James Merrill: Life and Art
Knopf, 944 pages, $40.00
On the 20th anniversary of his death, this massive funerary stele of a book pays tribute to an American poet much inspired by Jewish friends and mentors. Merrill was born in 1926 to a WASP family in New York – his father was a founder of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. In 1951, the elder Merrill interrogated his son’s Hungarian Jewish psychiatrist Tamás Feldmeier, who practiced in Rome under the name Thomas Detre. The elder Merrill approved of Detre, saying: “I’m finally talking to someone who is making sense to me, not like those god-damned Jewish psychiatrists in New York.” Detre retorted: “Mr. Merrill, I’m afraid I’m one of those god-damned Jewish psychiatrists.” Detre later observed about the younger Merrill: “There was never a trace of [anti-Semitism] in James or any other prejudice.”
More than simply lacking anti-Semitism, Merrill was positively drawn to Jews as friends and mentors throughout his life, from prep school days when he befriended a fey classmate Tony Harwood (born Horowitz) to adulthood spent relishing the company and erudition of fellow American poets and friends such as John Hollander, Richard Howard, and Howard Moss,. Then there were others, such as the Bard College Italian scholar Irma Brandeis, artist Larry Rivers (born Yitzroch Loiza Grossberg), conductor Noah Greenberg, and filmmaker Maya Deren, whose work he funded. As a young man living in Rome, Merrill had a love affair with the art collector Robert Isaacson (1927-1998) who, Dr. Detre opined, was like a mirror image, so much did he resemble Merrill physically. In the 1950s Merrill contemplated marrying another close friend, the American Jewish art historian Marilyn Aronberg, who by then was already engaged to fellow art historian Irving Lavin.
When Merrill settled down with the writer David Jackson as his life companion and they took up the Ouija board, this parlor pastime likewise reflected some Yiddishkeit. It was first manufactured by William Fuld, an American entrepreneur of German Jewish origin. The couple’s first main contact during séances was Ephraim, an ancient Greek Jew who, somewhat akin to Isaacson, Merrill saw as his mirror image. At one point Merrill planned to write a novel about Ephraim, reading the Bible and Freud’s “Moses and Monotheism” in preparation, before producing a vast multi-volume poetry work instead. During many years he spent in Athens, Greece, Merrill caringly assisted some dissipated Jewish friends including an occasional poet named Bernie Weinbaum and the more accomplished Chester Kallman (1921–1975), who co-authored opera libretti with his lover W. H. Auden. Before his own untimely death from AIDs, Merrill lost his best friend, the American Jewish literary critic David Kalstone (1933-1986), to the disease. With all these resonant relationships, it is clear that Merrill kvelled in the company of Jewish friends.
Given its memorial status, “James Merrill: Life and Art” is somber and weighty, but the poet was a carnival of scintillating gossamer wit. I got to know him in the very early 80s, and when I stayed overnight at his home in Stonington, Connecticut, into the wee hours a record player blasted spoof operas devised by an Alexandrian polyglot named Bernard de Zogheb. In these, stately lines in French and Italian verse were sung to raucous Tin Pan Alley tunes. David Jackson was also a virtuoso with wisecracks, and the laughter was constant. Merrill mischievously relished tales of the harmless discomfiture of others. I recall one story in particular that I told Jimmy — as he asked friends to call him — that he promised to re-enact at every party that winter season in Key West, Florida, where Jackson had a home. It happened when I visited a Korean friend in New York. As we chatted in his kitchen, the Korean suddenly said to me: “You are like a beggar.” Somewhat hurt, I tried to airily dismiss the insult by asking, “Oh really? In what way?” “No,” he insisted, getting louder: “You are like a beggar! A BEGGAR!” Sadly, I saw the Korean point to the top of his refrigerator where a bag of bagels sat. He was asking me if I would like a bagel.
This anecdote had many elements to appeal to Merrill’s cosmopolitan sensibilities, from a foreign accent causing linguistic misapprehensions to the homey Jewish detail of a bagel. We often lunched together at a humble deli on East 72nd street, near a Manhattan apartment which had been in his family for years. He would approve if I ordered celery tonic, claiming that the poet Marianne Moore also enjoyed that beverage.
Beyond laughs and deli, there was also much to admire about Merrill the man. His sense of tzedakah, described in some detail in “James Merrill: Life and Art,” embraced notions of justice and righteousness, beyond mere charity. Harry Ford, his poetry editor and valiant collaborator in the poet’s personal charitable foundation, once told me that that their focus, hitherto on helping indigent young creative people, had turned to aiding older people who had accomplished notable things without monetary rewards. I mentioned to Merrill that I had visited the poet Zbigniew Herbert in Paris and found him ailing and destitute, with his phone cut off for non-payment. In two weeks, I heard that Herbert had already received a check for $20,000 from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. Likewise, when Michael Hamburger (1924–2007), an English poet of German Jewish origin who translated the works of Paul Celan and Friedrich Hölderlin, told me he needed impossibly expensive dental work, I passed along the news and a fellowship was forthcoming. In 1995, when I suggested that the novelist Muriel Spark, of Scottish Jewish origin, was facing substantial medical bills, Harry Ford wrote to me that doubtless Spark would have been an ideal candidate for a grant, but the foundation was being disbanded after Merrill’s sudden death.
Merrill died of a heart attack after suffering from complications from HIV, although he kept his seropositive status secret from friends, with few exceptions. When I first met him, he had just recovered from a prolonged bout of shingles, which may in retrospect have indicated a compromised immune system even then. Merrill’s multifarious activities were dazzling; he even found time to play a bit movie role as a medical authority alongside Peter Ustinov in the 1992 film “Lorenzo’s Oil,” about a poignant search for a cure to a deadly ailment. Some friends have still not fully absorbed his departure from the scene, and continue to feel the urge to communicate something funny or striking to Jimmy. Richard Howard once told me this, and I see what he means.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.