May 1-7, 2008, Issue 657

A multitalented critic recalls his circle of art-star friends.

by James Gavin

THROUGHOUT the ’50s and ’60s, Manhattan’s high-art scene was in its glamorous prime, awhirl with galas, salons and celebrity-filled openings. Its icons had pop-star allure: Maria Callas’s exploits were tabloid fodder, while strangers on the street called Leonard Bernstein “Lenny.”

John Gruen was a fixture in that world. A prominent music, dance and art critic, Gruen sought—and achieved—intimate access to the greats. Bernstein, Gian Carlo Menotti and (years later) Keith Haring invited him to write books about them, and no wonder. His refined, European-bred speech and carriage defined worldliness; he turned an eloquent phrase; and as a composer and photographer, he understood those artists’ struggles. Besides that, he adored them. “I absolutely had to get to know these people—extremely well!” Gruen says with a smile at his Upper West Side home.

His 15th book,
Callas Kissed Me…Lenny Too!, flaunts an unspeakable sin for critics: They’re not supposed to befriend their subjects, let alone sleep with them, as he occasionally did. The complications grew in light of the fact that Gruen was married—and the affairs he reveals here are with men. But cold journalistic distance could never have wrought the images in this book. Gruen writes of famed choreographer Jerome Robbins, a short-time friend (though never a lover), as a sadist whose ballets held “the seeds of fear—fear on the part of the dancers still in the throes of Robbins’s deliberate cruelty and seething fury.” He witnessed the alcoholic decline of poet Dylan Thomas, and saw the “terrible helplessness” and never-say-die bravura of Judy Garland, whom he interviewed in 1967.

Gruen’s relentless pursuit of the gifted came at a price, summed up in his mocking self-description as a “handmaiden to the stars, reveler in reflected glory and needy intimate of the super-famous.” In fact, he boasts a diverse set of accomplishments: His album
New Songs by John Gruen launched Elektra Records in 1950, and the Whitney Museum has added 300 of his photos to its permanent collection.

But most of his distinctions have been eclipsed by the company he kept—notably Jane Wilson, the celebrated landscape painter and his wife of 60 years. Their sprawling apartment is hung with her works and with Gruen’s photos, which, like his writing, capture the humanity in the artists he loves. One portrait shows moody poet Frank O’Hara looking elfin and goofy; others catch the manic intensity in Bernstein’s eyes. High art always represented an ideal to Gruen, a refugee boy whose Egyptian-Russian-Jewish father and Russian mother had whisked him from their home in Italy to New York in order to flee the Nazis. “That singers could lift their voices in song, or a ballerina could lift her leg and melt me—that was mesmerizing,” he says. “Then, too, a lot of stars are very beautiful. I wanted to be one of those people, and I wanted to make them realize what a fascinating boy I was.”

At 21 he married Wilson, an intellectual beauty who modeled before becoming a full-time painter. Settling in Greenwich Village, they lived the arty bohemian life to the hilt. In the ’60s, when Gruen began reviewing for the Herald-Tribune and later for the Times, his range of contact grew dramatically. He reveled in his proximity to the acclaimed, and grabbed any chance to get close to them. Gruen had long since discovered his attraction to men, and none obsessed him more than Rudolf Nureyev. The superstar’s “balletic fire and brimstone,” not to mention his smoldering Russian beauty, so captivated Gruen that for years he forgave Nureyev’s uglier side: cruelly selfish, belittling, anti-Semitic. A sometime affair developed, and Gruen makes no apologies. “When you are thirty-some years old,” he explains, “and you are sitting on a bed with a genius who’s very, very attractive, you’ve simply got to give in!”

The Gruens’ daughter Julia, who heads the Keith Haring Foundation, took such revelations in stride, but John admits that Jane was “shocked.” Their love has continued despite everything, but so has Gruen’s struggle for identity. “One of the big problems is that I never really settled on one thing,” he says. “I kept them all going, like a juggler, but none of them really took hold in a way that would catapult me as this one creature. But as Miss Piaf sang, je ne regrette rien.” He wouldn’t have missed a moment of it, he says: “Imagine being exposed to all this incredible art that’s been available to me. My soul is full of endless good things that have come to me free of charge!”

Callas Kissed Me…Lenny Too! (powerHouse, $29.95) is out now.