Liz Brown’s “Twilight Man”

A number of years ago, looking through one of her late grandmother’s drawers, my friend Liz Brown found a haunting photo of a sultry young man—and a noir fairy tale. The young man turned out to be a shop clerk who fell in love with Brown’s great-great-uncle, the heir to a copper-mining fortune. While the shop clerk was partying with Hollywood stars and taking up horseback riding and bookbinding, the heir created the Los Angeles Philharmonic and had the young man’s face painted onto the ceiling of his library.

Unfortunately, queers lived in a twilight world a century ago, and wealth and glamour could not protect them—especially not from their own families. Liz drew on more than a decade and a half of research to write Twilight Man: Love and Ruin in the Shadows of Hollywood and the Clark Empire, a riveting, heart-breaking tale of intimate betrayal and unlooked-for generosity, as well as of the unexpected fortitude, capable of surviving even Nazi prisons, of a delicate-looking man with excellent taste. It’s a lovely, powerful book, woven together with great narrative skill and told with deep humanity. Highly recommended!


In the London Review of Books, Paul Mitchinson investigates the damage that Leoš Janáček did to his career by his lack of tact (subscription required).

He persisted for years in misspelling (in multiple ways) Arnold Schoenberg’s name, and filled his copy of Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre with critical commentary. (‘Ass!’ he wrote in the margin next to a discussion of chord-construction on fourths.)

There seems to have been a little of this laying waste to normal human decorum even in Janáček's "most famous contribution to music: the 'speech melody.'"

In the summer of 1897, perhaps under Dvořák’s influence, Janáček began notating the tempo and pitch of the conversation he heard around him: the cries of children, the comments of neighbours, even the sounds of farm animals. In 1903, as his daughter lay dying of rheumatic heart disease, Janáček notated her strangled cries.

The real thing

After editing the late John Leonard for sixty-nine months, during which despite regular chemotherapy he never missed a deadline, Jennifer Szalai of Harper’s magazine looks back to their first month working together (subscription required):

I had the young editor’s tendency to err on the far side of caution. My queries to John weren’t many, but their phrasing was that of someone who had never met a hair she wouldn’t split yet was shy about wielding the knife. I recently opened up the Microsoft Word document on which we did most of our edits for that [first] column, last saved at 8:22 P.M. on February 11, 2003, and I saw a bold-faced query of mine after John’s reference to “a techno-rave, ZyloFlex body armor, and some stun-gun sex.” I had bolded “stun-gun sex” and added, “John: Just to clarify: Is ‘stun-gun’ meant metaphorically here?”

No, it most emphatically wasn’t.

DFW disproves fatalism

Fatalism is the idea that actions in the present aren’t decisive but are determined by the state of affairs in the future. It was given a serious formulation in 1962 by a philosopher named Richard Taylor. For the New York Times Magazine, James Ryerson looks up the undergraduate philosophy thesis of the novelist David Foster Wallace and discovers that Wallace refutes it.

Wallace proposed that there was a flaw in Taylor’s argument, a hidden defect. In essence, Taylor was treating two types of propositions as if they were the same, when in fact they needed to be distinguished and treated differently. Consider the sentences “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” and “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun.” At first they may sound similar, but Wallace argued that they involve quite different notions of impossibility. “It was the case that I couldn’t fire my handgun” refers to a past situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun was broken. “It cannot be the case that I did fire my handgun” refers to a present situation in which discharge is deemed impossible because (let’s say) my gun is still cool to the touch. The first notion involves an earlier, physical constraint on firing (namely, the broken gun); the other involves the current absence of a necessary consequence of firing (namely, a hot barrel). An extremely sensitive observer of language, Wallace noted that there is a subtle indicator of this important distinction already at work in our language: the fine differentiation in meaning between “I couldn’t have done such and so” and “I can’t have done such and so.”

Armed with this small but powerful insight, Wallace was able to pick apart the machinery of Taylor’s argument.