The week before he was fired from MGM, late in 1931, Scott Fitzgerald was having lunch with the screenwriter Dwight Taylor in the company canteen when something, or even two things, more disturbing than his own drunken dreams appeared and sat at his table. The apparition was a pair of Siamese twins. ‘One of them picked up the menu,’ Taylor remembered, ‘and, without even looking at the other asked: “What are you going to have?” Scott turned pea-green and, putting his hand to his mouth, rushed for the great outdoors.’
The twins were in the studio to work on a film called Freaks, made by Tod Browning, who had just directed Dracula with Bela Lugosi. In their 1995 book Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, David Skal and Elias Savada recount the casting process for Freaks:
In a Montreal sideshow, scouts discovered Johnny Eckhardt … a startling ‘half-boy’ whose body ended below the ribcage. The armless, legless Prince Randian was a native of British Guiana who could shave himself as well as roll and light cigarettes using only his mouth. Pete Robinson was a 65-pound ‘human skeleton’. Olga Roderick … was a traditional bearded lady, and Koo Koo (‘the bird girl from Mars’) appeared to be the victim of progeria, a rare disease that causes rapid and premature ageing.
As Browning assembled his actors, he discovered that they were as entitled as any other group of stars. It didn’t bother them, it seemed, that a separate canteen had to be created for them as a result of a formal protest ‘so people could get to eat in the commissary without throwing up’ at the sight of them. Leila Hyams, who performed with them in Freaks, noted: ‘The freaks were not at all sorry for themselves … they might be sorry for the other fellow … but none of them was sorry for himself.’ Olga Roderick, whose grey-streaked beard reached down to her waist, ‘was very grand and ritzy. You almost expected her to peer at you through a lorgnette.’
The actors suffered from ‘professional jealousy’, he noted, more than self-pity. ‘Not one of them had a good word to say for the other.’ The backbiting was, it seemed, infectious – since Browning joined the bad-mouthing. He told the Los Angeles Times that he could never tell what his freaks might do. ‘Most of them are either imbecile or abnormal and not responsible … Once in a while they become upset, angry and would try to vent their rage in biting the person nearest to them. I was bitten once.’ The crew, in turn, found Browning unpredictable and had nothing good to say about him. The film editor described him as ‘very much, in my book, a sadist, and I imagine that is why he picked those kind of subjects … He was very difficult to work with, very sarcastic, very unappreciative of any effort and very demanding.’ He said that Browning behaved differently towards the freaks: ‘Tod just loved being around them, loved talking to them. Of course, they didn’t really talk back.’
At an early showing of Freaks in January 1932, the art director Merrill Pye remembered, ‘Halfway through the preview, a lot of people got up and ran out. They didn’t walk out. They ran out.’ A woman who attended tried to sue the studio, ‘claiming the film had induced a miscarriage’. The strangeness of the film, and its power, come from Browning’s refusal to centre the narrative on the freakishness of the freaks. Instead, they are allowed to fall in love, get involved in treachery and jealousy, be greedy and nasty and horny. This last element is what makes the film subversive and, it should be said, tremendous fun. When Hans, a dwarf, falls in love with the full-bodied ballerina, he is sure he can satisfy her sexually. The Siamese twins, without separating, get married. ‘Perhaps the scariest scene in Freaks,’ Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, ‘is the wedding banquet, when pinheads, bearded women, Siamese twins and living torsos dance and sing their acceptance of the wicked, normal-sized Cleopatra, who has just married the gullible midget hero.’
This insistence on shining a new light on unlikely sexual relations may help explain why the original version of Freaks was heavily cut and edited and no longer exists; why the film, even in its edited state, was banned in Britain for thirty years; and why American audiences flocked to see it in some places (Boston, Cleveland, Houston, St Paul, Omaha) but not in others (Los Angeles, Chicago, New York). It also caused great division among critics. The film cost more than $300,000 to make, and lost more than half that amount. Although Browning’s career never recovered from it, his reputation has been greatly enhanced by the anxieties it stirred up. It seemed that the world wanted Freaks, longed for it and was fascinated by it, and wasn’t ready for it, recoiled from it and deplored it, all for the same reasons.
Diane Arbus loved Freaks. She watched it ‘innumerable times’, Arthur Lubow writes in his biography, ‘often introducing people she knew to its pleasures’. ‘She said she had to see it every time it played,’ one of those friends recalled. As a photographer, Arbus liked taking pictures of those whom others believed to be freaks. ‘You can’t,’ she said, ‘become a freak, but you can be a fan of freaks.’ She enjoyed meeting her subjects in their homes so that the background looked normal, domestic, familiar; the ordinariness of the context made the freak both more and less freakish at the same time. Arbus had a way of making even the most ordinary people seem frightened, or uneasy, or garish, so that the line between who was a freak and who wasn’t in her work became thin. It was as though she went out with her camera looking for the unsettled, or for some way of finding or inventing a world as distant as possible from the one in which she was raised.
Arbus’s brother, the poet Howard Nemerov, wrote that her ‘pictures are spectacular, shocking, dramatic and concentrate on subjects perverse and queer (freaks, professional transvestites, strong men, tattooed men, the children of the very rich)’. He and Diane were the children of Gertrude Russek, whose family owned a large department store on Fifth Avenue in New York, with branches in Brooklyn and Chicago. In 1919, Gertrude married David Nemerov, a window-dresser in the main store who rose to become president of the company. Howard was born in 1920, Diane in 1923 and their sister Renée in 1929.
The work that their father put in at the department store, Lubow writes, ‘took place mostly out of the children’s view’. But ‘the attention that Gertrude devoted to herself they witnessed daily. Mrs Nemerov typically stayed in bed in the morning past 11 o’clock, smoking cigarettes, talking on the telephone, and applying cold cream and cosmetics to her face … Some days she had the chauffeur drive her to Russeks, where she would bask in the deference that was her due.’ She was, as Lubow writes, ‘a self-involved woman with conventional tastes and prejudices’ and would often ‘wonder where you children came from’, since her brood was of an artistic inclination from early in life. When Diane was 11, her mother suffered a nervous breakdown and only recovered from her ‘morbid torpor’ when a psychiatrist was foisted on her and she needed to ‘avoid responding to his frighteningly intimate questions’. Renée Nemerov, recalling how she and her sister viewed their mother, said: ‘We thought she was terribly artificial, concerned with outward appearances only, in how things looked to people. Preserving an image that she wanted to present to the world: society lady.’
In this rarefied world, Howard and Diane, as the older children, were left a great deal to their own devices. In early adolescence, we are told in Lubow’s book, they had some sort of sexual relationship, which continued, Arbus told her therapist, throughout their adult lives. This may help us to read some of Nemerov’s work, including his 12-line poem ‘An Old Picture’:
Two children, dressed in court costume,
Go hand in hand through a rich room.
He bears a sceptre, she a book;
Their eyes exchange a serious look.
High in a gallery above,
Grave persons frown upon their love;
Yonder behind the silken screen
Whispers the bishop with the queen.
These hold the future tightly reined,
It shall be as they have ordained;
The bridal bed already made,
The crypt also richly arrayed.
At her funeral he read a poem, the last in a sequence called ‘Runes’, in which the word ‘secret’ is used six times. This may have been an accident, a coincidence; he may have chosen the poem for some reason that had nothing to do with the rich secret life that he and his sister may have enjoyed or suffered. Nonetheless, it’s hard, reading Nemerov’s work, with its patrician and unchaotic style, not to feel that the order and the high tone were designed to keep something else away – but the something else may have been Nemerov’s experiences in the Second World War, or the bookish unease that those who knew him noted. When looking for signs of his sister in his work, we may be looking in the wrong place.
In his elegant and meditative memoir, Silent Dialogues, Nemerov’s son Alexander attempts to tease out the connections between his father’s poetry and his aunt’s photography and the tensions between their two personalities:
The world for my father responded only to his intelligence … Arbus, by contrast, could see the world as it was without her. She simply gave it the chance to be as it was. What she saw, in one sense, was the ardency and joy of the world relieved of the burden … of having to be intelligent for her, of having thereby to mirror her own intelligence, or being required to give that intelligence back to her in a genuine way, ever present, all the time, that must have been exhausting to the person of such expectations, like going to the school of your own mind 24 hours a day.
Nemerov deals with the rivalry between his over-intelligent father and his ardent aunt. He remembers a print of one of Arbus’s most famous images – Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ, 1967 – with a dedication to his father written by Arbus, languishing ‘in a drawer in the living room of our house, mingled among my childhood drawing supplies, the sheets of paper and coloured pens. Predictably in that place the photograph suffered damage, creases and some cracks in the emulsion.’ The only image made by any of the family that hung on a wall in the Nemerov house was a bad painting by Alexander’s grandfather, done in his retirement. He also remembers his mother, Peggy, noting that when his father came home after accompanying his sister on one of her photographic shoots in New York, ‘perhaps to some dime museum or other out-of-the-way place, it took more than the ordinary martini … to calm him down and get his wits, his balance and calm, back into working order.’ After both siblings were dead, Peggy denied that there had been any special affinity between them. ‘We didn’t know her,’ she said, ‘we never saw her, there’s nothing there. Howard never thought about her or cared about her.’
Howard’s Journal of the Fictive Life, a strange, fragmented book published in 1965, has much to say about photography. There are moments when the text reads like a long letter to his little sister. He looks at a portrait of them as children, when he is seven and she four: ‘A little, a very little, sexual experimentation with my sister must probably date to about this time; but that is not a new memory, and was never in fact really forgotten.’ He ponders the embarrassment he feels about photography: ‘If I wrote about my wife photographically, so to say,’ he writes, ‘it might occasion me, as well as her, some domestic inconvenience.’ Or: ‘I once sent a girl a photograph of a boy peeing. About age 11, or maybe 12, we all were.’ He then considers his own concerns about photography itself:
The camera, whether in the hands of a reporter or scientist or detective, pries into secrets, wants everything exposed and developed … The camera wants to know. But if my hypothesis is correct, this knowledge is dialectically determined to be unsatisfying … Everything known becomes an object, unsatisfactory (not what you really wanted to know), hence to be treated with contempt and forgotten in the illusory thrill of taking the next picture.
Later in the book, he writes: ‘The camera is false art.’ It was as though he and his sister were in lifelong competition. Nemerov’s careful use in his poems of iambic pentameter and strict stanza forms sought to control the world, pin it down, keep danger at bay, expose as little of himself as he could. His sister used her camera in a way that was controlling too – but also dangerous, almost lurid. Her photographs were adventurous in a way that Nemerov’s poetry notably wasn’t. It must have unnerved him, watching what she did. Journal of the Fictive Life unnerved her in return. She wrote to him: ‘It hits me with a kind of contagion, not precisely as though it were my book, but I recognise so nearly everything in it, like I am possessed.’ In response to her brother’s musings about photography, she wrote: ‘The silent dialogue we have had all our lives on these matters is the more extraordinary for what we seem to have heard.’ Lubow writes that she ‘bridled only at his characterisation of her photographs as “spectacular, shocking, dramatic”, in their focus “on subjects perverse and queer” … She said it “read like a dirty catalogue”.’
Just as their mother married a man who had a menial job in the family firm, Diane married Allan Arbus, who, having dropped out of college, was working doing paste-up in the Russeks advertising department. Diane was 13 when she met Allan and 18 when they married. Their daughter Doon was born in 1945, when Arbus was 22; nine years later they had another daughter, Amy. Soon after their wedding, Allan gave Arbus a medium-format view camera that could be used on a tripod but was also light enough to be carried around. She took a course in photography; soon she too was employed by her father to do advertising work. With Allan running the business, both he and Diane in the early years of their marriage made their living from fashion photography. But by 1956 she had had enough and, seeking to forge a personal style as a street photographer, began to study with Lisette Model, who had emigrated from Paris in 1938.
Model liked photographing fat or grotesque people; she had also taken pictures of sideshow performers and freaks. ‘Never photograph anything you are not passionately interested in,’ she said to Arbus. She had trained as a painter. ‘We drew from the models,’ she said, ‘and you cannot imagine how fantastically boring it can be to look hour after hour at a beautiful body. But an ugly body can be fascinating.’ Since Arbus was uncertain and afraid, Model encouraged her to use her fear, acknowledge her own fraught feelings once she had a camera in her hand. When Arbus responded: ‘What I photograph is evil’; Model replied: ‘Evil or not, if you don’t photograph this you’ll never photograph in your life.’ Later, Model said of Arbus: ‘You had to reach her where the deepest anxiety lay – that it was evil. And I pushed it out. One hundred per cent consciously. It was my business as a teacher to get it out. What comes after that I am not responsible for morally.’
While Model liked to catch people unawares, snap and then run, Arbus became interested in the connections she could make, the seductions. She liked getting close to those she photographed. She wanted her own unsparing gaze to find a gaze returned. She wanted people to welcome her advances, to note her energy and give it back to her. She wasn’t interested in suffering or pain, or victims of accidents or discrimination. She wasn’t involved in documenting the world. It was the aura of normality around strangeness that fascinated her; she liked people who saw their own weirdness defiantly, making them seem all the more peculiar and the image more unsettling. It wasn’t that she wanted to please her subjects, or make them feel good. She wanted to collect them, have them, as, say, a butterfly collector will wish to trap and have a new specimen. To a friend, Arbus compared photographing people to ‘flattening them on the wall like a butterfly impaled on a pin’.
Arbus and Allan separated, and she occupied herself bringing up her daughters and trying to make a career. It was a time when photographic prints were rarely sold to collections. (In 1969, the Met agreed to buy three prints from Arbus at $75 each and then changed its mind, taking only two. By 2015, a single print of hers would sell at auction for nearly $800,000.) Arbus made money if magazines published what she did. Since what she did was strange and disturbing, she continued to depend on Allan financially and worried a great deal about money. (When New York magazine published her photograph of Viva, the Warhol star, half-naked, they blamed the photograph’s garishness for losing them half a million dollars’ worth of advertising.) Arbus’s appointments book gives some sense of the strain she was working under: ‘Buy Amy’s birthday present, go to the morgue.’
In 1959 Arbus met the magazine art director and painter Marvin Israel, who became her lover and one of the great influences on her life. He introduced her to Walker Evans, who was, in 1938, the first photographer ever to have a solo show at MoMA. ‘He was totally overwhelmed’ by Arbus’s work, Evans’s wife recalled. ‘He saw that the pictures were posed. He admired that very much – her courage. He saw some of the people were marginal, and he would have photographed them too, but secretly.’ Israel also introduced her to the work of August Sander, with whom she became obsessed. She wrote to Israel in one letter that ‘everyone today looked remarkable just like out of August Sander pictures, so absolute and immutable down to the last button feather tassel or stripe, all odd and splendid as freaks and nobody able to see himself, all of us victims of the especial shape we come in.’ ‘Sander,’ Lubow writes, ‘did more than inspire Arbus. It appears likely that she learned specific posing techniques from him. In particular, the German photographer liked to arrange sisters side by side, wearing the same dress, bodies touching.’ Israel, with whom Arbus was in contact almost every day, began to encourage her to make her images as disturbing as possible. The photographer Deborah Turbeville noted: ‘Marvin was manipulating her to go further and further into dark subject matter. The more strange, the better, for Marvin … When an artist discovers someone who understands her work that well, she becomes dependent on him. She has to.’
For Arbus , the taking of a photograph had an odd erotic charge. In a lecture she gave in 1970, she described it as ‘a sort of naughty thing to do’ and ‘very perverse’. That she could make the simple act of pressing a button transgressive and dangerous became more and more part of her legend. ‘Giving a camera to Diane,’ Norman Mailer said, ‘is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child.’
In 1962, she began to use a Rolleiflex instead of a Nikon. The advantage wasn’t merely that the Rollei could register more detail but that it could be held at waist level. ‘The photographer,’ Lubow writes, ‘sees the image mirrored in left-right reversal by one of the lenses onto the matte surface of the ground glass. Focusing and composing are more deliberate with a Rollei, affecting the photographer’s relationship to her subject … Since the camera is not hiding the photographer’s face, she can make eye contact directly with the subject before shooting.’ The pictures produced by the Rollei were square, thus encouraging Arbus to place her subject at the centre; ‘a tendency,’ Lubow writes, ‘reinforced by Arbus’s adoption of a Rollei equipped with a wide-angle lens’, which slightly heightened ‘the prominence of what is central in the frame and subtly exaggerates the distance of the marginal background. These distortions amplify the sense that a picture is intensely focused yet slightly off-kilter.’
As she worked, Arbus moved between making photographs of, say, nudists or rich people, which were almost explicitly comic, to taking pictures that showed people with some disability or unusual physical appearance. While some were done without overt cruelty, many, in their frankness and bluntness, suggest the photographer was somehow exploiting the subjects for their shock value or to satisfy some mutilated and estranged part of herself. As we look at them, we can’t help wondering what caused her to seek these images out so obsessively. We sense that the person who took these pictures was in need of something. While the people who are photographed almost challenge you to name their oddity out loud, the sense of herself that the photographer leaves behind is of a massive, unadulterated and, at times, glorious strangeness.
There are other times, however, when Arbus manages to create an image whose effect is subtle and hard to be sure about. This includes her 1967 picture of identical twin girls taken in Roselle, New Jersey, in a Knights of Columbus Hall. The twins’ father thought that it was ‘the worst likeness of the girls we’d ever seen’, but that was hardly the point. The girls are standing, posing, right beside each other. They are wearing the same clothes. And they are looking at the camera. One girl is smiling more than the other and seems softer, sweeter but she is also slightly pitiful. The other is tougher, harder. She may be having ugly thoughts.
The main thing to be said about the girls is that they are almost identical, but they don’t seem especially concerned about it. For Lubow, this photograph ‘indelibly evokes … the duality of a human sensibility’. In her biography of Arbus, first published in 1984, Patricia Bosworth notes ‘the freakishness in normalcy, the normalcy in freakishness’ in it. William Todd Schultz, in his An Emergency in Slow Motion: The Inner Life of Diane Arbus (2011), says that Arbus gave a print of the photograph to her therapist and ‘in the psychoanalytical tradition, a gift like that is a disguised admission.’ It is also the image that Arbus gave to her brother Howard, and that he kept in a drawer.
The photo was printed so that the girls’ dark dresses seem to connect. It’s hard to look from one girl to the other and think about ‘the duality of the human sensibility’. The girls, because of their pose and their gaze, manage to make such a statement seem too heavy-handed. They are both making sure that the camera sees them, or maybe each one is in a very different way making sure that the camera sees her. There is something helpless and gripping and fully alert about them in their twoness that remains also nearly true when you study only one of them. The picture is almost funny, and then it isn’t. Each girl, when you look again, seems remarkably herself, unique. But of course they are freakishly similar and still, despite everything, quite alone. They defy the viewer to care too much about whether the photographer had a cruel streak or was a weird person or had an unhealthy interest in freaks. They seem too full of their own concerns. And that idea – the self-sufficiency and pure individuality of many of Arbus’s subjects, their fearlessness, the sense they exude of a rich and defiant life despite all their apparent oddness – is what makes looking at her pictures exciting.
While magazine editors, as her celebrity increased, sought to use Arbus to photograph celebrities, very few of the resulting pictures really worked. On the other hand, as John Berendt, who commissioned her for Esquire noted, ‘her eyes would light up at the mere suggestion of oddity, deformity, depravity.’ When the Sunday Times magazine in London tried to interest her in taking pictures of terminally ill patients in a hospice, she couldn’t do it. She had no interest in temporary afflictions or suffering, in photographs that might help us see what pain looked like. She wouldn’t have done well in a war unless there were midgets in the fray, or overgrown men, or anguished suburbanites, or strange little boys, or raw-looking young Americans alone with themselves, or Upper East Side ladies. (When Arbus photographed such a lady she had encountered in Central Park, making her appear very morose indeed, a friend who knew the woman reacted with shock: ‘I had never seen [her] look like that before. She was always laughing, smiling, covering up what was underneath.’ Soon after the picture was taken, Lubow tells us, the woman committed suicide.)
As fashions changed, and photography began to be seen as an art form, Arbus became more and more famous. In 1970, the year before her death, she was introduced to Philip Leider, the founding editor of Artforum. He had never featured a photograph in his pages. ‘He didn’t believe photography mixed with painting and sculpture; he wasn’t even convinced it was an art form.’ But he was astonished by her images and believed that ‘Diane’s work accomplished for photography what we demanded be accomplished, under the demands of Modernism, for all arts: it owed nothing to any other art. What it had to offer could only be provided by photography.’ In May 1971, two months before her suicide, Artforum printed six of Arbus’s photographs, giving each one a full page.
Not everyone was convinced by Arbus’s work, however, or was filled with admiration for her. The most direct assault came from Sontag. In On Photography, published in 1977, five years after Arbus’s hugely popular posthumous retrospective at MoMA, she wrote: ‘The Arbus show lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases – most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings – who have paused to pose and, often, to gaze frankly, confidentially at the viewer. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed.’ She went on:
The most striking aspect of Arbus’s work is that she seems to have enrolled in one of art photography’s most vigorous enterprises – concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate – but without the compassionate purpose that such a project is expected to serve … Most characters in Arbus’s Grand Guignol appear not to know that they are ugly. Arbus photographs people in various degrees of unconscious or unaware relation to their pain, their ugliness. This necessarily limits what kind of horrors she might have been drawn to photograph: it excludes sufferers who presumably know that they are suffering, like victims of accidents, wars, famines and political persecutions. Arbus would never have taken pictures of accidents, events that break into a life; she specialised in slow-motion private smash-ups, most of which had been going on since the subject’s birth.
Though most viewers are ready to imagine that these people, the citizens of the sexual underworld as well as the genetic freaks, are unhappy, few of the pictures actually show emotional distress. The photographs of deviates and real freaks do not accent their pain but, rather, their detachment and autonomy.
Later in her essay, Sontag writes: ‘Arbus’s interest in freaks expresses a desire to violate her own innocence, to undermine her sense of being privileged, to vent her frustration at being safe.’
So, it seems, instead of regarding the pain of others, Arbus took photographs in order to explore something that lurked within herself, something private and insistent and powerful, much as a poet might work with language and emotion or a novelist with plot and character. Or, to be less lofty about it, in the same way a voyeur or a nosy parker might snoop. In any case, it seems that Arbus got the sort of comfort from taking her photographs that she got from nothing else.
She also, it is clear, had no interest in compassion – but she’s hardly the only artist to feel that way. Many novelists wouldn’t dream of writing about ‘accidents, events that break into a life’; many playwrights are concerned with ‘slow-motion private smash-ups’ not so that they will evoke ‘compassion’ for those who aren’t perfect, but so that the drama they make will be more exciting. This may be called exploitation, but there are other terms more neutral, more respectable, that could also be used. Novelists indeed are often given encouragement to stop their readers from identifying with their characters; and they can, if they wish, avoid writing about ‘victims of accidents, wars, famines and political persecutions’. (Beckett, for example, or Houellebecq.) Poets who ‘violate’ their ‘own innocence’ and don’t expect their readers to ‘identify’ with their ‘pain’ are often admired. (Plath, for example, or Sexton.) Painters, in turn, are allowed to make paintings of physical oddness and freakish flesh and sheer ugliness; no one demands that they show their subjects ‘compassion’. (Schiele, for example, or Bacon or Freud.)
The difference, of course, is the newness and semi-official status of photography, which in many versions of its power and its responsibilities has what Henry James, in another context, called ‘a fatal cheapness’. Arbus was ready to deal with that in full knowledge and with full consent. She approached her responsibilities to the art of photography with a mixture of irony and neediness, dark laughter and dead seriousness. The problem is that she took photographs of what we might call ‘real’ people – more real somehow than the people who sat for Lucian Freud. Her selecting real people who were, as Sontag would have it, ‘ugly’ or ‘genetic freaks’ or ‘pariahs’ and ‘miserable-looking’ was not nice; it may have told us as much about Arbus as a poor little rich girl filled with mischief as it did about her subjects. Whether we like it or not, Arbus was a little minx. She took her pain out on other people but the question remains: since she was a photographer, on what or whom was she meant to take her pain out if not on other people? Was she supposed to take pictures of the night sky? Or the redwoods in Yosemite National Park? Or flowers and shrubs?
When in 1969 she started going to a therapist called Helen Boigon, the dark revelations she spewed out were, it seemed, endless, and made more so by Boigon herself spilling the beans to biographers in the aftermath of Arbus’s suicide. ‘At their first session,’ Lubow reveals, ‘Diane got down on the floor and began stroking Boigon’s knee and outstretched leg with what the psychiatrist described as a “slimy” expression on her face.’ Once she had stopped doing this, ‘most of what she talked about was sex and work.’ Boigon, who was interviewed by the two earlier Arbus biographers, Bosworth and Schultz, said: ‘She was obsessed with sex the way a fat person is compulsively obsessed with food … Diane was like that but worse, she could not connect with anyone or anything.’ Arbus told Boigon about
going up to strangers on the street and propositioning them for sex. She spoke of answering ads in swinger magazines and bedding physically unattractive couples. She recounted sexual escapades on Greyhound buses and at orgies. She detailed episodes of sexual intercourse with sailors, women, nudists and the Jamaican waiter. Most startling of all, she said in an offhand way that she slept with her brother Howard whenever he came to New York.
The footnote to this in Lubow’s book is interesting. The information, we are told, comes from two interviews that Bosworth did with Boigon in 1981, whose transcripts are in the Gotlieb Archive in Boston University. The name Boigon, it should be pointed out, doesn’t even appear in the index of Bosworth’s biography: it seems that she didn’t use any of this material – partly, perhaps, because Howard Nemerov was still alive. Lubow adds: ‘According to Schultz, Boigon was less direct when he interviewed her. She said that Diane “described her brother as one of her more intriguing sexual playmates” with a “suggestion” that their sexual relationship continued past childhood but “there was no elaboration and Boigon never pushed it.”’ Schultz in his version of this story says the possibility that the sexual relationship between Arbus and her brother continued past childhood ‘remained, for ever, yet another of Arbus’s long-thought-out secrets’.
But there are other possibilities. One of them is that Arbus, complete with her ‘slimy’ expression, grew bored talking to her shrink, and told her things that weren’t quite true, or maybe not true at all, just to liven things up or amuse herself. It’s surely possible that Arbus, out of frustration and boredom, since she was stuck in a room with Boigon and couldn’t even photograph her, told the poor woman that she was having it off with Howard Nemerov, her eminent brother, who had been the poet laureate of America and would go on to win a Pulitzer, in order to have a good laugh at her shrink’s expense and, not least, to get Howard back for being her older brother.
Although Marvin Israel was married and devoted to his wife, he often appeared in public with Arbus and they were viewed as a couple. In the meantime, her elder daughter, Doon, was growing up, and she started working for Richard Avedon, whom her mother greatly admired. Lubow interviews friends who noted the connection between mother and daughter: ‘You’d talk on the phone and you couldn’t tell whether it was Diane or Doon. There was something in their demeanour that was interchangeable … it was the physical gestures and ways of speaking that were also so alike.’ Lubow charts rumours that ‘Doon and Marvin were sleeping together,’ quoting Mary Frank, the wife of the photographer Robert Frank (with whom he did a phone interview): ‘It was so horrible that it was always unspoken but understood.’ He also quotes the photographer Saul Leiter (whom he interviewed face to face): Diane ‘talked about it. I think she had a conversation with me and blurted it out. Which was not like her to do.’
On 26 July 1971 Arbus wrote the words ‘Last Supper’ in her diary. ‘She may have written an additional message,’ Lubow adds, ‘someone later neatly cut out that page and the two subsequent pages of the diary. They were never recovered.’ Two days later, Israel, having tried to contact her by telephone, went to her apartment and found her body. At her funeral, Howard Nemerov delivered the elegy. As well as reading the sonnet with the word ‘secret’ repeated in it, he spoke about his sister. ‘This is a sorry occasion,’ he began. ‘I was close to Diane, ever so close … and yet I realise how little, really, I know of her.’ He referred to the ‘radiant, sudden humour that was hers alone, an angle of vision that for a moment would illuminate the world, making it new and strange’.
In Nemerov’s archive, there is a one-page note from Israel, who hadn’t attended the funeral, written a day later:
Howard, I am enraged at what you have helped to make. You – with your Temple-Emanuel voice and your complete indifference. If I could condemn you I would.
I wanted to meet you on Sunday. But each time I thought my dark thoughts the thunder increased the rain and I was certain it was Diane scolding me.
I want to tell you about Diane, to show you her work, to explain to you, to have you see, feel, why Diane is dead.
I wanted you to know because you do not want to know.
You have been here and you have gone and you have been no place.
Nemerov, in his next book of poems, published his elegy for Arbus, ‘To D–, Dead By Her Own Hand’:
My dear, I wonder if before the end
You ever thought about a children’s game –
I’m sure you must have played it too – in which
You ran along a narrow garden wall
Pretending it to be a mountain ledge
So steep a snowy darkness fell away
On either side to deeps invisible;
And when you felt your balance being lost
You jumped because you feared to fall, and thought
For only an instant: That was when I died.
That was a life ago. And now you’ve gone,
Who would no longer play the grown-ups’ game
Where balanced on a ledge above the dark,
You go on running and you don’t look down,
Nor ever jump because you fear to fall.
Doon did not, it seems, speak to Lubow for his biography. For her book, Bosworth succeeded in talking to Nemerov and Arbus’s mother, but Doon and her father apparently declined to be interviewed. ‘The Arbus estate,’ Schultz writes, is
famously close-fisted, notoriously obstreperous if not outright adversarial. It is impossible to pick up any of the small number of books about Arbus and not find some bitter footnoted remark concerning the firm obstructionism of those tending her legacy. It must be difficult to live as the daughters of a famous person with a definite cult status who has also committed suicide for reasons that can only be guessed at. The hurt would be very deep. One might want, utterly understandably, to guard the memories one has, to fight off the invasions of the biographical body-snatchers. Who, after all, owns Arbus’s life? How much needs to be known, and for what purpose?
While Arbus’s family may have run a mile when they saw biographers coming, it’s worth noting that in last year’s exhibition at the Met, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, more than seventy of the prints came as either gifts or ‘promised gifts’ from Doon and Amy Arbus. In the acknowledgments at the end of the catalogue, the curator Jeff Rosenheim writes: ‘One evening in 2003 or 2004 … I asked Doon Arbus if she had any plans for the institutional preservation of her mother’s negatives, papers and collections. Thus began a multi-year conversation with Doon and Amy Arbus that culminated in December 2007 with their gift and promised gift of the Diane Arbus Archive to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.’ ‘The archive,’ Lubow writes, ‘which is undergoing cataloguing and conservation, is closed indefinitely to outside researchers.’
In the meantime, however, there are some sections from Arbus’s notebooks the estate has allowed to appear in print. One of these, from the Met catalogue, includes a list written by Arbus in 1959 of ‘potential subjects or general topics’. It reads:
morgue; freak at home; jewel box revue [a touring company of female impersonators]; roller derby women; dressing rm; womans prison; weird women; paddy wagon; meat slaughterhouse; tattoo parlour; taxi dance hall before hrs [where men paid women to dance with them, using a system of tickets]; lonelyhearts club; Happiness Exch [a call-in radio show]; lady wrestling; beggars-blind; place-waterfr. Hotel; ladies room-coney-subway; daughters of J dying [The Daughters of Jacob was a private Jewish nursing home in the Bronx].
And finally, as if no list would ever be enough, she added: ‘crime; despair; sin; madness; death; fame; wealth; innocence’.