Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket July 1, 2010

The hard part about open-heart surgery is not the surgery, you’re unconscious and don’t feel a thing. It’s the recovery, which drags on forever and is extremely uncomfortable. TV gets old real quick; you need something that really holds your interest. That’s how I rediscovered books—including several by local authors.

I’ll say one thing for reading books by people you know. You see them in a whole different light. Take Robert de Warren, for instance. He ran the ballet for 13 years and there were always articles in the paper about him, so I knew he grew up in Argentina and later worked for the Shah of Iran, directing the national dance company. I always suspected he had an interesting story or two up his sleeve, but now after I’ve read his autobiography, Destiny’s Waltz—well, there’s a teenage visit to a whorehouse, a suicide attempt, a confrontation with the Iranian secret police. It’s got everything.

Robert was raised on the family estancia in Argentina and later with relatives in Uruguay. It was a very exotic upbringing. If you’ve seen Evita, that the time period he’s talking about. His parents didn’t get along, and he’s quite frank about his dislike for his mother, who really does sound selfish.

So you have this wonderful beginning, with Argentina in the 1940s vividly coming to life. Then, as he discovers that dance is his passion, he moves to London and joins the London Ballet. He becomes one of their principal dancers, and meets many of the celebrities of the day. The London sequences reminded me a lot of that wonderful ballet movie The Red Shoes. Not in plot—well, maybe a little in plot—but in its wonderful period atmosphere of Britain in the austere years after World War II. And it wasn’t all fun. There were backstage politics to contend with. He still doesn’t know exactly who put the ground glass in his ballet shoe. He didn’t notice it until he was onstage, dancing away, and looked down to see trailing blood all over the floor.

A form of arthritis brought his dancing career to a close, so he took up choreography and running ballet companies. I found his adventures, particularly at La Scala, to be very interesting, but just when you want something new, he moves to Iran. It’s a great second act. He travels the country studying ethnic dances, gets in very odd predicaments with the secret police, and is adoring of but very psychologically astute about his royal patroness, the Empress Farah. His descriptions of life in the Shah’s court are fascinating. How is he going to top that, you wonder. Then just as the Shah’s regime topples, he takes up with Rudolf Nureyev.

Nureyev was probably the dancer of the century, the one who revolutionized the art form, the way Tiger Woods revolutionized golf. Robert and his wife, Jacqueline, became quite close to Rudi. He used to come over for dinner, then stick around to watch TV. He kept wanting them all to live together. Yes, my eyebrows went up, too—but what he was after was a family, and the De Warrens saw him through many crises and good times alike. They also saw his final illness—AIDS—take its grim toll on the great artist.

Robert was lovingly encouraged by at least some of his relatives to become a dancer. Not so Florence Putterman. She clearly had a talent for art, but her parents did nothing to encourage her, and her high school art teacher—the evil Mrs. Freimark—flunked her.

This incident sets the tone for Florence’s new book, Entwined Meta-phors. It’s part autobiography, with various essays and articles (some by our own Kay Kipling) analyzing her work. And best of all, it’s full of pictures. Some are photographs of her life, but most are well-reproduced examples of her work. We see her entire career, from her earliest paintings of flowers and landscapes to the immensely sophisticated later work, which is inspired by ancient petroglyphs. Primitive-looking animals run across the canvas, rendered in paint sometimes mixed with sand, all in bright colors that have been muted, like they’re covered with dust or maybe water-damaged.

The struggle to achieve an artistic career was constant. Her father, a cold and domineering doctor in Brooklyn, wanted her to become a dietitian—a stopgap until she got married, like all girls were supposed to do. She was forced to attend NYU and hated it. Luckily she met an ambitious young businessman named Saul Putterman. They fell in love and married, and Florence really did—and still does—love him, even though his early vision of her life as his wife—“listening to radio serials, cleaning, preparing dinner, and eventually raising a family”—was the same vision her parents had.

Florence persevered, though. She studied art when she got a chance and began to get encouragement. The Puttermans moved to a small town in Pennsylvania where Saul owned a shoe factory, and soon there were two sons to look after. But things were changing. It was the 1960s and The Feminine Mystique had just come out. Florence was developing a new vision of what she should do with her life and talent.

Even today those of us who know her can see this strange dichotomy. On one hand she’s a famous artist, with her work in prestigious collections and museums, such as the Metropolitan. On the other she’s an affluent Sarasota housewife, going to the right parties and definitely on the A list. But there is a certain style to the Puttermans’ life. They live in a gorgeous modern house designed by Carl Abbott. She epitomizes Flaubert’s remark about how you should live like a bourgeois so that you may think like a demigod.

The third prominent Sarasotan to have a new book out is Piero Rivolta. Everybody knows Piero, if only for the fact that he built one of the largest apartment buildings in town, the Rivo, on Main Street. He’s also a patron of the arts and founder of La Musica, the chamber music festival that brings musicians from around the world here every spring. So when I saw him being interviewed by Linda Carson about his new novel, The Castaway, and he said it was about the meaning of life, I was immediately interested. The meaning of life is something you think a lot about after open-heart surgery.

The Castaway begins with a mystery. A man, obviously American, is picked up on a battered catamaran and taken to a sanitarium in Mexico. There he meets an intelligent and sympathetic Jesuit named Father Brian. He slowly returns to life. It turns out the guy, Albert, is from Sarasota and is troubled by many things in his life. During his recuperation, he meets a teacher named Sara. They begin an affair. This leads into an examination of the characters’ pasts, including Father Brian’s. The writing is simple and graceful and the story is short, almost like a fable, and it's full of insight.

Does Piero really explain the meaning of life? Well, as any self-respecting author would say: “You’ve got to read the book.”

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