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Rinse it in dead champagne

Colm Tóibín: The women who invented beauty, 5 February 2004

War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden: Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry 
by Lindy Woodhead.
Virago, 498 pp., £20, April 2003, 1 86049 974 0
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Diana Vreeland 
by Eleanor Dwight.
HarperCollins, 308 pp., £30, December 2002, 0 688 16738 1
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... The women who invented beauty came from far away. They lied about their ages and their origins and the source of their magic; their secrets were known only to certain chemists and secretaries and the maids and butlers who lived in fear of them, who survived long enough to tell and tell again the shocking truth, for example, that Elizabeth Arden, one of the world’s richest women, lined the inside of her shoes with newspaper, or that Helena Rubinstein’s lawyer chose ‘the budget option’ at the funeral parlour after her death until wiser counsel prevailed, or that Diana Vreeland’s hair was so hard that once, when her maid bumped into it with a tray, ‘it clinked ...

The Art of Being Found Out

Colm Tóibín: The need to be revealed, 20 March 2008

... On 23 January 1894, Henry James entered in his notebook two stories told to him by Lady Gregory, whom he had met first in Rome 15 years earlier. She had given one of them to him, he wrote, as a plot, and ‘saw more in it than, I confess, I do myself’. ‘At any rate,’ he went on, ‘Lady G.’s story was that of an Irish squire who discovered his wife in an intrigue ...

On Not Being Sylvia Plath

Colm Tóibín: Thom Gunn on the Move, 13 September 2018

Selected Poems 
by Thom Gunn.
Faber, 336 pp., £16.99, July 2017, 978 0 571 32769 0
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... There were two​ anthologies of modern poetry in our house when I was a teenager and they both offered glimpses of the world outside that were more intense, more useful, than anything on television or on albums or in ordinary books. One was The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse, edited by Kenneth Allott. It had been published first in 1950, with a second edition in 1962 ...

A Man of No Mind

Colm Tóibín: The Passion of Roger Casement, 13 September 2012

The Dream of the Celt 
by Mario Vargas Llosa and Edith Grossman.
Faber, 404 pp., £18.99, June 2012, 978 0 571 27571 7
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... In his book King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild describes the stretch of the Congo River as it approaches the sea: Much of the Congo River basin, we now know, lies on a plateau in the African interior. From the western rim of this plateau, nearly a thousand feet high, the river descends to sea level in a mere 220 miles. During this tumultuous descent, the river squeezes through narrow canyons, boils up in waves 40 feet high, and tumbles over 32 separate cataracts ...

More a Voyeur

Colm Tóibín: Elton Took Me Hostage, 19 December 2019

Me 
by Elton John.
Macmillan, 376 pp., £25, October 2019, 978 1 5098 5331 1
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... Elton​ John was born Reg Dwight in 1947 in the north-west London suburb of Pinner. His mother was a nightmare, his father a bully. He was a boy who did not start thinking about sex until he was 21. While he shared an interest in football with his father – they both supported Watford – his father didn’t approve of his taste in music. From early on, Reg loved shopping and acquiring things ...

Gaelic Gloom

Colm Tóibín: Brian Moore, 10 August 2000

Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist 
by Denis Sampson.
Marino, 344 pp., IR£20, October 1998, 1 86023 078 4
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... In the second chapter of Brian Moore’s first novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Miss Hearne gets to know her fellow boarders, especially the landlady’s brother, the returned Yank, Mr Madden. They discuss the difference between men and women in Ireland and America. ‘Guys beating their brains out to keep their wives in mink,’ Mr Madden complains ...

A Whale of a Time

Colm Tóibín, 2 October 1997

Roger Casement’s Diaries. 1910: The Black and the White 
edited by Roger Sawyer.
Pimlico, 288 pp., £10, October 1997, 9780712673754
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The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement 
edited by Angus Mitchell.
Anaconda, 534 pp., £40, October 1997, 9781901990010
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... Jessie Conrad remembered his visit: Sir Roger Casement, a fanatical Irish protestant, came to see us, remaining some two days our guest. He was a very handsome man with a thick, dark beard and piercing, restless eyes. His personality impressed me greatly. It was about the time when he was interested in bringing to light certain atrocities which were taking place in the Belgian Congo ...

Roaming the Greenwood

Colm Tóibín: A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition by Gregory Woods, 21 January 1999

A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition 
by Gregory Woods.
Yale, 448 pp., £24.95, February 1998, 0 300 07201 5
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... In his essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Borges wrote that the Argentine writer, and the South American writer, by virtue of being distant and close at the same time, had more ‘rights’ to Western culture than anyone in any Western nation. He went on to explore the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish artist to Western culture and of the Irish writer to English literature ...

Places Never Explained

Colm Tóibín: Anthony Hecht, 8 August 2013

The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht 
edited by Jonathan Post.
Johns Hopkins, 365 pp., £18, November 2012, 978 1 4214 0730 2
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... In January 1945, as she was preparing her collection North & South for publication, Elizabeth Bishop wrote to her publishers to say she was worried that she had written nothing about the war: The fact that none of these poems deal directly with the war, at a time when so much war poetry is being published, will, I am afraid, leave me open to reproach ...

Notes from the Land of the Dead

Colm Tóibín: Art and Politics in Catalonia, 20 March 2014

A Personal Memoir: Fragments for an Autobiography 
by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer.
Indiana, 429 pp., £26.99, February 2010, 978 0 253 35489 1
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Complete Writings Volume II: Collected Essays 
by Antoni Tàpies, translated by Josep Miquel Sobrer.
Indiana, 744 pp., £26.99, November 2011, 978 0 253 35503 4
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... Antoni Tàpies​ ’s monument to Picasso was commissioned by Barcelona City Council. It sits on the edge of Parc de la Ciutadella on the busy, dusty downtown street named for Picasso. It has a more mysterious and shadowy presence than any other piece of modern public sculpture in Barcelona, such as Chillida’s stark, severe piece of cast-iron in Plaça del Rei, or Lichtenstein’s colourful, brash, cartoon-like sculpture close to the waterfront, or Subirachs’s literal-minded and awkward-looking monument to President Macià in Plaça de Catalunya, or Botero’s silly cat on Rambla del Raval, or some of the other more playful adornments on the beach in Barceloneta, Frank Gehry’s fish among them ...

A Man with My Trouble

Colm Tóibín: Henry James leaves home, 3 January 2008

The Complete Letters of Henry James, 1855-72: Volume I 
edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias.
Nebraska, 391 pp., £57, January 2007, 978 0 8032 2584 8
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The Complete Letters of Henry James, 1855-72: Volume II 
edited by Pierre Walker and Greg Zacharias.
Nebraska, 524 pp., £60, January 2007, 978 0 8032 2607 4
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... After the death of Henry James’s father in 1882, his sister-in-law Catharine Walsh, better known as Aunt Kate, burned a large quantity of the family papers, including many letters between Henry James senior and his wife. Henry James himself in later life made a number of bonfires in which he destroyed a great quantity of the letters he had received ...

Who to Be

Colm Tóibín: Beckett’s Letters, 6 August 2009

The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-40 
edited by Martha Dow Fehsenfeld and Lois More Overbeck.
Cambridge, 782 pp., £30, February 2009, 978 0 521 86793 1
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... In his essay on the painter Jack Yeats, which he sent to Beckett in 1938, Thomas McGreevy wrote: ‘During the 20-odd years preceding 1916, Jack Yeats filled a need that had become immediate in Ireland for the first time in 300 years, the need of the people to feel that their own life was being expressed in art.’* Beckett was in Paris when he read the essay ...

My God, the Suburbs!

Colm Tóibín: John Cheever, 5 November 2009

Cheever: A Life 
by Blake Bailey.
Picador, 770 pp., £25, November 2009, 978 0 330 43790 5
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... One of John Cheever’s most famous stories is called ‘The Swimmer’. It is set, like much of his fiction, in the lawned suburbs somewhere outside New York City, and it is filled, like most of his fiction, with despair. The hero, Neddy Merrill, the father of four daughters, is sitting by a neighbour’s pool drinking gin when the idea comes to him that he might reach home by doing a lap of all of his neighbours’ pools on the way ...

Among the Flutterers

Colm Tóibín: The Pope Wears Prada, 19 August 2010

The Pope Is Not Gay 
by Angelo Quattrocchi, translated by Romy Clark Giuliani.
Verso, 181 pp., £8.90, June 2010, 978 1 84467 474 9
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... In 1993 John McGahern wrote an essay called ‘The Church and Its Spire’, in which he considered his own relationship to the Catholic Church. He made no mention of the fact that he had, in the mid-1960s, been fired from his job as a teacher on the instructions of the Catholic archbishop of Dublin because he had written a novel banned by the Irish Censorship Board (The Dark), and because he had been married in a register office ...

The Importance of Aunts

Colm Tóibín, 17 March 2011

... In November 1894 Henry James set down in his notebooks an outline for the novel that, eight years later, became The Wings of the Dove. He wrote about a heroine who was dying but in love with life. ‘She is equally pathetic in her doom and in her horror of it. If she only could live just a little; just a little more – just a little longer.’ James also had in mind a young man who ‘wishes he could make her taste of happiness, give her something that it breaks her heart to go without having known ...

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