An Interview with David Winner

The novelist talks fascists, his eccentric aunt, and why swingers used to really love ocean liners.

An Interview with David Winner

After novelist David Winner moved to New York in the late 1980s, he spent Friday nights visiting his great-aunt Dorle in her lavish Midtown apartment. Over cocktails and cigarettes, Dorle regaled him with tales from her storied past.

As a publicist for the New York Philharmonic and, later, a co-founder of Angel Records, Dorle Jarmel Soria (1900-2002) was instrumental in launching the careers of Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Maria Callas.

Tasked with clearing out Dorle’s apartment after her death at 101, David discovered her precocious teenage diary from 1914 and — apparently penned around the same time — a fanciful collection of love stories based on historic figures entitled Master Lovers of the World.

And then he found something even more remarkable, carefully hidden in caches around the apartment: hundreds of love letters — from several different men — dating back to the 1930s and spanning decades, well into the years of Dorle’s marriage.

One of Dorle’s most ardent correspondents was John Franklin Carter, an American journalist. But when David and his wife, Angela, plugged his name into the New York Times archive, they found a 1932 article reporting that Carter had been deputized by Hermann Goering to start a “Hitlerist” party in America. This disturbing discovery launched David on a journey that would span several years as he reconstructed Dorle’s early life and loves and uncovered his own fascinating — and sometimes unsettling — family history.

Master Lovers deftly blends biography, history, and novelistic reconstruction into an unforgettable portrait of an adventurous young Jewish woman determined to live life on her own terms while implicated by the dark forces of her era.

Dorle was from a once-prominent Orthodox Jewish family, but her lover John Carter had been a Nazi sympathizer. Did that discovery spark your obsession with tracking down the identities of your aunt’s romantic correspondents?

Absolutely. I eventually learned more about Carter — the “Hitlerism” accusation was pretty complicated, and he became an ally of FDR, promoting the New Deal in his columns — but there were other mysteries. For example, many of the letters to Dorle from composer/conductor Albert Coates were addressed to someone named “Joanny.” The search for Joanny led to a correspondence with Coates’ step-granddaughter living outside of Cape Town.

 After I’d published an early version of the chapter on Bill Barker, two elderly British colonial ex-soldiers contacted me in search of more information about him, and I finally grasped that Dorle’s lovers were real people, not fictional characters. While I’ve been living my life over the last decade or so — writing, teaching, losing my elderly parents — Dorle’s five lovers have never been far from my mind. I wish I could have them over for dinner. It would be a hard-drinking evening.

Dorle’s lovers are all so different. Carter was a journalist and a government bureaucrat. Bill Barker was a British officer who fought at Gallipoli and later governed much of Mandate Palestine. Then there’s Coates, the conductor and composer; Georges Asfar, the Syrian antiquities dealer, who once took Dorle on an illicit gazelle hunt; and J.B.S. Haldane, the evolutionary biologist who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Did you find any underlying qualities that unite them?

They were all fierce characters, brave oddballs. Dorle was never involved with war, but her lovers were. Barker in Gallipoli and Ireland, Asfar in the Lebanese Civil War, Haldane (well into middle age) in the Spanish Civil War. Carter spied for Roosevelt. They provided Dorle with vicarious thrills. In Master Lovers of the World, she described Henry VIII as “no monster but a powerful generous man.” She was not a fan of mild men.

These men remained obsessed with Dorle long after the affairs were over. Even Toscanini expressed wistful flirtation in his correspondence with her. What was it about her that fueled that kind of passion?

I’m not sure, but she was certainly unflappable. At a dinner one night with my mother and Dorle, their friend Tobias Schneebaum told stories of gay S&M. At another, Floriano Vecchi relayed a story told to him by W.H. Auden involving the “dancing of sphincter muscles.” My mother looked askance, but Dorle smiled widely. When Otto Klemperer (the father of Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on “Hogan’s Heroes”) tried to sexually assault her, she fought him off and took it in stride. Nothing about sex offended her.

From contemporary writers in the 1930s and 1940s, I’ve gotten the impression that the transatlantic steamers of that era were full of unchaperoned young people looking to hook up. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Definitely! Remember that Marx Brothers scene where dozens and dozens of people cram into a tiny ship cabin? Only motion-picture codes stopped them from having sex. John Carter’s description of a boat journey to Bermuda makes it sound like a floating swingers club. Lots of drinking, too. Three of her lovers — on three separate ships — drunkenly mourned Dorle’s absence. A blotto Georges Asfar carefully protects a sort of doll that he’s found, representing some baby version of Dorle, writing: “You fussed quite a bit when we headed to the windy upper deck, but I threatened to stop taking care of you if you are not an obedient girl.”

You had an affectionate and admiring relationship with Dorle from the time you were a child until you were helping her get undressed for bed in her old age. At times, you seem disturbed by her libertine youth, both in terms of the moral character of her lovers and by the fact that several of them were married. Did researching this book change your assessment of Dorle’s character?

Dorle’s libertine youth certainly surprised me, but not as much as the way that duplicitousness and evil seem ingrained in her DNA, from the family bank that went belly-up under dubious circumstances to all the many fascists and former fascists in her life: Dario, her husband, fought with the Fascists in Eretria; her brother-in-law — my grandfather — was the first American reporter to interview Mussolini. That was typical of that era and this one. I like Biden, but he’s had several photo ops with fascists. And Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Steve Bannon, etc., are openly anti-democratic.

Master Lovers incorporates original research, world history, and your own imaginative reconstructions of Dorle’s romantic encounters. Given that your earlier books are all novels, did Master Lovers present any unusual challenges?

I was out of my depth. It took me nearly a year to figure out that John Carter actually has an archive. But the real challenge was when and how to present myself — not as a fictional character but me. Each intrusion on the story of Dorle and her lovers felt club-footed. But I did get to make stuff up, imagining Dorle in purgatory and encountering ISIS in Palmyra, inventing scenes in 1920s Damascus and 1930s Paris. That was a lot of fun.

Tyler C. Gore is the author of the award-winning collection My Life of Crime: Essays and Other Entertainments (Sagging Meniscus, 2022). He has been listed as a “Notable Essayist” by The Best American Essays several times and is the recipient of a Fulbright grant. He was the art director of Literal Latte for several years, and currently serves on the editorial boards of Exacting Clam and StatORec. Tyler lives in Brooklyn with his wife, his cat, and the occasional rat.

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