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Anne Roiphe's 'Art and Madness'

ART AND MADNESS: A Memoir of Love Without Reason, by Anne Roiphe. Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 220 pp., $24.95.

She grew up on Park Avenue, a nice Jewish girl who went to the "right" schools, set to have a placid life as a dutiful wife and mother. The problem was that the oppressively rigid gender roles of the 1950s did not agree with her, or perhaps she did not agree with them.

"Art and Madness" is Anne Roiphe's enthralling, candid memoir of the 1950s and '60s, as she negotiates her path among brilliant but dangerous (male) artists and writers in New York City. Her story shares elements with Patti Smith's "Just Kids," another coming-of-age story that conjures heady days among fiercely ambitious, self-destructive men.

Yet these are very different stories. Apart from their age difference (Roiphe was born in 1935, 11 years before Smith), there is the matter of Roiphe's affluent background. Smith really was a starving artist. Roiphe frets about money from exclusive locales such as East Hampton.

If Smith were a true bohemian, Roiphe was on the outside looking in. Burning out young, she recalls, was preferable to living "like my mother's pearls resting in a velvet box on a satin cushion waiting for something I had no power to imagine."

The gifted woman who would write the 1970 novel "Up the Sandbox," as well as other fiction and nonfiction, suffered a horrendous first marriage to a reckless, alcoholic playwright, struggled as the single mother of a troubled daughter and endured her share of sexism and rejection. Her swanky social circle put her in the company of Ivy League intellectuals and celebrities like Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall, but it got her nowhere. In 1964, after she sleeps with Paris Review editor George Plimpton, he tells her, "If I see you in a few years I might have forgotten I slept with you." (He does.)

When she married her first husband, Jack Richardson (never fully identified here), Roiphe joined the sad ranks of her friends -- wives of the magnetic and manic literary giants who were "famous and drunk and raved and roared and had sex with other women and passed out at the end of evenings." Amid the apparent glamour, the rushes of lust and the heated conversations about art, books and music, there was the ordinary reality of desolation and pain. Eventually she remarries -- happily, this time -- and has two more children, including Katie (herself a writer of note).

As the author chronicles her efforts to heal emotionally and achieve her literary aims, she contemplates the perils of creativity, including "a proclivity to break your brain just as professional skiers may be apt to break their legs," and wonders whether art drives you mad, or if you have to be mad to even attempt it.

Although Roiphe's memoir beautifully evokes a dazzling New York era, this is a story fueled not by nostalgia but regret, a story of dreams fulfilled at too great a cost. If she had to do it all over again, she wouldn't.

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