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Thursday, April 10, 2014

"Just Jolly" (on the homoerotic photographs of Carl Van Vechten)

just jolly


James Smalls The Homoerotic Photography of Carl Van Vechten: Public Face, Private Thoughts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006)


Since I have brought up the subject of Carl Van Vechten’s celebrity photographs, including their positive and controversial effects, I suppose I should also speak, briefly, on another body of Van Vechten’s work, not shown publically—except to a few close private friends—during the writer’s life time, but left to Yale’s Beineke Library, closed to the public until 25 years after the photographer’s death. For a full and academically adept discussion of this topic, I refer the reader to the book mentioned above, which was recently loaned to me after a brunch with Bob Holmes (former head of music rights at Columbia Pictures) and his companion Dave. The books' author, James Smalls, visited our home for a brunch, along with several other scholars, in 1998 in connection with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s show Rhapsodies in Black: Art in the Harlem Renaissance, which my companion Howard Fox, coordinated. At the time, Smalls had just begun working on the homoerotic art, and had only recently seen the photographs and collages at Yale University for the first time (see the note to the essay on Richard Bruce Nugent in My Year 2008: In the Gap).

    Although I have never seen this collection in person, it appears given what Smalls reproduces in his book and what Edward White describes, that although the collection—which includes numerous collages and other related materials, may be rather large—its nude subjects are fairly limited to a pair of male black and white models, whom Van Vechten paid to pose several times, in the studio and outside in nature.

       Compared with modern male nude photography, such as the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and certainly when compared with contemporary gay pornography—an area which, at times, this body of work approaches— the Van Vechten photographs are generally quite tame, showing both models in various poses, some suggesting sexual interactions, but mostly alternating roles of subservience and power. A moments the Black figure appears to dominate the white, and a few of the photographs play with masks and issues of bondage, the white enwrapped, in one work, in a white muslin sheet, and in another the Black figure wearing it as a kind of headdress. There are also a few posed tableaus that remind one somewhat of Wilhelm Von Gloeden and other late 19th and early 20th century photographers of the male nude—one in which the white figure is serving the Black tea, another in which the Black figure is presenting grapes to the pleading white figure, and a couple of which play with the positing of held globes of light—that seem, in their narrative expression— in opposition with the other, often more experimental nature of this art.

 Using theoretical discussions by many of the well known late 20th-century critical theorists and psychologists, Smalls assesses Van Vechten’s art in the context of all the issues it might suggest, including Black essentialism by white society, fetishism, sadomasochism, and pre-Stonewall homosexual aestheticism. It is clear that one might, indeed, “accuse” Van Vechten of any of these positions if he so wanted to. But the question on which Smalls finally focuses is based on the difference between who is viewing and through what lens, and what Van Vechten, who did not intend them for public viewing, meant them to be. Smalls argues, in the end:


                   I believe that these photographic scenarios were born out of Van

                   Vechten’s urgent social desire to legitimate and satisfy his fixation

                   on black culture and to simultaneously appease the need to vent

                   homoerotic desires. As such, they were extremely significant for

                   defining and maintaining Van Vechten’s psychological link to a

                   public social life. By focusing in on the homoerotic and on racial

                   distinction within a highly artificial and contrived atmosphere of

                   harmonious solemnity and implied sadomasochistic acts, images

                   such as these heighten a sense of white capitulation in racial co-

                   operation between the races. The social and the erotic/sexual are

                   effectively linked to fantasy. In pushing the theme of utopic in-

                   terracial harmony in ritualizes gestures and mock settings, Van

                   Vechten’s photographs succeed at playing on a conflicted fusion

                   of power, fear, and desire.



     Although I might not want to argue with Smalls’ reasoned conclusions, I do feel that the concept that Van Vechten did not publically show these did not necessarily mean he did not want them, eventually or even contemporaneously, want to be seen by others. In giving them to Yale and expressing, as I quote above, “Yale May Not Think So, but It’ll Be Just Jolly,” Van Vechten very much knew that, at least ultimately, they would be seen and evaluated. One must also remember that Van Vechten came from a generation in which, by publically showing them, he might have created not only a great deal of bad press and public consternation, but might even have been arrested, destroying his career far more significantly than did his publishing of Nigger Heaven. Certainly the egoist in Van Vechten might have loved to show this body of work—if only things had been different or had he lived beyond Stonewall into the sexual openness of our own times.

   The collages and other ephemera, moreover, appear, at least in the few examples I’ve seen, to be far more outrageously campy and provocative than the more serious-minded interactions between his Black and white models. These works not only include outrageous depictions of gay “products” to provide pleasure (title New York’s Biggest Date!), iconic gay symbols such as St. Sebastien, new definitions of what he describes as “a gay family,” and even pedophilic depictions of a “Teen Sex Club” (Things for Children To Do). I am not suggesting that Van Vechten ever acted out any such sexual implications, but he certainly delighted in their possibilities, and took the time to amuse himself in creating such visual-linguistic constructions. If nothing else, these works confirm Van Vecten’s intense desire just to “have fun,” to challenge every cultural taboo he encountered. This spoiled child, unlike the Amberson boy in Orson Welles’ great film and Booth Tarkington’s novel, was spared any “comeuppance.”


Los Angeles, April 6, 2014

"The Camera Turned Upon the Wild Beasts" (on the photographs of Carl Van Vechten)

the camera turned upon the wild beasts

by Douglas Messerli


Soon after writing the piece above, I decided to post, on Facebook (where I am somewhat embarrassed to say I currently have over 2,300 friends), the photograph of Marlon Brando, so sexy I felt and yet fairly discreet, like so much of Van Vechten’s life—despite the wild times that were so well documented. His career as a photographer, beginning basically after his abandonment of writing in the 1930s, seemed, to my way of thinking, as a kind of restatement of his whole career, as he chose his subjects quite carefully, Black figures of Harlem, gay celebrities, and other slightly outré beings as subjects whom he might promote—a significant continuation of his whole endeavor to overturn the late 19th century sensibility in which he grown up. A “high” modernist, in every sense, Van Vechten, I now perceived, had rushed forward into the latter half of the century in which was to die, pointing to a kind of early postmodern diversity of arts that seemed, at times, at odds with his often personal Wildean celebration of the fin de siècle, so prominent in his own fictions.

      Like his dear friend, Djuna Barnes, Van Vechten embraced a more arch view of literary history than did his close friend, Gertrude Stein. Although the tensions of those oppositions were at the heart of his writing and photography—even his partying—I believe he was never truly as comfortable as he wanted to be with the trajectory of his own radical visions. And accordingly, his remarkable recording of mid-20th century figures represents a sense of propriety and societal appropriation than he privately felt, particularly given his own, hidden, homoerotic photographs. And this appeals, still today, I realized, despite the sometimes less than specular results of his photographs, that makes his often amateurish-like works so appealing. As a man of contradictions, Van Vechten’s photography appealed precisely because it did project such controversial figures, Black, gay, and simply “outsider” beings upon the American consciousness as if it was the work of some slightly naughty uncle, a kind of male “Auntie Mame,” whom even the most conservative beings sometimes had in the attics of their lives.   

      Creating a dark room in his own apartment, Van Vechten—just as he had formerly given himself totally over to journalism, fiction, and spectacular partying, both outside and within his own home—now allowed photography to swallow up his life, again leaving, even within the walls of  his own apartment, his wife, Finia, very much to herself.

      The Brando portrait on Facebook was well-received and described by some friends such as vocal director Vance George as “Just natural. Beautiful.”  Cedar Rapids-based (the home ground for both Van Vechten and my own upbringing) performance artist Mel Andriga—a local authority of figures like Van Vechten—joked, “What, no six-pack abs?” while another described Brando as looking a little pudgy. I responded to Marc Hofstadfer, the commentator, that “there always was something a little soft in Brando's virility, which is perhaps what made him even more sexy.”

       In these responses I immediately sensed some desire and interest for viewers to see more of Van Vechten’s numerous photos, and I soon after published a strange picture that Van Vechten had made of his beloved Bessie Smith with a kind of fake voodoo-like African mask, to which professor Maria Damon commented: “It looks as if she resents the ‘primitivist’ tone Van Vechten is obviously aiming for,” to which I only had to agree. But others loved the photograph.

     The next photo I posted, the lovely pairing of dancers and companions Hugh Laing and Anthony Tudor, received about 40 responses, obviously appealing to the community on my Facebook. But I also realized in their sometimes innocent comments that the beautiful figures who, one responded, “looked like Tony Curtis” (Anthony Tudor) was totally unknown to them, so I linked in the Google description of Tudor and Laing. People adored the couple, but I’m not sure they ever perceived who, precisely, they were viewing—two of the most significant dancers in New York, creators of the American Ballet Theater.

       Perhaps, I realized, given a mix of well-known and lesser known figures, with the help of short bios, I might, like the teacher I have always been, help to inform some of my younger friends about the very individuals Van Vechten had been so determined to portray; and over the next two weeks, I posted pictures as various as the radical Emma Goldman, gay novelist Gore Vidal (in the prime beauty of his life), artist Thomas Hart Benton, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the great singer-actor Ethel Waters (of whom Lee Chapman wrote, “I fell totally in love with her through her performance in The Member of the Wedding”) and of whom, I pointed out, that she was, in her Harlem days, one the last “red hot mammas”; jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, novelist William Faulkner, a very young singer-dancer Lena Horne, and an even a very young image of writer Truman Capote (of whom my high-school, now Swedish-living friend Nikki Lindquivst wrote “WOW’). A much better picture of singer Bessie Smith followed, along with dancer-singer Josephine Baker (whom authors Frederic Tuten and Liliane Giraudon loved), a nude portrait of dancer Bill Earl, fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and one of many of portraits of Van Vechten’s beloved Gertrude Stein, to which Steve Rogers professed to like the portrait but not the subject.

      When I posted a quite beautiful portrait of Norman Mailer, by friend Thérèse Bachand mused: “when they were young and urban unabused,” to which I responded: “Precisely, Thérèse. Van Vechten mostly seemed to catch his figures at a time when their careers hadn't yet become so legendary that they were destroyed. Everyone is young, beautiful, and potentially wonderful! He promoted the future more than the past!”

     Mexican artist Diego Rivera, and singer Harry Belafonte (in two color photographs) followed, with postings of the Black poet Countee Cullen, novelist Carson McCullers, and two wonderful portraits of performer Anna May Wong (one in male drag) soon after, poet Aram Saroyan responding that Van Vechten was a “great photographer!”

   In late March and early April I followed up with pictures of gay poet W. H. Auden, director Orson Welles (with my friend Thomas Frick responding, “He got portraits deeper than anyone else’s of the folks you’ve posted.”), a beautiful color photo of singer-actor Eartha Kitt, artists Frieda Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe, and dancer-choreographer Alvin Ailey. Tom La Farge “wanted” Langston Hughes’s beautifully-checked suit (so might I) and everyone loved the highly artificed portrait of writer-playwright Jane Bowles. Boxer Joe Louis was followed by lesbian novelist Anais Nin, artist Salvador Dali, American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, dressed in long trench coat and looking extremely powerfully over the camera lens, and a sexy, slightly scornful opera singer, Leontye Price. A rather fragile and frightened actor Ruby Dee was followed by the great singing performer Paul Robeson, after which I posted a picture, in full sartorial formal dress, of Van Vechten himself.

      “This could go on forever,” I warned as I posted a color photo of Black, gay writer James Baldwin, actress Judith Anderson (of whom writer-editor Lee Chapman commented that she was, as was often was described of her, “Taking a dim view.”), and a portrait of Pearl Bailey (far more restained that Van Vechten’s Bailey with nude breasts which I’ve reproduced here). Jazz performer Billy Stayhorn was followed by Van Vechten’s famous portrait of writer Zora Neale Hurston, his picture of Black dancer Paul Meers, and a snapshot view, one of the last photos taken before the subject died, of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Through Van Vechten, I introduced by friends to the witty Algonquin member Beatrice Kaufman, the conservative—anti-gay—leader of the Harlem community, W.E.B DuBois, and Van Vechten’s early photo capture of lesbian author Djuna Barnes.

There was only one response to the photo British author Evelyn Waugh—he appears to be forgotten by my Facebook friends—and hardly anyone responded to the gay couple, playwright Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell, who introduced Van Vechten to playwright Tennessee Williams. Artist Marc Chagall received strange comments about who he reminded people of (Woody Allen and Lukas Foss); Tennessee Williams, the poet-writer Bryher, gay playwright Edward Albee, Black writer Claude MacKay, and Danish short-story writer Isak Dinesen, with Van Vechten himself kissing the hand of the elder Dame, were added. In the final days, warning my friends again that the postings could go on forever—more than a thousand photographs have been archived, but according to scholar James Smalls, there may be that many more still unregistered—I posted a picture of Jean Cocteau’s lover, actor Jean Marias (whom my friend, writer Nina Zivancevic described as “Quite a nice guy, far more [nice] than Jean.”), actress Tullulah Bankhead, gay playwright William Inge (who I felt I also needed to reintroduce to my “friends”), and one of my personal favorites, the gay Harlem writer and artist, Richard Bruce Nugent.

      I mention all of these figures not to celebrate anything I might have done by reposting these easily accessible images, but simply to indicate the vast archive that Van Vechten left The Beineke Library of Yale University.

      Certainly, over the years, I’d seen collections of some of these photographs; but in selecting and posting these photos anew, I suddenly gained a new appreciation of not only the vast range of Van Vechten’s documentation, but of the quality and selectiveness of his choices.  Many of these individuals, since the photographer’s death in 1964, have become lionized and loved, but in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, when he was photographing them, they stood, in his mind and in the mind the culture at large, basically as outsiders, as what one might describe as “wild beasts” of the American landscape. These Black, gay, drunk, profane celebrants were all, in one respect or another, outside of the American mainstream, yet people who Carl Van Vechten readily and enthusiastically embraced. “Carlo,” the outrageous, buck-toothed galoot “uncle” from Iowa somehow got everyone to pose before a camera which loved them for their very diversity and extravagences. Whatever the celebrity posers might have thought of him, Van Vechten loved them all, documented them, made sure that their presence might be felt upon the whole of the American culture. His achievement, no matter how one interprets his ego and intentions, has yet to be matched!

    He charged nothing for the sittings, and generally awarded the participants with free negatives. For him it was an act of a generous reiteration to the U.S. nation: these are the people who matter to me. The amazing thing is that most of them, now, matter to all of us!


Los Angeles, April 3, 2014

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"Natural HIstory: A Nightmare" (on the Ukraine and Russian invasion)


natural history: a nightmare


As always in my writing, one thing naturally leads to another. The moment I had written about this Ukrainian based film, Alexander Dovzhenko’s Earth, not only did the former premier of that country, Viktor Yanukovych, leave the country, escaping to Russia, but Russia—in pretense of protecting their Russian base in the Crimea and, reminding one of Hitler’s actions before World War II, proclaimed that his troops were entering the Crimea to protect Russian-allied citizens living there. The fact that it appears that none of these Ukrainian citizens, many of Russian birth, were in danger seems, at least to the Russian President, Putin, not to matter. The Russians perceive the Crimea—and, in fact, the whole of the Ukraine—still to be essential to their sense of national identity. But, of course, this hardly justifies their illegal entry into a sovereign country.

      The efforts of President Obama and, representing the Department of Defense, John Kerry, seem eerily reminiscent of British leader Neville Chamberlain’s misled attempts to molify Hitler and the Nazi regime. Yet no American today wants our forces to enter into yet another war. Putin clearly perceives this, and has called our bluff. And the comparisons from both the right and the left with Putin and Hitler are dangerous in the very possibility that they further stoke the tense situation. Even Hillary Clinton, however, couldn’t resist the obvious historical perception. And it appears that our allies, even those NATO nations, seem hesitant to enact sanctions; and if we were to enact sanctions, it is apparent that Putin and the Russian government will react by taking over and collectivizing US and other European countries factories and businesses working in Russia, which would result in huge financial losses on both sides.

     Bit by bit—in Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere—it appears that Putin is attempting to reclaim former Soviet territories, in part to regain Russian pride for what Putin himself proclaims was the worst event of the 20th century, the fall of the former Soviet empire.  Will the contemporary kulaks once again have to battle the invading former Soviets?  
     In today’s The New Republic, Julia Ioffe wrote that the issue was not truly based on whether or not regions of the Ukraine were divided into different political alignments—Russian or European—but that, after speaking with a large number of students and others throughout the Ukraine, it became apparent that the issue was generational. The young clearly felt that their commitment was to Europe, but that they were forced to “wander in the desert, waiting for the older generation”—those who grew up in a Ukraine that was tied to the former Soviet Union—to die off. It is not, she suggests, so very different from the Red and Blue states of our own country. The voting patterns of certain sections of the US do not, necessarily, represent the views of the younger citizens of those states, but merely a history of their parent's alignments, relationships that, like Putin, both the extremists of the Republicans and Democrats, try to take advantage of.

   By extension, one must perceive that the Soviets were quite clever in forcing many of their Russian citizens into the territories they occupied. And, by that logic, we should foresee that there will be further incursions into such border states as Estonia, Belorussia, and elsewhere—indeed wherever there remain Russian nationalists whom Putin can claim to be in danger. Yes, this too was one of Hitler’s ruses; so too was it one of Stalin’s. So too was it one of the former British Empire, of France’s North African and even Vietnamese involvements, of China’s continued stand-off with Taiwan, North Korea’s showdown with the South—and, let us recall, the US government’s own excuse for destroying so many American Native Americans. "Our citizens need to be protected," so the brutes repeat and repeat throughout the generations.

     I read a cartoon today: “Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, while those who do study history are doomed to stand by and watch those who have not relive the events of the past.”


Los Angeles, March 6, 2014

"A Tenacity for Life" (on the death of Stanley Grinstein)

a tenacity for life


Stanley Grinstein, who died on March 2, at the age of 87, may have, as the Los Angeles Times described him, been “an unlikely arts patron”—particularly because his first business was a forklift company and, early on, he did not even collect art—but once he and his architect wife Elyse became engaged in the art world, it seemed as if he was born to play that role.

      With Sidney Felsen, he founded a print studio, Gemini G.E.L., which attracted numerous blue-chip artists, including David Hockey, Ed Kienholz, Ed Ruscha, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, and numerous others, where they produced  series of amazing multiples.

Just as importantly, Stanley involved local artists with those who were visitors from elsewhere, often encouraging collaborations not only between the visual artists, but between artists and musicians. The Grinsteins, who lived comfortably, but not grandly, often invited these artists and musicians into their homes, not only for parties but to stay in their house, sometimes for long periods of time. The Grinstein’s also began collecting art, and including those artists, as well, in their celebrations, often financially helping the younger artists when they needed it.

      The period of many of these events in the late 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, was long before Howard and my arrival in Los Angeles, but the parties had become legendary for the creative energy and connections they provided—as well as for their open use of drugs and sex. In a sense the Grinsteins were like some wonderfully permissive uncle and aunt to figures in the art world, particularly at a time when Los Angeles had yet to be recognized as the center of art and music it later would become. If you wanted to be among composers and musicians, you visited the Betty Freeman’s house in Beverly Hills; if you wanted to hang out with artists (along with musicians and poets) you attended the parties at Grinstein’s Brentwood home.

      Stanley, in particular, was a vivacious person, always ready to provide a kiss and a hug, seemingly joyful just to be in your presence. As I wrote in My Year 2004: Under Our Skin, the Grinsteins were the very first people to invite us to dinner when we arrived in Los Angeles in 1985, taking us to the famed Venice Beach Café, where we were seated next to actress Mary Kay Place, who, joining us at the Grinstein’s table, suddenly swept up the entire group in a ring of hands to pray! And in 2008, the year of Howard’s retirement from the museum, it was at their house where artists such as Eleanor Antin, Dan Wheeler, Bill Viola, Jim Morphesis, curators Stephanie Baron, Carol Elliol, and numerous others gathered to celebrate Howard tenure at the museum.

      Both Stanley and Elyse had recently had operations, and despite opening their house up to such a large event, neither could move with ease. Stanley, who was suffering from kidney failure, was hooked up to a dialysis machine. Nevertheless, the two of them sat through the party with large smiles, clearly enchanted by having so many artists and friends about them. I think, even then that we all perceived that Stanley did not have too much more time to live. That he survived for more than five long years after that demonstrates his tenacity for life.


Los Angeles, March 6, 2014

"An American Original" (on the death of Robert Ashley)

an american original


The 2014 My Year volume, subtitled “conversations with nature,” was originally perceived as a forum to focus on the issues of global warming and to more closely observe the natural world around me (including the nature of the human mind and heart). But it is gradually turning into a kind necrology—a momento mori, if nothing else, perhaps appropriate given what mankind is doing to the earth. Today I heard of the death of yet another acquaintance, the noted American composer Robert Ashley who passed away on March 3rd. The cause of death, at age 83, was cirrhosis of the liver

     I did not know the man or his music well. I had listened to his “Automatic Writing” of 1979, in which he used a backdrop of electronic sounds upon which he projected his involuntary speech—somincomprehensible—caused by a mild form of Tourette’s Syndrome, from he suffered. And I listened to parts of his TV opera Perfect Lives (1977-80), where again he used a background of electronic drones, this time along with Indian tabia drums over which a voice recited a kind of Raymond Chandleresque story-like chatter.
     I wish I’d been able to witness some of his several notable operas, which included In Memorium…Kit Carson (1963), The Morning Thing (1967), Atalanta (Acts of God) (1982-1991), the Now Eleanor’s Idea tetralogy of 1985-1994, Balseros (1997), Your Money My Life Goodbye (1998), Dust (1998), Celestial excursions (2003), and Concrete (2006). He had also just completed a piece titled Mixed Blessing, Indiana before his death. I do plan to visit several sites this week to hear more of his fascinating music.

     With Gordon Mumma, Ashley also co-founded the Cooperative Studio for Electronic Music in 1958.

     I met the man once, and we had a short conversation, when he won the John Cage Award for Music from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in 2002, the same year I won the Foundation’s award for poetry.


Los Angeles, March 5, 2014


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Architectural Delusions" (on the deaths of Madeline Gins and Arakawa)

architectural delusions

On January 8th of the year, the architect Madeline Gins died, her husband and architectural partner Arakawa having died four years earlier in 2010.
      Madeline had been a long-time acquaintance and, over the years, had sent me a couple of their theoretical books on architecture for possible publication by Green Integer and Sun & Moon Press. As I noted in My Year 2004: Under Our Skin, moreover, I joined them after a reading by Charles Bernstein and Kathleen Fraser at a French restaurant where they discussed some of their architectural ideas, in this case a project “in which rooms contain within them the history of the past and are named after body parts: the ear, the nose, the liver, etc.” Even today, I cannot comprehend exactly what these rooms might have looked like or what effect having them named by body parts might have on the occupants. But then I could never quite understand their complex notions ideas architecture and its effect on human life.
      I could well grasp that buildings wherein “Each apartment features a dining room with a grainy, surfaced floor….[and wherein] electric switches are in unexpected places on the walls so you have to feel around for the right one…[and] a glass door to the veranda is so small you have to bend to crawl out” might help residents, as they put it, “to sharpen themselves neurologically and derive corresponding physical and mental benefits.” If nothing else, living in one of their constructions might be akin to living in a funhouse—perhaps a fun place be, but also rather frightening and spooky.
       Gins and Arakawa, however, took these ideas even further. Arakawa, a protégé of Marcel Duchamp, apparently thought that the Dadaist and Surrealist aesthetics did not only sharpen and heighten the awareness of the human mind, but could remake the human body in which it existed, allowing one to live forever. As The New York Times described it, the couple felt that “Eluding death through design could be accomplished….through a literal architecture of instability—a built environment” wherein “no surface is level, no corner true, no line plumb.”
     Working with their Reversible Destiny Foundation, they created such architectural projects in New York, Japan, and elsewhere, arguing in books and essays for “Making Dying Illegal” through architecture.
      Quite obviously, their ideal was not only illusive but almost manic, playing out a kind of horrifying—at least to my way of thinking—fear and fascination with death. While on might certainly admire their holistic way of looking at the arts, one also has to admit that theirs was an architecture of delusion. Arakawa died of unspecified disease at the age of 73, Gins of cancer at age 72, ages younger than the median life expectancy for most men and women in developed countries around the world. They were dreamers whom we shall surely miss.

February 25, 2014

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"What We Miss" (in memory of Miriam Olson)

what we miss

Often, unfortunately too often, when you make friends you may not truly get to know their companions, wives and husbands. Your attention on the devoted friend makes you somewhat oblivious of the “other.” Certainly that “other” may always be there, but even if you attempt to communicate, they sometimes remain in the background, the way Alice B. Toklas must almost always have been perceived in relationship to Gertrude Stein, or Nora Joyce must have appeared to most who visited her husband. I try very hard not to relate that way with my author’s or my friend’s companions, but it sometimes unintentionally happens.       
      When my dear friend Deborah Meadows married her long-time lover—the word which with she preferred to describe him—Howard, my spouse Howard and I attended a party at their home where I suddenly discovered that he was not, as I had misperceived, someone involved in the film industry, but was a remarkable scientific innovator who had created experimental imagining tools for medical devices. When I talked to his friends at the party and discovered his skills, I felt embarrassed for not knowing this about him.
      I, myself, have been misperceived, at many an art event, as simply Howard’s lover, an individual akin to a gay hairdresser—a career which might have given me much more financial security—or some other ancillary person. That I was a poet, a publisher, a somewhat significant commentator on culture never crossed some of these wealthy art collectors’ minds. We all have blind spots wherein we cannot completely perceive the “other” of our friends’ choices of companions. But it frustrated me at the time.
      Miriam Olson, my author friend Toby Olson’s wife, was never perceived from that perspective. I knew she was an important figure in the world of social workers. And I knew also something about her background, that she had taught at the Yale Psychiatric Institute and Colombia University and teaching at Fordham, before joining the faculty at Temple. But I rarely, in all the long years I knew and visited the two of them—sometimes nightly—truly asked her about what she was doing. Miriam was a force, a radiant, loving spirit, with an absolutely lilting laugh, who simply invited me into their home when she and Toby might have, just as easily—and perhaps should have—sent me back to my own apartment, just a few blocks away from their Philadelphia townhouse. Yet, week after week, they invited me in to share dinner with them, never complaining, Miriam delighted to cook a meal, after a long day at work in the university, as if I was a member of their family.
       It pains me today that, although I always loved Miriam, I seldom asked about her days of teaching or what she was currently working on. While Toby and I groused about the politics of the university English Department, I seldom heard Miriam complain once about her position in the Temple University Department of Social Administration, in which I knew she was a central figure.
       I loved Toby as a writer and friend, and I simply (as if such things are ever truly simple) felt at home in their place, intensively talking with him about literature, university politics, and….just life, while Miriam cooked up delicious meals, and their elderly cat, deaf and unable to even climb into our laps, wandered about the place. I loved that poor cat, picking it up and placing it into petting range. One evening, Toby, author David Bradley, and I, smoking marijuana, got high—or at least I did for one of the few times in my life, much to David’s,  Toby’s and Miriam’s amusement.
      Mostly, Toby, Miriam and I talked about films, about the then popular PBS television series, a literary recounting of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted (a work I now abhor), and other events of the day. I now realize, with somewhat cringing embarrassment, I must have been a terrible intrusion upon their lives; but I was never made to feel that, and Miriam’s laughter and loving personality made me always feel I was more than welcome.
       As I’ve written elsewhere in this My Year volumes, I visited them, as well, in their summer home at North Truro, on Cape Cod. Miriam was even more wonderful in what she describes as “camp Olson,” where Toby took me—a clumsy non-athletic creature—on hiking, biking, and other treks. I fell off a cliff. I shared his efforts at gathering clams and mussels by sinking into the bay. But I survived, ridiculously rising each time to declare “I’m okay.” Although Toby and I scrubbed and cleaned those mussels—a seemingly endless task—it was Miriam who infused them with wine and spices to create one of the most memorable meals of my life, which we shared with Charles and Susan Bernstein, who summered also on the Cape.
      Miriam was a magnificent presence who, I am afraid to say, I took for granted, never quite assimilating the glorious light which she always projected. If I was not always ignorant of that  human lighthouse, I was stupid; I was blind. She was too much like a mother to me—perhaps even to Toby!
      Now hearing of her death, after years of her disabling falls, followed by Alzheimer’s Disease, I can only wish her back into conversation, to talk to her about her personal concerns, her focuses on the health of women in this country.
      In her 1994 collection of essays on women’s health, Women’s Health and Social Work: Feminist Perspectives, Miriam was quite positive, seeing the time as a “period of renewed optimism” if guarded, by the new developments supported by the Clinton administration, and the growing interest in the concerns of the health of women, involving everything from general health care to rape, incest, and other abuses against what she describes as “the other.” 
     Citing changes going back to the 1960s, she argued that issues of women’s health, including those of older women, were improving. The rates in infant mortality and morbidity had improved, but not always for Black women or others of those living in poverty, “inadequate nourishment, sub-standard living conditions, including addiction,” issues that could be prevented. Quoting from Simone de Beauvoir, Olson makes it clear that women have long been perceived as second class citizens, treated through male-centered experiments, and often ignored as a gender unto themselves. Yet, Olson argues, it is not useful to simply understand these concepts as an issue only related to gender, a male/female divide, and that women need to learn from a broader perspective, that “social workers often failed to recognize their own involvement in actions based on problematic gender constructions or to speak on the inequality of women’s health that renders women’s health care less adequate.”  Olson, at end, argues for great advocacy among social workers, in short, an active rather than passive involvement with the social role in which they were involved. It was that active role that she played in life that, I might argue, defined her being.
      One might wonder how she would have responded to the increasing attacks from the right on issues regarding women’s health and rights, including the right’s increasing attacks on abortion, definitions of rape, and other women’s health issues. Just two days ago, former Republican candidate for president, Mike Huckabee, vociferously complained that Democrats were working against women by suggesting that they could not control their “libidos” and sexual activities. I think Miriam, who in her last few days had not been not able to swallow or even drink, might have stood up and screamed had she been able.
      But then, Miriam, always the lovely conciliator, might simply have set him straight: women “in our society are able to do anything, but we do need fair laws to protect us and our health.”
     And she might have laughed, as she did so wonderfully, amused by the world in which she was entrapped.
     I wish I had might have been able to show my appreciation to this woman when I weekly encountered her. I did know, I now realize, but took her gifts for granted. I so sorely miss them.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2014.