August 03, 1987 12:00 PM

DEBUTANTE

by Gioia Diliberto

Brenda Diana Duff Frazier became America’s most publicized society glamour girl of the 1930s by dint of an ambitious mother, a milky complexion, lustrous dark hair and, as a friend put it, the ability to “seem very well-read without having read anything.” But as this meticulously detailed, often poignant biography shows, she started off like any other poor little rich girl. She had an essentially absent alcoholic father. Her mother (known as “Big Brenda”) was driven by an ambition that outdistanced her status as an unpedigreed social climber. A nanny who truly loved the little girl was summarily dismissed. Brenda’s debut was held at her mother’s insistence and at an exceptionally late hour. (Big Brenda was at pains not to overlap with the debuts of the “true” blue-blood families because she wanted a big crowd.) Brenda was so terrified she got sick. Big B., her diamond tiara in place, insisted Brenda attend nonetheless, and at 11:20 her daughter walked the gangplank from her suite to the Ritz Towers ballroom. When the society columns declared the do a success, Big Brenda heaved a sigh of relief. (“It must be awful to be the mother of a flop,” she once observed.) Unfortunately, Little Brenda never did get happy at last. Diliberto, a free-lance journalist (and former PEOPLE assistant editor), follows her through her $3 million inheritance at age 21, a romance with Howard Hughes, two failed marriages, anorexia and bulimia, an increasing dependence on pills and liquor and more than 30 suicide attempts. Toward the end of her life Brenda, weighing 65 pounds, was yanking hospital feeding tubes out of her nose for fear of gaining weight and penciling in the disappeared widow’s peak that had once been the toast of the town. Diliberto straightforwardly weaves myriad bits of information culled from newspaper clips, Brenda’s diary and interviews—including one with the victim’s daughter, Victoria Kelly—into a fascinating study of a social casualty. Some of the juicier insights come from Brenda’s disconcertingly chatty psychiatrist, who spares no detail save his name. He was so involved with his patient that he would talk her servants out of quitting by asking if they wanted to be responsible for her suicide. Most poignant of all are Brenda’s own reflections scattered throughout. In 1938 she wrote a characteristically cynical poem whose final lines sum up her peculiar form of celebrityhood: “I grit my teeth and smile at my enemies,/ I sit at the Stork Club and talk to nonentities.” (Knopf, $19.95)

THE WHITE TIGER

by Robert Stuart Nathan

This solid police procedural is set in China, and its elaborate web of political corruption, criminal intrigue and vicious murders makes most similar stories set in the U.S. seem pale. The hero—and ultimately he does prove he’s heroic—is Hong, an assistant deputy director of the Beijing police. He attends the funeral of a good man who has been his mentor and hears the drivers’ gossip that the actual time of death was different from the official one. Almost despite himself, Hong begins to investigate, and just as he realizes that his friend probably was murdered, he is given the job of spying on an American doctor who is working in a hospital. Hong finds that the key to the murder—as well as a number of other crimes—lies hidden in the past, when the Japanese still occupied parts of China and Mao was just coming into power. Nathan, author of two other novels, is good with exotic information that makes his China seem vivid. One learns the rank of an office worker, for instance, by his chair cover: Velvet is for those at the top. To get at the truth and uncover a wily criminal, Hong interviews a patient in a leprosarium, and the reader is treated to a ghastly description. (Is leprosy in the air? Elmore Leonard had a scene in such a hospital in his last novel, Bandits.) The clever villain senses in Hong “a fundamental weakness, his infatuation with absurd notions of right and wrong,” and uses this knowledge to try to bring about Hong’s downfall. The real China may not be at all like the teeming scenes in The White Tiger, but Nathan’s version is a lively place to read about. (Simon and Schuster, $18.95)

THE CAVE OF LASCAUX: THE FINAL PHOTOGRAPHS

by Mario Ruspoli

The focus of this striking book is a Stone Age sanctuary of rare beauty. For some 17,000 years it lay hidden underground. But on Sept. 13, 1940, a band of young Frenchmen, exploring the rugged terrain in a remote corner of southwestern France, clambered one by one through a shaft they had widened at the bottom of a large hole. To their astonishment they landed in a magnificent Paleolithic cave, the mysterious kingdom of Lascaux (named for a manor house that once stood on the property). It was a realm unlike any other, its uneven rock walls alive with drawings of ibexes, bison, horses, aurochs, deer and bulls, the finest examples of Stone Age artwork ever found. For years Lascaux’s twisting underground corridors swarmed with tourists, gaping at what came to be known as the Sistine Ceiling of the Caveman. But the grotto was closed to the public in 1963, when it became clear that bright lights and the body heat and breath of thousands of visitors were destroying the paintings. (Lascaux II, a faithful replication of part of the original cave, opened nearby in 1984.) There have been many pictures taken at Lascaux, but in 1981 prehistorian and television producer Mario Ruspoli, at the invitation of the French Ministry of Culture, began a three-year project to photograph the cave art. With a team of six cameramen, toiling under difficult conditions, Ruspoli worked about 20 days a year from March to April, when the cave was at its coldest, to avoid heat and light damage. He scrupulously photographed all the passageways from the Chamber of the Felines to the Hall of the Bulls. This book contains many of the photographs that he and his crew shot. Ruspoli has also written a sensitive introduction to the world of Paleolithic man as well as a meticulous description of the Lascaux art and his own attempts, wearying at times, to document it. His photographs, lit by handheld quartz lamps, provide compelling evidence of a shadowy world that no one except scholars will likely ever see again. Two bison, one shedding its winter wool, tangle in battle; a stately black cow looms more than 10 feet above the ground; a frieze, drawn with a “crayon” made of manganese and a lump of clay, shows stags drifting eternally across the river. Ruspoli, who died in 1986, nobly captured the astonishing drama of the caves. (Abrams, $45)

THE TRAVELER’S READING GUIDE

edited by Maggy Simony

Some thoughtful types who want to get the most out of a vacation trip do a lot of reading beforehand, and the journey is incomparably richer for it. Others wait until they get home and then try to read everything they can on the place that captured their imagination. This book is an invaluable research tool for both kinds of travelers. It goes well beyond listing the usual guidebooks. For Greece, for example, there are a dozen of those (Berlitz, Baedeker, Fodor, etc.), and then for background there are such classics as C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars, Lawrence Durrell’s The Greek Islands and two dozen more histories, memoirs and other nonfictional works. It is the list of novels that will provide travelers with the greatest riches. To enjoy the birth site of Western civilization in a unique way, read Eric Ambler’s chilling A Coffin for Dimitrios, John Fowles’s magical The Magus, Helen MacInnes’s breathless Decision at Delphi (every visitor has something incredible happen at Delphi) and Mary Renault’s historically rich Fire From Heaven and The King Must Die. Also listed for Greece are articles published recently in travel magazines, the New York Times and other periodicals. The references for all the other countries in the world are just as detailed, and then the volume shifts to the provinces and states of North America. Again it is the list of fiction cited for each locale that is the most interesting aspect of this dandy sourcebook. But for some reason Simony, an ex-travel agent, failed to include William Brammer’s The Gay Place, probably the best novel ever written about Texas. James Michener’s Texas, probably the dumbest book ever written about the state, is included. This compendium is otherwise so useful, however, that even the most ornery Lone Star chauvinist should forgive her. (Facts On File, $40)

LIFE: A WARNING

by Stephanie Brush

Brush, author of the 1984 best-seller Men: An Owner’s Manual, can be acerbically funny and topical, as this book shows. True, she shows some signs of being culturally disadvantaged: She doesn’t seem to know that Shelley Berman is a comedian more than an actor, and she thinks that hockey immortal Gordie Howe spells his name “Gordy.” This fitfully organized volume of advice and observations is also less a book than a string of one-liners, like a good Joan Rivers monologue that lasts for seven hours. It is nonetheless full of much more wit and wisdom than nearly any other 173 pages. For example: “Every time a major disaster hits some part of the world we live in, we are understandably relieved to hear that it only affected one million people in a trailer park in Bangladesh, and that no one from the tri-county or metropolitan area was involved.” Also: “Therapy is a good idea if you intend to stay in it for about 78 years, and you have an endless capacity for saying things like, ‘I think I’m getting close to something, but I don’t know what it is.’ ” On automatic ice-making machines: “Long after we had a need for any more ice, we would lie awake and hear the plop-plop-plop in the freezer, the unmistakable whir of a higher intelligence reasoning, ‘Who knows? The entire population of Canada could show up some evening needing cold drinks.’ ” On isolation: “Being a new kid in any school is only slightly less stressful than being a known leper at a Club Med resort.” And a prediction: Charlene Tilton’s first effort as a director “will be a CBS Sunday Night Movie about the long-suppressed problem of organized cannibalism in America’s suburbs.” (Linden Press, $12.95)

BEST INTENTIONS

by Robert Sam Anson

It would have taken nothing less than this extraordinary job of dogged reporting to tell the multilayered story of Edmund Perry, a 17-year-old black graduate of the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy who was shot and killed by a New York City cop. The first news stories suggested that it was a case of police brutality, but the cop insisted that Perry and another black youth had mugged him on the street and that he had fired in self-defense. Anson, probably because his son was also an Exeter student, began to ask questions. In this book, much of Perry’s life story is carefully revealed through interviews with 115 people Anson contacted to answer those questions. Clearly there was more than one Edmund Perry. Perry was smart. He had a summer job and a scholarship to Stanford in the fall. Yet his mother and his Harlem neighborhood saw one boy, his classmates at Exeter another, the faculty there yet a third. As one policeman observed, “There aren’t any heroes in this case. They’re all victims: the mother, the cop, even the kids who tried to take him down.” It becomes clear that it would not have been unthinkable for Perry to become involved in something like a mugging, and it is a black friend of Anson’s who provides the real key to the boy’s frustration: “He wanted to opt out of it. He wanted to go someplace where he could just have fun like anybody else. But he was never able to. Blacks and whites were always putting stereotypes on him. They wanted him to be more than the normal kid that he was. They wanted him to be a symbol.” Thanks to Anson’s telling account, Perry is not allowed to be a symbol of anything. Perry’s story, in all its shadings and complexities, in all its evidence that strong elements of racism remain in our society, must be a tragedy however. Otherwise why would it be so profoundly moving? (Random House, $17.95)

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