Long before Dorle Jarmel, my father’s aunt, was a figure in the New York music world—working as Toscanini’s press secretary and helping bring Maria Callas to the Metropolitan Opera—she was churning out romantic stories. Written in the nineteen tens, when she was in her teens herself, they were called Master Lovers of the World and loosely based on the lives of historical figures.
In Dorle’s telling, Irish nationalist Charles Steward Parnell had his heart broken three times. First by a “young girl picking plums in an orchard” with a “delicate rose-flushed face with its golden hair . . . framed in a sunbonnet.” She drowned.
He met his second love at a “Fifth Avenue ballroom” with a “rainbow froth of dancers.” Her hair was “piled high in auburn masses, her eyes were hazel,” and “shot with golden lights,” but she would not marry him “until he distinguished himself.” A year after Parnell “slaved in the cause of Irish freedom,” he learned via telegram of “the marriage of his fickle betrothed to another man.”
When he fell in love with Kitty, “the wife of his political follower, Captain O’Shea,” they “fought desperately [but unsuccessfully] against the devastating passion which threatened to engulf them.”
Parnell sent a letter daily and two telegrams, “one to bid her good morning and another to wish her goodnight.” In 1890, ten years before Dorle’s own birth, the “storm broke.” Captain O’Shea sued for divorce, and the ensuing scandal detonated a “bomb in the Irish ranks” that “hastened Parnell’s death” but brought him no regrets. “For good or for ill,” Aunt Dorle has him writing Kitty, “I am your husband, your love, your child, your all. And I will give my life for Ireland but to you I will give my love.”
In Dorle’s apartment nearly a century after the romances, I discovered hundreds of love letters to her from the 1930s, written by a variety of men. They were ripe with melodrama as if Dorle had placed her Master Lover’s words into their mouths.
My father believed the Master Lover stories were published in romance magazines, which brought forth images of drugstore window displays, the turn of the last-century equivalent of supermarket registers. When I found the original document, I saw that it was typed and neatly bound but did not appear to be published. The name Brandt and Brandt, an ancestor of the grand old New York literary agency, Brandt and Hochman, had been stamped upon it. Charles Schlessinger, the resident historian at the agency, could find no record of it nor of Dorle. I had added Dorle’s publications in romance magazines to the tryst Dorle’s sister, my grandmother, had with Cary Grant on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles to the list of questionable family legends when they made their appearance in a huge folder of Dorle’s earliest clippings. They were not in romance magazines but Romance Magazine under the nom de plum of Doris Adair.
Every June and every Christmas from my earliest childhood in the late 1960s to my graduation from Oberlin, my parents and I drove from Virginia to New York to visit Dorle and her husband, Uncle Dario, in the midcentury modern Rockefeller apartments.
Publicists and classical music producers, Dorle and Dario would take us backstage at the opera and the Philharmonic while their phone rang with people like Benny Goodman and Leonard Bernstein. At their New Year’s Day open houses, my scraggly adolescent body—usually housed in torn jeans and a turtleneck shirt onto which I’d silkscreened the cover to the first Clash album—got clothed in elegant Roman suits handed down to me by my father. I would grab canapés and champagne cocktails, my jaw periodically dropping in awe at my proximity to the opera stars that I secretly still revered.
My conduit to Dorle was her nephew, my father, whose own father had abandoned him at birth. His mother moved to Pasadena with her new husband and sent him to boarding school, but he got to New York as often as he could where Dorle and Dario took him in like the child they never had. They were duly esteemed in my childhood. I was brought up to believe in them, a contemporary American ancestor worship.
And they lived up to the billing pretty well. Effervescent despite his failing heart, Dario taught me to follow the scores of operas he played on his stereo. Dorle gave me hints of a classic New York childhood by taking me to Rumpelmayers for ice cream and buying me enormous gingerbread houses. A University of Virginia faculty brat, I wandered my childhood neighborhood with packs of boys, collected baseball cards, got drunk at country parties, and never considered letting anyone in on my private other universe of concerts, cocktails, and old-fashioned French and Italian restaurants with elaborate dessert carts.
After Dario died in 1980, Dorle in 2001 (at nearly 102), my parents sold the smaller half of her midtown apartment, the grand scale of which struck me only after I’d moved into a Brooklyn crawl space after college. Before the sale, I journeyed to her apartment with old friends. We drank martinis with the shakers, glasses, and booze left over from a different era, our attempt at 1930’s drinking making the old rooms spin dangerously around us.
My mother took over the apartment and traveled back and forth from Virginia to stay there for nearly a decade. When her Parkinson’s made travel impossible, my father decided to sell the apartment and tasked me with clearing it out. Dorle’s papers and photographs from the twenties to the nineties—either neatly filed or drifting wild—filled her desk drawers and cabinets.
The purportedly amorous letters from Toscanini had been donated to the Library for the Performing Arts, but I discovered a framed photo of Mick Jagger yucking it up with Dorle at a party in the 1980s on which someone had scrawled, “Eat your heart out, Pavarotti.” A typed note from Paul Bowles invited Dorle to Tangier. When she took him up on it, she tried the hashish marmalade like the good sport she always was. The Rs in her early sixties address book included Diana Ross; the Os; Jacqueline Onassis, whom Dorle grew to despise after she stole Aristotle away from Maria Callas.
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Photos of Dorle