Criticism — From the September 2014 issue

The Tale of the Tape

The miracle of Straight Life

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Laurie grew up among artists. Her mother was a dancer with Martha Graham. Her father, Dick LaPan, formerly Lapinsky, a peculiar, Zelig-like figure, was a writer. His accomplishments are hazy — a book of short stories published in Spanish only, an autobiography floating somewhere out there — yet he manages to pop up in the corners of some very happening frames: there he is at San Simeon, asking William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies to pass the salt; at the house of Salka Viertel, the screenwriter who ran a celebrated salon for German expats in Los Angeles; in Christopher Isherwood’s diaries, making several memorable cameos (“Who should turn up on the beach but Dick LaPan. He lives down in Guadalajara now and teaches English. He says he much prefers Mexico to the States; people are kinder. He even tolerates the Catholic Church”). Laurie’s uncle Sol, more of a father to her than her actual father, was first violin for both the L.A. Philharmonic and the 20th Century Fox Orchestra. Sol and his wife, Mae, kept ultra-fast, ultra-exalted company. Stravinsky was godfather to their eldest daughter. Jelly Roll Morton and Stuff Smith, Arnold Schoenberg and Bernard Herrmann, were regular dinner guests.

More than anything, Laurie wanted to go into the family business, be an artist herself. She seemed to experience a powerful need to express herself creatively yet lacked a means of expression. Part of her difficulty, I think, lay in the abnormally high number of things she could do well — playwriting, acting, poetry, singing, and, of course, photography. You listen to her story and you start to notice a pattern: she becomes infatuated with a particular discipline, throws herself into it, achieves some success, at which point the crisis of confidence hits, followed by, in short order, a freak-out, a cut-and-run, and then a mad scramble for the next thing, the next enthusiasm. Take, for example, her foray into chanteusedom. In her words, “[I] thought I might become a singer . . . I liked the funky glamour. I liked the role . . . I was given an entrance exam [at Westlake College of Music] . . . I did quite well.” So far, so promising. Not for long: “I knew I wasn’t good enough. My voice lacked strength, my time was uncertain.” And she’s out the door: “It seemed to me then that my options were limited. I could lead the . . . loveless life of an unsuccessful singer, or I could make a cozy home with Gary [her squeeze of the moment, one she had ho-hum feelings about] who would cherish and adore me.” And so another career ended. (Soon, her relationship with Gary did, too. She was right not to be enthused. He turned out to be not just a wife-beater but a cat-torturer.)

I suspect Laurie’s background — the household she was raised in, so intensely creative and accomplished — undid her as much as anything else. Surrounded by the people she was surrounded by, she had ideals and standards, exacting and fastidious ones, and they fouled her up, made her uptight and self-conscious at the exact moments she needed to be loose and uninhibited, to let rip. Fledgling efforts are, almost without exception, sloppy. But she couldn’t tolerate slop, not from herself, and so making those early attempts became impossible. And if that wasn’t enough, she “despised [herself] for [her] inadequate suffering.” She aspired to be “marvelous and real, like Billie,” as in Holiday, who grew up black, fatherless, motherless most of the time, a prostitute at thirteen, a jailbird at fourteen. And yet Laurie was born into the educated bohemian Jewish middle class. So by her reckoning, she’d flopped in utero. It was over for her before it began.

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