When the great abstract artist Helen Frankenthaler died last week, I was taken back to 1979 and an interview in the Manhattan home of Bernard Malamud, who had just published his comic novel Dubin's Lives. As Malamud busied himself making tea in the kitchen, a pair of paintings in his foyer caught my eye.
"Helen Frankenthaler originals," said Miriam Berkley, the free-lance literary photographer who had accompanied me to the interview. Miriam, who had modeled for the painter Raphael Soyer, knew something about art.
After the interview I made it my business to learn about Frankenthaler's work—simply possessing it said a great deal about Malamud—even though I was embarrassed to admit I'd never heard of her. One has to start somewhere, after all.
Yesterday I read, in Joseph Epstein's splendid new book Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit, an anecdote that made me feel a bit less self-conscious about my enormous ignorance.
One night in 1991, Epstein writes, he and Frankenthaler were at dinner in Washington with Irving Kristol, the neoconservative thinker, and his wife Bea, also known as Gertrude Himmelfarb, the renowned Victorian historian. Later in the evening Dick and Lynne Cheney joined the company for dessert. Lynne Cheney, then chair of the National Endowment of the Arts, wanted to know what Epstein and Frankenthaler, both members of the NEA's council, thought about its operation.
According to Epstein, Dick Cheney was "self-effacing and modest," choosing to remain in the background while his wife did the conversational heavy lifting. "Perhaps it was a relief to be silent after crowded days at the Pentagon and after appearing so frequently on television . . . with Colin Powell at his side, to answer questions on how the war [Gulf War I] was going."
After the Cheneys left the restaurant, Epstein continues, "I found myself much impressed with them. So, too, did Helen Frankenthaler, who said: 'She is a very bright woman. Her questions were genuinely penetrating. Very impressive. Really smart, Lynne Cheney. But tell me, her husband, what does he do?"
"Bea, Irving, and I looked at one another.
"'Actually,' I said, 'he's secretary of defense.'"
Somehow that delicious bit of gossip makes me feel better about all the holes in my knowledge.