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Confusing the facts in autobiographies


My teenage fantasy
Carl Djerassi Scientist
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Through years of sexual reality, I dreamed every so often of a woman lover who would sing while coupling with a man. Once, a husky-voiced woman who brought her guitar, started to sing in a stunning contralto. Lying on my bed exhausted and content, gazing at the naked woman strumming her instrument, I was about to ask her whether she could, but then I chickened out. I was afraid she would just laugh.

Years after, I happened to go to a performance of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione Di Poppea, set in the time of emperor Nero before he went mad, with Tatiana Troyanos singing the lead role. About halfway through a love scene on the couch between the young Nero and Poppea, the performance assumed such an erotic overtone that I began to squirm in my seat. I don’t go to operas for sexual titillation except for an occasional Salome [unclear]. It’s the music that excites me. But this was different. Suddenly I realised that Troyanos was the woman of my fantasies, who’d walked into Spartacus’ tent over 2000 years ago. I was a relative late bloomer, a virgin till nearly 20. But as an otherwise precocious teenager I made up for it soaking in the delicious warmth of a full bath. Not one of those modern tubs where even I, only 5 foot 6 [inches], can’t stretch out, so shallow that the water barely reaches one’s navel, where either shoulders or feet project into the cold. No. My passion flowed in a real tub. One of those huge pre-war jobs where it flowed the water up to the chin, with soapy hands between my thighs incandescently copulating with Veronica Thwale.

When I met that cool, severely-dressed, sexual androgen perfumed in civet and flowers, walking down a church aisle, the Decameron camouflaged inside the covers of her prayer book to prove the pleasures of blasphemy, I was smitten for weeks and months. Veronica, in her 20s, was the deftly cunning courtesan I’d been waiting for and had finally found in Aldous Huxley's Time Must have a Stop. God, she was something. Once our passion slipped me forward in that 6 foot tub so that I choked on soapy water.

But the spur to my longest and most lucid dream along those lines was The Gladiators, Arthur Koestler’s version of the slave uprising led by Spartacus. Don’t get me wrong - as time passed, as I became a man, there were months, even whole years when Spartacus did not exist. But the vision never departed totally from my memory. When I had a lover whose climax always ended in such long... long drawn out cries that we could never meet in a hotel I wondered more than once how Spartacus handled this in his tent on the plains of Campaña. And when I saw Spartacus at the Bolshoi in Moscow 35 years after I had read Koestler’s novel, I felt the pleasure reawakening. I still remember where the scene appeared. On the left-hand page, fairly high up, three or four lines from the top. Koestler had sketched Spartacus’ portrait with just a few deft strokes. The tall, slightly hunched body draped with fur skin, his wondering eyes and cleverness, his freckles, his words that seared your ears as he spoke, and the women who had come to his tent to satisfy his sexual urges, the camp followers, the impedimenta. But one evening on that left-hand page a woman of a different breed came in. I, the teenage version, saw it clearly. The tent flap swaying as she slid in barefoot, a whiff of music and ointment and female sweat entering with her, the chocolate skin gleaming as she passed a flickering candle, her firm breasts bearing nipples like diamonds on a ring. She kneeled beside Spartacus’ reclining figure, peeled off his fur skin, and wordlessly started to caress him. For once Spartacus took no initiative. He let the woman pleasure him, and when she saw him aroused she proceeded to sing in a low voice, mounting him. The first time Spartacus had ever been mounted and with his phallus deep in her she thrust faster and faster, singing more loudly in full voice to her climax.

I know what you’re thinking, but remember I’d read Koestler’s novel nearly 40 years ago as an innocent youth who wanted to have his fur skin removed. Since Poppea, I’ve seen Troyanos in many roles from a very male Julius Caesar in Handel’s opera..., incidentally an opera I just saw last week here in Glyndebourne, or a flighty Dorabella in Cosi fan tutti, to a recent concert performance in Berlioz's Les Nuits d’Été. At the end of the Berlioz, I met one of the musicians whom I knew quite well and told him how touched I’d been by Troyanos’ singing. On the spur of the moment I spilled out the Koestler story... he’s the only person who’s heard it... and confessed that in Troyanos’ Poppea I’d finally seen the woman of my bathtub days. I even alluded to my most recent Troyanos fantasy: listening to her while we’re both soaking in a hot tub. That’s where he caught me by surprise. Did I want to meet Troyanos? Yeah. He could arrange an introduction. 'Absolutely not', I replied. He seemed taken aback. So I tried to explain that a lifelong illusion might be destroyed. What if, screwing up my courage, I blurted out my Spartacus tale to Troyanos and asked, 'Do you sing when you make love?' She’d probably fix me with those huge dark eyes, this time full of impishness and irony and murmur: 'Of course I do, always.' What then? Would I have dared to mention my choice of the song I wanted to hear as she...?

Instead I went home and decided to re-read The Gladiators, which I hadn’t looked at for 38 years. But I couldn’t even find the book. I must have lost my copy during one of my many moves. The local library didn’t have it. Finally, I located a worn copy at Stanford University dated 1950, third printing by Macmillan. I took the volume home and skimmed the upper portions of the left-hand page. That probably took half an hour because every once in a while I stopped to read a paragraph or two, but I was so impatient to find my scene that I kept turning the pages. I found nothing. Well, I figured maybe this edition is printed in a different format. Back I went to page one and flipped through the right-hand pages. Again nothing. It was preposterous. I had seen Troyanos in Poppea and everything in me, memories of untold and untellable fantasies embellished by the wishful invention of late middle age, told me that she had been in Spartacus’ tent. I was prepared to conceive minor imperfection in my memory, but the fact that she had mounted Spartacus and sung, that simply had to be there. So I took the book to bed and read it slowly, starting with the prologue. Quote, "It is night still. Still no cock had crowed." It’s a great beginning and I savoured every page. That is every page until I got to number 84, a left-hand page. There in lines 12 to 14 from the bottom Koestler has Spartacus say these words to Crixus, his fellow gladiator, 'I’ve never been to Alexandria. It must be a very beautiful place. Once I laid with a girl and she sang. That is what Alexandria must be like.' That’s a total quote. I’ve never been to Alexandria, of course, and I’ve never lain with an Egyptian woman. But if anybody ever again offers an introduction to Tatiana Troyanos, I’ll accept.

Austrian-American Carl Djerassi (1923-2015) was best known for his work on the synthesis of the steroid cortisone and then of a progesterone derivative that was the basis of the first contraceptive pill. He wrote a number of books, plays and poems, in the process inventing a new genre, 'science-in-fiction', illustrated by the novel 'Cantor's Dilemma' which explores ethics in science.

Listeners: Tamara Tracz

Tamara Tracz is a writer and filmmaker based in London.

Tags: Time Must Have a Stop, L'Incoronazione Di Poppea, The Gladiators, Campaña, Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow, Glyndebourne, Così fan tutte, Les Nuits d'Été, Decameron, Tatiana Troyanos, Claudio Monteverdi, Nero, Poppaea Sabina, Salome, Aldous Leonard Huxley, Spartacus, Julius Caesar, Dorabella, Hector Berlioz, Veronica Thwale

Duration: 8 minutes, 25 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008