“Party for a book? I’d love to,” I mutter to my host as we land in Sodom. Five days of vacation lie before me, and as we drive to the place—”Where the old McAlpin used to be, downtown,” the limousine driver reminisces—it is pleasant to think that people here still publish books. After a ride in a freight elevator, a strange scene greets us. A merry-go-round is spinning in a giant cavernous space illuminated with colored lights. Young women in festive dress are standing in groups of two or three. Some of them, accompanied by middle-aged men, apparently the guests, are already blurred in the dizzying flight of the carousel. The Wilhelmina Agency is throwing a party for a “booker.” A what? I see, I had misunderstood. The booker arranges the engagements of an agency’s models. This is a modeling agency. “So there is no book?” “What book?” The merry-go-round is spinning even faster now, an image out of a horror movie, a dream sequence in an art film. A few of the women are screaming, obligingly. Others stroll about the fairground, talking to the guests. Vendors are on hand with ice-cream, hot dogs, cotton candy. I see, I am in a bordello. I am one of the guests.
I think of the book I read on the plane, John Langdon Davies’ forgotten treatise on nudism, The Future of Nakedness (1929). One of the problems he anticipates with nudism as a way of life: ” . . . though in these days of clothes we can get on well without it being possible to distinguish at a glance between a prostitute and a leader of aristocratic society, it is perfectly clear that it would be impossible to get on if we could not distinguish between a prostitute and a woman policeman.”
Next morning at Bergdorf’s, as instructed, looking for a formal shirt. A man wearing a beaver coat looks like a cockroach from behind. He turns around—now he looks exactly like a cockroach! Other shoppers—beasts, vultures. Clawing, shrieking, pushing into the unknown, tickling the brocade with one hand and feeling the lizard with the other. This counter is mobbed: here, ladies’ belts with gold and silver buckles are snapped up like souvenirs at an Oriental bazaar, at two, three, eight thousand dollars apiece. Demand exceeds supply, no time for questions or answers. Elsewhere, a stranger wants to spray me with perfume. “If you spray me, I’ll scream.” She doesn’t care.
Another party, this one given by Donald and Ivana Trump at the Tower of the same name. My host is accompanied by several other guests whose arrival makes the crowd of spectators gathered outside shout with joy, but I see little difference between the called and the chosen. Inside, this impression is strengthened: Hundreds of people have come to hang out at the shopping mall, as people do throughout the land, except that here the girl dressed like Madonna is, in fact. Madonna, or so I’m told. Mrs. Trump gives me several seconds of her time. I open my mouth to say something witty. Eight photographers, like mutant shepherds, drive a flock of celebrities towards her and proceed to set up their shots. The human current carries me off. The crowd moves to the escalators because it is human to believe that the real party is elsewhere; but as the guests discover that “there is nothing up there” (overheard), they hurry back down. What an amazing view! Below, on the left, a nightmare of shoppers (as in: a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a kindle of kittens, a charm of goldfinches, an exaltation of larks—remember?), milling convulsively to the music . . . On the right, against the background of hanging furs, coatcheck girls in white dance to the same music. “Like a video!” (overheard).
We leave after a few minutes. “Have you read the book?” somebody asks. What book? “This was a book party, for Donald’s book.” Another misunderstanding, apparently. The windows of the limousine are made of dark glass. I wonder if they allow people to see in or out. To be seen is certainly more important.
Headlines in the Sodom Times, as Reagan (“My first name is Ron”) and Gorbachev (“Mine is Mikhail”) sign their nuclear Munich pact: Mood of Warmth, A Tempered Optimism, The Ultimate Luxury Sale: 30% Off All Cashmere (no, that’s an ad), Soviet Visitor Mixes Charm With Vigor (sorry: Venom), A Russian Marches Into the Pentagon (“in a civilian business suit rather than the bemedaled uniform favored by senior Soviet officers”). In Moscow Heartfelt Joy for Treaty, Trust but Verify (editorial). Two Leaders Meet—Two Hearts Also? (another editorial), Sekretar’ Gorbachev! Teper’ vremya dat’ sovetskim yevreyam prava cheloveka (“Secretary Gorbachev! It’s time you gave Soviet Jews their human rights,” a full-page ad in unidiomatic Russian), Gorbachev Extols Talks on Leaving, Reagan Trip Is Due, Gorbachev Visit Called Boon to Bush. “Books of the Times” in the person of Michiko Kakutani reviews The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar (Princeton University Press, $19.95): “‘The Little Red Riding Hood,’ for instance, has been read as parable of’pregnancy envy’ (the wolf attempts to put living human beings into his belly and is later killed by stones, which serve as symbols of his sterility).” Enough.
“The only way to safeguard scholarship and culture,” writes Davies, “is to teach everybody the three R’s and to fine heavily or even imprison anyone who attempts to achieve any degree of higher knowledge. Then only the born scholars, the men and women to whom culture means more than comfort, will risk punishment, and culture will be saved from impostors. Culture is an anti-social thing, a whim of the solitary animals to be found here and there amid their gregarious fellows; it is not a thing to be given by the herd to the individual … for in the end culture is the death of the herd.”
Cocktails with a princess, I am told. Indeed, a woman downstairs tells the doorman in the lobby that she is “going to the Princess’ apartment.” It would sound better at Versailles. The Princess’ apartment? The Princess’ car? (“Hey Joey, get the Princess’ car, will you?”) The Princess’ shopping (from Walbaum’s)? Inside—there’s never anything inside!—the only person I recognize is Patricia Hearst, being photographed. Hasn’t she been photographed enough? “All the major players are here tonight,” someone whispers. What players? Hockey? Badminton? An old woman “wearing a Lacroix” (“a series of swags and garlands . . . miles of fringe and ribbon . . . all used with abandon,” says Sodom magazine) pushes and nearly knocks over a younger, less experienced guest in a successful attempt to elbow her way into a photo opportunity: Town and Country is taking pictures. In the background, Bulgari display-cases gleam with jewels. The Princess’ jewels?
Something called “Night of a Hundred Trees”: a charity auction of Christmas trees, with proceeds going to medical research. The auctioneer from Sotheby’s, once a symbol of stiff-upper-lipped authority and lockjawed self-confidence, is drowned out by his cohost, Dr. Ruth. Oinking, screeching, and yelping the praises of AIDS awareness, the doctor sells the festive crowd on such lots as the Andy Warhol tree (“He isn’t going to be making any more trees!”); covered in black spangles, the Marilyn Monroe tree (“She isn’t going to make any either!”), including one of her shoes; the Joan Rivers tree (“blond fir with dark roots, ha-ha-ha!”), adorned with telephone cords and “mini-bagels”; and Dr. Ruth’s own, the Dr. Ruth Hanukkah bush, therapy session and all.
At lunch the next day, in sunny Gomorrah, I mention a piece I wrote on the summit. “Did you Fax it?” somebody wants to know. No, I just wrote it, I answer bashfully. “But did you Fax it to me? Did you Fax it?” After lunch we pick fragrant lemons, unsullied oranges. Someone is trying to remember what’s inside (there’s never anything inside!) several blue boxes, intended as party favors. A secretary is summoned, to call Tiffany’s and investigate what was meant for whom. “Why don’t you just open them?” But idleness makes a bureaucracy out of the human soul, and after an hour of deliberation the boxes are, to everyone’s disappointment, at last distributed. A car takes us to the airport, for the return journey to Sodom.
At 3:00 P.M. the American Airlines flight is boarding. At 6:00 P.M. we are still on the ground, without any explanation. A hundred businessmen, their seatbelts securely fastened, read the Sodom Times. I want to get off. “Please remain seated.” But I want to get off! “I’m afraid you’ll have to return to your seat, sir.” At 7:00 P.M. I write a letter to the captain saying that if they don’t let me off the plane I will consider myself kidnapped. “Nobody’s trying to kidnap you, sir,” the stewardess reassures me. “Look, they are only trying to do their job,” says a dynamic executive in the next seat, “Go ahead and sit down.” I insist on a written acknowledgment of my letter by the crew. The plane returns to the gate. A hundred businessmen unbuckle.
Next day, with Albion, here called Zoar, ever nearer, I notice two news items. Donald Trump had cautiously praised Gorbachev and got invited to build a hotel complex in Moscow. Malcolm Forbes also praised Gorbachev, but without any reservations, and got nothing, apparently, in return. Where is justice? What will become of you, Sodom?
And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened me saying. Arise, take thy wife, lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city. And the sun was risen upon the earth when I entered Zoar.