Gotham Diary:
Third Life
10 December 2013

Can I tell you about this dream I had? No? Not even if Frederica von Stade, the beautiful mezzo-soprano, was in it? She sat down next to me at a large party, something between a wedding reception and a barbecue, and, without saying anything, communicated to me the complete collapse of her interest in me as a human being. Never having made enough of a commitment to feel disappointed in me, she was merely irritated at my having imposed upon her attention. This done, she stood up and walked away, as nonchalant as an espionage agent quitting a park-bench interview.

I blame Facebook. For some reason, Ms von Stade’s picture has been showing up alongside Tom Meglioranza’s, as a “musical interest” of mine, or somesuch, on my page. Mr Meglioranza I do know. As for Ms von Stade, I sat in on an interview with her once, at the radio station, when she was singing Octavian in the Houston Grand Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier. This was in the early-mid Seventies — ’74 or ’75  (I can’t find a list on the Internet) — the darkest years of my Houston sojourn. Who knows? Maybe she contributed to my determination to get my act together and go to law school. She was lovely! She was smart! She was just like the girls I’d known from King Street. She was a reminder that I was in the wrong place, in so many ways. As things were, I didn’t stand a chance with the likes of Frederica von Stade.

My colleague at the radio station couldn’t have been pleased that I was hanging around in the cramped studio while he tried to establish a rapport with the singer. I don’t know how I came to be in the room. Perhaps I greeted her when she arrived, by happenstance, took her where she needed to be, made pleasant chit-chat, and then wouldn’t leave. In any case, shortly afterward, I did study hard. I got into law school and actually passed the Bar exam! If I did not make a success as an attorney, I did marry someone who did, and she happens to be an alumna of 91st Street.

It is all right, then, for Frederica von Stade to walk away from me in my dreams. Now, if I can just remove her from my Facebook page…


It is a day for dreaming. Snow is falling outside, and I’m not going anywhere. I’m engrossed in a new book, on a subject with which I am no more than passingly familiar. Capital Culture: J Carter Brown, the National Gallery of Art, and the Reinvention of the Museum Experience, by Neil Harris, tells an important story; I only wish that he told it a bit better. He writes well enough, but that’s just it: the story deserves brilliance, and Harris is too dutiful to dare to be brilliant. He has undoubtedly written the correct book, and I am going to learn a great deal from it. I have already recommended it. But, just as he writes of the National Gallery, that it is in the Smithsonian Institution but not of it, so Harris is of the crowd that he’s discussing, not above it.

It’s an interesting crowd, to be sure, about as interesting a crowd as the American patriciate could produce. But the interest is somewhat smothered by the typically American horror of flamboyance. None of Harris’s characters (so far) is extraordinary, except to the extent that anyone who does well at Groton or St Paul’s and Harvard or Yale is extraordinary with respect to the American in the street. The air is purer up there, and it used to be even purer still. Virtue and merit flourish there as nowhere else — which is not to suggest that everyone who breathes in that atmosphere displays either. But those who do can accomplish more with their talents than other people can, because they’re better-connected. They’re better-connected to everything worth being connected to, from important people to opportunities for travel to highly privileged access to the truly fine things in life. It’s a pity that their outward manner is so deliberately dull.

And when one of them manages not to be dull, as, say, Thomas Hoving did, relieved gratitude is not always one’s lasting response. Carter Brown was not as “charismatic” as his counterpart at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and rival for, well, buzz, and I’m hoping that Harris’s finished portrait will show him to have been neither dull nor unbearable — we shall see.

All the men in this crowd (and their wives) had to cope with Washington, DC, arguably the most beautiful city in the United States but also (aside from New Orleans) certainly the strangest. It is a world capital that behaves quite as if it were the only capital, making it about as provincial as one of those thriving merchant towns in Galicia during the Hapsburg sunset. There is simply no other explanation for Mamie Eisenhower, who in my view was the rule to which Jacqueline Kennedy was a striking exception. At the same time, it denies that it is a capital at all: the Capitol is nothing less than the meeting-house of representatives of the sovereign States, whose various capitals — dreadful backwaters, most of them — are the actual constitutional wellsprings of power. (They may not be able to tell the President what to do, but they can certainly deny him the money to do it with.) Of all the cities in the world — since it’s snowing, I’ll throw in Moscow — Washington probably has the highest per-capita population of people one was glad to see the last of in high school. On bad days, it seems to be a sort of Third Life, the real-world version of a computer game.

There is simply no other explanation for the very strange story that appeared below the fold on the front page of this morning’s Times. “Spies Infiltrate a Fantasy Realm of Online Games,” by Mark Mazzetti and Justin Elliott, never gets round to drawing the only possible conclusion, which is that a consortium of knuckleheads and opportunists has convinced itself that money, and plenty of it, needs to be spent to make sure that World of Warcraft and Second Life are not chat rooms for terrorists. The reporters go no further than to quote a gamer:

“If they ever read these forums,” wrote a goblin priest with the user name “Diaya,” “they would realize they were wasting” their time.

I’ve got a strong hunch that no sphere of human activity is more likely to produce unpaid whistleblowers than the world of online games. Third Life is paid for, of course, by tax dollars. On bad days, I sympathize with Grover Norquist. But I always sympathize with Edward Snowden, to whose indiscretion we owe news of this activity.

Even before television, Washington life required an outer blandness characterized by dark-suited men attending committee meetings. Reading about it can be depressing, and I’m doing so now only because I do believe that Andrew Mellon’s dream of creating an American counterpart of Britain’s National Gallery was substantially realized by the institution whose fairy godfather he was. If the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a galaxy of different worlds, bringing together good, and sometimes great, things from everywhere, the National Gallery of Art is a diamond necklace put together by Harry Winston. How this necklace has been worn, and how it is worn today, is a matter of no small interest to anyone interested in the display of fine art in a museum.

Then there’s the bonus: S Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and thereby in some queer way an overseer of the National Gallery. I’m perfectly willing to set aside my passion for crazy characters for the sake of a good yarn about a turf battle.