The D. H. Lawrence All-Star Jamboree

They came to worship, but had trouble finding the shrine

BY JAMES WOLCOTT

FESTIVALS: NEW MEXICO LOVES festivals—loves luring and entertaining visitors with a swirl of color, a smattering of culture. In August of 1982, the University of New Mexico and culture-impresario Anthony Branch (funding permitting) will cosponsor a celebration of the art and literature of the 1920s, a festival that will feature lectures, panel discussions, interviews with survivors of that roaring decade, even a costume ball. I recently phoned the University of New Mexico to find out who would be descending upon Santa Fe and Taos for this nostalgic occasion. A helpful woman at the other end of the line read off a list of academics and writers the university hoped would attend: Leslie Fiedler (of course), Margaret Drabble, Frank Kermode, Richard Hoggart, Philip Roth, Thomas Hoving. She then passed over a name that sounded something like “Grrrviedle.” Could you run that by me again? I asked. Grrr Vie-dle, she courteously repeated. Oh, of course, the author of Myra Breckinridge.

More than mere curiosity made me pick up the phone. Not long ago I attended another ambitious literary festival in New Mexico, an event so electric with comedy that it has been stubbornly settled in my mind ever since, a lodger refusing to gather up its hat and go. Indeed, this affair had everything except the handsome presence of Grrr Vie-dle.

In the spring of last year, an odd ad popped up in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. The postcard-sized notice announced that a festival would unfold in Santa Fe from July 17 through July 20 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of D. H. Lawrence’s death. At first glance, it seemed strange that a lavish do would be thrown for Lawrence in Santa Fe, since it was fifty miles to the north, at Taos, where Lady Chatterley’s creator baked bread, swigged corn whiskey, wore creepers like wreaths in his hair, and admired the mesas, the thundersqualls, the adobe houses candy-pink in the spring sun. Odder still was the list of participants. Along with Lawrence biographers (Keith Sagar, Harry T. Moore), top-drawer novelists (Margaret Drabble, Dan Jacobson, N. Scott Momaday), illustrious Beats (Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs), and poet-critics who have carved more than a modest notch in their time (A. Alvarez, Stephen Spender) were names seldom entwined with Lawrence’s: Dustin Hoffman, Jack Lemmon, Eva Marie Saint, Tony Randall, Elizabeth Taylor, and— from what tree had they shaken him? — the great Jonathan Winters. Not since Wallace Beery nudged Jean Harlow into Dinner at Eight had such a glittering assortment converged upon a gala.

The ringmaster for this three-ring extravaganza was Anthony Branch, an Englishman who moved to Taos after selling his family’s publishing company in 1977. Branch—who had become an admirer of Lawrence’s as a student at Cambridge—decided to hold the festival in Santa Fe because Taos was too small for the sort of multimedia salute he had in mind. Grants were provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the New Mexico Arts Division, and the New Mexico Department of Tourism. The lure for tourists, of course, would not be academics sifting through Lawrence’s work for previously undiscovered flakes of gold, or the stirring anecdotes about Lawrence’s tempestuous private life (“The skillet flew from Frieda’s hand, smacking Lawrence smartly on the bean . . .”). Stars, stars—that’s what would draw free-spenders to Santa Fe, to its motels and galleries and boutiques.

Big-name celebrities would also serve as catnip to entice the media to touristy Santa Fe. Certainly, cynicism and an appetite for gossip and spectacle are what drew most reporters to the D. H. Lawrence Festival, myself included. Converging on Santa Fe by air and land, we longed to see Tony Randall fuss with his cuffs, Elizabeth Taylor chug like a frigate through seas of dazed admirers. Fistfights, flirtations—yes, generous Lord, bring on the poets and acrobats.

ALL-STAR ACADEMIC DISCUSSIONS of D. H. Lawrence’s influence on life and literature were held at the College of Santa Fe’s Greer Garson Theatre. In the lobby, near a makeshift shop offering books by conference authors along with Lawrence’s own, hung two portraits of Miss Garson, both highlighting her noble eyebrows, her kitschy goodness. Inside, onstage, the color-coordinated, earth-toned chairs, tables, rugs, flowers, and pitchers of water suggested the set of a fake-homey early-morning chat show—AM New Mexico, perhaps. Garson herself was too ill to attend any of the jaw-sessions, but her presence hovered over the stage. At any moment one expected her to materialize in a shimmering bubble like Glinda, the Good Witch of The Wizard of Oz, blessing us all with a star-tipped wand.

Dr. Evelyn Hinz, who opened the festival by presenting a filmed interview with Henry Miller, certainly seemed to have fairy dust sprinkled in her hair. Hinz, a slender, tremulous academic who is writing the official biography of Anaïs Nin (can’t anyone stop her?), interviewed the ailing Miller shortly before his death about his eccentric study The World of Lawrence. Written mostly in 1933, Miller’s “passionate appreciation” of Lawrence wasn’t published until well over four decades later, and in the intervening years the details of the book had turned rather hazy in the old lion’s mind. As Hinz’s questions wobbled at Miller like failed tennis serves, Miller —irritated, amused — sipped wine, munched grapes, and tossed off profane observations about life’s appalling screwiness. Life, he was convinced to the end, was an effing mistake. At another panel, Dr. Hinz described a dream Miller’s great friend Anais Nin had the day before she died. “I am in bed on top of a great waterfall with D. H. Lawrence,” Nin remembered. “We don’t know whether to leap or stay. We look down and see Lady Chatterley swimming down in the ocean. We watch, terrified, as she swims from ocean to ocean.” This, said Hinz after a poignant hush, was very significant.

If Dr. Hinz was all moonshine and devotion, others treated Lawrence’s reputation as if it were a welcome mat for them to scrape their muddy boots across. The critic Leslie Fiedler, leading a panel discussion on Lawrence’s influence on the novel, declared with his usual bluster that Lawrence’s impact on contemporary fiction was really a paltry thing, a mere quiver on the seismograph. At yet another panel, the critic and poet Stephen Spender, sporting a Robert Frost crop of snowy hair, unsettled some listeners with the pronouncement that Lawrence “doesn’t have the slightest influence on poetry or criticism.” (Spender was, I’m afraid, stupendously mistaken; Lawrence’s meditations on Melville, Hawthorne, Cooper, and Poe have had an incalculable influence on American literary criticism.) The poet Robert Duncan, in an amusing if long-winded aside, said that Lawrence would have made a “terrible” homosexual, because there would have been no pleasing the demanding scold. The poet Derek Walcott dismissed Lawrence’s attempts at poetry as being hastily knocked off and “undisciplined.”

Perhaps the snootiest reservations about Lawrence’s work were expressed by the playwright Edward Albee, whose eyes gave off glimmers of bored contempt as he told the audience that except for The Widowing of Mrs. Holroyd, Lawrence’s plays were mostly worthless trifles, full of naturalistic awkwardnesses and “transcendental balderdash.” So smug was Albee in his intellectual pride that at one point he referred to “our Henry James,” explaining: “I call him ‘our’ own because—brace yourself—he was an American.” Reporters bolted to the doors to phone the wire services.

Yet it would be a mistake to make this get-together sound as if it were an Agatha Christie bloodbath, with academic after academic pausing like the passengers in Murder on the Orient Express to plunge a dagger into poor Lawrence’s reputation. Praise was given to Lawrence’s courage and determination, the conversational tang of his poetry, and the bold, combative exuberance of his letters, and to the passion and psychological acuteness and dappled, scorched, lush-grassed landscapes of his greatest novels (Sons and Lovers, The Rainbow, Women in Love). But the praise was given perfunctorily, ladled out like broth in a soup line, and the participants seemed happiest pursuing private whims down a rabbit hole, pulling the hole down with them, Bugs Bunny-style. One speaker who made the earth halt on its axis was the painter Paul Jenkins, whose work was featured in An Unmarried Woman and who designed the festival’s official poster after a local artist’s slightly risqué design had been rejected (he made the mistake of giving Lady Chatterley chocolate-drop nipples). With a robust beard and ice-cream-white suit, Jenkins looked startlingly like Commander Whitehead, but he didn’t exude Schweppervescence. He gave a tribute to . . . to . . . somehow memory has blocked the subject of Jenkins’s talk on that black afternoon, but I do recall asking the person nodding off next to me for a pair of scissors so that I could die a noble Roman death.

The Sahara-like stretches of boredom allowed one time to scan the audience. Who, one wondered, would pay the rather stiff fees ($100 for the conference, $25 for the gala recital) to be snubbed by Edward Albee? Academics, of course: professors and graduate students are used to squirming in their seats as a voice at a lectern drills a small, steady hole into the space between their eyebrows. Lawrence’s academic spear-carriers were easy to spot: they were the ones who would spring up during Q-and-A sessions and say, with a pinch of annoyance, “It seems to me you’ve neglected to mention the connection between Lawrence and . . ."—and Joyce, Pound, feminism; it hardly mattered. Outnumbering the spear-carriers were youngish, pert women who sat with notebooks on their laps, pens poised for action.

Most of those I chatted with were college graduates taking a summer holiday from the everyday humdrum; they were, most of them, former English majors enjoying the opportunity to talk books and brush wings with novelists and other notorious layabouts. It is probably true (as Dan Jacobson and others pointed out) that the people who came to honor Lawrence were the sort of people Lawrence would have despised—but what of it? D. H. Lawrence despised damn near everybody. An electric ripple of loathing runs through his fiction and letters as he damns the bourgeoisie, those with dark skin, women, Jews, Bloomsbury aesthetes, the poor, tubercular Katherine Mansfield; damns them as repulsive bugs feeding on dung and corruption. No, being hated by D. H. Lawrence is no large dishonor.

Even with the presence of avid groupies, the activities at the Greer Garson were not much different from those at the average academic confab. Swiftly, however, serious brow-scrunching gave way to show-biz glitz. On a pastel-blue Friday evening, cars inched their way up a woody hill seventeen miles north of Taos. Their destination was the Lawrence Ranch, where Lawrence lived with his wife, Frieda, briefly in the early 1920s. Taking a steep, zigzaggy, stone-lined path up the hill, one arrives at a handsome, modest cabin; near the cabin is a small white chapel, topped with a phoenix, that houses Lawrence’s ashes and smells sweetly of pine. (Frieda, who died in 1956, is buried in front of the chapel.) Before the celebration, A. Alvarez and his family signed their names in the chapel guest book while Stephen Spender sat in a lounge chair, fingering a walking stick. As Alvarez snapped pictures of Spender, Spender expressed with a touch of amusement the confusion over whether or not he would read a poem commissioned for the occasion. Despite public reports to the contrary, he hadn’t written a poem, he told Alvarez; he hadn’t been asked to. “I was going to read ‘I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great,’ ” Spender explained, “but the thought of Thom Gunn standing there . . .” “Yes, yes, of course,”Alvarez said with an amiable chuckle, focusing his clicker. (Explanation: the Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn had poked fun at Spender’s famous poem in a poem of his own called “Lines for a Book”: “I think of all the toughs through history/And thank heaven they lived, continually./I praise the overdogs from Alexander/To those who would not play with Stephen Spender.”) The curious thing was that Spender had published a poem about D. H. Lawrence a year earlier in The New York Review of Books which began “David Herbert Lawrence was born a perfect little Oedipus.” Why didn’t Spender read that ditty? Had he forgotten he had written it? If you think continually of those who were truly great, it’s easy to misplace a poem.

Crowds began to gather around the shrine, and wandering through the pines in a safari jacket was an actor who had saved many a ghetto innocent from frying in the electric chair on The Defenders: E. G. Marshall. He and Anne Baxter (who made life so miserable for Bette Davis in All About Eve) would be reading snippets from Lawrence as part of the celebration.

A drum began to beat near the shrine, and from the bottom of the hill came a procession of girls in chaste white dresses and daisy-adorned hair: vestal virgins! Up the hill they cavorted, legs and elbows raised in arabesque, a vision of nymphet delight. One nipped into the chapel and fetched a bowlful of rose petals, scattering them hither and thither as cameras clicked like a field of crickets and Lawrence admirers dropped their jaws in goggling disbelief. Ominously, the sky darkened to a brooding slate-gray. While Anne Baxter and E. G. Marshall were doing Luntish readings from Lawrence, leaves began to rustle expectantly. Suddenly (cries of dismay, a mushrooming of umbrellas) rain began to pelt down. Crouching beneath branches for cover, some wondered if the downpour was a sign of Olympian displeasure: were the gods angry? If so, it was a brief tantrum; the rain halted, and the dampened throng began to disperse. In the west, the setting sun dripped like an orange lozenge on distant hills. So painterly was the sunset that it came as no surprise when one of the caretakers of the Lawrence Ranch squinted admiringly and delivered his verdict: “He hung a good one tonight.”

THE CLIMAX OF THE FESTIVAL was the all-star production of Eagle in New Mexico at Santa Fe’s Paolo Soleri Theater. The audience at the open-air theater sat on benches covered with multicolored mats the size of carpet samples. Onstage, beneath an overhang shaped like a bull’s horns, came a flotilla of tuxes and gowns: Anne Baxter glided out, followed by Jane Alexander, Ian McKellen, Trevor Howard, Gayle Hunnicutt, Tony Randall, Richard Crenna. Gayle Hunnicutt, a luscious, raven-haired beauty in an eye-popping black gown, had men leaning forward with acute interest as she read passages from Lawrence in a finishing-school accent.

Suddenly the evening took a bizarre turn. Hooded figures bearing torches started to parade solemnly on the hill behind the theater as bells began to chime. Straddling the bridge above the stage, the actor Dean Stockwell (he played Morel in the 1960 film version of Sons and Lovers) read from Lawrence’s poem “Men in New Mexico” to begin the world premiere of Last Twilight, a choral extravaganza whipped up by Thea Musgrave. I found the whole affair rather puzzling—watching it, I felt like Bertie Wooster taking in an evening of Wagner and trying to figure out why buxom women in horned helmets were making such an unholy screech. Last Twilight unfolded like a psychedelic version of Zorro, with buckskinned figures sniping at bands of Indians, with crosses, campfires, piercing screams, and tumultuous music suggesting that the percussion section was having a nervous breakdown. “They can’t waake,” chanted a chorus, as blackshrouded penitents lashed themselves and the audience began to turn trouteyed.

After the Indians morosely trooped off, the stars returned, a murmur of recognition greeting the arrival of Elizabeth Taylor. She sat, prim and appreciative, as the other stars dragged Lawrence through the whimsy. Reading Mellors’s famous speech in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tony Randall affected a burry, lyrical accent that made him sound like a lonesome farmer trying to woo a cow. Under the rural burr, a fourletter word that had caused Lawrence much grief was (inexplicably, hilariously) transformed to “fook.” ”We will fook the white flame into being,” read Randall, and throughout the audience people wonderingly asked, “Fook . . . fook?”

Elizabeth Taylor had only one poem to read, and finally her great moment arrived. As she stood in the spotlight, her sequins twinkled so shimmeringly that she looked like a creature on the transporter deck of Star Trek’s Enterprise beaming down to an uncharted planet. She created a hush when she spoke: the contrast between her formidable showboat appearance and her soft, girlish voice was so striking that the slightest flutter or cough threatened to shatter the fragile mood she created. So the crowd went anxiously mute, and Taylor led Lawrence’s poem “Mountain Lion” up its treacherous path with barely a skittish slip. Her task done, she returned to her seat in a swell of cheers and applause, and everything that followed was anticlimax. Lawrence’s face emblazoned on a giant banner hovered like a god over the stage as the evening curled to a close. Had that image turned to flesh, he might have spat at us. And this time with justification.

Spittle certainly flew with a vengeance in the aftermath of the Lawrence Festival. As soon as the fest folded, criticism began to flare. Residents of Taos grumbled about the slim attention they had received; Anthony Branch’s collaborators accused him of speaking with forked tongue; participants complained that the entire shebang had lacked a certain tone (Allen Ginsberg unappetizingly described the parties thrown in honor of the festival as being “empty, like ghosts full of meat”); and the press cried Disgrace, sacrilege, stinkeroo—bombsville! I had an image of a few tattered ribbons flapping forlornly in a deserted field, remnants of a gala in shabby abandonment.

Yet for all the abusive dirt heaped on the festival, the affair has had a lingering impact, perhaps because in its unseemliness it says something about the future of literature—or at least literature’s public future. As media power becomes more concentrated, the momentum builds toward bigness—big events, big celebrations. Perhaps the prototypical man of letters in the future will be not D. H. Lawrence, spilling out his genius in poems, stories, essays, plays, novels, letters, book reviews, travelogues, and paintings, but someone like Carl Sagan, who moves effortlessly from the best-seller list to documentaries to guest stints at Johnny Carson’s elbow. Homage will continue to be paid to “real” writers (Eudora Welty, say, or John Cheever), but the true money and glamour and clout will go to the masters of mixed media: to Commander Sagan, staring soulfully into the starry beyond.

But all this sounds a touch too bleak. The shadow-dappled vistas, the lightning whip-snapping from mountain to mountain, the quiet of the pines— remembering the natural splendors of Santa Fe helps pull human folly down to a comic scale. Memories can clear away a lot of pretentious clutter. In one of the post-symposium rap sessions, a couple of women described how they had first discovered Lawrence’s novels when they were pregnant—revelations that drew snickers from some participants and members of the press. I found these testimonies rather bracing, however. In a time when books are too often regarded as deals, packages, or “texts” to be pondered and explicated, it’s tonic to be reminded that discovering a writer can still be a chaste, intimate moment linked to the most extraordinary swerves and leaps in one’s life. Nothing can spoil the tender charge of that moment, not even the memory of Tony Randall fooking in the night air.