An evening with the Waughs

May 6, 2009

In Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, Robert Craft writes this account of this first meeting between Stravinsky (“I.S.”) and his wife (“V.”) and Evelyn Waugh  and his wife (“Mr. and Mrs. W.”).  I know some readers of this web log are fans of Waugh, so it seems worth quoting in its entirety:

The Waughs arrive at the S.s’ suite in the Ambassador Hotel in evening dress — “for a late party at the Astors’,” they say — the glittering perfection of which seems to exaggerate the crumples in our own everyday togs.  Mrs. W. is fair and lovely, Mr. W. is pudgy, ruddy, smooth-skinned, and too short.  He offers favorable comments on the temperature of the S.s’ hotel rooms, complaining that he must keep the windows of his own rooms at the Plaza open or suffocate, a confession that may help to account for both his icy exterior and his inner heat.  I.S. replies in French, attempting to excuse the switch in language with a compliment on the French dialogue in Mr. W.’s Scott-King’s Modern Europe.  Mr. W. cuts in, however, disclaiming any conversational command of the tongue, whereupon Mrs. W. contradicts him — “That’s silly, darling, your French is very good” — and is sharply reprimanded.

I mention Mr. W.’s lecture in Town Hall last week on Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, the coolest performance of the sort I have ever seen, but he disparages it.  Unencumbered by notes, he faced the audience like a ramrod and was able to study it, even to turn the tables on it, to judge by the ruthlessly observed details of his descriptions of three people who walked out.

Mr. W. prefers to talk about the undertaking industry and the ban it has imposed against burying him should he, as the industry must fervently hope, expire in the United States.  “I have arranged to be buried at sea,” he says.  Keenly interested in our own burial plans, he is eager to know whether my beaux restes are destined for a family vault.  But this down-to-earth talk makes I.S. uneasy.

A crisis occurs when Waugh refuses the S.s’ whiskey, and their vodka and caviar, not so much because of his rudeness — “I never drink whiskey before wine” — but because the S.s exchange a few words in Russian, a pardonable recourse for them in many instances, but not now; and V.’s pretense, as she talks, of referring to cigarettes she rummages for in her handbag does not take in Waugh who, naturally and correctly, deduces that the subject of the exchange is himself.  A new impasse looms when Mr.W. asks I.S. about his American citizenship, says he deplores the American Revolution, and hears I.S. praise the Constitution.  Thereupon I.S. proposes that we go to dinner, thus bringing the abstemious and uncomfortable half-hour to a close.

Mr.W.’s spirits take an upward turn during the freezing and, in his case, coatless, block-and-a-half walk to “Maria’s”.  The sight of the Funeral Home at the corner of Lexington Avenue and Fifty-Second Street so restores his joie de vivre that for a moment we fear he may actually take leave of us and explore the service entrance. “Maria’s,” small, dark, crowded, is the wrong restaurant: the W.’s are too swanky here.  But the starchiness and defensive sparring that the S.s think of as the normal English method of making acquaintance vanish with the Valpolicella, which the temperature-sensitive Mr.W. mulls.  It seems to me, too, that the novelist, like everyone who meets V., is succumbing to her charm.  He begins to behave gallantly to her, in any case, and even the suspicion in the glowering glances he directs to I.S. diminishes.

With the fettuccine the conversation turns — no apparent connection — to the Church.  Here I.S. shines, showing himself to be at least as ultramontanist as Mr.W., as well read in Chesterton and Peguy, and as prone to believe in the miraculous emulsification of St. Januarius’s blood.  From some of the novelist’s remarks, I would guess that he supposes the composer to be one of Maritain’s Jewish converts, which is a common and, so far as the Maritain influence is concerned, partly accurate supposition.

Another crisis confronts us when V. mentions the forthcoming New York premiere of I.S.’s Mass and invites the W.s to attend.  Explaining that the piece is liturgical, I.S. says, marvelously: “One composes a march to help men march; and it is the same way with my Credo: I hope to provide some help with the text.  The Credo is long.  There is a great deal to believe.”

Mrs.W. handles this, sincerely regretting that they have already “booked passage home”.  Lest the conversation continue in this dangerous direction, her husband adds, with a bluntness that seems to show that he has been inwardly lacerating all evening by the threat of I.S.’s cacophonous art: “All music is painful to me.”  The statement can only be ignored, and V. does so, elegantly, with a compliment to Mr.W. on his art, and a comparision between his Decline and Fall and Sade’s Justine.  When at length Mr.W. realizes that the S.s have read everything he has published, a new character emerges in him, as magnanimous and amusing as the old one was unbending and priggishly precise.

If the novelist does not brook the literary talk of the literary types, he certainly seems to enjoy it from outsiders like (though no one is like) the S.s and even from semi-insiders like (there are many like) me, for I admire Mr.W.’s fictions and no longer complain that chance and arbitrariness play too important a part in them.  We seek to draw him out on other writers but are rewarded with only one acidulated reference to his fellow lecture-touring compatriots, the Sitwells, and the commendation, in which the last two adjectives are wickedly emphasized, of Christopher Isherwood as “a good young American novelist.”

The meal concluded, Mr.W. asks permission to smoke a cigar.  Choosing one from a case in his breast pocket, he holds it under his nose, where it looks like a grenadier’s mustache, circumcises the sucking end with a small blade, passes a match under the other end as if he were candling a pony of precious cognac, avidly stokes and consumes it.  Holy Smoke!” [4 February 1949]

If those funeral parlour antics had you wondering, The Loved One had been published in 1947.

5 Responses to “An evening with the Waughs”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    While I was reading, I was thinking that I should ask you if The Loved One had been published, but you smartly anticipated that question. Nice post.

  2. Wonderful anecdote. The bit about Waugh perking up when he went out into the cold resembles a number of observations by various friends recounted in a book called Evelyn Waugh and his World.

  3. cburrell Says:

    When I first read the passage, I was sure this must have been part of the American trip that first inspired Waugh to write The Loved One. I was surprised to find that was wrong. Pretty funny story, though.

  4. ambergold Says:

    Very interesting. Thanks for posting 🙂

  5. Janet Says:

    Thanks for taking the time to type all that. It was great.

    AMDG, Janet

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