Katharine Weber: The Memory of All That

August 19, 2011 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0307395887 – Crown – Hardcover – $24.00 – ebook editions also available

Katharine Weber is best known as a novelist – I interviewed her last year about her wonderful novel True Confections and she has written many more fine books.  The Memory of All That, subtitled “George Gershwin, Kay Swift and My Family’s Legacy of Infidelities is both a memoir of her own family, as well as a history of a certain slice of twentieth century America, primarily focused on her grandmother, Kay Swift, whom she loved, and her quite unusual and difficult father, Sidney Kaufman, with whom her relationship was far more complicated to say the least.

Sidney Kaufman was a larger than life character, but mainly one of his own making, someone who spent years trying to “make it” in the movies and never succeeding.  He was also a narcissist, a husband who literally neglected his wife and family, and who had numerous long lasting affairs.  One most notable was an affair that lasted for years with Beatrice Buchman, wife of the famed (blacklisted) screenwriter, Sidney Buchman (who happens to be my father’s first cousin).

Sidney Kaufman also was a target of a decades long investigation by the FBI, initially because the agency confused him with another Sidney Kaufman, a longshoreman who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism in Spain.  And hilariously, Kaufman was such a fantasist, that the FBI itself could not tell the facts about his life from the fiction.  Not so hilariously was the effect of Kaufman’s absences and failures to relate to his family, which deeply affected the author of this book, as she recounts in some deeply moving passages in this book.

But in many ways, the focus of this book is really on Kay Swift, known even today for her wonderful music, as well as for her lengthy romance (and musical collaboration) with renowned composer George Gershwin.  Weber tells her grandmother’s fascinating life story with a great deal of love, and of course intimacy, and provides an insider’s view of many details of her life and relationships with her husbands and lovers.  Swift is in many ways an iconic, 20th century American woman, who made her way among men at a time when doing so was unusual and difficult, and required considerable verve and inner direction.  And while she had many material advantages, the challenges she faced and overcame, both personally and professionally, were significant and testament to her powerful inner being.

Weber’s grandfather was James Paul Warburg, and here introduces us to him and the rest of his famous banking family.  Interesting stories are here in abundance.  Grandfather Warburg advised and feuded with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, great-uncle Aby Warburg, while eccentric to say the least, was responsible for significant theories in art and myth, and the family was at times dominated by the unusual psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg (who slept with his patients on a regular basis, and turned George Gershwin against Kay Swift when she decided to stop allowing him to sleep with her!)

Overall, this is an engaging, beautifully written and emotionally powerful book.  Katharine Weber’s family has been complicated, brilliant, interesting, and influential in many areas of American life, and of course has made her the writer she is today.  She tells the story of her family with humor, love and a keen eye for emotional detail, and gives us a portrait of herself at the same time.

In my conversation with Katharine we talked about her father, and the complexities of his life, as well as her relationship with Kay Swift and how this book came to be written.  It’s a terrifically engaging story she has to tell and we had a great talk about her really great book.

Katharine Weber’s website is hereThe Memory of All That got a terrific review in the NY Times:

“…Ms. Weber’s account of her relationship with her manipulative fabulist of a father brings to mind classic autobiographies of unmoored childhoods, like Mary Karr’s “Liars’ Club” and those companion volumes from the brothers Wolff, “This Boy’s Life” (Tobias) and “The Duke of Deception” (Geoffrey)…It’s when Ms. Weber remembers Papa that her considerable skills as a writer are most seductively on display. And it’s not just because the exasperating Kaufman is such a good subject. It’s that Ms. Weber is able to arrange words musically, so that they capture the elusive, unfinished melodies that haunt our memories of childhood. As her grandmother’s lover might have put it, she’s got rhythm.” – Ben Brantley

David Lehman: A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs

May 6, 2010 by  
Filed under Non-Fiction, WritersCast

978-0805242508 – Shocken Books – Hardcover – $23.00 (also available in e-book format)

What a lovely book this is.  David Lehman is an acclaimed anthologist and a poet (his most recent book of poems is Yeshiva Boys), and David’s approach to the great American songbook of the 20th century is complex and personal, written from an interior place, while at the same time, erudite and celebratory of the full glory of the words and music he writes about.  Lehman brilliantly evokes the individual lyricists and composers who made this music, so many of whom were the first generation children of immigrants from eastern European countries and were somehow able to meld their art with the true soul of America.  They created music that both evoked their era, and simultaneously defined it.

Lehman explores the rich complexity of American music in the early to mid-Twentieth Century, as the musical soul of Jewish songwriters melded itself to the African-American jazz and blues tradition to make something new and unique.  All the greats are here, Berlin, both Gershwins, Rogers, Hart, Hammerstein, and many more.  He tells the stories behind the songs, and brings to life the composers and lyricists who wrote them.

For David Lehman, this music is touchstone to his being, and that deeply felt connection shines through his words. Reading this book allows one then to connect to the author, also in a deeply felt way.  Lehman is a fine writer, in full command of his subject.  I liked what John Ashbery said about David: “David Lehman’s A Fine Romance wittily explores the enormous contribution of Jewish writers and composers to the American musical scene. Lehman finds Jewish influence, or what he calls ‘a plaintive undertow,’ even in such unlikely upbeat anthems as Gershwin’s ‘Love Walked In.’ His love-struck history is itself a major entertainment.”

Talking to this author about the stories and music, and especially the songwriters themselves was for me a natural extension of reading the book, and inhabiting the author’s personal life through its pages.  We covered alot of ground, including much about the unusual, impressionistic style and structure of the book, and of course the music, the songwriters, his many anecdotes and stories, and David Lehman’s obvious love of his subject.  I hope you will enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed the conversation with the author.