Cleopatra’s Nose, Renata’s Braid

1. There was a myth in college that Renata Adler had come over to America in a suitcase, and that’s how she got her tremor. Students gossiped about her at Bryn Mawr in the 1950s, and so did writers in Manhattan, later on, when she started working for The New Yorker. One man apparently thought that she was an alcoholic, just as some people, meeting her now, have suspected that she has Parkinson’s. But hers is an essential tremor — a familial trait shared with an older brother — and it has dictated small facts of her life since youth. She does not annotate her books. She apologizes for her handwriting. Her system of note-taking is to type emails to herself (she has about seventeen thousand at last count). The problem has added, at any rate, to her shyness. Growing up, there were times that she could not so much as write down her name. When her father sent her to secretarial school, the teachers singled her out and explained, We never say this to anyone, but you really can’t do this. She was quietly and tactfully thrown out. She still types with her two middle fingers. But for all her apologies, her handwriting is beautiful. It comes in two scripts: even rows of printed capital letters, or an elegant, slanting cursive, the kind that depends on detailed childhood training. 2. I asked her once about her hair, which runs in a long braid, almost to her waist. That braid has become somewhat famous, sung by those who meet her, and “immortalized,” as one writer said, in a Richard Avedon photograph. I had seen the Avedon picture and several others of her, and noticed that in practically every single one the braid falls to her right. Once or twice, it

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