Saturday, April 20, 2024

Q&A with David Winner




David Winner is the author of the new book Master Lovers. His other books include the novel Enemy Combatant. He is the fiction editor of The American.


Q: What inspired you to write Master Lovers, and how was the book’s title chosen?


A: My great aunt, Dorle Jarmel Soria (1900-2002), a publicist close with Maria Callas and Leonard Bernstein, lived an adventurous and complicated life spanning the 20th century but never had any interest in writing memoirs. 


I had thought about taking that on, and after her death, when I discovered five sets of love letters to her from a motley group of fascinating men in the 1930s hidden in her apartment, it became a necessity.


The title is a conceit. Along with the letters, I also discovered a manuscript that she had written in 1916 when she was 16 that was eventually published in something called Romance Magazine named “Master Lovers of the World.”


In it, she tells heightened, sentimentalized, melodramatic versions of the lives of famous men like Henry VIII who was “no monster but a powerful generous man with gold hair and beard, penetrating blue eyes and a ruddy face.” The title refers to all of Dorle’s lovers, both real and fictional.


Q: How much did you know of your great-aunt’s life story when you were younger, and how would you describe your relationship with her?


A: I only knew basic details about Dorle when I was a child. But after I moved back to New York in the early 1990s (when she was in her 90s), we began to have dinner together on Friday nights. Gin and tonics, Benson & Hedges, then we’d walk across 55th Street in Manhattan to one of her restaurants.


In that period, I began to learn more about her. Her family name had been Jarmel. When Angela, my then girlfriend now wife, ran across a bank building in Chinatown with the emblem S. Jarmulowsky, we intuited a connection.


We learned that Sender Jarmulowsky had brought nearly half of the people on the Jewish Lower East Side from Europe by securing passages on ships, but that the bank that he had opened for the same community had gone belly up under dubious circumstances.


When we asked Dorle, we learned that Sender had been her grandfather (my great-grandfather). Dorle explained to Angela and me that angry bank depositors had rioted in front of her building, and her family had escaped to the roof via the fire escape.


On another evening, she told me that her husband, our beloved Uncle Dario, had not always been faithful, about which she was forgiving. But it wasn’t until her death that I discovered the love letters.


I loved her dearly. She loved me back, I know, but I was a bit of an anathema to her. I had nothing glamorous or romantic to share with her on our evenings together, fixated as I was on getting a full-time teaching gig to make a living.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book called it “a fascinating blend of the personal and the historical, and a provocative comment on the ways in which both resist interpretive finality.” What do you think of that description?


A: I like that description. I can’t help but juxtapose my memories of Dorle with historical details that I later learned.


What the comment refers to, I think, is John Franklin Carter, a lover of Dorle’s who was accused by The New York Times in 1932 of being deputized by Herman Goering to run a “Hitlerist” party against Roosevelt. I researched his life as best I could in search of an explanation.


His archive at the University of Wyoming includes his wife’s description in her diary of going to see Hitler speak in Munich (“quite a good show”) but doesn’t really address the “Hitlerist” party question.


I filed a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request and learned from Carter’s lengthy FBI file that J. Edgar Hoover couldn’t stand him: “We know Carter well and most unfavorably. He is a crackpot, but a persistent busybody bitten with the Sherlock Holmes bug and plagued with a super exaggerated ego.” But the file also doesn’t really touch on his relationship with Germany.


Finally, I found a letter from Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, reluctantly walking back the claim that he was running a Hitlerist party.


But in one of his letters to Dorle, Carter mentions meeting up with a man named George Viereck whom Rachel Maddow in her 2022 podcast, Ultra, called the “top of banana” of Nazis in America in the 1930s.


Carter’s real relationship with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy remains elusive. We like to think history provides answers, but sometimes it just leaves us with more questions.


Q: What do you see as your aunt's legacy?


A: Dorle’s Times obit and her Wikipedia page describe a professional woman in an era in which that was still unusual, her role in 20th-century classical music.


A second more complicated legacy is particularly relevant today, I think, as we await the possibility of a second Trump administration. Jewish and not particularly political, Dorle was nonetheless connected with fascism, albeit indirectly, as fascism was much in the air at that time as it is again now. She was a woman of her time, both trailblazing and morally complex.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My grandfather’s second wife, Giselle, fled Poland when the Nazis killed her father and brother and made her way to Rome where she supported herself during the war in any way that she could including possibly sex work.


Illegally in Italy, she was exiled (“in confino”) to a tiny town in Abruzzo. Later, she married an Albanian (King Zog-related) pseudo-prince and called herself “principessa” in Italian society.


I want to explore her story in some sort of biography/novel, but I may have little more than my imagination to guide me — though I would certainly do my due diligence with actual research: Go to archives in Poland and Italy. I remember Giselle fondly. She was like a bonus third grandmother.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Dorle was also a tremendous Orientalist, a term which I use in the Edward Said sense to mean someone who sentimentalized the Middle East. A lover of the Arabian Nights as a child, she traveled in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco.


Bill Barker, another of her lovers, was a British police officer in charge of a large swathe of Mandate Palestine, which included Haifa. Desperate to convince her to ditch her life in New York and move in with him, he told her to “forget skyscrapers, ice water, drinks, gold teeth, stockmakers New York, half chewed cigars and statues of liberty” and “think of camel bells, cyclamen, and the last lions.”


But what he wrote her after their affair was over when he was leaving the Middle East is sadly relevant today: “Here I am in a land where innocent people, Jews and Arabs, women and children are blown to pieces by bombs, lives of people whose only crime is race destroyed by assassins who only know them to be of the race they hate.” 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment