If I told him: Gertrude Stein, the financier, and me
William Louis-Dreyfus (Gérard C. Louis-Dreyfus): June 21, 1932 – September 16, 2016
Around the turn of the century, a poet working at the Poetry Society of America asked me to do her, and PSA, a favor, and meet with the PSA board president, a businessman named William Louis-Dreyfus. The idea was that his taste in poetry was too conservative even for PSA and that perhaps I could open his ears a bit on that score.
I was intrigued by the offer, curious if I could turn a stone-cold agent of Official Verse Culture, in the manner of Mission Impossible. I knew almost no one remotely like Dreyfus, who was a lawyer born in France but who headed a promient financial firm. I met with William several of times at his office in what I still like to call the PanAm building, the big one that towers over Grand Central Station.
William loved Frost, knew the poems by heart, and he was very suspicious of poetry that did not have the values he admired in Frost, though he also admired Stevens. I knew William liked modernist visual art so I thought that might be a place to begin my intervention. We read, line for line, Stein's "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso." He was skeptical at first, but once he saw how the poem worked, and saw its connection to Picasso, he was intrigued. And after a while he turned, if not into an agent for the new, at least into less of an enemy.
I wouldn't say I got him to like Stein as much as Frost, but he did go from a very negative view of her approach to poetry to some serious admiration. William and I only met those few times during which we talked only about poetry. We got along very well and I grew to appreciate the depth and care of his engagement with poetry. I liked him. I certainly didn't get him interested in the contemporary poetry I most care about, nor was I able to change his conservative taste in poets. But we did have a lively conversation and I left with an appreciation and respect for his engagement with poetry –– and he with mine.
William sent me holiday greetings for several years after our meeting, but after that we lost track of each other. I never saw him again.
I did know he was the father of the Seinfeld star, Julia. And it was through reading an account of her speech last night at the Emmys that I found out that William died a few days ago.