Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

Previous: 5
Next: 7

That summer Allan took a photograph of Diane lying in the grass in Central Park. “It was the most rapturous portrait of young love I’ve ever seen,” Dorothy Evslin says. “Diane seemed thrilled with it and showed it to everybody in the family.” David Nemerov refused comment. While he never told Diane to stop seeing Allan, he disapproved of their involvement and he expressed his disapproval by being “as cold as ice,” Renée says. “Diane retaliated by ignoring Daddy, which frustrated him terribly. He was used to people wilting under his disapproval, but Diane wouldn’t budge. And to make matters worse, she wouldn’t accept the fur coat he’d given her—all our friends were wearing little fur coats that year, but Diane wouldn’t even try hers on. It was the final blow as far as Daddy was concerned.”

Eventually Nemerov phoned Victor D’Amico at Fieldston and pleaded with him, “Make Diane stop seeing this Arbus fellow. I’ll pay you any amount of money if you can persuade her. She respects you more than anybody in the world. Please do something.”

D’Amico refused. Subsequently he and Diane talked briefly about Allan, “but I never met him. Diane said she was determined to go through with the marriage in spite of her parents’ opposition. ‘I’m going to wait until I’m of age,’ she told me, ‘and then I can go off by myself.’ I got the impression that, while she may have cared for Arbus, he was principally the way for her to leave home and be independent.”

During their talk D’Amico suggested to Diane—and later to Mr. Nemerov—that she go to the Cummington School of the Arts for the summer. Cummington, set on 170 acres in the hills above Northampton, Massachusetts, was considered a “very progressive” school. The students (aspiring poets, writers, painters, dancers) baked their own bread, made their own shoes, literally tilled the fields on the school property, “in order to get close to nature and themselves.” At one time or another the faculty members included Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, and Allen Tate.

These names meant nothing to David Nemerov, but when D’Amico told him about the school, he thought that a protracted separation from Allan might break up Diane’s romance, so he packed his daughter off to the school in July of 1938.

It was very hot in Cummington. The grass on the hills was golden and brittle. Diane worked sporadically in class on an oil painting she called “The Angel Gabriel” (it was really Allan Arbus), and together with the

Jean Stafford, who married Lowell soon after, used to cry, “If you say that Anne Dick looks like Bette Davis one more time, I’ll do you violence!” Anne did have slightly protruding eyes and a seductively caustic manner, and she was very bright, having already had poems published in Hound & Horn. “An aura of glamour surrounded her,” her cousin Frank Parker says, “because she had been psychoanalyzed for her depressions. Her parents were afraid of her—her beaus were afraid of her—she and her sisters fought like cats and dogs. She could get very edgy.”

Anne was thirty when she met Alex Eliot; he was nineteen. She was terrified of becoming a spinster. “Getting married was essential to Anne,” Parker goes on. “Having a man to depend on—to live through—was of prime importance. And Alex was intelligent and charming and sexy—and he came from a distinguished family.”

So Alex and Anne “courted” for the next six months while he painted furiously but without much success. He had very little money. In fact, from time to time Allan Arbus would send him $5 a week from his meager Russeks salary to help pay for groceries. Then Alex managed to scrape enough funds together to start an art gallery in his rooms, which he called the Pinckney Street Artists Collective. He showed friends’ experimental work, including Diane’s, and he was extremely enthusiastic about the venture, but it failed in less than a year. In his distress he phoned Diane, who was properly sympathetic. At the close of the conversation she said that she and Allan wanted him very much to be the best man at their wedding.

After that Alex continued to see Anne Dick and they decided they were in love and he would give boisterous parties in his rooms and serve iced Russian vodka while some of his friends made charts of the novels they were going to write. Early in 1940 Alex and Anne got married.

Later he would tell people he’d been totally unaware of Anne’s violent mood swings—one day she would be euphoric, the next so despondent she became physically ill and took to her bed and the only thing that seemed Diane always believed in female naturalness. Although she’d been taught that hairiness, menstruation, and body odors made one “impure,” she rebelled against her parents’ preoccupation with cleanliness. She couldn’t understand why women were kept in a state of innocence about their flesh and blood and denied their sensual animal selves. In time Diane chose to wear no deodorant, and as she grew older, people—particularly men—would comment in embarrassed tones about her “funky body odor.” However, she enjoyed her smell. She carried herself proudly—shoulders squared—totally accepting it.

Lowell’s parents had forbidden their son to leave college and marry Miss Dick. They had bitter arguments about it and Lowell had become so enraged he knocked his father to the floor, breaking his glasses. Throughout his career Lowell returned obsessively to this incident in his poetry—expressing continued anguish and remorse.

Previous: 5
Next: 7