The Luncheon Society/ MBD2K Series/ Christina Haag, Jillian Lauren, Anne-Marie O’Connor/LA-Stefan’s Farm House/April 23, 2012

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The Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know Series returned for its third outing, once again in Los Angeles. Thus far there have been two gatherings in LA and a third in Manhattan, and there will be more to come.  These gatherings are a wonderful opportunity to highlight writers who should have their books on every nightstand.

There were three great writers. Christina Haag and Jillian Lauren  joined us in Manhattan at the end of 2011 and we were pleased to have them discuss their books in Los Angeles. Anne-Marie O’Connor joined us for the first of many gatherings. We hope to have them in other TLS cities soon.

Any book surrounding the Kennedy family is a literary minefield, but Christina Haag  gets it right in her graceful memoir, Come to the Edge, her longtime friendship and relationship with John Kennedy Jr.  

Long before he married Carolyn Bessette or dated tall blonde actresses and platinum blonde pop stars, John and Christina were friends who grew up together in prep school and found themselves working together in an off-Broadway play long after studying together at Brown. 


 

Christina’s memoir book portrays this John Kennedy as a young man who overcame the white-hot glare found in his first and last name. Both entered the relationship as “works in progress” and unlike some white-hot celebrity relationships, it was preceded by a deep friendship that formed and blossomed naturally, away from the intrusive cameras of others.

Kennedy, who grew up in the pages of Life and People Magazine, was cemented in our consciousness when he saluted his father’s caisson as the cortege moved from the Capitol to Arlington.  After that, there was the occasional still photo, the direct result of his mother’s efforts to keep the paparazzi away from both children.

Unlike his cousins, this Kennedy stayed clear of the police blotter and never attracted any scandal to his name. Even when he failed successive bar exams, most quickly forgave someone who added luster to his family name; whatever the temporary embarrassment that found itself on the cover of The New York Post only added to his humanity.

Most romances have a beginning, a midpoint, but sadly a conclusion too. However, a portrait emerges throughout of a young John Kennedy who balanced his personal wishes against his family’s expectations but also proved that one could rise above the pitfalls of mere celebrity with humility and charm. 

We know the tragic end, but in a world where tabloid biographies can be as crass as the ringing of a cash register, this memoir rises above the crowd. In the end, it speaks volumes about the subject as well as the author. Well done.

Sometimes you must wander through some terribly dark places to write great fiction.  Jillian Lauren’s first novel, Pretty , features a tale of self-destruction and redemption of Bebe Baker, perhaps a fictionalized version of Jillian herself as she struggles to find a clean equilibrium within her life. 

Bebe slowly inches her way forward in “a series of small and consistent daily decisions to behave in a more loving way toward myself.” After the tragic death of her boyfriend, she places herself in a halfway house in one more focused attempt to get clean.

It was her well-received memoir that launched a career as an in-demand writer. Twenty years ago, Jillian began an odyssey that took her from a dingy East Village apartment as an NYU dropout into the harem of Prince Jefri, the Sultan of Brunei’s younger brother.  In Some Girls, My Life in a Harem, Lauren wrote about her 18 month stint as one of the highest paid members in the world’s oldest profession.  Back in the early 1990’s Lauren was a headstrong 19 year old who graduated from high school at the age of 16 but dropped out of college soon after. 

After her father severed the financial lifeline, she answered an ad to be a “party guest” for a “wealthy businessman in Singapore,” but within a short period of time, the real truth revealed itself.  Soon after arriving, she found herself at the top of the Sultan’s harem of 40 girlfriends  He showered her with hundreds of thousands of dollars of gifts, including jewelry, clothing, and cash.  However, she found herself emotionally worn to a crisp by the Sultan’s endless mind games where the spigot of attention would be showered and then shut off.  Lauren tells her story bluntly, without pity and uses some of the money to hire a detective to find her birth mother.

From that experience and others, she built a successful career as a writer but not before going through a hellacious journey of serious drug addiction and rehabilitation. Perhaps writing has become a cathartic outlet for Lauren; getting the pain on the printed page allows a good author to poke and shape it into something better. After reading through a New York Times article  reflecting her current state in life, she knows she is a work in progress, cognizant of the steps she has taken but mindful there are still miles to go. Regardless of her path, the writing will be great.

The story behind one of Austria’s most famous masterworks has a history of tragedy and redemption that rivals what is found on the canvas. Anne-Marie O’Connor brings it alive in her book, The Lady in Gold: The extraordiniary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece,  the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. 

What The Mona Lisa is to the Louvre, Klimt’s painting are to Austria. Unlike the masterworks found in the Paris museum, this story begins with the pillars of Jewish society in Vienna, the looting of the Jewish families by the Nazis after the Anschluss, the cover-up by the post war Austrian government, and the final restitution of the paintings to their rightful owners.

Anne-Marie O’Connor has done a wonderful job recreating the world of Adele Bloch Bauer, a young Viennese socialite, a strong atheist and socialist, whose independent thinking pulled many famous Europeans into her orbit. The book centers on the family and friends of the Bloch-Bauer’s, patrons of the arts and titans of industry and commerce.  Her father ran one of the largest banks and served as the head of the Orient Express, the railway which stretched from Berlin to modern-day Istanbul. 

Anti-Semitism would wax and wane in Europe, but conventional wisdom held that Nazi hatred would blow over and life would return to normal.   However, it would not be the case. Soon after the Anschluss, the Nuremberg Laws  that subjugated German Jews to alien status and legalized anti-Semitism were expanded to the Austrians. After the Nazis began the forced deportations of Jews into Polish ghettos, the curtain fell on those who could not escape.

Like many wealthy families, the Nazis stole with abandon from Jewish families and confiscated their holdings.  Many who felt that their wealth and connections might protect their families discovered that their largesse had the opposite effect; they were the first to be targeted. In fact, Reinhardt Heydrich  moved his family into Belvedere, the palatial Bloch-Bauer estate.  

In the case of Klimt’s painting, the Nazis stole the identity too. They renamed the piece “The Lady in Gold,” thereby wiping away any memory of the religious affiliation of the model.  Reading her account is heartbreaking, because we know what comes next with the Holocaust.

However, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Bloch-Bauer Altman and her husband Fritz survived the worst of the Holocaust and built new lives in Los Angeles. They picked up the fight to return the painting to the family. Decades passed and Austrian authorities turned a deaf ear to their argument until in 1991 the reporting of Count Hubertus Czernin opened the door to understanding Austrian complicity during the Nazi years. He published the first stores on Kurt Waldheim’s past but soon expanded to other areas including looted art.

After a  protracted legal battle, not to mention internal strife between the family members, the Bloch-Bauer heirs got their painting back and it was sold for $135 Million dollars to Ronald Lauder.  It is now on view at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. Maria passed away at the age of 94 in 2011.

The Luncheon Society™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen.

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