Beauty and the Beast

February 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: Everyone knows what happened to Stanford White, the gilded architect of the gilded age, who made buildings to take your breath away and who was shot to death by an enraged husband. The husband was Harry K. Thaw, the Pittsburgh millionaire whose wife, Evelyn Nesbit, White had seduced when she was 16 and with whom he continued a sick affair until that night in 1906 when Harry caught White on the Rooftop Theater of Madison Square Garden. For the moment of the murder trial, the whole story of White’s depraved sex life opened and then closed again, like one of the heavy magnificent doors to the mansions he designed. His family too remained closed behind a door until his great granddaughter, Suzannah Lessard, decided to give the house an airing.

She has written a terrific book, “The Architect of Desire,” in the interests of knowing White, beauty, terror, and herself. The book is about two questions: The more obvious one, which the author does not belabor, is whether a bad person can create great works. The question has been knocked about recently in biographical quarrels that involved Einstein’s behavior towards his wife, Herman Melville’s towards his wife, Phillip Roth towards his. The hardly-concealed fact that T.S. Elliot was an anti-Semite is now revived in a reconsideration of the quality of his poems. Picasso’s personal cruelty is under examination. In bewildering contrast to Stanford White’s nightly prowlings stand glorious works of unapologetic elegance.

Surely, a man who could see such rich beauty in stone could not have a heart of the same material, yet, he did. But Suzannah Lessard’s main question which has to do with herself as a biological heir to her great grandfather concerns the penalties we pay for insisting on the beautiful to represent us, for shrouding excess sin and violence under the proper wish that all appear serene and harmonious. Even White’s name is a cover-up, an irony. The world that refuses to acknowledge the black spot of hell in the soul creates an equally destructive heaven. No wonder Lucifer wanted out. One does not need to follow Stanford White into the debauched pits of the candle-lit city to appreciate that human experience to be human, such as everything. We only know ourselves completely when we recognize the handsome monster in the streets. If this were not so, we would not cling to such strange tales of our divided nature as “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” or those oafish werewolf movies of the 1940’s. See poor Lon Chaney, Jr., galumphing around in his bewildered misery, powerless to hold back the full and menacing moon. At its light he killed. In the morning he repented. But there was nothing he could do to keep the wolf from the door.

A telling moment in stories where people are turned into monsters occurs when they die and are turned back again into people, usually with angelic expressions. A man becomes a wolf, becomes a man. Beauty is the beast. In art or architecture it is fairly easy to accommodate the excessive move, the wild thought that spoils the symmetry. In life, when one is out of control, it is much harder to bring things into balance. The conventional solution is to pretend that nothing horrible has happened or is happening or ever will happen. But the ploy is a sham. Even hell must have light. Lessard says it as well as it might be said. “We cannot know ourselves truly without seeing when there is terror in harmony,” she writes. “We try to strive toward a whole world because an un-whole world is ghostly. No matter how beautiful it might be, no connection is possible there. We do this not to place blame but to make connection possible. We do this to live.”

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.