On the Wing: A Young American Abroad

On the Wing: A Young American Abroad

by Nora Sayre

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Vivid, immediate, and irreverent, a memoir of a young woman's coming-of-age in London during the 1950's.

"This is a terrific memoir that is more than a memoir; it is also a portrait of a group of people (actors, writers, filmmakers). But, more interesting still is the portrait Nora Sayre gives of her self as a young woman trying to find her way in the


Vivid, immediate, and irreverent, a memoir of a young woman's coming-of-age in London during the 1950's.

"This is a terrific memoir that is more than a memoir; it is also a portrait of a group of people (actors, writers, filmmakers). But, more interesting still is the portrait Nora Sayre gives of her self as a young woman trying to find her way in the world—trying to discover her own fate." -Wendy Lesser

When Nora Sayre arrived in London she quickly joined a circle of artists, many of them blacklisted Americans. On the Wing is a wry, elegant, and exacting account of an extraordinary group of people —Graham Greene, Oona and Charlie Chaplin, Tyrone Power, Cyril Connolly, A. J. Liebling, and many more.

Author Biography: Nora Sayre was a cultural historian and film critic whose first book, Sixties Going on Seventies, was a finalist for the 1974 National Book Award. She died in 2001.

Editorial Reviews

Louis Begley
A very good book. I read it with great pleasure: in fact, it was difficult to put down. Nora Sayre shows once again her exceptional talent for narrative and cultural criticism.
Frances Kiernan
If Sayre's eye is sharp, it is also forgiving. She brings to every encounter a curious mind and a wise heart.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With elegance and panache, Sayre (Previous Convictions) tells of her years in London during the second half of the 1950s, when she was 22 and looking for experience to use in a writing career. The daughter of parents who had been part of the New York literary scene in the 1920s and '30s, Sayre was soon taken under the wings of such figures among London's intelligentsia as Hungarian-born Arthur Koestler (Darkness at Noon), the New Yorker reporter A.J. Liebling, British literary critic John Davenport, British editor and critic Cyril Connolly and the leftists, dissidents and blacklisted Americans who gathered around screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart and journalist Ella Winter at their house in Hampstead. She also became friends with the actress Mai Zetterling and her lover, actor Tyrone Power. All these people became her extended family, and, she claims, gave her guidance, although often unintended. She paints colorful personal portraits for example, Davenport fussing about what his young prot g should read, write and eat; the portly Liebling waddling down the street on his way to his next gourmet meal. But where she excels is in finding the connections, both then and now, between "the tidal waves of the 20th century and how they affected private life." As a child in America, she was largely unconscious of WWII, but in England, it was impossible to ignore its Cold War legacy. As she gains insight to the private Koestler, for example, she more keenly appreciates the relationship between his post-Communist indictments of Stalin's regime and his misogyny. But this is not a dark book; in fact, Sayre dislikes the tendency among memoirists to be "wretched," spewing "buckets of boohoo." Instead, she presents an entertaining and fluent coming-of-age story that will delight literary enthusiasts both young and old. (June) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Sayre's Previous Convictions: A Journey Through the 1950s (1995) recounted her childhood in New York and Hollywood during that repressed and blacklisted era. This current volume by the former New York Times film critic is very much a continuation, beginning with her college graduation (Radcliffe, 1954) and continuing through her days as a penniless writer in London until her return to the United States in the Sixties. The chronological arrangement, with chapters based on important figures in her life (Arthur Koestler, A.J. Liebling, Mai Zetterling, Tyrone Power, and Donald Ogden Stewart), allows her to comment on literature, politics, and London society. Sayre's combination of personal and cultural history moves between revealing anecdotes to vague pronouncements based mostly on the perceptions of the young woman she was. More material and better editing might have made this a more fulfilling read. For general collections. Shelley Cox, Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Film critic and memoirist Sayre (Previous Convictions, 1995) recalls her astonishing circle of acquaintances in mid-1950s London. "Like millions of young Americans with knapsacks and bicycles," she writes, Sayre headed to England at 22 to find what London might hold. There her resemblance to any typical American youth ends. The daughter of a New Yorker writer, she was soon taken up by her parents' London friends (a cross-section of the period's intelligentsia that few 22-year-olds could ever dream of meeting) and enjoyed a five-year stay in the company of history makers. Her first apartment came courtesy of Arthur Koestler, Tyrone Guthrie hired her to research scripts for his theater company, critic John Davenport helped her navigate the London literary scene, and A.J. Liebling became her dinner companion. In the wrong hands, such a tale could be insufferably smug; happily, Sayre is a charming raconteur with a light comic touch that comes into play when she recalls such incidents as Graham Greene, outraged by a savage review from Liebling, running in circles around her and a companion who had been seen with Liebling earlier in the evening. Interleaved with tales of stars—Katherine Hepburn grousing about a friend's rusty garden tools, Ingrid Bergman's musings on Casablanca's two final scenes—is fine political history. An extended chapter on the blacklisted Hollywood community gives vivid insight to the motivations of the exiles and provides an excellent précis of what was happening in the artistic community back home, long before most Americans had a comprehensive view of the anticommunist battle. "All this history was new to me. . . . About twenty years passed before itwas publicly discussed in my own country." Sayre is not above the tasty details, however; she lards her entire narrative with descriptions of who wore what and how their houses were decorated. Brisk, sharp, and elegant.

Product Details

Counterpoint Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.84(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.87(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I was appalled to hear his voice. As Arthur Koestler hissed instructions at me through a small intercom in his door frame, I wished I might evaporate—or that he would. Standing in the darkness on his doorstep in Knightsbridge, I yearned to be in another city, almost regretting the journey that had brought me to this place.

* * *

Hunting for work, starting to write, I knew almost no one in England except the young man at Oxford. But I was sustained by anticipation: I expected enormous rewards and ongoing nourishment from an immersion in ancient civilizations and the arts: literature, theater, and the paintings and sculptures of Europe were going to shape my character and mind as well as my sensibilities. "Now shall I make my soul, compelling it to study": Yeats wrote those lines when he was sixty-one, but they spoke to me at twenty-two; my voyage abroad was meant to be an act of self-creation as much as an exploration of the world. Meanwhile I lived in one small room with a creaky floor in a South Kensington bed-sitter, where I slept on khaki sheets (postwar army surplus), awoke to see a washstand disguised to look exactly like a washstand (zigzag carpentry), a gas ring, a black metal box where a shilling purchased heat and light (when the coin expired with a click, the electric fire and the lights went out), and what a friend called Caliban's breakfast: a fried egg swimming so deep in grease that it swirled around the plate, and a dead tomato.

* * *

Edmund Wilson, my family's friend since my childhood, hadwritten to his friend Celia Paget Goodman, a magazine editor who had worked for the wartime Information Research Department of the Foreign Office, that I was newly arrived in London. I didn't know that he'd been in love with her twin sister, who had married Arthur Koestler and parted from him before her death. In my early twenties I was moving beneath a web of my seniors' tangled relationships, sometimes unaware of the threads or the ruptures. Celia, a small, direct, and charming woman with amused eyes, took a rapid look at my fraying college wardrobe and deduced that I needed employment right away. She said I should consult her brother-in-law. I said I couldn't; to me Koestler seemed to be a colossus. (Like millions of American students of that era, I'd read Darkness at Noon, his exposé of the Soviet purges, in high school, where it was almost a textbook: the novel was essential to the Cold War education of several generations.) Celia Goodman grinned and said that while he was perfectly horrible in many ways, he was sympathetic to young people who needed to earn: he remembered very well what that was like. Next day she rang and told me that since she knew I wouldn't contact him, she'd arranged for me to have a drink with him; she quite gleefully said I would not be able to cancel because she wouldn't give me the phone number.

    Shivery with spring flu, groggy from big red pills called Quinasps (quinine and aspirin), I was relieved to see that his house on Montpelier Square was completely dark when I got there. He must have forgotten, so I needn't meet him at all. Still, I ought to ring the bell—just so I could tell Celia that I had. A long silence. As I started to leave, a voice shouted—almost screamed—"Who is that?" through the door phone. The accent was riddled with v's and s's and z's. I gasped my name, then the voice ordered me to push various buttons and levers on the right and left of the door—which would eventually open. Then, the voice said, I would find myself in a totally dark hallway. I was to stretch out my hands and grope forward until I touched a bannister; I should grasp it and "feel, feel, feel" my way upstairs, then reach for the wall on my left and feel, feel, feel my way along it, find a doorknob, enter a dark room, turn on the light and wait. I felt as though the Minotaur might be lurking at the center of the labyrinth.

    Sweating from more than flu, I stumbled blindly through black space, clutched the bannister, then hugged the wall, and lurched into the room. What the light revealed was almost shocking: cozy chintz upholstery, comfortable chairs, a Courbet cow over the fireplace. The house remained utterly silent, you would have thought it was empty. Terror subsiding, cheered by the cow, I sank into a sofa.

    More silence. After half an hour I grew restless and began to sift through a pile of Encounters. Finally there was a rustling sound and a musky, spicy scent (Bellodgia, I later learned), footsteps in the hall; the door opened and an astounding couple walked in. He was short with a large head and broad shoulders: when he sat down, he appeared to be taller than he was, and his dinner jacket seemed to give him height. Enveloped in black silk and lace, she was a luminous beauty with huge moth eyes, shining short dark hair, celestial cheekbones, a delicate curving smile. Much younger than he. I realized that they were probably in bed when I rang the bell and had needed time to dress for a grand dinner party.

    Koestler was genial, no longer barking or hissing. She—Elizabeth Jane Howard, whose novels I would soon admire—nodded encouragement. He handed us gin and tonics and asked what kind of work I was seeking and what I had studied in college, year by year. As I told him about our vast historical surveys and freshman humanities courses, he beamed and seized on the subjects. It seemed that he enjoyed sweeping cultural definitions, also syntheses: "Seventeenth-century man was the man of science and philosophy. Eighteenth-century man was the man of reason. Nineteenth-century man was the man of feeling [veeling]. Twentieth-century man is the zynsezis of all these." He pronounced "zynsezis" with such gusto that it seemed logical that he subsequently married a woman named Zynsia (Cynthia). He extolled London as an international city and said I would prosper there, adding, "London is the salvation of Americans," before we walked down the brightly lit staircase and they hurtled off into the night in his small MG.

    I felt as if I'd passed through a masonic rite: trial by mystery and darkness and fear, then redemption through light and a quickening potion. Soon thereafter I was told that his complex security system was a consequence of being jailed in Franco's Spain, where he had heard the cries of other prisoners—mostly young peasants—as they were led to their executions while he was in solitary confinement. As a known Communist, he expected to be shot, though it was never clear if Franco had signed the death warrant. After ninety-five days Koestler was released from his cell in Seville. Prominent British politicians had obtained his freedom in exchange for another prisoner. But for years after Darkness at Noon he was certain that he was on the Russians' hit list.

* * *

I began to find work, mainly research on American history. In my dusty Queen's Gate bed-sitter, where I competed for the pay phone on the stair landing with Mr. Hanrahan, an unemployed Irish journalist who struck matches on his thigh, I read at length about the battle of Shiloh, the second-worst battle in our Civil War. I wrote a detailed account for a biographer of Henry Morton Stanley (author of How I Found Livingston), who was said to have been a habitual liar. He had covered the battle for The New York Herald, but the biographer wasn't sure if Stanley had been there, and it appeared that he had made errors.

    In the midst of Shiloh I was invited to tea by the literary scholar and editor John Hayward, T. S. Eliot's friend and flatmate on Cheyne Walk. Crippled by muscular dystrophy, imposing in his wheelchair, Hayward had deformed hands and his clearly enunciated sentences issued from a misshapen mouth: his huge swollen underlip seemed to float out independently from his lower jaw. I'd been told that he looked like a duckbill platypus and that he liked to talk about sex because it was impossible for him. He spoke of statements in the yellow press from young women who had been raped in Hyde Park—"`He threw me on the grass verge and interfered with me'—why is it always the verge, I wonder?," prostitutes in Shepherd's Market, John George Haigh (the acid-bath murderer with a toothbrush mustache who'd pretended to market false fingernails and had lived in the Onslow Court Hotel, near my bed-sitter), and the possible virginity of a young American woman who was keeping company with William Faulkner: "Do you think that old corncob Faulkner has given Miss X her sanctuary?"

    John Hayward had no work for me, but the next day Mr. Hanrahan pounded excitedly on my door: Arthur Koestler was on the hallway phone. In clipped tones he said, "I have not found you a job. I have found you a flat." (He disapproved of bedsitters.) Again there was mystery: he named no landlord but gave me incredibly convoluted tube and bus directions to 6 Blomfield Road in Little Venice. He told me to open the wooden gate but not to ring at the dark red upper door, walk down the path but do not enter the garden, find the door beneath the stairs, "and someone will answer." That someone turned out to be the gracious Elizabeth Jane Howard, known as Jane, eager to rent a large bedroom with a view of the Regency Canal for two and a half pounds a week. On long summer evenings, sunlight bounced off the water and shone through the leaves of a willow tree. Books, ranged neatly on shelves, seemed to be the skeleton of the house. In Jane's living room a scarlet carpet glowed between pale yellow walls; when the French doors were open, a large gilt-framed oval mirror reflected the greenest of gardens. I almost expected that mirror to slide back and reveal a series of secret rooms. The dining room had crimson flocked wallpaper and a small golden creature (maybe a griffin) at the top of the window frame. It was—and in memory still is—one of the most beautiful houses I've seen.

    Part of the time Jane lived with Koestler, but I was soon drawn into her household, which sometimes included her witty younger brother Colin, who'd just gotten his degree at Cambridge. He and I pulled a few weeds from the garden, ate potted shrimps and cold rare beef, and played Jane's Scarlatti and Mozart records while she was in Montpelier Square. He had extremely strong wrists, and Jane said we should screw him to the kitchen wall so that he would always be there to open jars of olives or nuts. She used to leave the house full of roses and the fridge crammed with pâté, roast chicken, and cream. When she was at home, a stream of terrifically attractive men came for lunch and dinner. One of my favorites was a tall, doleful barrister whom Colin and I called Mr. Lost Cause; hopelessly in love with Jane despite what she referred to as "a perfectly good mistress," he was permitted to pick small stones out of the lawn while she planted phlox and delphiniums and told him about her troubles with Koestler, who had a long history of brutality toward women.

    Because Jane was ten years my senior, dashing and magnetic, the author of novels praised for their delectable ironies, their portraits of tortuous marriages and scenes of fleeting enchantment, I was slow to see that she was short on self-esteem. The women in her books were often punished for their romanticism; in pursuit of love, they were sexually adventurous but usually disappointed by the men who enjoyed their bodies while deriding their feelings. Most were elegant masochists. Jane's first two novels, The Beautiful Visit and The Long View, were compared to Rosamond Lehmann's, but to me her writing seemed to belong in the tradition of Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, attuned to Evelyn Waugh. The pessimism in her work coexisted with a splendid sense of the ridiculous. I felt that Jane Austen would have appreciated her books: both of them portrayed really rotten behavior in the midst of bittersweet comedy.

    Jane Howard was a temperate Tory, and she seemed to have a strong sense of justice—not social or political but rooted in her concept of decency and honesty. One of her admirers referred to her "speaking glances and glancing speeches," but I found her forthright. Still, I learned that she was as anxious as she was glamorous; she looked sure of herself yet wasn't. At nineteen she had married the naturalist and ornithologist Peter Scott, the sour son of Scott of the Antartic; his paintings of birds (especially wildfowl in flight) were widely reproduced on place mats. They had one daughter. Long divorced, Jane seemed to be quarry for mordant men whose energies and language captivated her; in her future there were such mercurial lovers as Kenneth Tynan and Romain Gary; her third ex-husband would be Kingsley Amis. She was a loyal person who appeared to inspire disloyalty. Yet in the midst of pain—lavishly dispensed by Koestler—she seemed to savor life's pleasures more than many people: music, her garden, memories of the Côte d'Azur, Sussex, her brother's jokes, salmon trout, and cold orange soufflé seemed to enhance an existence suffused with suffering. Years later I thought of her when the poet Philip Larkin said that unhappiness was a stimulus for his writing: "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."

    Life under Jane's roof was novelistic: that is, it was like being in a novel rather than just reading one. But there were lulls between chapters when she was away. In her absence I spread papers and old news clippings all over her scarlet rug, working on my knees because the desk was too small. I was doing research on the Loch Ness monster for James Thurber, who was spending part of the summer in London. He and I were as intrigued by the hoaxes as by the most reputable sightings, and he developed a theory that the monster was hardly ever seen because it was so shocked by its first glimpse of a human being that it preferred to stay under water. In the fourth century, Celts were converted to Christianity when the creature surfaced. (In 1940 an Italian fascist paper, Popolo d'Italia, claimed that it had been killed by a direct hit during the blitz.) Because I had to reregister as an alien every six months and needed a legal reason to remain in England, Thurber gave me a letter saying that I was engaged in research for him on the Scottish kings before Macbeth—he thought that could go on for years.

    Next I was hired by BBC Radio to gather factual material on American crime; the producer who interviewed me put a box of raspberries on the table between us and asked, "Do you use these?" For a documentary program on Dutch Schultz (aka Arthur Flegenheimer) and Abe (Kid Twist) Reles, I became an overnight expert on Murder, Inc., the death squad of the Syndicate, staying a few days ahead of the scriptwriters, who were enamored of their notion of gangland slang. They asked me what a canary was. Stool pigeon I said. But they confused that with a sweet potato, and I saw the script barely in time to correct lines like, "Whoa, Mac, hold your horses or I'll flip you."

    Schultz, a tycoon of the New York numbers racket, was pronounced Public Enemy Number One by J. Edgar Hoover in 1934. The gangster had planned to assassinate Thomas E. Dewey, Manhattan special prosecutor, in 1935. But members of the Syndicate decided that Schultz himself must be bumped off, since the killing of Dewey would spur a nationwide crackdown on the mob. Schultz was shot in the men's room of a saloon in Newark; this created problems for the BBC scriptwriters and technicians. First the actor had to say, "I'm going to ..." The can, I suggested. No, British audiences might not understand. The john? Same objection. Finally it was called the gents. So that Schultz wouldn't seem to be pissing, he said he wanted to "wash my hands" and there was dialogue over the sink: "Would you pass me the soap?" But the running water sounded as though he was in the center of a cyclone; even when it was toned down, he seemed to be taking a bath. I was grateful when the shots rang out, but the actors were sorry: they loved their frightful pseudo-Brooklyn accents. The second part of the "documentary" focused on Reles, a vital informer on Murder, Inc., who fell or was thrown out of a window of a Coney Island hotel in 1941. The program was called "The Canary Who Could Sing But Couldn't Fly." Because I had no work permit, the BBC—which was funded by the government—paid me illegally under the table: wads of pound notes were pressed into my hands when no one was looking.

    In the meantime I was reading a lot of Sartre and Camus; Koestler called them "the Little Flirts of the St. Germain." I gathered that they had once been friends of his, and in the midst of my enthusiasm for their plays and novels I was startled by his disdain. He also made scathing remarks about Sartre's rapprochement with the French Communists in the early Fifties (which ended after the Russians' invasion of Hungary in 1956). I turned to The Invisible Writing, the second volume of Koestler's autobiography, and also brushed up on his background. He was born in Budapest in 1905 to Jewish parents; when he was nine the family moved to Vienna, where he was raised. As a university student of engineering, he became a keen Zionist, then spent two years in Palestine as a reporter for Berlin newspapers, moving to Germany just as the Nazis were gaining strength. Appalled that the Socialist Party had failed to halt the fascist tide, he studied Marxism and became a Communist on the last day of 1931, viewing the Party as "the only apparent alternative to Nazi rule."

    Visiting the Soviet Union in 1932-33, he saw the terrible famine caused by forced collectivization in the Ukraine. But he accepted the official explanation that the millions of starving peasants were reactionaries who'd resisted collectivization and therefore had to be evicted from their farms. Since Hitler had come to power, Koestler couldn't return to Germany so he settled in Paris. He made three trips to Spain, covering the Spanish Civil War for the British News Chronicle; his arrest occurred on his third visit. Back in Paris, he resigned from the Party in 1938, propelled by the Soviet purges and the Comintern's vicious assaults on independent leftists in Spain. When the war began he was incarcerated for four months in France as an "undesirable alien," then released due to international pressures. As the Germans advanced, he was prompted by a Jean Gabin movie to enlist in the Foreign Legion as a way of escaping from France; on arrival in England he was immediately imprisoned for several weeks in a detention camp for aliens. Despite that confinement, he would become a fervent Anglophile.

    Darkness at Noon was published in 1940. His depiction of the jailing, interrogation, and execution of old Bolsheviks—through a character partly modeled on Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, and Karl Radek—was one of the first accounts of Stalin's terrorism to reach a worldwide audience. Today, when the chronicles of mass murder have been known to millions for over fifty years, we should try to envision the novel's impact at a time when many still hoped that the Soviet Union was a just—even admirable—society. Portraying a regime that was slaughtering its own citizens, Darkness at Noon was a milestone in the political landscape of the evolving Cold War. Of the men who made the Russian Revolution of 1917, Koestler wrote, "They dreamed of power with the object of abolishing power; of ruling over the people only to wean them of the habit of being ruled. All their thoughts became deeds and their dreams were fulfilled. Where were they? Their brains, which had changed the course of the world, had each received a charge of lead. Some in the forehead, some in the back of the neck."

    In England the novel was very favorably reviewed by George Orwell in the New Statesman and championed by Kingsley Martin, the magazine's editor. The English Marxist John Strachey said the book "broke friendships, split families" on the Left. Still, the British sales were negligible. But when Darkness at Noon was published in the United States in 1942, it became a colossal bestseller, as it did in France. And it was said that the French Communist Party kept buying all available copies in local stores and destroying them; therefore more editions were printed and Koestler was enriched by the Party's funds.

    Koestler's memoirs, including his essay in The God That Failed, reveal that by the time he was thirty-five he'd dwelled in a world of mine fields and barbed wire, spies and assassins, suicides, torture, gas chambers, and firing squads. Hitler and Stalin had killed most of his friends. Masks and deceptions of all sorts had been essential to a European Communist—a participant in the "secret revolutionary movement"—in Germany and after the fall of France, and he'd had to hide his sympathy for the Trotskyists in Spain.

    His experiences seemed "abnormal" to some British reviewers of the mid-Forties, but he retorted that "the life I have described was indeed, up to 1940, the typical case-history of a Central-European member of the intelligentsia in the totalitarian age. It was entirely normal for a writer, an artist, a politician, or a teacher with a minimum of integrity to have several narrow escapes from Hitler and/or Stalin, to be chased and exiled.... It was by no means abnormal for them, in the early thirties, to regard Fascism as the main threat, and to be attracted in varying degrees to the great social experiment in Russia." Even after he had come to hate the consequences of that experiment, he wrote that being converted to Communism in the Thirties "was a sincere and spontaneous expression of an optimism born of despair; an abortive revolution of the spirit, a misfired Renaissance.... To be attracted to the new faith was, I still believe, an honorable error. We were wrong for the right reasons."


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