Book: Diane Arbus: A Biography

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IN THE SUMMER OF 1948 when the Arbuses went up to Martha’s Vineyard, the Eliots joined them at the Victorian cottage they’d rented on the lagoon in Vineyard Haven. The two couples swam naked in the cove and collected seashells to decorate the house, and Allan would obsessively practice flying his kite across the dunes. He taught Diane to drive, and she “loved the feel of the steering wheel and the gearshift. It’s like getting to know universal gestures I’ve always been aware of.”

On weekends Doon and May would dance in the living room while Alex sang South African songs and Diane would lean back and smile. The vitality and the energy that burned in him like a furnace excited her, and his big, shaggy presence was comforting. He reminded her, she once said, of “a pillow against disaster.”

By now most of Alex’s colleagues at Time magazine knew of his obsession with Diane. “He seemed increasingly bewitched by her,” Bob Wernick says. Whenever he returned from a weekend at the Vineyard, he’d talk about what an incredible thing it was to be in love with two women—Diane and his wife, Anne—and also share a close friendship with Diane’s husband. It was perfect, he said. Of course nobody at Time believed it could be that perfect; there had to be some flaw, some sour note.

But for most of that summer it was fairly perfect, May Eliot recalls. Her mother and Diane were genuinely close on their own—“They really enjoyed each other’s company.” And Allan took photographs of everybody on the beach and they would all play a game in the cottage driveway—“We would tie each other up with ropes in all kinds of knots and then you had to work yourself free. Allan was reading about Houdini.”

Diane was photographing that summer, too, but photographing simply because she loved to photograph, not for any other reason. (Years later she explained to Newsweek why she didn’t start photographing seriously until she was thirty-eight years old: “Because a woman spends the first block of her life looking for a husband and learning to be a wife and mother, just trying to get these roles down pat; you don’t have time to play another role.”)

That summer on Martha’s Vineyard, Diane concentrated on homemaking: sweeping out the cottage with a huge broom; cooking leg of lamb, roast duck, stuffed cabbage—delicious recipes, because Allan loved “gourmet food.” And she spent hours teaching Doon to swim. “My parenthood is such a joy,” she wrote Tina Fredericks. “It’s the one thing that makes me feel big.”

Everyone else was busy trying to achieve “an artistic breakthrough.” Alex finished first, completing two paintings nobody liked very much. Undaunted, he decided to show part of a novel he was writing about a brother and sister’s incestuous desires in which the sister is roughly patterned after Diane. “I kept telling myself if I could paint a single good painting or write one decent book, I could leave Time magazine,” he says. He read a chapter to the assembled trio one evening after dinner and when he finished there was a deathly silence followed by Anne Eliot’s cry of “Disgusting! Terrible! Why did I ever marry you? You are totally untalented and I am the writer and I should be writing!” (Unbeknownst to anyone, she’d had a short story accepted by Harper’s Bazaar. But, afraid it was too revealing to be published, she’d asked for the manuscript back.) In a moment she stormed out of the room, and later that night she left the island.

Alex says he was devastated by his wife’s outburst. The following morning he dove into the ocean and “swam and swam.” He wasn’t considering suicide, he was just “extremely depressed and down about myself.” He didn’t realize he’d swum too far out until the tide began tugging at him and in a panic he realized he was so exhausted he might not be able to swim back. In the distance he could see Diane and Allan seated on the beach and he waved frantically at them, shouting “Help! Help!” and they waved back; they obviously hadn’t heard him. He managed to rest by floating on his back “for what seemed like hours” and then finally he “clawed through the heavy surf” until he reached land and crawled on his hands, knees, and elbows up the steep beach, collapsing on the dunes.

Diane and Allan rushed to see what had happened. As soon as he caught his breath, he told them—how he’d been in such despair over their negative reactions to his work that he’d jumped into the sea and swum too far out. He’d been sure he was going to drown, a failure.

The three of them talked all afternoon. Just before the sun set, Diane sent Allan back to the house and suddenly, Alex says, “I found myself alone with her and she became even more tender and maternal and we fell, slow motion, into each other’s arms—it was almost like a continuation of our conversation. That evening Diane told Allan that she and I had made love on the beach. She was always honest with him, as she was with everyone.” The following day Alex drove back to New York and Time magazine.

A week or so later Anne Eliot returned to the Vineyard, followed by her cousin Frank Parker and his wife. The Parkers had never met the Arbuses before. They thought Allan acted “polite and subdued” and Diane seemed “so timid you wanted to take care of her—assure her that everything was going to be all right,” until they went swimming nude in the cove, and as soon as she “hit the water she became a mermaid—a creature from another world—undulating—gliding—exactly like a fish…and her face turned dangerously alive and very, very seductive.”

On the weekend Alex came up from New York and “tension crackled through the house,” Parker continues. “We didn’t know what was going on. There was very little conversation between anyone—much fussing over the two little girls, May and Doon, who were demanding attention. I remember how tender Allan was with the children. And Diane puttered in the kitchen with Anne and my wife.”

Finally—quite late—after much wine had been drunk, the adults sat down to eat. Suddenly Alex declared that he and Diane had been in love since they were teen-agers and had finally admitted it to each other a few days before on the beach and it had been beautiful. He didn’t elaborate further, but it was obvious that he now possessed her. “He sounded positively triumphant,” Parker says. With that, Anne Eliot snapped that she didn’t think it was beautiful at all; it was a betrayal of trust, of friendship, and what about those goddamn table legs? What would happen to their table now?

And everybody turned to Diane, waiting for her response. But she just sat there, inscrutable. And again Frank Parker was reminded of the mermaid image, “because everything was swirling around this creature and she seemed oblivious to the havoc she was causing, until Anne rushed from the table and out into the night.” Later she confronted Diane and demanded an apology, an explanation of sorts. “Aren’t you sorry about what happened?” she cried. And Diane answered, “No.” She didn’t think she’d done anything wrong. She believed in trying to practice freedom and un-possessiveness in their marriage. As far as Anne Eliot was concerned, such an attitude tore the heart out of intimacy.

Although the Eliots remained together for another year, “Anne never forgave Diane and Allan,” says her sister Liberty Dick; as far as she knows, Anne never saw the Arbuses again.

When they returned to New York in the fall, Diane and Alex found opportunities to be by themselves, but there were no regular meetings or trysts. “I never knew when we’d be together, so I would sometimes walk the streets half the night. I wanted to phone her, but I couldn’t. I never felt like her lover. I felt like a guilty husband, which I was.”

To make matters more complicated, Alex continued to see the Arbuses together. He would find himself talking to Allan about Anne, who was in a hospital, suffering from manic depression, and Allan, who “continued to be a wonderfully forbearing friend,” would listen and try to comfort him. “And here I was in love with his wife,” Alex says. “It was lunatic!” There were never any scenes between the two men. Allan, in fact, never discussed Alex’s ongoing affair with Diane. “When the three of us were together, it was almost as if it didn’t exist—as if it hadn’t happened. We acted as if everything was the same.” But of course it wasn’t.

Sometimes the atmosphere would grow strained and Alex remembers Allan’s glaring at them and muttering, “Oh, go away!” At one point Pati Hill urged them to run off together. She thought Diane could have a “bigger artistic breakthrough” with Alex than with Allan. But Diane ignored the suggestion. The affair, with its ingredients of sex, love, pain, and hate, was just one of hundreds of experiences she was determined to have in her life—she was ruthless in this regard. She felt no guilt—the issue was emotional, not moral (“She wanted to try everything, that woman!” Alex says). Years later she confided that she was sorry they’d slept together because she’d hurt Anne and Allan and hadn’t intended to.

Alex, for his part, was sure that his sense of rationality, of fairness, had been momentarily consumed by this gigantic passion. He was overwhelmed with guilt and suffered terribly because he couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d done to Anne and he didn’t know how to right it. On top of everything else, he still felt like Diane’s brother, which both titillated and bewildered him. “But I feel like her brother!” he’d say to friends. (Later other men would say the same thing—“Diane treats me like a brother, not a lover.” There was a conspiratorial, incestuous quality in many of her close relationships with men.)

Once, when Alex was flying to Paris on assignment, he stared out the window at the clouds and the sea below and prayed that the plane would crash so that he could be put out of his misery. He said as much to Allan, who interrupted with “Oh, Alex, what you really want is an adventure. But it would be different if you were married to Diane.” And Alex cried, “Oh, no, no, it wouldn’t!” and then he adds, “In retrospect I suppose he was right.”

Sometimes other couples would join Alex at the Arbus apartment and they would dance—fox-trot carefully around the big mattress bed lying on the living-room floor. It was terribly cramped in those two rooms, but jaunty music floated through the air. And then a glass might shatter and Diane would silently sweep it up and everybody would start dancing again.

“Allan danced beautifully,” Alex recalls. “Once he stopped dancing and came over to me and sang in a husky Louis Armstrong-type voice, ‘Took you for mah friend—thought you were mah pal—then I found out you tried to jive mah gal…’ ”

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