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November 9, 2012 1:13 PM

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The Passionate Reader: November 9, 2012

In "My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man's Odyssey" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Charles Rowan Beye, a retired classicist whose 50-year career included professorships at Boston University and New York University, tells the story of his life as...

husbandwives.jpgIn "My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man's Odyssey" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) by Charles Rowan Beye, a retired classicist whose 50-year career included professorships at Boston University and New York University, tells the story of his life as a lover of men who chose to marry two women.


When he was growing up, he was a good student and a good dancer with a car -- and very popular with girls. After a double date, however, he would often end up having quick sex with the other male in the back seat of his car. Who knew that, in the Forties, teenage boys were amenable to dealing with their sexual frustration in this manner?

Then, in his junior year of college, Beye discovered classics. As he writes, "Studying the culture of the ancient Greeks brought to me the vital information that in most of their societies it was socially desirable for a male of 20 to 40 to take a mid- to late-teenage boy as his lover. Homosexual physical love is a topic of their literature, their art, their laws, and in the fabricated conversations that survive in the writing of Plato and Xenophon....Nothing could have given me more support than knowing that the culture that is held to be the very basis of Western civilization valorized male-male erotic relationships as essential for the good society."

lostbattles.jpgThis remarkably honest book has a happy ending: the husband of the title, whom Beye married in Cambridge, Mass. in 2008, after they had been together for 18 years.

"The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo, and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance" by Jonathan Jones (Alfred A. Knopf), also has an unusual narrative arc. Jones, the art critic of The Guardian, creates a Renaissance world defined by a rivalry he envisages between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. His notion is that two legendary murals of battles that may or may not have ever existed, Michelangelo's "The Battle of Cascina" and Leonardo's "The Battle of Anghiari" illuminate the competition between the two of them and the beginning of the modern idea of the artist as an individual genius.

As Jones writes, "There never was a formal prize; it was nastier than that. A prize ends it. The loser can shrug. The competition was a battle for hearts and minds -- a struggle for prestige-- whose consequences were limitless and uncontrollable."

More than anything, this complex, compelling book brings to mind the great -- if inaccurate -- speech Orson Welles gives as Harry Lime in the film "The Third Man": "You know what the fellow said -- in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace -- and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."aperfectfit.jpg

The writers featured in another current book illustrate how Jewish immigrants helped turn clothing manufacture into a billion-dollar business by the early 20th century. It's "A Perfect Fit: The Garment Industry and American Jewry, 1860 to 1960" (Yeshiva University Museum/Texas Tech University Press), edited by Gabriel M. Goldstein and Elizabeth E. Greenberg, with a foreward by Sylvia A. Herskowitz. This book consists of essays on highly specific topics including "German Jews in the Early Manufacture of Ready-Made Clothing," "Labor Relations and the Protocol of Peace in Progressive Era New York" and "Acclimatizing Fashion: Jewish Inventiveness on the Other (Pacific) Coast, 1850-1940."

catlady.jpg"From Division Street to Seventh Avenue: The Coming of Age of American Fashion," by JoAnne Olian, gives a particularly good overview of the history of the designing and making of clothes as they evolved in the U.S. It is illuminating on the role that World War II played in the development of the American fashion industry, and on the business innovations that followed. And "From Seventh Avenue to Hollywood: Fashioning Early Cinema, 1905-1935" by Michelle Tolini Finamore makes trenchant points about the influence of costume design on mainstream fashion. Also quite focused is Diane Lovejoy's "Cat Lady Chronicles," (ACC Publishing Group), an account of the way that an art-book editor ended up with what many would find the startling number of 10 cats. Lovejoy, who is a publications director for the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, started out simply with an orange tabby stray which she and her husband mistook for a female and named Lucinda, then Lucius, after their vet pointed out the obvious. Next came a companion for the eccentric Lucius, which the couple named Lydia. And so on. The author insists that her passion for felines has helped inform her editing, and vice versa. After all, overseeing the writing of a disparate group of curators must be not dissimilar to the proverbial herding of cats.lastofduchess.jpg

Finally, Vintage Books has just reissued a riveting addition to the literature about the Duchess of Windsor, "The Last of the Duchess," by Caroline Blackwood. A Guinness heiress whose husbands included Lucian Freud and Robert Lowell, Blackwood was a Gothic novelist. In 1980, she had been assigned a story by the British Sunday Times to interview the Duchess of Windsor, which then turned into an assignment to interview Maitre Suzanne Blum, the Duchess of Windsor's formidable lawyer, whom Blackwood maintains kept her highest-profile client a prisoner for the last 15 years of her life. Blum was notoriously litigious; it seems that Blackwood was so disturbed by being forced to publish an innocuous profile that she decided to write a book about her search for the truth about the Duchess' condition, which could not be published until after Blum's death.

To that end, she interviewed the Duchess' surviving friends, among them Lady Diana Cooper; Laura, Duchess of Marlborough, and the Marchesa Casa Maury, who, as Lady Freda Dudley Ward, had been the Prince of Wales' mistress for 15 years before he met Wallis Simpson. Ward had met him during an air raid in World War I. Blackwood calls the story she tells a "dark fairy tale."
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