Oscar Night: 75 Years of Parties From the Editors of Vanity Fair by Graydon Carter and David Friend (Knopf, 385 pages, $75); American Writers at Home by J. D. McClatchy, photographs by Erica Lennard (Library of America, 224 pages, $50). Here, in some very early returns from gift book season, are two of the damndest exercises in vicarious coffee table gawking you're likely to encounter in a while. The subliminal message seems to be: "It's your pathetic lot to be pressed against the glass of American fame and genius and looking in." One level beneath that, the photographic message may be "here is probably the highest level of boredom and banality we can treasure at the moment."
Which is to say that, strictly as photo books, these incredibly lavish productions have more than a whiff of vicarious pathos about them. We're never going to write "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and pictures of the opulence of Sam Clemens' carefully preserved crockery and Eugene O'Neill's coin-operated player piano tell you virtually nothing about the men who actually did. It's just Lifestyles of the Rich and Literary. We're unlikely to attend an Oscar party in our lifetimes either, and you may be astonished at how little you want to after seeing 400 pages of Hollywood folks celebrating the glam life over seven decades.
Which is to not to say that these books don't have wonderful things and a kind of self-defeating fascination. You've got to love a coffee table ode to glamour that shows you, on Page 265 of "Oscar Night," screenwriter Eric Roth picking his teeth at the "Forrest Gump" table and, on page 322, a rear view photograph of Jewel and boyfriend, rodeo star Ty Murray, clutching each other's butts for reassurance while paparazzi in front of them snap away like locusts. And the captions are full of eye-openers -- that, for instance, after winning for "American Beauty", Kevin Spacey supposedly ended the evening by being served breakfast of "scrambled eggs, croissants and crepes by briefs-wearing muscle studs covered in gold paint."
"American Writers at Home" takes you to the preserved digs of Edith Wharton, Robert Frost, Ernest Hemingway, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor. You won't see the cheap hotel front desk where Nathanael West wrote or Jack London's favorite flophouse but, hey. What is very much worth it in "Writers at Home" is the fascinating prose by poet J.D. McClatchy. It's hard not to love a book that tells you poet Robinson Jeffers was once dismissed from a homicide jury because his handsome face was too "cruel-looking."