Donna Tartt - GlamourThough it is difficult not to look at Tartt — she's a captivating combination of New York elegance and Southern grace, Coleridge, for one, believes that Tartt's self-possessed poise is not a gimmick. 'She is a delightful woman with a wonderful sense of humour,' she said. 'She just likes a certain amount of privacy.'
Now living in Greenwich Village, the arch, exotic classicist — a bona fide smoker and drinker, and a dedicated dog-lover — cut a special dash on a scene increasingly peopled by the sort of new-wave Puritan author who would send back a mineral water if it tasted a tad too rich.
"Another high point was Donna Tartt's signing of 'The Little Friend.' She is an incredible author with such a mysterious persona that we could not wait to meet her. The bookstore was packed. When she was whisked to the podium, the room fell silent. No one moved. No one breathed. Donna said hello to everyone and then began to read the prologue to her novel. We were all enraptured by her and thought that hearing her read this story that we loved so much was heaven on Earth. How could it get any better? Well, I'll tell you. "When she got to the part in the book where Ida Rhew is in the kitchen listening to the gospel station on the radio, Donna began to sing the song. Her voice was beautiful and clear and sweet. We were all stunned. It was so wonderful! It was a moment we will never forget."
Drawing on their college days, when Tartt would hold alcoholic "teas" in her dorm room, Ellis called his classmate "the only person I know who could drink me under the table" in a 1992 Vanity Fair article. Perhaps Tartt's stamina had something to do with her early "medicine" for the frequent illnesses caused by tonsils that were overdue for removal. Presiding as her nurse, Tartt's great-grandfather gave her regular doses of whiskey and cough syrup containing codeine. "Between the fever and the whiskey and the codeine," wrote Tartt in a Harper's essay, "I spent nearly two years of my childhood submerged in a pretty powerfully altered state of consciousness."
My journalist husband interviewed her in New York. Not only interviewed, but lunched with her (she suggested $120 Chateau d'Yquem but settled for $60 Meursault), shoe-shopped with her (she wrote later telling him she'd bought a pair of brown Robert Clergerie shoes), strolled back to her Greenwich Village apartment and helped walk her pug, Pongo, waiting while the famous author picked up the dog's little turd. He also got her to sign my copy of The Secret History in careful schoolgirl handwriting.
Whatever we choose to see in her carefully contrived, enigmatic image, there's a level-headed writer behind the screen.
When The Secret History was published journalists seemed as enraptured by Tartt as they were by her book. She was born and raised in Mississippi, and much was made of her Southern upbringing and antecedents (the heiress to the legacy of Faulkner, Capote and Welty), her erudition and her style.
Profiles told of her expertise in classical studies; her enthusiasm for Plato and Dante; her distinctive appearance ("gamine", "elfin"); how she chain-smoked cigarettes plucked from an ostrich-skin case, and drank like a fish.
"She's exhilarating," one person told me, "but you've got to be up for it. If you're not, it's like going to a heavy play on the wrong evening. You don't talk about the weather."
Her voice is high, breathy, with the merest hint of a Southern drawl; and she has a habit of punctuating her sentences with "Do you know?" and "Do you see what I'm saying?", which can make her seem pedagogic but, I suspect, is actually a sign of nerves.
The hard-drinking and chain-smoking author of The Secret History has apparently vanished. She quit smoking some years ago following a bout of bronchitis, and drinks only mineral water during our lunch. But the Wise Child is still very much in evidence.
Easton Ellis would later recall seeing her at a "fling into spring" party, where everybody else was in black, dressed in a seersucker suit, cigarette in one hand, gin and tonic in the other. Alone among her contemporaries, she had studied Greek and Latin, and read all of Proust.
Many people have a Donna Tartt story. I don't mean the people who've met her, although they definitely do, vivid and glorious and possibly not true; no, I mean readers. People remember where they were when they read The Secret History, Tartt's 1992 debut, mega-successful (multimillion sales, 23 languages, a combination of Dostoyevsky, Euripides, Easton Ellis and Waugh, according to the New York Times) novel. They remember who recommended it to them, and who they were going out with at the time, and how they held their breath on the bus in to work, finished chapters walking down the street. It was only a thriller, and you knew who did it from the first page. But it was gripping and clever and fantastically erudite, and people became a little obsessed. Tartt's persona fed this obsession: her name (glamorous), her size (pocket), her answerphone message (TS Eliot reading), her fascinating pronouncements ("My life is like Candide" or "I'm the exact same size as Lolita" ["ninety pounds is all she weighs/with a height of sixty inches"]), her chaste aura of another era ("Je ne vais jamais me marier," she once said, winsomely). She became one of the most mythologised novelists of modern times, weird and reclusive and very much a Writer. At the same time, the contradictions between hype, success and privacy were already clear: as Bret Easton Ellis said, "You can't be Salinger and be represented by ICM."
There's another story, too - that of the Tartt answering machine, which allegedly played a recording of TS Eliot reading - although, interestingly, whoever told the story couldn't decide which lines of The Waste Land he read (there are two different stories). She tells me that there is no longer any Eliot. "I have a horrible, Kraftwerk-sounding robot man. It's totally mechanically generated and quite unreal and totally frightening and often people hang up. Now you've given away my secret!"
And booze. I tell her that I've heard that, despite her size, she takes a drink better than any man (and it's pretty disappointing that she won't drink with me). "That's kind of funny," she says. "I don't know if that's true or not. I don't know if that's necessarily a compliment." (She knows it is.) Then she says - and you get the feeling she can already see this in big type, a modern-day Dorothy Parker - "I like a glass of whiskey in the winter, I like a gin and tonic in the summer, I like a glass of champagne anytime." Always telling new stories about herself, she reminds you of F Scott Fitzgerald, who let it be known that, as a great social climber, his first word was "up" and that he admired James Joyce so much that he once said he would jump out of a window to prove it: the writer as personal myth-maker.
Was she making fun of me? (One thinks of Carraway of Gatsby: "For a moment I suspected that he was pulling my leg... My incredulity was submerged in fascination now; it was like skimming hastily through a dozen magazines." And Vanity Fair called her "a character of her own fictive creation".) Does she see herself like Henry in The Secret History, "a propagandist, routinely withholding information, leaking it only when it served his purpose"? Another (former) friend says that "she seems to have a natural love of intrigue", and you wonder if this myth-making and mysterious self-creation are to protect the creative process, or are just her being a storyteller. Self-consciously writerly.
Tartt adores writers, and is very enamoured of the idea of the writer as an identity - the writers she loves, she idolises, and she is clearly trying to live up to her idea of a writer and what a writer is, which is not being a media person, not getting sidestepped by fripperies, not letting you in on how she does what she does. There is a story she tells that shows this very clearly, concerning her first meeting with the late Willie Morris, the former editor of Harper's magazine, writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and the man who introduced himself to Tartt with the words, "My name is Willie Morris, and I think you're a genius." Tartt said that Morris had offered her a Coca-Cola. "No, sir, I believe I'll have what you're drinking," was her reply. (It was bourbon.) She continued: "Terrific roar of laughter. 'Why,' he shouted, staggering back as if dazed by my prodigy, rolling his rich old eye around the assembled company, 'this girl is a writer!'"
(Although, as she says, an untrivial approach to work doesn't mean she doesn't like trivia in her personal life. Shoes, for example; twice during the lunch she exclaims, "I'm just spying your shoe! What a great shoe!" Or clothes; she is famously perpetually well-dressed. One former classmate said, in a much quoted line: "If you went to her room at 4am, you'd find her [Donna] sitting at her desk, smoking a cigarette, wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt buttoned to the top, collar studs, trousers with a knife crease.")
Donna Tartt seems, in many ways, a figure from another decade: a small, hard-drinking, southern writer, a Catholic convert, witheringly smart, with an occluded past, sadness among the magnolias. Wasn't that Flannery? Or Carson? Or Truman, or Tennessee? Surely not a figure from the post-MTV generation. Yet here she is, not yet thirty, coming out of obscurity in Greenwich Village - where she lives with a cockatiel, Horace, and a pug, Pongo (and no television) - into supernova-hood, weighing in among the serious contenders. For The Secret History is, amid its vast entertainingness, an extremely serious book: a book whose very essence is the survival of formality in a formality-starved era.
But then, Donna Tartt is more than mildly fixated on things classical. As good a place to begin as any is the fact that she has a largish obsession, bordering on the cultic, with T.S. Eliot. The ringleader and chief malefactor in The Secret History, an eerily grave polymath called Henry Winter, comes from Eliot's hometown, St. Louis, has the same first name as Old Tom's brother, wears tiny, old-fashioned steel-rimmed glasses and "dark English suits and carries[s] and umbrella (a bizarre sight in Hampden) and . . . walk[s] stiffly through the throngs of hippies and beatniks and preppies and punks with the self-conscious formality of an old ballerina."
Tartt's answering machine message is the Man Himself, reading, solemnly, from "The Waste Land": "I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring. / Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone, / Tell her I bring the horoscope myself: / One must be so careful these days."
Indeed. Like Eliot, and like another idol, J.D. Salinger, Tartt is not at all averse to interest in her work. Period. When it comes to the perky, personal, prying tone of our time, her reservations are grave. The title of her book is not without autobiographical meaning. Her skittishness about being interviewed is formidable. But as Bret Easton Ellis (the co-dedicatee of The Secret History) will later tell me, with the rueful tone of One Who Knows, "You can't be Salinger and be represented by ICM."
"She was very headstrong, and very together," Bret Ellis recalls. "There was a lot of opportunity at Bennington for almost Sybil-like self-transformation. You'd see some girl from Darien, with her Ralph Lauren blouse and her hair in a blond bob - by midterm she'd have shaved her head and be shooting up. Donna was one of the few people there who was really exotic, in that she pretty much stayed the same. I remember seeing her at a Fling into Spring party, where everybody else was in black, in her seersucker suit, with a cigarette and a gin and tonic.
"Her room was a little bit of a salon. She and I, Jill Eisenstadt. Two writers named Mark Shaw and Orianne Smith. Donna gave what were supposed to be teas, but she had this little cabinet with liquor in it. We'd get totally *****faced. Donna is the only person I know who can drink me under the table. I mean, she's this tiny person, and I'm really big, but at the end of an evening I'll be tap-dancing in the street and yodeling, and she'll be exactly the way she was at the beginning, not even slurring her words.
"Of all the people I knew well at Bennington, I knew least about her," another former classmate recalls. "She was very put-together, very controlled. One year at the end of the term, a bunch of us had been up all night for days; I remember she calmed us all down by reading aloud from P.G. Wodehouse. And Donna was always dressed. She wore what was appropriate for the hour of the day. She dressed for dinner. She liked well-tailored boys' suits. If you went to her room at four A.M. - she was an insomniac - you'd find her sitting at her desk, smoking a cigarette, wearing a perfectly pressed white shirt buttoned to the top, collar studs, trousers with a knife crease."
Her ice-green eyes—tourmaline is sometimes that color—convey conviction. She has a vocation, and with it come responsibilities that she fully intends to fulfill. In a black pants suit and white dress shirt, and with her sleek bob (fresh from a stylist's care) and audience- beckoning, polite, born-Southern, educated-Northern voice, Donna Tartt could easily come from a different era, one in which manners were minded and adherence to a code of behavior was the norm. Her conversation is shot through with quotations that over the course of a few hours range from Winnie-the-Pooh to St. Augustine, from Basho to Sterne, Flannery, Flaubert, and Fitzgerald; with curious facts (the Dutch are, on average, the largest people in the world; Keats could curl up like a cat and take a nap while people were in the room); and with instructive asides (on why the Gospels don't make mention of what Jesus ate for breakfast; on how the German obsession for cleanliness led to the bloodbaths in the camps; on the doomed heroism of the explorer Lawrence Oates at the South Pole).
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