To Know Him Was to Be Acquainted With Him: My Life With Beauregard Lambkin
By Adelaide Brevoort Stumpf
Yellowslope Press; 401 pp.
Forty years after the death of Beauregard Lambkin, it is nearly impossible to understand just how long a shadow he cast over New York intellectual life. Certainly it is impossible to name a critic of comparable influence today, or to imagine any man with intellectual credentials so stellar he could routinely show up to parties holding a live trout and nobody would give him a hard time. And so this gossipy but substantial new book from the short story writer Adelaide Brevoort Stumpf is a welcome reminder of the importance of this literary giant, a man whose libido was as unencumbered as his writing style was restrained and his flatware was polished.
When Stumpf arrived in New York in 1951 after graduating from Vassar, she found that, in spite of her considerable beauty, she had a tough time meeting intellectuals, a difficulty she attributes to sexism and also her obsession with schist. In time, however, she endeared herself to the Partisan Review luminaries who gathered in Lambkin’s West 8th Street apartment, partly by charming Lambkin with her impersonation of a mid-sized wicker basket.
Lambkin, as Stumpf writes, was a talented provocateur, never letting his company forget that he was an outsider, being “only very slightly above middle class.” He would lull the gathering into comfort for long periods of time, and then pounce. There was the time he spent two full years showering compliments on Annette Pew, the celebrated painter of denture fixatives, before taking her to see the sea-turtles at the Bronx Zoo and noting that he found between them “more than a little resemblance.” And of course there was the time Clancy Von Dusselgoft used the word “we” and Lambkin thundered, with all his pent-up class rage, “There is no we, only the haves and the have nots!” (All Von Dusselgoft had said was, “What do we want on our pizza?”)
Women adored Lambkin. Stumpf, though she was often disgusted by his “colonial” approach to women, was no exception. Lambkin told Liza Pearson, after her shimmering opening night performance of “Bumpus DeVille” on Broadway, that she had “Calves like whole milk.” And to Edwina Mostel on New Year’s Eve 1955: “I am forever lost in the poached eggs of thine eyes.” As Stumpf admits, “It was not until Pierre Vadal’s essay in Commentary that we realized all his compliments had a barnyard element.”
Despite the raw sexual magnetism that made him a god among women, Lambkin was perhaps even more beloved among his male counterparts. For example, it was Lambkin who brought the actor Jude Hanson into the Partisan circle, despite the actor’s Tourettic shouting of subway schedules, and who was in fact the only one brave enough to tell Hanson he had kale in his teeth during the filming of the famous pencil sharpener scene in the shoestring-budget workplace comedy, “Don’t Hire Bears, Carmine.”
To her immense credit, Stumpf does not hold back the dirty details of her own tumultuous relationship with Lambkin. Of their notorious fight on Martha’s Vineyard one summer weekend in 1958, she says, “A few rumors I can safely refute: Lambkin never tried to make popcorn in the washing machine. I can, however, vouch for Lambkin’ s cheating at pickleball, while his published account of my violent retaliation seems suspect, because it was impossible to get prosciutto that year.”
The short story writer Matilda Brunswilke, Stumpf concedes, was the love of Lambkin’s life. “To know the pair of them,” she writes, “was like watching a good bowl of cereal – you knew it could not last.” Indeed, Lambkin would leave them both behind while he honed his trademark style of combining the political and the personal, which culminated with 1963’s “Contemporary Liberalism as it Pertains to My Damned Bunions.” Several of Lambkin’s previously unpublished notes on that legendary work are included in this book’s appendix. There is also an early draft of the study he was working on at the time of his death, in 1970, a draft that would, of course, be published posthumously as “When Pushkin Comes to Shove: Conflict in the Russian Novel.”
Gregory Beyer is a writer living in New York. His journalism, essays and reviews of actual books have appeared in The New York Times.