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

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features - BY SI­MON ROUND

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

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