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Elliott, as I say, took no prisoners. He was, I thought, sometimes wrong but never less than brilliant. His own passion, contra Henry James, came without doubt. This passion was for art and was genuine. I recall one session of the Council when a grant was proposed for teaching painting and sculpture to patients with terminal cancer. He voted against it, urged everyone else in the room to do so, yet was not emphatic in his denunciation, lest he give way to his powerful detestation. At the break he said to me, a pained look on his face, “I cannot tell you how much I hate this kind of shit.” At another time a grant came up for teaching poetry in prisons. Elliott asked, ironically but with a perfectly straight face, “May we assume that this grant would include prisoners on death row?” When he was told yes, of course, he merely nodded, and was, with me, the only person in the room to vote against the grant, which passed despite us.

As the months passed, Elliott sought me out, sensing, a kindred soul, at least when it came to a distaste for genuinely egregious nonsense in the arts. At least I like to think that’s why he befriended me. I allowed myself to be cultivated by him, for after three or four meetings of the Council I came to admire his courage in speaking his mind in an atmosphere where candour wasn’t in great demand. I had seem him hold forth with unpopular opinions several times before his twenty-five fellow Council members and a room filled with NEA staffers in which everyone in the room, perhaps two hundred or so people, myself apart, clearly loathed him. I once asked him how it felt to take up such strong positions, knowing that doing so was making him the very reverse of popular.

“It’s not my idea of a good time,” he said. “My kishkes churn. But what choice have I?”

During our three-day meetings, Elliott and I usually had one or two meals alone together. At these meals over the years he filled me in on his past and on his hopes for the future. He was then in his early fifties. At one lunch he told me that he was thinking of putting in for the job of Chairman of the NEA, noting that what with keeping up two households, one in New York, one in Washington, it would probably cost him a hundred grand or so a year to do so. But he felt it was worth it. Not that he was likely to get the job — he was much too critical in spirit, too implacable in his high standards, to be approved by Congress.

Elliott would frequently arrive at Council meetings looking exhausted, then pick up energy as the day, and his combat with others in the room, wore on. He told me that he suffered from serious insomnia. Not, I subsequently learned, from insomnia alone. One day, just before the opening of a morning session of the Council, he said, “I think Dougie is trying to outflank me.” Dougie was C. Douglas Dillon, the former Secretary of the Treasury.

Astonished, I asked, “Why would he want to do that, Elliott?”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “he has his reasons.”
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