Princess Diane

Penny Boumelha

  • Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth
    Heinemann, 367 pp, £14.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 434 08150 7
  • Inside the Onion by Howard Nemerov
    Chicago, 63 pp, £8.45, April 1984, ISBN 0 226 57244 7

In Sartre’s Les Mots, there is a mise-en-abîme in which he writes of his youthful fascination with a volume on the childhood of illustrious men: in each life-history – as here in his own autobiography – there is a point at which the apparent banality and contingency of their ordinary life becomes illumined with the significance of destiny, as the ‘great man’-to-be fuses momentarily with the child. These moments, for Sartre, bestow a vertiginous god-like sensation upon the reader, who is thereby placed in a position to exchange knowing looks and indulgent smiles with the author over the heads of the characters. Patricia Bosworth seems to have learned much of her method from the unnamed author of Sartre’s boyhood reading. She is prodigal with knowing looks, though reading the book did little to make me feel like a divinity.

‘Diane Arbus’s unsettling photographs of freaks and eccentrics were already being heralded in the art world before she killed herself in 1971’: so begins this strikingly predestinarian biography, enunciating in its first sentence the twin destinies of its subject, photographer and suicide. Both these fates are implicit in the opening anecdote, which prefigures much of the method to follow: it tells of Diane balancing, in danger of falling (in order, it should be said, to ‘gaze’), on the window-ledge of her parents’ home until pulled back inside by her mother. The end once placed at the beginning, most of the ensuing information is marshalled towards the confirmation of these pre-formed identities. So, the infant Arbus ‘didn’t just look at you – she considered you,’ and there are numerous tableaux of Diane gazing, staring intently, or in a trance of visual concentration. Similarly, there is a steady succession of moments of depressive significance, perhaps the least convincing of which comes when Arbus chooses a white refrigerator in preference to the presumably more life-affirming salmon-pink or pale green. Such a self-confirming closed circle of biographical method does not do justice either to Arbus’s work or, indeed, to her recurrent depressions. But Sartre’s to-be-famous children differ from the subject of this biography in one very evident particular: ‘faux médiocres’ he calls them, while nothing about Arbus is allowed even momentarily to settle into mediocrity. At every stage, she is exceptionally beautiful, wonderfully gifted, extraordinarily attractive to men. Arbus always saw herself as an aristocrat, though occasionally only as ‘a crummy princess’. Bosworth obligingly glosses this for us as one possessed of ‘nobility of mind, purity of spirit, inexhaustible courage’, and informs us that ‘these were qualities Diane Arbus believed to be of utmost importance in life.’ Thoughout the book, biographer and subject collaborate utterly in this valuation of Diane Arbus.

In fact, Arbus’s family, descended from Polish and Russian Jewish immigrants, provided her with a background of economic privilege and relative cultural insecurity. They ran a chain of department stores called Russeks, specialising in furs. Diane – or ‘Deeann’, as she apparently preferred her name to be pronounced – was born in New York in 1923 and grew up amid rather ostentatious splendour and no doubt inadvertent parental neglect. She was later to be very conscious of having had a rather over-protected childhood; an important early memory for her was of ‘seeing the other side of the tracks, holding the hand of one’s governess’. Her closest relationship was with her brother Howard Nemerov, who was to become a distinguished poet. The younger sister Renée seems an isolated figure by comparison. There appear to have been incipiently incestuous tensions within the family; in Howard’s poem ‘An Old Picture’ he images himself and Diane as betrothed children. More than one of her lovers describes his relationship with her as being like brother and sister, and she and her husband were so similar that a rumour grew up that they were in fact first cousins who had married despite family opposition. Diane was educated according to the Ethical Culture system of Felix Adler, which stressed the love of learning and the development of creativity. Later, she spent the summer of 1938 at the Cummington School of the Arts, a kind of summer-camp for simple-lifers, where aspiring artists baked their own bread, made their own shoes and, as Bosworth reports with wonder, ‘literally tilled the fields’.

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