Tom Stoppard & Lucien Freud


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I want to tell you about two men, both English, although both foreign-born. One is known as England's greatest living playwright, even if in my opinion he is the world's greatest living playwright, Sir Tom Stoppard. The other is always referred to as Britain's greatest living painter, Lucien Freud. One is a wonderful man, full of humanity and humor, and his plays reflect his intelligence, his wit and his grace. The other is a particularly vile-looking creature, a rude, bad, mad and dangerous-to-know almost-an-octogenarian whose art echoes his soul in its violence and aggression. Both men are Jewish.


Let's start with Sir Tom. Born Tomas Straussler, a Czech Jew, he was displaced by the Germans by the time he was two, and then in Singapore by the Japanese when he was about five. Fleeing the Japanese with young Tom and his brother, his mother was forced by circumstance to leave her husband behind. Dr. Eugene Straussler later boarded a boat packed with refugees that went down with all hands when an enemy bomber caught up with it.


For young Tom, just surviving that kind of beginning is a victory of sorts, but to become and remain a civilized human being has to be a triumph of the will (no pun intended). Eventually Tom ended up in England, when his mother married an English major who brought up her kids to be English to the core?you know the kind of thing, cricket, tea and the standard English emotional detachment. Young Tom turned himself into a dandy and a cricket fanatic, wearing frilly shirts and velvet suits, English accoutrements of both the Victorian period and the Swinging 60s. More important, his inner Czech popped out with that elegant melancholy of Mittel Europa, turning out plays that reeked of intelligence and wit, poetry, scholarship and love. From Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead through Jumpers, Travesties, The Real Thing, Indian Ink and the magnificent Arcadia and The Invention of Love to his superb screenplays and now to his vast Russian trilogy, Stoppard never fails to dazzle with his intelligence and learned elegance.


Stoppard writes with a devoted attention to actors. No prima donna, he must be the only person in the cutthroat theatrical world that no one has a bitchy thing to say against. A word to the wise: Tom was bullied at school, not by other schoolboys, but by some frightening teachers. His strange accent obviously did not endear him to lower-middle-class (in the English sense) men who still believed that wogs begin at Calais. He left school without a degree and never went to university. Some amateur psychiatrists insist that Stoppard's fascination with academics in his plays comes from the fact he never attended college. I say rubbish. Had he attended university, it would have most likely put him off. Brilliant epigrammatists like Stoppard and Oscar Wilde before him are born, not taught, but also work very, very hard at it. Making one's audience feel clever, as Stoppard does, requires burning the midnight oil.


Now here's where I come in. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the column I write for the London Spectator, known as the oldest and by far the most elegant publication in the English-speaking world. At one time during the first years a letter arrived written by Tom pointing out the fact that I had misquoted Papa Hemingway. The letter ended with, "Can't this man bother to look things up?" The magazine led off with it, making me feel rather small. English newspapers and magazines do not have factcheckers?thank God?so people like me who cannot be bothered with research are not continually embarrassed (I am also computer illiterate, so I can't use the Internet).


Ten to 15 years later I was walking with a lovely young girl next to a London park following a party. It was a brilliant June evening and it was starting to get dark. We were looking for a taxi, but there were none to be had. Then a car stopped, a man stuck his head out the window and asked if we needed a ride. I recognized Sir Tom Stoppard (as he had by then become) immediately, but because of the letter I hesitated. "Are you Taki?" asked the great man. "Come on, hop in, I'll take you wherever you want to go. You'll never find a taxi in these parts."


My friend Kate looked a tiny bit suspicious?the Stoppard car was nothing to write home about?until I told her not to worry: "We are not about to be mugged by Sir Tom Stoppard." She turned a bright red, which made him start laughing. He then proceeded to apologize to me for the letter he had written. "God knows how many mistakes I make all the time..." When he deposited us at Harry's Bar I asked him to join us for dinner but he declined. "I have to go home and baby-sit for a friend." He is probably the only multimillionaire playwright who baby-sits for friends who can't afford it. He also discovered that he was fully Jewish fairly recently, his mother having kept it from him because of his stepfather's ferocious xenophobia and probable anti-Semitism.


I've seen Tom quite a few times since then, and one day he dropped in on me in my Manhattan house to meet the wife. The Schoenburg-Hartensteins used to own most of Bohemia, where Tom originates from. Some time ago I wrote to him asking him if he could help my daughter, who was trying to get a job in the London theater world. "She is stage-struck, not fame-struck," I assured him. In no time he had her working at the National Theatre, where they worked her quite hard and she was very happy for three years.


Now for the bad news. Lucian Freud I have met twice in my life. Once when I threw him out of a men's room where he was peeking at people taking drugs?it was at a private ball in London?and once at the old Mortimer's, when John Richardson introduced us and Freud was rude. (I should have hit him, but one doesn't hit old men.) Although Freud's private life is his business, suffice it to say he has ruined a life or two or three along the way. His current girlfriend is 27, and he pinched her from a friend of mine who had a minor stroke as a result. It didn't help that Freud had taken my friend's wife from him some 20 years before, although he sent her back once he had used her as a model too.


For his upcoming 80th birthday the Tate has given him a retrospective that is packing them in like no other. That is because the modern hucksters who run the art world have declared Freud a genius. He is nothing of the kind. He's a very minor painter who has never evolved from all the flaws of drawing and construction, using tricks, quirks and mannerisms to hide his lack of talent. Critics describe him as relentless; I see him as relentless in the drabness, the ugliness and the sameness of his paintings. If he's unique it's in the horrid images of the human body that he has created the last 60 years.


Freud was born in Berlin in 1922, the grandson of that other fraud, Sigmund, and came to England in 1933. He has to be among the worst draftsmen who have managed to sell their art in the millions, disguising his artistic flaws by pouring the paint on ugly and contorted female nudes and even uglier male pachyderms.


Two men, both Jewish-born in Central Europe and brought up in England. One a force of joy and good, the other almost a Lucifer figure, as grotesque in his private life as in his paintings. Go figure.


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