When the parents are kids

December 23, 2008

Sunday Times film critic Cosmo Landesman’s parents are at once distinctly Jewish and militantly unorthodox. The biblical commandment against sex with other folks’ spouses seems to have been disobeyed by both Fran and Jay Landesman almost as a matter of principle, with unsettling consequences for their children, of whom Cosmo is the older (writes Michael Horovitz).

In the parts of Starstruck (Macmillan, £14.99) relating to his family, Cosmo, its author, exacts a near-merciless revenge, as though impelled by the highest critical imperatives to dishonour his father and mother.

In 1948, Jay Landesman, aged 29, quit working in his mother’s antique shop in provincial St Louis to revel in the non-stop party life of a randy playboy in New York City. There he launched Neurotica, a hip but profoundly uncommercial magazine devoted to exploring the undersides of Middle American dreams. He soon met his wildly Bohemian match in the form of Fran, a sassy Greenwich Village art student six years his junior, whose rebellion against her rich parents was completed by marrying Jay.

He then opened a nightclub, The Crystal Palace, which helped bring the likes of Barbra Streisand, Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen to the fore, and Fran began her staggeringly original songwriting.

In the mid-1960s they moved to London with toddler Miles and Cosmo, then six, in train. The couple was soon mingling with Alternative London’s intellectual, pop and performance arts personalities. Over the subsequent 40 years, they remained anarchic, promiscuous, drug-happy teenagers at heart, as did Miles, who has formed numberless punk rock bands. But Cosmo’s rebellion took the form of a desperation for restraint and conformity. He has done his utmost to escape the wayward examples set by his parents (and to an extent, by his first wife Julie Burchill). It is a pity he undervalues their authentic achievements.

As an extended family scrapbook, it is graphic, sardonic and, here and there, grudgingly affectionate. But the many pages that aspire to discriminate between celebrity, stardom, success and failure, genuine culture and our increasingly philistine Zeitgeist, consist of mainly unthought-through obsolescent journalese — displaying the very dumbing down which Cosmo purports to be deconstructing.

Michael Horovitz’s latest book is ‘A New Waste Land’. Cosmo Landesman will be speaking on ‘The Joys of Family’, Sunday February 22, at Jewish Book Week 2009

Last updated: 10:50am, December 23 2008