Ned Rorem, with his life now on film, explains why he still hates intermissions
My premise: All artists steal, but if you know you’re stealing, you try to disguise it. If you don’t know you’re stealing, you’re just a second-rate imitator.—Ned Rorem, from his most recent diary, “Lies” (Da Capo Press, 2002).
Monday evening, December 13 is the world premiere of “Ned Rorem: Word & Music,” a documentary film by James Dowell and John Kolomvakis about the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has done just about everything and known just about everyone in the passing parade of his 81 years.
“What can I do that no one else can do when I go on the Dick Cavett program?” Rorem asked Jim Holmes, the man with whom he shared his life.
“You can walk on your hands,” Holmes, who died of AIDS in 1999, told him.
“So,” recalled the Roman-coin-handsome, white-haired Rorem in December 2004, sitting bolt upright on a couch in the West 70s apartment where he’d lived for the better part of 32 years with Holmes, “I went on ‘Cavett’ and said, ‘Now I’ll do what no Pulitzer Prize-winner has ever done,’ and got up and walked on my hands.
“I went on that show,” he said, “on the condition that they play some of my music to begin with. And they did. And in retrospect, ‘Cavett’ was more cultured and cultural than anything anywhere today.”
No, Rorem said, as he sat in his apartment, he hasn’t yet seen the film about his life. In fact, though ten years in the making, it isn’t quite finished yet. From across the living room filmmaker Dowell volunteered, “We’re going down to the wire, and it won’t be completed until the last hour.”
Have you been making it with your subject’s cooperation?
“Sure,” Dowell said.
“Sure,” Rorem agreed.
What had Rorem said when Dowell and Kolomvakis—makers previously of “Sleep in a Nest of Flames,” a film about the art and literary world as seen through the eyes of Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford—had suggested a film about “this ideal subject, Ned, creator of this monumental body of music”?
Rorem: “I don’t remember.”
Dowell: “He said, ‘Maybe this is the right time for both of us.’”
Some of the strongest footage in the Rorem movie, Dowell said, “is of Ned and Jim [Holmes] together, including a wonderful summer at their place in Nantucket—kind of a golden time.” The dying Jim Holmes, that is.
When had Rorem and Holmes first met, and how?
“In 1967, I guess,” said Rorem. “He came to see me as a fan. He’d read a book of mine. He was 16 years younger than I and had gone to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I can’t live with anybody, but I lived with him for 32 years.”
Had Rorem become angry when he learned—by accident, from a doctor—that Holmes was HIV-positive?
“No,” he responded. “The highly charged sexual part of [the relationship] had been over for years. I knew he had adventures.”
The book called “Lies” is the fifth of a series of published journals that started with the crisp, vivid, fascinating “Paris Diary” of 1966.
“Ned as a Paris homme fatal,” Dowell murmured.
“This one is more depressing,” said Rorem. “Why? Because my friend of 32 years died.”
Jim Holmes had been choir director and organist at St. Matthew and St. Timothy Episcopal Church, on West 84th Street. Had he been religious?
“I don’t think so,” said Rorem. “Not in the sense that he believed in God, but he did believe in the formal structure of the church. I am an atheist, but I’m a good Quaker and was raised a Quaker. My mother and father never talked about God, similar to Jim. Jim could have been Jewish or Catholic or whatever, but he would have wanted it to be done right.
“He paid the bills, which my niece does now; she also runs the house in Nantucket and does all the practical things. She’s Mary Marshall, a painter, intelligent, unmarried, in her early 60s. The more other people do for me, the less I do for myself.”
One of the many well-known people appearing in the film is Rorem’s longtime friend Edward Albee.
“To my best recollection,” Rorem said, “Edward and I have known each other since the late ‘40s or early ‘50s. [Later] there was a foursome living in a house on West 12th Street: Terrence McNally and Edward [who were a couple], and William Flanagan and somebody.
“Edward sort of hung around, and then he wrote ‘The Zoo Story.’ All of Edward’s first five plays were dedicated to composers. In those days, composers wrote music for plays. That doesn’t happen any more. Edward’s ‘The Death of Bessie Smith’ is dedicated to me.”
But Rorem also admitted to some disagreements with Albee.
“I walked out on ‘The Goat,’ ” he said, referring to Albee’s Broadway shocker of 2002 about a man who loved a goat and the wife who killed it. “Edward said: ‘I’ll pay for you to go back and see all of it.’ So I went again. I would have walked out, but I couldn’t get past the people in the row. All that ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Up your ass’—each of them says it once a minute. I don’t care for that. That’s bad writing.
“But I approve of Edward. I think he’s one of a kind. And courageous. I just think ‘The Goat’ is a failure in many ways. I got impatient with all that smashing of crockery.”
But Rorem also confessed that impatience is not uncommon for him.
“I leave everything at intermission,” he said dispassionately. “Everything is too long.”
He said he “very much approved movies about people”—documentaries or any visual or audio recording of someone’s life.
“There are recordings, for instance, of Walt Whitman reading his own poetry—wonderful!” he said. “And of Ravel and Debussy playing their own music, badly, I might add. Twentieth-century composers, 19th-century pianists. Just play the notes and leave the music be the music.”
Allen Ginsberg is also in the Rorem movie.
“We were not buddies, but knew each other forever,” Rorem said. “I met him first in Tangier, I think, or maybe New York, in the early 1950s, when the beatniks were at their peak. I can’t stand William Burroughs—an unintellectual pig—but Allen was an intellectual. I like formality and I like discipline, and there’s no musical equivalent to beatnikism.
“You can’t just write music. You have to know, at a minimum, how to put down notes. Allen said: ‘The first idea is the best.’ Well, maybe, but not the first presentation of that idea. You have to chip them down, chip them down.
“When Frank O’Hara died, two thousand little Frank O’Haras popped up. ‘I pour the tea, I do this, I do that…’ Sorry, it doesn’t work unless you’re Frank O’Hara.
“You know, there were three important gentile homosexual writers who emerged, coming after [the emergence of] Jews like Saul Bellow, right after World War II: Gore, Tennessee, and Truman. I recently said to Gore Vidal, who was complaining about death, ‘What’ll you do if you don’t die?’ Gore said, ‘I’ll learn Chinese.’
“I miss Truly [Capote]. He put me in his last book, very mean things, and under my own name. But when people die, you prefer to remember the good things.”
One might think that Ned Rorem had met movie stars galore in his 81 years, and maybe he has, but at bottom he has “only really known two or three.”
One is Angela Lansbury, and another was Myrna Loy.
“I was asked to take her to a big party for Daffodil Weekend or something like that at Libby Holman’s on Long Island,” he recalled. “I got a car. Myrna Loy left her gloves in the car. Did she do that on purpose? I sent the gloves back to her, and after that I saw her rather regularly. She was Roosevelt’s favorite actress, you know. Not a leftist but a liberal, and she cared about another film star Rorem knew, Jean Marais, who was Jean Cocteau’s lover and the star of “Beauty and the Beast” and many another great Cocteau film.
“Jean Marais and I did a ballet together on ‘Dorian Gray,’ Rorem recalled. “He played the portrait that disintegrates. Just had to stand there and disintegrate while George Reich, a young American, danced around him. We did it with the Opera Comique dancers in Barcelona in 1952.
“Marais was not stuck up, not full of himself. He was just a big, blond, good-looking guy, and a nice guy. In his memoirs, ‘Stories of My Life,’ he says: ‘I had no talent, I was good-looking. Cocteau was able to mold me.’”
Rorem gave a short laugh.
“Remember how at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the beast turns into the handsome prince?” Rorem said. “Which gave birth to Garbo’s famous remark at the end of the film, ‘Oh, bring me back my beast!’”
Ned Rorem, the composer of dozens of operas short and long, notably “Miss Julie,” has for more than a year worked with librettist J.T. “Sandy” McClatchy on a full-length opera based on Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“Sandy has done a two-act libretto. I would prefer one act, because I don’t like intermissions,” Rorem said. “Anyway, the whole thing should run around an hour and a half.
“People have wanted to get the rights to ‘Our Town’ for years and years. Not even Aaron Copland could get it. This project was commissioned by the University of Indiana, in Bloomington, where it will have its first staging. The only aria I haven’t got to yet is Emily’s in the graveyard.
“Everybody likes ‘Our Town’—it’s the number one play throughout the world. ‘Our Town’ is about normal people. Left to my own devices, I would do something a bit closer to myself, and gay—a highly charged opera about two men in love. If one of them commits suicide, it’s not because Pres. Bush doesn’t approve of gays.”
A thought struck him. “Now that Bush is still president, are we all going to be put in concentration camps?”
No, Rorem was told. We’re all going to die of boredom.
“Yes,” the author of “Lies” responded. “Yes, you’re right, more likely.”
But nobody’s ever going to die of boredom talking with, or listening to, Ned Rorem.