It all happened 40 and 50 years ago, but Anne Roiphe's memoir, Art and Madness: A Memoir of Love Without Reason (Talese/Doubleday, $23.95), fairly vibrates with rage. The sentences are bluntly declarative, the emotions obviously still ragged.
Imagine a combination of Mad Men (the period, the condescending placement of women), Looking for Mr. Goodbar (smart women who should know better but don't, right up to the edge of self-destruction) and On the Road (self-conscious literary ambition generously seasoned with alcoholism).
That's right: It's sexual rapacity amongst the literati — a subject that never grows old.
Roiphe writes about her marriage to a writer named Jack Richardson who referred to himself as a playwright, but, on the evidence presented here, was a playwright manqué.
Along the way, there are friendships and various interludes — I wouldn't call them romantic — with William Styron, George Plimpton, Terry Southern, Larry Rivers, Frank Perry and others, some well-remembered, some forgotten. Roiphe spares neither herself nor the men.
Roiphe was a Sarah Lawrence girl, well-connected — a cousin of Roy Cohn's, no less — smart, swooning over literature and, by the evidence of the cover photo, hot. So it figured that the professors at Sarah Lawrence interacted with the students in ways that weren't specified on the syllabus. And that was OK with Roiphe.
Throughout the marriage, throughout the affairs, it wasn't about love, and it wasn't even about sex, it was about need — theirs, not hers. They wanted her to take away their pain, make it all better, and she did. Or tried to.
What we have here is a story of a woman who volunteered for the role of mommy/muse to a lengthy roster of infantile narcissists who were perfectly situated in time and place to get away with their behavior.
For Roiphe, and for a lot of women, that was all right, because it was better than being a suburban housewife making casseroles, dandling a kid on the knee and waiting for the martini hour. Anything but a conventional life in the suburbs. Or so the conventional thinking went.
"I would only love a wild thing ... All this was in the fifties, when the lid was on. Under the lid there was fusion and fission and splitting of emotions into an explosion waiting to happen."
So she met Richardson and married him. "I knew what my life's work would be. I would save him."
But cleaning up a grown man's mess is not really any loftier an occupation than cleaning up a child's. Why did Roiphe settle for so little? "I had nothing to say. I had no story. I became a muse instead of a writer. The costume fit."
So the reflected glory of the wife of a glorious writer seemed like a good bet. Except that the line between being a glorious writer and an obnoxious drunk was more or less invisible in Roiphe's world.
Ultimately, Roiphe has the courage to confront her underlying reality: "I lacked courage. I was not as much a warrior as a housewife-in-waiting, another girl who would love the wrong man for reasons that must have sounded bizarre even to the therapist who heard them years later."
Some of this strikes me as less a portrait of social dysfunction than of psychological need: a group of well-mannered young women educated beyond their intelligence who had somehow avoided absorbing the lessons of role models such as Bette Davis, who made a habit of eviscerating any man foolish enough to think he was her equal.
Roiphe never quite delineates the process of awakening; she had a child, Richardson saw the child as competition rather than a child, they divorced. Came the dawn, which seems to have been when she fell in love with a nice doctor named Herman Roiphe, to whom the book is dedicated.
I went to the trouble of looking up Jack Richardson, Roiphe's first husband and a serial substance abuser and philanderer. Despite having one Broadway play directed by Arthur Penn, the publishing record barely acknowledges his existence.
This is a story of staggering social carelessness, of wives and mistresses and children used as kindling. I don't doubt its truth, nor do I doubt its continuing truth — that there will always women who need to have their masochism fed while being told they're loved, even if love is nowhere in the vicinity.