In the early 1940s, the teenage James Ivory was lambasted by an army officer for wearing a “stupid and girlish” pink satin bow tie. “What do you think of me?” the officer asked at the end of his tirade. “I think you’re pompous,” Ivory replied. Now he wonders if the officer was a repressed homosexual as well as a bully. Either way the episode was important: it proved Ivory could look after himself and, despite being “a skinny boy with underdeveloped biceps”, hold his own in the world of men.
He took his time to reach the pinnacle, if winning an Academy Award is a measure of that; he was 89 when he finally won an Oscar, for his work on the screenplay of Call Me By Your Name. Now 93, he has written a memoir looking back on his life and career. Though something of a ragbag, with letters, diary entries and magazine articles padding it out, it’s consistently entertaining, if only because Ivory, by his own admission, is “a fearful snob”. The snobbery began with his realisation, at an early age, that some boys are circumcised and others, less fortunate, are not: “I’m afraid the feeling that uncircumcised men are in some way socially inferior has stayed with me all of my life.”
Ivory was adopted; his original surname was Hazen, which is as much as he knows to this day. If being abandoned as a baby made him sensitive to rejection, both at university (when he failed to get in the best fraternity) and later in life (when actors turned him down), he enjoyed the feeling of being an outsider, at odds with American culture – a Europhile and Indophile in the making.
A sharp dresser, he was voted the most stylish boy in his Oregon high school, where his homosexuality came to the attention of his female drama teacher, who warned him he was the subject of gossip. Some of his crushes came to nothing, but the penises he gazed on are meticulously recalled: “a very shapely American frat-boy hard-on”, a “heavy, charged-looking cock, of the … end-of-the-garden-hose variety”. Despite the difficulties of falling for heterosexual men, a droit-de-seigneurial confidence remained. He knew what he wanted. He always had money to spare. And his taste was immaculate: clothes, furnishings, food, wine, hotels, palazzos – once his career got going, and wherever in the world he was, nothing but the best would do.
Lucid in recalling his early years, he’s less forthcoming about his work as a director, with few tips to offer and most of those picked up from Jean Renoir and Satyajit Ray. He pays tribute to both his long-term partner Ismail Merchant (revered as charming, handsome and ebullient) and their collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, whose hauteur outdid his own (women she disliked were called Toads, and Mrs Gandhi was the Toad of Toads). But the longer chapters are on people he knew less well: Vanessa Redgrave for instance (a “brave, noble, wrong-headed being! … Had she lived in Massachusetts 300 years earlier, she might well have been branded a witch”) and Bruce Chatwin, whom Ivory went to bed with a few times (his was “a good, traditional English cock”, we’re told, “all ready for Maypole dancing”).
Among other pen portraits here – Kenneth Clark, George Cukor, Lillian Ross, Susan Sontag – the two most damning are of Racquel Welch (“She wanted to be an actress, not just star, so I treated her as an actress, and not as a star. That was my fatal mistake”) and Luca Guadagnino, who had asked Ivory to co-direct Call Me By Your Name but then dropped him without explanation. Being “watched by millions – or was it billions?” as he received his Oscar was a consolation, of course. But his hopes of spending time in Italy (“a country I love and can never get enough of”) during the shoot were rudely dashed.
At high school he used to put on a performance he called “Solid Ivory” and there’s a performative element to this book, which at times reads like a society gossip column – at a party at Wilton House, which he has travelled 3,000 miles to attend, he mingles with English aristocrats and royals – and at others like an Edmund White novel. And while there is much to enjoy here, those hoping for an insight into the Merchant Ivory films that made his name may finish it wanting more.
• Solid Ivory is published by Corsair (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.