Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America by Stefan Kanfer (Knopf, 325 pages, $26.95). Lucy and Groucho probably can't be beat for selling Stefan Kanfer's books -- notably his Lucille Ball biography "Ball of Fire" and his Groucho Marx biography "Groucho: The Life and Times of Julius Henry Marx." But here, one might argue, is a Kanfer subject of considerably less kilowattage and bookstore table presence but far greater value: the Yiddish Theater of Manhattan, a great subject in desperate need of the right author.
I would say that in Kanfer -- a former Time magazine entertainment writer -- that writer has been found.
America's Yiddish theater spreads out in many directions. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas -- whose theatricality and understanding of drama is a given -- is a scion of the Thomashefsky family, whose grandfather was Boris Thomashefsky, the great impresario and star of Yiddish Theater (its Welles or Olivier, if you will).
Marlon Brando -- the most influential American actor of the 20th century -- was a huge admirer of Paul Muni (Muni Weisenfreud), the screen legend who began in Yiddish theater. Far more importantly, Brando's crucial teacher was Stella Adler, daughter of the Yiddish theater's great actor Jacob Adler and herself a veteran of "more than one hundred Yiddish productions." "Wherever she went, onstage or off," Kanfer writes, "he followed, socially, aesthetically, politically."
Figures in the Yiddish theater not only went into movies but were all over early television, most notably Molly Picon, Menashe Skulnick, Herschel Bernardi and Luther Adler.
And yet, as a subject, the culture of Second Avenue may never have been written about before with Kanfer's mix of scholarship and indefatigably entertaining anecdote.
He'll be in Buffalo discussing his book as part of WBFO's "Meet the Author" series at 7 p.m. on Nov. 13 in Daemen College's MusicalFare Theater.
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. 1, Introduction by Philip Gourevitch (Picador, 510 pages, $16 paperback original). The first issue of George Plimpton's Paris Review in 1953 contained an interview with E. M. Forster. Not only have all issues since had interviews but, from the beginning, collections of them have long been known as the finest series of interviews with anyone published in America -- not just irresistible to anyone interested in literature but anyone who responds at all to the Art of the Interview. That's because from the beginning, they have been far from journalistically kosher -- i.e., the subjects themselves have edited and re-edited the manuscripts to make sure what was printed were fair copies of themselves.
In truth, nothing is going to replace the previous chronologically published collections of them. But, under new editor Philip Gourevitch, there's a new game plan -- publish collections of them from all eras, Paris Review Interview Greatest Hit packages, if you will. And this first one is a dandy, beginning with a 1956 interview with Dorothy Parker and ending a half-century later with the magazine's second (and lesser) interview with Joan Didion.
As the magazine's idea of subjects loosened sufficiently to include the fabled Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb and the legendary film writer/director Billy Wilder, so did the magazine's editing standards decline. In its earlier years, it would never have permitted Billy Wilder's octogenarian memory of that final classic line in "Some Like It Hot" as delivered by "Joe B. Brown" (it was delivered by the great and gifted comic Joe E. Brown). Nor would it have permitted Wilder to misidentify Robert Riskin (in fact, in an earlier interview with James M. Cain conducted just weeks before Cain's death, Riskin is identified properly.)
No matter. So many of these are classics of their kind -- the interviews with Rebecca West, Jorge Luis Borges, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut. As the saying goes, they're full of pith and vinegar -- funny, profound and poetic and fundamentally unlike any attempted replication elsewhere.
-- Jeff Simon