Another Beatnik Party!

the book: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

published 2016

Last Painting of Sara de Vos 2

[Rachel and her husband are giving a fund-raiser party in their apartment]

The Rent-a-Beats are Rachel’s way of trying to rouse herself back to the living. Feeling bored by the prospect of gently drunk patent attorneys in French cuffs, with conversations about real estate and Nantucket sailing jaunts, she’d remembered an ad she’d clipped from an alumni magazine.

Add zest to your Tuxedo Park party… rent a Beat. Completely equipped: beard, eye shades, old army jacket, Levi’s, frayed shirt sneakers or sandals (optional). Deductions allowed for no beard, baths, shoes or haircuts. Lady Beats also available.

When she called the number in the ad a woman with an adenoidal voice answered, apparently reading from a script. For a flat rate of $250.. you can have two artists, two poets, and two intellectuals show up at a designated time…

The woman asked, “How many Beatniks would you like, ma’am?” and, “Do you prefer the women in Mexican shawls or bolero jackets?” By the end of the call, Rachel had chosen their complete wardrobe, right down to the ballet flats, berets, sunglasses, and silver earrings.

Last Painting of Sara de Vos  1

****ADDED LATER: Jessica Goody found what seems to be the actual advert featured in the book and sent it to me:

commentary: A most unlikely connection between two books I have read recently. On Sunday I posted about The Half Hunter by John Sherwood, a forgotten English crime thriller. I said
‘I wish I’d lived in a time where I could’ve been a Beatnik’, said no-one, ever.  
But wait! 
I strongly recommend that you Google Image or Pinterest search on ‘beatnik party’: the pictures are stupendous. Or on ‘Beatnik book covers’. Honestly. I implore you. It was obviously tremendous fun, with terrific clothes.
And then up popped this couldn’t-be-more different book, a recent American novel about painters of the Dutch Golden Age, and art history, and fakers and forgeries, spinning between the 17th century in the Netherlands, the late 1950s in NY, and the year 2000 in Australia.

And in 1957, as the book begins, a wealthy New York couple hold a fundraiser in their apartment. Some time later they realize that their rare and valuable Dutch masterpiece has been replaced by a fake: it seems likely that either the rent-a-Beats (who maybe were a disaster or maybe added excitement to the party, depending on your point of view) or the imported caterers are to blame.

I was very wary of this book: it had many potential strikes against it. Historic present narrative, 3 different timelines, and something of the books that I rail about on the blog:
There is a certain kind of American novel that I rudely describe as ‘And then we went uptown and then we went downtown and then it was Thanksgiving’: lists of events with mysterious trails of meaning, the author saying ‘make what you can of them’.
And there are a few sections throughout tending that way (which I would have cut if I were his editor: Eel fishing and fridge-drowning for example). But overall the book was wonderful, I absolutely loved it.

Last Painting of Sara de Vos  Judith Leyster

We follow Sara, the Dutch artist trying to make her way in a world (the 1630s) that is not prepared to accept women painters, and there are thrilling descriptions of both the process and the results of her painting. In the 1950s, Marty the wealthy lawyer is trying to find out what happened to his picture. And Elly is a penniless student who makes money by not asking too much about the restoration work she does in Brooklyn. There are sections set 40 years later, teasing out what has become of Marty and Elly.

To say more would be to spoiler – this is not a crime book or a mystery as such, although there are secrets and unknowables.

It is immensely readable and entertaining – I actually read its 370 pages in a day, because I so wanted to know what was going to happen to the main characters. When the narrative switched I would be saddened, and then quickly become engrossed in the new angle on the story.

I loved that some sections of the book were about older people: always an unexpected pleasure.

I loved the clothes descriptions:
Ellie’s wearing a cotton sundress that makes her feel flimsy and exposed compared to [her supervisor] Hornsby, who looks like she just came in from a jaunt in the Swiss Alps instead of a bagel run on Upper Broadway.
I loved the writing:
[In 2000] she notices that he still wears the same cologne – an alpine and citrus telegram that arrives from 1958.
And I wished so much that I could see Sara’s paintings, described so clearly and cleverly.

One mystery in the book is never solved, and I wish Smith had been clearer about that (who took the photo, and when?) – I think it added nothing to leave that unresolved.
But other than that – a wonderful book.

Sara de Vos is fictional, but Smith mentions in a note a Dutch artist called Judith Leyster of around the same time, and the picture above is a self-portrait by her from around 1630. It is from the NGA images collection. (Smith also tells us that the rent-a-beat advert was real – though of course we don’t know if it ever produced results.)

The book reminded me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a good thing, and is about a million times better than the exasperating The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild, which covers vaguely similar ground.


  1. Oh, this sounds like an interesting look at two very different eras, Moira! And I absolutely love that 'Rent-a-Beatnik' idea. How funny and clever! The writing style appeals to me, too, as does the look at art. Hmm.....intriguing....

    1. This book is FULL of original ideas and clever scenes, Margot, I really admire the writer for getting so much into it, and for writing about women so well. I will be very interested to see what he does next...

  2. Reminds me of arty types who work in theatre administration. They have a look that hasn't changed in 30 years: very short, blunt-cut fringe. White face. Scarlet lipstick. Vintage scarf tied round hair.

    1. Oh yes, great description, immediately called to mind a very clear image.

  3. In 1957 there were beatniks. In 1967 there were hippies and the world reacted as if it had never seen young people with long hair, weird clothes, strange intellectual fads and peculiar music before. The hippies were just beatniks with brighter colours, but the beatniks were no longer mentioned. The hippies had sprung fully formed from a San Francisco suburb. We thought we had no history, but we were the last spark of a fire that started (as so many things did) with Helena Blavatsky in the late 19th century and that whole spiritualist, pagan, eastern etc culture. Then came the 70s and you either conformed or became drearily political and ate brown rice.

    1. Yes indeed. And, oddly, when reading Charlotte Bingham's recent book ( ) I remembered that her much earlier memoir about being a deb in Beatnik times had been republished 10 years later with 'Beatniks' replaced by 'hippies' in the text.
      I suppose there will always be a way for young people to be exactly like their friends, but feel they are non-conformist and rebellious. And helpful adults will complain and be outraged, which must be very satisfying.
      Same as there will always be a way in which fashionable young women will be able to show off eg their legs.

  4. Moira: Now those are beatniks in the photos. They have that self-consciously "I'm cool and you're not" presence that I associate with the "it" people of each decade of the last 60 years. Perhaps I am just envious as I was never a member of any "it" group.

    With regard to the book It would take a talented writer to convincingly bring together the story lines you have set out in your post. I cannot remember the last time I went through 370 pages of a book in a day.

    1. I LOVE that top picture, you can just stare at it and keep seeing more things. As you say, it does seem to sum up a certain era.
      I was very impressed by the book - I didn't have particularly high hopes when I started it: and I certainly wasn't intending to read it in a day! (Very unusual for me too.)

  5. I think I could go through the rest of my life not hearing the word Beatnik and being blissfully happy......

    1. You are alone in this! Everyone else loved my Beatnik pictures...


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