David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes

In his old age, author Gore Vidal moved from his villa (La Rondinaia) in Italy back to the United States because his being in a wheelchair made it impossible for him to live in the Italian villa, situated as it was on a cliff. In his United States abode is a set of chairs, which he bought in Rome from a dealer who tried to convince him that the chairs were created for a maharaja. Mr. Gore told the dealer, “No, they’re not. They come from the set of the movie Ben-Hur. I wrote it.” Mr. Gore is one of the uncredited writers of the movie, and he claims to have been forced to write for the movies and popular culture because The New York Times had started to ignore him as a writer of books. He says, “If you didn’t appear in the daily New York Times, you were non-existent. Every other journal, including Time and Newsweek, followed its lead. And that is what drove me into television, Broadway, and the movies.” Mr. Gore found a way to get close to even with The New York Times. He wrote three mystery novels using the pseudonym Edgar Box. These mysteries, he says, “were glowingly reviewed in the Times.”

Occasionally, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., taught creative writing, and of course he critiqued the writing of other people. A Smith undergraduate asked him to critique a short story that she described as “a heartwarming account” of the death of her grandmother. Despite its frequent humor, Mr. Vonnegut’s work is often dark, and he thought that the short story was “too gushy” and therefore suggested, “Have you ever thought about making your grandmother insane?” Most likely, the Smith undergraduate was made uncomfortable by the suggestion, just as Mr. Vonnegut felt uncomfortable because of a comment that was made after he told someone that the name “Vonnegut” was German: “Germans killed six million of my cousins.” (Of course, during World War II Mr. Vonnegut fought on the side of the Allies.)

In a 2008 article titled “The Walking Wounded” in Great Britain’s Guardian newspaper, several critics described the worst reactions that their criticisms had provoked. For example, music critic Robin Denselow says that he was “attacked … from the stage” by singer-songwriter John Martyn although he didn’t recall having written anything especially bad about Mr. Martyn. And later, Mr. Denselow says, musician Kevin Coyle hit him “on behalf of John Martyn.” In contrast, other musicians are much kinder. Mr. Denselow once criticized what he calls “a decidedly substandard early show” by Pink Floyd. The musicians in the group were very kind to him. He says, “They wrote to me, agreeing that they had played badly that night, and thanking me for actually listening.”

Jessica Morgan and Heather Cocks write a blog called GoFugYourself in which they criticize celebrities who demonstrate poor fashion sense. In 2008 they came out with a book titled Go Fug Yourself Presents: The Fug Awards. Of course, their experiences are interesting, and they have learned from them. Ms. Morgan says, “I have learned that people who write hate mail tend to have considerably worse spelling and grammar than people who write non-hate mail.” So what is in the future for the celebrity-criticizing duo? Ms. Cocks says, “I would like to say the future looks like a closet full of Louboutin shoes and designer dresses, but I keep forgetting to buy lottery tickets, so I’m guessing that will never come to pass.”

The Peruvian contralto Marguerite D’Alvarez had the misfortune of slipping on some steps in Chicago while singing the role of Delilah. Even more unfortunate for Ms. D’Alvarez was the presence in the audience of Mary Garden — who exclaimed, “My God, she’s making her entrance into the Chicago Opera like Balaam into Jerusalem.” This remark quickly made the rounds of the opera critics, and quickly Ms. D’ALvarez decided to leave Chicago. (And even quicker Ms. D’Alvarez and Ms. Garden became enemies.)

Like many people in the arts, conductor Marin Alsop reads at least some of her reviews. Like many people in the arts, she tends not to remember the good reviews, but she definitely remembers the bad reviews. For example, she remembers her very first review, which she received after conducting a major concert in New York. The review stated, “We should think that this person is talented, but we don’t.” She says, “I stayed in bed for a couple of days after that.”

Theater critic Michael Billington once enjoyed a lunch with lots of alcoholic refreshments with a Polish critic, and then he left to review a performance of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. However, when he arrived at the theater he noticed that the theater was spinning. He also noticed that the number of sisters seemed to multiply—at one point, he counted 27 sisters! Mr. Billington says, “I fled, guilty and ashamed, and vowed never to drink on the job again.”

Richard Barthelemy, the voice coach and accompanist of Enrico Caruso, was aware that many opera patrons had little to no knowledge of opera. He was invited to lunch with one such high-society opera patron the day after a new Italian opera premiered. He asked her for her opinion of the opera, but she replied, “It’s impossible to give you an opinion—I haven’t yet read the reviews in the morning papers.”

In early 2008, Maxim magazine reviewed the album Warpaint by the Black Crowes, giving it a mediocre 2½ stars and saying that “it hasn’t left Chris Robinson and the gang much room for growth.” There was just one problem: The reviewer had not heard the album. Faced with a deadline, the reviewer had faked a review. Boo. Fortunately, Maxim was forced to apologize.

Roger Ebert was the first critic to review a movie by Martin Scorsese: his student film titled Who’s That Knocking on My Door? In his review, Mr. Ebert wrote, “In ten years, he’ll be the American Fellini.” Mr. Scorsese telephoned Mr. Ebert and asked him, “Geez, do you think it’s gonna take that long?”

Sylvia Miles does not suffer critics gladly. At a 1973 New York Film Festival party, she dumped a plate of spaghetti on caustic critic John Simon’s head.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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