John Lahr

John Lahr is the author of Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.

Goldfish are my homies

John Lahr, 22 October 2020

Isurround myself​ with fish: the brown and white aboriginal angel fish in my bathroom, the carved turquoise and yellow Zuni salmon in my study, trout decoys in the conservatory, at the bottom of my garden a pond filled with tangerine-coloured koi. In the unbearable holiday of lockdown, I spent a lot of time by the pond, sitting in the dappled light, letting the burble of the artificial...

Of​ the many remedies Cole Porter used to kill pain – boys, drink, luxury – the most powerful was song. In October 1937, at the age of 46, out for an early morning canter at the Piping Rock Club in Locust Valley, New York, Porter lost his stirrups when his horse spooked at a bush and fell on him, crushing both his legs. He gave his crippled legs nicknames: ‘Josephine’...

Her Haunted Heart: Billie Holiday

John Lahr, 20 December 2018

‘I’ve been told​ that nobody sings the word “hunger” like I do. Or the word “love”,’ Billie Holiday says in her memoir Lady Sings the Blues (written in 1956 with William Dufty and now reissued). Like Kafka’s hunger artist, Holiday let song make a spectacle of her deprivation. ‘I don’t need a friend/My heart is broken, it...

‘I love​ the con, crises are my fuel. It’s the best high … and anaesthetic,’ Clancy Sigal wrote in Black Sunset, a memoir of his Hollywood hustle as an agent in the mid-1950s, representing the interests of Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck, Peter Lorre, Mary Astor, Joseph Cotten and many lesser lights in the studio firmament. Those of us who knew Clancy –...

With her​ high cheekbones and her flaxen hair, Joni Mitchell emerged in the late 1960s as some kind of hippy Venus with an overbite. She was the personification of the New Woman, liberated by the pill and by her talent to take ownership of her body, her art and her destiny. She was thoughtful, feisty, free-wheeling, ‘open to experience and in touch with the miraculous’, as she...

After Clarence Clemons died in 2011, Springsteen auditioned a young sax player who arrived late and unprepared. ‘Where … do … you… think … you … are?’ Springsteen reports himself saying. ‘If you don’t know, let me tell you. You are in a CITADEL OF ROCK’N’ROLL. You don’t DARE come in here and play this music for Bruce Springsteen without having your SHIT DOWN COLD! You embarrass yourself and waste my precious time.’ The scene is not pretty; but the memoir’s value is that it risks embarrassment.

Backlash Blues

John Lahr, 16 June 2016

As social unrest began to rumble through America in the early 1960s, Nina Simone’s raised voice, her particular combination of truculence and artfulness, spoke to a voiceless, demoralised African-American community; it was a thrilling antidote to what Zora Neale Hurston called ‘the muteness of slavery’. In the spectacle she made of herself as well as in her voice Simone became a race champion. In the mid-1960s Vernon Jordan, the head of the Urban League, asked her how come she wasn’t ‘more active in civil rights’. ‘Motherfucker, I am civil rights,’ she replied.

I want to howl: Eugene O’Neill

John Lahr, 5 February 2015

If you were throwing a pity party among American playwrights, the antisocial, alcoholic, self-dramatising misery named Eugene Gladstone O’Neill would win the door prize. At the age of 21, already making a myth of his sense of doom, O’Neill was calling himself ‘the Irish luck kid’. By then, he’d been thrown out of Princeton (‘Ego’ was his nickname), fathered a son with his divorced first wife, caught syphilis in his wanderlust around South America as a merchant seaman, and attempted suicide in a Greenwich Village fleabag called ‘the Hell Hole’ by its permanently pie-eyed denizens.

Watching himself go by

John Lahr, 4 December 1980

Noël Coward never believed he had just a talent to amuse. A man who spent a lifetime merchandising his de-luxe persona, Coward liked to make a distinction between accomplishment and vanity: ‘I’m bursting with pride, which is why I have no vanity.’ A performer’s job is to be sensational; and in his songs, plays and public performances, Coward lived up to the responsibility of making a proper spectacle of himself. His peers had difficulty in fathoming this phenomenon. T.E. Lawrence thought Coward had ‘a hasty kind of genius’. Sean O’Casey spat spiders at the mention of his name: ‘Coward hasn’t yet even shaken a baby-rattle of life in the face of one watching audience.’ J.B. Priestley, as late as 1964, taxed him mischievously: ‘What is all this nonsense about being called the Master?’ Shaw, who prophesied success for the fledgling playwright in 1921, warned him ‘never to fall into an essential breach of good manners’. He didn’t.

Andrew O’Hagan’s remarks about Jennifer Jones in his review of West of Eden – ‘she went to bed in full make-up and hair … just in case she was taken ill in the night and had to go to hospital’ – reminded me of going over to her East Side apartment a few times to play with her children – we went to the same Manhattan school (LRB, 3 March). In...

Coward Studies

4 December 1980

John Lahr writes: I apologise for attributing to Coward one of the few good phrases Alexander Woollcott ever wrote. But Shaw’s letter, of which only 1½ of 20 lines refer to Coward’s imitating him, was written on 27 June 1921 (Cole Lesley, Remembered Laughter, p. 57). ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ – as its title shows – is a cod plea;...

To spend time​ with Tennessee Williams – for months on end in the case of Elia Kazan, the director who put his plays on the stage in the 1940s and 1950s; 12 years in the case of his...

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Skating Charm: Kenneth Tynan

James Wolcott, 13 December 2001

Kenneth Tynan smoked like a maestro, an aficionado of his own smooth technique. As the stripper sings in Gypsy, ‘Ya gotta have a gimmick,’ and photograph after photograph shows Tynan...

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Here to take Karl Stead to lunch

C.K. Stead, 30 January 1992

I first saw Barry Humphries on stage in the Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney in 1956 or 57, and got to know him in Auckland in the early Sixties after we had both come back from our first visits...

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The Story of Joe

Craig Raine, 4 December 1986

When Joe Orton was in Tangier, he noted down the following exchange: ‘You like to be fucked or fuck?’ he said. ‘I like to fuck, wherever possible,’ I said. He leaned...

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The Fame Game

Alan Brien, 6 September 1984

Steven Aronson’s Hype, a guide to the latest techniques of mass manipulation, may have less impact on British readers than it has had on American. The word is a recent coinage, but since...

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