Jean Patchett, in a 1957 Primitif by Max Factor ad.
There are a lot of things I should be reading right now: great books, worthy books, new books, books that, quite frankly, I need to finish for work. But I cannot. Ever since I ran across The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People on my grandparents’ bookshelf, I have been unable to crack anything else.
As the title indicates, this is the best book ever written, and possibly the only book one need own. The table of contents lists such categories as “Late Virginity Losers,” “Outsize Organs,” “Minute Members,” “Orgiasts,” “Interfered with When Young,” “Overrated or Disappointing Lovers,” “Clean and Unclean,” and “Peeping Toms.” As of this writing, I am only as far as August Strindberg (cross-listed as “Mother-Fixated,” “Prodigious Progenitors,” “Sex with Partners Twenty Years (or More) Younger”). But I have every intention of dispatching Zola (“Bigamists,” “Sex Trials and Famous Scandals,” “Erotica”) before the sun sets.
Despite the subject matter, and the red-and-purple 1981-issue cover, the tone of the book is not lurid. It is objective, almost academic. Or at least, the authors make all their declarations with absolute authority. Each entry begins with a biographical sketch; these, in themselves, are worthy of much close attention. Of Somerset Maugham, the authors assert, “In his 92nd year, partially demented, often angry, sometimes euphoric, he died of lung congestion.”
Of course, the sex stuff is still the best. To wit:
Hemingway had several unusual theories about sex. He believed that each man was allotted a certain number of orgasms in his life, and that these had to be carefully spaced out. Another theory was that, if you had sex often enough, you could eat all the strawberries you wanted without contracting hives, even if you were allergic to the fruit.
Rousseau had numerous sexual eccentricities. He had the odd habit of going into raptures over inanimate objects. When living with Madame de Warens, he would wander through her house, kissing the armchair, the bedcurtains, even the floor.
James Joyce, meanwhile, “was a true underwear fetishist, and even carried a pair of doll’s panties in his pocket.”
Lately, my inbox has been flooded with desperate advertisements for inappropriate Valentine’s Day gifts. And if tubs of popcorn and sofa cushions qualify as tokens of love, I feel I may as well throw my hat into the ring and nominate The Secret Sex Lives of Famous People as the sum total of my 2014 gift guide. In this I follow family tradition: last year, my father gave my mother At Your Service, the unspeakably lurid memoir by the cheerful gent who, by his own account, acted as procurer and trick for everyone in Old Hollywood. (My mother talked so often, and so darkly and cryptically, about Charles Loughton’s fetishes that in the end I had to read it myself.) But really, who wouldn’t love it? Paper is ephemeral, flowers fade, diamonds are forever but pricey. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t prefer four whole pages on Mary Baker Eddy’s obsession with “Malicious Animal Magnetism.”
(Well, I suppose a real Joycean might prefer a pair of dolly panties.)