sexier than, say, dress designers) because we have nothing in common.  

INTERVIEWER

Does one have to be a narcissist to keep a diary?  

ROREM

Am I really more of a narcissist than other artists? Or do I just admit it more readily? Certainly I’m not hot for myself. I’m not my own type. Nor does the diary use the word I more than do most contemporary poets. Jorie Graham, for instance, or Frank O’Hara, or indeed yourself, sprinkle the page with I. Marie-Laure used to say that I was more interested in a state of body than a state of mind (unétat de corps, non pas un état d’âme). But how can I know? We live inside ourselves, by definition, and none of us can see ourselves as others see us. Inasmuch as every work of art, whether vertical or horizontal, has a beginning, middle, and end, a diary cannot by its nature qualify, though certainly a good diary hits the mark more convincingly than a dull, but expertly penned, novel. But who makes the definitions?  

INTERVIEWER

Speaking of which, Auden defined the narcissist as the hunchback who gazes at his image in the water and says, On me it looks good. When I asked you about the diarist’s narcissism, I didn’t just mean the recurrence of I, but the self-absorption—whatever happens to the self is deemed of interest to others.  

ROREM

Well, yes. Auden was right even when he was wrong. Cocteau said, “Je suis le mensonge qui dit la vérité.” All art is a lie, insofar as truth is defined by the Supreme Court. After all, Picasso’s goat isn’t a goat. Is the artist a liar, or simply one for whom even a fact is not a fact? There is no truth, not even an overall Truth.  

INTERVIEWER

Was there something about the French turn of mind and phrase that influenced the way you recorded things then?  

ROREM

Yes, but I never said to myself, I shall now make a French-type entry. I was, after all, living among the French, some of the smartest, and was still young enough to emulate my elders. Also, there is such a thing as writing French in English—Janet Flanner, for instance, or Virgil Thomson. Their English is economical. Illustrative and terse in the sense of the mot juste—yet the mot was inevitably Anglo-Saxon. Virgil used to tell fledgling critics on the Tribune, Don’t say she had faulty intonation, say that she sang out of tune. The best English doesn’t use Latinate nouns. German in English? Probably Faulkner, who takes forever to get to the point. Or even, ironically, Proust. Julien Green wrote English in French; at least his subject matter was often about American Protestant misers, described in the tongue of Mallarmé. Very disconcerting.  

INTERVIEWER

When it first appeared, The Paris Diary was nothing if not a succès de scandale, though those were more shockable times. Were you deliberately naughty pour épater les bourgeois?  

ROREM

I doubt it. When prepublication extracts from The Paris Diary first appeared, most notably in this very magazine, I was stunned when people found it outrageous (more for the narcissism than the queerness, although the latter was invariably stressed in straight reviews), because anything we do, when seen in multiple reproduction, is no longer ours. You know how it feels to see your poem in The New Yorker? Imagine how it feels to sit in a box and hear your music played. Especially played badly.  

INTERVIEWER

Can you recall now an incident you wish you’d recorded but didn’t and one that’s included in the published diary but you wish were not?  

ROREM

There’s nothing recorded that I regret, though I have remorse about certain entries and have lost friends. As for what I didn’t record, that can always be remedied in a memoir.  

INTERVIEWER

By the end of The Paris Diary (or the end that was concocted for it), you sound both satisfied and sated. Or perhaps the word I want is more American, in the sense that Gertrude Stein declared Paris is where “Americans can discover what it means to be American.” When you return to the States in 1955 and pick up with The New York Diary, perhaps you sound a little French—or at least a little out of place. Did that second diary begin with an odd sense of dépaysement?  

ROREM

You’re asking me to ascribe motivations decades after the fact. A diary is, by definition, on-the-spot reporting, even when most introspective. I cannot today be sure that I recall a certain incident purely, rather than what I’ve written about the incident. Thus I cannot know today what made me start the damn book in the first place. I do know that there’s less responsibility—less urge to chisel and ply and plot—than when writing a poem or play or novel or, indeed, a song or symphony. Diaries have no beginnings, no endings. They are perpetual middles. But of course I state this only now with the perception of hindsight, and hindsight is always skewed. (Which is why those seminars of Anaïs Nin—Anus Ninny, as Phelps called her—were sheer blather.) There are as many shapes to a diary as there are diarists, whereas a sonnet or sonata is always a sonata or sonnet. Oh, maybe not . . . I’m less caught up by our discussion this hour than by concern for the health of my beloved Jim Holmes. He is my diary. You are my sonata. Oi!  

INTERVIEWER

The first three diaries have no index, where one could cruise for one’s enemies and friends. It’s maddening! Was it deliberate?  

ROREM

My memory of the reason is clear. Though now that you ask—not so clear. Joe Adamiak, my boyfriend in 1965 and a graphic artist, was hired by Braziller to do the layout of The Paris Diary. He wanted the printed phrases not to be flush with the margins but to ramble like handwriting. This was vetoed by everyone and nothing remains of those early plans except his pretty good photo on the cover. For reasons of naturalism (or was it expense?) we all agreed not to have an index. Leonard Bernstein said when The Paris Diary appeared that it needed a list of names with a plus or minus sign beside each one. Anyway, the device continued through The Final Diary (now titled The Later Diaries) and everyone, including me, finds it inconvenient. Or, as you say, maddening.  

INTERVIEWER

Music itself is a kind of diary—reflecting the moods and impulses of the days. I know the differences between the two activities—the one private, the other commissioned; the one read, the other performed; etcetera—but what would you say about the similarities?  

ROREM

If the arts could express each other, we’d only need one art. As one of the few Americans (as distinct from Europeans who are—or used to be—all general practitioners) who practices two distinct arts professionally, I realize ever more clearly (though I didn’t forty years ago) the evidence of the previous sentence. When my first book, The Paris Diary, was published, and I realized that strangers would be reading about presumably private thoughts, I immediately acquired a new sense of responsibility. Perhaps music is also about private thoughts, but who can prove it? It’s not that music’s too vague for words—it’s too precise for words. Nor does it have the same audience as prose or pictures or verse. Observe painters: how unembarrassedly they admit to knowing nothing and caring less about classical music. Ditto writers. Not all. But most. It’s inconceivable that a composer would admit to knowing nothing about, say, novels or Matisse. Music is the most abstract of the arts, painting the most concrete. Which is why painters always label a picture Abstraction Number 7—because they know that, as with clouds, we’ll always find a program there somewhere, while musicians are quick to call their pieces “La Mer” or “Alice in Wonderland,” lest the listener lose his way. Anyhow, after that diary came out, my music (I like to think) became rougher and my prose less scattered.  

INTERVIEWER

You’ve written several books of essays. Have your diaries served as a kind of seedbed or sounding board for ideas later expounded upon in essays?  

ROREM

I began writing essays soon after the first diary appeared and they have nothing of the diaristic about them—and seldom use the pronoun I.

When the University at Buffalo invited me in 1959 to present six lectures, each to be followed by a concert of my own devising, I asked myself, What do I know about music that nobody else knows in quite the same way—about the construction of a song, for example—and can this be put into words? Because there’s nothing a composer can say, at least about his own music, that the music can’t say better, except how it came to be made. These essays, like many reviews that followed, sought to be objective above all.

By today I’ve probably said in words everything I have to say, both about my navel and about other people’s. (I hate, by the way, to write negatively about other people’s music and never do so, except for sociological purposes, as when writing of Elliott Carter.) Maybe I’ve also said everything I have to say, as well, in my musical voice. I’m seventy-five now and if I died tonight I’d not be ashamed of much of a rather large catalogue. As for the diary, yes, I still keep it. But disparately. Once I wrote, “I won’t have the courage to say in these pages what really matters until I’m of an age when that will seem obscene.” Something like that. From where I now stand, nothing really counts anymore. Did it ever? The world has no overall meaning, and I have no crying urge to restate that truism in all sorts of luminous ways.  

INTERVIEWER

When you wrote both The Paris Diary and The New York Diary—do I have my dates right?—you were a famously heavy drinker. Did sobriety change your daily sense of things, or your writing habits?  

ROREM

On first dipping my toe into AA in 1959 (it didn’t take for another ten years, though) I realized I’d been subliminally alcoholic since childhood and overtly since around age sixteen. Meaning that one drink was too many and twenty weren’t enough. As for the reasons for alcoholism, like those for homosexuality, who knows? I never felt guilty about being gay so much as being passive, wanting to be adored, etcetera. When drunk, I had a good excuse. But beyond that? Anyway, my earliest unpublished diaries (I do quote from them some in Knowing When to Stop) do wallow a lot in booze, at least as a subject. But I never wrote either prose or music while drunk, always segregated good and bad, work and play. My drunk self is a schizoid other. Thus sobriety never changed my daily sense of things or writing habits. But uttering these phrases today seems somehow trivial. I’m traversing the most melancholy valley of my life: Jim, my partner of thirty-one years, is dying. Nothing else seems important, not diaries or operas or geophysics, nothing. And though it appears lofty to say that I’ve said all I have to say, it’s nevertheless true. Don Bachardy did draw Christopher Isherwood during each last dying day. I approve. But what can I say that, for example, Joyce in “The Dead” hasn’t said better in those hundred final words. An hour ago, anticipating your question, I opened the diary to July 7, 1967 comme si par hasard: “Is a diary, by its nature, more ‘honest’ than a novel? Probably not. The undisciplined first-person involuntarily inclines more to disguise than a novelist does. As to whether I know less ‘who I am’ than, say, Alfred Chester or James Purdy, neither they nor I will ever know, any more than we can perceive the self-awareness of that farmer, that nurse, that dogcatcher.” Ah, silly superfluous art. Art.  

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about the actual writing. Has it been a daily task? Do you write into a notebook or type up pages? And do you ever look back over an entry and revise?  

ROREM

The first diaries from 1945 through 1970 were written in notebooks in ballpoint. More recently, typed, since I type everything now. And yes, revised, of course. Because everything is revised merely by being reexamined. Everything is lost instantly (these words here, Jocasta’s first view of Oedipus) and can only be retrieved through revision. Yet more literally, I revise in transit. From sentence to sentence, note to note. I do strongly disapprove of authors who decades later in their collected works “improve” upon the initial afflatus. Auden. Paul Goodman. They are always wrong, for the early work no longer belongs to them.

All literature is a diary. So indeed is all art and all organized communication, in the sense of its being a reaction to any aspect of the universe. A diary, no matter how scrupulously revised and edited, is by its nature looser than a fugue or a court report.  

INTERVIEWER

When Cocteau’s diaries were published in English some years ago, I remember your review of them. You recorded your surprise when discovering that Cocteau had written about an event you too had written up.  

ROREM

That was only the second time I’d met Cocteau. The first time I went to see him as a fan in October of 1950, and we got along fine. I didn’t know Marie-Laure then, but by the next summer I did, and Cocteau told others—never me—that it’s too bad that Rorem boy is shacked up with Marie-Laure because she can only destroy him. Of course she didn’t—nor were we shacking up. I was very anxious to be what I was—namely, her intimate friend without having to put out. She much admired industry and I worked hard, drunk or sober. What impressed her is that I wasn’t a silly gadabout. I worked several hours a day, every day, in her house, both up in Paris and down south. She worked hard too.

The first time I went down to visit her in the south of France we decided that we would go visit her spouse and mother, who both lived in the town of Grasse in separate, very comfortable houses. Hyères is a couple of hours away. She invited Cocteau over. So we all had lunch at Charles’s, her husband the Vicomte, the last great Proustian gentleman. I don’t know what he thought of me. I do remember I stole a little pair of cuticle scissors from his bathroom. Cocteau came in Mme. Weissweiler’s car. He wore a white leather jacket, which I thought was terribly chic. He sat next to the chauffeur, but had a notebook on his lap. He was never not working. After lunch we took a car over to see Marie-Laure’s mother. She had been married to Francis de Croisset, one of Reynaldo Hahn’s librettists. Marie-Laure said Croisset used to make passes at her, and she wrote a novel called La Chambre des écureuils, about a man who made passes at his stepdaughter. Then Bonjour tristesse came out, also about that sort of thing. She always felt Sagan had got there second but got more credit. Anyway, it was Marie-Laure’s idea that I should play my ballet Mélos for Cocteau (she had done the scenario). So I played it for him, so they could all see if I had a sens du théâtre. We both wrote up the day.  

INTERVIEWER

I noticed in your kitchen that little photograph of you with Jean Marais.  

ROREM

He just died, you know. Usually when you get to know really big movie stars, they turn out to be nice people. Jean was thoroughly modest. He wrote a not-bad autobiography called Histoires de ma vie, in which he’s very frank about Cocteau. There was a question of Dorian Gray being made into a ballet. Henri Sauguet was asked but didn’t want to do it and suggested my name instead. This was for the ballet company of the Opéra-Comique, and the chief dancer was an American named Georges Reich, a husky blond who was Marais’s lover. He hardly spoke French and Marais didn’t speak English. Reich was to dance Dorian and Marais was to play the portrait. So Marais came to visit me. I lived in a teeny room on the fourth floor of the Hôtel des Saints-Pères. I still remember the doorman excitedly phoning to say, M. Marais monte! Up came Jean to my humble room. On the sofa were some drawings by Cocteau, and he said, Oh my God, I certainly feel at home here. It sounds naive to say, but he was just like anybody else. We went carefully through the ballet—this kind of music here, that kind of music there. As things worked out, I had of necessity to see Marais quite often. By the way, the ballet was to be done in Barcelona, in May of 1952. And was. It flopped. After that, we exchanged letters every two or three years until he died, which came as a shock to me. I was pleased to see that he was given a sort of national funeral.  

INTERVIEWER

I’ve read that The Paris Diary is credited with helping the emergent gay-liberation movement along. Has that been your sense of things?  

ROREM

When the book was reviewed in The New York Times the word homosexual appeared in the headline and that gave me a jolt. I didn’t think of myself as in any sense political or promotional. In the book, I was merely too lazy to pretend to be something I’m not. I refer in the book to a person named P, and did so grammatically in a way that it could be sexually either/or. Eventually I got tired of that. I was bemused to be taken as a guru, since I never thought of myself that way—as Allen Ginsberg did. But I had to take my name out of the phone directory. There’d been violent threats and, just as bad, fans ringing the doorbell. I had mentioned in the diary that I’d introduced myself to Benjamin Britten by sending him a photograph of myself half-naked; now people began sending me nude photos of themselves, including women. On the other hand, I met Jim through the diary. He’d read The New York Diary and was told by a mutual friend to look me up. But it’s not for me to talk here about the effect of my diary; that’s for other people to say.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you read the diaries of others? I notice Dawn Powell’s on your bookshelf.  

ROREM

There are certain things I can’t get the point of. Bagels, for instance. Why do people like them? I can’t get the point of Berlioz. I can dislike a composer, while admitting what others see in him or her. But not Berlioz. Likewise Dawn Powell.  

INTERVIEWER

Well then, are there diarists whom you do read with admiration?  

ROREM

Not today any longer. But I certainly read Gide, who I still think is a marvelous diarist. And Isherwood. Julien Green’s still means a great deal to me.  

INTERVIEWER

Did you learn how to write a diary by reading them? What to include? How to shape an anecdote?  

ROREM

I could have. Nobody does anything without being impelled by something already existing. Every note composed, every brush stroke, everything we’re saying here—nothing comes from nothing. Although I wouldn’t have been attracted to Green’s if I hadn’t already been writing a diary myself since 1945.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the people who know your music know your diary and the people who know your diary know your music?  

ROREM

No. When the diary appeared I’d been a professional composer for about twenty years—meaning commissions, performances and so forth. But in six months I was far better known as a prose writer than as a musician. Nine out of ten people who played my music hadn’t the faintest idea I wrote books and certainly the people reading the diaries didn’t know my music. I could tell from the letters I received. Even today, letters about music I get from strangers are all about a possible error, say, in measure thirty-four, whereas the letters about the diaries are invariably much more emotional. But then literary people—or most of them—know little about music. In America, we’re getting more philistine by the minute. In France, things may be different.  

INTERVIEWER

Do you reread your own diaries?  

ROREM

No, never. Well, in anticipation of your visit, I did glance over The Paris Diary. It’s hard to read because I know it so well, even today. But sometimes I’ll come upon sections in any of the diaries and think how good they are—I’d hit the nail of a given situation precisely on the head.  

INTERVIEWER

Does the Paris of the late fifties seem increasingly like a fictional world to you now, from the vantage of seedy New York on the brink of the millennium?  

ROREM

Two or three years ago the French radio had Elliott Carter, me, and a couple of others talk in French on a program about culture. Elliott, being God, did most of the talking. But when he said that after 1951 the musical world really started in France, I had to interrupt to say, Oh, but that’s about when it stopped. True, Poulenc still had The Dialogues of the Carmelites in him (I could see Elliott flinch), and true, Cocteau still had a play or two left in him and Gide would die the following year, but the great France—and I’m right, of course—was over. The Proustian world still existed up until the mid-fifties—by which I mean literally that people who were friends of Proust or of that rarified milieu were still alive, with their tight-lipped upper-class accent, gleaned largely from their low-class English nannies. I wouldn’t know whom to telephone now, if I went to Paris. Oh, James Lord, of course, but who else? Ed White’s no longer there. But the older ones, the French writers and musicians—no one’s left. The young people in Paris nowadays I don’t find especially cute or especially smart, despite their high IQ. Performers are pretty good. Ballet dancers. But except for the movies, what is going on creatively over there? No plays, no fiction. The other writing is still all that bullshit about deconstruction. Paris has had its day.