Tom Stoppard & Lucien Freud

Written by Taki on . Posted in Miscellaneous, Posts.

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
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.

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.

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.

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.