Posts Tagged ‘Carl Djerassi’

“I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love”: Middlebrook’s posthumous Young Ovid; Djerassi’s last public appearance

Saturday, January 31st, 2015
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Last wishes fulfilled. (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Carl Djerassi had a way of stealing the show, and last week may prove, in retrospect, to have been no exception. The January 22 occasion was the launch of biographer Diane Middlebrook‘s posthumous book, Young Ovid: A Life Recreated (Counterpoint Press) a book that has taken seven years since the author’s death to find its way into book form. Last week’s event, at the fabulous Djerassi digs atop Russian Hill, will be known equally as Carl’s last public appearance. The eminent chemist who has been called “father of the pill” (surely a contradiction in terms) – and also an author, playwright, and founder of an artists’ colony – died yesterday of cancer at 91. It’s certainly appropriate that his final public appearance was a last salute to his late wife, who died of cancer in 2007.

According to Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, the posthumous book would not have come out with him. “He kept her alive and kept her distracted,” she recalled. She had reached a lowpoint in her long illness when she realized she would not be able to finish her book. Carl suggested a “Young Ovid” biography, and that gave her new life. She discussed the manuscript with Carl to the last days of her life. A pleasure as well as a duty, for Ovid was her lifelong passion. “Reading a page and a half will convince you her voice is still present with us,” said her daughter.

I bought a copy, available at the event courtesy Green Apple Books in San Francisco, and though I’ve only had a chance to cast a casual eye over it, it’s impressive, perhaps some of her best work. “It is Diane’s prose. It is Diane’s writing,” said Leah. It wasn’t easy. Middlebrook had continued writing until a month before her death. She conveyed to a circle of insiders her plans and intentions for the finished book. The execution finally rested in the hands of others – and the search of a publisher was a labor of its own. The New Yorker has already named it as one of their “Books to Watch Out For” here.

At the event last week, however, tribulations were forgotten amid plenty of champagne, plenty of brie, plenty of dolmas, and plenty of little bits of goat cheese wrapped in strips of fried zucchini, against the backdrop of what must be one of the most stunning views in a city full of them. I described it a dozen years ago (here) this way:

“The couple’s art interests are evident in their home, surely one of the most fabulous apartments in San Francisco. It occupies the entire 15th floor (they gradually absorbed four apartments) of an art-deco building on Green Street, atop Russian Hill. The elevator from the lobby opens onto blue walls meant to suggest a night sky, with poetry by Ovid, Paul Klee, Wallace Stevens, Basho, Hughes and others written across it in different scripts and languages and illustrated with zodiacal signs. To the left are living quarters; to the right, offices and the salon area, where the couple entertains. They enjoy a 360-degree view of the city.

(Photo: Isabella Gregor)

He liked this one. (Photo: I. Gregor)

“Middlebrook’s office features Eurodesign cabinets and built-in bookcases, with a computer desk and round work table. As in the hotel room, all is very neat, very well-organized—a Middlebrook cardinal virtue. A painted baroque ceiling, with blue, gray and plum-colored swirls, gives the impression the sky is right above you.

“Works of art by Klee, usually on the walls in the salon area, are currently on loan to San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, keeping company with the permanent Klee collection Djerassi donated. The couple has one of the world’s most significant private Klee collections.”

Much of the evening buzz over hors d’oeuvres was about Carl’s health – whispers that this would be his last public appearance, and so it was. (I still can’t believe that he won’t email me tomorrow with the photo he’d rather have me use for this farewell post – but the one I’m including is the one he preferred last time, so here it is again.) When Carl finally appeared and was helped to a chair at the front of the gathering he was startlingly thin, exceedingly frail, but erect and dignified, surprisingly present, altogether there. “Can you hear me back there? All of you back there?” he called. “I’m losing my voice, and I am losing my voice because I am dying, and that’s a helluva way of introducing the book of my greatest love.”

He had a slender, old-fashioned paperback – 1930s, Europe – on the small table next to his side as he spoke, and told his story about fleeing Austria with his mother in 1938 to escape the Nazis. “What would you take as a refugee? No furniture of any size, nothing heavy,” he recalled. Just clothing, pictures, and some books – and one of the books was this one – naturally, a book of Ovid. Heavy going for a teenager who had only four years of Latin, he admitted, but the relic from his past traveled with him to New York; Newark, New Jersey; the Midwest; Mexico; and California. It’s still with him. If he were writing a book, it would be framed as a prefiguration of the woman he would find towards the end of a journey – a woman whose lifelong passion was Ovid – and the book that would connect them at the end of both their lives.

middlebrook1“Diane, I want to tell you how important that book was to me that you finally finished,” he said.

Let the last words be hers, however. Her close friend Marilyn Yalom read, if not a page and a half, at least this part from the introduction to the book, turning on Ovid’s own words: “Throughout all ages,/if poets have vision to prophesy truth, I shall live.”

“To a biographer, Ovid’s declaration ‘I shall live’ can feel like a glove slapping a cheek across twenty centuries. Quite aside from its embarrassingly self-promotional aspect, the phrase can be dismissed as empty convention: Ovid’s most celebrated contemporaries incorporated lines like this in work of their own they most admired. But what if Ovid meant it? What could support a writer’s belief that works of poetry could be immortal and that his own was destined for this rare elevation?

“Biography is a medium for working out solutions to such puzzles. Yet Ovid is not an obvious candidate for biography; there is almost no documentation of Ovid’s life outside his poetry. The evidence inside his poetry is all we have to go on. But it is enough, for Ovid was an unusually autobiographical writer for his time. His voice comes toward us like a plucked string, immediate and recognizable across two millenia, partly because he made frequent use of an effective rhetorical strategy: accosting us readers as if we were present in the room with him. At one point he even calls us, his heirs, by name: ‘Who is this I you read … ?/You want to know, posterity? Then attend” (Tristia 4.10.1-2).

 

Join us for the 11th annual “Company of Authors” on Saturday!

Thursday, April 17th, 2014
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carnochanWe’ve written annually about Stanford’s “A Company of Authors” – here and here and here and here. The unusual event offers a chance to meet top Stanford authors, all published in the last year – plus a chance to buy their books without waiting for an Amazon delivery to your doorstep. But the April 19th event next week is special for another reason: Humble Moi will be one of the moderators, on the session featuring “The Power of Poetry.” Well, not entirely special, actually. I chaired a panel with the same title last year. The charming George Orwell biographer, Peter Stansky, who chairs the event, recycled the title for the panel this year. But what better title could we have picked? What would match the power of poetry?

Casper at the conference, Robert Harrison in the background (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Casper on Arendt, with Robert Harrison. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

I met with one of my panelists last week for lunch over at the Stanford Humanities Center. Benjamin Paloff is a Slavic scholar deeply immersed in the work of Russian and Polish poets, including Zbigniew Herbert and Czeslaw Milosz, among others, so we had lots to talk about. He’s also  the excellent translator of Krzysztof Michalski‘s The Flame of Eternity, which we’ve discussed on these pages here. But he’s on my panel for the book I haven’t seen – his latest collection of poems, Politics. Benjamin is currently a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center, visiting from my own alma mater, the University of Michigan – Tung-Hui Hu, also on my panel, is an assistant professor of English in Ann Arbor. So three of us are used to cold weather. Tung-Hui wrote me this morning from the foggy cliffs of Djerassi Ranch. Well, we’ve written about Carl Djerassi‘s philanthropic venture here, and the terrors of driving to the place here. As for Rodney Koeneke, the final member of my panel, the Stanford alum and poet is visiting us from Portland. He appears to have no Michigan connection, nor anything that’s not on the Pacific. Quite wise of him.

michalski2At least one of the other books has been on these pages: Bliss Carnochan‘s Scotland the Brave.  We’ve also written about Ian Morris, Gavin Jones, Peter Carroll, and others. We haven’t written about former Stanford president Gerhard Casper (except to discuss his friendship with Hannah Arendt  here and here), but we should. His new book, The Winds of Freedom: Addressing Challenges to the University, has been getting some buzz.

Peter Stansky, as always, is the master of ceremonies. We can’t do much better than give you the elegant playbill below, and urge you to come to the Stanford Humanities Center next Saturday at 1 p.m. Oh, and it’s free. How many things can you say that about nowadays?

CompanyAuthorsSpring14-2

When your GPS warns that you’re nowhere, you’ve arrived at the Djerassi artists’ colony. It’s all very zen.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2012
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I’ve visited Djerassi Resident Artists colony before – and described it here and here.  This year, however, I had an out-of-town engagement and couldn’t make it to the open house last weekend, so I had to read about it instead in the San Jose Mercury:

When he arrived at the Djerassi Resident Artists colony from Portugal, composer José Pereira Valente – whose home is in a bustling European city center – became enchanted with the fevered courting song of the male crickets outside his studio. “I got into this cricket stuff!” he says, his voice rising with excitement. “So I recorded the crickets. And then I started composing etudes around the crickets.”

Andrew Demirjian, who seeks to upend the linear quality of time in his video installations, settled into the media lab on the 582-acre Djerassi compound, and soon decided that summering in the Santa Cruz Mountains was for the birds. No, really. Since June, when he came to the former cattle ranch from New Jersey, he’s been recording the birds. In keeping with the time-shifting theme of his work, he plans to play back the songs of birds recorded at 5 p.m. one day to the 5 p.m. birds at the same spot the next.

“So they can have a conversation with their former selves,” Demirjian explains.

I didn’t know that the colony, modeled on such famous predecessors as Yaddo, is the oldest and largest one of its kind in the West.  It was founded in 1979 by the renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, the so-called “father of the pill” (I know… I know… it’s a contradiction), and its most recent residences have been dedicated to the memory of his wife, the biographer extraordinaire, Diane Middlebrook.

Worth a visit – but at your peril.  Bruce Newman writes about it accurately in the Mercury:

To get to the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, you must drive to a point likely to make the usually soothing voice of a GPS device nervously warn that you have reached the middle of nowhere. If you come to rocker Neil Young’s gate, you’ve gone too far. As many as 10 artists make this journey for each of seven rotations that begin in spring and end in the fall. No children or spouses are permitted, and there is no TV. The artists who arrive for the next session will miss most of the 2012 London Olympics.

Not much to miss.  I wrote about the Olympics of the spirit here.  Read the rest of the San Jose Mercury article here.

Carl Djerassi at 88: hitting the road – with champagne, too

Saturday, October 1st, 2011
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Not slowing down ... not much, anyway (Photo: Isabella Gregor)

Stanford celebrated its 120th anniversary last Thursday in Paris, at the Hôtel de Talleyrand overlooking the Place de la Concorde.  The 18th century hotel, purchased by the U.S. after the war, was the site of the administration of the Marshall Plan.

Normally, I wouldn’t know or note such an occasion – except that the weekend gala featured champagne (always a topic of interest), but more importantly, it spotlighted noted chemist and writer Carl Djerassi, one of my correspondents.

The man known as “the father of the pill” (isn’t that a contradiction in terms?) participated on a panel, “At the Cutting Edge of Thinking.”  Following that – a champagne tasting from the latest crus of my favorite Veuve Clicquot.  The artist Kristin Eager Killion was scheduled to speak on “What are the links between Art, Sustainability and Champagne?”

Home of the Marshall Plan

That’s to the point:  the evening hosted a reading of Carl’s newest play, Insufficiency – on the subject of (you guessed it) champagne.  Or rather the chemical makeup of champagne and its bubbles, with a few digs along the way at the foibles of academic publishing, academic snobbery, and academic tenure.  A pleasant coincidence for Carl that the subject of his “play in nine scenes” matched the bubbly theme of the event.  (Karol Berger and Laurence Yansouni were slated to be the actors for the reading.)

Carl has been in the news lately, for several other reasons.  Le Monde wrote a lengthy profile last month, opening him with these words:

Sufficiency

“A shoe with a luminous red heel, bright as desire or a flash of wit, holds open the door to the living room in Carl Djerassi’s Vienna apartment. This is not the kind of thing one would expect to find in the home of an internationally renowned chemist, the author of 1,245 articles in scientific journals, and one of the world’s leading experts on steroids, who synthesized the cortisone and progesterone, thus contributing to a crucial invention for women: the contraceptive pill.”

“But Djerassi isn’t a chemist like others. Little known in France, except by his scientific peers, the naturalized American is the incarnation of the cultured man who once was the European ideal from the Renaissance to the twentieth century: scientist, musician and music lover, collector and arts patron, sports enthusiast. Finally he is a writer, the ultimate self-conquest in a workaholic who admitted that ‘the pressure of ambition can be a poison.’ He nevertheless manages, at 87 years old, a cosmopolitan existence between San Francisco, Vienna and London, at a pace that would exhaust many people in their forties.”

Les Lavoisiers (par Jacques-Louis David)

The article explains that Carl has renewed the tradition of Wednesday soirees in his apartment, as Sigmund Freud once did in his own apartment in the Berggasse (now a museum – we wrote about that here).  The controversial theme of one of Carl’s evening discussions: Can literary self-analysis replace psychoanalysis?

The evening was, of course, a pretext to bring in a reading of another of his plays, Foreplay, based on the letters of chemist Gretel Adorno, her husband, philosopher Theodore Adorno, and writer Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis.

Recent events picked up scenes from Carl’s own life:  he attended the same high school as Freud, and also fled the Nazis with his mother, arriving nearly penniless in New York City in 1939.

Kind of a classmate

Foreplay continues an earlier theme, in his play Oxygen, which described the role of women in the history of science through the prickly personality of chemist Madame Lavoisier.

It’s true that Carl is still going strong – when I saw him at the dedication of the Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence last month, he had just arrived back from somewhere in Europe – London, perhaps.  He was using a cane to walk – he assured me that it was the result of a sports injury, not infirmity.

In any case, he’s off next week to the 14th century University of Heidelberg, Germany’s oldest university, for an honorary doctorate, and an encore of his Insufficiency, which he will read with the president of the Humboldt Foundation.  The week after that he heads for the University of Porto, which is celebrating its 100th birthday.  The university is giving Carl an honorary doctorate, and premiering his play, Phallacy, in Portuguese.  It will be just in time for Carl’s 88th, too, on October 29.

 

 

 

Voilà! Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence

Saturday, August 27th, 2011
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Voilà!  The Diane Middlebrook Memorial Writers’ Residence has been launched.  I attended the dedication ceremony this afternoon, way up in  forested hills around LaHonda, Skyline, and Woodside.  (I wrote about the venture earlier, here.)  Got mightily lost, too.

"Above all, radiant" (Photo: Amanda Lane)

Renowned chemist, novelist, and playwright Carl Djerassi, Diane Middlebrook‘s husband, assured the 50 or 60 gathered in the brilliant August day about the “green” nature of the four new domiciles built in memory of the gifted and groundbreaking biographer, who died in 2007.  The Djerassi Resident Artists Program currently hosts about 60 artists a year.  The spare new residences, overlooking the hills, will add a few more.

The 87-year-old Djerassi read a poem written by the person who had been the second oldest resident ever – Janet Lewis, the wife (and by then widow) of legendary Yvor Winters.  She was 90 at the time – two years younger than the composer who holds the record in the program. The poem Carl read,  “Landscape near Bear Gulch Road,” had been written during her residency.

Carl recalled his wife worked only on ambitious projects.  When her cancer diagnosis gave her only months to live, she turned to her personal brand of therapy, he said – that is, “to immerse yourself totally in intellectual work.”  Middlebrook tackled a biography of Ovid,  which, “though unfinished, has been published posthumously in portions as ‘A Roman in his Prime’ in the Norton Critical edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; and as ‘Ovid Is Born,’ in Feminist Studies,” according to the program’s website. I had wondered what happened to it.

Until today, I wasn’t aware that Dana Gioia, Diane’s student, had published the author’s only collection of poems, Gin Considered as a Demon, in 1983, when he was editing a series of chapbooks for Elysian Press.  He waved the volume at the gathering.  He also waved the battered paperback of Wallace Stevens‘s poems that he had studied with Diane way back in 1971.

He described Diane Middlebrook as “above all, radiant.”  Such people are rare, he said: “in the warmth, enlightenment, and clarity of their presence we discover ourselves.”

Dana read Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy.”  But Diane’s daughter, Leah Middlebrook, read a rapt and haunting poem that Dana had composed at the Djerassi home-in-the-hills, “Becoming a Redwood.”  It concludes:

Something moves nearby. Coyotes hunt
these hills and packs of feral dogs.
But standing here at night accepts all that.

You are your own pale shadow in the quarter moon,
moving more slowly than the crippled stars,
part of the moonlight as the moonlight falls,

Part of the grass that answers the wind,
part of the midnight’s watchfulness that knows
there is no silence but when danger comes.