Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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UNTIL SHE REACHED HER senior year at the Fieldston School, everyone thought Diane would go on to college. She had the reputation of being such a singular student, and nobody else took herself as seriously. She was solemn, she was dedicated. Naomi Rosenbloom can still see her “trotting over to me during recess—I’d been goofing off, and she let me have it. ‘You can be much better than you are,’ she chided. ‘You should always strive to be as good as you can possibly be.’ ”

She was certainly striving. In her autobiography she had scribbled: ‘For about four years I had visions of being a great sad artist and I turned all my energies toward it.” This was evident not only in her painting, but in Elbert Lenrow’s Great Books course, “because,” Lenrow says, “she wouldn’t accept other people’s ideas of composition.” The essays she wrote on Flaubert and Sophocles predict her work with a camera; she was already preoccupied with ambiguity, with contradictions. She was examining rather than interpreting the world.

“We talked—we argued together,” Phyllis Carton says, referring to the group of bright students she and Diane belonged to. They would meet in the cafeteria and hold long discussions about what they were being taught. “We were passionate about the school, our futures, ourselves,” Eda LeShan says. “We wrote letters to each other—’I can’t live without you’ kind of thing.” As if to prove it, LeShan and Carton gathered up a bunch of twigs to symbolize their clique and buried it under the foundation of a new building going up on campus. “We laughed a lot,” LeShan goes on, “but we took ourselves very seriously.”

They all planned to go to college, and although Diane didn’t say anything, everyone assumed she’d be going to college, too. That is, until Shirley Fingerhood asked where she’d applied—Radcliffe? Bennington?—and Diane answered that she hadn’t applied anywhere; she wasn’t going to college, she was getting married to Allan Arbus and that was that.

“Falling in love with Allan had made Diane feel very grown-up,” Phyllis Carton says. “To her, marriage would mean a huge life experience, and college was dry—it meant more education. That wasn’t life for her. She was preoccupied with anything physical—any physical sensation that made her believe she was alive. Her menstrual cycle fascinated her—after she fell in love with Allan, she talked to me about her longing to conceive and bear a child. We discussed the mysteries of conception; she thought childbirth must be the most extraordinary experience in the world.”

One of the last things she did in art class was to create a weird collage of a mother and child out of different-colored paper towels; it was three-dimensional—a woman with a fetus swelling inside her womb. “It was very strong—very powerful,” Phyllis remembers. “And the mother’s eyes were so sad. It was so different from the stuff the rest of us were doing—I was sketching the Cloisters, for God’s sake.” Everyone in class was impressed by Diane’s collage, but “spooked by it, too. There was something about it that was downright scary.”

“Her talent was very special,” D’Amico says. But being thought of as different made her feel self-conscious. “In some ways Diane wanted people to think she was like everybody else.”

So in a way it was a relief when her father, after praising her gift for painting, dismissed it as a “hobby.” Her true goal, he said, was “to live under the wing of a man.” Yet he was very disturbed about her continuing romance with Allan Arbus. Allan Arbus wasn’t proper “husband material”—couldn’t she see that? With all the advantages she’d been given, with all the expectations, how could she possibly want to spend her life with a would-be actor? She should go to college first. To which Diane would reply that she was in love with Allan and intended to marry him.

Throughout her senior year at Fieldston, despite her father’s anger and disapproval, she continued seeing Allan as often as possible. None of her friends ever met him, but she talked about him constantly, telling Phyllis Carton that she was “madly in love.” Every so often, looking grimly determined, she would bring him home. “Mommy and Daddy were going to have to accept them as a couple,” Renée says. “Diane wouldn’t budge.” It finally became a battle of wills between father and daughter, and David never stopped carping, criticizing, mocking. Diane kept quiet.

Now suddenly it seemed more important than ever to believe she could escape from her family—Allan would take her away and they would create a life together free from all memories of the gloomy, oppressive Nemerov apartment so thick with useless experience, so cloudy with cigarette smoke. She told Phyllis that she felt she had never belonged there (“I’m an orphan,” she said). In fact, she felt it was impossible to be herself at all. She was conditioned to please—to do what her parents wanted, what Allan wanted, and it was always extremely hard for her to make up her mind about the little things. Should she go to the movies? Or the theater? What about the ballet? And should she wear her pink cashmere sweater or her pale silk blouse with the pearl buttons? She would grow overwrought trying to decide. For much of her life she would be like this. Only when she began photographing on her own did she turn decisive.

In the meantime, crazily, she concluded that if she got married and became a wife (even Allan’s wife), she would somehow win her father’s approval—since he did expect her to play out that role. Then she would enjoy the rewards of being a “good girl” (whatever that meant). Married, she would fulfill the demands of others—the demands of her willful, striving self would have to wait; and at least if she was married her parents would finally leave her alone. But she was ambivalent about whether or not she was doing the right thing.

In an essay she wrote on Medea she alluded to her conflict, describing “the deep selfish slowness of woman who closes her eyes to everything,” including the restlessness of woman whose dreams then become a defense against awareness. “Such women were like sleepwalkers.” She questioned female passivity even as she exhorted herself to be passive. “A woman wants to be one thing,” she wrote, and then she is told to be another. If she doesn’t fulfill her destiny, should she hate herself? “I don’t think so.”

Abruptly she phoned Alex Eliot in Boston and told him she would marry Allan the moment she turned eighteen. When he asked about her painting, she replied sullenly that she had begun to hate painting—hate the squishy sound of paint on paper, the smell, the mess, the time it took. It had been the greatest pretense in the world, she said, to visualize herself as a “great sad artist” when she wasn’t an artist at all. She sounded as if she was trying very hard to convince herself that she didn’t enjoy the act of creating. “Diane was simply scared stiff of her talent,” Phyllis Carton says. “It terrified her because it set her so apart.”

During the spring of 1940 she began slowly withdrawing from her friends, and she refused to help with the art work on the Fieldglass, the school yearbook, having denounced all her paintings to D’Amico as “no good.” Nor would she pose for a group class portrait, although the photographer did take a picture of her alone which documents her wistful, faraway quality. Under the picture is the prediction: “Diane Nemerov—to shake the tree of life and bring down fruits unheard of.”

Now when anyone asked her plans she would say she had no intention of pursuing a career or of attending college; all she wanted to become was Mrs. Allan Arbus. As proof, she never took off the silver slave bracelet he’d given her as proof of his love. Nevertheless her depressions grew more pronounced, and everyone in her class noticed. “She dragged herself around in a daze,” Elbert Lenrow says.

When Howard came to visit Lenrow at Fieldston during Easter vacation, the teacher commented on Diane’s dark moods. “She seems very troubled,” he told her brother. “Don’t you think you should do something?” Howard didn’t answer. He himself was so often depressed that he thought he should go into analysis. The only thing that saved him, he said, apart from his excitement at being at Harvard, was his writing. He’d had his first short story (about a friend’s suicide) published in the Advocate, he’d just got into the exclusive Signet Society, and he was getting to know instructors like Delmore Schwartz and writers like Wallace Stevens and fellow classmates like Norman Mailer. He told Lenrow that he’d decided he was going to be an artist, no matter what his father’s plans were for him to take over Russeks. He hoped to be a very great artist someday, he declared; he would write plays and novels and epic poems, and he would write essays, too, and criticism, and he would contribute to The New Yorker and all the scholarly journals.

Of Diane’s mood he remembers that at home they would sit around the living room and she would tease him about his tendency to intellectualize everything. “She told me she was very glad she wasn’t going to college, because she didn’t want to be like me.”

In May the senior class spent a weekend at Ethical Culture’s Hudson Guild farm in Netcong, New Jersey. Diane didn’t join in the walks through the woods or the Ping-Pong games. A teacher, Spencer Brown, remembers seeing her sitting by herself on the porch staring into space “while the kids screamed and played around her. Some of her friends would go over and try to talk to her. Most of them addressed her as ‘Miss Diane.’ She was very beloved.” Another teacher said, “I thought she was peculiar. Peculiar but nice.”

In the weeks just before graduation Diane stayed late on the Fieldston campus, wandering the grounds. It was as if she didn’t want to go home.

One afternoon—it was after five—Elbert Lenrow came upon her in his office gazing up at some prints of African masks he’d tacked up on his bulletin board. The masks were tragic images—huge, hulking, almost grotesque—and Diane seemed drawn to them. She looked at each one close-up for five to ten minutes—just staring very hard, as if memorizing them. Then she reached up and stroked them. “I’ve never seen such an intense physical response to anything,” Lenrow says. “Those masks obviously had a powerful emotional effect on her.”

Diane did not seem to notice that Lenrow was in the office. Neither one of them spoke, and finally she wandered off into the dusk. After Diane graduated from Fieldston, the Nemerovs sent her with her cousin Dorothy to a farm in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, for the summer. They were driven there by Paris in the limousine. Along the way they listened to news of the London blitz on the radio. “We were supposedly going to get lots of fresh air and sunshine and learn about farm animals,” Dorothy said, “but the real reason was to keep Allan and Diane apart.” It didn’t do any good. As soon as Diane arrived at the farm, she telephoned Allan, and a few days later he came down by bus to visit her.

The Nemerovs spent the following months trying to convince Diane to change her mind about marrying Allan, but Diane was adamant. Nothing could sway her. Exhausted from talking, the Nemerovs agreed to the marriage, and the engagement was announced in the New York Times on March 3,1941 : “A. F. ARBUS TO WED MISS DIANE NEMEROV. Mr. and Mrs. David Nemerov of 888 Park Avenue have announced the engagement of their daughter Miss Diane Nemerov to Allan Frank Arbus, son of Mr. and Mrs. Harry Arbus of 1225 Park Avenue… Mr. Arbus attended the College of the City of New York and is now in the advertising business.”

The Nemerovs threw an elaborate cocktail party, “everything in aspic,” to celebrate the engagement. Designers like Mollie Parnis and Hannah Troy came and I. Miller and Andrew Goodman. Everybody stood around the elaborate, gloomy apartment while Diane and Allan whispered to each other in a corner.

Afterward Diane wrote to Alex Eliot describing the party in detail. She had been corresponding with him regularly since his marriage, and over the past year their romantic attachment to one another had intensified, partially because Alex absolutely doted on Diane—idolized her, championed her in his boisterous, emphatic way. Everything she said and did delighted him. And there was a strong sexual attraction between them, too, that had never been consummated. This both excited and worried Diane. She kept asking Alex, “Is it evil that I want both you and Allan?” He would assure her that it wasn’t evil. He was positive that the four of them would remain dear and trusting friends—possibly better friends after she and Allan got married. Certainly nobody would ever get hurt. “At the time, I thought Diane and I were like brother and sister. She confided in me as a sister confides in a brother… I kept telling myself our relationship was harmless.”

On April 10, 1941, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Diane Nemerov and Allan Arbus were married in a rabbi’s chambers; Diane wore a pale blue suit. Only the immediate families were present: Gertrude and David Nemerov, Mr. and Mrs. Harry Arbus, Allan’s sister Edith, grandparents on both sides. Alex Eliot couldn’t be present—his wife didn’t feel well enough to travel.

As a wedding present Gertrude Nemerov guaranteed Diane a five years’ supply of clothes from Russeks and the services of a lady’s maid for a year.

Since they had no money for a real honeymoon, they took the train to Boston and spent their wedding night at the Eliots’ apartment on Pinckney Street. “First we walked around the Commons Garden and I showed them all around Beacon Hill.” Alex adds that he kissed Diane chastely on the cheek just before she and Allan retired for bed. The next morning Diane told Alex that Allan had joked, “Now, why do you suppose he didn’t kiss me?

The day after the wedding Diane wrote to her best friend, Phyllis Carton, assuring her, “Everything is going to be all right.”

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