Blaming his often disheveled appearance on the stress of his collapsing marriage, he began to attract notice for all the wrong reasons. M., often after a long lunch at i Ricchi, the Italian restaurant downstairs, he would be seen negotiating the corridors with a tumbler of whiskey in his hand.During a lunch for New York governor Mario Cuomo, Wieseltier, according to a participant, extravagantly gulped down his drink.“He is in the finest tradition of Washington characters, in the same category as Joe Alsop, Alice Longworth, Strom Thurmond—all of them people you’d put in a novel.”In literary terms, Wieseltier might be the Jewish, heterosexual answer to Oscar Wilde. In July 1941, after the Jewish men of Schodnica, her hometown, were slaughtered, she was compelled by the local Ukrainians, many of whom had worked for her family, to dig mass graves in a nearby forest and shovel dirt over her loved ones.
But has he abandoned the life of the mind to be the life of the party?His power flows from Marty Peretz, who lured him down from Harvard, having been dazzled by the young scholar over coffee on the Square.“He was fluent and learned in almost everything one talked about,” recalls Peretz, who compares Wieseltier to the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza. He has given a gravitas to the literary section.”Wieseltier came to this perch of high culture highly recommended by his doting intellectual mentors: critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia, philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin at Oxford (where he went up to Balliol College on a prestigious Columbia College Kellett Fellowship), and historian Yosef Yerushalmi at Harvard (where he won a plum appointment to the Society of Fellows). “I don’t understand it, and neither do you.”)“The thing is this: he began working at Oxford and he never finished,” Sir Isaiah laments. Academically, he’s not a finisher.” Nevertheless, Sir Isaiah adds, “He’s got a good, sound future as a prominent, powerful, influential, interesting journalist. The walls of this downtown-Washington institution are cheek by jowl with caricatures of the celebrated—and Wieseltier is enjoying an unobstructed view of his own decidedly flattering likeness.“What shall I say? Ultimately, Stella escaped by hiding with several other Jews in a rat-infested cellar under a stable once owned by her family.“I was raised in a very, very specific way,” Wieseltier says. and those, like my parents, who told us whatever we could understand—and some things we couldn’t.”For Wieseltier, the burden of his parents’ memories has been a crushing one.“He’s pretty unusual in that he’s extremely cerebral and extremely what we used to call ‘hip.’ . He was, they all agreed, a brilliant young man of breathtaking promise who would one day bring forth works of enduring importance.“If he will produce a book, it’ll be a triumph, and I very much hope he does,” says Sir Isaiah, to whom Wieseltier announced himself following a letter of introduction from Trilling. “And then he went to Harvard, was in the Society of Fellows, and did he get his doctorate? Some of his views are very penetrating and original.”The Wieseltier oeuvre is so eclectic—from learned disquisitions on the Book of Leviticus to an unpublished ode on the joys of ladies’ lingerie—that it defies description. “My parents always said there were two kinds of survivors: those who didn’t want their children to know anything . “You feel you have to bring as much joy, as much security, as you can to the people who survived—i.e., your parents,” he says.Sir Isaiah isn’t the only one waiting for the magnum opus—which Wieseltier describes as a physiological/historical/philosophical critique of sighing, with a few chapters partially written after four years’ labor. and prodigious learning, Wieseltier seems to have worked as hard at the construction and maintenance of his glittering image as he has at the occupation of thinking and writing. I’m not going to tell you a lot about it, but there’s stuff about breathing. His academic articles feature such sentences as “The undifferentiated, followed by the simultaneity of the undifferentiated with the differentiated, followed by the withdrawal of the undifferentiated and the triumph of the differentiated: this has been the pattern of metaphysical history in the Jewish view . .” In his journalistic efforts, such as his attack on Alan Dershowitz’s during the 1980s, published under both his own name and that of “Tristan Vox,” in which he wandered eccentrically from a ringing defense of his friend Shirley Mac Laine’s beliefs in reincarnation to a vicious mugging of his erstwhile dinner partner Nora Ephron (they met at British publisher Lord Weidenfeld’s), accusing her of “child abuse” for making a movie out of her unhappy marriage to his onetime buddy Carl Bernstein. He sees me as a girl.”Wieseltier is, in sum, well on his way to achieving the best kind of American celebrity—being famous to the famous.“You can try Al Gore,” Wieseltier says, listing powerful politician friends who will praise his advice and acumen. Pat Moynihan more probably should be who I tell you to call, Pat and Liz. “It’s not about ‘success.’ The burden is much too great to be diminished by anything like a ‘career.’ It has to do with what you might call ‘normalcy.’” Wieseltier is fiercely protective of his parents, now in their 70s and still living in Brooklyn.But among Wieseltier’s friends there is much speculation about the true state of his book. As he once told a pal, “You must always have a cover. More recently Wieseltier presented a collection of cryptic aphorisms titled “Against Identity,” published last fall in to much head scratching on the part of those who attempted to wade through it—to wit: “If I cannot explain myself to people who are not like me, I lose my pleasure in explaining myself to people who are like me.”“What the fuck was that all about? Call Bill and Ernestine Bradley, although I haven’t seen them in a year. .”“If he was going to make an attack on Hollywood dilettantism, then he should have done it with real substance, not with a throwaway line,” says Shirley Mac Laine, who frequently treats him to supper on his L. visitations, picking him up at the Chateau Marmont when he’s not enjoying the hospitality of California art collector Max Palevsky. ”Won’t Vidal at least give Wieseltier his due for likability? Asked for permission to interview them, he erupts, “Out of the question!
’ And she said, ‘I have Leon Wieseltier with me.’ And I said, ‘Ohhhh great! ’”“I said, ‘Look, Leon, we’re going to have dinner with Barbra,’” Mac Laine recounts. “I’ll remove it if you want me to,” Wieseltier replied. “It was like something out of the Arabian Nights,” says Bader Ginsburg, recalling the glitzy occasion at the Ritz-Carlton—a celebration of social and political Washington mixing politicians and artists, Muslims and Jews.