He’s been part of my life for more than fifty years – dashing, smart, generous and always on the side of the angels. With him I wandered through most of the 20th Century in the company of critical figures including playwright George Bernard Shaw, powerful arms dealer Basil Zaharoff, Adolph Hitler and his brilliant propaganda director Joseph Goebbels, Leon Blum, the first Socialist (and Jewish) Prime Minister of France and of course Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, as well as the infamous “modern dance” pioneer Isadora Duncan, Chinese rebel leader Mao Tse Tung,and, among so many others, Albert Einstein and of course, FDR, whom he served as a Secret Agent from before WWII to well after the war.
When we met, he was 13 and I a couple of years older and, much like the NYT’s Julie Salamon, my mom introduced us and from our first meeting I knew that I would love him forever. His remarkable life revolved around his home base of Juan-les-Pins, where he grew up, and to which he always returned.
The house was built on the top of a rise, some way back, from the sea. It was of pink stucco with pale blue shutters and a low roof of red tiles. It was in the Spanish style, built around a lovely court with a fountain and flowers; there Lanny played when the mistral was blowing, as it sometimes did for a week on end.
Last week we went there, where Lanny lived, with Beauty Budd, his artist model mother. Though she and his father Robbie Budd, a New England arms dealer, never married, Robbie visited often, struggling to transmit his conservative capitalism to a young man living in dire danger of corruption among artists, journalists, socialists, communists and wealthy ladies, many of them an earlier version of trophy wives. Their fierce conversations were a wonderful window on the conflicts of those times.
Lanny is, of course, not real – at least not to everyone; he’s the hero of eleven novels written by the prolific Upton Sinclair (yes, he’s the one who wrote The Jungle) tracing world history between 1913 and 1949. Best-sellers all when they appeared in the 40’s and early 50’s and translated into 16 languages in 20 countries, the books formed much of my political and historic perspective and I was hardly alone.
When people ask me what has happened in my long lifetime, I do not refer them to the newspaper files and to the authorities, but to Upton Sinclair’s novels. — George Bernard Shaw
As we walked through the village I turned to my ever-tolerant husband with a catch in my voice, said – surprising myself with the depth of my emotion “I’ve known him almost longer than I’ve known anyone except my family.” He and the saga that surrounded him felt, in so many ways, just that real.
One of Lanny’s childhood friends, Silesian, and bitter of the deprivation caused by enormous war reparations after WWI, became a Nazi; another, British and liberal, a fighter pilot and socialist. His first wife ended up hanging around with with the Nancy Astor and the pro-German “Cliveden Set.” My political perspectives and world view were formed through their eyes and conversations and the events they faced as allies and sometime adversaries.
The books, Lanny and the characters who moved in and out of his life were, for me – a very personal window on the horror and violence, courage and evil, glamour and idealism that was the first half of the 20th Century.
Oh, and of course, it being the South of France, the literary folks hung around there too. We had lunch at Scott Fitzgerald’s “Villa Saint-Louis”, just down the hill from Lanny’s neighborhood and now the Hotel Belle Rives.
Clinton confidante Lanny Davis was named for Lanny Budd. The late NBC News anchor John Chancellor once told me he wanted to be Lanny Budd. At 15, I wanted to marry him. Even more though, I wish I could have gone up the hill to the pink villa, rung the bell and just thanked him for all I learned from him, how much more available I am to travel and political thought and my own role in the world because I’ve known him. He may not be “real” but his impact on me, and so very many others, was profound and just plain wonderful.
Thanks Lanny, and Upton Sinclair, and my long-suffering husband who tolerated a pilgrimage to a place where not so much happened in the “real world” but plenty happened to me.