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


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:


“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.




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