Cleopatra's Nose 39 Varieties of Desire

Judith Thurman




Trade Paperback

448 Pages



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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year

Cleopatra's Nose is an exuberant gathering of essays and profiles representing twenty years of Judith Thurman's celebrated writing, particularly her fascination with human vanity, femininity, and "women's work"—from haute couture to literature to commanding empires. The subjects are iconic (Jackie, the Brontës, Toni Morrison, Anne Frank) and multifarious (tofu and performance art, pornography and propaganda, kimonos and bulimia); all inspire dazzling displays of craft, wit, penetration, and intelligence.

Here we find explorations of voracity: for sex, food, experience, and transcendence; see how writers from Flaubert to Nadine Gordimer have engaged with history; meet eminent Victorians and the greats of fashion. Whether reporting on hairstyles, strolling the halls of power, or deftly unpacking novels and their writers, Thurman never fails to provoke, inspire, captivate, and enlighten. Cleopatra's Nose is an embarrassment of riches from one of our great literary journalists.


Praise for Cleopatra's Nose

"Thurman's research and maximalist prose resulted in pieces that might be described as snapshots, were it not for the fact that they're more like short Imax movies. In this mix of profiles, fashion writing, book reviews and the occasional plunge into an unlikely area such as tofu-making, Thurman's subject matter is broad and her intellectual range even more so. She has the biographer's knack for distilling large amounts of information into manageable bites and an uncanny talent for picking the most surprising and salient details that speak volumes in only a few sentences. To read Thurman on Anne Frank, Chanel and French critic and sex memoirist Catherine Millet, to name a few, is to feel that there is no need to read anything further on the subject."—Meghan Daum, Los Angeles Times

"The essays collected in Cleopatra's Nose, whose 39 subjects Thurman classifies as 'varieties of desire,' are their author's attempts, 'through a feat of style,' to 'prove my existence to intelligent skeptics, none more skeptical than I am.' As readers of Thurman's much-praised biographies of Isak Dinesen and Colette might guess, she has succeeded. Blessed with intellectual curiosity, a sharp wit and an unwillingness to receive opinions, Judith Thurman seems unlikely to produce anything less than a feat of style . . . As a collection of cultural criticism they are, as Thurman's mother once judged her poetry (at least in the company of her own), plenty good enough to preserve for posterity: they make an excellent book . . . The gifts Thurman brings to her portrait of a perplexing and easily misread artist like Beecroft are the openness of her mind and her ability to synthesize intelligently from unrelated sources . . . The integrity of these essays proceeds from the intellectual rigor with which Thurman bears down on her subjects, and even more on her disbelief in her own vision and talent."—Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times

"Her essays stand as ideal specimens of the New Yorker genre—elegant yet casual, knowledgeable without being intimidating, self-revealing but never self-indulgent . . . Open the cover and drop in anywhere. You'll find Thurman's crisp intelligence always at home."—The Boston Globe

"Thurman's brand of contemplative wit shines through."—Chicago Tribune

"A throaty chuckle, a low murmur of amusement bubble up between the lines of these highly original essays on human pleasure. Judith Thurman, a nice girl from Queens, N.Y., keenly appreciates the finer things in life. But even as she lusts after a Chanel suit, she's turning it inside out and examining the seams . . . While these are essays dizzy with life's surfaces, she inevitably delves deeper, seeking out larger meanings and connections, and frequently injecting a wry personal note . . . With a fiction writer's radar, she seeks the buried pain that haunts, and propels each of her human subjects. She draws a silk scarf of sensuality through her descriptions, whether savoring Flaubert's prose, New York row houses or the harness leather and sooty velvet of a runaway show . . . This essayist is absurdly quotable, each piece overflowing with a surfeit of stand-alone aphorisms . . . Thurman is an unabashed glutton at life's groaning table. Any one of these heady essays leaves a reader temporarily sated, but soon hungry for more."—Tricia Springstubb, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"Thurman's genius lies in the fact that her lyrical writing style is so captivating that it has the ability to draw you into labyrinthine topics. When you are up in the wee hours one night considering bulimia and performance art, you'll understand what I mean."—Nylon magazine

"As intimated by the title of this collection of 40-plus essays originally written for the New Yorker between 1987 and 2006, Thurman, a biographer of Isak Dinesen and Colette, finds the union of the regal and the commonplace alluring. Guided by her fascination with portraiture and image, she is drawn to influential and controversial artists, photographers, and fashion designers. Taking their measure with droll insight and wry empathy, Thurman profiles Vanessa Beecroft, a performance artist who choreographs troupes of naked women; Diane Arbus; and Coco Chanel. But she is also dazzling in her inquisitive, witty, and companionable essays about Charlotte Brontë, Flaubert, Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Avedon, Japanese culture, and, yes, Cleopatra. Because her erudite and earthy essays are often jump-started by an exhibition or the publication of a book, they have journalistic valence. But because Thurman's essays are so deeply felt and arc so elegantly from the uniqueness of each individual to the greater conundrums of humankind, they are, indeed, exquisite works of art deserving a book's more lasting embrace."—Donna Seaman, Booklist

"While this delightful new collection of essays is culled from 20 years at the New Yorker, most have appeared since 2000. Thurman's writing in the past seven years, despite a tangent or two, displays the qualities that best serve a cultural critic: intelligence, curiosity, sharp wit and little tolerance for fools. There's an edge of imperiousness about Thurman, which is reflected in many of the people she writes about, such as the Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, designers Elsa Schiaparelli and Rei Kawakubo, and Madame de Pompadour. Thurman writes primarily about fashion, its personages, trends and history, but there is room in this collection for some extracurricular interests, too; in addition to some fine book reviews and historical pieces, we get personal looks at the art of making tofu, the history of New York row houses and a lovely vignette of an evening spent with Jackie Onassis, smoking cigarettes and talking about men. Fashion, no longer ghettoized as a trifling women's concern, has grown increasingly popular in our cultural imagination, but it is ephemeral, dependent upon seasonal change. It is to Thurman's credit that she not only celebrates the creative exuberance of fashion but, in her intellectual probing, considers its lasting significance, too."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt


The Wolf at the Door

The Italian performance artist Vanessa Beecroft lives with her American husband, Greg Durkin, and their seventeen-month-old son, Dean, in an isolated house off a dirt road on Long Island's North Shore. Durkin,...

Read the full excerpt



  • Authors@Google: Judith Thurman

    The New Yorker staff writer Judith Thurman visits Google's Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss her latest book, "Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire." This event took place on November 27, 2007 as part of the Authors@Google series.



  • Judith Thurman

  • Judith Thurman is the author of Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller, winner of the National Book Award, and Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. A staff writer at The New Yorker, she lives in New York City.