Buy birthday present, go to morgue

Colm Tóibín

  • Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer by Arthur Lubow
    Cape, 734 pp, £35.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 224 09770 3
  • Silent Dialogues: Diane Arbus and Howard Nemerov by Alexander Nemerov
    Fraenkel Gallery, 106 pp, $30.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 881337 41 6

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:

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