Scoundrel Time

Ned Rorem (1923-2022)

“Do not go, Gentile, into that good night,” I murmured, reading of Ned Rorem’s recent death.

It’s hard to imagine what a shock, in 1966, when religion, ethnicity, and sexual orientation were still taboo, the self-proclaimed Quaker-WASP-gay composer’s Paris Diary must have made in the literary world. Complacent descriptions of cruising were juxtaposed with guilt-free luxuriating in snobbish circles of the French aristocratic and literary elite, all filtered through a funny, deadpan narcissism:

“But how will I recognize you?”

“I’m beautiful.”

The book was a surprise hit, a highbrow best-seller. I remember my mother reading it in our suburban kitchen while preparing the family breakfast. What did she make, I wonder now, of his ambiguous relationship with the fantastically wealthy Marie-Laure, Vicomtesse de Noailles, of encounters with Picasso and Cocteau, of pronouncements on the kind of “modern music” none of us in New Jersey were ever likely to hear, much less understand? A cover photo showed Rorem in his square-jawed, movie-star-looks prime, as iconic in its way as that of the all-too-pubescent Capote stretched out on a couch. Except this youngster was clearly elsewhere, self-absorbed, not inviting, reporting from a Europe that might as well have been the moon.

But the book of Rorem’s that means most to me came later. His Nantucket Diary, covering the years 1973-1985, is a work of middle age. It is thicker than the previous volumes, although its author has avoided a similar fate by rigid self-control. His battle with alcohol is over, as are self-destructive infatuations and visits to the all-night baths. He has found a life partner in James Holmes, the “JH” of the diaries. The entries are domestic and professional, those of a working composer who, when not making dinner, is fulfilling commissions, traveling to accompany singers, going to concerts and parties. He reads and comments on books, plays, movies, responds to political events of the day. He is strangely civic. He has a duty to perform, that of the functioning artist. His opinion matters because he is a citizen. The golden boy has grown up, while retaining much of his naughtiness and instinctive hauteur. Perversely, he buys a summer house on the above-mentioned island and confronts the hidebound establishment he seems to have become an unwilling part of. Its reactionary customs and bland socializing enrage him, yet in a strange way seem outgrowths of the very principles that have come to form his ruling aesthetic: an emphasis on craft over inspiration, a stubborn assertion of privilege in composing tonal, “pretty” music rather than the trendy, ascendant, “difficult” productions of Serialism, a preference for convention, not Bohemianism. But the unashamed self-absorption remains. And the humor:

A tenor, organizing a program around gay themes by gay composers, wonders if I will contribute. Certainly not, I’m a composer, not a gay composer. Sexuality may relate to an artist’s becoming an artist, but not to his becoming a good artist… Anyone can be gay—it’s no accomplishment—but only I can be me. (A concert of straight composers might be a novelty.)


Famous or then-famous people still cluster thick on the page. The range is impressive. Judy Collins, John Ashbery, Susan Sontag, Angela Lansbury… But whereas in the previous volumes this habit often resembled name-dropping, one now accepts it as part of his process, what he needs both for stimulation (he is in love with idea of celebrity, wants to be one himself) while also providing a constant irritant to react against (few of these people understand just what exactly it is he does). Sex and alcohol have been replaced by sugary desserts. Everything now is in the service of a fanatic determination.

At the end of each year I’ve somehow produced around an hour of music, and that hour is not a few sheets of penciled whole notes but hundreds of pages of inked orchestration.


Why does this quotidian, at times dated, record of a man with whom I have almost nothing in common, much of whose music I fail to understand, move me so? Perhaps it is the combination of bleakness and fulfillment such a life of devotion offers. People find him cold, removed. Yet he contributes to society. He suffers in private, but the suffering does not enter into his music. Rather, the music relieves, or at least enables him to withstand, adversity, just as he hopes the listener will be strengthened, heartened, in the face of any analogous despair. It is so far removed from the common practice of transforming yesterday’s trauma into today’s plea for understanding, from the demand that the reader validate the writer’s feelings.

The entries can be frivolous, at times juvenile. As Rorem himself points out, he is not primarily a writer (despite having published thirteen books). Perhaps that is another aspect of his charm. He does not lean too hard on what he is saying. His focus is elsewhere. Music is everything to him. His voice has the feel of a special talent amusing itself in spare moments, wondering what it will say next. He acknowledges his flaws but, refreshingly, does not feel any great urgency to address them. There is a telling vignette in one of the later diaries (aptly titled Lies). He is old now, widowed, walking up Columbus Avenue on the way to hear a performance of his opera Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters. A bleary-eyed man on a bench, bottle in hand, spots him, and calls out:

“You’re a debonair piece of shit.”

Ned waves back and yells, “Right on!”

There are so many ways to live a life. It is interesting to encounter a journey radically different from one’s own and yet to discover, within that story, unexpected affinities. How one’s time on this earth is literally spent in the pursuit of a crazy goal, until that very act of emptying-out becomes an end in itself. Then there is the music. Recently, I discovered his Piano Album 1 and Six Friends. The quiet, meditative, achingly brief pieces haunt me. Perhaps it is not yet time to say goodbye.


Thomas Rayfiel is the author of eight novels, including In Pinelight and Genius.


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