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’.

Despite such educational invitations to become an artist, however, Diane Nemerov fell in love at 14 with Allan Arbus – ‘a slender, handsome, curly-haired 19-year-old who was going to City College at night’ – and for some time had no ambition other than to be his wife. Together, and with some financial assistance from her father, they became successful fashion photographers; although both on occasion took photographs, Diane specialised in arranging the models and their clothes and accessories for the camera. They had two daughters, and gradually moved into a world of rather unattractive bohemian self-absorption. The partnership, and rather later the marriage, broke up. Influenced to a degree by Lisette Model, a photographer who described her own subject-matter as ‘extremes’, Diane Arbus became increasingly committed to taking pictures and began to seek out the kinds of subject for which she is now primarily known: blind people, transvestites, and the ‘freaks’ at Hubert’s Museum. One of her first major assignments was a series including pictures of morgues and brothels for Esquire magazine. She collected photographs of eccentrics, and turned them into a photo-essay entitled ‘The Eccentric as Nature’s Aristocrat’. Some of her work was included in an exhibition at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1965, and the librarian had to come in early each morning to clean the spit of outraged visitors from the Arbus photographs.

The New Documents exhibition of 1967 brought her considerable satisfaction and a certain celebrity, but comparatively little money, and she seems always to have lived virtually hand-to-mouth by her photography (though this was poverty only within restricted limits – one of her mother’s wedding presents to her was the services of a maid for a year). She had a debilitating bout of hepatitis, and a subsequent rather mysterious illness that seems to have originated in reactions to medical drugs and contraceptive pills. Depressions recurred with increasing severity. Finally, in 1971, she cut her wrists and lay down fully clothed in the bath to die.

The life of Diane Arbus, at least as it appears in this biography, is blatantly and disturbingly riven with ambiguities and contradictions in each of its most significant aspects – in her attitude to her work and her subjects, in her relationships with men and with women, in her sexuality. At least after the period of working in fashion, she was deeply committed to her photography, and yet seems to have shown an almost wilful incompetence in relation to the simplest mechanical aspects of the camera. Despite being aware that she was paid a good deal less for her pictures than her male counterparts, she refused to consider herself a ‘woman photographer’ and had little to do with other women working in the same field. Some of her closest relationships were with women, and yet her behaviour was often dismayingly competitive, at least as soon as any possibility of sexual rivalry arose. For instance, she backed a photograph she had taken of the wife of a close friend (later lover) with a nude one of herself before giving it to him. In order to obtain her photographs, she often misled and lied to her subjects, and all the more so if they were women. Several of them decribe how she would lie in wait for (or, indeed, provoke) a moment of exhaustion, tension or depression before taking her pictures. The only encounters with feminists described in the book show her in a ruthless, even hostile mood. Arbus photographed Ti-Grace Atkinson naked even as she promised that she was taking ‘head-shots’ only (just as she took and published nude photographs of the actress Viva, despite assurances to the contrary). Germaine Greer’s account of a session with her reads almost like an attempted rape, as the photographer first persuaded Greer to lie on the bed and then ‘ended up straddling me ... It was a helluva struggle.’ Only Greer’s feminist solidarity saved Arbus from an assault in return: ‘if she’d been a man I’d have kicked her in the balls.’ Her relationships with Allan Arbus and Marvin Israel, both of them important not only to her emotional life but also in the context of her work, curiously repeat one another in their master-and-pupil quality. She called Arbus ‘swami’ and Israel her ‘svengali’; Arbus would order her in public to finish her sentences, Israel to ‘speak up’. She laid brave and proud claim to the rights of her sexuality and experimented widely in this direction, as well as being fascinated by menstruation, pregnancy and birth. According to Bosworth, she boasted of never having refused any sexual encounter that was available to her; there is a desperate bravado, entirely of its time, in her belief that sex was somehow the only ultimately real experience.

With feminist hindsight, perhaps, the contradictory impulses and ambitions displayed in these various episodes and relationships seem to centre on a set of irreconcilable roles and possibilities for women. Arbus threw herself more or less serially but with equal passion into being a wife, a good cook and hostess, a mother, a sexual radical, a career-woman and an artist. She exhibited striking alternations between elegance and scruffiness, between cooking elaborate meals, serving chilli every night and offering inedible mixtures of unidentifiable ingredients to hapless guests. Men quoted here often describe her as ‘girlish’ or ‘feminine’; women sometimes see her as ruthless or threatening. Her photographs, with their movement from glamorous fashion shots to a preoccupation with sexual roles and ambiguities, exemplify the same tensions. That the illnesses which contributed to her depression were related to sex, contraception and eating disorders can hardly have been an accident. Bosworth’s comment on all this is typically trite: ‘On the surface Diane appeared to be leading a rich, active life, sharing not only a successful career with her husband but two bright, healthy children as well. Even so, at the core something was false and empty for her and she remained restless and depressed much of the time.’ It is implied here that Arbus’s dissatisfaction is a mark of her being special, but the pain and difficulty of confronting all these contradictory needs, demands and ambitions were shared to some degree by many American women of her class and time, and were being analysed by feminists during the last years of her life. I am not, of course, suggesting that feminism could have ‘saved’ Diane Arbus – simply that it offers a political framework in which her life looks less randomly disordered and self-absorbed.

It is all the more unfortunate, then, that so much of her life is sensationalised in this biography into racy anecdotes and naively individualistic explanations. Patricia Bosworth dutifully records all rumours, gossip and scandal, however scurrilous or ill-supported. ‘Diane had a falling out with the rich European girl and would no longer speak to her, and would tell no one why and the stillness inside her got bigger and bigger.’ Do such passages derive from Arbus herself, from conversations recalled by family or friends, or simply from some spurious attempt by the biographer to create a consciousness for her subject? It is impossible to know. That ‘rich European girl’, by the way, is typical: she is given no name and serves no apparent purpose except to generate the passage I have quoted. Direct speech attributed to Arbus surprisingly often turns out to be a second-hand reminiscence of some casual social meeting. Other incidents, and even quotations, are ascribed to pseudonymous or anonymous friends, or even to no one at all.

It is fair to say that Diane Arbus is severely – perhaps fatally – hampered by the unwillingness to co-operate of a number of people of crucial significance to the life: of Arbus’s ex-husband and of Marvin Israel, of her daughters and of ‘certain close friends’. Since Doon Arbus, the elder daughter, is also executrix of her mother’s estate, this means that none of Arbus’s photographs are reproduced, and the discussion of them is often rather perfunctory and anecdotal. It is a pity, too, that little of their accompanying text can be read here, since Arbus considered herself in part a writer, and her photo-essays take on a whimsical humour from her faux-naif prose and deadpan captions that is not otherwise apparent. None of these undoubted handicaps can excuse the bad writing and shoddy production of the biography, however, References are sometimes inconsistent and inaccurate. The illustrations are not where the contents page says they are. Many people are mentioned in the book, and sometimes the one or two-paragraph summaries of their characters and activities are useful, even entertaining: too often, though, Bosworth slips into journalistically-compressed description – ‘a fragile but outspoken blonde from Kentucky who was briefly a model’ – and on occasion into lists of names: ‘Opening night of the show it seemed as if everybody she knew in the art and photography worlds was there, including Emile de Antonio, Henry Geldzahler, Andy Warhol, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Tom Hess, Lisette Model, Richard Avedon, Marvin Israel, and the pop art collectors Robert and Ethel Scull.’ Bosworth’s concentration on the sex-and-society aspect of her subject’s life means that she rarely illuminates the work for us. There is, of course, a temptingly easy connection between the two. As Susan Sontag has remarked, Arbus’s suicide, like Sylvia Plath’s, has become a kind of credential of sincerity. The death stands in for the compassion which the photographs can be said to lack. It has often been claimed, and is here claimed once more by Bosworth, as a sign of psychic heroism, as a confrontation with terrors and fantasies that the photographer tried to conquer but which in the end mastered her. There is much talk here of Arbus’s existential courage, which appears to have taken such forms as ‘forcing herself to observe the men on the subway who exposed themselves’ and, much later, a Greyhound bus trip across the USA on which it is implied that indescribably terrifying and dangerous things happened, though the only recorded episode is that she once missed her bus, burst into tears and was given a lift to catch it up. Arbus speaks of herself as if she were a war photographer, as an ‘anthropologist’, as an ‘explorer’. She seemed to be trying always to appropriate the experience of others – stalking, following, terrified and excited – but rarely to have risked fully grasping her own, whether of her class, her Jewishness or even her family. The Nemerovs virtually vanished in her self-image; she often spoke of herself as an ‘orphan’ and seldom publicly acknowledged her brother and sister. When her father, David Nemerov, was ‘exposed’ in a newspaper sex scandal, no one in the family referred to it. Despite her fascination with the life-histories of her subjects as stories, there is a kind of self-bolstering exploitativeness in her treatment of them as people. The history of her pictures of eight-foot-tall Eddie Carmel is instructive. After a decade of photographs, mostly discarded, the one that has become famous as ‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents’ finally pleased her because: ‘You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? I think I got that in the mother’s face as she glares up at Eddie, thinking “OH MY GOD, NO!” ’ It is true that direct quotations from Arbus often suffer from her vacuously hyperbolic vocabulary, in which everything is ‘sensational’ and ‘incredible’, but there is nevertheless a chillingly inhuman quality about some of her comments, as when she remarked that ‘one woman told me this terrific thing which was that the cerebral palsies don’t like the polios and they both dislike the retardeds’ (Bosworth does not in fact quote this).

It seems to me at least arguable that Arbus’s ‘freaks’ were not, as she seems to suggest, living objets trouvés from the hinterlands of the psyche, but to some extent displays of virtuosity in making everyone else look the same, or at least interchangeable, in their foolishness and freakishness. However striking the images produced, I find it impossible to doubt that these photographs also constitute interventions in the lives of her subjects. Bosworth, in fact, provides a partial answer to Susan Sontag’s question: how did they feel after being photographed? The answer often is: outraged and humiliated. Inevitably, we know principally of the reactions of the famous: Mae West was deeply angry, Viva threatened to sue. But it is revealing that Arbus often had difficulty getting releases for her pictures, and that the parents of the twins who figure on the cover of her Aperture monograph objected to the photograph. Ironically, this is another way in which her death has helped her celebrity, by making it difficult and probably unrewarding for those who object to pursue the matter. Incidentally, when Arbus allowed one of her students to photograph her for a class assignment, she first fixed her hair in front of the mirror and then posed like a professional model. When she takes pictures of others, she often places them in isolation from their context and experience, which is in part what makes them look so extraordinary; the stark frontality and closeness of the image also contributes. The static, posed quality of many of her photographs and the way in which their subjects are isolated or significantly related in groups of two or three makes it seem that she had not travelled as far as she probably thought from her family milieu. The people in her pictures are in some ways like the work of a window-dresser, marketing the grotesque. It is the sensationalism of Arbus’s images of others that makes me feel that in Patricia Bosworth she has perhaps found the biographer she deserves.

Howard Nemerov seems to have been among the more enthusiastic of those who did agree to co-operate with Patricia Bosworth: indeed, he figures so largely in her book that a ghostly second biography – his – shadows that of his sister. Although neither Arbus nor Bosworth appears by name in the poems in Inside the Onion, it is tempting to find a glancing reference to the work in the ‘fancy ladies and gents’ who ‘regard high-minded suicide ... as more than Dresden, Tokyo, and the rest’. Nemerov’s career contrasts in many respects with that of his sister, and not least in having followed a more conventionally prestigious course: this latest collection comes garlanded with a list of previous and present prizes and positions. He is currently a university professor of English, and his poems, too, are academic. Nemerov writes with a keen and explicit awareness of his poetic forerunners (Browning, Dryden and Marvell are among those invoked), of critics (a set of ‘Gnomic Variations for Kenneth Burke’), and of the conventions and techniques of poetry (one poem, indeed, is called ‘Poetics’). The effect is wryly self-knowing, disarmingly self-questioning, yet marks a confident claim to a place in this tradition, the title ‘This My Modest Art’ notwithstanding. The writing is elegant, never less than accomplished, but sometimes so finished that as to suggest a class assignment or a rhetorical exercise. The intellectual formality of the conceits and meditations is broken up by occasional shock tactics of slang and sex. Lust, in fact, seems to be dancing attendance on Nemerov’s entry into old age, though accompanied by resignation rather than rage. For me, the predominant tone of this undramatically eschatological collection is caught in a phrase from the poem ‘Graffiti’:

every saying is a compressed cry
For the last things of love.