Celebrity culture? My parents started it
When CosmoLandesman was growing up, his parents, Jay and Fran Landesman, pursued fame relentlessly — even allowing their open marriage to be the subject of a TV show. Now in their 80s, they are examined in his new book on a starstruck world
IF THERE WAS ever a competition to find the world’s most embarrassing parents, Cosmo Landesman would be in with a real chance. Landesman, a writer who is the Sunday Times film critic and former husband of fellow-writer Julie Burchill, has an unusual mother and father. Dad is Jay, now 89, a publisher, playwright, novelist, impresario and diet guru. Fran was and is a songwriter and performer who had some hits back in the 1950s. Both of them were desperate, in their words, to “make it”. And their adult lives have revolved around their sometimes desperate attempts to achieve fame and success.
In an attempt to come to terms with his unorthodox upbringing and his attention-seeking mother and father, he has written Starstruck, in which he puts his family within the context of Britain’s fast-emerging celebrity culture.
Over a coffee, Landesman, who still has a pronounced New York accent despite having lived in Britain since the age of 12, says: “My mum and dad always had the feeling that if you weren’t a somebody, you were a nobody. They concentrated on the pursuit of attention. I felt that this distracted them from the fact that they were very talented, very original people.”
They were also excruciatingly embarrassing. Jay and Fran Landesman achieved notoriety in the 1970s for their open marriage. At one point during the decade, they were even featured in a television documentary on the subject. Jay and Fran certainly reflected the times in which they lived. They were beatniks in the ’50s, and embraced swinging London in the ’60s before becoming properly full-on hippies. In many ways, Landesman’s existence resembled that of the straightlaced Saffron in the BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous — his rebellion was in being resolutely conventional. “I felt like the freak because I was normal. The world was very different then — it was turned upside down.”
Landesman, who went to Holloway, one of North London’s toughest comprehensive schools, recalls the fear of waiting in the classroom for his mother and father to turn up for a parents’ evening. Sure enough, among the throng of conventional working-class mums and dads, came Jay and Fran — longhaired, beaded and unapologetic.
To say that Landesman’s childhood was unconventional would be a great understatement. At times during the late 1960s, he would return home to find his parents tripping on acid. He would often wake up to find his dad’s new girlfriend, or mum’s boyfriend, sharing the family breakfast.
They were not conventionally Jewish. Quite the opposite, in fact. “They believed in laissez-faire. They thought that children were naturally creative and would find their own way through life. The important thing was to learn how to mix a Martini and learn how to talk to a beautiful woman.”
What the Landesmans did care about was their friends. They had many who were very famous. Landesman believes they felt inadequate in comparison. “A lot of their friends became very successful: Barbra Streisand did pretty well, Mike Nichols went on to direct The Graduate, and in swinging London they were hanging out with Peter Cook and became friendly with John Lennon — which meant that they were often the least famous people in the room.
“My mum was this fat girl from New York who wanted affirmation. My dad was a nice Jewish boy from St Louis who could never do enough to satisfy his parents. I was lucky in getting validation from my parents — they were maddening but supportive.”
Landesman repaid his parents’ support by giving them the ultimate gift — a celebrity daughter-in-law. When Landesman met Julie Burchill, she was already prominent as a columnist and would become more famous still. “My dad got very over-excited about Julie, although he now denies this. My dad tried to trade on her name for years even after we divorced.”
Ah, yes, the divorce. If Landesman’s childhood was embarrassing, the manner of his break-up with Burchill after a happy 10-year relationship was doubly excruciating. Not only did she leave him very publicly, but she did so for another woman — Charlotte Raven, an intern at Modern Review, the magazine that Burchill and Landesman set up with their friend Toby Young. Landesman says: “I think she had gotten bored and tired of the marriage. She was ripe for change and she changed. ”
He does not regret a moment of the marriage. “I loved being married to Julie. To have a wife who makes you laugh so much you can’t breathe is a wonderful thing. I’ll tell you one thing, mate, it wasn’t boring.”
Burchill is famously philo-semitic. Did Landesman
have anything to do with that? “Her love of Jews and things Jewish was there before she met me . She always said she wanted to marry a Jew. I guess I was just the right Jew in the right place.”
Landesman was always plagued by a feeling that he was not as successful as Burchill, or other journalist friends such as Toby Young — whose book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, has just been made into a film — and bestselling novelist Zoe Heller. He became fascinated by celebrity culture, and decided to write about Britain’s obsession with it. “I thought about writing about my starstruck family, but didn’t want to do another family memoir. So I wrote about my family in the context of what was happening in England as a whole.
“Getting on TV is easy. Everyone can find visibility, but this is not the same as finding fame. The constant seeking of attention was once the preserve of an elite of artists and performers; now everybody feels they are interesting. There is the emergence of a ‘me’ society. It is not necessarily a good thing.”
ButwhatofJayandFran,whoarenow in their 80s? “My parents went through a phase a few years ago when they got totally self-involved, but they seem to have come through that. My dad goes down to the Groucho Club. He still likes his Martini and beautiful women.”
And how do they feel about being the subjects of this book? Landesman laughs: “My dad likes it — he thinks it’s very funny. My mum also thinks its funny, but feels it doesn’t give her enough credit. But it’s not my job to write about how wonderful and brilliant my parents are. They have written that book themselves numerous times.” Starstruck is published by Macmillan at £14.99
Jay and Fran Landesman were famous for their open marriage in the ’70s