The sound of a silent starlet

Or, Dagmar Godowsky as a thoroughly modern muse

Is there any relationship less in tune with the times than the artist and his muse? The tortured old male creative draws inspiration from the beautiful young woman, whose job is to sit there and look pretty. You can track the idea’s fall by the titles of the books: In 2002, there was Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. In 2020, More Than a Muse: Creative Partnerships That Sold Talented Women Short.

In the creative partnership between faded star Dagmar Godowsky and her ghostwriter Sandford Dody, it’s hard to say who played artist and who played muse. His job was to observe and describe this once-great actress in prose, but it was to be her name on the book — First Person Plural: The Lives of Dagmar Godowsky By Herself — and she gave him one of her best performances. She was full of cutting phrases, and he was happy to sharpen them as needed.

“It is my tragedy that the years have deprived me of my bad reputation,” he helped her say.

“I lived only for pleasure and I spoiled my own fun. Where was I running? From whom? To whom? Little feet running around the globe. Nothing but circles, and I never once bumped into myself.”

The daughter of a great Lithuanian pianist, Godowsky was born into the artistic aristocracy and stayed there without much strain. She taught Vaslav Nijinsky to foxtrot, was crushed on by Charlie Chaplin, and drank litres of Dubonnet with Igor Stravinsky. In her acting career she was one of the great vamps, and she relished the role. “I want to steal husbands and watch the deserted wives weep and clutch their children to their breaking hearts,” she wrote playfully in Photoplay magazine in 1924. “I want to see people shudder when they look at me. Because if I can do all these things successfully, I shall usually be assured a job in some picture as the ‘screen’s greatest vampire.’”

By the 1950s, she was on the cusp of obscurity when a penniless young writer named Sandford Dody offered to help write her memoirs. She saw the project as a way to fill her days, he soon learned, “and how better filled than with the custard of her endless self-advertisement?

He decided the trick was to amplify what he saw as her remarkable capacity for self-awareness. “Dagmar Godowsky was going to have to present herself for what she was,” Dody wrote much later in his memoir, “an overweight, overbearing, overindulged, over civilized woman whose sense of humour and honest self-appraisal” would save the book.

Did it? In the words of the Times review, “if it is unfair to say that the book has no point, it is not unfair to say that the main point seems to be that Miss Godowsky’s life seems to be, by her own admission, pointless.”

Ah well. The lesson is still a good one: If you can’t be self-effacing, you can always hire someone to efface yourself.

“I have been a slave to my own freedom,” Godowsky and Dody wrote. “I let myself slip through my own fingers.”

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The alchemy of empathy

The Golden Rule, known across religions and around the world, is flawed. When you treat others as you wish to be treated, you may well be imposing. This error in judgment was pointed out by George Bernard Shaw in Maxims for Revolutionists:

“Do not do unto others as you would expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

This observation has since transmuted into The Platinum Rule, which made an appearance in a recent New York Times’ callout for the codes by which their readers live. Kristy McCray of Columbus, Ohio, wrote that:

“Many people live by the Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated), but I’ve come to follow the Platinum Rule, which is to treat others as they wish to be treated. Treating others as they wish to be treated requires a willingness to learn about others’ lives.”

Or, in Sarah Lazarovic’s very 2021 spin on it, equality does not equal equity. Bevond various metallic regulations, this example shows both the power and the problem of the Great Wits.  Shaw saw a flaw (say it three times fast) and he pithily pointed it out, but he wasn’t about to solve it. Or as he put it, 

“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.”

That was the 93rd Get Wit Quick , a weekly swim through the custard of self-advertisement. The Pewter Rule is to read Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting as if you had written it. Every time you tap the ❤️ below, Nijinsky does a foxtrot.