by David Holzel

Truman Capote used to play a parlor game he called the International Daisy Chain. Like an early, salacious version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, Capote strung a chain linking the names of who had had sex with whom, indirectly connecting disparate and unlikely celebrities. "He claimed to have been able to construct one such chain from Cab Calloway to Adolf Hitler," Joseph Epstein has written.
I began to think of this game–best played while drunk, Capote said–as I yet again tried to recall the full names of the three famous 20th-century Jewish writers named Roth.

Jersey's own Philip Roth is easy to remember. Writing novels steadily throughout my life–from the still hysterical "Portnoy's Complaint" through the most recent "The Plot Against America" – Roth, in my mind, is the literary Woody Allen, the Jewish John Updike, the American Mordecai Richler.

But then there was Henry Roth, who wrote the Freud-inspired American proletarian novel "Call It Sleep" in the 1930s and which I read in college in the 1970s. Unable to square his ideological commitments with his literary calling, Roth didn't publish again until the end of his life in the 1990s.

And finally, Joseph Roth, whom I discovered much more recently. This Roth, a mittel European, stunned by the collapse of the cosmopolitan world order in World War I, filled his stories and novels with a sense of that loss, until he drank himself to death in a  Paris hotel room in 1939.

To keep all three Roths before our eyes, we might imagine an arrangement like this:

Then, Capote-like, as the mind wanders, these names begin to suggest other associations – similar, literary names, not all Jewish, but somehow connected in the confusion. Soon we have something that looks like this:

The game is on. Players more erudite than me might find it too elementary merely to associate names. For you, the connections might be found among characters, quotations, casual details from books, or whether the writer wore boxers or briefs. Rules are fluid; this is a drinking game.

The Roths are not the only Jewish writers whose names I cannot keep straight. There is another triad that causes me even greater confusion:
                                                Harold Schulweis

                   Harold Kushner

                                                                   Lawrence Kushner


Harold Kushner, a Reform rabbi and author of "When Good Things Happen To Bad People" and other feel-good books; Lawrence Kushner, the mystical-shmystical Reform rabbi whose writings include "Eyes Remade for Wonder"; and Harold Schulweis, senior rabbi of Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, and who, according to the Union for Reform Judaism Press, "is known and respected as one of modern Judaism's most significant and creative thinkers and authors."  

While that may be true, when additional names begin to attach themselves to this locus, it becomes clear that Harold Kushner, by dint of his better book sales, is clearly the dynamic core.


Alvin Kushner being the executive director of the Jewish Community Council in Detroit during the 1980s. (Your results may vary.)

And now the final challenge: Can we link the two groups? Until we do, we have two galaxies of the Jewish word hovering closely to one another. What are the links that will connect them?

And where do all the missing names fit in? Norman Mailer. Chaim Potok. E.L. Doctorow. Herman Wouk. The Singer brothers. Bellow and Malamud. Cynthia Ozick and Belva Plain.

The connections that link humanity appear random and strange. To impose order on what seems like chaos, we retire to our parlors, salons and especially saloons and come up with games like this, hoping that in the end we once again feel we are masters and mistresses of our fate. It is an illusion, of course, but that's what we go to Happy Hour to forget. 

Copyright © 2005 by David Holzel


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"I've concocted the most scandalous parlor game," Capote wrote in a letter, published in "Too Brief A Treat--Letters of Truman Capote," edited by Gerald Clarke (Random House, 2004). "It's SO educational; and you can slander people right and left, all in the interest of le sport. It's called IDC, which stands for International Daisy Chain. You make a chain of names, each one connected by the fact that he or she has had an affair with the person previously mentioned; the point is to go as far and as incongruously as possible. For example, this one is from Peggy Guggenheim to King Farouk. Peggy Guggenheim to Lawrence Vail to Jeanne Connolly to Cyril Connolly to Dorothy Walworth to King Farouk. See how it works? Peggy Guggenheim had an affair with L. Vail who had an affair with J. Connolly etc. Here is another, and much more difficult, not to say raffiné, example: from Henry James to Ida Lupino. As follows: Henry James to Hugh Walpole to Harold Nicolson to the Hon. David Herbert to John C. Wilson to Noel Coward to Louis Hayward to Ida Lupino. Or: from Aaron Copland to Marlene Dietrich. Aaron Copland to Victor Kraft to Cecil Beaton to Greta Garbo to Mercedes DaCosta to Tommy Adams to Marlene Dietrich. Perhaps it all sounds rather dreary on paper; but I can assure you that, with a few drinks inside you and some suitable folks to play with, you'll be amazed."   [ Return ]