All my life, and certainly since seeing Robert Frost recite his poem “Dedication” at John Kennedy’s inauguration over half a century ago, I have thought of Frost as the “canonized…rural sage, beloved by a public raised on poems of his like ‘Birches’ and ‘The Road Not Taken,’” as Jennifer Schuessler described Frost in a review of a recently published volume of his letters. “But,” Schuessler added, “that image soon became shadowed by a darker one, stemming from a three-volume biography by his handpicked chronicler, Lawrence Thompson, who emerged from decades of assiduous note-taking with a portrait of the poet as a cruel, jealous megalomaniac —‘a monster of egotism’ who left behind ‘a wake of destroyed human lives,’ as the critic Helen Vendler memorably put it on the cover of The New York Times Book Review in 1970.”
Robert Frost—a monster of egotism, destroyer of human lives? Who knew? Well, obviously readers of the three-volume Thompson biography did, but what about the rest of us? What are we supposed to do with this information? Are we still allowed to admire Frost’s work? Should schools still be allowed to teach it? Do our feelings about the poet taint our admiration for the poetry?
I ask these questions because Schuessler’s review appeared in the New York Times only days after the Times published Nicholas Kristof ‘s Sunday op-ed column challenging the propriety of a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award given to Woody Allen by the Hollywood Foreign Press. After quoting extensively from Dylan Farrow’s “open letter” accusing Allen (Dylan’s father) of child molestation, and after acknowledging that he (Kristof) is a personal friend of Dylan Farrow’s mother (Mia) and brother (Ronan), and after admitting that “none of us can be certain what happened,” Kristof raises this question about the award to Allen: “The standard to send someone to prison is guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but shouldn’t the standard to honor someone be that they are unimpeachably, well, honorable?”
For Kristof, the answer is clear: “[T]he Golden Globes sided with Allen, in effect accusing Dylan either of lying or of not mattering. That’s the message that celebrities in film, music and sports too often send to abuse victims…. When evidence is ambiguous, do we really need to leap to our feet and lionize an alleged molester?” Allen has, of course, denied the allegations, but to Kristof and others who have chosen to side with Dylan, that hardly matters. In the court of public opinion, Kristof seems to believe, the rule should be guilty until proven innocent.
Notice what Kristof has done in his column. He pretends to be fair by calling Allen an “alleged” molester but then treats Farrow as an “abuse victim.” If Allen had been honored as a “humanitarian,” like the winners of the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars, Kristof might have had a point. But the Hollywood Foreign Press Association gave Allen a lifetime achievement award for his filmmaking, not for his good works. It did not “side” with Allen, nor did it “accuse” Dylan of lying. It is Kristof, not the Hollywood Foreign Press, who has chosen to turn an acknowledgment of the quality of Allen’s five decades of film work into a “message” to “abuse victims,” a category that may or may not include Dylan Farrow (“none of us can be certain of what happened”).
Does Kristof really believe that we can only “honor” the “unimpeachably honorable”? Well, where does that leave us with Frost, among others? By definition, applying Kristof’s standards would mean that we could never “honor” Bill Clinton for his many achievements since he was, quite literally, impeached, and, presumably, that would also have precluded honors for Teddy Kennedy after Chappaquiddick and maybe even Jack Kennedy once the stories of his womanizing became known. Could an athlete who is a wife-beater be honored as an MVP—even if he is, indisputably, the best player in his sport? Could a writer who is accused by his ex-spouse of psychological oppression win a Pulitzer Prize? (Think Claire Bloom and Philip Roth.)
This is not a question of line-drawing nor a slippery slope argument, as in: if we refuse to honor Woody Allen because he might be a child molester, then must we disqualify anyone who engages in less physical forms of child or spousal abuse or in other hurtful behavior—where do we draw the line? This is a question about whether we draw the line at all. Should we ever let the private conduct of public figures affect our judgment of the quality of their work?
Do we stop watching Roman Polanski’s films because he was indicted on six counts of criminal behavior, including rape? (If so, ironically, we would miss some of Mia Farrow’s best work in “Rosemary’s Baby.”) Do we stop listening to Phil Spector’s records because he was convicted of murder? Or do we simply stop giving them prizes? But if we simply disqualify people like Polanski and Spector, what then would the prizes mean? Not best performance by an actor; really just best performance by an actor whose personal conduct we find “unimpeachable”? A rather more limited universe of potential honorees. Maybe they’d just have to give the best actor award to Tom Hanks in perpetuity.
Once upon a time, even the famous were able to lead private lives, and they were allowed to be judged by their public acts and public personas. But the time when we respected the privacy of public figures—when the president of the United States could carry on a secret affair with the world’s biggest movie star—is long since past, and in the internet age, for all practical purposes, privacy is dead. No one, least of all the famous, leads a truly private life, but, in a world where private acts inevitably become public property, we may still judge the public and the private by different standards.
Is Woody Allen a great man? Certainly not. (Even if he is not guilty of child molestation, the whole messy Woody-Mia-Soon Yi affair renders his conduct less than admirable.) But is the writer-director of, among other films, “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Hannah and Her Sisters,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Husbands and Wives,” “Match Point,” “Midnight in Paris,” and “Blue Jasmine,” a great filmmaker? Yes, yes he is, and we should never be confused about which question we are answering.