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I’m probably one of 50 he says that to, but I like to take it personally. ’ though.”“It was like they knew each other immediately,” Mac Laine says. It was like watching these two old Talmudic Jews who met in 1912. “On his broomstick, I suppose.”Safely back in Washington, Wieseltier regaled audiences with an account of The Night with Barbra. ”On the phone from Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal makes alarming retching noises.“YEEECCCCCH! Yet by 1974, his senior year, he had become a man of the world.“The first violation of the Sabbath was when I called Lionel Trilling at home because I had a tutorial with him in my senior year, and I had to ask him a question,” he recalls.‘Oh, my angel, I didn’t say you were.’ Which I thought was a little trite. I left early that night.”And how did Wieseltier find his way home? To a friend over lunch, he related how Shirley took him aside as she departed, saying, “This may be your very first Jewish girl.” Then Ralph Fiennes dropped by to show a videocassette of which Leon and Barbra watched sitting together on the sofa. “And the first cheeseburger I ever tasted, and it was the strangest, sickest feeling, was while Patti Smith was playing CBGB’s.” That was also the year he wrenched his yarmulke from his head. “I remember it was a rainy night and I was on College Walk, alone. I didn’t shake my fist at the heavens and say, ‘God is dead.’ To this day, I feel not that the yarmulke disappointed me but that I disappointed the yarmulke. Look, I have always had a great appetite for The Other.For intellectual he may be, but intellectual snob he is not.Wieseltier’s luxuriant white locks and beguiling tongue (at 42, he has the experienced mien of a man at least a decade older) are well known to a charmed circle of movie stars, fashion designers, ballet dancers, television hosts, politicians, Supreme Court justices, media moguls, jazz musicians, pop balladeers, journalists, socialites, millionaires, and maître d’s.“It’s much more important to me when Leon says something really intelligent about a dress of mine,” says couturier Isaac Mizrahi, “than when I hear from a fashion editor who knows exactly what to say.”“He’s soulful, man, because he believes in things that are soulful,” says trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis.“He’s wonderful with women—he really loves women,” says Nancy Reagan biographer Kitty Kelley.“He’s a wonderful guest,” says Ted Koppel, who has hosted Wieseltier on his ABC program, Nightline, and at his riverfront estate in southern Maryland.“Whenever I have literary questions, Leon’s my consultant,” says Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s something abject about the whole subject.”He grew up in Brooklyn, the child of Polish-born Orthodox Jews for whom the Holocaust was less the apocalypse of Western civilization than “like the night the barn burned down,” Wieseltier says.When he finally asked Cuomo a question, the governor, in typical style, picked apart the premise, leaving nothing but rubble. “I’m two ahead of you,” he added, indicating his whiskey.According to witnesses, Wieseltier was soon bringing to the office another habit that he also enjoyed outside the workplace: frequent cocaine use.“I like his mind.”“The great thing about Leon is that he’s open to everything: having fun is not beneath him,” says restaurateur Brian Mc Nally of New York’s fashionable 44. “The most important first fact is not that I was born in Brooklyn or America, but that I’m my parents’ son.Wieseltier returns the favor, saying of Mc Nally, “I love him like a brother.”Such is the bright little world that Wieseltier, since leaving the yeshiva in Flatbush, has been enthusiastically orbiting, thereby laying claim to a mushrooming extra-literary reputation. My parents survived the war, both of them very badly.”Mark Wieseltier was an officer in the Polish army who spent the war in Siberia and went on to prosper in America as the owner of several furniture stores.
But has he abandoned the life of the mind to be the life of the party?You always have to have something you can tell people you’re doing, something really nifty.” Wieseltier’s friend pointedly adds, “When in fact what you’re doing is eating peanuts in bed.”“It’s an attack on sighing is what it is,” Wieseltier explains, “because to sigh is, sort of, you go up, up, up, and instead of going the whole way you very cozily shrink back. ” says a well-known New York writer—a typical reaction to the essay.“After I read it I said, ‘Leon, I don’t understand a word of what you’re trying to say,’” Barbra Streisand recalls. But you know what it’s like.” (Vice President Gore and Senators Moynihan and Bradley, through their respective functionaries, decline to comment.)But Wieseltier is perhaps his own best character witness.“Well, I’m back from breakfast with ‘the president,’ that is, with Havel,” he wrote breathlessly to a friend in October 1991 about the Washington visit of Czech leader Václav Havel. Mac Laine has been chummy with Wieseltier since the early 1980s; he made her acquaintance through their mutual friend Kathleen Tynan (late wife of famed critic Kenneth Tynan), who was briefly Wieseltier’s lover after she was seated next to him at a dinner party at the home of Los Angeles criminal-defense lawyer Leslie Abramson. ” (He is also fiercely combative when it comes to the specter of anti-Semitism, whether allegedly arising from Gore Vidal or—as in an article published last fall about the “Jewish Establishment” in Hollywood—from a vest with eight knotted strings signifying the bond with God.It’s something between complacence and resignation. “I looked handsome, all in black, with a red tie and brown suede boots: as usual, it was nice to stick out.”In another letter, he reported, “Today I will write a bit, read a bit, receive friends and a few strangers who have phoned to say they admire my work (the fools! “There’s definitely bullshit there, but my particular bullshit detector gets underneath the charm,” Mac Laine says about her friendship with Wieseltier. I sure saw Leon’s charm at work here.”“He was very nice,” Streisand recalls. The Weasel is on the case, morning, noon, and night! Leon soaked up the rigorous education, Jewish and otherwise, provided by the Yeshiva of Flatbush, becoming fluent in Hebrew and devouring the Torah and Talmud (while slipping away with his schoolmates to hear Jimi Hendrix perform).At least I would have wanted a Wieseltierian, eloquently ironic, cynical quip.”“I didn’t quite understand where he was coming from,” says Streisand, granting an interview at Wieseltier’s urging. According to this version, he slipped his arm around her. “Barbra,” he supposedly said, “do you mind if I call you . What happened was that my faith was not sufficiently strong to withstand my desire to taste wine, eat food, and kiss women.”Indeed, Wieseltier has been linked to an astonishing array of prominent women, among them his Columbia classmate Nancy Graham, who later became a film producer and married movie mogul Ned Tanen; literary agent Maxine Groffsky, who was said to be the model for in Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus; Kathleen Tynan, who jokingly called him “my son’s and daughter’s moral tutor—and also their immoral tutor”; the actress Lois Chiles, one of the “James Bond girls”; and TV diva Diane Sawyer, apparently a platonic relationship (Sawyer won’t comment) in which the two shared the romance of shopping. The Other means the sexual other as well as the ethnic other and the intellectual other.”Such an other—indeed, the apotheosis of otherness—was Mahnaz Ispahani, the daughter of a Pakistani merchant prince, a darkly beautiful young woman who wore a diamond in her nose. “This is Shiite.”) Ispahani gave Wieseltier invaluable advice as he left off medieval Jewish history to write a long article on nuclear deterrence, which filled almost an entire issue of in Washington.
“One night [after the “bubble-headed” quote appeared] I was talking to Shirley and said, ‘Why don’t you come over to dinner? “You’ve got your arm around me,” Streisand supposedly observed. (“I would rather be the Stuffy of his life than the woman of his life,” says his friend the journalist Anna Husarska, alluding to Wieseltier’s pug.)“I knew from a young age that I could furnish myself with ideas, with thoughts, with tradition, with authenticity, with morbidity, with memory,” Wieseltier pronounces elegiacally. It became clear to me very early on that one gift that women could make to me—not the only gift, God knows—was the gift of beauty. She was getting her doctorate in international relations when Wieseltier met her at the bar of a restaurant on Harvard Square. “Mahnaz,” Wieseltier declaims fondly, “was the Virgil to my Dante.”They were married in November 1985, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg conducting the civil ceremony.
“He is in the finest tradition of Washington characters, in the same category as Joe Alsop, Alice Longworth, Strom Thurmond—all of them people you’d put in a novel.”In literary terms, Wieseltier might be the Jewish, heterosexual answer to Oscar Wilde. In July 1941, after the Jewish men of Schodnica, her hometown, were slaughtered, she was compelled by the local Ukrainians, many of whom had worked for her family, to dig mass graves in a nearby forest and shovel dirt over her loved ones.