the diary of james ivory

The cover photo already says it all: a white-haired man, worn down by the years, bends over the book of an attentive little boy. The ancestor is James Ivory, the director of “Shakespeare Wallah” and “Remains of the day”. The kid is James Ivory too, in the house of his adoptive parents. The editing, striking, is moving, and a piano, in the shadows, seems to add a secret melody to this impossible encounter. The book, entitled “Solid Ivory”, is also a collage: the one that a friend, Peter Cameron, made while sorting through James Ivory’s diary, which he kept throughout a life that led from Klamath Falls, Oregon, to this house in the woods, New York, via Bombay, London and Paris.

The most surprising thing about this book is that it tells only in a muted way about Ivory’s artistic career, her difficulties in filming “Heat and Dust” or “Return to Howards End”. The common thread is elsewhere: in the sentimental adventures of the author, and this life of homosexual, shared between his love for Ismail Merchant, his companion of forty years, and his chance encounters, at a time when gay life was sometimes delicate, with regard to the reigning morality.

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Under the Occupation, no respite for the theater

It was in Klamath Falls, a small town of logging, that James Ivory acquired his taste for disaster films, learned that his adoptive grandfather was a gambler (and that he drowned by other disgruntled players), that one of his uncles was part of the Lafayette squadron during the war of 14, and that he memorized a haunting detail: uncircumcised men are (he says) socially inferior . Impoverished by the Great Depression, his parents place him in a Catholic school, The Sacred Heart Academy, where young James will fall in love with a classmate, Ted. Then from another boy, Jim, called “cutest brunette” (cute little brown). Finally, it is a third party, Bill, who authorizes Ivory “playing with his tail under a lamppost”. In Venice, later, it is the discovery of art and freedom (and James Ivory will return there to shoot “Maurice”); then in Kabul, in 1960, the passion for the Orient was born, magnified by the arrival in India. This is where the collaboration (which will last a lifetime) begins with Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a young Jewish woman who narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

“I am both outside and above society”

During these tribulations, James Ivory meets unique characters, of whom he paints affectionate portraits: George Cukor, the angry director of “A Star is Born” and “My Fair Lady”, a flamboyant homosexual in Hollywood; Federico Fellini, whose wife, Giulietta Masina, reads the future in the palms of her guests; Raquel Welch, at the height of her beauty and fame, who behaves like an insufferable and neurotic diva; Vanessa Redgrave, who stuns all her friends with her trotsko-ecolo-perched claims; Bruce Chatwin, who had “a pink tail always ready, which had not undergone circumcision”and who boasted of having hitchhiked naked, with braided flowers on his magic flute…

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Other men cross the book, Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon, Peter Shaffer. James Ivory, the very example of delicacy and civility, summarizes:

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“I’m not at all interested in society, or high society. I am both outside and above.

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“Solid Ivory”, a soft and melancholy book, ends on a terrible note: one of the maharajahs of Jodhpur, having sumptuously received Ivory and Merchant, sinks into the grandiose news item: “ He is said to have raped a woman, and soon after his severed feet were served on a silver platter at Umaid Bhawan Palace”.

James Ivory is 93 years old today. I remember his conversation in his house in the Hudson Valley: we talked about cooking, Paris, the snobbery of Elsie de Wolfe, the taste of candy canes and Gyp. Then the day died out and there are now only vestiges of it, floating in my pale memory.

Dancer, false Russian, daughter of Sappho: who was Natacha Rambova, the widow of Rudolph Valentino?Solid Ivory. MemoirsJames Ivory, Edited by James Cameron, 400 p., $30