Lunch with Arthur Schlesinger

I got a deal on a copy of The Sixties by Edmund Wilson at the Whately Antiquarian Book Center, marked down from $35 to a buck.

Who knew the journals of this crusty old gentleman could be such fun? There are quite a few references to my grandmother, his cousin, and her brother Sandy, who was Wilson’s classmate at Princeton along with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and to other members of our family.

Wilson, who had no grandchildren (that I know of) visits my grandmother in her cottage on Martha’s Vineyard and looks wistfully at a photo of her with her ten grandchildren.

Known as an unapologetic practitioner of free love, Wilson is completely honest about his sex life, such as it is. He puts the moves on the Hungarian woman who drives him around, but can’t cope with her underwear. “I never knew a woman so armored with a heavy bra and ‘foundation garment’; I couldn’t even find a crevice.”

She declined his advances because she was afraid he would have a heart attack, and indeed he had had problems with angina during sex. As she left, she said, “Thanks for trying.”

“This passage, though indecisive, cheered and bucked me up,” he writes. “I’d hardly known I could have a spontaneous erection…”

What I love is the back and forth between his observations about his limitations in old age and his incessant hobnobbing with all these famous literary and political figures — Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Anita Loos, Anais Nin, Lillian Hellman, Norman Mailer, Mike Nichols and on and on.

In one chapter he relates an unusual dream and then moves right on to his social life:

“I thought I was going to bed in a sort of dormitory with, I think, half a dozen other couples. I had a well-built goodlooking but slightly elderly and not especially attractive woman, and my prospect was that later all the couples would change off and I should go to bed with all the other women.

“But I couldn’t succeed with the first one. I fucked and fucked, as I thought, lustily, but I found that I couldn’t come. Very frustrating. I woke up.

“Lunch with Arthur Schlesinger…”