Hilton and Lana

by Mark Steyn

I owe Hilton Kramer my American career, such as it is. He was a guest on a BBC show I hosted, along with Graydon Carter. Largely unfamiliar with New York magazines, I was barely aware which was which: Hilton Carter, Graydon Kramer; one edited Vanity Fair, one The New Criterion. One of the magazines was heavily perfumed, in the way that folks selling houses douse the joint in Glade to hide something unpleasant in the basement. I knew one of the editors received a generous wardrobe allowance from Condé Nast in order to project the image of a debonair man about town. I assumed it was Hilton.

Shortly after his appearance on the show, I was asked to write a book review for The New Criterion, and then to become its drama critic – and from there everything followed, including NR. I enjoyed his company enormously. The magazine he founded has lasted twice as long as the original for which it was named, and I’m honored to have been associated with it.

As Jay says, Hilton was a great raconteur. Years ago, when he was still the distinguished art critic of The New York Times, he turned up in Liz Smith’s gossip column, which is quite an accomplishment. Better yet, he turned up in an item about Lana Turner:

Oh, Lana! Lana Turner, who believes you can’t be too rich or too thin, has signed up to do an episode for Jane Wyman’s new TV series Falcon Crest. If things work out well, Lana could become a regular. She hasn’t really been seen on the tube since the disastrous Survivors flop. Meanwhile, Lana sold her home in LA and has bought herself a place in Honolulu. She intends to spend more time in Hawaii with her daughter, Cheryl Crane, who is a tall, beautiful blonde and a local real estate entrepreneur. Incidentally, Hilton Kramer’s biography of Lana is giving its publisher rewrite headaches.

I don’t doubt it. Hilton wouldn’t seem the most obvious biographer for the legendary besweatered sexpot. But, when you drop as many names as Liz Smith, it can’t be easy dropping them all in the right place. Hilton had no plans to write a bio of Lana, although the following day he arrived at the Times to find some words of encouragement scrawled in lipstick on the glass of his office door, apparently from Miss Turner herself. One measure of how times and the Times have changed post-Hilton is that today it would be entirely unexceptional for an eminent NYT cultural critic to write a bio of even the most ridiculous celeb (see Margo Jefferson’s scholarly monograph On Michael Jackson, which isn’t half as much fun as Hilton’s on Lana would have been).

I used to enjoy hearing him tell the story, in part because it sounded funnier in his languid New England vowels (in the same way I enjoyed hearing Bill Buckley at the NR 50th anniversary gala read the first paragraph of my “Happy Warrior” column and say the word “Barcalounger”). I feared it might be apocryphal, but in fact the Internet has preserved it here.

Rick is right that Hilton was no troglodyte. But I remember him telling me back in the Nineties about a Saturday night out at a critically acclaimed art-house movie. As they were leaving the theater, his wife sighed, “Darling, from now on, let’s not see any films we haven’t already seen.”