PRINT February 1997


Kennedy Fraser’s Ornament and Silence

Ornament And Silence: Essays on Women’s Lives, by Kennedy Fraser. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. 247 pp. $25.

With The New Yorker for a finishing school and, as taskmasters, an editorial gaggle of deeply idiosyncratic, “more or less elderly” men led by William Shawn, the young Kennedy Fraser, a veritable ’60s English rose amid brambles, was a stylish and rigorously cossetted debutante in the most exclusive, most lavishly indulgent precinct of literary New York. By the age of twenty-two, she had been assigned the magazine’s fashion column. Over the next fifteen years or so, she brought an unprecedented, at times almost alarming level of serious reportage and analysis to what had essentially been a pithy, high-toned shopper’s guide. Indeed, though Fraser rarely seemed actually to like much about fashion, she was instrumental in creating the climate of high-critical importance it now enjoys. The Fashionable Mind and Scenes from the Fashionable World, published in the ’80s, together represent this long-running first phase of her career.

Fraser’s rather sonorously titled new book Ornament and Silence marks a shift in focus. Like its predecessors, it is largely a collection of magazine articles, most written for The New Yorker and Vogue over the last decade. But only one of fourteen “essays on women’s lives”—the one about the Russian-born designer Valentina, who for decades shared her husband’s affections and a New York City apartment-building address with Greta Garbo—concerns a fashion-world figure per se. In addition to four pieces centered on Fraser herself, her relationship to her sister, and her preoccupation with such activities as gardening and keeping house, there are essays about the writers Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and Germaine Greer; about the talented if thwarted Louise Colet, best known as Flaubert’s mistress and as the model for Emma Bovary; about the emigré Russian writer Nina Berberova, whose life story spans most of this century and is a testament to sheer strength of character and mind; about the Honourable Dr. Miriam Rothschild, a grand old English naturalist and expert on fleas; and about an eclectic and illustrious trio of menthe painters Vermeer and Matisse, and the novelist Paul Scott, author of the The Raj Quartet—each seen in the light of his domestic situation and relationship to women.

This is magazine writing—and, implicitly, magazine editing—at its refined and polished best. Fraser’s concluding essay, one of her most compelling, is in fact nothing less than an elegy to editorial culture: “There at The New Yorker” is a funny, detailed and above all emotional evocation of her enviable apprenticeship at that magazine. “With my hair flying,” she writes of an appointment with one of her editors, “in my boots and velvet hotpants, I would run up the stairs and down the hallway to his office. ‘It’s me, Mr. Whitaker,’ I would say, putting my head round his slightly open door. He gave a sound somewhere between a growl and a snarl . . . ‘I didn’t think it was Bella Abzug,’ he said once, referring to the congresswoman, who was famous for wearing hats but not hot pants.” This deftly rendered vignette is but a hint of the book’s many charms. At once gossipy and high-minded, urbane and impassioned, Ornament and Silence is above all fun.

Yet it has a dark side. Fraser seems to suffer from a profound and pervasive oedipal fixation, expansively acknowledged in her foreword. “Two events of significance for me,” she tells us, “occurred as I was embarking on the period covered by this book. . . . A man of my own age, with whom I was talking at a party, withdrew his attention from me to look hungrily over my shoulder at a pretty young woman many years my junior. As a younger woman I had relied on the attention of older men and depended on their approval. I saw very clearly, in that instant when the man’s gaze shifted, that one kind of power had passed from me.” The second event was the sale of her beloved magazine: “I could no longer hide behind being a daughter of the paternal old New Yorker. For the next stage of my life, I would need to summon up new courage and explore new forms of speech.” Life, I guess, really does begin at forty.

Thus the author’s second debut—a rather late-breaking one as a traumatized feminist—and the gradual replacement of older men with older women as vehicles for self-discovery. Fraser’s somewhat premature entry into crone society, however, suggests more panic than peace of mind. Her newfound empathy for women of a certain age, and especially for writers, carries an often startling degree of emotional heat, and occasionally inspires speculative digressions that are oddly prurient. Her feelings of identification with Wharton, for example, lead Fraser to pen some bodice-ripping passages, as the late-blooming Edith finally discovers physical love, as well as an imagined scene of paternal incest: “Perhaps there was some erotic feeling for her father—perhaps an experience in the library. There’s something about The House of Mirth, something about the way Wharton writes of her father and mother—nothing you can pin down, of course—that suggests she was more than a tourist in the terrain of childhood sexual abuse.” Incest scenarios, both documented and intuited, abound in this book, sometimes to the point of bathos. The title essay, about the well-known personal histories of the Stephens sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, ends in an unmistakable cri de coeur: “Shutting down behind self-pity and secret shame,” writes Fraser, “sacrificing themselves to childish mothers and selfish men; vaguely yearning, self-medicating; painting someone else’s pictures; obediently tracing the magic circle, afraid, entranced. There are so many different ways to drown.”

Fraser’s piece about Louise Colet, on the other hand, first published in Vogue as a review of Francine du Plessix Gray’s 1994 biography, is the kind of self-affirming exercise in which the reviewer seems to be trying to wrest a subject from the author under review by displaying a more extravagant, and ultimately competitive empathy. Colet resented having to support herself by writing fashion copy for ladies’ magazines, an occupation she described as “promoting the inventory of department-store owners”— a dilemma that may hold special resonance for Fraser.

Fraser is very good on the subject of world-class viragos: “Valentina loved Venice and kept going there until she was in her eighties ... but now each passing year made her more of a trial to the management [of the Gritti Hotel]. . . . She tore up the sheets if she found them rough; she would dine on the terrace and express her dissatisfaction with the food by throwing her plate and her silverware into the Grand Canal. . . . On what turned out to be her last trip to Europe, she was dispatched in the care of a sensible-seeming nun, who sent a desperate ship-to-shore message from mid-Atlantic to say she couldn’t take it.” She is insightful about her three men—caustic about Matisse’s benign tyrannies and manipulations of the women surrounding him; approving of Vermeer, “The Poet of Everyday Life”; and sympathetic to Paul Scott, whose alcoholism prompts another melodramatically empathic outburst: “The disease of alcoholism is as patient as a tiger; it waits in hiding for its victims for years and years.”

But it is Germaine Greer—brilliantly unfettered, larger than life, and Australian—who most clearly wins Fraser’s rather genteel English heart. In Greer, she seems to have found both a sister in arms with whom to fight her oedipal battles, and a role model. “Demented Pilgrimage” is the title of Fraser’s passionate review of Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, Greer’s quixotic saga of unfulfillment. “Germaine Greer is a celebrity,” Fraser sees fit to remind us, and as such she appeared on a popular British TV show before embarking for her native Australia to begin searching for clues about her father’s fraudulent life: “Ten million viewers bore silent witness to the heroine’s departure and would be watching the shores for her safe return. Yet for a daughter searching for her daddy’s love, even from the other side of death, even ten million of the most benevolent and attentive viewers can never be quite enough.”

Lisa Liebmann writes regularly for Artforum.